Comcast vs. The FCC – Why You Should Care

Today in Washington, Comcast goes in front of the FCC to explain why it’s deliberately slowing down BitTorrent traffic on it’s network. In case you haven’t heard about this, Comcast has installed gear from a company called Sandvine to slow BitTorrent traffic down on it’s network so that it can have the majority of it’s bandwidth available to users who simply surf the net and grab their e-mail. This practice is known as packet shaping. The reason why Comcast has been singled out is that it has long denied that it did anything like this until the Associated Press proved that they were actually doing it, at which time they confessed. Their reluctance to admit to packet shaping likely has something to do with the fact that the FCC said in 2005 that ISP’s shouldn’t block or interfere with lawful Internet use unless it’s for reasonable traffic management. Comcast argues that all it’s trying to do is manage it’s network by dealing with “excessive” BitTorrent usage.

So here’s why you should care:

  1. The FCC is trying to ensure that ISP’s adhere to a concept call Net Neutrality. In a nutshell all traffic on an ISP’s network is created equal, and ISP’s can’t bump traffic that it doesn’t like down the priority list. For example, if an ISP has an alliance with Microsoft MSN or Yahoo for content they can’t delay Google traffic because they aren’t getting paid by Google. So today we might be talking about BitTorrent, but what if an ISP doesn’t want content (text, video, etc.) that it doesn’t like on it’s network? Could we talking about a potential censorship issue in the future? I for one want to be able to use my Internet connection for anything I want as long as it’s not illegal, so the concept that I may not be able to concerns me.
  2. Contrary to popular belief, there are legitimate uses for BitTorrent. For example, LINUX distributions are often distributed via BitTorrent because it is much faster to download the distribution that way versus other methods like FTP. More people would use these methods for more things (like media distribution) if ISP’s didn’t do Packet Shaping.
  3. Sometimes Packet Shaping has unintended side effects. Michael Geist for example has noted that Canadian ISP Rogers has apparently been pulling the same stunt as Comcast by not only Packet Shaping BitTorrent traffic, but Packet Shaping encrypted traffic. As a side effect it affected the University Of Ottawa E-mail system as it uses encrypted traffic for security reasons. This side effect could also cause grief for people who rely on certain types of virtual private networks as well (that would include people who need access to their work network from home). To date, Rogers has not confirmed that they are doing this, but they haven’t exactly denied it either.

So…. The question becomes what can you do about it? The best thing to do is to vote with your dollars. I was a Rogers customer until I found out about their packet shaping activities. That’s when I switched to another ISP who didn’t packet shape in any way. I figure that if enough people do that, ISP’s will stop packet shaping. So how do you know if your ISP does packet shaping? You can take a look at this list to see if they do (look to see if they limit BitTorrent Traffic and/or encrypted traffic), and then decide if you want to stay with them or not. ISP’s understand the almighty dollar above all else, so let’s use it to our advantage. I truly believe that it will come back to haunt Internet users if we do nothing but tolerate anything less than Net Neutrality. So ensure that your voice (via your dollars) is heard.

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