Future of the Internet
FCC Chairman, Kevin Martin’s conclusion last week that Comcast had been improperly blocking bittorrent traffic was, for us, a major milestone in what has been an exciting journey that began in November of last year.
We had known for some time that ISPs were throttling bittorrent traffic, and we realized that our vantage point on the industry put us in a unique position to stand up for what’s right. So we decided we had to take action. We filed a petition with the FCC asking them to put in place clear rules on the issue of ISP network management practices.
Since then we have testified at an FCC hearing at Harvard, attended a second hearing at Stanford, joined with our community to monitor traffic throttling practices, and published our findings. All along the way, we have been overwhelmed by the support we have received from our community of users, from their comments in forums to their participation in collecting data with our plug-in.
So, we were thrilled to learn of Chairman Martin’s conclusion and to hear that he agreed with our cry of “foul!”. We were particularly pleased that Chairman Martin asked Comcast to be transparent with consumers about their past practices and future plans for network management. From the outset we have said that, to be fully effective, rules must be accompanied by a requirement for transparency into what ISPs are actually doing.
The Chairman’s statements do not yet represent the view of the full Commission. However, we hope the other four Commissioners have the courage to follow Chairman Martin’s lead and adopt a decisive order condemning the use of the “man in the middle” technique and other similar network management tactics. And while we await the Commission’s decision, we will continue to push for the rules we believe are required to create an open and free Internet that will benefit consumers everywhere.
Jay and the Vuze Team
I read the news this week of an arrangement between Comcast and BitTorrent, Inc. (called a “non-deal” by some) with great interest. My initial reaction was “Great, Comcast has finally seen the light. Cooperation is a good thing.” Then I took a moment to put it all in perspective and reflect back on our original objectives when we filed our Petition for Rulemaking with the FCC in November 2007. Here are my thoughts.
First, let’s call a spade a spade here. Comcast got caught with its hand squarely in the cookie jar. It publicly denied it was engaging in questionable “traffic shaping” practices, but was doing so all along. It was only after a news organization investigation confirmed its activities that Comcast came clean. For years, Comcast engaged in definitional gymnastics by denying that it was blocking “particular companies or applications,” but all the while it was engaging in “man-in-the-middle” attacks intended to interfere with seeding activities of all bit-torrent protocol based applications, like Vuze.
Comcast eventually testified at the FCC’s hearing at Harvard, along with Vuze and directly acknowledged its tactics. However, Comcast took the debate to another level, stating that there are no FCC rules that limit what Comcast can do in “managing” traffic over its network, and the FCC has no authority to make any. Simultaneously, Comcast was amending its User Agreement to make crystal clear that they can do pretty much whatever they want in the name of network management. Not surprisingly, there are now two class action lawsuits pending against Comcast by Comcast users.
Then, Chairman Martin decided that further hearings were required, this time to be held at Stanford. It’s not clear whether the Chairman wanted to gather more information or whether he was troubled by the fact that Comcast paid “seat-fillers” to stand in line and take seats at the hearing (and in some cases sleep during the proceedings). The speaker line-up for the Stanford hearings remains in flux, but Comcast certainly does not want to be on the hot seat again.
Next comes the announcement of “cooperation” between Comcast and BitTorrent, Inc., the company. Is this announcement a clever PR campaign or does it hold the prospect of real cooperation and benefits to the industry and consumers? It is probably a bit of both, but let’s be clear about what it is not.
First, it is not a detente between Comcast and the bit-torrent world. While BitTorrent, Inc’s founder, Bram Cohen, created the original open source bit-torrent protocol, for which he should be commended, many companies have improved on it since, including significantly Vuze. The fact that the protocol is called “bit-torrent” is increasingly a matter of legacy, not invention. In any event, scores of companies, including Vuze, have built their own free-standing applications based upon the protocol. BitTorrent Inc. itself represents only a fraction of the bit-torrent-based applications being used today, and has no control over the many millions of bit-torrent based applications on desktop computers around the world. I have little doubt that Comcast wanted its announcement to be perceived as a sort of universal resolution of its differences with the bit-torrent world, but nothing could be further from the truth.
Second, no matter what value there is in cooperating with Comcast, Comcast is but one company. They control only their own actions. There are over a dozen Internet network operators in America, both cable companies and telephone companies, many of whom are believed to be engaging in their own “traffic shaping” (i.e. throttling) practices. Comcast’s actions do nothing to create transparency as to what those companies are doing, much less to place any restrictions on their actions. Whose cookie jars do they have their hands in? Remember, it is Comcast that told us that there are no laws governing network management practices, and the FCC cannot make any.
In the hopes of shedding some light on the nationwide practices of network operators, Vuze has created and distributed a software “plug-in” which is intended to monitor network interference and report back to Vuze. If we are able to gather some meaningful data, we will surely share it with the world. What this debate needs is facts, not more press announcements.
This brings me full circle. When we filed our petition for rulemaking with the FCC in November, 2007, we stated that both regulation and meaningful industry cooperation are necessary to protect consumer rights and foster innovation. We still believe that. Whether you believe that Comcast’s cozying up to BitTorrent, Inc. arises out of genuine enlightenment or is just a publicity stunt, in my view it changes nothing in terms of our original Petition.
Network operators already have demonstrated their willingness to engage in mischief that harms consumers. For years they said that market forces will solve all ills and that network management restrictions were a “solution in search of a problem.” Both turned out to be untrue. We are at a point where non-binding policy statements and assurances of good faith are no longer sufficient. Innovative companies like Vuze rely critically on the pipes controlled by network operators to deliver their service to consumers. It is unreasonable to expect companies like Vuze to compete in a world where there are no clear, enforceable rules to keep bad behavior in check. There is even greater cause for concern when the company that controls the pipes also is your competitor, as is Comcast with its own video offerings.
The FCC should adopt enforceable rules that protect all consumers against improper throttling tactics that threaten the ability to consume rich media. Ultimately, only the rule of law will compel network operators to stay on the straight and narrow. While we give the benefit of the doubt to Comcast and BitTorrent, Inc. that their cooperation may hold promise, we will continue to urge the FCC to move forward with our Petition with all due dispatch.
Is your Internet Service Provider interfering with your Internet traffic? There is an important debate going on regarding this very issue. Vuze has taken a stand on behalf of our users by asking the Federal Communications Commission to adopt rules that would protect consumers against unfair bandwidth throttling practices and require ISPs to tell all of us exactly what they are doing. The FCC held a public hearing at Harvard last month, and is still considering our request, but a growing number of groups and individuals are weighing in with their own concerns. The FCC is holding a second hearing on this topic at Stanford University on April 17th.
We at Vuze decided there was something important you can do to help elevate the debate. We created a simple software “plug-in” that works with your Vuze application to gather information about potential interference with your Internet traffic. Specifically, this small piece of software monitors your network connections and every ten minutes measures the number of interrupted connections (called “reset tcp connections”) and then displays the results to you. By selecting the “share results” check-box you can also share these results with our central server, which will enable us to then aggregate the results and compare them across ISPs. We encourage you to share your results with us!
Be assured that sharing this data with us does not involve disclosure of any of your personally identifiable information. We will aggregate the data and may talk about it or disclose it publicly, but no data about any specific user will be disclosed as part of this effort. The plug-in will have a negligible impact on your network usage.
If you are interested in participating in this research you need only download the plug-in from Sourceforge.net (which also helps us distribute the whole Vuze application)
It’s very easy and takes only a moment. Right now the plug-in only works on PCs, not Macs, but we are actively working on future versions. Vuze and Azureus users from all countries are welcome to participate. Alternatively, you can install the plug-in using the “Plug-In Wizard” built into our application. We also put a video on our site that shows you how to use the Plug-In Wizard. Finally, for those who are interested, we are working on a more advanced version of the plug-in. When it becomes available, we’ll let you know.
Thanks for helping with this important research. We hope that contributing more complete factual data to the traffic throttling debate will lead to a better Internet for everyone.