There seems to be quite the fuss today over Comcast’s “network management” approach to BitTorrent traffic, which according to an Associated Press story consists of intercepting packets and disrupting the connection between a downloader and the tracker (a nice touch to download the Bible in order to illustrate what Comcast is doing — I wish I’d thought of that). I’m not quite sure why everyone seems so surprised that this is happening though. Cable companies and telcos have been doing this for some time.
Some call it network management, some call it bandwidth or traffic “shaping” and others call it “throttling” (which conjures up a nice mental image of what carriers are doing to their customers). As Michael Geist has pointed out before, Rogers Communications — the largest cable company in Canada — has been doing this for the past couple of years at least. As Michael notes in his post, this behaviour seems particularly egregious considering that the downloading of music is currently permitted (or at least not explicitly banned) under Canadian copyright law, thanks to the Public Copying levy that gets applied to blank CDs and other media.
Rogers admitted to throttling BitTorrent almost two years ago, and argues — as most carriers do — that such services soak up bandwidth and cause their network to run too slowly for other customers (something I have yet to see conclusively demonstrated). But it’s not just Rogers: there’s a list of ISPs that do this kind of thing at AzureusWiki, where you can also find tips on how to turn on encryption to disguise the traffic.
Unfortunately, even if you encrypt the packets, some ISPs will respond by throttling anything encrypted on the assumption that it is probably BitTorrent or other software. As Michael points out in his post, this has caused some university researchers a headache because then their encrypted email slows down as it gets caught in the “bandwidth management” process.
Like those “unlimited” cellphone data plans that turn out not to be unlimited at all, this kind of thing is another example of how the cable companies and telcos try to suck and blow at the same time: they sell you their unlimited or high-speed plans, bragging about all the things you can do with them, and then charge or block you as soon as you try and do any of those things.