It’s a well known fact that some Internet users share files illegally. But does that justify ISPs around the world bringing in anti-piracy measures intended to slow or even block traffic?
One of the ways file-sharers swap music and movies online is by using torrent sites utilising the BitTorrent protocol. Last year Comcast decided to purposely mess with the flow of BitTorrent traffic.
This isn’t an isolated case, with other companies in the US trying the same, and the government in the UK even considering forcing ISPs to ban file sharers completely.
Here, Alex Curtis of Public Knowledge discusses the legality of the move, and tells how NBC Universal have backed the interference as justified.
NBC-Universal’s 800lbs Gorilla
NBC-Universal, in a recent filing with the FCC, has argued that Comcast’s interference with BitTorrent is justified. But contrary to its argument, the “800 pound gorilla” in the room is not “the tidal wave of unlawful conduct by BitTorrent users[.]” The 800 pound gorilla is whether or not Comcast’s actual behavior was “reasonable.”
The outcry by Comcast customers and the public interest community should provide a strong hint that it was not. Comcast’s bait-and-switch tactic of secretly changing the service it provides its customers is more important here than the theory of network management. The focus of this debate should be what Comcast actually did and said.
When it’s time to debate the issue of network management on a more abstract level, we should be asking whether it is even reasonable to engage in blocking behaviors that are bound to be ineffective.
A Small Minority Of Customers
The small minority of customers who engage in the majority of illegal file-sharing see network management and protocol blocking as a speed bump, not an insurmountable obstacle.
Those who will be stymied by the kind of network interference that Comcast promotes are groups like Norwegian Broadcasting, who will find their attempts to reduce the costs of digital distribution frustrated by ISPs who have decided that BitTorrent technology is illegitimate.
The problem of unlawful filesharing is not a technological one, but an economic one. The kinds of profits that some content companies enjoyed in an age of scarcity are simply no longer going to be available in an abundance economy where the marginal cost of creating a copy of a digital file is zero.
Those things that remain scare (like convenience, services, ease, and quality) are going to have to become the means by which content creators recoup their investments.
A Need For Network Management?
The perceived vital need for “network management” is another instance of economic perversity. ISPs are in the odd position of wanting their customers to consume less of their product: imagine if Quaker Oats’ biggest concern was getting people to eat less oatmeal.
Looking for a “magic bullet” technology to solve the woes that skewed economics have caused both the ISPs and the content companies is at best a distraction and at worse harmful.
The Comcast debate can’t lose sight of what Comcast actually did. But even the more general debate about the different methods of and justifications for network interference and protocol blocking should be informed by the fact that it’s basic economics and old business models that are causing the content companies and ISPs woe, not innovative, democratizing, cost-reducing technologies like BitTorrent.
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