It’s a story that been streaming by me over the past few weeks (and months), that Comcast, the largest cable company in the U.S. had installed facilities to throttle back bandwidth for BitTorrent users. BitTorrent is a method for sharing large fills over the Internet by leveraging the network and its nodes, rather than putting the entire load on the distributor. [Image ((McBride, Melanie. “2012: The end of the internet.” Melmcbride’s Photostream. 4 June 2008. 4 Aug 2008 <http://flickr.com/photos/chandrasutra/2552081071/>. ))]
Comcast, according to this August 2 NYTimes article,
says that a small percentage of its customers using BitTorrent consume a large share of its network capacity, degrading the Internet access of other customers. So it installed equipment that slowed ? but did not completely block ? file transfers using BitTorrent. ((Hansell. Saul. “F.C.C. Vote Sets Precedent on Unfettered Web Usage,” The New York Times 2 Aug 2008. 4 Aug 2008 <http://www.nytimes.com/2008/08/02/technology/02fcc.html?ref=technology>))
A formal complaint was issued by Free Press and Public Knowledge after a widely publicized report on tests of Comcast’s network were run by The Associated Press. The complaint was filed with the Federal Communication Commission (FCC), which held several hearings about the issue.
Bitorrent is commonly used to share copyrighted movies and music, though sharing of copyrighted files is not all that it is used for. The FCC voted Friday (Aug 1) to uphold the compaint, saying
..that it had illegally inhibited users of its high-speed Internet service from using popular file-sharing software… Kevin J. Martin, the commission?s chairman, said the order was meant to set a precedent that Internet providers, and indeed all communications companies, could not keep customers from using their networks the way they see fit unless there is a good reason.
Many of us educators, myself included, have not paid a lot of attention to these issues and the prevailing views of the FCC over the past several years. We’ve had more pressing issues to attend to. But we must remind ourselves that the information and communications realm that we have seen emerge, practically before our eyes, is still forming, not only in its technology, but also in how we will use it and who will be in control. Is it our network? Or does it belong to the Telcos? Which is in the best interest of our children as the move into a rapidly changing world and must utilize complex literatcy skills within an expanding information landscape to adapt to, and prosper on change?
The ruling was favored by the FCC Chairman, Kevin Martin, a Republican, and the two Democrats on the commission. It was opposed by the other two Republicans, Robert M. McDowell issuing a lengthy dissent.
According to an August 1 Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) press release,
“The sad truth is that the FCC is ill-equipped to detect ISPs interfering with your Internet connection,” said Fred von Lohmann, EFF Senior Intellectual Property Attorney. “It’s up to concerned Internet users to investigate possible network neutrality violations..” ((“EFF Releases “Switzerland” ISP Testing Tool. Press Release.” Electronic Frontier Foundation. 1 Aug 2008. Electronic Frontier Foundation. 4 Aug 2008 <http://www.eff.org/press/archives/2008/07/31>.))
In response, the EFF has released the alpha version of an open source program called Switzerland, giving Internet users “..a no-cost way to check if your ISP’s trottling your BitTorrent downloads.”
“Until now, there hasn?t been a reliable way to tell if somebody ? a hacker, an ISP, corporate firewall, or the Great Firewall of China ? is modifying your Internet traffic en route,” said Peter Eckersley, EFF Staff Technologist and designer of Switzerland.
Still a command-line utility, designed for sophisticated net users, the EFF is working toward making the tool easier to use.
Might we prevail?
Might the networks remain ours?
What do your students think?