Comcast and some controversy

October 23, 2007

There has been much talk lately about the idea that the American ISP Comcast is identifying people using Bittorrent and limiting their ability to download using this popular protocol (which is also very very speedy).  While the automatic response is to think “well, you’re using peer-to-peer file-sharing, you’re just getting nabbed for being bad”.  As much as that is often the case, Bittorrent has also become the protocol of choice for all kinds of legal downloading, from games to documents, and this is where the controversy comes in.

I have experienced all aspects of this business.  I regularly use Bittorrent to download TV shows.  Many of these shows I pay to be able to see on TV, but we either miss them and want to catch up, or prefer to watch them when we want to watch them.  If I use a Tivo box, or if I haul out my VCR (or use any kind of software that also allows this type of recording), I will hear no objections. Should I choose to get precisely the same show via the web, I am bad.  I also use Bittorrent quite a bit to to download strange conspiracy theory movies (a hobby of mine) fro conspiracy-central.net, a site that is very careful not to offer video that is protected by copyright.  Finally, I have downloaded games that are either free or that I have paid for, and Bittorrent is becoming an increasingly popular vehicle for offering downloads (regular downloads demand that the distributor provide all of the server power necessary for large numbers of people to download … Bittorrent is made to distribute the load across everyone trying to get the file … it works very well, and is faster than a straight download).  Of course, I have also downloaded things that  I am not supposed to …

I have had my bandwidth throttled by my ISP when using Bittorrent, which is precisely what Comcast does.  I purposefully left a bunch of public domain material on my machine being shared for a long time just because I liked the idea that I was doing nothing wrong, but was probably being monitored by a Big Brother-like ISP. Unfortunately, Comcast has also decided that it’s a good idea to pose as another member of the peer-to-peer network and, upon identifying people using Bittorrent, to shut down that person’s ability to use the software.  Recently, folks utilizing Bittorrent on Comcast offered up the Bible on file-sharing networks, and once identified, were shut down.  The problem here is obvious … people have every right to share things that are not protected by copyright (the Bible is in the public domain), and although they do not have an explicit right to privacy in the US, it’s really annoying to have people snooping into your every action and making decisions about what’s right and wrong.  Comcast is trying hard to respond in a reasonable way to all of this, and is actually denying that they do these things (although they have been caught red-handed).

A hint:  It is quite possible to encrypt everything that happens on Bittorrent, including the headers on your traffic (making it so that your ISP can only see that there are things coming and going, but not know what they are, or what protocol they are using).  I don’t feel the slightest bit of guilt about this … I’m one of the people that gets quite annoyed with having an ISP be my moral guide (hell, they can hardly run an ISP) … I suppose that I should mention that I do have limits to my behaviour (even if I do have anarchist tendencies).  If one is using Bittorrent so much that others can’t utilize the network, then an ISP should do something … if one is offering files that actually do harm to others, they should be shut down.  It has never been okay to shut down everyone (including those who are doing perfectly legal things) because some are using a tool for bad reasons.  That is like suggesting that nobody should have a car, because they are sometimes used to commit crimes.


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