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Posts published in “Day: October 20, 2007”

Net discrimination

Awhile back we drew some scoffs with the suggestion that the issue of "net neutrality" could become a political hot spot. It didn't (in a major way at least) in 2006, and hasn't this year (owing in part to some backing off from some of the big telecoms). But it's coming. The only question is when - and how it will be shaped.

We draw attention to this Associated Press piece on Comcast Corporation partly because Comcast is a big Internet as well as cable provider in the Northwest, and also because so many people in the region are affected by shifts or alterations in Internet traffic structures. The AP ran a sophisticated series of nationwide tests and found at Comcast "the most drastic example yet of data discrimination by a U.S. Internet service provider. It involves company computers masquerading as those of its users."

There may be some customer-service rationale to what Comcast is doing. Essentially, it seems to be redirecting and second-tiering traffic in file sharing - transmission of often large data files - in the interest of keeping other traffic (emails, web access and so on) flowing more smoothly. File-sharing sometimes takes a hit because some of it is illegal (such as sharing of copyrighted music or videos). But a whole lot of it is legitimate; the whole field of open-source software, for one example, is absolutely reliant on it. (The Northwest's large Linux community, for one, has been snapping to attention on this yesterday and today.) This kind of activity could seriously disrupt key file-sharing outfits like BitTorrent.

The AP describes: "Comcast's technology kicks in, though not consistently, when one BitTorrent user attempts to share a complete file with another user. Each PC gets a message invisible to the user that looks like it comes from the other computer, telling it to stop communicating. But neither message originated from the other computer — it comes from Comcast. If it were a telephone conversation, it would be like the operator breaking into the conversation, telling each talker in the voice of the other: 'Sorry, I have to hang up. Good bye.'"

One Portland area Linux user with some knowledge of how the cable net systems work sees it as a little more benign, involving trying to move large transfers toward more local networks, in an effort to conserve bandwidth. And apparently plenty of other cable companies are moving into similar technology.

Regardless, this whole territory, even if specifically justifiable, ought to make net users generally uncomfortable. At the least.

This territory is going to turn political, in significant ways. Give it time. The seeds have been planted.