Comcast vs. BitTorrent

The corporate and conservative Comcast has never been a friend of Internet neutrality. The free-wheeling BitTorrent, a peer-to-peer file sharing protocol that rose to prominence in the wake of Napster's demise, has never been held up as a bastion of ethical use of the Internet. So you should not be surprised to hear that Comcast has been making it difficult for its subscribers to download files from BitTorrent sites.

Comcast shifts gears

Last week, as reported in the New York Times, Comcast announced a change in its strategy for dealing with BitTorrent. It would now "take a more equitable approach toward managing the ever-expanding flow of Web traffic." In particular, "instead of interfering with specific online applications" (aka BitTorrent), "it will manage traffic by slowing the Internet speeds of its most bandwidth-hogging users when traffic is busiest."

In other words, instead of a "censorship" of a specific site, Comcast will instead go after individual users whom Comcast views as abusing the network.

While both of Comcast's solutions have come under fire by some proponents of network neutrality (a principle that I strongly support), Comcast's new approach seems preferable to me. At the very least, it moves away from the slippery slope of multiple tiers of Web sites, each with different speed limits -- a concept that could destroy the democratic nature of the Web, making it almost impossible for smaller startup sites to get the traction they need to grow.

But why, you may ask, should Comcast do anything punitive at all? Why shouldn't Comcast instead attempt to increase its bandwidth to handle the load, if necessary? Good questions. While I would welcome such a bandwidth boost as the most "neutral" solution, I believe some defensive management by Comcast is acceptable here. The rationale in a nutshell is this:

    BitTorrent's primary activity is illegal. Although there are certainly legitimate uses for BitTorrent, its primary use (as far as I can tell) is to illegally download commercial movies and television shows. Indeed, one of the most popular BitTorrent sites -- Pirate's Bay (its name alone pretty much gives away its function) -- has been described as "famous for their blatant disregard for intellectual property rights." Another site, TorrentSpy, recently closed down because the "legal climate in the USA for copyright, privacy of search requests, and links to torrent files in search results is simply too hostile."

    BitTorrent's downloads can be a giant bandwidth hog. It typically takes a minimum of 4 to 5 hours to download a movie; it can often take 12 hours or more. If many users on the same network are doing this at the same time, you can imagine the negative effect such lengthy sustained activity can have on a network. This is especially an issue on cable networks, where a subscriber's Internet speed declines as the number of active users on their local node increases. This means that if your neighbors are busy downloading movies, your Internet connection can slow down even though you are not engaging in any questionable activity.

Given this, it is at least understandable that Comcast would want to take some action other than spending the money needed to allow full-speed unlimited BitTorrent downloads for everyone. In the long run, I expect bandwidth to increase to the point that this will no longer be a relevant issue. But we are not there yet.

I give BitTorrent a whirl

Until recently, I had never downloaded a movie from a BitTorrent site. The questionable legality of doing so was the primary inhibition. But it also didn't seem worth the bother. I knew that the quality of such downloads could be quite inferior. In some cases, files were based on recordings taken with a camcorder at a movie theater where the film was showing. If you wanted a DVD-like experience (which I did), you weren't going to get it here. Even so, I wanted to download a movie or two as a test case, just so I could better understand how it all worked. However, I found it almost impossible to complete a successful download. This was likely partly due to Comcast's afore-mentioned constraints, but also -- as I later learned -- from not having created the needed firewall settings. In any case, I gave up trying.

As background for this blog posting, I decided to try again. This time I was successful -- and I was impressed with the results.

Using the Torrentz Web site, I searched for The Bourne Ultimatum. Many copies of the film showed up. The site offers numerous aids to help you decide which copy to prefer, including user comments about the general quality of the file ("great download," "almost DVD quality"). After selecting one copy -- and a server from which to get it -- I downloaded a torrent file for the film. The next step is to shift to a torrent-compatible application, load the torrent file and (at last) initiate the download. Then you wait. The speed of a download remains highly variable (and is affected by what download server you select as well as whether or not you have files that you share with others). For The Bourne Ultimatum, it took me about 5 hours (which is considered to be a quick download).

The movie file was in the .mp4 format, which meant that I could directly import it into iTunes and transfer it to my Apple TV. (Most BitTorrent files appear to be in .avi format, which requires a conversion before you can move it to an Apple TV.) Once it was transferred, I began watching the movie on my 32" LCD television. The quality was surprisingly good. It was comparable to what I see with movies downloaded from the iTunes Store. I next tried burning the movie to a DVD and playing it on my 55" HD television. This too worked, but the lesser quality of the movie file, as compared to a DVD, was now easy to see. Still, I imagine many people would find it more than acceptable. Especially for free.

It was a somewhat convoluted and time-consuming route to a final destination, certainly more so than simply buying a DVD or renting a movie from iTunes. And the quality of the final results were by no means guaranteed. Added to this is the question of its legality. All in all, I don't see this taking off with the general public as widely as music file sharing. At least not yet. Still, Hollywood has good reason to be afraid here. It wouldn't take much for this market to explode, decimating DVD sales the way that music file-sharing did to sales of CDs.

On the positive front, iTunes has now surpassed Walmart as the #1 music retailer in the U.S. This means, that despite the availability of illegal music downloading, the market for legal downloading is strong and continues to grow. This can work for movies as well. That's why Hollywood should move -- even more aggressively than they already are -- to make their movies available on the Internet, at a reasonable price. Because, for better or worse, and despite the efforts of Comcast and others, movie file-sharing isn't going away.

Addendum: A word to the wise: the MPAA takes action

Someone I know informed me that his Internet connection mysteriously stopped working the other day. He called Time Warner Cable (his ISP) to find out what happened. They told him that his modem had been "quarantined" because the MPAA had notified Time Warner about his BitTorrent downloading of movies. Time Warner removed the quarantine immediately after the phone conversation. However, they warned him that, if they continued to receive notifications from the MPAA, his Internet access would be suspended for an unspecified length of time and eventually permanently blocked. Exactly how the MPAA became aware of and identified the source of the download activity is not certain. However, I have heard that the MPAA may masquerade as a source on BitTorrent sites so as to obtain the IP addresses of people who attempt to download movies.