Comcast commits a quick change of course

File sharers rejoice: Comcast and BitTorrent have agreed to settle their differences.

Comcast, accused last October of manipulating BitTorrent traffic in the name of “reasonable network management,” reached an unusual accord with the owners of BitTorrent and agreed to reverse course, focusing on expanding its infrastructure instead. In exchange, BitTorrent Inc. will work on optimizing the BitTorrent protocol so that it doesn’t overwhelm ISP resources.

“This means that we will have to rapidly reconfigure our network management systems,” said Comcast CTO Tony Werner, “but the outcome will be a traffic management technique that is more appropriate for today's emerging Internet trends.”

Werner said that Comcast’s traffic management scheme, previously kept secret, will be published sometime today with changes made to take into account feedback from the Internet community.

“We are working hard on a different approach that is protocol-agnostic during peak periods,” said Werner.

The past six months have not been kind to Comcast, who has attracted the ire of internet advocacy groups and the FCC after it was discovered that it practiced a harsh form of “data discrimination:” Comcast servers would impersonate computers in a BitTorrent connection and send phony disconnect messages. Comcast’s novel form of traffic control – which it called “reasonable network management,” citing BitTorrent’s incredibly high demands on its infrastructure – had the effect of poisoning the well for both Comcast customers and anyone who attempted to connect to them, hurting the health of the BitTorrent system worldwide.

While they were once used exclusively for pirated and illegal content, P2P protocols like BitTorrent have seen increasing amounts of legitimate use from entities interested in distributing large files with a minimum of burden – due in large part to the protocols’ democratic, distributed nature.

P2P has “matured as an enabler for legal content distribution,” said Werner. “So we need to have an architecture that can support it with techniques that work over all networks.”

Percentages vary wildly concerning how much traffic over the internet is BitTorrent related, with figures varying heavily depending on who is asked. One thing is clear, however: BitTorrent, and peer-to-peer protocols in general, represent an overwhelmingly high portion of internet traffic, and as a result many ISPs are finding their own ways to stem the tide.

“While we think there were other management techniques that could have been deployed, we understand why Comcast and other ISPs adopted the approach that they did initially," said BitTorrent Inc. CTO Eric Klinker.

The FCC’s investigation appears to be changing course with Comcast’s announced changes, with FCC Chairman Kevin Martin expressing commendations (PDF) over the new accord: “I am pleased that Comcast has reversed course and agreed that it is not a reasonable network management practice to arbitrarily block certain applications on its network,” he said. “I also commend the company for admitting publicly that it was engaging in the practice and now engaging in a dialog with BitTorrent.”

“I am concerned, though, that Comcast has not made clear when they will stop this discriminatory practice. It appears this practice will continue throughout the country until the end of the year and in some markets, even longer. While it may take time to implement its preferred new traffic management technique, it is not at all obvious why Comcast couldn’t stop its current practice of arbitrarily blocking its broadband customers from using certain applications. Comcast should provide its broadband customers as well as the Commission with a commitment of a date certain by when it will stop this practice.”

After a tough February forum between FCC investigators and Comcast top brass failed to reach any serious conclusions – and allegations that Comcast hired seat-warmers to keep critics from attending – the Commission says it is still on track for a second Stanford forum on April 17, which it will use to better understand Comcast’s new plans.

"Well, we didn't have anyone in line that got shot waiting for our system." -- Nintendo of America Vice President Perrin Kaplan

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