All week, the local tech community has been buzzing around the news that Bell Canada is throttling P2P traffic — specifically the widely-used BitTorrent protocol — for not only their direct Sympatico subscribers, but also for anyone who buys their supposedly unlimited DSL from a Sympatico reseller, such as TekSavvy. For those of you new to the traffic shaping/net neutrality wars that have been going on in North America over the past months, here’s why throttling P2P traffic isn’t good news:
- Bell Canada (and our only other "last mile" carrier, Rogers Cable) are violating their role as a common carrier: they’re supposed to deliver the data, regardless of what it is, subject to our individual bandwidth and download caps. As long as I’m not getting a higher bandwidth than I was promised, and don’t go over my monthly volume cap, I should be able to download whatever I want, whenever I want, because the contract that I signed with Bell implied that would be the case. If they can’t deliver that bandwidth, then they shouldn’t be selling it; furthermore, they should have taken the money made by all these years of overselling the same bandwidth and invested in improving the now-outdated infrastructure so that we wouldn’t have these problems now.
- The carriers, Bell and Rogers, like to position this as allowing equal access to everyone instead of allowing those evil file-sharing types to hog the bandwidth, but they don’t exactly have altruistic motives: both of them sell services (cable and satellite TV) that compete with downloaded video, and they want you paying $40+ to them each month to watch the TV that they choose rather than be able to select from a wide variety of alternative — and legal — video available on the internet. Furthermore, Rogers wants to use the same bandwidth that you would use for free video downloads to download their pay-per-view movies instead.
- Bell and Rogers have targeted the BitTorrent protocol for throttling even though it has many legal uses. Last week, CBC made history by offering a TV program available, DRM-free, for download by BitTorrent. This allowed anyone in the world with broadband access to have access to Canadian programming that might not be available on their local TV stations. By throttling BitTorrent, however, Bell and Rogers are effectively blocking access to that Canadian content within Canada, forcing people to watch it on Bell or Rogers’ TV services. Personally, I use BitTorrent not just for that CBC show, but to download new releases of Ubuntu, and other large open source downloads where the source site provides BitTorrent as an option in order to reduce the bandwidth demands on their servers.
What this all comes down to is a violation of net neutrality: Bell and Rogers are deciding which traffic on the network gets higher priority. They’re doing it now because they’ve failed to make the necessary investments in infrastructure over the years that would allow them to actually deliver what they sell, and coincidentally they choose to throttle traffic that competes with their other business areas.
Suffice it to say that Bell Canada didn’t have a good week because of this — it was all over the news, the DSL resellers are talking about suing, and even the unions are in on the action. Enter Jason Laszlo, a spokesperson (apparently associate director of media relations) for Bell Canada, who was quoted extensively on this issue in the press:
- "Regarding customers like Mount Sinai [a major Toronto hospital that was used as an example of how legal file sharing might be used for CAT scans], Laszlo said it’s their own fault for using a notorious application like file-sharing. ‘We’re blind to the content flowing through our pipes,’ he said. ‘Our goal is to ensure maximum efficiency for everyone.’" — Digital Journal, March 25th. ["Notorious"? Oh, puh-leeze. And if they were blind to the content, then they wouldn’t be throttling file sharing.]
- "P2P programs are only employed by a small percentage of internet users, but they tend to make use of all the available bandwidth, Laszlo said. Reduced P2P use should provide a better balance between P2P and other users at peak times, he said. ‘I feel we’re on the side of good,’ he said." — CBC News, March 25th. [Throttling P2P is a good way to make sure that it is only ever employed by a small percentage of users, which is exactly what Bell wants.]
- "Bell spokesman Jason Laszlo on Friday reiterated the company’s position —that it was shaping traffic in order to prevent a small portion of bandwidth hogs from slowing speeds down for all customers." — CBC News, March 28th.
- "Jason is throttle-icious." — Jason Laszlo’s publicly-viewable Facebook profile, status update dated March 28th at 4:34pm.
- "Jason is realizing how little seperates [sic] most journalists from lemmings." — Jason Laszlo’s publicly-viewable Facebook profile, status update dated evening of March 28th.
Yes, those last two are real; his Facebook profile was posted on a broadband discussion forum yesterday afternoon (you can Digg the story here); he obviously was unaware of the impact of no privacy settings, since I was able to access his profile immediately after that even though we’re not directly connected and have no mutual friends.
My friend Mark Kuznicki channeled his outrage into a great blog post about how this hands the net neutrality advocates a gift, and messaged Laszlo on Facebook to let him know what we all think of his two-faced approach to media relations. Shortly after that, Laszlo’s profile was set to private so that I could no longer view it; this morning, it appears to be completely missing.
So what’s the lesson to be learned from this mess? The public is now aware and mobilized on the impact of traffic shaping on their daily lives, even if they haven’t yet heard the term net neutrality. To paraphrase Peter Finch’s character from Network, we’re mad as hell and we’re not going to take this anymore.
Oh, yeah, lesson #2: don’t entrust media relations for a sensitive subject to an inexperienced junior who doesn’t know well enough not to post inappropriate comments to his publicly-viewable Facebook profile.