Newsnight's ubergeek talks to BitTorrent inventor Bram Cohen and finds him distinctly equivocal about fears of a two speed internet.
By Adam Livingstone
So there's me driving up to Homebase to get some new wine glasses for my posh media chums to come round and watch the World Cup. And I get to within half a mile of the store and my car starts to slow down.
Many ISPs have virtually banned BitTorrent from their network
Before I know it, I'm doing five miles an hour. What's more, half the other cars around me are doing the same. But the cars on the other side of the road are all fine. So I turn round and head home and suddenly it's all back to normal. "What on earth is going on?" as our man Paxman would say.
"It's simple" said the grease monkey at my local garage. "The people who made your car have done a deal with B&Q. They've fixed it so that if you ever drive towards Homebase, you'll start going at 5 miles an hour."
Alert readers among you might observe that I'm talking rubbish, and, despite this being the BBC, I must admit I made the whole incident up. But imagine if such a thing were possible. How happy would you be if you were on the receiving end? Which brings us to the principle of network neutrality.
In a network neutral world, every piece of internet data is treated equally. Whether you're downloading porn from Japan or buying music from iTunes in California or reading a blog in Russian, the Internet doesn't care. It's all just data and it's all treated the same, all given the same priority on the information superhighway.
And if some big corporation were to start paying your internet service provider to start prioritising their offerings over their rivals, then that ISP would, arguably, be selling that internet connection twice, once to you and once to the corporation. That would be a violation of network neutrality.
Last week the U.S. House of Representatives Judiciary Committee produced a draft bill to make network neutrality an explicit legal requirement in the US. This follows a big row where the infrastructure manufacturers like Cisco and 3M have been lobbying heavily against network neutrality while internet companies like Google and Microsoft have been calling for the opposite.
Why? One reason, perhaps, is because if toll roads are to be allowed on the internet, then someone has to build them, and that means jobs for the hardware boys. But the internet companies may not fancy having to pay those tolls and dance attendance on a new gatekeeper.
Before there can be toll networks someone has to build them
At which point enter our old friend the BitTorrent. You'll recall that this protocol has lately spread across the internet like Japanese knotweed, gobbling up perhaps a third of internet capacity, so that many service providers have virtually banned it from their networks before they become choked up completely.
Technically that is perhaps a violation of network neutrality, but one born of practicality rather than any darker motive, they would argue if they were here. Anyway the main losers are pirates and they can look after themselves.
Bram Cohen, the 'ubergeek' who gave us BitTorrent, is right up there in the pantheon of Internet gods. But unlike such luminaries as Shawn Fanning and Tim Berners Lee, Bram still hopes to make money from the fruits of his intellect. To which end he's done a deal with Warner Brothers to help them to distribute their movies on BitTorrent.
One of the things that's hoped might sweeten the deal is a new kind of faster torrent which the makers hope will make the current version look like paint drying. At the same time it will also unblock those congested pipes, so that his invention can avoid getting banned from networks quite so often.
The new version is currently trialling as a collaboration between Bram, NTL and a company called Cachelogic here in Britain. Cachelogic are offering a series of data stores strategically placed around the Internet which the new BitTorrent system talks to. Whenever they see a commercially approved BitTorrent, they make a copy of the data.
Does speeding up serving some data negate network neutrality?
The next time someone on the Internet requests that data, it comes not from the original sender but from the Cachelogic store, only this time massively accelerated.
You can see where this is going. The companies who subscribe to the service will see their data race down the toll roads much faster than everyone else's can travel. What then for network neutrality?
We asked Bram about network neutrality. He told me "I most definitely do not want the internet to become like television where there's actual censorship... however it is very difficult to actually create network neutrality laws which don't result in an absurdity like making it so that ISPs can't drop spam or stop... (hacker) attacks. "
Does the Cachelogic proposal violate network neutrality? "Depending on how you define net neutrality that violates some definitions of it," says Cohen.
And would he feel comfortable if a media company using BitTorrent did start seeking network priority for its data?
"It depends really on the nature of the whole thing... I'm against net censorship. However when you're talking about large file transfers going to very large numbers of people there frequently are significant costs involved... (the media companies) are frequently bearing a lot of costs already today. They make some stuff available and pay for bandwidth on it so it's just a question of the download costs as well as the upload costs."
Taking its toll
He has a point. Big media corporations already pay a fortune for powerful internet capacities so that you can more easily read articles like this one. This would just be the logical next step - rather than merely improving their capacity to send data out the door, the companies upgrade your ability to receive it as well.
Companies could also upgrade our ability to receive data
To go back to our analogy, it's not that your car will necessarily slow down when you head to Homebase. It's just that you'll suddenly start travelling at several hundred miles per hour if you go to the rival store. They're not doing anything to harm your surfing.
Objectively they're making it better. Even if you don't want to download their movies you might still benefit from the relief in congestion over the whole internet. And if capital wants to build something and people want to pay for it, well, chances are it's going to get built.
Which is exactly what you'd say about a toll road.
You can hear Adam Livingstone's interview with Bram Cohen on the Newsnight podcast.