BBC: Bram Cohen on network neutrality

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This BBC Newsnight story, by Adam Livingstone, about the possibilities of a two-tier internet – ‘BitTorrent: Shedding no tiers’ – has an interesting fictional ‘architectures of control’ example to illustrate the possibilities of price discrimination in networks (see also Control & Networks):

“So there’s me driving up to Homebase… and I get to within half a mile of the store and my car starts to slow down.

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.”

Network neutrality

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.”

The article goes on to describe a new Cachelogic BitTorrent system to allow faster downloads of material approved (& controlled) by media companies:

“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.

The next time someone on the Internet requests that [sic] 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… Does the Cachelogic proposal violate network neutrality? “Depending on how you define net neutrality that violates some definitions of it,” says Cohen.”

Without knowing more about the system I’m not sure what my reaction should be, since this is not quite the same as an actual ‘two-tier internet’, merely (perhaps) the equivalent of putting in faster servers for particular material. It is, then, changing the architecture of the system, but not in a way that forces users to behave in a particular manner.

You can bet, however, that the material that is distributed via the system will be heavily DRM’d and restricted, possibly requiring a new download (+ fee) each time. If that means a massive increase in network traffic, and that slows down the connections of users who aren’t participating in the service, then, yes, it is an architecture of control. It’s making it easier/less hassle just to go with the flow and learn to love big brother, since that’s the only way you can get fast downloads.

Any thoughts?