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Blocking BitTorrent is an inappropriate knee-jerk solution to a couple of problems.

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This is Leo Notenboom for askleo.info.

This week it was discovered that Comcast has been blocking or severely throttling BitTorrent - a popular file sharing technology. BitTorrent is what's known as a peer-to-peer file sharing technology which distributes a file among many users or peers and allows them to share and exchange parts of that file with each other rather than having a single copy of a file in a central location that everyone simply downloads. It's pretty cool technology that's perfect for downloading large files.

There are two problems with BitTorrent.

The most common issue people think of when you hear "peer to peer file sharing" is of course illegal music and video downloads. Indeed, perhaps the vast majority of BitTorrent traffic is exactly that. The problem is that it's not the technology that's at fault - it's how that technology is being used. In fact, even as I write this I'm using BitTorrent to get a copy of the latest Ubuntu Linux distribution; a totally legal and valid use.

"At best it's a game of virtual whack-a-mole."

The second problem is that people are using it to download large files. Lots of large files. All that file sharing eats up a lot of bandwidth, and that's apparently the excuse that ISPs like Comcast are using to justify their actions.

There are two basic problems with blocking or throttling a specific technology or protocol like BitTorrent.

At best it's a game of virtual whack-a-mole. The technologies will evolve to bypass throttles and blocks. In fact, the more popular the technology, the quicker the evolution will happen. Blocking a technology simply doesn't make sense if bandwidth conservation is your goal.

Blocking because it "might" be used illegally makes even less sense. Just because the technology can be used for illegal purposes, or even if it's primarily being used for illegal purposes, doesn't mean that blocking it is the answer. That is throwing the baby out with the bathwater by simultaneously blocking any valid use of that technology.

Unfortunately blocking and throttling are quick, knee-jerk reactions that don't require a lot of thought or judgment.

The right solution? In my opinion if people are abusing your technology, identify the abusers. If there are bandwidth hogs, throttle them or charge them more. And if someone's doing something illegal, deal with the illegal activity, not the tools used to accomplish it.

Yes, it's more difficult.

Doing the right thing often is.

I'd love to hear what you think. Visit askleo.info and enter 11928 in the go to article number box to access the show notes, the transcript and to leave me a comment. While you're there, browse over 1,200 technical questions and answers on the site.

Till next time, I'm Leo Notenboom, for askleo.info.

Article C3187 - October 20, 2007 « »

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Leo Leo A. Notenboom has been playing with computers since he was required to take a programming class in 1976. An 18 year career as a programmer at Microsoft soon followed. After "retiring" in 2001, Leo started Ask Leo! in 2003 as a place for answers to common computer and technical questions. More about Leo.

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3 Comments
Greg
October 20, 2007 11:23 PM

What's interesting is that this comes on the heels of reports about Comcast having a bandwidth usage cap and shutting down customers if they go over it.

It also comes on the heels of the little old lady who attached a Comcast office with a hammer.

Looks like overall, Comcast is making a concerted effort to alienate customers and drive them into the arms of satellite, DSL, and FiOS.

Mary
October 21, 2007 3:12 PM

Using Comcast's logic, get rid of all hammers because someone might use it illegally or inappropriately. :-)

Chuck Newman
October 30, 2007 9:37 AM

I agree with the above except don't expect any less restrictions with satellite. Hughes Net and other providers use a throttling device they call Fair Access Policy. You go over the limits within a time period, your downloads drop to dial up speed. Stay with DSL or non-Comcast cable.

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