The revelation that Comcast is degrading BitTorrent traffic has spawned many blog posts on how the Comcast incident bolsters the blogger’s position on net neutrality – whatever that position happens to be. Here is my contribution to the genre. Mine is different from all the others because … um … well … because my position on net neutrality is correct, that’s why.
Let’s start by looking at Comcast’s incentives. Besides being an ISP, Comcast is in the cable TV business. BitTorrent is an efficient way to deliver video content to large numbers of consumers – which makes BitTorrent a natural competitor to cable TV. BitTorrent isn’t a major rival yet, but it might plausibly develop into one. Which means that Comcast has an incentive to degrade BitTorrent’s performance and reliability, even when BitTorrent isn’t in any way straining Comcast’s network.
So why is Comcast degrading BitTorrent? Comcast won’t say. They won’t even admit what they’re doing, let alone offer a rationale for it, so we’re left to speculate. The technical details of Comcast’s blocking are only partially understood, but what we do know seems hard to square with claims that Comcast is using the most effective means to optimize some resource in their network.
Now pretend that you’re the net neutrality czar, with authority to punish ISPs for harmful interference with neutrality, and you have to decide whether to punish Comcast. You’re suspicious of Comcast, because you can see their incentive to bolster their cable-TV monopoly power, and because their actions don’t look like a good match for the legitimate network management goals that they claim motivate their behavior. But networks are complicated, and there are many things you don’t know about what’s happening inside Comcast’s network, so you can’t be sure they’re just trying to undermine BitTorrent. And of course it’s possible that they have mixed motives, needing to manage their network but choosing a method that had the extra bonus feature of hurting BitTorrent. You can ask them to justify their actions, but you can expect to get a lawyerly, self-serving answer, and to expend great effort separating truth from spin in that answer.
Are you confident that you, as net neutrality czar, would make the right decision? Are you confident that your successor as net neutrality czar, who would be chosen by the usual political process, would also make the right decision?
Even without a regulatory czar, wheels are turning to punish Comcast for what they’ve done. Customers are unhappy and are putting pressure on Comcast. If they deceived their customers, they’ll face lawsuits. We don’t know yet how things will come out, but it seems likely Comcast will regret their actions, and especially their lack of transparency.
All of which – surprise surprise – confirms my position on net neutrality: there is a risk of harmful behavior by ISPs, but writing and enforcing neutrality regulation is harder than it looks, and non-regulatory forces may constrain ISPs enough.