June 16, 2024

Comcast Blocks Some Traffic, Won't Explain Itself

Comcast’s apparent policy of blocking some BitTorrent traffic, which has been discussed on tech sites [example] for months, has now broken out into the mainstream press. Comcast is making things worse by refusing to talk plainly about what they are doing and why. (This is an improvement over Comcast’s previously reported denials, which now appear to be inconsistent with the facts.)

To the extent that Comcast has explained itself, its story seems to be that it is slowing traffic from heavy users in order to keep the network moving smoothly. This would be a reasonable thing for Comcast to do (if they were open about it) – but it’s not quite what they’re actually doing.

For starters, Comcast’s measures are not aimed at heavy users but rather at users of certain protocols such as BitTorrent. And not even all users of BitTorrent are targeted, but only those who use BitTorrent in a particular way: uploading a file to non-Comcast users while not simultaneously downloading parts of the same file. (In BitTorrent jargon, this is called “seeding”.) To get an idea of how odd this is, consider that an uploader who is experiencing blocking can apparently avoid the blocking by adding some download traffic.

It would likely be easier for Comcast to simply measure how much traffic each user is generating and drop the heaviest users’ packets, or just to discard packets at random (a tactic that falls most heavily on those who send and receive the most packets).

Beyond its choice of what to block, Comcast is using an unusual and nonstandard form of blocking.

There are well-established mechanisms for dealing with traffic congestion on the Internet. Networks are supposed to respond to congestion by dropping packets; endpoint computers notice that their packets are being dropped and respond by slowing their transmissions, thus relieving the congestion. The idea sounds simple, but getting the details right, so that the endpoints slow down just enough but not too much, and the network responds quickly to changes in traffic level but doesn’t overreact, required some very clever, subtle engineering.

What Comcast is doing instead is to cut off connections by sending forged TCP Reset packets to the endpoints. Reset packets are supposed to be used by one endpoint to tell the other endpoint that an unexplained, unrecoverable error has occurred and therefore communication cannot continue. Comcast’s equipment (apparently made by a company called Sandvine) seems to send both endpoints a Reset packet, purporting to come from the other endpoint, which causes both endpoints to break the connection. Doing this is a violation of the TCP protocol, which has at least two ill effects: it bypasses TCP’s well-engineered mechanisms for handling congestion, and it erodes the usefulness of Reset packets as true indicators of error.

People have apparently figured out already how to defeat this blocking, and presumably it won’t be long before BitTorrent clients incorporate anti-blocking measures.

It looks like Comcast is paying the price for trying to outsmart their customers.

Radiohead Album Available for Free, But Fileshared Anyway

The band Radiohead is trying an interesting experiment, offering its new album In Rainbows for download and letting each customer decide how much to pay. You can name a price of zero and download the album for free, if you want, or you can pay whatever price you think is fair.

Now Andy Greenberg at Forbes is reporting that despite Radiohead’s free-if-you-choose offer, many users are downloading the album from P2P systems rather than getting it from the band’s site. Some commentators find this surprising, but in fact it should have been predictable.

Why are some people getting In Rainbows from P2P rather than the band’s site? Probably because they find P2P easier to use.

Radiohead’s site makes you click and click to get the music. First you have to click through a nearly content-free splash screen. Then you click through another splash screen telling you things you probably already knew. Then you click an “ORDER” button, and click away a dialog box telling you something you already knew. Then after some headscratching, you realize you need to click the “VIEW BASKET” button, which takes you to a form asking you to name your price, in U.K. currency. (They link you to a third-party site, offering a large collection of currency-conversion tools – several more clicks to find the one you want.) After choosing your price, you click “PAY NOW”, at which point you get to stare at a “You are currently in a queue” screen for a while, after which you set up an daccount enter some personal information (including your email address and mobile phone number) and agree to some terms of service (which are benign, but it’s more time and more clicks to verify that). Finally, you get to download the music.

It’s easy to see why somebody might prefer a P2P download. Leaving aside legal issues – and let’s face it, many people do – the moral argument against unauthorized P2P downloading seems pretty weak in this case, where downloaders aren’t depriving the band (or anyone else) of revenue.

This is an interesting natural experiment that tells us something about why people use P2P. If people normally choose P2P over authorized channels because P2P is cheaper, we would expect customers to shift toward the authorized channel when it offers a zero price. But if people choose P2P for convenience, then we’d expect a shift toward more P2P use for this album, because people have fewer moral qualms about P2P downloading this album than they would for a normal album. The clunkiness of Radiohead’s site improves the experiment by sharpening the ease-of-use factor.

It’s too early to tell how the experiment will come out, but news reports so far indicate that the ease-of-use factor is probably more important than some pundits think. This is yet more evidence that had the record industry embraced easy-to-use Internet music technologies early on, things would be very different now.

[UPDATE (Oct 21, 2007): Bill Zeller documents how technical issues completely prevent a large number of users from legally downloading In Rainbows from Radiohead’s site.]

Grokster Case Lumbers On; Judge To Issue Permanent Injunction

Remember the Grokster case? In which the Supreme Court found the filesharing companies Grokster and StreamCast liable for indirect copyright infringement, for “inducing” infringement by their users? You might have thought that case ended back in 2005. But it’s still going on, and the original judge just issued an interesting ruling. (Jason Schultz has a two part summary of the ruling.)

The issue now before the judge is what relief to grant the copyright-owner plaintiffs against StreamCast, which is the only defendant still standing. It’s apparently a given that the judge will eventually assess monetary damages against StreamCast. And you’d think these damages would be enough to kill StreamCast, so it’s not clear why StreamCast hasn’t just thrown in the towel, shut its doors, and handed over all its assets to the plaintiffs. Instead, StreamCast fought on, so the judge had to decide what kind of injunction, if any, to impose on StreamCast – that is, what rules would govern StreamCast’s future behavior.

The judge first considered the question of whether he could impose on StreamCast obligations (beyond payment of damages) that go beyond what the law requires of ordinary companies. Would he just award money damages and sternly command StreamCast not to break the law again; or would he go further and impose a permanent injunction? After a detailed legal analysis, he concluded that a permanent injunction was appropriate. StreamCast had actively promoted itself as a haven for infringement and “that bell cannot be unrung”.

The copyright-owner plaintiffs had asked for an injunction requiring StreamCast to apply all feasible anti-infringement technologies and to stop all infringment. StreamCast had built its own filtering technology which it said was effective enough, and much cheaper and more practical than commercially available alternatives.

The judge first rejected the plaintiff’s proposal that StreamCast be required to stop all infringement using its software. He recognized, correctly, that that would be impossible, so that such an injunction would be a death sentence for StreamCast.

Instead, the judge will require StreamCast to set up a filtering system that reasonably balances effectiveness and cost, with the strong emphasis on effectiveness. The precise details will be worked out with the help of a special master: an independent technical expert to be appointed by the judge. Which means yet more legal process to choose the special master, wait for the special master’s advice, and then order specific action from StreamCast.

All of this may be proper from a legal standpoint, but it seems unlikely to matter in practice. It’s hard to see how StreamCast can sustain a business given the legal and financial strain they must be under, and the likely ruinous monetary damages they’re still facing. I can understand why the plaintiffs might want to keep StreamCast on life support, in the hope of getting legal rulings that prove helpful elsewhere. But why does StreamCast keep fighting?

Infinite Storage for Music

Last week I spoke on a panel called “The Paradise of Infinite Storage”, at the “Pop [Music] and Policy” conference at McGill University in Montreal. The panel’s title referred to an interesting fact: sometime in the next decade, we’ll see a $100 device that fits in your pocket and holds all of the music ever recorded by humanity.

This is a simple consequence of Moore’s Law which, in one of its variants, holds that the amount of data storage available at a fixed size and price roughly doubles every eighteen months. Extrapolate that trend and, depending on your precise assumptions, you’ll find the magic date falls somewhere between 2011 and 2019. From then on, storage capacity might as well be infinite, at least as far as music is concerned.

This has at least two important consequences. First, it strains even further the economics of the traditional music business. The gap between the number of songs you might want to listen to, and the number you’re willing and able to pay a dollar each to buy, is growing ever wider. In a world of infinite storage you’ll be able to keep around a huge amount of music that is potentially interesting but not worth a dollar (or even a dime) to you yet. So why not pay a flat fee to buy access to everything?

Second, infinite storage will enable new ways of building filesharing technologies, which will be much harder for copyright owners to fight. For example, today’s filesharing systems typically have users search for a desired song by contacting strangers who might have the song, or who might have information about where the song can be found. Copyright owners’ technical attacks against filesharing often target this search feature, trying to disrupt it or to exploit the fact that it involves communication with strangers.

But in a world of infinite storage, no searching is needed, and filesharers need only communicate with their friends. If a user has a new song, it will be passed on immediately to his friends, who will pass it on to their friends, and so on. Songs will “flood” through the population this way, reaching all of the P2P system’s participants within a few hours – with no search, and no communication with strangers. Copyright owners will be hard pressed to fight such a system.

Just as today, many people will refuse to use such technologies. But pressure on today’s copyright-based business models will continue to intensify. Will we see new legal structures? New business models? Or new public attitudes? Something has to change.

Jury Finds User Liable for Downloading, Awards $9250 Per Song in Damages

The first Recording Industry v. End User lawsuit to go to trial just ended, and the industry won big. Jammie Thomas, a single mother in northern Minnesota, was found liable for illegally downloading 24 songs via Kazaa, and the jury awarded damages of $222,000, or $9250 per song. It’s always risky to extrapolate much from a single case – outsiders, schooled by TV courtroom dramas, often see cases as broad referenda on social issues, while in reality the specific circumstances of a case are often the decisive factor. But with that caution in mind, we can learn a few things from this verdict.

The industry had especially strong evidence that Thomas was the person who downloaded the songs in question. Thomas’s defense was that somebody else must have downloaded the songs. But the industry showed that the perpetrator used the same distinctive username that Thomas admitted to using on other services, and that the perpetrator downloaded songs by Thomas’s favorite performers. Based on press stories about the trial, the jury probably had an easy time concluding that Thomas downloaded the songs. (Remember that civil cases don’t require proof beyond a reasonable doubt, only that it was more likely than not that Thomas downloaded the songs illegally.)

People often argue that the industry has only weak evidence when they send their initial settle-or-else demand letters to users. That may well be true. But in this case, as the trial loomed, the industry bolstered its case by gathering more evidence. The lesson for future cases is clear. If the industry has to go to trial with only the initial evidence, they might not win. But what end user, knowing that they did download illegally, will want to take the chance that more evidence against them won’t turn up?

The most striking fact about the Thomas case is that the jury awarded damages of $9250 per song to faraway corporations.. That’s more than nine hundred times what the songs would have cost at retail, and the total of $222,000 is an astronomical amount to a person in Jammie Thomas’s circumstances. There is no way that Jammie Thomas caused $222,000 of harm to the record industry, so the jury’s purpose in awarding the damages has to be seen as punishment rather than compensation.

My guess is that the jury was turned off by Thomas’s implausible defense and her apparent refusal to take responsibility for her actions. Litigants disrespect the jury at their peril. It’s easy to imagine these jurors thinking, “She made us take off work and sit through a trial for this?” Observers who hoped for jury nullification – that a jury would conclude that the law was unjust and would therefore refuse to find even an obvious violator liable – must be sorely disappointed. It sure looks like juries will find violators liable, and more significantly, that they can be convinced to sympathize with the industry against obvious violators.

All of this, over songs that would have cost $23.76 from iTunes. At this point, Jammie Thomas must wish, desperately, that she had just paid the money.