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December 17, 2008

Blocking BitTorrent in Britain

Virgin Media announced its intention of restricting BitTorrent traffic on its new 50Mbps service according to an article by Chris Williams in The Register. Does this mean that net neutrality is endangered in the UK? The question is important because advocates of an open Internet like me hold the UK up as a positive example of net neutrality achieved through competition rather than through regulation.

One of the major benefits of a competitive rather than a regulatory approach to net neutrality is that users get to decide what sort of network they would like to be on. With a regulated approach, the regulators decide. In the US the FCC has reproved Comcast for blocking BitTorrent traffic. On the other hand, we net neutrality advocates think that it is acceptable to throttle heavy users in times of network overload because this is non-discriminatory as far as applications are concerned. Heavy users who don't use BitTorrent would probably rather be on a BitTorrent-blocking network than one which blocks them. In a free and competitive market they would get a choice; BitTorrent users, obviously, would prefer a network which doesn't block BitTorrent explicitly; they would have a choice as well.

The market might satisfy both sets of users by offering them a choice of services or one or the other type of service might prove uneconomic because not enough users like it. Nothing wrong with that. Moreover, a network which blocks BitTorrent, as Comcast was suspected of doing, to favor its own entertainment content, might find itself with no users. All sounds like competitive utopia.

Reality might not be so simple, however. If there are only a small minority of users who care about BitTorrent and Virgin Media can cut costs and/or improve service for most users by restricting BitTorrent, it may gain enough competitive advantage so that other providers emulate it and BitTorrent ends up being restricted everywhere in the UK. Would that mean that a competitive market is not enough to protect net neutrality? Some net neutrality advocates would say "Yes. Any system which results in a particular legal application being banned is bad and needs to fixed."

I'm not ready to go there. I think that if we have a competitive market (which we don't in the US) and if there is no market-fixing or other arrangements between competitors to restrict competition and there is full disclosure of the rules of each network, we have to accept that the result is a neutral Internet – which might not be exactly the kind of network we Net Neutrality advocates think the world should have. We're not the fabled Internet czar either.

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