Spirit of internet at risk, campaigners warn

A promise by the biggest broadband provider in the US that it would stop discriminating against users who swap music and video online has failed to quell a grassroots movement demanding legislation to protect equal access to the internet.

Comcast, led by chairman and chief executive Brian Roberts, said it would stop interfering with the popular BitTorrent programs used for file sharing, ending a covert practice that was exposed last year and that turned the company into the No 1 corporate villain for the “net neutrality” movement.

However the company’s solution — to slow down the internet connections of heavy bandwidth users during the busiest times — has raised further questions about how internet service providers (ISPs) should prioritise traffic when their networks are close to capacity.

Neutrality campaigners say the spirit of the internet is under threat from ISPs that want to discriminate against certain types of internet use or against some users. The telecoms and cable industries are lobbying in favour of “congestion charging” that would allow them to offer priority access to the network to media companies willing to pay a high fee.

Comcast’s announcement was accompanied by news that it is working with BitTorrent, the company that invented thefile-sharing system, to come up with modifications that would make it use bandwidth moreefficiently.

However, the agreement was dismissed by net neutrality campaigners as a clumsy attempt to improve Comcast’s image and to head off legislation.

“Innovators should not have to negotiate side deals with phone and cable companies to operate without discrimination,” said Marvin Ammori, general counsel of the lobby group Free Press. “The internet has always been a level playing field, and we need to keep it that way.”

The Savetheinternet.com coalition, which is among those co-ordinating an online movement in favour of legislation, was still yesterday pressing supporters to lobby the Federal Communications Commission, the industry regulator, which is investigating the issue.

The issue has become more pressing because systems like BitTorrent are increasingly being used by media companies to distribute video online, not just by tech-savvy individuals swapping pirated material.

“Recognising that the web is richer and more bandwidth intensive than it has been historically, we are pleased that Comcast understands these changing traffic patterns and wants to collaborate with us to migrate to techniques that the internet community will find to be more transparent,” said Eric Klinker, BitTorrent’s chief technology officer.

Telecoms and cable companies say that their networkscould be overwhelmed. Netneutrality campaigners, however, say they should investmore in building additionalcapacity for individuals andcompanies uploading video to the internet.

Stephen Foley