P2P plug-in could detect net neutrality violations

Makers of Aureus release software that tracks possible traffic manipulation by ISPs.

In an effort to regulate network management practices, a peer-to-peer platform provider has released a tool to help users track possible traffic manipulation by Internet Service Providers (ISPs).

Users of Vuze's Aureus, a file sharing platform based on BitTorrent file-sharing technology, can download a free plug-in that checks Internet communications every 10 minutes. It assesses the number of attempted communications versus those interrupted by a reset packet, a tool that breaks connections with computers attempting downloads.

The goal is to aggregate data collected across user connections in different jurisdictions globally to assess possible ISP traffic interference, said the company's general counsel, Jay Monahan.

"It will be inferential evidence but if we find the rate of interruption is double in one jurisdiction than another, you can certainly infer that interference is happening at the network level," he said.

Last November, Vuze filed a petition with the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) for the adoption of enforceable rules to help regulate network management practices, and provide transparency to consumers and businesses around ISP behavior. In the petition, Zune said Philadelphia-based ISP Comcast's actions to interfere with traffic "frustrate Vuze's business and force the company to devote resources to play a 'cat and mouse game' to maintain superior service for its customers."

According to Monahan, other network operators have also attempted traffic manipulation.

Although Zune only just publicly announced the plug-in last week, it had already targeted a small group of users before this. He estimates, at this point, the plug-in has been adopted by "a few thousand" users.

According to Michael Geist, professor with Ottawa-based Canadian Internet Policy and Public Interest Clinic (CIPPIC), the plug-in is "certainly a positive development" in preventing the practice of traffic shaping, however, it will take much more to "put a dent" in the net neutrality issue. Net neutrality is a principle that all Internet data should be treated equally.

Geist observed that many ISPs have "seemingly been unconcerned with the growing consumer concern" over traffic shaping or other net neutrality issues. Illustrating this, he cited Canadian Broadcasting's effort to promote easy access to content by releasing a television program on BitTorrent. "Consumers are already finding they're facing shaping issues," said Geist.

And in another instance of the violation of net neutrality, Montreal-based telecommunications provider Bell Canada angered ISPs by managing peer-to-peer traffic on the high-speed backbone that Ontario and Quebec ISPs connect to, citing the need to control traffic so as to not overwhelm the network.

Network providers who perform deep packet inspections will no doubt try to counter attempts to curb traffic shaping by arguing they "don't want to support the peer-to-peer type of technology that takes a heavy load onto their networks," said Michael Rozender, consultant with Oakville, Ont.-based Rozender Consultants International.

Furthermore, they will argue that they own the network and are providing the service, and that heavy bandwidth users are the ones taking advantage of the open network, said Rozender, "and they want to control it, and they do."

However, Rozender did point out that not all ISPs participate in traffic shaping.

Rozender couldn't definitively say whether Zune's plug-in will actually circumvent traffic shaping of BitTorrent-based technologies. But he said "if it works the way it's purported to work -- that it becomes transparent and the ISPs can't control it -- then basically it's a running battle between the ISPs and the Vuze users to keep one step ahead of the deep packet inspection that ISPs want to do."

While Monahan said the scope of Zune's user base provides a vast platform for aggregating data across jurisdictions, he did acknowledge some ISPs may conduct operations that might make traffic measurement tricky.

That being the case, he said, "the more people that download it, the more meaningful the data might be." He added he thinks users are excited to directly participate in creating evidence of traffic interference.

It's a good thing to expose traffic shaping by network providers with tools like Zune's plug-in, said Geist "but clearly ISPs need to take it upon themselves to increase the level of transparency". And, if they don't, he said, regulatory bodies like the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) must act.

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Kathleen Lau

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