I'm a fan of live music and a patron of online communities such as eTree.org, where music junkies swap copyright-free music. So I was stung when I recently tried to download a live recording of a Dave Matthews concert only to discover that my BitTorrent client was dead in the water.
My system and Net connection checked out fine, so paranoia immediately set in: Was my Internet service provider, RCN, blocking BitTorrent? I called RCN and the tech I spoke to confirmed my suspicions, telling me that the ISP had added BitTorrent to its list of prohibited programs because many people use the software to download copyrighted material. The fact that the concert I was trying to download was copyright-free didn't sway him.
Later I called RCN's press department as a reporter, and the story changed. The ISP's spokesperson told me that the customer support rep I had talked to earlier misspoke. RCN has never intentionally blocked peer-to-peer traffic, the spokesperson said, and it supports the principles behind Net neutrality. Within 24 hours, my bandwidth-related problems with BitTorrent vanished.
Of course, most people can't call their ISP and (honestly) identify themselves as professional journalists. But that doesn't mean you have no recourse if your ISP starts blocking your file-sharing activities. A number of tips and tools can help you determine whether you're facing a BitTorrent blockade and, if so, help you get around it.
Torrent to a Trickle
If you suspect that your ISP is blocking or throttling your BitTorrent traffic, call your ISP and ask whether you're being blocked. But don't trust that you'll get a straight answer.
If your ISP's support reps won't tell you what's going on, look at the company's terms-of-service agreement (most are available online). Here again, though, you may find the answer unsatisfactory. Some ISPs couch their bandwidth management practices in vague policy statements that are difficult to decipher.
If your ISP won't come clean about its BitTorrent bandwidth policy, you can try any of a handful of ways to test whether your BitTorrent traffic is being throttled.
One method is to test your own connection speed. BitTorrent download speeds for popular files with many sources should be in the same ballpark as your bandwidth speeds in benchmark test results.
A popular Web-based tool, Glasnost, claims to be able to check whether your ISP is meddling with your BitTorrent traffic. The tool, created by the Max Planck Institute for Software Systems, requires no download; performing the test takes about 4 to 7 minutes.
For diehard techies who are willing to tinker, the Electronic Frontier Foundation developed a tool called Pcapdiff that tests whether your ISP is disrupting BitTorrent traffic.
Last, the makers of the BitTorrent client Vuze have created a plug-in for their peer-to-peer file swapping client. Downloading and running it on your PC won't help you determine whether your ISP is meddling with BitTorrent traffic — but it will help Vuze, which uses the data to lobby the FCC to prohibit limitations on BitTorrent.