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Scared Straight?
Every technical attempt to defeat congestion eventually runs up against the principle of net neutrality, however. Even though ­BitTorrent Inc. is a core member of the P4P Working Group, its chief technology officer, Eric Klinker, remains leery of the idea that peer-to-peer networks and ISPs would share information. He worries that a protocol like P4P could allow an ISP to misrepresent its network topology in an attempt to keep traffic local, so it doesn’t have to pay access fees to send traffic across other networks.

Even David Clark’s proposal that ISPs simply charge their customers according to usage could threaten neutrality. As Mung Chiang points out, an ISP that also sold TV service could tier its charges so that customers who watched a lot of high-definition Internet TV would always end up paying more than they would have for cable subscriptions. So the question that looms over every discussion of congestion and neutrality is, Does the government need to intervene to ensure that everyone plays fair?

For all Klinker’s concerns about P4P, BitTorrent seems to have concluded that it doesn’t. In February, Klinker had joined representatives of Vuze and several activist groups in a public endorsement of net neutrality legislation proposed by Massachusetts congressman Ed Markey. At the end of March, however, after the Harvard hearings, BitTorrent and Comcast issued a joint press release announcing that they would collaborate to develop methods of peer selection that reduce congestion. Comcast would take a “protocol­-agnostic” approach to congestion management–targeting only heavy bandwidth users, not particular applications–and would increase the amount of bandwidth available to its customers for uploads. BitTorrent, meanwhile, agreed that “these technical issues can be worked out through private business discussions without the need for government intervention.”

The FCC, says Clark, “will do something, there’s no doubt, if industry does not resolve the current impasse.” But, he adds, “it’s possible that the middle-of-the-road answer here is that vigilance from the regulators will impose a discipline on the market that will cause the market to find the solution.”

That would be welcome news to Chiang. “Often, government legislation is done by people who may not know technology that well,” he says, “and therefore they tend to ignore some of the feasibility and realities of the technology.”

But Timothy Wu believes that network neutrality regulations could be written at a level of generality that imposes no ­innovation-­killing restrictions on the market, while still giving the FCC latitude to punish transgressors. There’s ample precedent, he says, for broad proscriptions that federal agencies interpret on a case-by-case basis. “In employment law, we have a general rule that says you shouldn’t discriminate, but in reality we have the fact that you aren’t allowed to discriminate unless you have a good reason,” he says. “Maybe somebody has to speak Arabic to be a spy. But saying you have to be white to serve food is not the same thing.”

Ultimately, however, “the Internet’s problems have always been best solved collectively, through its long history,” Wu says. “It’s held together by people being reasonable … reasonable and part of a giant community. The fact that it works at all is ridiculous.”

Larry Hardesty is a Technology Review senior editor.

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