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Category Archives: bittorrent

There’s no free lunch with online TV content

TheDailyShowOf all the great things the internet has given humanity, I didn’t know that an inalienable right to all television content for free was among them. But that seems to be the crux of a recent op-ed piece by Open Media director Steve Anderson.

In articles on both the Huffington Post and Open Media websites, Anderson relates a tale of how he recently tried to watch The Daily Show with Jon Stewart online, only to be thwarted by Bell Canada’s requirement that he subscribe to the company’s television service. That’s not how it should be, he says:

I’d much rather use online services than deal with a prescribed menu of channels on TV. Furthermore, I don’t see any reason why I should subscribe to multiple telecom services when at this point everything (voice, video, text) should be available through one open platform: the Internet.

It looks like the word “open” is being conflated with “free,” in that everyone should be able to watch The Daily Show without having to pay for it. You could apparently do that before, so why the clamp down now? Read the rest of this entry »

 
17 Comments

Posted by on March 11, 2014 in bittorrent, netflix, piracy, television

 

UBB ruling will put government in crosshairs

The CRTC is set to announce the results of its usage-based internet billing proceeding Tuesday afternoon. Far from being one of the regulator’s many dull procedural announcements, this one is surely the most anticipated, at least in recent memory. I’ll have an analysis on Wednesday (my posts generally go live at midnight, Eastern time) and probably some knee-jerk reactions on Twitter beforehand, if you want to check those out. In the meantime’s here a primer of what the ruling will involve and why it’s so important.

In the broader sense, usage-based billing is about charging internet customers for how much they download and upload. In Canada, a typical home user gets between 50 and 60 gigabytes included with their monthly fee; going over means more charges, just like a cellphone bill. Pretty much every Canadian is living with UBB right now.

As it relates to the CRTC drama for most of the past year, UBB is a more specific issue that has to do with smaller ISPs that use a portion of the networks owned by big telecom companies such as Bell to deliver their services to customers. Bell has been charging its own customers UBB for years and wanted to impose the scheme on these smaller ISPs. The CRTC gave Bell’s plan its blessing, agreeing with the thinking that all customers need to be treated equally. The logic is that if Bell was only giving subscribers 50 GB of monthly usage, yet an ISP such as TekSavvy was allowing 300 GB or more, then the smaller provider had an advantage.

Despite that apparent advantage, about 95% of Canadians get their internet service from big providers such as Bell, Rogers, Telus, Shaw and Videotron. Still, all hell broke loose earlier this year just before UBB was to take effect. The Open Media advocacy group got involved and motivated more than 500,000 people to sign a petition opposing it. While the ruling would affect only a few people, it was to be the final elimination of unlimited internet usage in Canada, the group argued. With UBB imposed on small ISPs, the big providers could effectively decide how much Canadians could use the internet. While many people who signed the petition were not customers of smaller providers, they did so to effectively draw a line in the sand and tell large companies that they shall go no further.

The government got involved, with both Prime Minister Stephen Harper and then-Industry Minister Tony Clement signalling they would take action on the CRTC decision if the regulator itself didn’t overturn it. And so, the CRTC went back to the drawing board, bringing us to Tuesday’s decision.

Since then, a few things have happened. Bell submitted a new proposal, called Aggregated Volume Pricing, that is a sort of diet-UBB. Rather than charging smaller ISPs for each of their users, the new scheme would total up their usage instead. Indie ISPs have said that while AVP is not as crippling as UBB would have been to their business, it’s still not exactly desirable.

Out west, UBB became a non-issue last spring when Shaw announced new plans with generous usage limits, which forced its main competitor Telus to match. The large Western ISPs added an interesting dimension to the debate – such large usage buckets completely negate the argument for UBB, which Bell and others have said is necessary to combat network congestion. If Shaw and Telus can give their customers so much usage without congesting their networks, why can’t their eastern counterparts?

On a related note, Bell also recently announced it was easing up on slowing down file-sharing by its customers. This “throttling” is another activity that is technically allowed by the CRTC, but which is hugely controversial and hated by many users. Many believe throttling is a violation of the regulator’s own net neutrality rules, yet the CRTC is doing nothing to stop it. As if to contrast Bell’s announcement, news also recently broke about how big Canadian ISPs – particularly Rogers – are some of the heaviest throttlers in the world.

Also perhaps relevant is the fact that the current CRTC chair, Konrad von Finckenstein, is on his way out. Von Finckenstein reportedly wanted to stay on for a second term, but given his penchant for disagreeing with his employer (the government), that was a highly unlikely scenario.

So why is the upcoming announcement on UBB so important? There are a number of reasons. Aside from the half-million signatures on the Open Media petition, there were also more than 100,000 submissions to the CRTC from the public. A lot of people are watching this one, which means the government is too. It’s safe to bet our friends to the south in the U.S., where large ISPs are testing the waters on UBB, are also watching.

I speculated recently that Bell’s announcement on throttling was a bit of quid-pro-quo with the regulator, as in you (CRTC) scratch our back on UBB, we’ll scratch your back on this other stuff. If the regulator approves Bell’s AVP proposal, as I suspect, it will sure look that way. There’s also the side drama of the outgoing chairman – will he stick to his guns in the face of government opposition one final time, perhaps just to make a point?

Chances are good that anything less than a total rejection of AVP and any other flavour of UBB won’t be accepted by opponents, which means attention will turn to the government. New-ish Industry Minister Christian Paradis has been doing his best impression of the Invisible Man since taking office early this year. If the UBB decision ends up being anti-consumer, he’s going to have to lie in the bed made for him by Harper and Clement.

If the unlikely happens and the CRTC actually comes up with a solution that everyone can live with, thereby restoring relative harmony to the Canadian broadband environment, it will clear a major issue from the table and put even more pressure on the government to get some sort of digital/broadband strategy going. Either way, it looks like the buck is about to be passed to the Industry Minister. That means no more hiding in the shadows.

 
12 Comments

Posted by on November 14, 2011 in bell, bittorrent, crtc, interview, net neutrality

 

Why Rogers’ throttling violates net neutrality

A week ago I wrote about some figures put together by researchers using M-Labs, an online measurement tool started by Google, that showed Rogers to be the world’s worst throttler. In terms of percentage of internet connections slowed and sample test sizes, the Canadian cable provider proved to be the worst up until at least the first quarter of 2010. The researchers are working on releasing more up-to-date figures, but Rogers’ position is unlikely to improve much if at all, given the ongoing problems it has with throttling online video games.

That post attracted a considerable amount of attention. Not only was it the most read post I’ve had in the two-and-a-half years that I’ve been writing this blog, it was also picked up and made the top story on Huffington Post Canada over the weekend. It was also pointed to by numerous other blogs and podcasts.

My old colleagues at the CBC picked up the story as well and spoke with Milton Mueller, the Syracuse University professor who was the lead researcher behind the M-Labs findings. In no uncertain terms, Mueller – who appears to be quite tuned in to CRTC regulations – said Rogers is violating Canada’s net neutrality rules.

“Under the regulations that the CRTC promulgated for reasonable internet traffic management practices, I think 100 per cent, 24/7 throttling is not conformant,” he told the CBC. “So I think consumers would have a basis to complain and the CRTC would have a basis to act.”

A spokesperson for the company got back to me and countered, saying Rogers is in full compliance with CRTC regulations and pointed to a posted notification of its traffic management practices.

“While we don’t know exactly where this data comes from or the methodology used for this report, Rogers only manages upload traffic for P2P file sharing above 80 [kilobits per second],” the spokesperson said in an email. “From what we can tell, this report is measuring BitTorrent traffic only.”

I did my own tests using Glasnost, the same tool cited in Mueller’s findings, and it confirmed what Rogers has been saying all along. BitTorrent downloads were swimming along at between 8 and 11 megabits per second, but uploads were being slowed to around 80 kbps. (I also tried other kinds of traffic such as HTTP and Flash video, but got error messages saying my link couldn’t be tested – if anyone has any theories as to why, I’d love to hear them.)

Does this matter? It does for a few reasons. Firstly, I’m no technical wizard, but what I do know about BitTorrent is that if uploads are throttled, it’s just as good as throttling downloads too because peers often connect to the fastest uploaders first. This may not show up in Glasnost tests but can manifest itself as slow BitTorrent downloads in practice. Perhaps this is why Canadian ISPs are some of the stingiest around in providing decent upload speeds in the first place (Canada ranks 63rd in the world, according to Ookla, behind such internet heavyweights as Laos, Kenya and Belarus).

Secondly, as the CRTC has indirectly noted, throttling BitTorrent is one thing but extending it to other internet applications, such as World of Warcraft, is another. BitTorrent is unfortunately the black sheep of the internet because it is used by many to share movies and music, which is why regulators and other authorities tend to quietly tolerate ISPs beating up on it. However, BitTorrent does have legitimate uses and it is operated by a perfectly legitimate business, so crippling it is a violation of net neutrality principles since all perfectly reasonable uses of the internet should have the same rights and capabilities as others on the network.

Extending that same throttling to other perfectly legitimate uses such as gaming, whether it’s on purpose or accidental, only compounds the violation.

Thirdly and perhaps most importantly is the fact that Mueller pointed to. Around-the-clock throttling surely goes beyond the CRTC’s net neutrality rules, which require ISPs to use such measures as little as possible.

A few years back, I had a decent conversation with some Rogers engineers about throttling. I’ve extended an invitation to see if they’d like to revisit the topic and am waiting to hear back. As for the CRTC, how it proceeds on the issue may be influenced by its upcoming decision on usage-based billing, which is due any time now.

 
4 Comments

Posted by on October 28, 2011 in bittorrent, crtc, net neutrality, rogers

 

What’s really behind Bell’s 180 on throttling?

According to a letter unearthed by University of Ottawa professor Michael Geist, Bell Canada – the company that made internet throttling a household word a few years back – is relenting in its quest to slow down so-called bandwidth hogs.

The letter, sent to smaller internet service providers that lease some of Bell’s network capabilities, says that new links coming online in November may not be subject to traffic management practices. These measures were introduced in March 2008 to:

…address congestion on the network due to the increased use of peer-to-peer file sharing applications during peak periods. While congestion still exists, the impact of peer-to-peer file sharing applications on congestion has reduced. Furthermore, as we continue to groom and build out our network, customers may be migrated to network facilities where Technical Internet Traffic Management Practices (ITMPs) will not be applied.

In plain English, some people who get their internet service from smaller providers such as Teksavvy or Acanac may soon find their peer-to-peer applications – such as BitTorrent, which many use to share music and movie files – working at full speed again.

The move is good news for customers of those companies, but it also raises several questions. Bell and a number of other big ISPs instituted throttling in the first place because they claimed that peer-to-peer traffic was causing congestion on their networks. The CRTC gave its approval to such measures, but told network owners they could use them only as a last resort. Critics, however, said throttling wasn’t about congestion at all, but rather about limiting usage of BitTorrent and the like, which competed with the big ISPs’ own television and video offerings.

Now, as Geist rightly points out, if Bell is admitting that “the impact of peer-to-peer file sharing applications on congestion has reduced” then it sure looks like Bell’s own retail internet operation is breaking CRTC rules. It also strongly suggests that every other ISP still throttling is offside as well.

Put another way, if the smaller ISPs – which are supposedly havens for the heavy-using peer-to-peer bandwidth hogs – aren’t being throttled, why is anyone? The answer is simple: The critics were right. And the longer big ISPs continue to throttle their own customers, the more right they’ll prove them to be.

The good news is that if this path is followed to its logical conclusion, Bell’s change of heart may well signal the end of throttling in Canada since ISPs don’t really have a leg to stand on anymore.

But there’s more to this. It’s a general rule that big phone incumbents, wherever they may be in the world, don’t ever make such benevolent moves without either being forced to, or without an ulterior motive. In this particular case, the driver is most likely another term that Bell helped enshrine in the popular vernacular: usage-based billing.

A quick recap: the you-know-what hit the fan earlier this year when Bell tried to foist a new billing plan onto the likes of Teksavvy et al, which would have made unlimited or large monthly usage plans prohibitively expensive. While the change would have only affected about 5% of internet users, Canadians – pissed off after years of rising bills and shrinking caps – freaked out en masse and effectively told big ISPs that they shall go no further. The government got involved and told the CRTC to re-examine its rubber stamping of Bell’s proposal.

Hearings were held this summer and the regulator is due to make a final decision soon, likely in the next few weeks. The timing of Bell’s throttling move, therefore, smells fishy.

Again, as Geist points out, the real threat to big ISPs is no longer BitTorrent, it’s Netflix and its ilk. While it was okay to combat a shady service with shady practices, throttling doesn’t work against Netflix and other legitimate streaming operations, so big ISPs have been looking to UBB as the cure for that ill.

In the face of anti-UBB furor, Bell has proposed something called Aggregated Volume Pricing to the CRTC. Without going into the boring details, it’s a preferable system to UBB for smaller ISPs because it would be cheaper and not as limiting. But still, it’s a lighter, more digestible form of usage-based billing. Call it Diet UBB.

Bell’s pulling of wholesale throttling may foreshadow what the CRTC’s decision on UBB is going to be. There have doubtlessly been discussions between the company and the regulator on the topic since the hearings this summer – a search of the lobbying registry turns up at least one meeting between Bell representatives and CRTC commissioner Leonard Katz in that time frame. (Curiously, the topic of discussion for that meeting is listed as “broadcasting,” even though Katz is the vice-chair of telecommunications).

It’s entirely possible that a quid pro quo agreement, where Bell loses on one less important front (throttling) but gains on another more important one (UBB), has been reached. In other words, it may be that the regulator asked Bell to shut down its throttling in exchange for approval of its AVP plan.

That may have a hint of conspiracy to it, but really it doesn’t. Can anyone imagine both throttling and UBB being struck down and eliminated? Come on, this is Canada. Everyone knows internet users don’t get their way here.

Of course, if such a suspicion proves correct and the CRTC does approve Bell’s modified UBB plan, all eyes will be on the government to see if it follows through on its promise to strike down usage-based billing. Mind you, they made the same threats over new text message charges a few years ago and we all know how that turned out.

 
8 Comments

Posted by on October 20, 2011 in bell, bittorrent, crtc, internet, net neutrality

 

TIFF has no monopoly on obscure movies

Yesterday’s post about the Toronto International Film Festival caused quite a stir, with people either loving or hating my argument that the event isn’t for movie fans. In case you missed it, here’s the quick and dirty: TIFF requires people to pay inflated prices to wait in long lines to see movies in venues that often aren’t built to show them.

Like all such events, the festival is mainly about business. Whether it’s independent producers hoping to secure a distribution deal, those same distributors looking to build buzz for movies they’ve already secured or the city of Toronto aiming to make itself look cooler, the event is one big financial transaction. While TIFF can’t exist without movie-goers – the people who are subjected to all of the inconveniences above – they are plainly treated as an afterthought.

Some readers didn’t like that characterization and felt the need to justify why they attend TIFF. A few of the arguments, like how the long lineups provide fans with an opportunity to talk movies with their fellow attendees, made sense even though I wouldn’t consider them a worthy tradeoff for all the other issues. But, as they say, to each his own.

One particular excuse, however – that the fest is the only place to see certain rare movies – was a load of hooey.

It’s not the 1950s anymore. If a creator can’t secure a top-shelf distributor for his or her work, there are many options. Indeed, there has never been more choice. Film makers today can sell or give away their movies through a variety of outlets, including iTunes, Netflix (which is almost tailor made for films that nobody else seems to want), YouTube or their own websites. They can even have their films “pirated” through file-sharing, but more on that in a second.

Why would anyone want to do any of that? Obviously, putting a film out on the internet for cheap or for free isn’t going to result in the sort of riches that scoring the distribution services of an Alliance-Atlantis or 20th Century Fox might. But, as anyone involved with any film anywhere will attest to, the most important goal behind any movie is to get it seen by people. While film festivals are a good way to do that, they’re no longer the only way of doing so.

It’s the same for virtually every medium. It’s why singers – including the mighty Justin Bieber – put videos on YouTube and it’s why people write for the Huffington Post for free. Exposure is its own form of currency. While a creator may take a bath on a current work, the exposure can and often does translate to dollars on future efforts.

A few readers rankled at my suggestion of using torrents and other file-sharing methods to get hard-to-find movies, because doing so is “piracy” that steals money from the pockets of the creators. Evidently, Hollywood’s attempts at brainwashing people against file-sharing are working because there are many creators – myself included – who find nothing wrong with their work being traded about for free. Why? Again, because it results in exposure.

Documentary director Sam Bozzo discussed this last year. As he told TorrentFreak:

The only films that are hurt by torrent sharing are mediocre and bad films. In contrast, the good films of any genre only benefit from file-sharing. Due to this, I feel the current file-sharing trend is a catalyst for a true evolution in filmmaking.

Furthermore, Bozzo contacted the person who had uploaded his film Blue Gold and asked if she could help spread the word about it and solicit donations on his behalf.

I received many donations and emails of support from those who downloaded the film, but I furthermore believe that viewers spread the word of the film to their non-torrent-downloading friends and that DVD sales increased due to the leak. For me, the torrent leak was ultimately “free advertising”, and I am the only truly independent documentary filmmaker I know making his money back this year.

There are, of course, many who disagree with him, including the people behind the Oscar-winning Hurt Locker, who are now apparently bringing lawsuits against file-sharers to Canada. That’s their prerogative, as is the right to believe that all file-sharing is piracy, although I’m of the belief that it isn’t if the creator doesn’t think it is.

While there are some valid reasons for why people like going to TIFF despite all the hassles, its monopoly on good obscure movies isn’t realistically one of them anymore. To paraphrase Bozzo, good films will end up being seen and their creators will benefit one way or another, which means some TIFF aficionados will have to think of new justifications for subjecting themselves to its many inconveniences.

 
2 Comments

Posted by on September 13, 2011 in bittorrent, movies

 
 
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