No, BitTorrent's Plan for Cryptocurrency-Fueled Speed Boosts Doesn't Violate 'Net Neutrality'

from the ill-communication dept

For a subject we've been collectively discussing ad nauseum for the better part of two decades, it's kind of astounding how many people still don't really understand how net neutrality works.

Case in point: last week, BitTorrent (or what's left of it under new owner TRON) announced yet another business model revision, stating it would be integrating cryptocurrency into their BitTorrent platform. One of the goals of this "Project Atlas" is to develop a system that would financially-reward folks who seed files. TRON put the project plan this way:

"The new token, also called BitTorrent (BTT), will be issued by BitTorrent Foundation, established in Singapore and will enable users to exchange tokens to improve network speed. By providing users with the ability to use BTT tokens for faster downloads, the company aims to accelerate the overall speed of torrents. “BitTorrent token is the first in a series of steps to support a decentralized internet,” said Justin Sun, founder of TRON and CEO of BitTorrent. “In one giant leap, the BitTorrent client can introduce blockchain to hundreds of millions of users around the world and empower a new generation of content creators with the tools to distribute their content directly to others on the web."

Whether the blockchain can magically somehow make BitTorrent a sustainable business (a decade long quest at this point) is a subject for another day. More interesting to me was some of the reaction to TRON's announcement, including this piece over at TorrentFreak attempting to paint BitTorrent as a hypocrite for advocating for net neutrality, then itself embracing "fast lanes" on the internet:

"While details are scarce, it’s clear that with the BTT token users will be able to pay to speed up their downloads. It’s not clear how this will work, but it’s likely that a paying downloader will get priority over others. That sounds a bit like a “fast lane” and paid “prioritization,” albeit on a different scale. Large companies are not paying for faster access in this case, but ‘wealthy’ BitTorrent users are.

TorrentFreak asked both TRON and BitTorrent about their thoughts on this Net Neutrality argument and if it presents a problem. The TRON team said that it couldn’t comment on the matter, while BitTorrent didn’t respond at all.

The difference here is that users can choose to use another BitTorrent client if they're not happy with what BitTorrent is doing. That's not the case for broadband, where the lion's share of Americans only have access to one ISP at speeds of 25 Mbps or greater. Net neutrality violations are just a symptom of this limited competition, which lets giant telecom operators like AT&T or Comcast abuse their roles as natural monopolies. Net neutrality rules were simply a telecom-specific stopgap measure until somebody, anybody, is willing to actually challenge these companies politically and embrace real, pro-competitive policies.

Somehow, people take this telecom-specific paradigm and weirdly try to casually apply it to other sectors, as TorrentFreak does here. You'll often see the same mistake made when folks like Mark Cuban call for "search neutrality" or "app neutrality." Again, you can generally choose to not use a social media website or app store if you're not happy with the business decisions they're making. You can't do that in telecom. That's why net neutrality is a concept specific only to broadband and the lack of competition there that's plagued consumers for the better part of two decades. In broadband, users often have no other choice.

That's not to say there aren't valid criticisms for what TRON is doing here. But again, you can't call this a net neutrality violation because the term applies specifically to core telecom networks, not software platforms where users have the option of numerous other clients. The monopoly-dominated dance of dysfunction in telecom is a very unique animal, resulting in the creation of a very unique term in "net neutrality." It can't just be thrown about casually every time you see someone engaging in dubious behavior. That's not how any of this works.

Filed Under: bittorrent, cryptocurrency, net neutrality, tron
Companies: bittorrent


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  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 8 Jan 2019 @ 12:32pm

    As an aside:

    “BitTorrent token is the first in a series of steps to support a decentralized internet,” said Justin Sun, founder of TRON and CEO of BitTorrent.

    "decentralized"... If BitTorrent is at the center of this, providing the means for people to find files offered by other people and even a means of financially rewarding seeders then, well, there is a very clear center. This isn't decentralized at all. The only difference between BitTorrent and, say, CNET, is that the content itself is hosted elsewhere and they have no direct control over what content is offered.

    Back on topic:

    If being able to pay for faster downloads is in conflict with Net Neutrality then all of the ISPs have been in direct conflict from the beginning of "service tiers" that offer different speeds for different prices.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 8 Jan 2019 @ 12:41pm

      Re:

      It is decentralized if the transactions do not require communicating that transaction to BitTorrent. They are certainly running mining servers but so can anyone else and it is encourage. Don't know much about BTT coin but smart contracts can be created to facilitate the speed/transaction process.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 8 Jan 2019 @ 1:48pm

      Re:

      If BitTorrent is at the center of this, providing the means for people to find files offered by other people and even a means of financially rewarding seeders then, well, there is a very clear center.

      Yes, that is how the internet (and radio, smoke signals, can/string phones, written language, spoken language etc) works. In order to communicate with people, you need a protocol that allows you and that person to send, receive and interpret messages. That protocol must be substantially the same between all people you want to communicate with. If you want to communicate with large numbers of people, then there must be some protocol that is implemented by all those people. For digital protocols, that implementation must be robustly defined (the required robustness dwindles (loosely)as the age of the communication method increases. Spoken language is incredibly flexible, for example). In the case of BitTorrent, the protocol is maintained by BitTorrent Inc. as an open source project. If you don't like them, you can fork it yourself (though you'll have to either find a way to maintain compatibility with the main project, or convince a bunch of other people that your protocol is better if you want it to be useful).

      As for your statement specifically:

      providing the means for people to find files offered by other people

      BitTorrent Inc does not do this. The protocol itself doesn't actually do this either, though it does implement methods (direct and Magnet links) through which this information can be quickly communicated between parties through other services.

      a means of financially rewarding seeders

      Perhaps, though they have little ultimately to do with it financially. They have defined a new cryptographic digital currency, with the stated goal of rewarding seeders. They have implemented an additional layer of the BitTorrent protocol which allows the automatic modification of priority by transfer of this currency between individuals in a swarm. Whether this is "centralized" is up for debate. After all, it is quite simple to do substantially the same thing manually (in many clients individual peer priority can be modified by the user), and I could probably come up with a script in a couple weeks that would automate this by paypal payments with IP address included as a note.

      Either way, there are dozens of other BitTorrent clients (and other app developers who could develop plugins for those clients) which could implement their own version of this, or any number of other methods to do this (or even attempt to counteract it if they so choose). Whether this ends up being effective depends on how popular their official client is, how many competing clients choose to implement this, and how willing people are to pay for (and be paid for) additional bandwidth. If lots of people want to use this, then it will be a financial reward because people will want to buy/use them. If not many people want to do this, then it won't.

      If you consider this to be heavily centralized, then I'm not sure what you would consider to be decentralized, but I'm quite sure whatever it is has never been implemented in the digital world.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        Anonymous Coward, 9 Jan 2019 @ 8:25am

        Re: Re:

        Everything on the internet (and networks in general) has a protocol for each type of communication it supports. While I don't disagree with most of your comments on protocols it's not terribly relevant here as even a totally decentralized network would need one or more protocols to facilitate communication. This is a strawman at best.

        BitTorrent does offer pages with links and descriptions of files available for download from peers. Between this and google you have a way to search for what you want to acquire. This is still centralized as if BitTorrent were to go down then those files would no longer be available. The search function must also be decentralized (yep, via the protocol) to allow a client implementation of that protocol to find and query at least a few other implementations who then further spread and perhaps cache that query as individual nodes return results. Proper peer-to-peer without a central server to facilitate.

        With the addition of a cryptocurrency to the mix BT has only strengthened the central server model rather than helped to decentralize it. This is the gist of my original comment. Their statement was the opposite of the reality.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Toom1275 (profile), 8 Jan 2019 @ 12:47pm

    It's hard to say without more technical details coming out, but as long as Bittorrent isn't deliberately slowing the traffic of non-payers, then it's not really at all like the ISPs' way of violating net neutrality.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 8 Jan 2019 @ 1:15pm

      Re:

      It's closer to me being able to pay my ISP for a faster connection. There's a different price for 5 mbps and 1 gpbs service and likewise that's not a net neutrality violation even though the 5 mbps are artificially throttled.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        Anonymous Coward, 8 Jan 2019 @ 1:18pm

        Re: Re:

        It's surprising nobody already said that 45 minutes earlier. I mean, if they had then one might think you don't bother to read before posting.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    hij (profile), 8 Jan 2019 @ 1:06pm

    How is this different?

    They already set priorities by sorting and setting the order that links to torrents are displayed. The use of a monetary reward only insures that other people get a share of the wealth. Why did they wait till now to get upset over bias in how seeds are shared?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Christenson, 8 Jan 2019 @ 1:18pm

    Market versus Monopoly

    Net Neutrality and other common-carrier type rules arise because the commodity involved is not, in fact, being offered in a classical market -- one with many players of equal power with fungible offerings, among other things. That does not describe ISPs at the moment.

    BitTorrent Central, however, is in quite a different position -- the BitTorrent protocol itself can largely be replaced by netflix, etc, and BitTorrent, Inc, has no power to stop me from using my choice of many clients.

    So no contradiction at all in BitTorrent Inc's stance as far as net neutrality.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 8 Jan 2019 @ 2:03pm

    Switching clients won't help

    It won't help you, as a downloader, to switch clients. The peers/seeds will use whatever policy they want, to assign priority between you and others. They can (and do) already work like that, which is still unrelated to net neutrality.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 8 Jan 2019 @ 5:34pm

    What *is* related to net neutrality: You paying for a faster BitTorrent connection and your ISP throttles torrenting anyway.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Gary (profile), 8 Jan 2019 @ 5:56pm

    Obvious

    Obviously not a "Net Neutrality" issue because it only affects uTorrent, not the net.
    Faster paid transfer can only mean they are slowing down the other transfers. Which is shitty, but it's their software.
    qBittorrent however doesn't have this problem. The Torrent protocol itself is fine at least.
    Only time will tell if this will cause an exodus that will cripple the software - But I've already loaded qBittorrent, eh?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 9 Jan 2019 @ 8:27am

      Re: Obvious

      "only affects ..., not the net" is not a strong argument in defining whether something relates to NN. Even a single ISP throttling content unless paid a premium by that content's provider is a NN violation but it still doesn't affect "the net", only that ISP's subset of it.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        Anonymous Coward, 9 Jan 2019 @ 10:33am

        Re: Re: Obvious

        You can't download another ISP if you don't like your current ISP.

        uTorrent is pretty garbage already and qTorrent is usually used by "men of culture" anyways. People already switched away from uTorrent as there is a cornucopia of other options to use that are just as easy to access as uTorrent.

        To make this analogy work you would need to have your personal psychical internet connection be able to be connected to any ISP in the entire world. Don't like what USA based ISPs are giving you? Just call up a South Korean ISP to hook up your internet!

        Except you can't do that. Because it isn't software available on the internet to install.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 9 Jan 2019 @ 10:04am

    Wouldn't this eliminate their DMCA protection since money is being made from piracy?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    teka, 9 Jan 2019 @ 10:09am

    It is weird how "blockchain" continues to be applied to everything like some kind of magic sauce.

    Videogames? slather a lil' blockchain on there.
    Purchasing speed-boost tokens from a torrent program? mmm, taste that rich blockchain flavor.
    Banking? Step one, blockchains, step 2, step three everything is good?
    Tracking produce from farm to table? obv' the best step would be some kind of chain made of.. let's call them 'blocks'.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]


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