Combatting piracy, ISPs follow in higher education's footsteps

ISPs, in an effort to maintain their networks and curb piracy, are experimenting with a variety of methods previously used by colleges to clamp down on their downloading problems.

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Telecoms like Comcast and AT&T, and copyright guardians like the RIAA and MPAA, might take a lesson from colleges and universities on how to battle piracy.

Comcast has recently come under fire for packet shaping of popular peer-to-peer ( P2P) protocol BitTorrent, which delays or drops packets and dramatically slows downloads using it. AT&T recently announced more ambitious plans: Filtering out, via deep packet inspection (DPI), pirated material on its networks.

Facing legal pressure and strain at the last mile from heavy downloaders, telecoms have good reason to take a hard look at the issue, one which many colleges have faced previously, as early on they invested in fast connections while hosting one of the most notoriously heavy P2P users.

"I know that almost all of [the service providers] are trying to come to grips with this issue, and I would be surprised if they hadn't looked at how [colleges] are handling it," said David Carnevale, vice president of multimedia content and distribution for iSuppli. "Reasonable people are struggling with a way to do the right thing without angering the vast majority of people. So many answers to problems tend to be draconian … and I think providers are trying to come to grips with a solution or solutions that don't anger everybody, and to stop the real abusers."

At Walla Walla University in College Place, Wash., a relatively lenient approach, coupled with protocol-based traffic shaping, has largely curbed file sharing.

"A couple years ago, we used to get one or two [copyright infringement notices] a week, but we haven't gotten any in two years," said Paul Harvey, a network manager at the university. "I don't know if that's because our ISP hasn't been forwarding them on, or because we've stopped being targeted, or why."

A combination of increased user demand and falling per-megabit costs kept bandwidth expenses relatively stable for Walla Walla during that time. The university uses Exinda hardware to shape and monitor the traffic for its 2000 computers: BitTorrent is given a lower priority as well as a bandwidth cap, while HTTP and VoIP traffic is given speedier transfer. Some traffic, like SQL and Samba, is completely blocked off from the Internet to help cut out security holes and reduce bandwidth consumption.

"We decided to do this because people are going to find a way around [blocking P2P] anyways," Harvey said. "With the latest Exinda software version, it actually finds the latest encrypted peer-to-peer, and Exinda says don't block it completely, just slow it down because the latest programs will reconfigure the way they work [if blocked]."

Instead of playing cat-and-mouse with student pirates, Walla Walla and other colleges play a waiting game.

Using network management devices from companies like Packeteer and Exinda to slow P2P erodes its usefulness for downloading the latest blockbuster. But the method doesn't slow P2P so much that savvy students encrypt or otherwise make their traffic undetectable, which can end up increasing overall P2P usage.

Traffic shaping also takes colleges out of the sticky position of policing the legality of content over their networks.

"I think a lot of people, including college students, may not know that they're doing something that's going to hurt the network," said Carnevale, adding that P2P can cause inadvertent traffic jams. "In that case, assigning priority based on the type of content certainly makes some sense."

As of now, only a few colleges have sought to try to block all pirated content outright, though products that attempt to do that exist and continue to be developed. One such solution is Audible Magic's CopySense appliance, which has been favored by the RIAA as a way of detecting and blocking the transfer of copyrighted files. While not perfect, these methods might get renewed attention if the College Opportunity and Affordability Act of 2007 passes into law.

That bill would require greater accountability from colleges where combating campus piracy is concerned, and simply slowing down peer-to-peer with traffic shapers might not pass muster.

Limiting and slowing -- but not blocking -- P2P appears to be Comcast's approach, while AT&T has announced plans to look into blocking pirated content altogether.

"It is understandable. Behind the market factors are the legal factors," Carnevale said. "When they look at their average stats, then you know … they are saying a) we can't monetize, and b) we might be at [legal] risk if we can't do something to stop it."

Verizon appears to be one company taking a different course of study.

"We don't engage in traffic shaping, and we don't have preset usage limits," said Cliff Lee, a Verizon spokesperson. "We do try to manage our network [to] allow customers to use the network liberally and still have a high quality of service, and we do that primarily by adding capacity."

Lee said Verizon forbids commercial traffic on a home connection, and servers are forbidden. But he said he was unsure whether BitTorrent use, which has each user acting as a decentralized server, would violate that home server ban.

"It's rare that we have to go to customers about this," he said. "I can't say it hasn't been an issue for us, but we take a different approach."

Such unfettered access is a hit with the downloading crowd, but with aggressive lobbies desperate to close the P2P spigot, it may run into trouble in the future.

"[Lee's] comment would put [Verizon] square in the legal crosshairs," Carnevale said. Of course, Comcast has found that even keeping the publishing industries happy is not enough to avoid legal pressure: The FCC is now investigating its traffic shaping policies, particularly in regard to whether it meets the "reasonable practices" of network maintenance and is done in an open and transparent fashion.

Perhaps it is time to go back to the classroom.

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