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.
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