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February 20, 2008
Could BitTorrent Be Disabled Automatically?
This is being painted in the context of net neutrality and copyright enforcement; I see it as a way to automate attacks on any particular users of any information. There's no reason this technique couldn't be used by, say, the Chinese government to disable access to Web sites it finds objectionable. Or paint your own picture.
The story starts with an announcement by AT&T that it's going to police all traffic it carries for copyright violations. That's both stupid (legal liability anyone?) and practically impossible. Packet volumes and encryption render this a nonstarter. The volume of lawsuits alone would be staggering even at AT&T's size.
But let's apply a little intelligence to the problem. Assume you don't need to examine every packet - just the highly visible and highly accessed sources of copied material. Torrents are the prime example of this. Nicholas Weaver wrote in his blog last month of a hypothetical method that would permit AT&T, in cooperation with a copyright-holding entity like the MPAA, to disable torrent downloading.
The plan involves examining a torrent to see if it has material the MPAA doesn't want sent around, then selectively disabling pairwise communication between providers of the torrent and would-be consumers. The torrent identifies participants, so they can be blocked and Weaver describes a fairly clever scheme that disables pairwise communication without harming general network communication. The system has significant advantages to its users, not least of which are that it's completely automated and scalable. It also means AT&T gets out of the content-examination business and avoids the associated liability. The copyright holder (MPAA or other) is examining the content and assuming liability if legitimate content is blocked. This is the same situation we have now with DMCA 'takedown' notices.
The system isn't perfect - I can imagine counter-strategies - but it would certainly disable general P2P networks as they presently operate.
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