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bc1.JPGPeer-to-peer traffic on the internet appears to have received a temporary reprieve this morning, with an announcement by major internet service provider Comcast that it will stop specifically targeting BitTorrent traffic on its networks and instead focus on limiting only the heaviest bandwidth users, regardless of which download protocol they use.

P2P traffic is essentially a technique for spreading data transfers through a cloud of users’ computers, rather than sending data directly from a commercial server to a user. Initially popular for ad-hoc (and often illegal) file sharing between individuals, it’s growing in popularity as a choice for companies. BitGravity, Joost, Vuze and many others use some form of P2P, and it’s quickly becoming important for streaming music and video.

However, P2P also presents a huge, and increasingly unsustainable drain on internet service providers, taking up between 50 and 90 percent of all internet bandwidth. That’s what led to a kerfuffle with giant ISP Comcast last year, in which it slowly became apparent that the company was doing something to limit P2P traffic without bothering to tell anyone, including customers, companies or the government.

An Associated Press investigation eventually proved that Comcast was selectively filtering P2P traffic, which in turn got the Federal Communications Commission interested, to the point that it looked like the FCC might step in and force the company to treat all traffic equally. Thus, today’s Comcast deal smacks of a last-minute plea bargain to avoid unfavorable regulation.

This deal, then, is the first substantive thing Comcast has done to improve its image — which is why it’s hard to take the company at face value when it says that it will deal fairly with its customers. It doesn’t help that the company’s release is seeded with vague, noncommittal statements. Here’s one: “We will refine, adjust, and publish the technique based upon feedback and initial trial results.” Translation: “We might change our minds.”

Ashwin Navin, the president of BitTorrent (the company that invented the sharing protocol of the same name), seemed significantly more optimistic in a conversation I had with him. “They say they’re upgrading their upload network, and there’s no reason to do that unless you believe there’s a place for P2P,” he said of Comcast.

BitTorrent will be working together with Comcast to develop new solutions to handle and optimize P2P traffic, including new network equipment that can better handle media delivery. Navin isn’t worried that Comcast will return to P2P-specific throttling, citing the company’s promise to begin disclosing all its practices.

However, there’s still the question of what Comcast, and the smaller ISPs who will likely follow its example, will do to regulate users who use more than the average amount of bandwidth — and there’s no doubt that that means heavy P2P users, whether they’re illegal file-sharers or people who like watching lots of internet TV.

The most likely scenario is charging more for higher internet usage. That practice has been out of vogue since the early days of the internet, but Comcast has made no promises not to re-institute it. And ultimately, that could be just as harmful as selective throttling. “People want all-you-can-eat. They may be willing to pay for higher speeds, but if they belive they’re being metered, that may stunt the growth of the internet,” says Navin.

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