Inside Net Neutrality: Privacy and BitTorrent

(Part 2 of a 3-Part Series)

You might think that when you sign up with a high-bandwidth service plan with an ISP, you'll be able to transfer data at the advertised speeds. Yet that's not always the case.

As we learned in Part 1 of our network neutrality series, some Internet service providers have begun examining their customers' traffic, throttling back bandwidth, or talking to industry organizations such as the Motion Picture Association of America about the possibility of identifying and filtering out copyrighted material on the network level.

In other words, all too often, if you want full use of the bandwidth you pay for while also protecting your privacy, you may need to take matters into your own hands.

Although some ISPs have apparently been throttling traffic for years, the issue came to a head last year when the Associated Press reported that Comcast, the nation's second-largest Internet provider, had begun intentionally slowing down customers' BitTorrent downloads and preventing them from seeding, or distributing, BitTorrent files, even if those files contained no copyrighted material. This practice is known as traffic shaping, and it flies in the face of the principle of network neutrality--the idea that all traffic on the Internet should be treated equally.

But whether your ISP is traffic shaping or not, if AT&T or another backbone provider decides to begin policing its network, you could still be affected. However, there are a few tactics you can employ to protect your privacy.

Encryption

One of the first lines of defense is to begin encrypting your BitTorrent traffic. This essentially means that the data you send and receive will be scrambled as it passes across the network, making it difficult for an ISP to detect that it is BitTorrent traffic. One of the most popular BitTorrent clients for the Mac, Azureus, has tools to perform this automatically.

Begin by launching Azureus, and selecting Preferences from the Azureus menu. Highlight the option for Mode, and switch from Beginner (the default setting) to Advanced. Expand the Connections option and click on Transport Encryption. Finally, check the box labeled Require Encrypted Transport. Click on Save, and you're finished.

However, while that might work with most ISPs, some Comcast users have reported that the method is ineffective. Instead, a reportedly effective line of defense for Comcast users is to connect via VPN, or to tunnel in through a secure shell (SSH). You'll first need to sign up for a shell account, set up your machine to connect to SSH as a SOCKS proxy, and then configure Azureus to connect via proxy. Michael Whalen has an excellent in depth tutorial on how to do this.

Anonymous Proxy Connection

Another option you may with to consider is connecting via an anonymous proxy. Although there are lists of these online, they sometimes have a tendency to go down due to heavy traffic or disappear altogether, especially the free ones.

A better approach might be to choose a program such as the $29 NetShade to automatically manage your proxies. This program will look up a list of current proxy servers. While you're more likely to have success with these tested lists, even these proxies are subject to speed issues and downtime due to traffic. However registered NetShade users can connect to that service's anonymous proxy directly, bypassing public ones.

But while these are workarounds, as a customer you always have the ultimate tool for making sure you're getting service at the speed you've paid for--walking away from your service provider. If you find your ISP isn't delivering bandwidth at the levels it advertises, and you can't resolve the issue with the company, it might be time to find a new one. We'll look at how in the final part of this series.

(Editor's Note: This is the second of a three-part series on network neutrality. Part one looks at the issue of traffic-filtering. Part three focuses on resources that help you determine which ISPs and networks are filtering, blocking, or otherwise examining traffic.)

(Mathew Honan is a San Francisco-based technology writer whose work has also appeared in Macworld, Salon, and Wired.)

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