Throttled by Your ISP

Bit Torrent logoThe software, music, and movie industries have shouted loud and clear about their apparently imminent demise caused by online file sharing for years and Internet Service Providers (ISPs) are falling over backwards to find an excuse to cap broadband download speeds. Combine the two and you have the concept of Bit Torrent throttling, sandvining or traffic shaping. Whatever you call it, it means slower downloads for you.

Bit Torrrent, originally created by Bram Cohen, is file sharing with an enforced mutual obligation on users to share properly and while most surveys suggest that it is being used mainly for online piracy, there are dozens of legitimate uses of this powerful system among many users. Corporates can use the BT system to disseminate patches and codes updates for their software without applying pressure on their own servers, for instance. Industry and academia can use it to share their digital output with their teleworking staff and individuals away from their normal work place, again without undue load on individual servers.

Nevertheless, some ISPs are throttling (i.e. deliberately starving of paid-for bandwidth) their users and preventing them making full use of the Bit Torrent protocol. Is your ISP throttling your torrents? How can you know for sure?

Well, those kind scientists at the Max Planck Research Institute in Germany have come up with a test utility called Glasnost, as part of their ongoing efforts to make transparent broadband activity and the workings of the ISP industry. “A large fraction of users connect to the Internet via DSL and cable networks. However, little is known about the characteristics of deployed residential broadband network, such as bandwidth and queue sizes,” the researchers explain.

They point out that some ISPs have been shown to rate limit or block BitTorrent traffic to and from their customers, which has to be a breach of terms and conditions if the torrent traffic is legitimate. There is a lot of anecdotal evidence of torrent throttling out there but few ways for all but the most tech-savvy user to find out whether their internet connection is being choked.

The Glasnost test suite simulates a BitTorrent transfer between your machine and the Max Planck servers, and calculates whether or not your ISP is limiting such traffic. “This is a first step towards making traffic manipulation by ISPs more transparent to their customers,” say the researchers. You can read a white paper on the subject of BT throttling from the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) here.

Give it a try here and let us know if you’re being throttled or not.

Author: David Bradley

Freelance science journalist, author of Deceived Wisdom. Photographer and musician.