Markets Still Rule in Protocol Issues

Published May 1, 2008

A big tech policy story in recent weeks was Comcast’s announcement that it will stop impeding BitTorrent peer-to-peer file-sharing traffic and instead will respond to network congestion by slowing traffic from the highest-volume users, regardless of what those users are doing.

Comcast also announced a deal with BitTorrent aimed at developing more effective ways of channeling peer-to-peer traffic through networks.

It may seem natural to respond to a network issue involving BitTorrent by making a deal with BitTorrent–and much of the reporting and commentary has taken that line–but there is something odd about the deal, which only becomes clear when we unpack the difference between the BitTorrent protocol and the BitTorrent company.

Protocols, Not Companies

The BitTorrent protocol is a set of technical rules used by desktop software programs to coordinate the peer-to-peer distribution of files. The company BitTorrent Inc. is just one maker of software that uses the protocol–indeed, it’s a relatively minor player in that market. Most people who use the BitTorrent protocol don’t use software from BitTorrent, Inc.

What this means is that changes in BitTorrent, Inc.’s products won’t have much effect on Comcast’s network. What Comcast needs, if it wants to change conditions in its network, is to change the BitTorrent protocol.

The problem is that you can’t negotiate with a protocol, for the same reason you can’t negotiate with (say) the English language. You can use the language to negotiate with someone, but you can’t have a negotiation where the other party is the language.

You can negotiate with the Queen of England, or English Department at Princeton, or the people who publish the most popular dictionary. But the language itself just isn’t the kind of entity that can make an agreement or have an intention.

This property of protocols–that you can’t get a meeting with them, convince them to change their behavior, or make a deal with them–seems especially challenging to some Washington policymakers. If, as they do, you live in a world driven by meetings and deal-making, a world where problem-solving means convincing someone to change something, then it’s natural to think that every protocol, and every piece of technology, must be owned and managed by some entity.

Market, Not Engineers

Engineers sometimes make a similar mistake in thinking about technology markets. We like to think technologies are designed by engineers, but often it’s more accurate to say that some technology was designed by a market. And where the market is in charge, there is nobody to call when the technology needs to be changed.

Will Comcast and BitTorrent, Inc., succeed in improving the BitTorrent protocol? Maybe. But it won’t be enough simply to have a better protocol. They’ll also have to convince the population of BitTorrent users to switch.

Ed Felten ([email protected]) is director of the Center for Information Technology Policy at Princeton University. This piece originally appeared on March 28, 2008 at, and is reprinted with permission.