Following on its earlier announcement of plans to collaborate with BitTorrent, Comcast this week issued a press release signaling its intention to collaborate with another peer-to-peer (P2P) technology provider, Pando Networks. There are two main parts to the Pando announcement. First, Comcast and Pando hope to lead an “industry-wide effort” to create a “P2P Bill of Rights and Responsibilities” for P2P users and ISPs. We’ll have to see how this evolves, but establishing a set of best practices in this area could well be useful. It is important, for example, to ensure that users have control over how their P2P applications work, as in what files get shared, how and when the P2P application uses computer resources, etc.; the press release suggests that the question of “what choices and controls” consumers should have will be a central focus. So if Comcast and Pando succeed in getting broad buy-in to their ideas, this could be a productive discussion.
Second, the announcement says that Comcast and Pando will collaborate to run tests of Pando’s technology on Comcast’s network. If collaborating on tests can help Pando optimize its bandwidth efficiency and help Comcast work towards its promised protocol-agnostic approach to congestion management, that’s all welcome. It’s also a positive development if other ISPs and P2P providers can learn from the tests, as yesterday’s announcement suggests is intended. At the same time, it is important to remember that the Internet has thrived as a platform for innovation in large part because it offers an open set of protocols that allows applications developers to roll out new products without seeking any kind of permission or cooperation from network operators.
Voluntary collaboration is all well and good, but it would be a very different — and less innovative — Internet if collaboration with ISPs were to become a de facto expectation or necessity for anyone seeking to create and deploy new applications. Individual deals between ISPs and applications providers are no substitute for open, generally applicable technical standards. Open technical standards are what enable independent software developers to innovate from a basement or garage, without the kind of corporate backing that would be needed to negotiate with ISPs. In the end, any “best practices” effort should steer clear of establishing any norm in favor of negotiated deals, and should keep in mind that not all applications developers will be companies with substantial resources. Likewise, technical efforts to address network congestion should look for system-wide approaches that are consistent with and reflected in open technical standards. An intricate web of individual, ad hoc arrangements and technical measures is not the Web, much less the Internet, that we’ve come to know and love.