Finding an ISP that shuns data discrimination

If you’ve been online long enough, you probably remember the days when your local Internet service provider was just some guy down the block with fancy equipment, and he was the only choice in town. But those days are largely gone for most of us and, unless you live in a rural area, you probably have numerous options when it comes to Internet connectivity.

And having choices is a good thing, particularly if your ISP is engaging in filtering or traffic shaping or in any way throttling back your bandwidth. If your ISP is guilty of any of the practices outlined in part one of our series on network neutrality, there’s no reason to keep doing business with that service.

The practice of slowing down certain types of traffic goes against the principle of network neutrality, the idea that all Internet traffic should be treated equally. While network neutrality has plenty of advocates, the best way to support it is to vote with your wallet by supporting ISPs that don’t practice data discrimination.

So how do you find an ISP that isn’t throttling traffic? One easy solution is to look to the Web site of the popular BitTorrent client Azureus. The Azureus Wiki page maintains a list of ISPs that in some way limit BitTorrent or encrypted traffic.

One way to check is to run a speed test–there are numerous such tests available online at sites like Speakeasy and BroadbandReports.com.

With a test in place, try downloading a torrent. If the torrent traffic is notably slower, it could indicate throttling. Another indicator is to check your Torrent speeds by experimenting with encryption, as discussed in part two of our series. If you get faster speeds when you encrypt your traffic, it’s also an indicator that your ISP is traffic shaping.

Keep in mind, however, that other variables, such as the number of peers and seeds and their connection rates, can influence your download speeds. Neither of the methods outline above can tell you with 100-percent certainty that your provider is shaping your traffic.

Hopefully, however, traffic shaping may soon be relegated to the list of bad Internet ideas of yore, along with hourly rates and Internet taxes. The FCC could nix the practice, which does interfere with legitimate businesses that use applications like BitTorrent to distribute large files such as software and video.

Just this week, Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.), chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee’s subcommittee on telecommunications and the Internet introduced a network neutrality bill that would require the FCC to determine if Internet service providers are traffic shaping, and whether or not it is legal for them to charge extra for access.

But until the government acts, the best way to make sure you aren’t getting taken is to encrypt your traffic, or run it through an SSH tunnel or VPN, and to make sure your ISP is giving you the service you’ve paid for.

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

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