The CBC’s Next Great Way To Distribute Content

My weekly technology law column (Toronto Star version, homepage version) focuses again on the CBC's decision to distribute the finale of Canada's Next Great Prime Minister without DRM on BitTorrent. The use of BitTorrent may come as a surprise to those who mistakenly equate file sharing solely with infringing activities.  BitTorrent and other peer-to-peer technologies are finding increasing favour with legitimate businesses attracted to its ability to distribute content in an efficient, cost-effective fashion. 

Indeed, the CBC's model comes from the Norwegian Broadcasting Corporation, which last month used BitTorrent to distribute "Nordkalotten 365," one of the country's most popular programs.  The experiment proved very successful, with tens of thousands of downloads at virtually no cost to the broadcaster.  Moreover, the European Union recently joined forces with leading broadcasters such as the BBC to launch P2P-Next, a new peer-to-peer research project.  The project, which involves an investment of tens of millions of dollars, hopes to advance current P2P technologies to create the "next-generation Internet television distribution system."

The move toward distribution without copy-protection – often referred to as DRM-free – is also increasingly the norm. Guinevere Orvis, one of the interactive producers on the CBC show, acknowledged last week that "DRM is dead, even if a lot of broadcasters don't realize it." Many in the music industry share that view, as all of the major international record labels have abandoned copy-protection for music downloads in the face of consumer criticism and interoperability concerns. Similarly, many of the world's largest book publishers have dropped DRM for their audiobooks, after finding that consumers simply weren't making unauthorized copies of electronic books without copy-protection.

While the CBC may succeed in paving a new path for content distribution in Canada, it is also placing the spotlight yet again on Canadian network management practices. Viewers around the world may welcome the use of BitTorrent, however, Canada's Internet service providers may be less enamoured by the development.   Companies such as Rogers have admitted that they actively limit the amount of bandwidth allocated for file swapping on BitTorrent.  Those practices – known as traffic shaping – may leave Canadians wondering why they are unable to swiftly download CBC content.  In fact, critics point to the anti-competitive effects of ISPs limiting access to new forms of video distribution, while actively offering consumers competing video services.  

The CBC's BitTorrent experiment represents an enlightened approach to content distribution that reduces costs and makes Canadian content readily available to a global audience.  It would be ironic if ISP network management practices ensured that viewers outside the country enjoyed better access to the program than the Canadian taxpayers who helped fund its creation.


  1. R. Bassett Jr. says:

    Canadian taxpayers who helped fund…
    “better access to the program than the Canadian taxpayers who helped fund its creation.”

    Sure chaps my ass that the “smart meter” on the front of my house won’t have to connect to the Hydro-One backbone through an unreliable third party, like my computer has to. I have the feeling that if Hydro-One were to offer wireless broadband connections for home use, the connections would be reliable, accountable, and repaired promptly. I certainly cannot say that this is the case with Xplornet, who rents bandwidth on the Hydro-One network and connects rural users to it through their wireless towers. In our area there is one connection to the Hydro-One fiberoptics with several towers bouncing signals to that point over many kilometers. During “peak times” (noon to midnight), this causes massive packet loss and consiquently, unreliable service. From my understanding of the wireless portion of the Hydro-One network, Hydro-One will have multiple redundant wireless-to-fiberoptic points throughout all areas they cover. It’s this redundancy that will allow the smart meters to maintain a reliable connection, as when one access point is full or off, the meter can connect to several others in the area. That’s smart network building and it’s bloody expensive to build, but that what public money is good for – building impossibly huge projects, like a rail road that goes from one ocean to another or the first and largest nation-wide microwave radio signal repeater network in the world and opening it to HAM radio operators around the world.

    Anyhow, without legal pressure commercial Internet Service Providers haven’t any compelling reason to deliver reliable and “open” service. On the other hand, a crown corperation such as Hydro-One already has a raft of regulations that cover issues of public accountability and reliability. Perhaps it would be wise to create a national highspeed Internet connection that is owned by the government. This connection would be open and unhindered, where one would be free to use it as they wish, but may suffer consiquences if they break the law in the process, much like life in the physical world: It’s not a crime to drive a car, but is a crime to drive a car over another person. Drive wisely and all is well.

  2. I wonder how many people have actually downloaded the program using the torrent. Bit Torrent technology is brilliant but the ISPs and the association with piracy are killing it. My bit torrent client only started working when I enabled encryption so my ISP doesn\’t know what type of data is being transmitted. This would make sense if torrents were purely a criminal tool, but what the ISPs are really restricting is a more efficient way of distributing large files on the internet.

    For anyone who might be interested, the idea behind torrents is really simple. Say you have a big media file and whole bunch of people want to download it. Rather than sending a copy of the whole file to each recipient (which heavily burdens the your upload bandwidth while the receivers process a trickle download), a torrent breaks the file into pieces and sends a different piece to each recipient, then the recipients start sending pieces to each other until each has reassembled the whole file. This way the bandwidth burden is shared between all the peers involved, and everyone gets the file faster. This is not criminal, it\’s smart.

    Seriously, suppressing this technology is like suppressing the wheel.

  3. Bell started throttling Sympatico users. Not only that, they decided to illegally throttle Wholesales without telling them. Unfortunately most wholesalers are small, and probably can’t fight the monopoly in the courts.

    [ link ]

  4. François Caron says:

    Apologies to Michael Geist for posting this twice — your Web site has duplicates of your articles, but the system doesn’t consolidate the comments.

    On March 19 2007, the CRTC approved my license application (CRTC broadcasting decision 2007-90) for a national public access specialty television channel to be called “The Canadian Public”. In the application’s supplementary brief, I announced my intention to distribute the channel’s programming via BitTorrent with no embedded DRM. So I thought it was pretty funny when the CBC announced their intention to do the same thing on the one year anniversary of my license approval.

    Coincidence? 🙂

    I don’t mind. If my channel was the first to distribute programming via BitTorrent, my small upstart channel would have had to deal with all the headaches involving the ISPs and the CRTC all on its own. But now, the CBC, with all its power and influence, will do all the leg work for me. This is especially true today now that it’s been revealed that Bell has started to throttle BT and P2P traffic from its resellers, the same week CBC started distributing one of its TV shows via BitTorrent.

    Another coincidence? 🙂

    The CBC’s initial launch of the BitTorrent distribution wasn’t without its flaws however. The downloaded AVI file wasn’t properly encoded, and the CBC missed an opportunity to incorporate discrete advertising in the form of “ad bugs”, which could have created a new revenue stream. But that’s okay. This was after all a first in North America. Given time, I’m sure they’ll work out all the bugs and take full advantage of the technology.

    Let the fireworks begin!

    François Caron
    President and CEO
    TCPub Media Inc.

  5. A. Parsons says:

    What really bothers me about this is I pay for a capped (3rd party) internet connection, which is now about to be throttled.

    I’m limited to 200gb download per month. What does it matter how I use that 200gb? Whether it through bittorrent, new groups, IRC, or just plain old web pages shouldn’t matter to anyone. It doesn’t to my ISP at least, but Bell sure as hell seems to wants to dictate what I run on my connection that I don’t pay them for.

  6. Bell Wimax Throttled
    I can definitely confirm that Bell has been aggressively throttling my outdoor modem Wimax service. reports 1 to 1 1/2 mb/s, but a simple file transfer through ssh port 22 to my remote server only yields about 0.3 mbs and there are massive delay hick ups.
    Uploading home pictures of our baby to my remote server so my parents can see our new baby takes **vveerryy** long. I feel hopelessly discriminated by Bell. I stopped caring about downloading movies and only do this maybe once a month if that. I have no time for watching tv anymore with the new baby.
    But I do need to upload pictures from my camera, and I recently bought a video camera. I now have to figure out how to make tiny stamp size videos of our baby, because otherwise they can’t be uploaded overnight.
    If bandwidth is such a problem for Bell, they should increase their power by adding stuff to their towers, and charge for bandwidth. I’m willing to pay a little bit more, but for crying out loud, give me a NORMAL internet connection. Not something that crawls to dialup like speed.
    I also think their throttling algorithms are optimized to let through the tests to places like I have no other explanation, because even thought the test shows I have an about 1.25 megabit connection, it’s most definitely not behaving like anywhere remotely near a 1.25 megabit connection. It generally feels like a 0.25 megabit connection, if that.
    Very very annoyed with all this.