Throttling is the intentional slowing of an internet service by telecom operators in order to keep the traffic flowing on its own network.

Despite numerous breathtaking advancements in technology, web-surfing in India can be tedious at times. Favourite pages get frozen, videos on YouTube slow down and BitTorrent speeds come to an all- time low.

However, new data released by Google-backed Measurement Lab (M-Lab) indicates that the slow BitTorrent speeds are not merely a case of Internet thrombosis – but a deliberate attempt by Internet Service Providers such as Bharti Airtel and BSNL to throttle BitTorrent traffic. (BitTorrent is a peer-to-peer technology that is used to download packs of data.)

Throttling is the intentional slowing of an internet service by telecom operators in order to keep the traffic flowing on its own network. It can be used to actively limit a user’s upload and download rates on applications such as BitTorrent. As a result, users are sometimes forced to adopt for a more expensive Internet plan – not knowing that they are not receiving the bandwidth they paid for.

According to the data, in the first quarter of 2011, Bharti Airtel throttled 8 per cent of the BitTorrent traffic on its network. The percentage slowly increased throughout the year, with the latest results from the first quarter of 2012 indicating that Airtel blocked up to 33 per cent of BitTorrent traffic.

ISPs such as BSNL indicate lower throttling percentages – for most of 2011, BSNL blocked 9 per cent of its BitTorrent traffic. The biggest offender seems to be YouBroadband which blocked over 50 per cent in 2009 (M-Lab does not have data for YouBroadband after 2009).

This data, collected by M-Lab, uses the Glasnost application developed by the Max Planck Institute in Germany. It is possible that the throttling seen is being done by Elitecore’s networking bandwidth tool, NetVertex, which was adopted by Airtel and Tata Communications in October 2010 as a policy manager to control bandwidth consumption by applications.

“A reason behind throttling is that P2P applications such as BitTorrent can consume a lot of bandwidth that ISPs cannot provide. However, this excuse is flimsy at best as customers pay for Internet schemes that are advertised as “unlimited”. If ISPs wish to save money by throttling the traffic after a certain point – it is illegal,” said P. Balakrishnan, a professor at KCG College of Technology.

By throttling traffic, particularly BitTorrent (P2P), without telling its users, it could be violating the Consumer Protection Act (1986), according to the Centre of Internet and Society.

The issue of ISPs throttling Internet traffic, however, is not new. Popular U.S ISP Comcast came under the spotlight in 2007 for blocking BitTorrent traffic, which resulted in a controversy. The Federal Communications Commission fined the ISP $16 million and eventually ruled that Comcast had to stop its targeted inference of customers’ BitTorrent traffic.

While the TRAI has recently released a directive asking ISPs to provide clear information on speed throttling and data caps, it is clear that they must look into the issue of BitTorrent traffic throttling – in order to ensure network neutrality and protect the consumers.