Shutting down the Internet

The Internet is dying, according to advocacy group Free Press. The organization has published a report, Deep Packet Inspection: The End of the Internet as We Know It? that claims technology has evolved to the point that Internet carriers can control everything that we read, see, and hear on the Internet, something they’ve never been able to do before. It’s the backdrop of a just so story Free Press’s network guru, Robb Topolski, delivered to a House of Lords roundtable in the UK recently. It’s an outlandish claim which echoes the Groundhog’s Day predictions about the Internet’s imminent demise Free Press has been making since 2005.

Suffice it to say it hasn’t exactly happened. Internet traffic continues to grow at the rate of 50-100% per year, more people than ever – some 1.5 billion – are using the Internet in more places and with more devices, and there hasn’t been an incident of an American ISP choking traffic since the dubiously alarming case of Comcast’s rationing of P2P bandwidth – mainly used for piracy – in 2007.

There are multiple errors of fact and analysis in the Free Press report, pretty much the same ones that the organization has been pumping since they jumped on the net neutrality bandwagon. There’s been no new breakthrough in Internet management. While it’s true that Moore’s Law makes computer chips run faster year after year, it’s also true that it makes networks run faster. So any reduction in the time it takes to analyze a packet on a network has to be balanced against the number of packets that cross the network in a given unit of time. Machines work faster. Some machines analyze Internet packets, and other machines generate Internet packets. They’re both getting faster, and neither is getting faster faster.

Network operators have been analyzing packets and rationing bandwidth as long as there have been IP networks. The first one to go live was at Ford Aerospace, where the discovery was made, more or less instantly, that user access to the network had to be moderated so that users of bulk data transfer applications didn’t crowd out interactive uses. More sophisticated forms of this kind of helpful “discrimination” are the principle uses of DPI today.

The complaint by Free Press is more or less on par with the shocking discovery that the sun has both good and bad effects: it causes plants to grow, and it can also cause skin cancer. Shall we now pass a legislative ban on sunlight?

The important new trend on the Internet is an increasing diversity of applications. Until fairly recently, the Internet’s traffic management system was occupied almost exclusively with a set of applications that had very similar requirements: e-mail, web browsing, and short file transfers are all concerned about getting exact copies of files from point A to point B, with no particular concern for how long it took, within seconds. Now we’ve added Skype to mix, which needs millisecond delivery, and P2P transactions that can run for hours and involve gigabytes of data. Add in some gaming and some video calling, and you’ve got a healthy diversity of applications with unique requirements.

The sensible way to manage Internet diversity is to identify application needs and try to meet them, to create “the greatest good for the greatest number” of people. DPI is really, really good at this, and it’s a win for all Internet users when it’s used properly.

Free Press’s jihad against helpful technologies echoes their previous war against newspaper consolidation. With the recent closures and printing plant shutdowns of daily papers in Seattle, Denver, and elsewhere, it’s clear that these efforts at media reform have been less than helpful.

Let’s not send the Internet the way of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Rather than buying Free Press’s shameless scare tactics, reflect on your own experience. Do you see even the slightest shred of evidence to support the wild claim that the Internet is withering on the vine? I certainly don’t.

One thought on “Shutting down the Internet”

  1. This white paper (I almost want to say a “tract,” because it’s short on facts and long on assertions without proof) by the Washington DC lobbying organization known as “Free Press,” is typical of this group’s recent output. Heavily supported by Google, Free Press is lobbying for extremely onerous regulation of the Internet. It is therefore is ginning up dubious scare stories to attempt to scare politicians and the public to regulate the Net in ways that would suit Google.

    The first thing that’s bogus about their fearmongering about DPI is that there’s no such thing as “deep” packet inspection. Packets are just one dimensional strings of ones and zeroes; they have no “depth.” Secondly, the use of the word “deep” implies some sort of intrusion, when in fact all networks can and must monitor the packets that pass through them. It’s necessary simply to route those packets to their proper destinations! Thirdly, the word “inspection” implies that a human being, or some sort of sentient agent, is looking at the packets, raising fears of spying. But in fact the processing is purely mechanical.

    The scariest thing about all of this, though, is that Free Press is lobbying to outlaw technology — something that’s impractical to begin with and would set a very dangerous precedent. Yes, it’s possible for an ISP to spy on you. But they don’t have an interest in doing so; privacy is, in fact, a selling point for ISPs. And traffic shaping, likewise, is a w
    ay for ISPs to improve their service. If the user’s experience isn’t good, he or she will switch, so it’s important that VoIP calls get through clearly and streaming video stream smoothly. Yes, this means pushing P2P to the back of the bus, but given that P2P is used for non-interactive bulk downloads and was invented for (and is overwhelmingly used for) illegal activity, no one should shed a tear over this.

    The entities that do want to spy on you, and about which you should be concerned, are (ironically) companies like GoogleClick — that is, Google, which has recently merged with DoubleClick and is now the single largest purveyor of spyware cookies on the Internet. Google also reads gMail users’ mail and compiles dossiers on them — combining this data, no doubt, with the DoubleClick information on their Web browsing and the browsing data gathered by their toolbar. GoogleClick doesn’t want ISPs to block its spying; hence its attempts to have Congress and the FCC regulate ISPs but not itself. It’s this sort of regulation and attempted illegalization of innovative technology that is the real threat to the Internet.

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