Monday, March 30, 2009

Saul Hansell: The Economics of Snooping on Internet Traffic

The Economics of Snooping on Internet Traffic
By Saul Hansell
The New York Times (Technology)

Details of the Cox and Comcast approaches modified.

Kurt Dobbins, the chief technical officer of Arbor Networks, has what he sees as a very good reason to use a machine — which his company makes — that can see every word and every picture people send and receive over their Internet service provider: Internet service providers could offer a complex menu of price plans, as cellphone companies do. He predicts you will soon see many plans that impose usage caps in peak times, but unlimited use off peak.

That thought may well be red meat to the many people who think the Internet should always be unfettered by any limits.

Mr. Dobbins invited himself over for coffee recently, not to talk about Internet pricing exactly, but to defend the honor of this technology called deep packet inspection.

There are a lot of other things deep packet inspection can do that are perceived as rather creepy. It is great for spies and secret police, who want to know when people read or write about certain topics. It can identify people who send copyrighted files and block people from using certain programs, like BitTorrent. Advertisements can be shown based on what sites Internet users visit. And it can help Internet providers degrade the service of rival offerings, such as voice calling or video over the Internet.

Tim Berners-Lee, one of the creators of the World Wide Web, recently said in a speech to the British House of Lords that deep packet inspection is the equivalent of opening people’s mail.
The Free Press, an advocacy group, published a report on the subject last week, warning that the adoption of deep packet inspection “will open a Pandora’s box of unintended consequences that could spell disaster for the free market online.”

Mr. Dobbins said that he wished the technology had a different name. “Deep packet inspection conjures up all kinds of evil images,” he said, frustrated that what he helped invent 10 years ago has earned such a bad reputation.

Arbor isn’t in the Big Brother business, he insisted. Its technology doesn’t read the content of what people send and receive, he said; it just analyzes how much bandwidth they use and the type of information they are sending — e-mail, video, Web pages or whatever.

It is like looking at the stamp and addresses on the outside of mail, not opening the envelopes, he said.

It’s not quite so simple, however. Mr. Dobbins explained that Arbor’s machines don’t scan for copyrighted songs, for example. But they do identify packets being sent by peer-to-peer file trading programs, and they can send them to machines made by other companies meant to identify copyrighted content.

I’m not sure this is going to reassure Mr. Berners-Lee and other critics of deep packet inspection. Arbor, to continue the postal imagery, is like a person who sorts through the mail looking for suspicious packages, handing them to another person to open.

To Read the Rest of the Report

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