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Open Skies, Open Nets

Hello happy readers,

Today I’m writing briefly about net neutrality and, specifically, about a mechanism the Max Planck Institute for Software Systems in Germany has devised for testing your broadband connection for packet bias. What I mean by packet bias is the practice of blocking certain types of internet traffic based on the port assignment or packet contents. Ports are the virtual spigots through which data flows to and from your computer, and packets are virtual containers or packages in which your internet data is wrapped. This discriminatory practice of hobbling the free flow of specific data types has fueled the ongoing debate about “Net Neutrality,” the concept that “common carriers,” like internet service providers (ISPs), the phone companies, and the US Postal Service, should not tamper with the contents of the item, whether real or virtual, with which they are entrusted. You don’t want the Postal Service reading the contents of your letters any more than you’d want your cable provider peeking into the data packets going back and forth on your cable modem…unless you’re the Bush Administration, in which case, it’s perfectly acceptable even without a warrant.

Anyway, you may have heard that some ISPs are doing just that; throttling (limiting the data rate below the advertised aggregate service rate) or outright blocking certain types of internet traffic based on internal policies not know to the customer. ISPs, mostly in the US and Canada, are targeting peer–to–peer (P2P) data traffic, in particular BitTorrent traffic as it is the most popular P2P method.

To digress, BitTorrent is a very clever method of improving the download speed of large files. Even with “broadband” service, a 20 minute 720p video file takes a while to arrive complete on your local drive. BitTorrent accelerates that download by partitioning the job into smaller chunks, and sending each chuck from multiple servers rather than the traditional single source. Many hands make for light work.

In the US, both Comcast and Cox are practicing P2P traffic shaping. One of the shortcomings of a cable-based broadband service is that, unlike DSL service, one “pipe,” of finite carrying capacity, is shared by all subscribers in a neighborhood. If you are the only subscriber using the service, then you have the entire pipe’s capacity at your disposal. However, as more subscribers use the pipe, the finite capacity is doled out to each. P2P users potentially generate a good deal more traffic than a web surfer, especially in the upload direction, since P2P software, unlike typical computer applications, serves those chunks of data mentioned above to other P2P users worldwide.

So, for cable-based ISPs, it makes financial sense to discourage P2P use on their network, which would simply be another hidden cost of purchasing their service. Trouble is, they have historically covered up this practice, not informing the customer that they are biased against certain traffic types. In addition, they are supposedly common carriers and, as such, should not be tinkering with the contents of the items they transport. FedEx don’t mess with my packages, and I’m glad that SBC doesn’t either.

Finally, I’ve made it to Glasnost, that testing mechanism I mentioned at the beginning. In the words of the Max Planck guys, “The goal of the Glasnost project…is to make Internet access networks, such as residential cable, DSL, and cellular broadband networks, more transparent to their customers. Internet Service Providers (ISPs) are increasingly deploying a variety of middleboxes (e.g., firewalls, traffic shapers, censors, and redirectors) to monitor and to manipulate the performance of user applications. Most ISPs do not reveal the details of their network deployments to their customers. This knowledge is not only important to help users make a more informed choice of their ISP, but it is also useful for researchers and application developers designing systems that run on top of these networks.” They conclude with, “The recently released Glasnost study on BitTorrent traffic blocking has received wide-spread international attention.” Boy howdy.

For those of you who follow my rants, you know that lack of interoperability is, perhaps, my chief gripe. Regardless of class, cost or niche, technology that claims it works with such and such a standard should actually work with that standard! Oy! P2P traffic shaping is a major interoperability no–no. The internet was conceived, built and based on standards and, if it is to continue to prosper, companies must stop making up their own rules and follow those set forth by international agreement. Just like the internet itself, P2P is a useful technology for pirates, wackos and plain ol’ folks alike and, as such, should not be singled out for anti–discrimination.

’Scuse me while I hop off my soapbox…OK, that’s all I’ll say about that. There is tons of existing opinion on this subject and I’ll let you dig into this further if you like. In the meantime, I’m getting ready to head to the South Bay for a visit to the Babbage Engine! TTFN



3 Responses to “Open Skies, Open Nets”

  1. Around the end of May, Comcast announced that they will no longer target individual protocols for for traffic shaping. Now it will target individuals instead, by “de–prioritizing their data usage.” I pity the fool…

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