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Summary:

The practice of deep packet inspection has raised privacy concerns among several organizations, including The Free Press and Center for Democracy and Technology. Congress recently heard testimony about ISPs using the technology to target advertising at web surfers. But DPI vendors reveal that advertising is a […]

The practice of deep packet inspection has raised privacy concerns among several organizations, including The Free Press and Center for Democracy and Technology. Congress recently heard testimony about ISPs using the technology to target advertising at web surfers. But DPI vendors reveal that advertising is a blunt instrument when it comes to generating revenue. It’s likely most carriers will use DPI, which can determine the details of packets traveling over the web, to boost sales in far more subtle ways.

Kurt Dobbins, chief technology officer of IP services with Arbor Networks, which purchased DPI vendor Ellacoya in January 2008, talked to me last year about the likelihood of using DPI to provide a form of consumption-based broadband. Instead of a flat-out metering program, such packages might offer subscribers an emphasis on voice or gaming services and prioritize packets accordingly. Kevin Walsh, vice president of marketing at Zeugma Systems, has a similar vision. Zeugma, which provides equipment to telecoms,  doesn’t do DPI but can track some information on packets in order to prioritize certain content.

Operators could let consumers subscribe to a broad video package that would include prioritization for a service such as online video. Walsh was quick to point out that such an offering wouldn’t degrade normal Internet traffic, but it’s still an effort that could raise a few eyebrows. Aside from using DPI as a way to offer different broadband packages, Dobbins says it can and will be used as a way to foster security. He stressed that by monitoring network traffic for spam or for computers that are being used in attacks, DPI can alert ISPs and even help them alert affected customers. This is less about spam filtering on a machine for an individual consumer, and more about offering clean pipes, Dobbins said.

However, security does come at the expense of privacy, which is the underlying issue that led to the hearings in Congress in the first place. And so far, DPI has been used by companies such as NebuAd to track surfing habits in order to serve up ads, and Comcast in order to block P2P packets. The technology isn’t evil, but its implementations have been questionable.

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By Stacey Higginbotham

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  1. It’s rather ironic. ISPs blame P2P for ruining networks but they think it’s okay to sell our information to companies for a profit. Thats more money to not upgrade their network with and more money spent on DPI technologies to throttle everyones bandwidth

  2. I can’t imagine how such a regime could be imposed without slowing down the regular internet—accept in the case when it wouldn’t do any good…

    Deep packet inspection (which must slow down the process of routing some) and subsequent queuing of disfavored packets (without which there is no point to DPI) must necessarily slow down the entire process. If by some magic it doesn’t it is only because it isn’t needed since there is so much excess capacity that its effects are negligible. In this version of the world DPI/personal prioritization “tiers” are merely another bogus marketing claim.

    But, of course, this excess capacity world does not exist in practice. For most of us the internet is often congested. Occasionally in the backbone but most often in our middle or last mile. These are all—from top to bottom—shared architectures. My prioritization of Gaming conflicts with your prioritization of Video conflicts with the next neighbor’s prioritization of VOIP….and on. Putting DPI inspection into the mix will NECESSARILY slow down traffic in the aggregate just by its nature. When there are conflicting sets of individually chosen prioritization schemes it must, I think, result in a slower net overall. Yes, under such a neighbor vs neighbor regime that this imagines you’ll get better gaming, or Video, or VOIP if you pay the extra 20 bucks to network owner than if you didn’t…but quite possibly you’d get no better than if it such prioritization did not exist at all. And _certainly_ the overall speed of net transmission would be slowed.

    This is a technology that contravenes what is (or perhaps only what should be) the central principle of the internet: “unfettered communication.” It can be considered an evil technology because it must necessarily fetter disfavored communications to be useful.

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