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Forget Neutrality — Keep Packets Private

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Never mind net neutrality, I want my privacy. As in packet privacy. The telcos say they need to sell non-neutral routing of traffic to recover the cost of building broadband networks. Moving from the Internet, where a packet-is-a-packet, to something that looks suspiciously like the 20th century telephone network requires remarrying the content and connectivity that TCP/IP divorced. It requires deep packet inspection. It requires looking at the content of communication.

AT&T does not plan to roll out two physical pipes to every end point in order to sell Google enhanced access. The new telco plan calls for content-based routing to separate traffic into media and destination specific VPNs (Virtual Private Networks). Laws exist to address the substantial privacy threats created by the fact telephone companies know Mr. Smith called Mr. Jones, but the privacy risks associated with “content routing” replacing “end point routing” enter an different realm.

Coping with billing disputes still means retaining data. Under what circumstances might a third party get access to the data derived from content routing? Content routing in one context enables content filtering in another. Lessons Cisco accumulates in providing content filtering equipment for the Great Firewall of China apply to directly to content routing ambitions of telcos in the U.S.

The telcos do not claim a right to listen in on calls to enforce the business versus consumer pricing policies. What makes it appropriate to use packet inspection to accomplish the same thing? The pitch for content routing gets presented in terms of quality of service guarantees that benefit users, but there are other customers for content routing. Law enforcement and criminal enterpises will have plenty of uses for data obtained through deep packet inspection. One can imagine champagne will flow at the NSA should the telcos get their wish.

What is driving telcos’ desires to charge by the application?

The fact that their delivery pipes are being commoditized. Internet access pricing reflects the cost of building broadband networks (e.g. location, bandwidth, performance, and reliability), so moving a video bit costs the same as moving an email or voice bit. This turns the traditional telco pricing model (charging more per service, or per minute) upside down. Packet inspection would allow telcos to charge more for high-bandwidth applications, or to charge for preferential treatment.

One such method is already in practice: The Verizon Wireless EV-DO broadband service does not suffer net neutrality obligations, so the Acceptable Use Policy includes prohibitions against using VoIP applications. Verizon cannot enforce the provision without content routing (aka content filtering). So Verizon can and does track bit consumption and boots customers who take the advertised “unlimited usage” too literally. But just counting bits does not work where bits carry different values.

Content routing does not entirely shift the balance of power toward carriers. People sensitive about who might get access to their communication already implement encryption that, by definition, defeats packet inspection efforts. The decline in trust between carriers and users shows up in the growth of so called Darknets (encrypted communication among a closed group of trusted end points.) Progress toward implementing content filtering will turn the entire Internet dark, so efforts to make encryption illegal will likely follow any success in undermining net neutrality obligations. And then how secure will your bits be?

Daniel Berninger is a Washington, D.C.-based financial analyst working for Tier1 Research. He is a veteran of the telecom industry.

17 Responses to “Forget Neutrality — Keep Packets Private”

  1. Limiting traffic based on certain programs and ports is no different from forming special rules for users. […]

    The NetEqualizer does not look at ports or programs. It works like rationing water based on usage. The only other option for an ISP is

    1) Let the Network Gridlock (run out of water)
    2) Purchase infinite bandwidth, despite what the public wants ISPs have fixed cost and at some level customer will always want more than they can deliver cost effectively.

    If we had truth in advertising (like they do in Ireland) you would buy bandwidth as a contention ratio. In other words you would know you were sharing a T1 with 20 other people. I guess in the US it is in our blood to exaggerate extremely (short of lying) to promote our network speeds.


  2. Couldn’t bandwidth be managed without the invasion of privacy? I work at a company that just installed a Netequalizer to prioritize the applications that are using up bandwidth. Basically, if the bandwidth gets congested, sending an email would get priority over downloading a song on itunes. As far as I know, they’re not monitoring what we’re doing online, but just establishing a pecking order when things get busy. Why wouldn’t this kind of thing work on a larger scale? ISPs regulate bandwidth usage, but not actually monitor the content.

  3. Anonymous,

    To quote you, “The telco pitch dudes on Fleet St in Washington are paid big bucks to sell fiction and stories to un-tech -educated congress folks. The story is this: The Telcos, they just want their charge by the minute monopoly back…same ole, same ole.”

    Yes, businesses will do what they can to maintain an advantage in the market for the assets they’ve built or aquired. This is nothing new and is happening on behalf of every industry, not just telecom. And it is expected. If you elected an official who is uneducated and suseptible to rhetoric and hype you have the ability to change that instead of throwing more rhetoric and hype on top of it. The fact of the matter is that with or without net neutrality, there will be market innovations that shake up the landscape. We’re seeing it now with wifi. In a few years the net neutrality debate as it relates to in ground last mile connections to the home will likely be a laughable memory because of innovations by companies addressing a market definciency such as lack of competition for the last mile connection. Wifi, WiMAX, satellite or any other protocol/standard/whatever by passes the last mile altogether, thus bypassing the ILEC.

    So, if you really want to hurt the telcos, let them keep their systems closed because the result will be alternative and likely more efficient competition.

    Another thing to consider, the telcos(distributors) rely on the content producers(websites, aps’s, isv’s, etc) as much as the producers rely on the telcos. They are complimentary in nature and it is in their best interest to play together because the combination of the two is what makes each, in its own right, attractive. What would Yahoo or Google be without the internet? Why did GM pull that all electric car they used to have off of the market and now why is Tesla coming out with an even better one?

    Your one sided viewpoint has more holes in it than swiss cheese.

  4. Neutrality – hey did congress protect blacksmiths when the automobile showed up! Same deal here. If this were possible then the blacksmiths could have joined up into a political force and required via congress that all cars be forced to have have horse shoes.

    The internet is what it is, the pipes will be as the current system of funding them seems to have worked fine so far. And when fiber rolls out it will be even cheaper to deploy.

    Once you start to slice and dice it up to the bit for a fee level, as proposed by the telcos, in their dreams with hopes of massive executive pay packages as a result of their genious of discovering the internet, and now want to own it, they will have dreams of buying more condos in Vail and Aspen dancing in their heads, there will be no stopping the carnage that the telecos will reap. They will feast, and we (the little folks) all will suffer it this is allowed to happen.

    By going to fiber the telcablecos will make a fortune on less non-revenue service calls to fix copper connections that have gone noisy at the billions of splices around the network. I know a telco line guy that said the UNION for the employees who are the line service folks think that fiber will be the biggest pink slip cause of the next 10 years on forward (that from a UNION guy who I was talking to working on the lines down the block from here one day asking him about the DSL service! He said that over 90 percent of the fiber going to the box that he was working on was ALL DARK, not used. The Telcos have a ton of unused fiber already installed waiting for their packet billing schemes to hatch.

    AND they will be able to sell the mountains of copper that they replace for another fortune.

    The telco pitch dudes on Fleet Street in Washington are paid big bucks to sell fiction and stories to un-tech-educated congress folks.

    The simple story is this: The Telcos, they just want their charge by the minute monopoly back… same ole, same ole!

    If they get their way, it will ruin alot of small folks businesses! The middle class will then be totally wiped out.

    Net Neutrality needs to be an Amendment to the Constitution asap… that way it will stop being a political football to be kicked around by congress folks hunting for telco campaign dollars.

  5. Fact Checker


    If you read the entire article that you link to regarding Cisco’s business in China, you will see that the story has communications head for Cisco in Asia stating, “the company has never helped the Chinese government suppress free speech.”

    “Cisco does not participate in any way in any censorship activities in the People’s Republic of China,” Alberstein says. “We have never custom-tailored our products for the China market, and the products that we sell in China are the same products we sell everywhere else.”

    A opinion piece is fine, but let’s use the correct facts. Thanks.

  6. I don’t understand why we haven’t made the switch back to pay-for-what-you-use billing. It’s just as profitable, as the days of hourly modem billing show, and you no longer have to worry about all this “overuse” nonsense.

  7. Umm, what’s all the fuss about? There has been the option for content based routing for nearly 20 years (RFC1006), QoS for 10 years (RFC2212). There’s no need to know what the content is, a field in the packet header is set according to the sender’s notion of the content priority. The carriers route the packet accordingly, and the client(s) pay for the service they receive. There’s even provision for the receiving application to inform the sender if QoS is not being maintained, and the sending application has to decide whether to abandon the QoS setting, abandon the connection, and/or refuse to pay the bill.

    It’s only now that it has become economic to build and use routers that do something with the QoS header, that people are suddenly sitting up and taking notice.

  8. id have to agree,

    to the guy that says that the the darknets are created because of people doing illegal things,

    -first of all, we don’t have a world government, which means the things that are illegal in the US are not necessarily illegal in other countries,

    • secondly, the benefits of privacy far more outweighs the consequences of it

    -i have nothing to hide but i use encryption and anonymous surfing whenever possible, thats because it’s no ones business to know or inspect what i do on the net

    i trust no corporation, because this days none is worthy the trust, they have proven time and time again that they have no intrest in protecting our privacy, (which is the constitutional right by the way)..
    oh too bad Bush thinks The Constitution is just a goddamn piece of paper

    i cant wait to see all of the internet turn into darknet, then we will finally have out privacy on the level it should be today

  9. Despite any debate about how content shaping is actually done, this article raises an important question of exactly where in the infrastructure we can expect some specific level of privacy in the data we send over the Internet. That is the sort of thing we should be able to discuss and decide as a society without having to have a deep understanding of network architecture.

    To avoid this discussion is to accept the lowest common denominator, which is that anyone who is interested in your data will look at whatever they feel like looking at. History has shown that our society does not accept this lack of privacy in our phone calls, and it’s just a matter of time before people realize that communications using the Internet deserves the same level of protection.

  10. Darknet’s don’t evolve because of lack of trust of telecom organizations, it’s because these small groups are performing illegal activities and wish to avoid the purview of law enforcement.

    Packet prioritization also doesn’t require DPI (i.e. looking at layer 7). As ‘tomo’ writes, it can be as simple as IP addresses, or, if it is a commercial customer who wants prioritization for their VPN traffic, appropriately tagged quality of service bits in the IP header.

    This whole article emanates a total distrust of telcos, as if they have nothing better to do all day than re-assemble traffic and view the web pages or transactions that their customers perform.

    Telcos are looking to make penny, sure, but they would like to provide a legitimate service to an eager buyer.


  11. Daniel,

    You bring up some very important issues, but you’re pretty narrow in your point of view as it relates to what impact net neutrality legislation will have on market innovation and progress. It appears you’re defining content based routing to be reliant upon analyzing what is inside the application layer, not what the application is. That is a deceiving notion because it leads people to believe it is actually doing that when it isn’t. To accomplish content based routing as you describe it, can be done by the using the destination and origination ip addresses of the specific packets route and if application identification is also required it can be done by the data provided in the ip packet identity info and accomplished without looking inside the application layer which is where the secure data would be.

    In some broad sense, the overall CDN market validates the notion that certain customers value certain packets greater than others are willing to pay more to ensure greater performance and more options of delivery. Companies using/buying CDN services aren’t solely relying upon their CDN provider for all of their IP traffic, they’re using CDNs for their specialized ip traffic which is special because of certain application characteristics. Similar to the cable tv market, tiered pricing with a base level service and options available on above and beyond the base. As such, it would provide a great foundation for growing an ecosystem of companies built around providing services which are brought to the home by the last mile or final transport provider, whoever it is at the time ;)

    The telco and data networks have been playing games around exchanging traffic since the beginning of commercial ip traffic. They call it peering and the way it began is flawed because it was based on volume of traffic and new routes, not level of importance of what is within the packets. Surely voice packets on an ip network should have a higher priority than batch dumps of data because of its latency averse nature. Ensuring specific packet delivery service levels which new applications will require, is going to cost more to deliver and result in tiered pricing specific to the packet. The left will view this as being held hostage, the right view it as their pun intended :)

    Network delivery providers, currently dba as telcos and their data brethren, and content producers, whoever they are at any given time, are much more dependent upon each other than they appear. Generally speaking, if either side’s actions result in a situation which harms the other, they too, will realize negative impact because their customers are the same and view them as interdependent and complimentary. So, if one went away and wasn’t easily replaceable, the use of the other would dramatically drop.

    Over time the effects of net neutrality should have positive impacts on what are now pro neutral and pro toll road sides of the camp. Until then there will be many people crying wolf from both sides not knowing that young, innovative, nonpolitically motivated companies leap years past them and start the next wave of societal impacting stuff.