Forget Neutrality — Keep Packets Private

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.

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