Net Neutrality Debate Is Secretly All About Internet Television, Net Pioneers Say
NEW HAVEN, Connecticut — The network neutrality issue is much more complicated than the debates in Washingtog suggest, according to two of the internet’s most revered architects, David Reed and David Clark.
Clark, a senior MIT computer scientist who spent eight years as the internet’s chief protocol architect, argued that the focus on neutrality is misplaced, because the net hasn’t ever been pristine. The current debate, he says, is really a reaction to a coming tectonic collision between the cable industry’s traditional business model, and the movement of television onto the internet.
The focus of the net neutrality debate should not be on the latest outrage, but on the big picture, namely issues involving money, according to Clark, who spoke Friday on a panel at the Computers, Freedom and Privacy conference.
“The internet is not neutral and has not been for a long time,” Clark said “There is not a state of grace to get back to.”
“How can we address what is acceptable or unacceptable behavior?” Clark asked, wondering whether it would be okay for a carrier to let a company like YouTube pay extra so that its content doesn’t count against an ISP customer’s monthly usage cap. “If you want to understand this space, you have to follow the money.”
“There is good blocking and bad blocking,” Clark said. Providers already employ anti-spam measures, negotiate traffic peering arrangements between one another, and block some ports for network management reasons. “You have to understand that there is some discrimination going on on the good side of the line.”
David Reed, the co-author of the internet’s seminal end-to-end argument that the internet’s intelligence is best left at the edges, says the question isn’t whether ISPs should or shouldn’t use deep packet inspection technology, or DPI, to peer into packets. ISPs already use the technique to make decisions about traffic, and the tool is only getting better as computer processing power advances.
“I always thought it was cool, and the question is, what do you do with it,” Reed said. “DPI is not just reading the bits, It is capable of taking action — it can modify them or block them.”
In response to a Charter Communications acknowledgment last week that it planned to let a third-party behavioral tracking company analyze its users’ traffic for advertising purposes, Reed said the model may make sense to cable companies that are accustomed to inserting, and even overwriting, ads in television shows.
As for companies like NebuAds and Phorm that install the networking boxes, Reed suspects ads are just the easy way in.
“I suspect the argument going on in their heads is that if we can get a beachhead, we can offer other services later,” Reed said, referring to things like searching for child pornography or ferreting out dissidents for the Chinese government.
Clark sees an odd silver lining in these companies’ ad proposals: if they start replacing ads on web pages as the traffic passes through their networks, websites like Yahoo and Google will be forced to encrypt its traffic web traffic using SSL, a computationally more intensive type of web session mostly used for password forms, online banking and other sensitive transactions.
“As soon as you whack an ad, it will be economically advantageous to use SSL,” Clark said. “We should go down that way.”
Deep packet inspection and net neutrality proponents’ unintentional reliance on it to enforce principles of fairness are the real problems, according Scott McCullough, a longtime lawyer for small communications provider.
“If we are going to be allowing internet access providers to open up the contents of communication to detect child pornography or hate speech or whatever is the issue du jour, we all lose our privacy,” McCullough said.
Though McCullough proudly noted he’s never represented an incumbent carrier in more than 30 years of communications legal work, he’s no fan of net neutrality.
He points out that proposals to give the same priority to all traffic of the same kind — essentially prohibiting a cable operator from delivering its internet telephony packets faster than it does Skype’s — requires networks to peer deep into packets.
Those inspections into internet packets beyond the first few outside wrappers, into areas that include content, means that broadband providers have access to private information. Furthermore, he argues because of the Supreme Court’s decision that people have no Fourth Amendment protection in information given to third parties, the providers are free to share any of that data with marketers or the government.
For that reason, providers must get consumers affirmative consent to opt-in to any deep packet inspection, McCullough argued.
As for unlimited broadband internet plans that dominate the U.S. market, online video and peer-to-peer services like the BBC’s peer-to-peer based iPlayer will kill them, according to Clark.
“If we are going to move video to the internet, it will stress things,” Clark said. “It will stress to breaking point the all-you-can-eat for 40 bucks model.
But simply because cable companies will no longer be in the business of curating content and selling ads, that doesn’t mean they will be out of business any time soon. They’ll just be in a different business.
Clark said he tried once unsuccessfully to convince a cable company employee — accustomed to contacting content and then selling it to customers –- to regard the internet the ultimate boon to the industry.
“Think of the internet as the world’s largest content bundle, and it is free to you, and you can sell it to customer,” Clark said he told the exec.
Though the exec did not see it that way, that’s the future for broadband providers, Clark said.
“ISPs can make good money selling the carriage,” Clark said.
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