Free as in digital speech.

I wrote recently about AT&T’s commitment to filtering technologies. Via it’s helpdesk, Time Warner has apparently announced that it’s now using packet shaping technologies. So much for the Net Neutrality debate.

“Packet shaping” technology has been implemented for newsgroup applications, regardless of the provider, and all peer-to-peer networks and certain other high bandwidth applications not necessarily limited to audio, video, and voice over IP telephony. Road Runner reserves the right to implement network management tools for other applications in the future.

There are certainly issues with free speech here. No, it’s not the government blocking speech, but I don’t find that less worrying in the least. Quite the contrary.

1) Commercial entities blocking or degrading speech is incredibly problematic, particularly with the lack of real competition (if you’re a free market person). The choice of a single cable company or a single phone company isn’t really that much of a choice. I’m sure anyone can think of ways in which the implementation of these technologies could potentially to do harm. Here are a couple: degrading the ability to transmit a message- where already restrictive digital technologies backed by law (like banning the use of anti-circumvention tools that block legitimate uses via the DMCA) and corporate policy (like search engines blocking content in China, or filtering technologies blocking content in libraries) have had some serious impacts on fair uses, copyright exemptions, and basic access to information. Another is the potential for anti-competitive behavior, when ISPs have the ability to degrade the performance of rivals. These concerns are more obvious with the movement of ISPs into the content arena, where they now feel they have a right to police content (like AT&T from the earlier message). Furthermore, it’s easy to predict that in order to get content from other members of the entertainment industry they might be required to implement some of these technologies.

2) How long is it going to be before there’s legislation attempting to use packet shaping technologies? These technologies presumably base their packet shaping routers on information taken from the packets themselves (beyond just monitoring bandwidth). When is someone going to propose to filter for content or technologies that some members of the government don’t like (pornography, P2P, encrypted traffic, name it)? Think about members of Congress that want universities to act on the perceived P2P problem- and the universities have have already started blocking P2P traffic.

I wonder- does the use of packet examining technologies remove the DMCA safe harbor protections for Online Service Providers?

Traffic shaping technologies have been around previous to this, and aren’t always a bad thing- there are certainly arguments for applying traffic shaping to worms and systematic denial of service attacks- but the potential for abuse definitely needs to be considered as they’re growing in popularity, implementation, and possibly effect. I’m going to be trying to figure out if these are new or different uses of the technologies.

Update: An update based on a question I received. There are many kinds of software applications that might affect the traffic that gets to your computer. Here are a couple.

1) Content Filtering technologies. People can use this term to mean different things. There’s Net Nanny or other forms of censorware (yes, my use of that term indicates where I stand on most implementations of that software). In that situation, filtering is based on content but usually implemented at a local level (think business or school). When I’m referring to filtering software in this case, I’m usually referring to that.

Some people also describe a firewall, anti-spyware, or anti-virus software that blocks unwanted traffic as filters, and there’s also use of the term to describe moving data streams from one application to another.

2) Traffic shaping /packet shaping technologies, which can throttle traffic (potentially affecting performance) or block traffic entirely. These technologies could be monitoring bandwidth, protocols on the network (http, ftp, udp,etc.), or could be examining packets themselves. These are often implemented at the edges of a network, such as where traffic enters or leaves a local network. One of the concerns I have is the harm in the use of these technologies to filter or degrade based on content.

1 Comment »

  1. china said,

    November 25, 2008 @ 1:56 am

    “There are many kinds of software applications that might affect the traffic that gets to your computer”.
    Could you please list some of them.

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