The Evil That Routers Do

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In a fascinating display of political rhetoric, activist group Free Press is warning that a technology used by repressive regimes in Iran and China to spy on or block Internet communications is also employed by U.S. Internet service providers as a tool to manage their networks.

The group links to an article in today’s Wall Street Journal reporting that the Iranian government appears to be engaged in “deep packet inspection,” a technique that generically refers to analyzing network traffic to see what’s contained in it. The state-run Iranian telecommunications company appears to be gathering information on individuals and even spreading disinformation, the paper reported.

Absurdly, Free Press uses that as a talking point for Internet policy debates in this country: “The use of DPI by U.S. companies like Comcast and Cox has already sparked widespread concern about abuses of Net Neutrality and online privacy.”

“DPI technology is America’s sleeping giant. It has been widely deployed by Internet service providers across the country, and could be secretly put to use without our knowledge or consent,” Free Press’s Josh Silver said in a statement.

Apparently it needs to be pointed out to some that the Iranian state’s spying on dissidents using DPI is quite fundamentally different from Cox’s goals of making sure there’s enough network bandwidth available for streaming video, voice-over-IP and other delay-sensitive applications. (See Cox Kicks Off Throttling Test.)

The Iranian government also uses PCs as part of cracking down on political enemies. Does it follow that the personal computers used by U.S. ISPs ought to be investigated as potential tools of repression? Of course not.

The illogical leap by Free Press, though, is meant to push the notion that DPI gives providers more control over what gets prioritized on the network. The guilt-by-association tactic is meant to smear DPI as, somehow, “bad.”

“Ultimately, if we accept the use of non-standard network management regimes that discriminate against specific applications, we risk a ‘balkanization’ of the Internet — a world in which every ISP operates according to its own set of rules,” the group said in a March 2009 report, Deep Packet Inspection: The End of the Internet as We Know It?

(Silver also said bandwidth caps, in the wake of Time Warner Cable’s since-scuttled trials, would be the “end of the Internet as you know it” — see Time Warner Cable: Three Mistakes on Usage Pricing.)

There’s a reasonable discussion to be had on the best ways for ISPs to deal with congestion that occurs on broadband networks, what role DPI should play, and how or whether DPI should be regulated. As I’ve suggested before, a new Net Neutrality law would at best be inert and at worst yield unintended consequences that degrade service. (See Net Neutrality: Do You Really Want Red Tape?)

But really, comparing U.S. ISPs to a theocratic regime in the throes of massive political unrest is not the start of a fruitful discussion.

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