Thursday, March 27, 2008

Network Neutrality: Part 2

There is a new book, "Access Denied: The Practice and Policy of Global Internet Filtering", that describes in detail the growing 'scope, scale and sophistication of net censorship." (source: BBC News March 25th, 2008 online edition.)

Since last week when I introduced Net Neutrality in the first of a two-part series blog, I felt I was on to something that everyone should become aware of.

The future of our access to information on the internet, without outside bias, is being decided by lawmakers, lobbyists and large broadband carriers: Verizon, AT&T and Comcast, software and internet services corporations (Google, Yahoo, Microsoft, eBay, YouTube, Amazon), inventors/founders of the internet protocols (Vinton Cerf – internet protocol founder, David Farber – professor and researcher known for Distributed Computer System, Bob Kahn -TCP inventor.)

Even now, while you sit and read the contents of your computer's screen, you made a conscious or unconscious decision to use some type of search engine to find this page. The control of the results of the search engine is combined with your input and how the search engine is programmed (which would have its other parameters that could include advertising revenues.) So already your choices of the sites presented from which you can pick from are already filtered for you by the search engine. This programmed choice is determined by the search engine provider and possibly by your internet browser (e.g. Internet Explorer application which is part of Windows™; or Mozilla Firefox.)

With recent events of the clash between the Tibetan monks uprising against the Chinese Authority occupation in Tibet, it was known that the Chinese government had blocked any unauthorized news reports on the internet. This is a deliberate overrule by a government authority to keep its citizens ignorant of external and objective views of the event. This type of censorship goes beyond profit driven and/or best-practices agenda.

The BBC article is quoted:

"Surveillance is a huge deterrent," says The Citizen Lab's Nart Villeneuve. "If you talk to dissident groups in these countries, they'll tell you that they're under surveillance, that they're concerned for their safety, and that it definitely influences their online behavior."


And even as human rights and internet rights groups fight to raise awareness about internet censorship, countries such as China have responded by getting smarter in what they block, and when they block it.

"We call it 'just-in-time' filtering," Mr. Deibert (one of the editors of "Access Denied") says. "Countries are selectively blocking access to information around key events, such as demonstrations or elections. They are clamping down on the internet during times that it suits their strategic interests to do so."

As an example of this kind of filtering, he points to China's recent blocking of YouTube after videos of Tibetan protestors appeared on the video-sharing site. Google has been criticized for working with Chinese authorities. There was also a case in Pakistan when the entire YouTube service went down globally for a few hours, because of a government order to block material.

"But it's not a simple equation with territorial boundaries. Maybe the best analogy is with the old Middle Ages, where you had multiple and overlapping layers of authority. I think that's the future of the net." – Ronald Diebert (Source: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/technology/7312327.stm)

To me, Google seems to represent two-faces on Net Neutrality. On one face it is one of the strongest proponents for legislation of Net Neutrality (as member of Open Internet Coalition http://www.openinternetcoalition.com/) while, on the other face it seems to be collaborating with the Chinese government in customizing its search engine to limit the news presented to the Chinese citizens.

In doing further research about net neutrality I read from various sources to determine the weight of the arguments by those parties against Network Neutrality. I interviewed a Network Engineer, Christoph Schwinghammer, on the veracity of argument by AT&T regarding network management and security implications. AT&T claims that it part of their job to apply network management for the purpose of detecting and preventing malicious virus attacks. This is one of the reasons the broadband carriers (Verizon, Comcast, and AT&T) cite as their arguments against the embodiment of any legislations on "Internet Neutrality". In addition, bandwidth-intensive peer-to-peer applications (BitTorrent) are not designed to consider congestion management. There have been times that the volume of traffic on the Internet has caused some services to fail or be interrupted due to "congestion collapse"[i] and "slashdot effect"[ii]

Interview:
(There are some technical terminology used which are footnoted for definition. Source of definition is Wikipedia.)

Analyn: One of the arguments by the bigger corporation (such as AT&T) who is against legislation on net neutrality is that they need to manage the traffic on the internet to prevent virus attacks, so they want to be able to control the type of traffic that goes through the network. Is what AT&T saying true?

Christoph: Well, it depends. If you keep traffic transparent you can manage every traffic. For example, leased lines are services which are always transparent. Corporates (companies) who use leased lines from operators like AT&T want transparent leased lines traffic IPSEC[iii] encoded for example. But VoIp[iv] traffic VoIP traffic has to be controlled by session border controller not the content of the call but some malicious user could manipulate or even extract data from a softswitch[v] who establishes the phone calls.

Analyn: I see and change the content? or direction of the call?

Christoph: a soft switch establishes phone calls so this switch knows all user data of a phone call user like the old digital central unit, in the last decades in former times, the users the management and signalization traffic were separated. Not every kind of traffic is IP traffic, running on the same links and interfaces so security will get a more and more critical problem.

- End

The argument against net neutrality is that "an environment in which a content provider can provide a guaranteed quality of service to all customers could allow independent content providers to compete with traditional content providers in areas such as television and music broadcast, telephony, and video on demand." This alludes to a healthy competition between providers is better for the consumers as long as it is affordable.

To conclude this two part series blog, there are many things to consider about who and how the information you want access to is being filtered. What I've presented here are the arguments for and against net neutrality and considerations by proponents on both sides. I have only presented a very thin overview of what I've come upon. I really encourage anyone who comes across this blog to be active in the process of how the shape of internet content and service will form and evolve. Being active starts with being informed - and being informed well.


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[i] is a condition which a packet switched computer network can reach, when little or no useful communication is happening due to congestion.

When a network is in such a condition, it has settled (under overload) into a stable state where traffic demand is high but little useful throughput is available, and there are high levels of packet delay and loss (caused by routers discarding packets because their output queues are too full).

[ii] The Slashdot effect is the phenomenon of a popular website linking to a smaller site, causing the smaller site to slow down or even temporarily close due to the increased traffic. The name stems from the huge influx of web traffic that results from the technology news site Slashdot linking to underpowered websites. However, it has been used to describe the same effect when generated by other websites or metablogs such as Fark, Stumble upon and Digg, leading to terms such as the Digg effect or the link becoming Farked or Stumbled. Typically, less robust sites are unable to cope with the huge increase in traffic and become unavailable – common causes are lack of sufficient bandwidth, servers that fail to cope with the high number of requests, and traffic quotas. Sites that are maintained on shared hosting services often fail when confronted with the Slashdot effect.

[iii] IPsec (IP security) is a suite of protocols for securing Internet Protocol (IP) communications by authenticating and/or encrypting each IP packet in a data stream. IPsec also includes protocols for cryptographic key establishment.

[iv] Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) is a protocol optimized for the transmission of voice through the Internet or other packet switched networks. VoIP is often used abstractly to refer to the actual transmission of voice (rather than the protocol implementing it). VoIP is also known as IP Telephony, Internet telephony, Broadband telephony, Broadband Phone and Voice over Broadband. "VoIP" is pronounced voyp, IPA: /voip/.

[v] A softswitch is a central device in a telephone network which connects calls from one phone line to another, entirely by means of software running on a computer system. This work was formerly carried out by hardware, with physical switchboards to route the calls.

A softswitch is typically used to control connections at the junction point between circuit and packet networks. A single device containing both the switching logic and the switching fabric can be used for this purpose; however, modern technology has led to a preference for decomposing this device into a Call Agent and a Media Gateway.


-Analyn Revilla

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