Thursday, January 29, 2009

More Ghosts in the Machine

Cox Communications, the nation's third-largest cable company, on Tuesday unveiled a plan to monitor and slow Internet content it deems unimportant.

With this news, Cox joins the ranks of other Internet providers willing to tempt legal fate by getting between customers and their access to the free-flowing Web.

Comcast -- which the FCC sanctioned last year for just this type of interference – had secretly blocked access to legal file-sharing applications to users the cable giant deemed “bandwidth hogs.”

Undaunted, Comcast reportedly has now joined AT&T in a new effort to filter Web traffic for files deemed inappropriate by movie and recording industry lawyers.

Cable ServiceCox Communications: Your Friend in the Digital Age
Cox has decided that certain Web traffic is “less time-sensitive,” and will be blocked in favor of other “more timely” content during periods of high congestion. They plan to test this system on their lucky customers in Kansas and Arkansas before rolling it out nationwide.

The Rise of the Deemers

Who decides what’s more sensitive and less sensitive on the Internet? Apparently, the deemers do.

And that’s the problem.

The lesson we learned from Comcast’s misadventures in network management is to be skeptical of any practice that comes between users and the Internet – even if it’s deemed appropriate by those standing behind the curtain.

And while Cox has called its gatekeeper intentions sound, its Web site gives little indication about how these practices will affect Internet users. Nor does it indicate that they plan to comply with the FCC's Internet Policy Statement, which helps guarantee that control of your Internet experience ultimately resides with you – the user.

“As a general rule, we're concerned about any cable or phone company picking winners and losers online,” said Ben Scott, Free Press policy director. “These kinds of practices cut against the fundamental neutrality of the open Internet.” Free Press has urged the FCC to subject Cox’s new practice to close scrutiny.

Internet Juju

“One always has to wonder what kind of juju is going on behind closed doors when a plan such as this is announced,” writes Darren Murph of Endgadget, referring to Cox. But Murph’s comment applies just as easily to the magic behind Hollywood’s plan to police the Internet with the aid of these same ISPs.

It’s a “kind of juju” called deep packet inspection, or DPI, which allows network managers to inspect, track and target user messages as they move along the Information Superhighway.

Simply put, DPI is the Internet equivalent of the mailman opening and reading your mail to decide whether or not to deliver it.

Last year, ISPs declared before Congress that they were siding with Internet users and "keeping their distance" from DPI. But we did our own deep packet inspection and found that the network providers' actions often speak louder than their testimony.

Playing God on the Net

DPI forms the cornerstone of plans to profit from policing Web content. Using this filtering technology, companies like AT&T, Verizon and Comcast would be able to decide whether a user packet is allowed to pass or be routed to a different lane.

It lets them pry open user's trunks, erect new tolls and sell off or bar privileged access based on what they find inside.

“In a time when information is everything, it's not an Internet provider's place to determine what content is worthy of bandwidth and what content isn't,” writes J.R. Raphael of PC World. “Ranking activities and adjusting their speed is no different. Ultimately, that's called playing God -- and sorry to tell ya, Cox, but your power shouldn't be supreme.”

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