27 March 2009

The Economics of Snooping on Internet Traffic.

March 25, 2009, 2:30pm

Update | 2:07 p.m. Details of the Cox and Comcast approaches modified.

Kurt Dobbins, the chief technical officer of Arbor Networks, has what he sees as a very good reason to use a machine — which his company makes — that can see every word and every picture people send and receive over their Internet service provider: Internet service providers could offer a complex menu of price plans, as cellphone companies do. He predicts you will soon see many plans that impose usage caps in peak times, but unlimited use off peak.

That thought may well be red meat to the many people who think the Internet should always be unfettered by any limits.

Mr. Dobbins invited himself over for coffee recently, not to talk about Internet pricing exactly, but to defend the honor of this technology called deep packet inspection.

There are a lot of other things deep packet inspection can do that are perceived as rather creepy. It is great for spies and secret police, who want to know when people read or write about certain topics. It can identify people who send copyrighted files and block people from using certain programs, like BitTorrent. Advertisements can be shown based on what sites Internet users visit. And it can help Internet providers degrade the service of rival offerings, such as voice calling or video over the Internet.

Tim Berners-Lee, one of the creators of the World Wide Web, recently said in a speech to the British House of Lords that deep packet inspection is the equivalent of opening people’s mail.
The Free Press, an advocacy group, published a report on the subject last week, warning that the adoption of deep packet inspection “will open a Pandora’s box of unintended consequences that could spell disaster for the free market online.”

Mr. Dobbins said that he wished the technology had a different name. “Deep packet inspection conjures up all kinds of evil images,” he said, frustrated that what he helped invent 10 years ago has earned such a bad reputation.

Arbor isn’t in the Big Brother business, he insisted. Its technology doesn’t read the content of what people send and receive, he said; it just analyzes how much bandwidth they use and the type of information they are sending — e-mail, video, Web pages or whatever.

It is like looking at the stamp and addresses on the outside of mail, not opening the envelopes, he said.

It’s not quite so simple, however. Mr. Dobbins explained that Arbor’s machines don’t scan for copyrighted songs, for example. But they do identify packets being sent by peer-to-peer file trading programs, and they can send them to machines made by other companies meant to identify copyrighted content.

I’m not sure this is going to reassure Mr. Berners-Lee and other critics of deep packet inspection. Arbor, to continue the postal imagery, is like a person who sorts through the mail looking for suspicious packages, handing them to another person to open.

What about the business Arbor says it is in: helping Internet providers reduce costs and increase revenue by adjusting their pricing plans to the way each customer uses the Internet?

Mr. Dobbins said Internet providers in the United States should follow the lead of Plusnet, a British I.S.P. that uses Arbor equipment to offer various service plans. The cheapest plan costs 11.99 pounds ($17.67) per month. Use is capped at 10 gigabytes a month, except for unlimited use between midnight and 8 a.m. In addition, traffic is divided into seven categories, each with a different priority. At the top are fee-based services, like video on demand movies and voice over Internet phone calls. At the bottom are downloading of files from peer-to-peer networks and Usenet newsgroups.

The company offers two separate upgraded options, each at 19.99 pounds ($29.45) per month. One has unlimited bandwidth, but similar slowdowns for downloads. Another “pro” plan has a 15-gigabyte-per-month peak limit, but promises priority treatment for downloads and other sorts of traffic. That plan also will move traffic for online games to the head of the line, because a split second sometimes can make a difference in the outcome of a fast-twitch war game.

The point of all this is to shift as much of the heavy bandwidth use to off-peak times. Most of the costs of running an Internet provider are fixed; customers pay whether they are using the network or not. But I.S.P.’s do have to invest to expand the maximum capacity of their networks to accommodate peak usage.

How much of an expense all this extra downloading actually costs is a bit of a debate. Dave Burstein, the editor of DSL Prime, says it isn’t more than the equivalent of a dollar or two per user per month. That’s hardly enough, he says, for Internet providers in this country, which have very wide profit margins, to cry poor. (In Britain, the marginal costs are higher and competition has lowered margins, he said.) But that is not keeping Arbor from selling its products as a way to cut costs.

So far a few Internet providers in the United States, including Time Warner Cable, are just exploring bandwidth caps and price tiers. More common has been an effort to use techniques, including deep packet inspection, to manage the congestion at peak times. Comcast was slapped by the Federal Communications Commission for blocking some BitTorrent file sharing without proper disclosure.

Now Comcast is using a system that will slow down the connections of heavy users at peak times, regardless of what they are doing online. Cox Communications is using the sort of approach Arbor recommends, giving priority at peak times to some uses, like voice calling and streaming media, while relegating others, like file downloads, to the slow lane. Cox’s limits apply only when customers are uploading, not downloading, informatin.

On one level letting the urgent traffic go first makes a lot of sense. But Ben Scott, the policy director of the Free Press, said that Internet providers, like Cox, shouldn’t be allowed to differentiate between different uses of the Internet.

“Some customers will value what they see as low priority as high priority,” he said. I asked Mr. Scott what he thought about the approach of Plusnet, which lets consumers pay more if they want higher priority given to their game traffic and downloads. Surprisingly, he had no complaints.

“If you said to me, the consumer, ‘You can choose what applications to prioritize and which to deprioritize, and, oh, by the way, prices will change as a result of how you do this,’ I don’t have a problem with that,” he said.

If this sort of approach does in fact satisfy the critics, I think we are very likely to see Internet providers move to more multiple price tiers, using deep packet inspection to juggle different users and quotas. And in the process we may very well expand a technical infrastructure that has the potential to assist those that want to snoop on our electronic communications.


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