Inside Net Neutrality: Is Your ISP Filtering Content?

(Part 1 of a 3-Part Series)

Your Internet Service Provider (ISP) acts as a gateway between you and the Internet. It's the pipeline that allows you to access everything from your e-mail to remote file servers where you back up your important data--not to mention browsing the Web.

But what happens if, instead of a pipeline, your ISP instead acts as a filter? In some cases, that scenario is beginning to play out as ISPs increasingly seem to be moving toward favoring some types of traffic over others.

The idea that all Internet traffic should be treated equally is known as network neutrality. In other words, no matter who uploads or downloads data, or what kind of data is involved, networks should treat all of those packets in the same manner. To do otherwise, advocates argue, would amount to data discrimination.

Advocates for network neutrality run the gamut. Large corporations like Microsoft and Google, advocacy organizations such as the Network Neutrality Squad, the Consumers Union and MoveOn.org, industry organizations such as the Consumer Electronics Association, and even individuals like Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak and World Wide Web creator Tim Berners-Lee have all lent their voices in support of network neutrality.

Typically, discussions surrounding net neutrality have focused on data discrimination--the concern has been that Internet companies with deep pockets or providers such as AT&T could pay to play. Under this scenario, free-spending companies would ensure that their traffic was sent along as quickly as possible, while startups and other organizations without as many resources would see their data pass through the pipe at slower speeds.

Filtering Content

From a consumer perspective, network neutrality can touch on other issues, including filtering content for copyrighted content or slowing the delivery of content for high bandwidth users. Such practices aren't theoretical, either--data discrimination seems to be making inroads at high-profile national ISPs.

Take AT&T. Speaking at January's Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, James Cicconi, the company's senior vice president for external & legal affairs noted that AT&T is working with the Motion Picture Association of America and Recording Industry Association of America to set up a fingerprinting system that could identify copyrighted material on its network. These remarks were widely interpreted as an intent to start filtering, yet an AT&T spokeswoman told Macworld the company isn't at that point yet.

"We have said categorically that we do not intend to be an enforcement agent or a policeman for content transported on our network," said AT&T spokeswoman Claudia Jones. "We want to set the record straight that we have not said we are going to filter, and in fact, there is no technology solution available at this time."

What AT&T has said, Jones added, is that the company is working with the MPAA and RIAA on tackling piracy, an issue that "has raised costs for all Internet users. It is our hope that this relationship leads to encouraging the legal downloads of movies, TV shows, and other entertainment and content."

Of course, net neutrality supporters might point out that AT&T's statement, while focusing on anti-piracy efforts, doesn't expressly rule filtering out.

Comcast, the nation's second largest ISP with 13 million customers, has also been taking actions to cut back on peer-to-peer (P2P) usage across its network, although it has given a different reason for doing so. Last year, Comcast began throttling P2P traffic, especially BitTorrent usage. The company says it's trying to provide a better online experience for all users by keeping its network from becoming clogged with P2P traffic. (Estimates of the amount of total Internet traffic devoted to P2P file-sharing vary wildly, from 37 percent to as high as 90 percent.)

And yet AT&T and Comcast are not the only two looking at shaping or filtering traffic. Time-Warner launched a pilot project in Beaumont, Texas, that would sell tiered bandwidth limits for customers and charge fees to those who went over their plan. Speaking to Macworld, Time-Warner spokesperson Alex Dudley noted that the trial could also do things such as limit P2P sessions, but--contrary to some reports--it would not affect downloads from the iTunes Store.

Yet it is the potential threat of filtering on the network level from AT&T that has garnered the most attention as of late. This, says Joel Johnson, gadgets editor for BoingBoing.net who brought the issue to a head when he raised it on an AT&T sponsored show, helps explains why the actions of AT&T, Comcast, and other service providers are a big deal, even if one isn't exchanging copyrighted content.

A Backdoor Around Net Neutrality?

"The first thing to keep in mind is that it actually doesn't matter if AT&T is your ISP or not, they're talking about filtering on the backbone," Johnson said. "Business-wise there's no reason to [filter content]. AT&T isn't a content producer."

Johnson fears that such efforts might be a way for companies to "backdoor around network neutrality. This would allow them to do that under the auspices of content filtering."

(Editor's Note: This is the first of a three-part series on network neutrality. After looking at the issue of traffic-filtering in part one, we turn our attention to ways you can protect your privacy in part two. Part three focuses on resources that help you determine which ISPs and networks are filtering, blocking, or otherwise examining traffic.)

(Mathew Honan is a San Francisco-based technology writer whose work has also appeared in Macworld, Salon, and Wired.)

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