Monday, October 22, 2007

Comcast joins AT&T: Net Netrality Alert

Executive Summary: Nation's biggest cableco caught blocking the Bible. Methodology: using its control of network servers to tell users at both ends of the transaction lies about state of the connection. Point: to degrade the service of P2P technology users enough to keep them from using scarce bandwidth. Consequence: The case for public ownership—or at least structural separation—grows.

The ensuing stink is sure to rival AT&T's original Net Neutrality blunder.

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Comcast, the nation's largest cable company, has joined AT&T, the largest phone company, in giving Net Neutrality advocates a hammer with which to drive home the point that the corporate duopolists want to be able to "shape" the internet to their financial benefit--and that "innovation," competition, and your freedom to communicate are not part of their plan.

While AT&T merely stated its intent to categorize traffic and relegate companies whose product didn't pay a special fee to the slow lane they, and other ISPs, have long claimed that this wouldn't really involve degrading anyone's service. But in this latest blowup Comcast has been caught doing what the national network providers have long denied: blocking or degrading services that pass over its network in order to make sure its own services run at full speed. That's the conclusion that the Associated Press came to after an investigating the communications stream. The fuller description of their investigation reveals that they offered a file of the King James version of the bible for upload over BitTorrent and found that when they connected in order to download it at the other end that Comcast blocked their link.

What Comcast is doing was sending "reset packets" to both ends of BitTorrent file exchanges that are forged to indicate that the message comes not from Comcast but from the user on the other end of the exchange--and that the connection has failed. This drops the connection or at least forces a restart. If the program receives too many of these packets it will refuse to deal with the errant node--a tactic which makes sense when the other end really is broken in some way but which is blatantly disruptive when someone standing in the middle is simply lying about a the state of a perfectly capable participant. There's a semi-formal term for this sort of deceptive practice: it is called a "man in the middle attack." For a man in the middle attacks to be successful there has to be a trusted intermediary passing the message who decides to lie--to pass false messages to each participant. The idea is to create a situation in which the traitor in the middle gets what he or she wants.

That's pretty much the situation here. By forging false information about both ends of a BitTorrent exchange (or Gnutella or Lotus Notes (!)) Comast denies users who, in the AP case were exchanging the Bible, the ability to exchange data. Comcast got what it wanted, though: the links failed and Comcast had more bandwidth to use for its own purposes.

Notice please: exchanging data is exactly why customers buy an internet connection, the blocked technology is perfectly legal technology; the content presented for exchange is in no way copyrighted; and internet users that never, ever signed a contract with Comcast are having their access blocked.

It's profoundly wrong on multiple levels and no amount of handwaving about ensuring quality of service can obscure that.

Just for the record: This "man in the middle, using reset packets" is conceptually the same as one of the tactics that China used to build the infamous "Great Firewall of China." In that instance the Chinese government used their ownership of the network to forge reset packets that effectively blocked any link between a computer in China that received or sent suspect words or phrases indicating political or social dissent and the computer that sent or received those words. (If you're gonna be evil you might as well learn from the best, I suppose.)

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A storm of response is building quickly that is sure to rival the ultimate size of the slow-building response to the AT&T gaff that defined the Net Neutrality battles of '05-'06 is building.

The reinstitution of regulation and a reinstitution of the principle of common carriage is the most obvious solution. —One that has been argued here recently.

But this is the sort of thing shakes peoples' trust in their provider and that moves people to recognize that, since even more subtle forms of blocking are possible, a better solution might well be structural: remove the incentive to be evil and only the truly twisted will persist in doing the wrong thing. The first structural suggestion is to enforce "structural separation" meaning that no network provider would be allowed to own any part of the content that flows over the wires. Their only interest then would be in developing a better, faster network. We now have well-respected (i.e. no "mere" blogger) players like Susan Crawford and David Isenberg suggesting that is the only solution. Others, like Bob Frankston, want the current networks given to the municipalities to run open municipal systems that mimic the road system.

These are all necessarily national-level suggestions. They require some measure of divestment being forced on the current providers and only the federal legislature could do that. They are not bad ideas. But they suggest a long battle with a doubtful outcome.

Few, yet, are making the structural case that simple municipal or cooperative ownership would also destroy the motivation for a network provider to shape the usage of local users in ways that are not in their interest. We should all own our own local networks. The principle is simple: owners have no motive to abuse themselves. We can, as we in Lafayette have, make the decision to build a network with a big enough pipe that scarce bandwidth is not an issue inside our system. We can decide to price external bandwidth--and the costs associated with P2P an other bandwidth-heavy applications like streaming video as we see fit. (Local caching of popular content would be an obvious first solution in any bandwidth-rich locale. Big files need only come into our community once.) Owning our own network won't free us from the Comcasts of this world who might still try and keep us from from freely communicating with their customers. But it would give us the control that ensures a network that serves our interests and not the interests of an corporate network provider who is willing to stand in the middle and lie to us and those we are communicating with in order to avoid dealing with the issue at hand honestly.

Right now only a minority wants to force divestiture or expropriation on the network providers. A few more, possibly a majority, already think that municipalities ought to be allowed to build their own networks. Comcast is changing those numbers -- and not in a way that it will like.

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