I’ve written about Deep Packet Inspection (DPI) technologies before, and their various potential privacy issues. Generally, I’ve talked about how the possibility of having your ISP persistently monitor your online actions could stifle the substantive abilities exercising of autonomy, liberty, and freedom of conscious. I won’t revisit those issues here, though I’d recommend checking out my earlier post on DPI. What follows examines how ISPs are injecting information into the webpages that you visit, which prevents you from viewing webpages as they were designed.
When you visit a webpage, your computer downloads a little bit of code and renders it on your screen – the web is an environment where visual stimulation necessitates copying data. Recently, researchers from the University of Washington and the International Computer Science Institute have discovered that about 1.3% of the time what is displayed on your computer’s screen has been altered. This having been said,
70 percent of those modifications were caused by client proxies installed to deal with pop-ups or to block advertising. The researchers also note that not every alteration is problematic; some cellular operators, for example, will strip extra whitespace from pages or will provide extra compression for images to keep bandwidth usage low and browsing quick. (Source)
You can take a look at the program that the researchers used, and see if some of your pages are being blocked, by heading over to their research site.
Innovating for Life(TM)
Rogers announced last year that they were bringing PersonalWeb(TM) to their users. This sounds like a great thing – the news brief notes that;
. . . the undertaking will enable end users to obtain an entirely customized Web experience. PersonalWeb will deliver tailored content such as sports, news, music, video, advertisements and product recommendations based on those users’ unique interests .
. . .
[The initiative] will bring together all the content a user likes most about the web: links to their favourite sites, their email, a multi-engine search bar – all on one neatly organized page. As they surf the web, users will teach PersonalWeb what they are interested in and the software will build their page with links to Web content related to those interests. At the same time, using standard Interactive Advertising Bureau advertising units, the PersonalWeb technology serves highly relevant ads to consumers on their home page. The tool will cut through noise and clutter to bring users more of the things they like best – and help them steer clear of the rest. (Source)
This has led to some intrusive, though (currently) benevolent alterations of content. One blogger has captured an image of a Rogers-altered webpage: Google.ca/
You’ll note the text above the Google logo, which notes that the user in question has reached at least 75% of their monthly quota. The issue, of course, is that Google didn’t give permission to having their webpage defaced, nor were you given the option of disabling the technology from inspecting your packets. Lauren keenly notes in her blog post about this that another logo has been inserted onto an ‘owned’ page. Given that this technology is meant to develop contextual links that are built ‘for you’, and given that it has the ability of inserting that information in webpages without your consent, with Rogers you are rapidly entering a space where not only can your digital activities be monitors, but they are.
Beyond network neutrality experts, who gives a damn? In Rogers’ case, they’re providing a valuable service, right? If this is how they are going to limit their involvement with webpages, then it doesn’t matter!
I would generally categorize ‘people who care’ into a few groups.
- Privacy advocates – how is the information being stored? What information is being collected? Why must this information be collected? What processes are in place for individuals to inspect the digital records that are kept on them? How will these technologies affect the creation/reinforcement of data cocoons?
- Parents – how do I know that the ads which (might) be displayed won’t be inappropriate for my five year-old child? Will the sexual interests held by my partner and I result in pornographic ads? Can I contextualize the inspection and delivery results? Will software/technical support be provided so that I can easily manage this new technology/have it managed for me?
- Corporate business – is my brand being diminished? How can I prevent my brand from being associated with other logos? Can I protect my website from being misrendered? What will my consumers think when they realize that they are being watched while visiting my online space? Is there legal action I can pursue? I can’t just stick stickers with my logo in clothing stores, why do ISPs think they can stick their label on my stores? Will this affect my ad revenue?
These are just a few of the things that immediately come to mind. I’m sure you can think of others.
ISP injections are not something that are likely to go away without at least the threat of legal regulation/prevention. In this case, we can hope that corporations will go to war with one another, where companies like Google and Yahoo! take issue with the defacement of their corporate web spaces. Given that ad revenue will (eventually) be on the line, one can expect that they will make an issue of things. This said, I’d rather not leave things to a market solution – a democratically legitimated solution would be far, far better.
A wider issue for consumers is that programs such as Rogers’ may sound benevolent, but they fail to capture how these ‘personalized’ experiences will be generated – they make no mention that delivering this environment requires a constant surveillance of your online actions. Rather than just clicking ‘I like sports, politics, not technology, not women’s issues, and I like comics’ your ISP will monitor where you go and deliver results to you before you even ask for them. While perhaps convenient in some cases, this threatens to cut us off from information that deviates from our routine interests – rather than experiencing the ‘New York Times’ effect, where you find a random article that shapes your views and attitudes while browsing to page 78 of the paper, you’ll never see that article on page 56, and only ever see the items on page 78 and others like it. This isn’t healthy for a developing mind, nor a mind that wants to be critically engaged in society.