Technology, Thoughts & Trinkets

Touring the digital through type

Tag: Bell

Review: Network Nation – Inventing American Telecommunications

Image courtesy of Harvard University Press

I spend an exorbitant amount of time reading about the legacies of today’s telecommunications networks. This serves to historically ground my analyses of today’s telecommunications ecosystem; why have certain laws, policies, and politics developed as they have, how do contemporary actions break from (or conform with) past events, and what cycles are detectable in telecommunications discussions. After reading hosts of accounts detailing the telegraph and telephone, I’m certain that John’s Network Nation: Inventing American Telecommunications is the most accessible and thorough discussion of these communications systems that I’ve come across to date.

Eschewing an anachronistic view of the telegraph and telephone – seeing neither through the lens that they are simply precursors to contemporary digital communications systems – John offers a granular account of how both technologies developed in the US. His analysis is decidedly neutral towards the technologies and technical developments themselves, instead attending to the role(s) of political economy in shaping how the telegraph and telephone grew as services, political objects, and zones of popular contention. He has carefully poured through original source documents and so can offer insights into the actual machinations of politicians, investors, municipal aldermen, and communications companies’ CEOs and engineers to weave a comprehensive account of the telegraph and telephone industries. Importantly, John focuses on the importance of civic ideals and governmental institutions in shaping technical innovations; contrary to most popular understandings that see government as ‘catching up’ to technicians post-WW I, the technicians have long locked their horns with those of government.

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Deep Packet Inspection and Consumer Transparency

Image by David Clow

Rogers Communications modified their packet inspection systems last year, and ever since customers have experienced degraded download speeds. It’s not that random users happen to be complaining about an (effectively) non-problem: Rogers’ own outreach staff has confirmed that the modifications took place and that these changes have negatively impacted peer to peer (P2P) and non-P2P applications alike. Since then, a Rogers Communications senior-vice president, Ken Englehart, has suggested that any problems customers have run into are resultant of P2P applications themselves; no mention is made of whether or how Rogers’ throttling systems have affected non-P2P traffic.

In this brief post, I want to quickly refresh readers on the changes that Rogers Communications made to their systems last year, and also note some of the problems that have subsequently arisen. Following this, I take up what Mr. Englehart recently stated in the media about Rogers’ throttling mechanisms. I conclude by noting that Rogers is likely in compliance with the CRTC’s transparency requirements (or at least soon will be), but that such requirements are ill suited to inform the typical consumer.

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Background to North American Politics of Deep Packet Inspection

crtc566The CRTC is listening to oral presentations concerning Canadian ISPs’ use of Deep Packet Inspection (DPI) appliances to throttle Canadians’ Internet traffic. Rather than talk about these presentations in any length, I thought that I’d step back a bit and try to outline some of the attention that DPI has received over the past few years. This should give people who are newly interested in the technology an appreciation for why DPI has become the focus of so much attention and provide paths to learn about the politics of DPI. This post is meant to be a fast overview, and only attends to the North American situation given that it’s what I’m most familiar with.

Massive surveillance of digital networks took off as an issue in 2005, when the New York Times published their first article on the NSA’s warrantless wiretapping operations. The concern about such surveillance brewed for years, but (in my eyes) really exploded as the public started to learn about the capacities of DPI technologies as potential tools for mass surveillance.

DPI has been garnering headlines in a major way in 2007, which has really been the result of Nate Anderson’s piece, “Deep packet inspection meets ‘Net neutrality, CALEA.” Anderson’s article is typically recognized as the popular news article that put DPI on the scene, and the American public’s interest in this technology was reinforced by Comcast’s use of TCP RST packets, which was made possible using Sandvine equipment. These packets (which appear to have been first discussed in 1981) were used by Comcast to convince P2P clients that the other client(s) in the P2P session didn’t want to communicate with Comcast subscriber’s P2P application, which led to the termination of the data transmission. Things continued to heat up in the US, as the behavioural advertising company NebuAd began partnering with ISPs to deliver targeted ads to ISPs’ customers using DPI equipment. The Free Press hired Robert Topolski to perform a technical analysis of what NebuAd was doing, and found that NebuAd was (in effect) performing a man-in-the-middle attack to alter packets as they coursed through ISP network hubs. This report, prepared for Congressional hearings into the surveillance of Americans’ data transfers, was key to driving American ISPs away from NebuAd in the face of political and customer revolt over targeted advertising practices. NebuAd has since shut its doors. In the US there is now talk of shifting towards agnostic throttling, rather than throttling that targets particular applications. Discrimination is equally applied now, instead of honing in on specific groups.

In Canada, there haven’t been (many) accusations of ISPs using DPI for advertising purposes, but throttling has been at the center of our discussions of how Canadian ISPs use DPI to delay P2P applications’ data transfers. Continue reading