Technology, Thoughts & Trinkets

Touring the digital through type

Tag: Copyright (page 1 of 8)

The Politics of Deep Packet Inspection: What Drives Surveillance by Internet Service Providers?

UVic CrestToday, I am happy to make my completed doctoral dissertation available to the public. The dissertation examines what drives, and hinders, wireline network practices that are enabled by Deep Packet Inspection (DPI) routers. Such routers are in wide use by Internet service providers (ISPs) in Canada, the United States, and United Kingdom, and offer the theoretical capacity for service providers to intrusively monitor, mediate, and modify their subscribers’ data packets in real or near-real time. Given the potential uses of the routers, I was specifically interested in how the politics of deep packet inspection intersected with the following issues: network management practices, content control and copyright, advertising, and national security/policing.

Based on the potential capabilities of deep packet inspection technologies – and the warnings that such technologies could herald the ‘end of the Internet’ as it is know by citizens of the West – I explored what has actually driven the uptake of the technology in Canada, the US, and the UK. I ultimately found that though there were variations in different states’ regulatory processes, regulators tended to arrive at common conclusions. Regulatory convergence stands in opposition to the divergence that arose as elected officials entered into the DPI debates: such officials have been guided by domestic politics, and tended to reach significantly different conclusions. In effect, while high-expertise regulatory networks reached common conclusions, elected political officials have demonstrated varying degrees of technical expertise and instead have focused on the politics of communications surveillance. In addition to regulators and elected officials, court systems have also been involved in adjudicating how, when, and under what conditions DPI can be used to mediate data traffic. Effectively, government institutions have served as the primary arenas in which DPI issues are taken up, though the involved government actors often exhibited their own interests in how issues were to be taken up or resolved. The relative role of these different state bodies in the case studies arguably reflects underlying political cultures: whereas regulators are principally involved in the Canadian situation, elected officials and courts play a significant role in the US, whereas the UK has principally seen DPI debates settled by regulators and elected officials.

Ultimately, while there are important comparative public policy conclusions to the dissertation, such conclusions only paint part of the picture about the politics of deep packet inspection. The final chapter of the dissertation discusses why the concepts of surveillance and privacy are helpful, but ultimately insufficient, to appreciate the democratic significance of deep packet inspection equipment. In response, I suggest that deliberative democratic theory can provide useful normative critiques of DPI-based packet inspection. Moreover, these critiques can result in practical policy proposals that can defray DPI-based practices capable of detrimentally stunting discourse between citizens using the Internet for communications. The chapter concludes with a discussion of how this research can be advanced in the future; while I have sought to clear away some of the murk concerning the technology, my research represents only the first of many steps to reorient Internet policies such that they support, as opposed to threaten, democratic values.

Formal Abstract:

Surveillance on the Internet today extends beyond collecting intelligence at the layer of the Web: major telecommunications companies use technologies to monitor, mediate, and modify data traffic in real time. Such companies functionally represent communicative bottlenecks through which online actions must pass before reaching the global Internet and are thus perfectly positioned to develop rich profiles of their subscribers and modify what they read, do, or say online. And some companies have sought to do just that. A key technology, deep packet inspection (DPI), facilitates such practices.

In the course of evaluating the practices, regulations, and politics that have driven DPI in Canada, the US, and UK it has become evident that the adoption of DPI tends to be dependent on socio-political and economic conditions. Simply put, market or governmental demand is often a prerequisite for the technology’s adoption by ISPs. However, the existence of such demand is no indication of the success of such technologies; regulatory or political advocacy can lead to the restriction or ejection of particular DPI-related practices.

The dissertation proceeds by first outlining how DPI functions and then what has driven its adoption in Canada, the US, and UK. Three conceptual frameworks, path dependency, international governance, and domestic framing, are used to explain whether power structures embedded into technological systems themselves, international standards bodies, or domestic politics are principally responsible for the adoption or resistance to the technology in each nation. After exploring how DPI has arisen as an issue in the respective states I argue that though domestic conditions have principally driven DPI’s adoption, and though the domestic methods of governing DPI and its associated practices have varied across cases, the outcomes of such governance are often quite similar. More broadly, I argue that while the technology and its associated practices constitute surveillance and can infringe upon individuals’ privacy, the debates around DPI must more expansively consider how DPI raises existential risks to deliberative democratic states. I conclude by offering some suggestions on defraying the risks DPI poses to such states.

Download ‘The Politics of Deep Packet Inspection: What Drives Surveillance by Internet Service Providers?’ (.pdf)

AT&T’s Anti-Infringement Patent

AT&TNetwork surveillance is a persistent issue that privacy advocates warn about on a regular basis. In the face of Edward Snowden’s disclosures, the public has often been concerned about how, when, and why corporations disclose information to policing, security, and intelligence services. Codenamed projects like PRISM, NUCLEON, and MAINWAY, combined with the shadowy nature of how data is collected and used, makes Snowden’s very serious revelations a hot topic to talk, write, and think about.

However, it’s important to recognize that the corporations that are entrusted with significant amounts of our personal information often independently analyze and process our information in ways that we don’t expect. In this post I discuss a patent that AT&T received a little over a year ago to analyze the personal communications of its subscribers to catch instances of copyright infringement. I begin by outlining providing information concerning AT&T’s patent. From there, I discuss other companies’ efforts to develop and deploy similar systems in Europe to shed more light on how AT&T’s system might work. This post concludes by considering a range of reasons that might have driven AT&T to file for their patent, and notes why it’s important to place patents within the broader policy ecosystem that telecommunications companies operate within instead of analyzing such patents in isolation. Continue reading

Controversial Changes to Public Domain Works

by Muskingum University Library

A considerable number of today’s copyfight discussions revolve around the usage of DRM to prevent transformative uses of works, to prevent the sharing of works, and to generally limit how individuals engage with the cultural artefacts around them. This post takes a step back from that, thinking through the significance of transforming ‘classic’ works of the English literary canon instead of looking at how new technologies butt heads against free speech. Specifically, I want to argue that NewSouth, Inc.’s decision to publish Huckleberry Finn without the word “nigger” – replacing it with “slave” – demonstrates the importance of works entering the public domain. I restrain from providing a normative framework to evaluate NewSouth’s actual decision – whether changing the particular word is good – and instead use their decision to articulate the conditions constituting ‘bad’ transformations versus ‘good’ transformations of public domain works. I will argue that uniform, uncontested, and totalizing modifications of public domains works is ‘bad’, whereas localized, particular, and discrete transformations should be encouraged given their existence as free expressions capable of (re)generating discussions around topics of social import.

Copyright is intended to operate as an engine to generating expressive content. In theory, by providing a limited monopoly over expressions (not the ideas that are expressed) authors can receive some kind of restitution for the fixed costs that they invest in creating works. While true (especially in the digital era) that marginal costs trend towards zero, pricing based on marginal cost alone fails to adequately account for the sunk costs of actual writing. Admittedly, some do write for free (blogs and academic articles in journals might stand as examples) but many people still write with the hope earning their riches through publications. There isn’t anything wrong with profit motivating an author’s desire to create.

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Review of Telecommunications Policy in Transition

Image courtesy of the MIT Press

This first: the edited collection is a decade old. Given the rate that communications technologies and information policies change, this means that several of the articles are…outmoded. Don’t turn here for the latest, greatest, and most powerful analyses of contemporary communications policy. A book published in 2001 is good for anchoring subsequent reading into telecom policy, but less helpful for guiding present day policy analyses.

Having said that: there are some genuine gems in this book, including one of the most forward thinking essays around network neutrality of the past decade by Blumenthal and Clark. Before getting to their piece, I want to touch on O’Donnell’s contribution, “Broadband Architectures, ISP Business Plans, and Open Access”. He reviews architectures and ISP service portfolios to demonstrate that open access is both technically and economically feasible, though acknowledges that implementation is not a trivial task. In the chapter he argues that the FCC should encourage deployment of open access ready networks to reduce the costs of future implementation; I think it’s pretty safe to say that that ship sailed by and open connection is (largely) a dead issue in the US today. That said, he has an excellent overview of the differences between ADSL and Cable networks, and identifies the pain points of interconnection in each architecture.

Generally, O’Donnell sees interconnection as less of a hardware problem and more of a network management issue. In discussing the need and value of open access, O’Donnell does a good job at noting the dangers of throttling (at a time well ahead of ISP’s contemporary throttling regimes), writing

differential caching and routing need not be blatant to be effective in steering customers to preferred content. The subtle manipulation of the technical performance of the network can condition users unconsciously to avoid certain “slower” web sites. A few extra milliseconds’ delay strategically inserted here and there, for example, can effectively shepard users from one web site to another (p53).

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