Choosing Winners with Deep Packet Inspection

I see a lot of the network neutrality discussion as one surrounding the conditions under which applications can, and cannot, be prevented from running. On one hand there are advocates who maintain that telecommunications providers – ISPs such as Bell, Comcast, and Virgin – shouldn’t be responsible for ‘picking winners and losers’ on the basis that consumers should make these choices. On the other hand, advocates for managed (read: functioning) networks insist that network operators have a duty and responsibility to fairly provision their networks in a way that doesn’t see one small group negatively impact the experiences of the larger consumer population. Deep Packet Inspection (DPI) has become a hot-button technology in light of the neutrality debates, given its potential to let ISPs determine what applications function ‘properly’ and which see their data rates delayed for purposes of network management. What is often missing in the network neutrality discussions is a comparison between the uses of DPI across jurisdictions and how these uses might impact ISPs’ abilities to prioritize or deprioritize particular forms of data traffic.

As part of an early bit of thinking on this, I want to direct our attention to Canada, the United States, and the United Kingdom to start framing how these jurisdictions are approaching the use of DPI. In the process, I will make the claim that Canada’s recent CRTC ruling on the use of the technology appears to be more and more progressive in light of recent decisions in the US and the likelihood of the UK’s Digital Economy Bill (DEB) becoming law. Up front I should note that while I think that Canada can be read as ‘progressive’ on the network neutrality front, this shouldn’t suggest that either the CRTC or parliament have done enough: further clarity into the practices of ISPs, additional insight into the technologies they use, and an ongoing discussion of traffic management systems are needed in Canada. Canadian communications increasingly pass through IP networks and as a result our communications infrastructure should be seen as important as defence, education, and health care, each of which are tied to their own critical infrastructures but connected to one another and enabled through digital communications systems. Digital infrastructures draw together the fibres connecting the Canadian people, Canadian business, and Canadian security, and we need to elevate the discussions about this infrastructure to make it a prominent part of the national agenda.

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Deep Packet Inspection and the Discourses of Censorship and Regulation

boredomIn the current CRTC hearings over Canadian ISPs’ use of Deep Packet Inspection (DPI) to manage bandwidth, I see two ‘win situations’ for the dominant carriers:

  1. They can continue to throttle ‘problem’ applications in the future;
  2. The CRTC decides to leave the wireless market alone right now.

I want to talk about the effects of throttling problem applications, and how people talking about DPI should focus on the negative consequences of regulation (something that is, admittedly, often done). In thinking about this, however, I want to first attend to the issues of censorship models to render transparent the difficulties in relying on censorship-based arguments to oppose uses of DPI. Following this, I’ll consider some of the effects of regulating access to content through protocol throttling. The aim is to suggest that individuals and groups who are opposed to the throttling of particular application-protocols should focus on the effects of regulation, given that it is a more productive space of analysis and argumentation, instead of focusing on DPI as an instrument for censorship.

Let’s first touch on the language of censorship itself. We typically understand this action in terms of a juridico-discursive model, or a model that relies on rules to permit or negate discourse. There are three common elements to this model-type:

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