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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)

1 Comment

  1. Great article and interesting topic for a doctoral dissertation. I know in the U.S., besides the NSA controversy, packet inspection has been a topic of concern for bandwidth-hungry Netflix, who found somewhat of a smoking gun with Comcast. It appeared that Comcast was giving preferential treatment to their own streaming traffic versus 3rd party streaming sites.

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