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Free Press Testifies on Dangers of Deep Packet Inspection
WASHINGTON - April 23 - Free Press Policy Director Ben Scott will testify before Congress today about the dangers of "deep packet inspection," a technology that allows Internet service providers to spy on and control online content.
At a hearing before the House Subcommittee on Communications, Technology, and the Internet, Scott will quote the selling points used by deep packet inspection manufacturers to underscore the chilling, anti-competitive effect this technology can have on an open Internet.
A live webcast of the hearing will be available at www.energycommerce.house.gov
The 10 a.m. hearing, titled "Communications Networks and Consumer Privacy: Recent Developments," will focus on technologies that network operators utilize to monitor consumer usage on broadband and wireless networks. While much of the hearing will focus on the privacy implications of these technologies, Scott will discuss them within the context of the Net Neutrality debate.
Prepared testimony of Ben Scott, policy director of Free Press
Chairman Boucher, Ranking Member Stearns, and members of the subcommittee, I thank you for the opportunity to testify today. I will focus my testimony this morning on deep packet inspection technology, or DPI.
You have already heard about the uses of DPI for the collection of personal information about Internet users for advertising. But I'd like to focus on other uses of DPI technology. Because any time a network monitors Internet traffic, we have a potential privacy problem. That harm is compounded by DPI tools that violate Network Neutrality with anti-competitive practices.
Let me offer some context. Three years ago, we had a robust debate over the necessity of Net Neutrality and privacy rules to protect consumers. That debate turned on whether the harms were hypothetical. Indeed, the technology did not exist in 2006 that would permit wide-scale violations of either.
Today those technologies do exist. They are deep packet inspection devices, and they are now widely deployed. Worse still, an entire industry has emerged that markets DPI explicitly to monitor and control consumer behavior. All a network owner has to do is flip the switch.
DPI use will have a broad impact on the Internet. Without this technology, everything you do online is sent through the network anonymously. E-mail, sports scores, family photos -- the network doesn't know or care what you're doing. Online anonymity also has the virtue of nondiscrimination.
But with DPI, it's a whole new ballgame. This technology can track every online click. Once a network owner can see what you are doing, they have the power to manipulate your online experience. They can sell your personal information to advertisers. They can block content. They can slow things down or speed things up.
There is no better way to describe what DPI can do than to quote from the manufacturers' marketing materials. Their selling points are exactly the uses that trouble me the most. Let me offer these examples:
Zeugma Systems describes its technology as a way for network owners to "see, manage and monetize individual flows to individual subscribers."
A company called Allot promises that their equipment empowers ISPs "to meter and control individual use of applications and services" -- including to help network owners "reduce the performance of applications with negative influence on revenues (such as competitive VoIP services)."
Now, that sounds blatantly anti-competitive to me.
Procera Networks went so far as to publish a brochure with the title "If You Can See It, You Can Monetize It."
This is chilling stuff. And there are more than a dozen of these companies. They sell products marketed to help ISPs make more money by spying on consumers and controlling how they use the Internet.
Let me be clear: the technology itself is not necessarily problematic. However, in the past year, deep packet inspection has evolved from basically innocuous to downright insidious. DPI was created as a network security tool. But it has become a mechanism of precise surveillance and content control.
We have already begun to see incidents of bad behavior. This subcommittee has had hearings on Comcast and NebuAd, which both used DPI in secret, questionable ways. Today, Cox Communications is using DPI to speed up some applications and slow others.
These types of practices may have short-term traffic management benefits. But the trade-off is the unprecedented step of putting the network owner in control of consumers' online options. After this first step, it is a slippery slope.
We could soon see every major ISP in the country adopt a different traffic control regime. Without oversight, this could easily balkanize the Internet so that applications that work on a network in Virginia may not work in Kansas or Florida.
The critical question is how best to protect consumers from these kinds of harms.
Let me offer an analogy. Think of these DPI technologies as similar to complex financial instruments like credit-default swaps. Properly regulated, they can be used as a constructive part of our banking system. Without oversight, they can run amok and severely harm consumers. What we need are bright line rules of consumer protection.
The negative implications for privacy and Network Neutrality are already clear.
But the new uses of deep packet inspection may also reduce incentives for infrastructure investment. Installing DPI offers a tempting alternative to building a robust network. At a fraction of the cost, DPI can discourage users from high-bandwidth applications or charge higher fees for priority access.
Before these technologies become firmly entrenched, we encourage Congress to open a broad inquiry to determine what is in the best interest of consumers. Once DPI devices are activated across the Internet, it will be very difficult to reverse course.
The full written testimony is available at http://www.freepress.net/files/FP_DPI_House_testimony.pdf