The Internet is dying, according to advocacy group Free Press. The organization has published a report, Deep Packet Inspection: The End of the Internet as We Know It? that claims technology has evolved to the point that Internet carriers can control everything that we read, see, and hear on the Internet, something they’ve never been able to do before. It’s the backdrop of a just so story Free Press’s network guru, Robb Topolski, delivered to a House of Lords roundtable in the UK recently. It’s an outlandish claim which echoes the Groundhog’s Day predictions about the Internet’s imminent demise Free Press has been making since 2005.
Suffice it to say it hasn’t exactly happened. Internet traffic continues to grow at the rate of 50-100% per year, more people than ever – some 1.5 billion – are using the Internet in more places and with more devices, and there hasn’t been an incident of an American ISP choking traffic since the dubiously alarming case of Comcast’s rationing of P2P bandwidth – mainly used for piracy – in 2007.
There are multiple errors of fact and analysis in the Free Press report, pretty much the same ones that the organization has been pumping since they jumped on the net neutrality bandwagon. There’s been no new breakthrough in Internet management. While it’s true that Moore’s Law makes computer chips run faster year after year, it’s also true that it makes networks run faster. So any reduction in the time it takes to analyze a packet on a network has to be balanced against the number of packets that cross the network in a given unit of time. Machines work faster. Some machines analyze Internet packets, and other machines generate Internet packets. They’re both getting faster, and neither is getting faster faster.
Network operators have been analyzing packets and rationing bandwidth as long as there have been IP networks. The first one to go live was at Ford Aerospace, where the discovery was made, more or less instantly, that user access to the network had to be moderated so that users of bulk data transfer applications didn’t crowd out interactive uses. More sophisticated forms of this kind of helpful “discrimination” are the principle uses of DPI today.
The complaint by Free Press is more or less on par with the shocking discovery that the sun has both good and bad effects: it causes plants to grow, and it can also cause skin cancer. Shall we now pass a legislative ban on sunlight?
The important new trend on the Internet is an increasing diversity of applications. Until fairly recently, the Internet’s traffic management system was occupied almost exclusively with a set of applications that had very similar requirements: e-mail, web browsing, and short file transfers are all concerned about getting exact copies of files from point A to point B, with no particular concern for how long it took, within seconds. Now we’ve added Skype to mix, which needs millisecond delivery, and P2P transactions that can run for hours and involve gigabytes of data. Add in some gaming and some video calling, and you’ve got a healthy diversity of applications with unique requirements.
The sensible way to manage Internet diversity is to identify application needs and try to meet them, to create “the greatest good for the greatest number” of people. DPI is really, really good at this, and it’s a win for all Internet users when it’s used properly.
Free Press’s jihad against helpful technologies echoes their previous war against newspaper consolidation. With the recent closures and printing plant shutdowns of daily papers in Seattle, Denver, and elsewhere, it’s clear that these efforts at media reform have been less than helpful.
Let’s not send the Internet the way of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Rather than buying Free Press’s shameless scare tactics, reflect on your own experience. Do you see even the slightest shred of evidence to support the wild claim that the Internet is withering on the vine? I certainly don’t.