ISP Throttling and Countermeasures

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This article was published by ComputorEdge, issue #2637, 2008-09-12, as a feature article, in both their PDF edition (on pages 9-10) and their website.

When an individual signs up for an account with an Internet service provider (ISP), he or she might naturally assume that the ISP will deliver on its promise of allowing the individual to download and upload at least as fast as the minimum speeds for the particular plan chosen. This is true regardless of the type of Internet access the ISP makes available — broadband (cable or DSL) or narrowband (i.e., dial-up). For instance, if the individual chooses a standard plan offered by their local telephone company, they might be promised DSL download speeds of, say, 384 Kbps (that's kilobits per second — not the radio station KBPS!) to 1.5 Mbps (million bits per second), and upload speeds of 128 Kbps to 384 Kbps. Consumers understand that they might not be so fortunate as to generally get the maximum speeds on the downstreaming or upstreaming of their data, but at least they will get the bare minimum speeds at all times.

Perhaps more importantly — in terms of freedom of expression and information flow over the Internet — consumers take for granted that their ISPs will not censor legal content, either partially or fully. This may be what reasonable people are expecting of their ISPs; but for far too many such Internet users, their expectations are not being met, and everyone knows this, except the typical user.

Instead, the evidence is mounting that ISPs all over the world are engaging in restricting traffic through their networks, usually referred to as "throttling". This "traffic shaping" (to use a euphemistic term) can take several forms. An ISP could intentionally slow or even prevent the download of a file from a peer-to-peer (P2P) network, since those files oftentimes contain copyrighted commercial material, such as songs and movies. Or an ISP could have a policy of throttling the download of any audiovisual files, or components of VoIP (Internet telephony) conversations, because those are typically quite large and thus consume more of the ISP's resources.

To clarify, throttling does not refer to the maximum bandwidth offered for a particular Internet service plan, nor does it refer to infuriated customers contemplating the physical strangulation of their service providers, when they discover that their ISP is engaging in this censorious and paternalistic network monitoring and disruption.

This raises the question as to whether or not ISPs should be allowed to restrict or even prevent certain kinds of network traffic, for all users or particular users, even if the ISP is up-front about its network management policies. Some argue that, as private entities, ISPs should have the right to manage traffic within their networks however they see fit, even if this means giving priority to companies who pay for the privilege. Others argue that Internet access has become a ubiquitous utility upon which we all rely, and as such should be fully transparent, with no favoritism, especially in return for payment from companies pushing their own products and services at the expense of competitors' offerings.

These issues quickly spill over into the realm of network neutrality. But in this article, we will focus on the ISPs' throttling of content that their users wish to upload and download.

Internet (Dis)Service

Stories about Internet access being restricted by ISPs or government busybodies, usually center around China and its "Great Firewall", designed to prevent Chinese citizens from accessing websites voicing any protests against the government and its actions. Yet many of the documented incidents of throttling emanate from the "land of the free", and comprise a growing number of cases of American ISPs actively limiting the types of online content available to their paying customers. For example, Comcast is now in trouble for restricting torrent activity (more on that in a moment).

Throttling is going global, as evidenced by ISPs in several developed countries being caught in the act. Bell Canada, that nation's telecommunications carrier, has been making life miserable for its subscribers by 'accidentally on purpose' dropping parts of files (known as packets) being shared among users as BitTorrents (files distributed on a peer-to-peer network by being divided into pieces and received from multiple users). Lawmakers in the UK are pursuing a "three strikes and you're out" policy for the distribution of copyrighted material. The four largest ISPs in Japan will now terminate the account of anyone flagged by the entertainment industry as an illegal file sharer. The European Union is pursuing legislation that would make mere throttling seem preferable: Their Second Intellectual Property Rights Enforcement Directive (IPRED2) threatens violators with permanent bands from the Internet, seizure of assets, and huge fines.

The throttling of P2P torrents and other content — to say nothing of monetary punishment and other criminal measures — has countless Internet consumers up in arms, with hard-core users worldwide expressing their outrage in blogs, zine articles, forum commentary, and other venues. They argue that ISPs do not have the right nor the responsibility to police the bits flowing through their networks, nor should they be able to restrict that flow, targeting types of content or individual account holders.

Consumer Countermeasures

The majority of ISP customers might not even be aware that their respective ISPs are throttling their Internet connections, aside from perhaps wondering at times why it takes longer than it did in the past to download particular types of content — especially torrents. But an increasing number of customers are paying closer attention to their connection speeds, even going so far as monitoring and documenting those speeds, over time. These customers generally tend to be more tech-savvy, and also heavy users of torrents.

One way that enraged consumers are fighting back, is through the legal and political channels, such as urging federal regulators to take action. On 1 August 2008, the Federal Communications Commission ordered Comcast to cease its previous practice of throttling P2P traffic, ruling that such selective blocking of traffic interfered with the customers' rights to access the Internet and use the online applications of their choice.

There are an unknown number of home-grown utilities that programmers have developed for testing their own upload and download speeds, and some of these have been made available online, usually for free, in the form of open source software. At the same time, some major Web-oriented organizations are planning to create and make available their own tools, for various reasons.

Google has positioned itself as a strong supporter of Net neutrality and an open Internet. Thus it came as no surprise when the Internet giant announced in June 2008 that it would begin making available software tools designed to allow Internet users to detect whether their ISPs are throttling their connections, and to what extent. Presumably, the affected users, armed with this information, would be in a much better position when complaining to their ISPs, as well as their political representatives, having documented the actual throttling taking place. However, as of this writing, the promised tools — even their intended availability dates — have yet to be released.

Most interestingly, it was not foreordained that Google would take that particular stance. Reliable sources have reported publicly that, when the network neutrality issue first surfaced, Google initially was thinking of opposing it: "We could essentially buy prioritization that would ensure we would be the search engine used by everybody." Fortunately, wiser heads prevailed, and Google not only opposes throttling but is creating tools to help others in their opposition.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), a staunch defender of online freedoms, has released a throttling detector known as Switzerland — named after the country with a long history of political neutrality. The tool is designed to detect IP packets that have been forged or modified en route between clients, and to provide copies of the modified packets.

So if you find yourself a victim of ISP throttling, don't get mad; get busy finding a better provider, and don't hesitate to learn more about this topic and express your thoughts to your so-called representatives in the federal government.

Copyright © 2008 Michael J. Ross. All rights reserved.

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