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ISPs have the ability to stick their fingers into our internet experience and become something less than a neutral internet provider.

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This is Leo Notenboom for askleo.info.

I get many questions that deal with the ability of ISPs and others to monitor, track, or trace what we do on the internet. In the case of ISPs the answer has always been "well, they certain have the technology, but you're just not that interesting to spy on".

And for the most part I still believe that's true.

However apparently you might be interesting enough to advertise to.

This week one ISP started testing something that highlights the incredible power they have to muck about with what we do on the internet.

Rogers, a large ISP in Canada, started testing technology that allowed them to insert ads into the web pages you view. The example that's appearing in the news outlets is a screen shot of the Google home page with ads for one of its competitors, Yahoo, plastered across the top - something Google would certainly never do.

The ads were inserted by the ISP.

"Network neutrality" is the concept at play here. Network neutrality, in layman's terms, means that the providers of the network that is the internet should keep their paws off the traffic that flows over it; they should remain neutral.

Neutrality can be violated in several ways. Until now, the most common fear was that an ISP who also happened to provide telephony, be it voice-over-ip or one of the existing telephone companies, could use its network hardware to make competitive services perform worse or simply fail. We've also heard reports of ISPs attempting to block or depreciate certain kinds of traffic entirely: most notably peer-to-peer traffic.

In these cases the ISP is imposing its own value judgments on the type of traffic that flows across its network.

That's decidedly not a neutral position.

And now we come to content insertion.

Adding ads under some circumstances to what you see is annoying, but that's about as bad as the current scenario gets. Let's face it, over the years there have been ISPs and other services who've built there entire business model around providing free or low cost access in exchange for showing you ads. At least they were up-front about it from the start.

What's more concerning here is how this act highlights the incredible power and ability of ISPs and network providers to stick their fingers into your internet experience. I know I'm bordering on some uncharacteristic paranoia, but imagine an ISP that doesn't just block or slowdown content, but perhaps modifies search results or other web pages in ways beyond just adding ads.

What's needed is a clear adherence to network neutrality principals.

And for that to happen it's probably time for more people to understand exactly what it means.

I'd love to hear what you think. Visit askleo.info and enter 12082 in the go to article number box to access the show notes, the transcript and to leave me a comment. While you're there, browse the hundreds of technical questions and answers on the site.

Till next time, I'm Leo Notenboom, for askleo.info.

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Article C3238 - December 15, 2007 « »

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Leo Leo A. Notenboom has been playing with computers since he was required to take a programming class in 1976. An 18 year career as a programmer at Microsoft soon followed. After "retiring" in 2001, Leo started Ask Leo! in 2003 as a place for answers to common computer and technical questions. More about Leo.

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4 Comments
Dave B
December 17, 2007 6:23 AM

This is one of those issues that becomes more and more complex as the onion is peeled away - often leaving me wondering if there isn't a single answer.

For example, the peer-to-peer issue. While the technology has no inherent intent for use, the majority of volume-users are only using it for activities that break copyright licensing. In addition, these users are soaking up a huge percentage of the available ISP bandwidth. Does the ISP have an obligation to its majority customers to protect their level of service? Does this include throttling the minority's use of tools such as peer-to-peer?

Some of the ISPs are now throttling all peer-to-peer traffic - some are throttling (or canceling) all users who are outliers on the high end of the usage spectrum.

If everyone used the spectrum in a similar fashion, this would be an easy question to answer. In the end, I could understand throttling the available bandwidth for those users who dramatically exceed common usage in order to provide high quality service to the majority, then hope (is this naive?) that competition (cable, FIOS, wireless) will drive advances in service.

Leo A. Notenboom
December 18, 2007 11:37 AM

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My take is that throttling (especially undocumented or hidden throttling) isn't
the answer. Usage-based fees are.

For example, your basic internet connection comes with some relatively high
bandwidth included per month. Something that 'normal' people would NEVER reach.
Once you exceed that bandwidth, you pay more. This makes it financially
infeasible for the majority of illegal file sharing while allowing ISPs to
recoup the cost of providing infrastructure for those willing to pay.

Leo


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Lou Gascon
December 21, 2007 10:46 PM

Hello Leo
neutrality mmm
I appear to be have a problem with this at the moment. Not with the ISP, but with Browsers I'm using and their search efforts...
In my quest to reduce resource using programs, I am trying to replace FFox & IE7 with something that might use less resources...!
Currently I am trying SlimBrowser by FlashPeak...
This comes preinstalled with a search program called MySearch, and offers one or two of their own suggestions at every search and on every search page, even though google is set as the default search engine - I am not best pleased...!
This browser is a trial replacement for Maxthon2 which I was loving until they went from 1.5 something to the current versions - suddenly, when I make a search (albeit throught the add-on patched Google search box that I installed), the search is forced via the address bar through Maxthons own search engine, and again places its own links for my perusal - this also now takes 3 to 4 times longer to bring the results home - grrrr
I have tried to stop or alter the way Maxthon does its searches, but to no avail.
Currently, I am wondering whether I can deselect or uninstall MySearch from SlimBrowser via the Toolbars Folder...?
and if I can, can I replace it with my usual Google search box which is fast and great and offers an extra button to search site only and places a clickable word search onto the banner of the menu which is a fantastic time saving utility...
FFox was using hundreds of Mb's to run, and I don't need to tell you about IE7...
Opera won't let me have it my way - although I understand they are the fastest...?
so who else is there...?
I'm currently toying with Amaya - shall I or sharn't I...? I dunno. I just wish some company would come up with a browser that done it all and showed all the pages in correct WC3 spec - I'd even pay to have that on my box...
ce la vie
Merry Xmas Leo
Lou

Andrew
December 22, 2007 4:23 AM

This is a big issue with both ISP's tampering with content and throttling of users and services. I did a librarian and Information Studies degree and these people are called gatekeepers of knowledge. Gatekeepers are sort of censors, some of the best gatekeepers are the CEO's secretary but here we are again being protected or manipulated by the gatekeepers who's adgenda we don't know. Scary stuff thinks I.

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