Deep Packet Inspection, or: The end of the net as we’ve known it?
"Like a daydreaming postal worker, the network simply moves the data and leaves interpretation of the data to the applications at either end. This minimalism in design is intentional. It reflects both a political decision about disabling control and a technological decision about the optimal network design."
(Lawrence Lessig: Code and other Laws of Cyberspace,
New York: Basic Books 1999, p. 32)
Technological advances in routers and network monitoring equipment now allow Internet Service Providers (ISPs) to monitor the content of TCP/IP packets in real-time and make decisions accordingly about how to handle them. If rolled out widely, this technology known as deep packet inspection (DPI) would turn the internet into something completely new. Lawrence Lessig almost ten years ago reminded us that its design is not a natural given, but the outcome of political and technological decisions and trends. DPI therefore has the potential to affect the fundamental properties of the internet as a global public infrastructure and therefore also to alter the capacity of global internet governance.DPI is reportedly motivated by three considerations on the ISPs’ side:
- They are under regulatory or public pressure by intellectual property owners and government agencies to control and filter the flow of illegal content.
- They pursue a strategy of vertical integration with specific content providers by slowing down their competitors’ content or by inserting ads into content served by third parties;
- They try to allocate bandwidth more efficiently and fairly among users, especially in the more bandwidth-constrained last mile and in the mobile internet.
- Empirical phase: It will examine the technological and design trends and true scope of implementation of DPI capabilities by ISPs, and the economic and regulatory drivers and barriers promoting as well as constraining its use. The data for this phase will be gathered in several case studies (different countries and ISPs) through desk research and interviews. Relevant indicators will include: design and deployment of DPI technologies; design, availability and deployment of DPI circumvention technologies such as encryption; bandwidth supply and demand for backbone and mobile internet; regulatory and other legal obligations for ISPs; economic indicators like ISPs’ market development and revenue trends.
- Explanatory phase: It then will attempt to assess how these empirical developments can be explained. Drawing on political, economic, and socio-technological theories, it will derive more specific hypotheses and models and test them with the data.
- Normative phase: The project will then assess the implications of DPI on human rights, such as the privacy and freedom of expression of internet users; on market failures and competition policies; and on norms of good infrastructure governance such as the “common carrier” concept or “network neutrality”.
- Praxeological phase: Based on the explanatory models developed before, it will derive recommendations on how to most efficiently rectify the normative problems identified.