Net Neutrality and Its Impact on Your Privacy

by Sean Hope
CIAN, Inc.

If regulation continues to favor ISPs, the Internet we’ve grown accustomed to will cease to exist.

Many would argue that one of the most prevailing technical subject matters over the past several years—and even more prevalent over the past couple of months—is the Internet’s openness: the argument over “net neutrality.” A central characteristic of the Internet, openness applies to all aspects surrounding standards, access to networks, availability of information and governance. Net neutrality is a topic that everyone should appreciate, as current legislation surrounding the Internet’s openness will profoundly affect not only individual consumers, but businesses alike.

In regard to openness and the Internet, the phrase “net neutrality” applies an established concept: that no entity should be able to control, limit or censor the information, content or the medium in which it is delivered. This reasoning is currently applied (and federally mandated) to parcel shipping services, the telephone network, all common carriers and public utilities. These services are delivered impartially and without special prioritization. Until recently, this ideology was also applied to the Internet, as customers were able to determine what content or online services they used and dictate the method in which that material was accessed online without discretion from their internet service provider (ISP).

In 2005, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), armed with the mindset that it was leveling the playing field among internet providers, changed the classification of internet services and broadband subscriptions provided over the telephone network, exempting them from regulation and neutrality. This legislation ushered in the ability for broadband providers and telecommunication companies to devise ways to provide their services in a way that operationally and financially benefits them the most.

You may be asking, “Who is fighting to keep consumer interest in mind and the internet providers in check?” The answer, of course, is the group that would be hurt most by the loss of net neutrality—internet content creators. The Open Internet Coalition (openInternetcoalition.com) is a collaborative effort of many consumers and content companies such as Google, Skype, PayPal, eBay and Facebook. Together, they fight to preserve consumer choice and economic growth through an open Internet. Organizations like these are extremely anxious over recent significant decisions being swayed in the direction of internet service providers.

During testimony before the FCC in late 2007, Comcast admitted to manipulating BitTorrent traffic, with the rationale that BitTorrent traffic consumed excessive bandwidth, and by throttling it, Comcast was able to provide better service for all of its customers. Critics were enraged, claiming that the ISP was violating a net neutrality principle by giving lower network priority to certain traffic. The FCC sided with the critics and ordered Comcast to cease its throttling and prioritization of BitTorrent traffic. Comcast, while still complying with FCC orders, ended its throttling of BitTorrent traffic and directed its attention instead to high-bandwidth customers. Earlier this year, the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit sided with Comcast, stating that the FCC never had the relevant authority to rule over the initial testimony. Comcast would be able to throttle traffic as it deemed necessary.

If regulation continues to favor ISPs, the Internet we’ve grown accustomed to will cease to exist. ISPs are attempting to migrate toward a tiered or packaged internet solution under the guise that it will ultimately benefit the consumer. Much like a customer currently subscribes to cable television services, ISPs intend to provide limited internet packages. The ability to stream video, use email, pay bills online, access news websites, utilize VPN solutions, browse social networking sites, order groceries from your refrigerator and even the ability to use specific browser software would all be controlled and priced by your internet service provider. In order for an ISP to provide only the services a customer has paid for in such a granular manner, it must be able to track and control all aspects of the customer’s internet activity. Implementing an internet policy framework that ensures accountability all but abolishes privacy. Using your imagination, you can conceive how this introduces a multitude of other concerns. And these concerns are not distant—recent agreements between Google, a content creator, and Verizon, an ISP, could gain support from both sides, pushing forward compromise legislation. 

Today, ISPs already have some ability to track customer activity. The current controls, however, can be easily circumvented by anyone with a little network experience. In order for ISPs to successfully run a tiered internet framework, the controls will become much more extensive and restrictive. With this framework in place, customers may be required to authenticate to the ISP’s network after which their internet activity is controlled and logged. These logs can then be used to profile customers and possibly sold to third-party companies in targeted marketing efforts, turning your browsing habits into market research.

Another fear is that ISP bandwidth will be sold to the highest bidder. Imagine that a big media provider has the ability to pay for priority status on a particular ISP’s network. Depending on implementation, this could dictate how much access the ISP’s customers have to that media provider’s competitors. If access to competing sites is desired, customers may have to shop around for an ISP that provides service to those sites at a price the customer is willing to pay. This is only one example. It could progress to the point where by simply subscribing to a particular ISP, it would be possible to deduce what news sites you prefer, what political party you belong to, and even what bank you use.

This article is not intended to bring fear, uncertainty or doubt, but to educate and bring awareness to the impact that net neutrality has on your privacy. If you are interested in additional information, talk to your congressman. The websites openinternetcoalition.com and savetheinternet.com are also excellent sources of information on net neutrality. iBi

Sean Hope, CISSP, CISA, CIEH, is a senior security analyst with CIAN, Inc., on the web at ciancenter.com.

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