Rogers Communications Inc. plans to unveil technology that allows it to inject corporate content into any Web site its subscribers visit, but the move is generating outrage from net neutrality proponents as well as search engine giant Google Inc.
Earlier this week, a screen shot of a Rogers-modified Google home page – branded with a notice from the Toronto-based ISP – surfaced on numerous tech blogs. The message, which appears embedded into the body of the Web page, warns users who are close to reaching their monthly bandwidth capacity of the potential penalties they could face. Rogers later confirmed it is testing this service for a potential first quarter 2008 launch.
In the leaked screen shot, the top third of Google’s search page is obstructed by the corporate message; a fact that was troubling to the Mountain View, Calif.-based search engine.
“We are concerned about these reports,” a Google spokesperson said in an e-mail to ComputerWorld Canada. “As a general principle, we believe that maintaining the Internet as a neutral platform means that carriers shouldn’t be able to interfere with Web content without users’ permission. We are in the process of contacting the relevant parties to bring this to a quick resolution.”
And Google isn’t the only one raising the net neutrality issue, as many industry observers and bloggers were critical of Rogers’ new notification methods.
“This highlights the level of control network controllers have and in doing so further supports the need for net neutrality legislation,” Michael Geist, research chair of Internet and e-commerce law at the University of Ottawa, said.
As it is commonly defined, net neutrality is the idea that ISPs should treat all Web sites and traffic equally. But Taanta Gupta, vice-president of communications at Rogers, denied claims that the ISP is violating net neutrality and defended the notification service.
“This is not data substitution,” Gupta responded in an e-mail. “It is not linked to any specific search engine or Web site. It is simply a real-time message to a customer indicating that the customer has reached 75 or 100 per cent of their bandwidth limit.”
Gupta continued, saying that real-time notifications are more effective at reaching customers than e-mails and that Rogers “do not have e-mails for all [of its] customers.”
But according to Internet policy critics such as Pippa Lawson, executive director at the University of Ottawa’s Canadian Internet Policy and Public Interest Clinic (CIPPIC), the ill-conceived and intrusive actions of the ISP are similar to those of spyware and malware companies and said it Rogers own fault that its ruined email as a useful medium for communication.
“I’m a Rogers subscriber and I just don’t look at the stuff they send anymore, because most of it is crap,” Lawson said. “Rogers has chosen to muddy their e-mail with stuff that its subscribers don’t need or want to hear about. This is exactly the medium for this kind of important information and they should be using it for these notifications rather than ongoing promotions and advertising.”
Another blogger, co-editor Boing Boing co-editor Cory Doctorow, said Rogers’ actions could be the first in a line of more serious net neutrality violations.
“There has been speculation that Rogers would love to insert advertisements via these means, which would certainly be coherent with its known behaviour lately,” Doctorow said.
Some industry observers have even gone so far to question the legality of the service. Russell McOrmond, an Internet consultant and head of the Digital Copyright Canada blog, said that because Rogers forces its users onto its Web proxy, modifying and distribution Web pages could become a copyright issue. According to McOrmond, when a Rogers subscriber accesses a particular Web site, the next person that accesses said Web site gets the images and content from Rogers cache rather than having to load it themselves.
A Web proxy services the requests of its clients by forwarding requests to other servers and having clients connects to the proxy when accessing files or Web pages. A proxy server may also cache the first request to the remote server, so it could save the information for later. The cache acts as a temporary storage area where frequently accessed data can be stored for rapid access and future use can be made by accessing the cached copy rather than re-fetching or recompiling the original data.
“When Rogers modifies the html file in their cache and sends it to its subscribers, it means the Web page has become a derivative work of the original page under copyright,” McOrmond said. “So if the licence for the particular Web site being modified does not allow for derivative works, Rogers would become a pirate. This is a modified work which is considered a worse violation of copyright than verbatim distribution for free.”
Rogers spokespeople did not respond to a series of follow-up questions sent via e-mail Tuesday afternoon.