When do ISP notifications become too intrusive?

Los Angeles-based technology consultant Lauren Weinstein is calling 2008 an important year in the fight to maintain network neutrality.

Weinstein, founder of People for Internet Responsibility (PFIR), broke news on his blog last month that Rogers Communications Inc. planned to use insertion technology to inject corporate content into unaffiliated Web pages. Weinstein posted a screen shot of a Rogers-modified Google home page, branded with a notice from the Toronto-based ISP. The message, which appeared embedded into the body of the Web page, warns Rogers Yahoo! users who are close to reaching their monthly bandwidth capacity of the potential penalties they could face.

The leaked screenshot, which Rogers later confirmed was a test of a new service it plans to launch later this year, was met with harsh criticism by net neutrality supporters on the Web. As it is often defined, net neutrality is the idea that ISPs should treat all Web sites and traffic equally. According to Weinstein, if Rogers continues forward with this service it could violate these neutrality principles.

“Whether material is being removed or added into the data stream, those situations are what appear to me as absolute and clear-cut violations of neutrality rules,” Weinstein said. “And this kind of thing wouldn’t be acceptable to people if it happened on their telephone calls or on their mail.”

In an e-mail message Thursday, Taanta Gupta, vice-president of communication at Rogers, reiterated that the ISP is “still in trial on this modification vehicle and on the language of that notification.”

And in an e-mail last month, Gupta defended the notification service and denied claims that Rogers’ actions violated any principles of net neutrality.

“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 “does not have e-mails for all [of its] customers.”

Weinstein believes Rogers will mostly likely press forward toward full-scale deployment of the system despite the negative publicity.

“Rogers assumes people will come to accept it and they believe if they frame it in the right way, they’ll be able to marginalize anyone who complains about it and portray them as somewhat out of the mainstream,” Weinstein said.

One such argument Weinstein expects from the ISP giant is to make the connection between this Internet notification service and the rolling weather or “Amber Alert” messages often broadcast on the bottom of television screens.

“[This would] allow Rogers to argue that anyone opposed to that sort of Internet insertion must obviously be some sort of anti-social, uncaring pervert – or worse,” Weinstein wrote in a recent blog posting.

Rogers spokesperson Gupta would not comment Thursday on whether the company would use the insertion technology for Amber Alerts or other marketing purposes. However, San Antonio, Tex.-based PerfTech Inc. – the company which supplies Rogers with the insertion technology – boasts to Internet providers visiting its site that its product will “revolutionize subscriber communications while realizing the unlimited potential of in-browser marketing.”

More ComputerWorld Canada coverage of the Net Neutrality debate

Canadians show support for Net Neutrality

As for what net neutrality supporters can do to combat similar actions by their ISPs, Weinstein argued the importance of widespread page encryption over the Internet. He argued that if Web sites and services encrypted their data, the ability of the ISP to do anything with this data is lost.

“They can’t insert information into your Web pages and stick a banner onto Google, for example, if they can’t see any of the data in the page,” Weinstein said. “So, encryption is really the ultimate defence to this. Also, it brings with it a whole bunch of positive aspects in terms of general privacy, which I think many people would be concerned about in our current technical environment.”

Weinstein said that the silver lining to this story could be that it speeds along the process for more Internet communications to become encrypted. But he warned, short of encryption, there is no limit to what ISPs can do once they get into the mindset that it’s “their data and not the user’s data.”

“The ISPs have unwittingly provided some real world examples of the sort of things they are apparently willing to do, so this suggests to me that this year will be really important in addressing these issues,” he said.

Another aspect to the Rogers situation, as referenced by Weinstein and other industry observers, is the legality of the service. Russell McOrmond, an Internet consultant and head of the Digital Copyright Canada blog, said last month 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 that 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.”

He said in these instances, the site would become a modified work and thus considered a worse violation of copyright than verbatim distribution for free.

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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