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Wednesday, June 01, 2011

Inspecting the inspectors & throttlers - reverse engineering network policy

I first wrote three years ago about the likelihood of various companies or other organisations starting to "reverse engineer" operators' traffic management policies.

Indeed, one of the common features of most regulators' pronouncements on more "flexible" regimes for Net Neutrality is that any traffic management is absolutely transparent to the user. Clearly, that transparency will need to be tested, either by regulators, consumer advocacy organisations or application providers.

So a hat-tip to Azi Ronen's great blog on Traffic Management for spotting this research paper from the US state of Georgia, which does some great analysis of US ISPs' throttling activities. A whole range of other tools are also listed on this page: http://rk.posterous.com/tools-for-testing-your-internet-connection

Over time, I'm expecting to see much more granular approaches to this - for example tracking application-specific policies or other rules and controls. I've seen some analysis by Epitiro presented at a conference, which showed a certain ISP degrading IPsec traffic at certain times each day. It seems likely that many others will join this trend as well - the EFF has certainly been doing it for a while, for example. 

I also expect that Google, Apple, Netflix or others are collecting a huge amount of their own data and measurements about application performance metrics from smartphones and other devices. They probably have very good views on what looks like "natural" variation in congestion and throughput, versus that which looks "unnatural". As is the case with the Georgia study, any "messing about" with the IP stream will stick out like a sore thumb - as well any background optimisation, content adaptation and so forth.

In other words, operators' network policies are likely to be transparent - whether they want it or not.

What will be interesting is what happens in circumstances in which the network's performance appears to have been modified - in direct contradiction to an operator's marketing campaigns or the local laws. It will be unsurprising if we see some prosecutions for mis-selling or outright fraud in some cases.

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