Telstra's perilous P2P throttle plans

Telstra’s announcement this week of a trial that will slow peer-to-peer connections over the Telstra ADSL network is another backwards step by a company struggling to put customers before profit.

The purpose of the trial is to test technology that can be used to reduce traffic on the Telstra ADSL network and the same technology can be used to identify people using peer-to-peer networks to download or swap music and movies.

With the trial reportedly set to commence next week one has to wonder if it’s Telstra’s intention to provide the information learned from the trial to government authorities and media organisations that want to stamp out peer-to-peer file sharing?

What about people using peer-to-peer for legitimate purposes such as those using Skype?

Telstra may argue that the sole purpose of the trial is to reduce traffic load on the ADSL network – a network that is to be replaced over the next ten years by the national broadband network (NBN). But one can assert an equally strong argument that the Telstra network has always been short of aggregation and back-haul capacity and this trial further demonstrates this.

The telco does state in its announcement that knowledge is sought of the effect that traffic shaping will have on the majority of customers and especially for customers that have started to use real-time entertainment services like television over the internet (IPTV).

Tackling capacity constraints  

We have now moved into the next phase of internet growth and this will be fuelled by television and movies being watched online. Over the next decade carriers and ISPs will need to invest in network capacity to facilitate the expected growth in demand for internet television and movie delivery. Services such as the ABC’s iView have been an instant success and the number of people using iView is growing daily.

Google has become so frustrated at the slow network access being provided to US customers that it has commenced Google Fiber which is forcing US carriers to reduce costs and increase internet connection speeds.

It appears that Telstra has adopted the alternate approach which is to throttle services such as peer-to-peer rather than to invest in more aggregation and back-haul capacity.

What's Telstra going to throttle next - games?

The telco states that the trial is limited to customers in Victoria and participation will be voluntary. It has advised that the trial does not involve any monitoring or tracking of the sites visited by customers and the trial’s outcomes will be collected in accordance with the Telstra Privacy Statement.

However, Telstra customers should be concerned about the privacy and security implications of this trial which includes the use of Deep Packet Inspection (DPI), a technique approved for use by the ITU in a closed door session in December 2012.

A technique that the US Centre for Democracy and Technology warned against in November last year, when it stated:

The telecommunications standards arm of the UN has quietly endorsed the standardisation of technologies that could give governments and companies the ability to sift through all of an Internet user's traffic -- including emails, banking transactions, and voice calls -- without adequate privacy safeguards. The move suggests that some governments hope for a world where even encrypted communications may not be safe from prying eyes.

Recently the government used Section 313 of the Telecommunication Act to implement internet filters. This section is intended to be used to prevent criminal acts being carried out over telecommunication networks. However, attempts by content producers – film and music studios – to use Section 313 and other legislative provisions to prevent customers from breaching corporation law are ongoing.

On 20 April 2012 the High Court upheld the original lower court decision that iiNet was not responsible for copyright infringements by its customers. This was an important precedent as to where responsibility lies between the customer and service provider.

A lot of question marks

The trial may seem innocuous but there are a number of pertinent questions that need to be asked.

What's to stop Telstra either selling or voluntarily providing information obtained using DPI to content producers so that they can take action against individual Telstra customers?

What would Telstra do if content producers made it a condition of a license for television, movie and music content that Telstra was to use DPI to identify and throttle the connections of customers that use peer-to-peer networks?

What will Telstra do if subpoenaed to provide this information in any future court action taken by content producers? Even if the court was mistaken to permit such a subpoena the immediate effect would be devastating for many Australians even if the matter was overturned at a later time similar to the iiNet High Court decision.

Another thing to keep in mind is that Telstra will be doing the content producers a big favour by collecting information using DPI. This information will be so enticing to content producers that we should expect no stone left unturned in their effort to gain access.

Telstra’s trial of DPI is misguided and communications minister Stephen Conroy should step in to prevent Telstra using DPI for the purpose of throttling peer-to-peer networks. What's needed is a national review of the use of DPI and legislation that would severely punish carriers or ISPs (including immediate loss of license) and jail time for executives that made information collected using DPI available to any third party organisation.

Australians should be very worried about the privacy and security implications of the use of DPI. This is a monster that must be stopped now before consumers end up paying a hefty price.

Mark Gregory is a Senior Lecturer in Electrical and Computer Engineering at RMIT University