Telstra reading your mail and throttling your web

Poorly executed Photoshop image: Telstra's Michael Lawrey (left) death-stared by internet creator Tim Berner's-Lee (right)

Telstra announced plans yesterday to categorise Internet traffic and throttle it depending on what type of data it is. Specifically but not limited to, peer-2-peer (P2P) or torrent sharing. It’s an idea that I don’t like but, as an ex-Telstra employee, it’s one I can completely under$tand. According to Telstra, 80 per cent of its “non-value adding” traffic is generated by a minority of users (no breakdown of the type of data that these power users are transceiving, but the implication is that it’s P2P).

Michael Lawrey, Telstra’s Executive Director, puts it bluntly, "I'd rather not have those 80 per cent as customers. I'd rather someone else had them as customers". Yes—openly penalising customers who’re making the most of their expensive Internet plan is a bad thing, apparently. Which demonstrates that even Telstra can be as small-minded on big issues as the rest of us (but then they haven’t really had a balanced executive… ever).

On the surface of it, Telstra’s plan to throttle certain types of bandwidth use seems like a legit way for a hard working Aussie company to improve the profitability of its network. But are they really only looking at balancing the mix of traffic? In Telstra’s own words, “this trial is the shaping of specific services (including some peer to peer (P2P) services) in certain circumstances, to determine what impact this has on total overall customer experience of time critical experiences for real time entertainment”.

The problem with that statement is that “specific services… in certain circumstances”, is not at all specific and the circumstances are uncertain. An example, if Telstra has a content partnership with Channel Nine, what’s to stop them throttling traffic from ABC’s iView or Seven’s PLUS7? It’s a question that has been raised in the USA in recent years. Oh, before you say it, I challenge any notion that suggests “it’s Telstra’s network so they can do as they please”. No! Using the Internet to do your banking is just as, or perhaps more vital than driving on a road to visit your bank in person. Regardless of ISP and carrier, we have a right to freely access the Internet (six countries have actually written into law in). Sadly, John Howard sold off Telstra so we don’t quite have the control over that vital infrastructure that we deserve—fffffffuck you John Howard and bring on the NBN!

So if we accept that Telstra has a long-term plan to rank traffic on its network, one of their proposed methods is also of great concern. Deep Packet Inspection (DPI) could be used to analyse the origin, destination and type of data in order to categorise it. For now Telstra’s trial doesn’t drill down to this level, but they haven’t ruled it out (I’m imagining it has been green-lighted in principle and this is just a test of systems and business processes).

Well-known technology rights advocate Geordie Guy nails DPI on his site. He equates Telstra’s possible use of DPI to Australia Post opening your mail and reading it; “Telstra are proposing to open the packets [of data], the same as Australia Post could open the letters, and examine the actual correspondence to confirm they are cool with it. In particular they seem curious if the correspondence includes information that movie and music companies like to assert is illegal but isn’t in Australia.”

Without warrant, it’s not cool for Telstra to even consider opening your email, porn stash, torrent or eBay purchase data, as much as it’s not cool for Australia Post to open your snail mail Telstra statement. It’s not cool for Telstra to start a precedent of throttling traffic containing content that it determines is in competition with its own. Cynics will label it a conspiracy theory—but why take the risk of allowing Telstra to get away with this crap? If they get away with it, other ISPs will have no choice but to throttle in response.

I had the privilege of seeing Sir Tim Berners-Lee talk the other day. If you don't know his name, you should—he's best known for inventing the web. 'HTTP colon forward slash, forward slash' that's Tim's doing. Anyway, Tim's talk was essentially about a utopian openness—creating an open web where information can be shared freely. One of the most important things he stated was this: "Like the press the web must be independent of government and big business". WORD!

Tell them you’re not happy with what they propose (c/o Geordie Guy): Telstra’s Twitter presence is at @telstra. You can complain to them here. The Office of the Information Commissioner who can take your complaints about online privacy is here.

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