The Internet's Gatekeepers

Nearly 60 countries around the world censor Internet communications in some form, but Egypt’s recent complete shutdown of Internet communications was unprecedented.

Should free and open communication—particularly free and open communication via the Internet—be considered an unalienable right? How much control should a government or Internet service provider wield over its citizens’ communications?

This is very much a global issue and, while it’s easy to say that every citizen should have “uncensored access” to the Internet, such a statement is too glib, and here’s why.

If we have learned anything in Internet security from the past 10 years, it’s that a completely open Internet can make it as difficult to communicate safely and effectively as a closed one. The past decade witnessed a meteoric rise of unwanted traffic in the form of spam and cybercrime, made possible through cheap and easy Internet connections. Should spammers engaged in mass-marketing (as well as other more nefarious activities) be able to communicate as freely and easily as Egyptian protestors? Where do we draw that line?

Second, while censorship is prominent in countries like Egypt and China, Americans face more subtle—but equally serious—concerns about the quality of our network access, with issues ranging from network neutrality to competition in access networks. Our government’s decisions affect our Internet access quality and speed. Six years ago the Supreme Court decided Internet service providers (ISPs) were under no obligation to lease their infrastructure to competing carriers. This has effectively created a near-monopoly for Internet access in many regions of the United States and left users either unable to exchange certain types of traffic (such as when Comcast blocked BitTorrent) or with flagging Internet speeds (such as when AT&T delayed its rollout of fiber to the home as part of its U-Verse offering).

Finally, even if citizens can access the Internet, they must also be able to verify information sources. It’s not just whether Facebook, Twitter or YouTube is blocked—it’s whether governments or other organizations are using such sites to spread propaganda.

All of these issues, both at home and abroad, revolve around one question: Who should be the Internet gatekeeper, and what rules should be applied at the gate? I believe the foundations of rights in the digital world rest on two pillars: transparency and choice. First, the actions of ISPs and governments should be transparent; if they take certain actions to restrict, throttle or otherwise manipulate communications or information, users must know about it. Second, users must be able to choose their ISP. If they do not like the performance or policies of a particular ISP, they should have the ability to switch providers.

Transparency is thornier than it appears. Because ISPs do not publicize the way they prioritize different kinds of traffic, we must reverse-engineer these practices with measurement tools. Even notions such as “Internet speed” are complicated and can’t be represented by a single number. Also, different users may be concerned with different performance metrics; gamers might be interested in network service that delivers traffic with the least amount of delay, while those who stream movies may care more about receiving a high quality signal with few errors.

At Georgia Tech we are working with the FCC to give consumers a better sense of whether they’re getting what they are paying for, in terms of ISP performance, and also to educate them on how they might coax better performance out of their home networks.

But in the end, transparency is only helpful if users can choose among Internet service providers. Unfortunately in the United States, users have very little choice. We must reconsider ways to make the ISP market more competitive, perhaps drawing on our own experiences in forcing competition among utility providers.

Though the events in Egypt seem far away, the central questions about information access are quite relevant here at home. Demanding that the ISP policies and behaviors be transparent—and providing users more choice in the ISPs they can use—helps ensure that everyone’s Internet is less vulnerable to the whims of a single gatekeeper.

Nick Feamster is an assistant professor in the School of Computer Science at Georgia Tech. His research focuses on many aspects of computer networking and networked systems, including the design, measurement, and analysis of network routing protocols, network operations and security, and anonymous communication systems. In 2010 he was recognized by Technology Review magazine as one of the world’s top innovators under the age of 35 for his research in computer networks, and he also received a Rising Star Award from the Association for Computing Machinery. Feamster is featured in the March 2011 issue of Discover magazine in a multi-page exploration of tomorrow’s Internet.

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