Verizon's “Sitefinder-lite,” Cox Traffic Shaping (Without Lying), And The Shape of Things To Come

Jim Harper at Technology Liberation Front pinged me (sort of) to comment on reports that anyone who subscribes to Verizon’s FIOS broadband service who mistypes a domain name will now land on a Verizon search page. So, for example, trying to get to i-want-sprint-cell-phones.com will land you on a a page like this (my thanks to ace domain name practitioner John Berryhill for capturing this in a screen shot and putting it up on his web page). Meanwhile, reports have surfaced that Cox cable is also interfering with BitTorrent uploads, although at least Cox has the intelligence to admit from the start that it actively manages traffic, rather than go through several rounds of idiotic denials like Comcast (which is probably why the Cox issue is getting a lot less notice).

Briefly:

1) I ain’t that excited about the Verizon DNS redirection in the grand scheme of things. Yes, it breaks end-to-end, and I’m not happy about it. But unlike traffic shaping, this development was foreseen and approved of by the FCC and the Supreme Court in the Brand X case when both pegged DNS as the thing that made broadband access an “information service” and therefore free from pesky regulation. At least Verizon’s redirection doesn’t actually hurt the average user.

2) OTOH, it does raise serious privacy issues and highlights the general problems of letting the ISPs control all of this. There was, after all, a reason we regulated telcos and cable cos to keep user information private. It also starts to raise a very troubling question — what happens when network operators and application developers learn to distrust all the basic protocols under which the ‘net operates? It works fine for the first few guys. But what holds this together is everyone agreeing on a set of basic protocols. Eliminate the trust in those protocols, and things start to break down.

3) Some folks that gave a great big yawn to Comcast’s traffic shaping have gone ballistic over messing with DNS lookup. But both are natural consequences of turning this stuff over to ISPs. Folks who hate the thought of even limited government regulation of network management but also hate the thought ISPs messing with DNS and other protocols have some tough choices ahead.

Thoughts below . . . .

So What’s Verizon Up To With This “Redirection” Thing?

Some folks may remember when Verisign tried to monetize misspellings of .com and .net names at the registry level with a service called Sitefinder. If you looked up a .com or .net name that didn’t exist, instead of returning the usual error message Verisign took you to a special “landing page” offering to let you buy similar names and advertising whatever they thought was related. This created a heck of a ruckus — particularly among people who care about DNS protocols or who got offended at Verisign using their control of critical infrastructure to make a few extra bucks.

Unsurprisingly, some folks see substantial similarities here. True, Verizon doesn’t control a top-level domain, but it does provide broadband access for a lot of people. That makes it critical infrastructure, at least for those of us that care about “critical infrastructure” as different from toasters. Some folks also place this in the overall context of network neutrality. Still others place it in the context of Verizon’s efforts to eliminate competitors by retiring copper lines. In short, it represents one more assertion of control over how people communicate by a company with little competition and that works hard to keep it that way.

So Is It Yet Another Net Neutrality Smoking Gun?
To the surprise of those who think I see NN-violations under my pillow at night, I actually tend to agree with Tim Lee at Techdirt that, while annoying, Verizon’s redirection is not a network neutrality violation as I’ve always defined it. i.e., The broadband access provider getting in the way between a user and the service or content the user wants to use, upload, or download.

That doesn’t make the above criticisms wrong, but none of them is particularly exciting either. Which, I suppose is part of the problem. True, like Sitefinder, Verizon’s redirection does raise concerns with the continued degeneration of the end-to-end principle of internet design, i.e. the idea that nothing in the “core” of the network transporting bits should interfere with two devices at the “edge” of the network communicating. Furthermore this will, as David Robinson pointed out at my recent ACM panel on network neutrality, teach us all to disbelieve the protocols, disrupt the overall network ecology, and bring about the infocolypse the network engineers keep worrying about. While that’s a huge problem, I don’t confuse this with the problem of network neutrality, which is somewhat different in flavor (infocolypse is more like a combination of mint and chili peppers, whereas network neutrality has a more subtle palate and aroma making it generally more pleasing to the policy wonk. But I digress….)

I also find it less than exciting because, unlike Comcast’s decision to “manage” its network through a sophisticated and highly technical process known as “lying to our customers,” Verizon is messing around with DNS look up in a way most users don’t care about. And Verizon is decently well behaved about it as well, from what I understand. It doesn’t put anything you don’t want on your computer, and — so I’ve heard — it lets you opt out if you want. So it’s not terribly exciting as an organizing issue — except among the technorati.

Finally, the other big competitors for this sort of parking are either domain name “tasters”, or Microsoft with its default landing page embedded in IE (runner up — the embedded landing page for Safari). If the fight is primarily about who gets to monetize misspellings, then I have no reason to prefer MS to VZ. Sure, as a concept it bugs me. I’d like to see it different. But I can’t see getting more excited about this than lying to millions of subscribers and destroying the utility of major applications — which some people definitely do.

So It’s No Big Deal, Then?

Not that I wish to pass this off as boring-and-therefore-harmless. This highlights a number of alarming trends. First Matt Stoller is right that this is very similar to Verizon’s decision to retire copper lines — in more ways than he realizes. The decision to retire copper and the ability to mess with DNS lookup are direct results of FCC decisions designed to “encourage deployment and foster innovation.” In other words, from an FCC perspective, Verizon’s actions to monetize misspellings and eliminate copper to the home are features, not bugs, of the existing regulatory structure.

Why? Because the FCC under Powell (and later under Martin) has been desperately concerned about “producer incentives.” ‘If we don’t let the cable companies and phone companies find ways to eliminate competition and make big profits,’ says the FCC, ‘then they won’t build out fiber or develop new innovative services.’ So, knowing that the telcos would retire their copper lines and that the telcos and cable cos would seek to make money off customers in every conceivable way, the FCC deregulated — all in the name of promoting deployment and innovation.

Apparently, great ways to monetize misspellings are the kind of “innovation” the FCC thinks the public needs. With policies like these, it is small wonder that we are loosing our relevance in the global information economy, except in the area of online advertising.

It also raises a bunch of privacy concerns. Since this stuff is now entirely unregulated in terms of restrictions on information, etc., the absolute treasure trove of data Verizon will collect on its users in the aggregate, as well as the specific user information, is pretty scary. So while I don’t see Verizon’s “Sitefinder-lite” as a huge deal in and of itself, it raises issues that we should deal with now, except that no one with authority seems to care. Heck, as I observed above, under our current policy, commoditizing the customer is a feature, not a bug. And, based on previous previous practices of the Administration I can only conclude that the ability to spy on customers is also considered a feature, not a bug.

Then Why Are Some Folks More Excited About This Than About Comcast’s BitTorrent Blocking?

Which brings me to my final point. I find it highly amusing and somewhat telling that folks in the tech community who were quite blase´about the whole Comcast is screwing their customers by blocking BitTorrent and lying about it because that was potentially to relieve network congestion, are quite put out that Verizon is breaking the protocol stream for no reason but filthy lucre. But one is the inevitable side of the other. If the broadband access provider is the lord and master of the edge, then one must expect that such tampering will be driven by the pointy-haired-bosses at the top of the corporate food chain rather than the noble engineers who used to make network decisions back in the 1990s. The regulatory universe that permits Comcast to balance its network on the backs of BitTorrent users is the same universe that lets access providers mess with DNS — and absolutely guarantees that both will happen.

Which is why this stuff keeps spreading. For example, Cox apparently does pretty much the same thing as Verizon on DNS look up. Reports indicate Time Warner also redirects. And recent reports show Cox also throttling BitTorrent traffic (this time messing with uploads to eDonkey). Mind you, “the market” does seem to “discipline” network providers, in that (as reported by DSLReports.com) Cox came right out and ‘fessed up rather than going through several rounds of idiotic denials.

The response by the “hate neutrality violations but hate regulation more” crowd has been to create a website that chronicles network neutrality violations. That’s a useful tool, but in my opinion as a professional windmill tilter, I think it’s damn unlikely to impact corporate behavior. Because when we get up into markets measured in millions of subscribers, the behavior of a handful of technically savvy individuals doesn’t amount to a hill ‘o beans in this mixed up crazy network. Lets face it, how many actual Comcast or Cox subscribers are following this story? How many of those have braved the early termination fees and hassles with switching to actually switch, assuming these users even have a broadband choice? As Joel Waldfogel pointed out with media ownership, you all get to live in the world the majority deserves.

So if you want to defend the stuff you care about, you need to defend the stuff you don’t care about. Or, alternatively, learn to live with the stuff you don’t like because you think the cost of fixing it is too high. Which means that engineers who want unrestricted freedom to manage networks regardless of user preferences (and who are indifferent to user disclosure), need to learn to live with broken DNS. Or, if breaking the essential protocols of the internet is something you find real dangerous, you need to surrender some of the autonomy on network management.

Hey, life is hard choices. I don’t invent the choices, but I don’t ignore ’em either.

Stay tuned . . . .

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