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Saving the Internet from its Friends

January 31st, 2011 by | 2 Comments »

I’m going to Australia in April to give a keynote on the innovation potential of Next Generation Networks for the Australian Telecom Users Group. As you probably know, Australia has committed some 40 billion dollars to build a nationwide, mostly fiber, network that will allow some 93% of the population to enjoy 1 Gbps access to local resources, much as we do on our home and office networks in most of the world today. There’s considerable controversy about this network, as you would expect: When the government gets into the networking business, you can bet there are going to be strings attached, and there are always other projects worthy of funding that would like the money.

It’s well known that roughly a quarter of all Internet traffic today is porn, but that fact is nobody’s business in most Western democracies when porn consumers are paying for their own fixes. Another 25% is pirated video content, which is remarkable but not necessarily an immediate crisis in those countries that don’t have a Hollywood or a Bollywood who are more likely to consume pirated video than to lose jobs and revenues because of it. But as soon as the taxpayers take responsibility for directly funding the infrastructure, these uses become matters of public policy rather than personal choices.

It should come as no surprise then that the Australian government is floating a rigorous anti-piracy bill in advance of the deployment of the National Broadband Network; in fact, the bill’s author is Digital Economy Minister Stephen Conroy, perhaps the NBN’s biggest booster.

And as we can also expect, anti-piracy measures elicit reactions from Mom’s basement: piracy buffs launched DDoS attacks against the website of the Australian Federation Against Copyright Theft last September, slowing it down for minutes at a time.

There is a certain constituency that wants the personal freedom benefits of a high-capacity national network without the restrictions, of course, and a global one at that. Making the case for unrestricted, taxpayer-funded networking generally takes the form of an appeal to Internet Freedom principles. This is happening in Australia in spades, and while Internet Freedom is a valid principle, some of its boosters can lead debates into some counter-productive and frankly absurd dead-ends.

Australia’s version of the UK’s Guardian newspaper, The Age, ran a story today that directly compares the government of the United States to that of Egypt. In their estimation, the Senate’s draft “Internet Kill Switch” bill is pretty much the same as Egyptian strongman Hosni Mubarak’s decision to take Egypt off the Internet in an attempt to quell dissent:

As Egypt’s government attempts to crackdown on street protests by shutting down internet and mobile phone services, the US is preparing to reintroduce a bill that could be used to shut down the [I]nternet…

One of Australia’s top communications experts, University of Sydney associate professor Bjorn Landfeldt, had previously railed against the idea, saying shutting down the internet would “inflict an enormous damage on the entire world”.

He said it would be like giving a single country “the right to poison the atmosphere, or poison the ocean”.

This is rather amazing to say the least. The Senate bill, the “Protecting Cyberspace as a National Asset Act”, is a 200 page document that will be vetted, argued, amended, and maybe passed and maybe killed; the first attempt in 2010 was unsuccessful. The bill has robust First Amendment provisions that will prevent it from being used to suppress dissent, and beyond that it applies to a country in which parties can choose to disobey Executive Orders without fear of summary execution.

Perhaps these nuances are too subtle for the writers at The Age who apparently see the US as “North Korea on Steroids” or something equally distasteful, but they seem fairly obvious where I sit. There’s also the little issue of regime change taking place in this country in a peaceful process that we repeat every two years without battling the military in the streets and that sort of thing; this brings to mind the fact that one of the benefits of a NGN is improved access to information, even for The Age’s hit-conscious writers.

Gautham Nagesh at The Hill got it right:

The legislation expressly forbids any action that would violate the First Amendment and also prohibits limiting internet traffic, emails, and other forms of communication (except those between critical infrastructure providers) unless no other action would prevent a regional or national catastrophe.

There is simply no legitimate comparison between the Senators’ intent and what is taking place in Egypt today.

The technical side of the debate is especially bizarre. The Age’s technical expert, Bjorn Landfeldt, is a visiting professor from Sweden who’s done some good work on network congestion, traffic engineering, and Quality of Service; he’s not in line for a Nobel Prize in political science or Internet operations, however.

Can the US take Australia off the Internet, as he claims? Actually, no, we can’t. It certainly is the case that a ridiculous amount of Internet backbone traffic routes through the US (even if it’s diminishing.) But if all the routes to and from Australia that pass through the US were turned off, the Aussies should have sufficient connectivity to get to Europe, Asia, Africa, and South America without our help, albeit at a slightly slower rate; it’s a reasonable guess that getting to Canada, Mexico, the Caribbean, and Central America would suffer substantially, and this will certainly impact Internet gamblers. If professor Landfeldt is genuinely concerned about this, perhaps he can ask the Australian government to pull some undersea cable to Panama under the aegis of a “Preserving Australian Access to Internet Gambling During Times of National Emergency for the Bloody Yanks” bill. This would be fitting farewell to Oz before he heads back to Sweden.

But seriously, folks, can’t we ratchet down the rhetoric? The US is not Egypt, we don’t slaughter protesters, and although we do have some folks detained in Guantanamo Bay without as much basis as we should have, that’s an incident that stands out because it’s so out of character for us. Our president, who was not born in Kenya, took office by winning an election that was contested on the Internet to a very great extent, and we really, really like the Internet here (Americans download more data from the Net than residents of any country except Korea) and we aren’t going to tolerate any government action that turns it off for no good reason.

But we do recognize that there are occasions when it’s wise to disconnect parts of the system in order to keep the rest of it healthy. What do you suppose happened when Australia’s scruffy pirates attacked AFACT? The attackers were isolated from the system to prevent them from disrupting it for everyone. This is the kind of action that the Senate Bill contemplates, and that’s less an “Internet Kill Switch” than an “Internet Life Support.”

Get serious.

Postscript: This isn’t to single out Australia for overheated rhetoric, of course; the US still leads the world in Internet hysteria, and we don’t seem inclined to surrender that title any time soon. As I was writing this, a message popped up in my inbox estimating that “12 calls and about an hour would take out 90% of the U.S. [Internet.]” I’m so glad we’re on top of that.

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Reader Comments

  1. Great article Richard, it adds some much needed sanity to the debate.

    I think the concerns about government involvement, even if it isn’t 1% as bad as the Egyptian blockade, has some merit. The private network operators are already dealing with hundred Gbps DDoS attacks as well as they can. I don’t see how getting government’s direct involvement in 4Chan disputes is helpful. Keeping the government out of these disputes would be a much higher priority.

    Ironically, many of the same people that complained about AT&T fighting against 4Chan attacks and screaming for government intervention that are now screaming about government “kill switches”.