Ownership Doesn't Always Mean Control

from the network-neutrality dept

In the first post in my network neutrality series, I discussed the fear that without network neutrality rules, major telecom companies would engage in censorship of their customers’ communications. I pointed out that if the government of Iran has trouble restricting the flow of information to its citizens, it’s hard to imagine a company like AT&T or Verizon being able to do so. Today I’m going to expand on this point by looking at the more general assumption that the owner of a communications network has fine-grained control over the kind of traffic that gets transmitted across the wire. It’s common for people on both sides of the debate to talk about network owners blocking, filtering, promoting, speeding up, or slowing down various content and applications. It’s almost always taken for granted that if you own a pipe, it’s straightforward to decide how that pipe will be used. I don’t think that’s as obvious as it might seem at first glance.

This is illustrated by a story that came out a couple of weeks ago: AOL is opening its IM network to third-party developers. This seems like a smart move, although as Matt Asay argues, they could have gone a lot further than they actually did. What’s really interesting about this development is the back story. In reality, AOL’s instant messaging network has been a de facto open network for years, despite the best efforts of AOL. During the first half of this decade, AOL became embroiled in “an elaborate game of cat and mouse” with third-party clients like Trillian. AOL would make changes to its own software designed to shut third-party clients out of their networks. The other clients would respond within hours with patches that restored compatibility. This went on for months, and Microsoft and Yahoo! tried similar tactics. Ultimately, all three companies gave up. The constant upgrades were annoying their own users and it became increasingly clear that the third party developers weren’t going to back down.

This isn’t technically a network neutrality question because AOL’s IM “network” isn’t a network in the traditional computer science sense. But I think the story has some important lessons for the network neutrality debate. One is that we should be skeptical of claims that ownership of physical infrastructure gives companies unlimited control over how that infrastructure will be used by users. One might have thought that AOL’s ownership of its IM servers would give it the ability to lock out third-party clients it didn’t approve of, but that’s not how things worked out. Third party clients found it relatively easy to evade AOL’s efforts to lock them out. And AOL was constrained in its options because it needed to preserve a reasonable level of service for its official client.

Second, the story suggests that not only can users evade blocks by network owners, but in many cases, the evasion techniques can be downright user-friendly. I was using a Mac OS X client called Fire at the time, and all I had to do to restore connectivity after AOL made one of these changes was download an updater and install it. I assume the Trillian experience was similar. While there are certainly some people who don’t know how to download and install an update, there are millions of people who do, and these people served as the customer base for the third-party client.

Finally, it’s worth noting how the third-party clients were able to respond so quickly when one of the IM networks tried to shut them out. Over time, the various third-party clients began sharing the libraries they were using to achieve interoperability with various IM networks. That meant that when AOL made a change to its protocol, just one person needed to make the necessary changes to the shared library, which was then quickly integrated into all the other clients. This allow them to respond much more quickly than if each client had to develop its own workarounds, and it was especially helpful for niche clients that might otherwise have lacked the manpower to keep up with AOL’s changes.

Of course, it would be over-stating things to say that this proves that a network provider could never block applications or content it didn’t approve of. But I think it does suggest that network providers would find content or application blocking more challenging than is commonly supposed. A broadband provider that began filtering its customers’ traffic would get locked into a cat-and-mouse game with its customers, with the customers developing new ways to evade the filters and the network owners beefing up its filtering software. This would, at a minimum, be a headache for the firm’s engineers and a source of bad publicity. At worst, it might begin to cut into the network owner’s bottom line, because efforts to block certain applications would degrade the quality of Internet access in general and spark cancellations.

Indeed, we’re already starting to see hints of the kinds of difficulties ISPs will face with Comcast’s war against BitTorrent. One of the major results of Comcast’s policy has been to accelerate the adoption of clients with “header encryption” functionality. As a result, the techniques Comcast is currently using to control BitTorrent use are likely to get less and less effective over time, and Comcast will have to spend still more money developing more sophisticated filtering software. It’s unlikely that either side will “win” this cat-and-mouse game. But at some point, Comcast may decide it’s more trouble than it’s worth.

Other posts in this series:

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Companies: aol, comcast, meebo

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Comments on “Ownership Doesn't Always Mean Control”

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Joe says:


comparing AOL instant messenger to my internet connection. Trillion sucks everyone knows, why pay for something when you get it for free. If AIM gets too crappy we would goto yahoo, then msn, then irc… No need for all at the same time.

But for the ISP there is only 1 highest speed internet for people… it goes…

3) DSL

in that order…

so if FIOS is available you get FIOS.
if CABLE is available you get CABLE.
if DSL is your only choice… god help you… ( 756k is not fast in 2008, sorry FCC , when you can’t watch youtube or anything without it being choppy, you don’t have a fast enough connection )

Ben says:

Dams are Big, Leaks are Small.

In any scheme to obstruct the flow of information (P2P filtering, DRM, Great Firewall of China, etc), there will always be leaks. However, leaks are small, and dams are big. A vast majority still end up being blocked. The fact is that exploiting a leak is usually not usually so user friendly. Most people will simply do what is easiest. During the AIM vs. Trillian fight, my bet is that 90% of people still used AOL’s client, even though Trillian was vastly superior. Most people put up with DRM’d music from iTunes because it is easy to get. Most of China internet uses are blocked by the “Great Firewall” because it is hard to bypass.

In the end, the pace of innovation and the spread of information is not stopped, but it is certainly slowed. Some individual will always find the leaks, but society as a whole still suffers.

chris (profile) says:

Re: Dams are Big, Leaks are Small.

the problem with building dams (DRM, censorship, and the like) is that dams cost the builders money (often lots of it) and the leaks cost the leak builders nothing.

in all cases where a corporation tries to control something that a dedicated community does not want controlled, the corporation is out gunned every time.

it’s a simple matter of finite resources (money) being used to combat an enemy with infinite resources (time and talent). it doesn’t matter if you are trying to stop file sharing, console modding, or phone unlocking, the techniques are the same and results are the same: the community wins and the corporations give up.

any cop will tell you that communities can make or break you when it comes to controlling something.

patrick says:

Controlling traffic

If my provider doesn’t believe in net-neutrality, and all my traffic goes from the last mile into my provider’s network, all my provider needs to do is intercept DNS lookup, put up their own tailored DNS server and they can restrict anything they want. This is so far from being comparable to an IM program it’s laughable.

Jacques Richer (user link) says:

Re: Controlling traffic

Any protocol can be tunneled over any other protocol. In this case: socks5 over ssh would bypass this. DNS -> ICMP would do it. TCP/IP -> IGMP would do it. Sock4 -> SSH -> HTTP would do it, if you needed to be ugly. For a real treat, how about OpenVPN -> TCP -> HTTP…

Essentially, anyone who thinks this is trivial doesn’t understand the problem. OP is right.

Colg says:

Well Joe, at least you warned us that your post would be dumb at the beginning.

1. I have been using Trillian for over 5 years. It is reliable, it is flexible and it is free.
Aim, Yahoo, MSN then IRC? It must be nice to have everyone you might want to talk to on one network. It must also be nice to have them all choreographed to move from Aim to Yahoo etc. at the same time when Aim gets “Crappy”.

2. FiOS, Cable, DSL… It seems to me that you have missed a few options but perhaps you intended it to be an abridged list. The local cable system happens to be slower than my DSL much of the time, which by the way falls just under your threshold of 750 yet we have no trouble at all viewing youtube or “anything else” without it being “Choppy”.


I never had any problems contacting Aim users. If AOL’s efforts bore any fruit at all I didn’t notice it.


He is talking about traffic shaping, not blocking access to Billy Bobs Buffalo burger web site. Comparing that type of filtering to intercepting a DNS lookup is laughable.

TG says:

AOL didn't open their network

AOL made big headlines a while ago when they proudly announced that their network was now open. Sadly this was just another company trying to jump on the ‘open’ bandwagon.

According to the Slashdot discussion on the Wired article and from people who actually READ the documentation that AOL put out (rather than their pixie fairy wonderland press release) there is NO WAY that any GPL application could or would link against AOL’s new ‘open’ libraries, c.f. the ‘Open AIM Additional Feature Requirements’: http://slashdot.org/comments.pl?sid=477020&cid=22657088

A lot of multi-IM clients use the libpurple libraries of Pidgin as a backend and I doubt the developers are thrilled about having to make their application an ad-riddled mess just to please AOL.
The clutter of blinking banners for male enhancements from China is what many of us use multi-IM clients to avoid in the first place.

To me it certainly sounds like AOL has not tried to abandon the idea of getting strangle-hold on users who do not use the official AOL client. Rather, they have just changed tactics.

Rekrul says:

if DSL is your only choice… god help you… ( 756k is not fast in 2008, sorry FCC , when you can’t watch youtube or anything without it being choppy, you don’t have a fast enough connection )

YouTube’s servers are permanently set on “pokey”. I have 3Mbs DSL and I can download 10MB in under 30 seconds. Every time I try to watch a YouTube video, the same thing happens; The shaded portion of the bar, which indicates how much has been buffered, moves over a little, then the video starts playing. The shaded portion stays where it is until the position marker hits the end, then the video stops, the shaded portion moves ahead and the video goes back to playing. Repeat to the end of the video.

Strangely though, if I download the video directly rather than watch it in my browser, it takes about 1/4 the time.

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