Another Reason For Defending Net Neutrality: NSA Surveillance
from the encryption-works dept
The net neutrality debate has been underway for many years now, but more recently it has entered the mainstream. The main arguments in favor of preserving net neutrality -- that it creates a level playing field that allows innovation, and prevents deep-pocketed incumbents from using their financial resources to relegate less well-endowed startups to the Internet slow lane -- are familiar enough. But PC World points us to a fascinating paper by Sascha D. Meinrath and Sean Vitka in the journal "Critical Studies in Media Communication" that offers a new and extremely important reason for defending net neutrality: that without it, it will be hard to fight back against blanket surveillance through the wider use of encryption (pdf). Here's the main argument:
One particularly problematic industry practice is the move by ISPs to create tiered or preferential service offerings. Plans to create tiered services have been floated for years -- enabled in part by constant pressure toward less competition in the broadband market. In fact, within mobile broadband services, tiering of various applications (e.g. voice, texting, data) are already normative. But if an ISP can't tell what sort of application is being used, it doesn't know whether to prioritize or deprioritize a specific communications stream -- which is why good encryption breaks one of the fundamental assumptions for this new business model. Since encryption can help circumvent discriminatory practices, the incentive to use it will expand with practices like tiering.
If net neutrality disappears, and tiering becomes more common, users may turn to encryption to thwart traffic analysis by ISPs. That, in its turn, is likely to lead to ISPs putting encrypted traffic in the slow lane by default -- or even trying to ban it altogether. Either would ensure that the majority of users would go back to using communications in the clear, since they would probably be unwilling to pay for their security, which is non-obvious and hard to measure, with the loss of speed -- something that is immediately all-too evident.
You might think that it is unlikely that ISPs would be able to push through changes with such serious implications for their customers' privacy -- not least because the usual worthy digital rights organizations would doubtless fight back fiercely. But as Meinrath and Vilka rightly point out, there could be an unholy alliance between industry and security services that would be hard to defeat:
It is difficult to imagine a politician standing up for privacy and free speech rights when opposition of this position, from both well-moneyed private industry and law enforcement, proclaim that encryption supports 'copyright infringement, child pornography, and terrorism' -- all at once.
That rings horribly true: the copyright industries would doubtless love to get encrypted connections banned, as would the NSA. Bringing together the perfect scaremongering trinity of copyright infringement, child pornography and terrorism could well create a winning combination. The best way to avoid this nightmare scenario is to head it off early. Save net neutrality now, and you save the one thing that we think can help us against surveillance: end-to-end encryption.