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Why Telstra plans to slow you down to fight online piracy

Telstra says it will trial slowing down its users at peak periods to discourage the use of peer-to-peer software. But will it cut piracy or just piss off its customers?

There’s some suspicious sleight-of-hand in Telstra’s explanation of its plan to “trial” the slowing-down of certain kinds of internet traffic at peak periods.

As Fairfax’s Ben Grubb reported yesterday, Telstra will soon conduct a “limited trial of a range of technical options for better managing broadband internet performance for our customers during peak periods”. One of those options is to “shape”, as the industry euphemism puts it, customers’ access to peer-to-peer (P2P) file distribution networks such as BitTorrent.

When it comes to delivering huge data files to a large number of recipients, P2P systems are usually more efficient than just using central servers. The files are broken into many small pieces and, using P2P software, the recipients start downloading random pieces. Then, the recipients automatically trade amongst themselves the pieces they’ve downloaded so far for those they’re still missing. Eventually everyone gets all the pieces without overloading the central servers, and the process even gets more efficient as you add more people.

Now from Telstra’s point of view, slowing down P2P traffic is a good thing.

ISPs are a bit like electrical networks, in that they need to provision capacity for peak even though peak is only ever used for an hour or two per day or, under adversity, a day or two per year,” network engineer Mark Newton told Crikey. Think of the ABC’s network needs during floods or fires, or on election night.

P2P users represent a big slab of network traffic, pushing that peak up. “In electrical network terms that’s like servicing a bunch of customers who leave their air conditioners on all the time,” Newton said.

By definition, P2P file transfers aren’t real-time traffic. At peak times, quality of service (QoS) rules could give priority to live video streams, voice-over-IP calls and web browsing. All well and good, you might think — until you look at how this sort of thing is achieved.

To see if a packet of internet data is or isn’t P2P traffic, Telstra would have to open it up and look inside. The procedure is called deep packet inspection (DPI) and, as internet freedom campaigner Geordie Guy wrote last night, that’s exactly like Australia Post opening your mail:

If Telstra or their pals aren’t cool with the contents of what you send, they propose to slow it down or stop it, similar to how Australia Post might put letters which are shady or just gossip onto interstate train services so they can prioritise ridgy-didge business letters from the ATO on the Australian Air Express plane.”

Newton says this brings the controversial “network neutrality” debate to Australian shores.

Implementing DPI makes it completely clear that they aren’t even pretending to be common carriers any more,” he said. “DPI systems provide ISPs with visibility and control over the applications that are traversing their networks. That inevitably changes an ISP’s focus from ‘packet moving’ to ‘application moving’, making them care about the finer details of what each customer is doing far more than they ever had the capability to care previously.

Today Telstra is hating on BitTorrent, but tomorrow they could just as easily decide to molest Skype sessions, or make Foxtel movie downloads perform better than iTunes movie downloads — or even go down to the level of making Foxtel win over iTunes movie downloads specifically instigated by AppleTV set top boxes.”

Australian internet pioneer Geoff Huston previously warned about Telstra’s apparent move away from the common carrier viewpoint when it sent customer’s web browsing data overseas without asking.

Now for the sleight of hand. In Telstra’s blog post on the subject — “Maximising the Customer Experience — Trialling New Ways of Managing Our Network” — immediately after they say they’re looking at shaping P2P traffic to determine the impact on “time critical experiences for real time entertainment”, comes this paragraph:

Online piracy is an important policy issue and Telstra remains open to discussions with a range of stakeholders to identify workable solutions that protect the interests and privacy of our customers. However, this trial is solely about examining ways of improving our network management to ensure that all of our customers enjoy the best quality service for their specific needs at the best possible price.”

Hang on. If this is solely about network management, why even mention online piracy? Oh yeah, to reinforce the idea that P2P file distribution is “bad”, when like any technology it’s neutral. Indeed, BitTorrent is used to distribute large software updates and in 2008 Crikey reported how Norway’s national broadcaster NRK used BitTorrent to distribute a full HD TV program to 80,000 people for just US$350 in bandwidth and storage charges.

Branding P2P file distribution systems as bad because naughty people can use them for copyright infringement is as disingenuous as branding cars as bad because drug dealers can use them to deliver cocaine.

Telstra certainly has commercial reasons to limit P2P traffic. They can save on capital investment in a copper network that’ll soon be replaced by the NBN, for instance. According to the Fairfax story, in 2011 Telstra executive director Michael Lawrey said he’d rather some other ISP had to deal with P2P data-hogs. As Newton put it: “Why ‘fire’ your worst customers when you can convince them to resign?”

But Telstra has previously shown a willingness to let the copyright industry’s investigators loose on their customers, DPI systems are precisely the tool for that job, and that otherwise-irrelevant mention of online piracy is a powerful tell.

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  • 1
    paddy
    Posted Wednesday, 6 February 2013 at 1:24 pm | Permalink

    Lol That’s not “suspicious sleight of hand”. It’s plain old simple gouging. Offering a “lesser” service, ie. Slower speeds, for the same money. (Never mind the privacy issues arising from the obligatory packet sniffing as noted.)
    A quick glance over at the threads on Whirlpool.net shows the natives are restless and “Not Happy Telstra”. While the company shills are out in force.

    Just glad I have the option of not using Telstra.

  • 2
    floorer
    Posted Wednesday, 6 February 2013 at 1:49 pm | Permalink

    I might be wrong………isn’t there an argument that P2P users hog capacity and slow down everthing for other users? I’m not saying Telstra doesn’t have other motives.

  • 3
    Posted Wednesday, 6 February 2013 at 2:23 pm | Permalink

    My supposed 1.5mbps BigPond service crawls along at 200kpbs during peak times. I assume it is due to us sharing bandwidth with neighbours’ torrenting. That said, I support net neutrality and hope the state-owned NBN will be able to resist political pressure from the copyright lobby ala the next US FTA-like treaty negotiation. I assume Abbott would sell us out for a mere Whitehouse photo op.

  • 4
    uniquerhys
    Posted Wednesday, 6 February 2013 at 2:26 pm | Permalink

    Blizzard is about to release Starcraft II Heart of the Swarm next month, and I believe that they use Bittorrent to distribute the game and updates. I hope they sue Telstra’s ass off for restraint of trade of one of their biggest releases of the year. Because shaping that traffic during the peak times just after the release is not going to make the Australian gamer community very happy.

  • 5
    robinw
    Posted Wednesday, 6 February 2013 at 2:44 pm | Permalink

    And how will Telstra know what I am doing if I am using a VPN?

  • 6
    depository
    Posted Wednesday, 6 February 2013 at 3:47 pm | Permalink

    Does anyone know if this is a new thing, or something that has been implemented by other ISPs before? for instance the Wikipedia entry for Exetel describes something similar here. Apparently Exetel now employs caching of p2p traffic, which to me sounds better, though I suppose they would be using DPI to achieve that as well.

  • 7
    Posted Wednesday, 6 February 2013 at 3:47 pm | Permalink

    P2P is also used to distribute Linux distros and other free and open source software. Corporations also have “good commercial reasons” to discourage the use of FLOSS software. They don’t want information to be free, and they don’t want information-handling to be free. They want us to have to buy it from them.

  • 8
    depository
    Posted Wednesday, 6 February 2013 at 3:50 pm | Permalink

    answering my own question, from the Telstra blog post:
    ” Network management practices of this kind are common internationally and are already in use by a number of Australian ISPs (particularly on wireless networks).”

    hmm. Doesn’t mean we have to like them…

  • 9
    depository
    Posted Wednesday, 6 February 2013 at 3:54 pm | Permalink

    …And I’d still be very interested to know if other ISPs are using DPI. From the article, Mark Newton seems to infer that they aren’t.

    “Implementing DPI makes it completely clear that they aren’t even pretending to be common carriers any more,” he said.

  • 10
    Richard Koser
    Posted Wednesday, 6 February 2013 at 4:03 pm | Permalink

    Why offer me 100GB of downloads a month and then penalize me for using it? If you want me to use the network at off-peak times, give me a discount. That’s the way it used to work. Unfortunately, I don’t have any other telco to turn to, but you can add me to the list of “not happy Telstra” customers.

  • 11
    Posted Wednesday, 6 February 2013 at 4:28 pm | Permalink

    I thought Telstra had been doing that for years? Approx five years?

  • 12
    Mike Smith
    Posted Wednesday, 6 February 2013 at 4:38 pm | Permalink

    @Uniquerhys: And Blizzard have a parent company with *very* deep pockets for funding lawsuits - Vivendi. I’d hate to be Telstra. All of Blizzard’s games use bitTorrent like techniques for distribution.

  • 13
    floorer
    Posted Wednesday, 6 February 2013 at 5:18 pm | Permalink

    Hey Mike how is Telstra responsible for Blizzard’s distribution model?

  • 14
    Dogs breakfast
    Posted Wednesday, 6 February 2013 at 5:54 pm | Permalink

    That might just be Pandora’s box that Telstra is opening.

    They might have decided to have avoided this sort of technology (DPI) at all costs if they had thought it through. Prima Facie, it seems to make them somewhat responsible for the downloads that there customers make, and in so doing liable. At least it seems to me that this argument could be made.

    They would, without any legal training at all behind me, I think be better off if they didn’t steam open every letter to see what was inside it. I’m fairly sure that was one telco used as a defence when it was sued for being a carrier for file sharing (iinet???)

    Any Lawywers out there?

  • 15
    floorer
    Posted Wednesday, 6 February 2013 at 6:06 pm | Permalink

    Dogs b, isn’t that what Conroy wanted them to do? Internet filter, and then dob in offender.

  • 16
    Malcolm Street
    Posted Wednesday, 6 February 2013 at 9:18 pm | Permalink

    floorer - the point is that Telstra would be discriminating against the distribution model of Blizzard vs more conventional models by other software firms.

  • 17
    floorer
    Posted Wednesday, 6 February 2013 at 10:01 pm | Permalink

    Malcolm do Telstra even know who Blizzard is?

  • 18
    drsmithy
    Posted Wednesday, 6 February 2013 at 11:01 pm | Permalink

    You don’t need DPI to identify P2P traffic, particularly BitTorrent. The “opening zillions of TCP connections to zillions of different IPs” behaviour is pretty distinctive.

  • 19
    depository
    Posted Thursday, 7 February 2013 at 9:37 am | Permalink

    following up my own post again, after an email from Exetel:

    Thank you for your e-mail. After checking with our Level 2 engineers, we can confirm that we do no use DPI for separating p2p traffic. I hope this answers your question.”

  • 20
    Lara Adams
    Posted Thursday, 7 February 2013 at 10:29 am | Permalink

    Pretty Good Reason to Leave Telstra

  • 21
    inkblot
    Posted Thursday, 7 February 2013 at 2:53 pm | Permalink

    It’ll be interesting to see how they deal with usenet traffic, given that any ‘pirate’ prepared to pay a nominal subscription fee left torrents for the superior encrypted usenet servers long ago.

  • 22
    Charlie Maigne
    Posted Thursday, 7 February 2013 at 3:41 pm | Permalink

    @floorer, comment #2: Those users paid for the service. If it’s slowing down other users, then it’s Telstra’s fault for not providing the capacity for which they’ve happily taken their customers’ money to provide.

  • 23
    drsmithy
    Posted Thursday, 7 February 2013 at 3:46 pm | Permalink

    It’ll be interesting to see how they deal with usenet traffic, given that any ‘pirate’ prepared to pay a nominal subscription fee left torrents for the superior encrypted usenet servers long ago.

    Known ports and destination IPs ? Doesn’t get much simpler…

  • 24
    joanjett
    Posted Thursday, 7 February 2013 at 3:46 pm | Permalink

    I got a survey on this very subject today!

  • 25
    floorer
    Posted Thursday, 7 February 2013 at 4:17 pm | Permalink

    Charlie, reading it as you’ve written it it does seem pretty straight forward. The fly in the oinment is what some of the users are using their allowance for. This has allowed Telstra to go “yeah but”. Maybe the day is approaching when people are going to have to work harder for their freebies. Having said that drsmithy might have another opinion. If he has time….?

  • 26
    drsmithy
    Posted Friday, 8 February 2013 at 11:16 am | Permalink

    Those users paid for the service. If it’s slowing down other users, then it’s Telstra’s fault for not providing the capacity for which they’ve happily taken their customers’ money to provide.

    Users haven’t paid for SLA guaranteed performance. Their connectivity is implicitly oversubscribed.

    You can pay for guaranteed, dedicated bandwidth if you want, but you’ll be paying a LOT for it.

  • 27
    drsmithy
    Posted Friday, 8 February 2013 at 11:29 am | Permalink

    The fly in the oinment is what some of the users are using their allowance for. This has allowed Telstra to go “yeah but”.

    The problem with Telstra (or any ISP) doing this is it opens a _huge_ can of worms in terms of liability, which is why I’m surprised they explicitly call out copyright infringement, even if only in a blog post.

    It’s one thing to say you’re shaping traffic to maximise network capacity and improve the overall user experience. Moreover in nearly all cases this doesn’t - despite commentary above to the contrary - require snooping into your network traffic equivalent to reading your mail.

    However, it’s quite another thing to say you’ll be shaping network traffic based on your (note: not an actual legal judgement) assessment on whether or not users are breaking the law. Therein lies a long, slippery slope of escalating lawsuits of both a) false detections and b) “victims” of crime try to make you responsible for allowing everything from bullying to credit card fraud over their internet connection.

    Maybe the day is approaching when people are going to have to work harder for their freebies. Having said that drsmithy might have another opinion. If he has time….?

    The easiest way to circumvent this sort of traffic shaping - at least for now - is to get yourself an offshore VPN provider (to an endpoint that doesn’t shape traffic, of course !) and do everything you think might be shaped over that VPN. Though that does come back to the same problem of well-known endpoints, and ISPs might simply take to shaping any traffic going to those “dodgy” VPN endpoints (though that does open a similar can of worms as above).

  • 28
    floorer
    Posted Saturday, 9 February 2013 at 5:39 pm | Permalink

    Thanks drsmithy, blown away a few misconceptions for me. Without being to nosy you’re in the industry?

  • 29
    drsmithy
    Posted Sunday, 10 February 2013 at 12:49 am | Permalink

    I work in IT, but not specifically in telecoms. I do have more than a passing interest in copyright and copyright reform, however.

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