Deep Packet Inspection – Self or Government Regulation?

If you don’t know what “deep packet inspection” is, think of “Big Brother” using the internet.

The ISPs are making lots of noise about bandwidth and the need to ration it out based on who’s using it for what purpose. If we take a look at what is coming down the pipe…


Source: Data Ellacoya Networks, graph courtesy of Ars Technica


…you see the largest slice of the pie is HTTP traffic. According to a study done by Ellacoya Networks, a maker of DPI gear, 45% of HTTP traffic is plain old web pages with the rest made up mostly YouTube’s streaming video (36%) and 5% from streaming audio. Note that the bogeyman app P2P is 37% of traffic.

The ISPs want to use Data Packet Inspection gear to better manage traffic over their networks. The basic argument is that expanding the network to allow users unlimited downloading places a cost burden on them and it’s unfair for users as well; some use the internet for just email and light browsing and these folks are subsidizing the folks downloading gazillions of movies and other large files.

DPI technology allows ISPs to drill down into each packet that crosses their network and see exactly what it is – email, video, whatever. What it also allows is the ability of ISPs to direct targeted advertising to each user based on what’s going on at this PC. More sinister is the ability to throttle certain traffic – a competitive VOIP or video service – if it so chooses. While this apparently is not happening, it’s definitely possible.

Currently ISPs are using this gear to manage the traffic over their networks – the term “traffic shaping” pops up in this regard. Call it whatever, it’s managing what you do at the micro level.

This issue has bubbled up because there are  hearings going on in Washington – to wit:

“The Subcommittee on Communications, Technology, and the Internet held a hearing titled, “Communications Networks and Consumer Privacy:  Recent Developments” on Thursday, April 23, 2009, in 2322 Rayburn House Office Building.  The hearing focused on technologies that network operators utilize to monitor consumer usage and how those technologies intersect with consumer privacy.  The hearing explored three ways to monitor consumer usage on broadband and wireless networks:  deep packet inspection (DPI); new uses for digital set-top boxes; and wireless Global Positioning System (GPS) tracking.”

The Committee is chaired by Rick Boucher, D-Va, who said:

“[DPI’s] privacy intrusion potential is nothing short of frightening. The thought that a network operator could track a user’s every move on the Internet, record the details of every search and read every email or attached document is alarming.”

Predictably, advocates on the ISP side are saying that we can take care of ourselves with self-regulation – trust us. Privacy advocates take the opposite view and look at potential DPI abuses with alarm. The postal analogy: How would you feel if the Post Office opened every piece of mail you received? And based on what they saw, insert ad inserts which target you based on what they saw in your mail?

My take on this is that the “trust me” approach does not work – a BIG BUST in the mortgage market should sour anyone on “enlightened self-regulation”. I’m also not a big fan of “pay by the drink” pricing for internet use – the deleterious impact on bandwidth intensive services that potentially offer more competitive video services only further solidifies the local monopoly positions enjoyed by many ISPs. It does appear that the “bandwidth is expensive” argument is not all that compelling in the light of technologies which are offering higher speeds at low incremental prices.

Frankly I just don’t trust the ISPs to keep a hands-off policy when it comes to DPI and I certainly don’t believe that network costs are the driving factor behind utility pricing schemes. Internet usage is growing by leaps and bounds and some ISPs are salivating at the thought of monetizing traffic. Thankfully there are some in Congress that seem to be listening to the non-industry side and align with our interests.

Keep you eye on this area – it’s a pocketbook issue for all of us.

About Joe Citarella 242 Articles
Joe Citarella was one of the founders of in 1998. He contributed as a site administrator and writer for over 10 years before retiring. Joe played an integral part in building and sustaining the community.

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