The internet: dead in just 10 days?

Threats to internet neutrality

While outside forces pose a significant threat to the survival of the internet, the real enemy may be hiding within. Conceived in a different age for a different purpose, the technical and commercial infrastructure of the internet is ill-suited to the multimedia-driven, commercially competitive entity that it has become.

The system is in real danger of collapsing under the weight of its own success. It's becoming difficult to remember that the internet's earliest users placed a premium on etiquette, rules and real, honest-to-goodness principles. One of those foundation stones was that 'information wants to be free'.

To protect this principal, ISPs need to treat data neutrally and refrain from restricting what can and can't be downloaded. This concept has been given the name 'network neutrality'. Since the internet's commercialisation, its main arteries have come under the ownership of profit making organisations, and in the US at least they are beginning to ask for a bigger slice of the pie.

Some US ISPs have mooted provisional models that would see them carrying only the data that they want to carry, charging customers by the megabyte and excluding certain data types from certain tariffs. In this scenario, an ISP might provide access to a 'walled garden' of premium content to higher-paying users, while those on the lowest tariffs would be unable to do anything more taxing on the network than check their email and browse text documents. And it's not just types of content that may be blocked; content from specific providers could also be filtered.

One possibility is the creation of a market where content providers end up paying ISPs to carry their data. This might not spell the end of the internet, but it would certainly mean the end of the free ride. And it's happening right now. Why are these developments in America important to us? The US may not support the whole internet, but it does account for the lion's share of its infrastructure.

The legal situation is complex, with US telecoms providers lobbying the US government for more control over the traffic they carry. However, there are some positive signs that this may not happen. President Barack Obama is a strong supporter of network neutrality, and the FCC (Federal Communications Commission) – which is tasked with overseeing cable and DSL providers – has a 'network freedom' policy in place. Recently, the organisation targeted US service provider Comcast and warned it to stop blocking BitTorrent traffic on its system.

In the UK, the situation is different, and there's no such protective legislation in place. 'Traffic shaping', as it's known, is a standard practice for many ISPs, though some are more honest about it than others. Plusnet, for example, sets out exactly what types of traffic its different broadband packages allow you to access, and at what times of day.

We don't currently have ISPs who charge content providers on a sliding scale for data carriage, though, and providers who have been discovered restricting access have been quickly taken to task. In early December, Orange broadband users found themselves unable to access BitTorrent site The Pirate Bay for a period of about a week. Orange blamed the incident on one of their 'network partners' who, it said, "rerouted a small section of internet traffic. As has always been the case, it is Orange UK's policy to not block customer access to websites".

European legislation on network neutrality may yet give the UK a set of legislative guidelines to follow. A proposed regulatory framework, which all EU countries would be obliged to sign up to, has network neutrality at its core. Multimedia overload BitTorrent traffic is, of course, a contentious issue. Some statistics suggest that it now accounts for around a third of all internet traffic, with research companies claiming that it takes up between 20 per cent (from research by Arbor Networks) and 37 per cent (from Ellacoya Networks) of the total.

The British Phonographic Industry (BPI) has proposed that ISPs enforce a 'three strikes' policy, where users would be blacklisted from using internet services if found illegally downloading copyrighted material, the majority of which is available via BitTorrent and similar peer-to-peer (P2P) protocols. There are some serious problems with this concept, not least the fact that it's very difficult to prove exactly who has been downloading; proof that a specific PC was used is not proof that its owner was using it.

The huge amount of BitTorrent traffic on the web is one ironic disadvantage of the network neutrality lobby: in attempting to protect freedom of data on the internet, it may actually be adding pressure to an infrastructure that's already bursting at the seams. P2P has been jamming up precious bandwidth since the now-legitimate Napster opened in 1999, but the real internet-killer could be digital video.

Customers are finally seeing TV on demand, movie downloads and instant access to streaming video, but a meltdown could be mere months away. The last 12 months have been a watershed for online video, with YouTube trialling high-definition streams, BBC iPlayer leaving beta and iTunes offering movie rentals. The same research which suggested that 37 per cent of Internet traffic is now peer-to-peer also shows that 36 per cent of all web traffic – which accounts for 45 per cent of network activity – is dedicated to streaming video.

After the broadband price war of two years ago, ISPs are finding it increasingly difficult to fulfil their promises of inexpensive, unmetered access. In April 2008, the BBC and Tiscali took part in an unseemly spat after the UK communications regulator Ofcom revealed that ISPs would need to find £830million to pay for the extra demand that services such as iPlayer are putting on the UK network. iPlayer alone has served over 237 million downloads since its inception.

Simon Gunter, Strategy Chief at Tiscali, suggested that consumers who wanted to access the iPlayer may end up having to pay extra. The BBC's Head of Future Media and Technology, Ashley Highfield, countered that argument with the idea that a 'blacklist' of the ISPs that were charging extra for iPlayer access would help customers make a more informed choice over which company to use for broadband access.

Meanwhile, the BBC ploughs on with ambitious plans to make the iPlayer HD-capable, and even share the basic system with its rivals at ITV and Channel 4. On the surface, this sounds great for consumers, but both the ISPs and the BBC seem reluctant to pay for the extra bandwidth that would be required to bring this about. And lurking under all of these problems is the small matter of the country's inadequate telecommunications infrastructure.

Telecoms infrastructure

For citizens in Korea, Japan and Taiwan, fibre to the home (FTTH) is a reality, generating speeds of 100Mbps in both directions. Britain and Europe are lagging sadly behind. Most of our telecoms infrastructure is built on a copper wire network, which is inadequate for next-generation data services like video on-demand (VoD). Though BT is installing 'fibre to the kerb' in new-build areas, it has no plans for a full system overhaul. The best news is that by 2012, the telecoms giant plans to spend £1.5billion on upgrading the network with FTTC – 'fibre to the cabinet'.

On the internet, though, three years is a long time. The onus is on private enterprise to fill the gap, and Virgin Media is the only company with the infrastructure to step up to the plate. Holding the UK monopoly on cable internet provision, it launched a new 50Mbps cable broadband product in the last two weeks of 2008. Priced at £51 a month, it's a premium service that's out of reach of most ordinary consumers.

Meanwhile, the promise of adopting 24Mbps ADSL2+ as the UK standard has come to nothing so far, which may leave Britain in the embarrassing position of having some of the world's most innovative content, but a network that's unable to support it.

The final countdown

Does the internet really have just 10 days to live? Although that claim sounds sensationalist, in reality any of the threats that we've outlined could bring the network to its knees. A targeted Denial of Service attack on key internet services, a widespread malware infection or even a mechanical malfunction – any of these could blackout web access if the right target goes down.

As a case in point, shortly before Christmas 2008 three cables running beneath the Indian Ocean were accidentally damaged. The result was that all of Egypt and parts of India suffered an internet blackout for two days, with services returning very slowly as data was manually rerouted. Just days later, as Israeli ground troops hit Gaza in January 2009, news sites in Jerusalem reported that a spate of DoS attacks were taking them offline.

Was it a concerted effort from Palestinian hackers or the effects of ordinary users overloading a network that's already under strain? We don't know, but these examples suggest that our 10-day estimate could be on the conservative side.


First published in PC Plus, Issue 279