Syracuse University Magazine

A Disruptive Force on the Internet

Anyone who surfs the Internet is familiar with how those pop-up advertisements hit us in our interests. Internet users may also wonder if every click they make is being duly noted and analyzed. In short, are we being cyberstalked and digitally manipulated? According to the School of Information Studies professor Milton Mueller, an answer may involve the use of deep packet inspection (DPI), a technology initially developed to enable Internet operators to detect and intercept viruses and malware. Today, Mueller says, DPI is applied to a broader range of Internet governance issues, such as detecting file sharing, blocking unwanted content, or exploiting information about users for targeted advertising. He likens the impact of the technology on Internet use to people watching us with special glasses that allow them to read our minds. “You can imagine that it would be very disruptive,” says Mueller, a leading researcher on the issue and an expert on Internet governance.

In his paper, “The End of the Net as We Know It? Deep Packet Inspection and Internet Governance” (New Media and Society, 2011), Mueller presents DPI as a disruptive technology used to scan Internet communications in real time and make automated decisions about whether to block, slow down, speed up, or manipulate traffic streams. He believes this technology has a major impact on privacy, network neutrality, free flow of information, intellectual property protection, network security, and other Internet governance issues. “With DPI, suddenly the network operators have a lot of control over the users that they didn’t have before,” he says. “That kind of new access to information really changes the way people do things.”

In the past five years, several Internet service providers worldwide sold customers unlimited, high-speed access and—without their knowledge—implemented DPI to detect people using file sharing applications to download music, or movies, and then they blocked, or slowed down the traffic. In 2008, there was a massive protest against Comcast when consumers became aware of the practice. Later, the Federal Communications Commission ordered Comcast to stop throttling file-sharing traffic. “People are always talking about how technology changes society,” Mueller says. “Technology doesn’t just have a simple one-way relationship. One of the ways in which change happens is through regulatory political mechanisms, through people protesting technology, or going to the government and changing the rules by which it is governed.”

Mueller started his DPI research in 2008, when he was a visiting professor at Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands, and he received a $300,000, two-year grant from the National Science Foundation in 2010. He is now working with iSchool doctoral student Andreas Kuhn and master’s degree students Xiang Wang G’12 and Stephanie Santoso G’12, who are collecting case studies and conducting interviews with companies that make and sell DPI applications. By collecting data during a four-year period and doing case studies about DPI governance in the United States, Canada, and several European countries, Mueller and his team have gained a clear picture of DPI use in different parts of the world. They currently face the hardest task in their data gathering: collecting information from authoritarian countries. “We are doing this research to inform policy makers about how to respond to this technology in a way that is not stupid—like you can either ban it, or simply allow the abuse of this technology to take place,” Mueller says. “We are trying to inform the public about how to make the network more transparent, how to understand the traffic on the Internet, so they can be more informed consumers. Ideally, this knowledge could be applied to other technologies in the future.”                                                                                            —Yuhan Xu