Ever heard of ‘network neutrality?’ How about ‘digital data equality?’ You might not even realise it, but your ISP could be effectively discriminating against the kinds of data that you use the internet for, especially if its floating in the rather grey realm of peer 2 peer networks and the even murkier waters of music piracy.

As Crikey details in a new feature article, Telstra are planning to slow down users of their internet service in a bid to stem the downloading of illegal music, as part of new plans to “trial” the slowing-down of certain kinds of internet traffic and data exchange at peak periods.

Pointing to a Sydney Morning Herald article, Crikey details how a report from the telecommunications company that confirms a new move to “shape” P2P services accessed by its ADSL customers in the downloading of content from P2P networks, such as the popular BitTorrent, which are commonly used to host and download pirate music, movies, software, and video games.

Telstra describes the move as a “limited trial of a range of technical options for better managing broadband internet performance for our customers during peak periods,” and from the telco provider’s point of view, slowing traffic is a good thing, stemming the huge streams of network traffic that push the peak rates up, even if its “only ever used for an hour or two per day or, under adversity, a day or two per year,” network engineer Mark Newton explained to Crikey.

But in order to determine if a packet of internet data is or isn’t part of traffic headed for P2P for downloads, Telstra has to monitor that data in a procedure called Deep Packet Inspection (DPI), which is a controversial breach of internet privacy.

Geordie Guy, an internet freedom campaigner, has written a feature article explaining the privacy ramifications of Telstra performing DPI as part of the new trials could mean, writing:

Telstra are proposing to open the packets, the same as Australia Post could open the letters, and examine the actual correspondence to confirm they are cool with it. In particular they seem curious if the correspondence includes information that movie and music companies like to assert is illegal but isn’t in Australia.

Telstra’s own report downplays the nature of DPI, describes it as “trialling network enhancements that allow the identification of specific types of traffic on our network,” but that it “does not involve any monitoring or tracking of the sites visited by our customers, and the trial’s findings… will be collected in accordance with our Privacy Statement.”

In addition, the report states, “any inspection that takes place is used only to identify the signature of the traffic; it does not identify the content (eg whether this is a movie, the title or any other details).” Which leads to the question, why is Telstra snooping around into what content users are downloading regardless?

It seems that unlike Perth-based ISP iiNet, who announced they quit negotiations with copyright owners to create an internet warning notice scheme last December, Telstra are going to start taking some responsibility for how those on their network are using the internet.

Steve Dalby, iiNet’s Chief Regulatory Officer, said at the time of the ISP’s exit that it was not their job to hold data on customers, saying they were merely a service provider and not a supplier of illegal content – just as the Australia Post are not accountable for someone sending a bomb, or a pirated DVD in the mail. “The High Court spoke loud and clear in their verdict when they ruled categorically that ISPs have no obligation to protect the rights of third parties, and we’re not prepared to harass our customers when the industry has no clear obligation to do so,” said Mr Dalby. “It’s not iiNet’s job to play online police.”

Telstra’s trials in “shaping” and monitoring P2P traffic however, very much has the air and procedure of policing. Where iiNet are using the defence that they shouldn’t have monitor their users’ actions, Telstra look to move ahead in the opposite direction.

As Crikey points out, the telco company’s report frames the slowing of their internet as a network management issue, and yet makes a point of mentioning illegal downloading.

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.”

Telstra’s reference to online piracy and P2P management seems to subtly stigmatise networks like BitTorrent as inherently bad, while the converse argument is that they too – like iiNet’s argument – are simply a carrier service, not suppliers.

It begins to fall within the discussion of the broader issue of ‘network neutrality’, the principle that all data should be treated the same by internet service providers and governments, that internet data should be treated equal, without discriminating or charging differently by user, content, site, platform, application, and so on.

It’s a debate that’s been raging in the USA and its courts for the last few years, with one of the more high profile being US ISP Comcast who attempted to introduce very similar “throttling” methods to Telstra’s to their users, only to end up losing a class action lawsuit to the tune of $US 16 million, as Digital Trends reports, after it attempted to block P2P applications under the guise of “network management”.

As recently as April 2012, PCMag reported that Comcast had landed in hot water again with ‘net neutrality’ accusations levelled at the ISP by streaming movie service NetFlix, who caught the ISP applying “shaping” (re: slowing down) of its video content in comparison to the ISP’s own Xfinity app service.

Telstra’s own DPI monitoring and P2P “shaping” restrictions could bring the ‘network neutrality’ debate here to Australia.

“Implementing DPI makes it completely clear that they aren’t even pretending to be common carriers any more,” Mark Newton tells Crikey. “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.”

The ramification is that Telstra becomes responsible and accountable for their service, rather than a hands-off provider, which in turn means Governments can hold them – and their users – legally accountable, and even part of broader legislation. Not only that but if Telstra’s new trials aren’t there to catch out pirates and downloaders of illegal music, movies, and games; it can still be used to prioritise or discriminate against certain types of traffic.

“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,” cautions Newton.