Last week Telstra announced plans to trial new ‘shaping’ (re: slowing down) of certain kinds of internet traffic and data exchange at peak periods, dressed as ‘network management’, it seems the deeper implication was a bid to stem the downloading of illegal music and pirated content through P2P services, and a more insidious suggestion that Telstra was attempting to prioritise it’s own media services.

report from the telecommunications company confirmed the 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 music, movies, software, and video games; describing the move as a “limited trial of a range of technical options for better managing broadband internet performance for our customers during peak periods.”

As the Sydney Morning Herald reports, Telstra’s plans have already earned backlash from irate customers, fellow ISPs, internet activists and the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) over their attempts to identify and stem downloading of illegally downloaded music, movies, and other content.

The consumer watchdog has weighed in on their concerns over Telstra’s new plans. Elise Davidson of the ACCC Action Network, says they have “serious concerns about where this could lead in terms of the ISPs interfering in people’s online activities.” They also caution that if a telco should priorities its own internet services (like Foxtel or Bigpond Music in Telstra’s case) over other services, like P2P, then it would be forced to investigate.

It’s an issue of ‘network neutrality’, the principle that all data should be treated equally by internet service providers and governments without discriminating or charging differently by user, content, site, platform, application, and so on.

“…precisely what type of improved experience would be generated by this type of discrimination against peer-to-peer traffic.” – Elise Davidson, ACCC Action Network

A debate that’s been raging in the USA in recent years, particularly with American ISP Comcast, who in April 2012 landed in hot water when accusations were  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.

ACCC Action Network’s Ms Davidson say Telstra’s proposal to slow down of certain types of internet traffic and specifically P2P, could be considered an encouragement to prioritise their own ‘real time entertainment’ services.

“Telstra says they are doing this trial to improve their network management but the only specific benefit to consumers they have identified is improving the customer experience of ‘real time entertainment’, which presumably means they want to encourage people into their own online entertainment offerings,” says Ms Davidson. Adding that the watchdog wants to know “precisely what type of improved experience would be generated by this type of discrimination against peer-to-peer traffic.”

“We don’t think that a reliable, unshaped internet service is something people should have to pay a premium for,” added Ms Davidson.

But how will Telstra know which kinds of traffic to ‘throttle’? By a process called deep packet inspection (DPI), which in itself is an invasive measure that holds its own security and privacy concerns by identifying the types of traffic and data that is being transmitted through a network to ‘deprioritise’ it accordingly.

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.

But Telstra’s use of DPI to identify which kinds of traffic and data it wants to throttle is as much about stemming music piracy and taking responsibility for what their users are downloading, and how. An issue that Perth-based ISP iiNet specifically noted was not the responsibility of internet providers when it announced they quit negotiations with copyright owners to create an internet warning notice scheme last December.

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.
[do action="pullquote-2"]“There isn’t anything really heinous here… I think most operators around the world do a degree of shaping anyway.” David Thodey, Telstra[/do]

The latest report from Telstra explaining the trial however, claims that it is conducting a separate trial to the P2P throttling “which will test what type of speed-based or alternatively application-based speed-tiered offers Telstra could take to market in future.” Which could mean Telstra is looking at creating separate plans that make heavy ADSL users of P2P services, or social media streaming like Spotify or YouTube, pay premium for exchanging large amounts of data.

But Rival telcos accuse Telstra of conducting their trials because throttling and shaping can be used as an alternative means to upgrading parts of their ADSL network.

“I think that they’ve looked at how their network is being used and what is driving them to need to upgrade portions of it,”says iiNet chief techonlogy officer John Lindsay to Computerworld Australia.

“There appears to be congestion into some exchanges at present and they’re thinking, ‘If we go after the very small number of users who generate a large amount of traffic, we could stave off that and maybe put it off for longer until the NBN’. It means that the investment is never needed,” he adds.

iiNet’s Steve Dalby also criticised Telstra in an email to Fairfax“This seems a bit of a nonsensical solution – [throttling] legitimate content delivered over P2P … in order to manage a faltering and under-provisioned network.”

“Perhaps Telstra shouldn’t be in this market if they don’t understand their customers’ needs or digital distribution and can’t build a 21st century network capable of delivering both,” writes Dalby.

Telstra CEO David Thodey says however, that the concerns over their new trials have been “a little bit overhyped.”

“We really have only just [been] looking at how we can manage the traffic on the network a bit better,” Thodey told Fairfax“There isn’t anything really heinous here at all. We get congestion points and we want to try and look at ways to manage it.”

“It’s absolutely standard for most ISPs. We want to be absolutely transparent about it. There’s nothing to hide. And I think most operators around the world do a degree of shaping anyway,” explains Mr Thodey. “I’m not quite sure how it got to [be] such a heinous thing. But it did,” he said.

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