Digital Myth: Internet Providers Are Like the Post Office

Digital Myths: #5 Internet Providers Are Like the Post Office. Only if the post office charges both the sender and receiver, runs competing services and delays letters to maximise its revenue.

The idea that internet service providers are sort of neutral intermediaries is often brought forward as a case against any form of responsibility for the traffic on their network.

But the carriers are in no way neutral; they manage the traffic for all sorts of reasons. Network reliability is one; traffic must be moderated to make sure the network is not overloaded, delaying some data packets. Cyber safety such as anti-spam is mandated by authorities, just like virus filters (95.6% of all emails are filtered out as spam, according to the EU cybercrime authority). Internet Service Providers (ISPs) have systems to counteract overload attacks (DDOS). Most jurisdictions have rules against child pornography, where the ISPs use various technologies to block websites or filter traffic. Also, most countries have laws regarding cyberterrorism, cybercrime, intellectual property infringement, tax evasion, money laundering and many other priorities that require ISPs to monitor and interfere with the traffic. For sure, the post office will also open letters and packets on suspicion of crime and if the packet crosses a border it can be subject to customs inspection. All of these measures are of course perfectly legitimate and warranted, but in no way is the carrier a neutral intermediary that does not interfere with the traffic.

It’s very different from the post office; more like opening every letter, which certainly the postal service is not allowed to do.

And the network operators keep a close eye on the content of the traffic. There is a big market with hundreds of suppliers for a technology called ‘deep packet inspection’. The packet is the smallest part of the Internet, the data packet that travels through the network to a particular destination. Every email, video or photo on the Internet is broken down into smaller pieces, put in packets and sent along to be reassembled at the point of destination. With deep packet inspection technology, the network owner can look inside those packets (unless encrypted). That means the influence over traffic is not limited to priority of protocols such as voice, video, file transfer etc., but also the content of the packets. Surely the main use is for legitimate purposes like filtering harmful code such as viruses and spyware, but we have no way of knowing if it is also used to monitor the content of our traffic. We just have to trust our telecoms company not to listen in on our calls or check what websites we browse. In any case, it’s very different from the post office; more like opening every letter, which certainly the postal service is not allowed to do.

Societal priorities aside, ISPs also manage traffic to maximize revenue. Expensive traffic, like file-sharing protocols
or video content on mobile networks or through third party networks, is discriminated. Actual bandwidth varies with the time of day depending on the network load; it can be difficult to get the transfer times the ads talk about. Subscription plans promising a particular capacity are difficult for the consumer to validate as the supplier only provides a small part of the network, the first step from your home or office. And carriers will make extra capacity available for those who pay premium fees and of course give benefits to those who also buy server hosting and other services (also true for the post office by the way; you can pay extra for express delivery). And competing services are discriminated; most famously this applies to IP telephony (Skype, Viber, Tango, etc.) which competes with most ISPs’ voice telephony offer. This is why ‘network neutrality’ is a concept that telecoms pundits will do their best to argue against. There is not much transparency, so it is difficult to know what other traffic-shaping measures are also used by the carriers. We can only speculate that there is more to the story than these examples. As opposed to the first set of interventions, where the legal process is solid and predictable, there is not much in the form of competition regulation setting the standards for how ISPs are allowed to shape, monitor, prioritize and discriminate traffic for profit-optimizing purposes. If the post office is a common good, a neutral service often operated by the public, ISPs are the opposite – for-profit businesses that try to come up with more compelling consumer offers and ways to cut costs. In fact, ISPs are nothing like the post office.

So it turns out that internet carriers have little in common with the post office in the way of being a neutral middleman. It’s a myth!


Digital Myths is a series of posts published from the book 21 Digital Myths, Reality Distortion Antidote where Netopia editor Per Strömbäck takes a closer look at some of the concepts that have shaped the way we think, talk and make decisions about digital technology and the internet.