network Technology

Get in shape

ISPs are a strange breed. They’re supposed to give a very straight-forward service – plug me in to the Internet please. That’s all. Plain and simple. It seems like some ISPs have different ideas as to their roles and responsibilities. Traffic shaping is one of those. Port/Service blocking is its ugly cousin. I don’t like either. You’re not my Big Brother. If I wanted one I’d move to China.

ISPs enjoy a legal freedom of being considered a mere conduit. That means they’re not responsible for whatever their customers do with their connection. Nobody can sue the ISP for copyright infringement or any such or other illegal activity. And it makes sense. They’re just a pipe. If you, as a customer, choose to send poison down the pipe – it’s not the ISPs fault. That is, as long as they don’t control or take part in the communication.

Some ISPs want to have it both ways however. They’re not happy with some of the traffic, want to reduce their bandwidth and costs, and so they start using some traffic shaping measures. Their customers aren’t supposed to notice, and they are rarely being told about it either.

Whilst in Israel, I encountered a weird problem with 012 Smile, a local ISP. I must have spent hours on the phone to their support until the issues I was having were resolved. Some sites were painfully slow. Watching a youtube video or any video on the BBC, Guardian and many other websites, particularly out of Israel, was simply impossible. The other odd thing I came across was that one TCP port seemed to be blocked completely. One of my hosting providers use port 2095 for webmail. I simply couldn’t establish a connection. Testing it further, I noticed that the connection on port 2095 was established, but I was getting no response. As if there was some transparent proxy along the way. This whole thing reeked of traffic shaping, or worse, active blocking of services. Convincing the support staff it was an actual problem was no easy feat. I’m lucky I know enough to explain and insist when necessary, but for the average joe (or average Yossi in this case), 012 makes it next to impossible to get it sorted. Their support blamed it on the computer, on the router, on the cable provider. They blamed it on anything but themselves (oddly, they didn’t blame it on the boogie!).

So the problem got sorted out eventually. It was painful, but 012 made some magic changes and things got better. I insisted on getting a full explanation about the problem, but was given none. All they said was they fixed it. They claimed to made some routing changes, but no routing changes can affect access to a single port!! Pushing the support staff further, I was hinted about some traffic shaping that 012 are using.

How can you tell your ISP is using traffic shaping? Shouldn’t it be something they HAVE to tell you about? I think it should be. This is not something you see on their website, or even T&Cs. I personally think legislation is the way forward here. And of course consumer pressure. Most consumers are sadly unaware of it.

I’m not sure if or how much traffic shaping is done in the UK. However, UK ISPs are reported to show concern about the new Digital Economy Bill. Particularly the need to monitor their own users and track repeat offenders. Without going into debate into the bill itself (for which there is plenty of criticism), those ISPs who use traffic shaping and blocking might find it hard to argue their case. If you do control traffic in some way, you’re no longer mere conduit, and you CAN be expected by the government to enforce other degrees of control (and responsibility/liability) over your users.

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