Don Marti

Sun 28 Sep 2008 09:04:33 AM PDT

Network Neutrality in a Box

David P. Reed points out another example of shortsighted dumbassitude from one of the finest companies in Silicon Valley, world capital of shortsighted dumbassitude. ISPs should own your eyes and ears, say AT&T, Cisco, McCurry.

Cisco is aligning with AT&T to replace Internet service as offered to customers with a "smarter," less flexible, network. At first glance, this looks reasonable. Instead of selling AT&T just the equipment to run a Stupid Network, Cisco can sell them much, much more equipment to filter out the naughty stuff of the day and make things faster for their Content Partners and slower for the netroots: authors, bands, and video makers who don't have a deal with an AT&T Content Partner. (Never trust anyone who says "our content partners" or "our carrier partners.")

Cisco's decision to bite the Internet that fed it, and make the pitch to supply hardare for an AT&T Internet-like filtered content service, fits in well with the company's decision to kill the Linksys brand, under which it sells home and small office network products. But it's good news in a way. It's also an opportunity for makers of those often-ignored NAT/firewall/wireless access point/Ethernet switches. I'll just call them home routers.

Participants in the Network Neutrality debate spend a lot of time arguing about the "middle" of the network—the big carriers—and the "edges"—the client software. But there's another place to look. Your home router is not tied to your computer's OS vendor's release schedule, or to that company's "content partners," and it's not tied to your ISP. It's a product on its own, that can sell itself based on features it offers you. The way that PCs and ISP service used to.

Is your ISP playing games with failed DNS lookups, to direct you to some advertising site? Put DNS on the home router, talk to the real root nameservers, and make failed lookups work the way they're supposed to. Tunnel if you have to.

Is your ISP modifying or snooping web pages? Don't hold your breath for your OS vendor to install the Obfuscated TCP library. But your home router can run a proxy, and add it.

The home router should be able to update itself, under user control, to avoid new versions of ISP shenanigans as they come along.

User tracking is another area where your home router can help. It can block or modify your computer's traffic to tracking sites. (It's in your interest as a potential customer for "database marketing" to work badly. If the ROI of targeting to the user falls, the marketers get an incentive to invest less in databases about you, and more on either making you a better offer or on attaching their advertising to content that you want to read. Worse databases for them means more for you. You want them to know that you came to their site because you saw their ad on your favorite content site, or because you searched for a certain topic, but you don't want them to track you across sites and buy a cheaper ad on a site you don't like instead of funding the site you do.)

There are, of course, some ISP shenanigans that the home router can't beat. It can impose a bandwidth limit, so you watch more TV and less YouTube, or mess with the latency of your VoIP packets, to encourage you to switch to its own voice service. But the home router could detect those, and report them to your favorite pro-Internet organization or a Broadband Tests and Tools section of a web site.

Finally, of course, a home router can add a third network interface, besides internal and external, for a neighborhood network. Get enough of the devices in enough homes, and the process of adding a mesh or fenceline network is reduced to the problem of meeting your neighbors.

Network neutrality has a surprisingly high level of debate and a surprisingly low number of business ideas. Network neutrality should not be a fight between Google and AT&T over who gets more of your money. Fortunately, by dropping Linksys and getting in bed with AT&T, Cisco is helping to set up a niche for a third kind of player.