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How Free Press breaks the citizens' network

Inside the mind of Ben Scott

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In 2003 the journalist Ron Suskind captured one of the quotes of the decade when he cited an unnamed Bush administration official as saying:

"When we act, we create our own reality. And while you're studying that reality, we'll act again, creating other new realities."

On the web today, "political activism" has become a virtual reality game that anyone can play, whoever you are. To succeed, a campaign need not be reality-based at all: it can generate its own fictional cause, complete with symbolic heroes and villains. Eventually the "campaigners" bump into physics, or economics, or real electors - who may have different, more urgent priorities - and the "campaign" vanishes as quickly as it appeared.

But what's interesting is the real world consequences of the virtual campaign can be the complete opposite of the campaigner's stated goals.

For example, have a look at this exchange with Ben Scott. Ben is a policy director at Free Press. The outfit describes itself as a "national, nonpartisan organisation working to reform the media". A goal is a media more responsive to citizens, and more accurate too.

So we were intrigued when it sent out a press release last week titled "Comcast and Cox Caught Blocking BitTorrent All Day, All Night". Had one of the internet's most popular applications been KO'd for millions of users? Actually, no. BitTorrent was working just fine.

So we sent a brief note to Free Press, on the basis that if it wanted a more accurate media, perhaps it shouldn't send out inaccurate press releases, hoping the media reprint the inaccuracies without question.

"Blocking implies that Bittorrent exchanges are somehow prohibited," we wrote. "In fact, Comcast's Bittorrent sessions have run faster and more smoothly as a consequence of this network management. So it's inaccurate to describe it in such indiscriminate terms."

But there was a more disturbing aspect to this careless use of the word "block". Free Press had cited a study by students at the Max Planck Institute which showed network management techniques were being used by three ISPs: Comcast, Cox and Singapore's.

Now, Singapore is not the United States. The government monitors and controls internet use, with the policy of criminalising certain kinds of behaviour. Homosexuality is illegal, for example.

So "blocking", in Singapore, means that you can't read certain things, and can't write certain things either. In 2005, the government successfully prosecuted and jailed bloggers.

Doesn't equating a repressive block on free speech with network management techniques trivialise the issue? And consequently make it harder for genuine victims of censorship to make their case? But Ben Scott couldn't see the problem. He mailed us back:

"As you'll note, we mention only Comcast and Cox and discuss the issue explicitly in the context of US government policy in the Congress and at the FCC. We do not even mention the Singapore case, so I don't think we are equating the two countries. We do not have any knowledge about Singapore telecommunications practices and could not comment publicly on them."

He also defended the use of the word "block". Comcast blocks Bittorrent in the same way as a traffic light may block your road journey; you may actually arrive at the destination quicker. It doesn't detonate an IED by your car, and force you to walk.

As we've explained before, when Bittorrent's aggressive protocol is heavily used, other applications become unusable - so the cable operator tries to keep everyone happy.

Scott defended the inaccuracy:

"I would disagree with your characterization of RST packets. This is in fact blocking by definition. It think your analogy is inapt. It would be the equivalent of traffic stops sending me back home to start driving to work all over again."

Only it doesn't.

Scott produced a few names of "experts" to back up his case. But none of these seem to grasp the distinction, either - and none have experience of building real networks, ones that don't fall over when the real people use them, doing the things people like to do. Like running Bittorrent, or making VoIP calls.

"I am not opposed to network management. I’m not opposed to throttling heavy users that are dominating congested links. I’m not opposed to congestion pricing. I’m not opposed to network tools that are used to protect security, etc. All networks use these tools. They use them today. They will use them tomorrow."

What he objected to was less than clear. But it's hard to draw up a policy when the definition of network abuse is so flexible. The press release of the day said that Comcast's actions were inexcusable, but Ben had just excused those actions in an email.

Breaking the citizen's network

But there's another more profound and disturbing aspect to a citizen's group declaring what can and can't be done with technology.

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