Aug 072011
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Neutral routers could trump politics in net neutrality debate

Dan Kaminsky’s job is making the internet safer and less vulnerable to hacking attacks. His knowledge about computer security and past talks at security events have earned him widespread respect among the security community. Now the researcher is coding some interesting technology that could propel him into the center of the net neutrality debate.

Kaminsky calls his invention Nooter (a contraction of the phrase “neutral router”). It is a sort of lie-detector test for internet service providers (ISPs). Nooter will be able to send traffic along different paths and determine whether or not your ISP is deliberately slowing some of your internet traffic, such as data from file-sharing web sites.

Kaminsky (pictured with his 88-year-old grandmother, who bakes cookies for the people who attend Kaminsky’s talks) said in two separate talks at the Black Hat and Defcon security conferences in Las Vegas that he has figured out how to make the hidden traffic policies of ISPs more transparent to everyday internet users. ISPs generally say they don’t slow down certain traffic because that would make them run afoul of the principle of net neutrality, where the companies that are the backbone of the internet adopt a neutral position on content. Like the old common carrier telephone companies, these ISPs aren’t liable for the content traveling through their broadband networks if they treat it all equally.

Yet the motivations of ISPs are complex, and for the most part net neutrality is not a legal requirement. If law enforcers say that child pornographers are shipping illegal pictures through their networks, the ISPs are obliged to shut them down. Some ISPs are surreptitiously redirecting some traffic, such as search queries, to merchant sites that may pay them for the referrals. And some ISPs, such as cable companies that own movie content (i.e. Comcast) are motivated to slow traffic related to Bittorrent services and other sites that let you download pirated movies. They’re routinely accused of secretly setting policies that slow down the delivery of content that they don’t like, while keeping other content moving fast.

This is where Nooter comes in. Kaminsky says that it will test the speed of the delivery when the web destination is clearly visible to the ISP and the speed of the delivery of the same content when the web destination is hidden from the ISP. The result will be a clear indication of what the ISP is doing to your traffic.

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