Another brick in the wall?

Hearing that poor Dealmaker’s site was blocked by the Great Firewall of China put me in mind of a recent dilemma. Of course, I can see why they blocked The Dealmaker. Like a true Maoist, he points out the weaknesses and contradictions of the capitalist system by using gross caricatures of the capitalists themselves, and of course the Chinese are quite keen to move on from that.

Thing is, I worry I have helped the Chinese to block him, or more precisely, block him better in the future. One of my top holdings is this little Canadian outfit called Sandvine, a fantastic stock.  It’s made me 300% already, and there’s at least another 100% left in it if it all works out and the management doesn’t screw up. It’s in something called Deep Packet Inspection (henceforth DPI), and this does exactly what it says on the tin: peers into the little packets of data that make up traffic on the internet, checks they are kosher (viruses, evil spam bots and hopefully those horrible chain letters can all be discarded, but please can we keep the Nigerian scam emails?), and sends the morally upright ones on their merry way to their final destination. It’s a no-brainer: every Cable and DSL provider in the world is going to want this, it enables new levels of network visibility and control. It’s a proven business model (with initial hardware sale, high-margin software module upgrades later on) in an under-penetrated market growing at 100% a year. It is a stock that cries out “buy me, buy me!”; finding stuff like this is why I do what I do. Of course, I have to own it.

Trouble is, Sandvine’s customers may use it for nefarious ends; already Comcast is in trouble with some of its users who have seen their peer to peer file searches (operators hate peer to peer video) restricted to Comcast subscribers, and some no doubt hoggish users have been completely blocked. If the end of network neutrality — a very illiberal, unSpinozan outcome — ever comes to pass, it will be enabled by DPI. And then of course with this stuff China could really go to town in controlling what its users get to read. Of course, Sandvine only tells the operator what is going on, and what type of data is in the packet; it’s up to the user to determine what action to take.

OK, it’s not like I am buying arms makers, or ciggie companies. DPI will allow operators, if they want, and no doubt most will, to ensure the best internet experience for all its customers. But at its worst it enables snooping, and my provider knowing far more about what I am doing on the network than I may be comfortable with. What do you think, Bento? Would Spinoza have invested his nut and raisin trading profits in Sandvine? Am I making too much of this? Am I just too virtuous? I probably am.

Meantime, I noticed that every single URL I inputted into, and not just URLs and other bloggy sites, was “blocked”. Including some Chinese sites I sometimes look at, including that of my favourite Chinese domestic car company (which one is yours?) As this is part-owned by a friend of Prime Minister Hu Jintao I find it unlikely that the Chinese are unable to view it. Are the Great Firewall guys a bit overzealous? Is it anti-Chinese agitprop? What’s going on there?


6 thoughts on “Another brick in the wall?”

  1. I would just encrypt my packets before I send them on their merry way. Of course, Sandvine probably has an option to disallow any packets that are opaque to its prying eyes, but then they will also have to disallow VPN connections and https:// protocols.

    Or if they do allow credit card purchases, which have to happen on encrypted connections, I am sure that somebody will come up with a way to make one kind of encrypted data look like another kind.

    And what of other weird data, like Google Earth content being streamed to users? Hopefully, users of Sandvine will go bankrupt as their customers take their business to non-Sandvin equipped ISPs.

  2. No, everyone will likely have Sandvine, or a competitor’s version of DPI. It may be possible tto encrypt packets — you may know better than I.

  3. Anyway, how will you know whether your provider uses DPI or not? If enough people complain bitterly that their peer-peer porno searches are being restricted to their provider’s network only they can force the provider to expand the search to other networks. But the provider will still be using DPI for other things.

    Word is, one of the reasons all the pure VoIP guys in the US e.g. Vonage, Sunrocket etc are all doing so awfully is they got their service degraded because providers, using DPI, add that little bit extra of latency to the voice packets to reduce call quality. Operators, as a rule, are sneaky and nasty. DPI enables them to be still more sneakier and nastier yet.

  4. Oh, Baruch, I am disappointed in you. Financing evil ISP spyware, no less. What’s next, mapping software that can zoom in to count the dandruff flakes on Fred Thompson’s head?

    You realize, of course, that this will allow those clever boots to decipher the hidden messages in my blog posts, don’t you?

    I guess it’s no more “I killed Paul” for me …

  5. Don’t worry TED, if a hot shot like me with a brain the size of a planet cannot decipher the hidden meaning of “I killed Paul”, a hidebound v1.0 piece of network software kit with the imaginative capacity of a carrot is unlikely to succeed.

    By writing the post above I exercised my demons, and now I feel fine about enabling evil ISPs. Much worse was the digital surveillance camera company who came to see me with a story about how the Chicoms were wiring up not just each and every lampost in the land (as in the UK) but also each and every disco toilet, for sound and vision. I kid you not. Pots of money there, but Spinoza may not have approved and I have not invested yet.

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