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July 12-18, 2006

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Technology News - Annalee Newitz

Technology News

Verizon's Tubes

By Annalee Newitz


IF YOU THINK I'm done making fun of Sen. Ted Stevens from Alaska, then you are sorely mistaken. I have only just begun to mock. In a rousing speech about why he would be trashing network neutrality provisions in the Senate's version of the new telecommunications bill, Stevens pointed out sagely that the Internet "is not something you just dump something on. It's not a truck."

Instead, he explained, "it's a series of tubes." And those tubes get all gummed up with icky stuff like big movies and things. For example, Stevens said, "An Internet was sent by my staff at 10 o'clock in the morning on Friday, and I just got it yesterday. Why? Because it got tangled up with all these things going on the Internet."

Ultimately, after worrying at length about how "your own personal Internet" is imperiled by "all these things," Stevens concluded that there is no violation of network neutrality that "hits you and me."

And that's why he's pushing to keep net neutrality from being written into law. This is the sort of politician who is deciding the future of Internet regulation—a guy who thinks that he received "an Internet" yesterday, and that it was made of "tubes."

What's even worse is that Stevens' main beef with the Internet is that it moves slowly, and this is a problem that will only be worsened when the big companies like Verizon and Comcast start creating prejudiced pipes that privilege certain kinds of network traffic over others. You think your own personal Internet is slow now? Wait until Verizon starts making Disney movies travel faster than email over its, um, tubes.

While Stevens is basing decisions that will affect the future of communications technology for decades to come on trucks and tubes, Verizon is covertly preparing its newest customers for a world without network neutrality. A few weeks ago, the telecommunications giant announced it would be installing fancy new routers with its high-speed fiber-optic cable service known as FiOS. Available only in a few places across the United States, FiOS has been drooled over by tech-savvy blog Engadget and CNN alike. That's because it can deliver a wide range of media (from movies to phone calls) much faster than its competitors—supposedly up to 20 megabits per second (mbps), far more than typical DSL's 1.5.

Sounds great, right? Not so much. The router that comes with new installs of FiOS, according to Verizon's press release, "supports remote management that uses new industry standards known as TR-069, enabling Verizon to perform troubleshooting without having to dispatch a technician."

Whenever I see the phrase "remote management," I get antsy. That means Verizon can talk to your router from its local offices, which the company claims is all for the good of the consumer. However, if you actually go and read the TR-069 standard, you'll see that Verizon can do a lot more than just troubleshoot. It can literally reflash all the memory in your router, essentially reprogramming your entire home entertainment system. As a result, Verizon can alter its service delivery options at any time.

Even if you've signed up for a network-neutral FiOS that sends you to whatever websites you like and routes your peer-to-peer traffic the same way it routes your email, Verizon can change that on a whim. With one "remote management" event, the company could change the settings in your router to deliver Fox News faster than NPR. It could block all traffic coming from France or prevent you from using Internet phones that aren't controlled by Verizon.

Verizon's new router is also great news for anyone who wants to wiretap your Internet traffic, too. All a bad guy has to do is masquerade as the Verizon "remote manager," and she can fool your nifty router into sending all your data through her spy computer. The more people allow companies like Verizon to take arbitrary control of their "personal Internets," the less freedom they'll have—and the more vulnerable they'll be.

Surely even the good Sen. Stevens can understand why Verizon's anti-neutral router isn't desirable. You see, it turns the Internet into a truck. A truck that doesn't go.


Annalee Newitz (tubes@techsploitation.com) is a surly media nerd who is powered by trucks.


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