Net neutrality a key battleground in growing fight over encryption, activists say

Both carriers and government now have an interest in how users keep their online lives private

By , IDG News Service |  Security

Plans to favor some Internet packets over others threaten consumers' hard-won right to use encryption, a digital privacy advocate says.

Activists and tech companies fended off efforts in the U.S. in the 1990s to ban Internet encryption or give the government ways around it, but an even bigger battle over cryptography is brewing now, according to Sascha Meinrath, director of X-Lab, a digital civil-rights think tank launched earlier this year. One of the most contested issues in that battle will be net neutrality, Meinrath said.

The new fight will be even more fierce than the last one, because Internet service providers now see dollars and cents in the details of packets traversing their networks. They want to charge content providers for priority delivery of their packets across the network, something that a controversial Federal Communications Commission proposal could allow under certain conditions. Friday is the filing deadline for the first round of public comments on that plan.

Encrypted traffic can't be given special treatment because it can't be identified, Meinrath said. That could eliminate a major revenue source for ISPs, giving them a strong reason to oppose the use of encrypted services and potentially an indirect way to degrade their performance, he said. Meinrath laid out parts of this argument in a recent essay in the June issue of Critical Studies in Media Communication, called "Crypto War II" and written with tech policy activist Sean Vitka.

The U.S. government once sought to keep the country's cryptographic technology to itself or to hold onto the keys to all encrypted data. Opponents won out and opened the door to encrypted services people use every day, such as shopping and email. But the ability to use encryption is under fire both from government and potentially from ISPs' new business models, the essay said. The looming cryptography debate will also involve several other hot topics, including government surveillance spreading from networks into individual devices and the privacy of data generated by the "Internet of Things," the authors wrote.

Net neutrality could be important to the use of encryption in at least two ways, according to Meinrath. For one thing, if broadband capacity is scarce on a busy service-provider network, and some traffic gets paid priority, then other traffic could suffer. Encrypted traffic is likely to get the short end of that deal. For example, a streaming video service that was encrypted and couldn't be prioritized might stall or have longer buffer times if it had to share a crowded pipe with favored video streams.

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