Saturday, October 26, 2002

Can the Internet survive filtering? - Tech News -
The digital chain connecting one's laptop to a Web site thousands of miles away can be traversed by a single click--so long as no link within the chain refuses to carry the signal.

Such refusals, though still rare, are on the rise.

The Internet was built on principles of "end-to-end neutrality," an engineering rule of thumb calling for smarts at edges of the network rather than in the middle. The idea was--and remains--that fancy features work better at the edges. Since we can't anticipate the uses to which the network itself might be put, globally optimizing it for one use might regrettably disadvantage others.

Thus the basics, such as data encryption between distant users, and verification that data sent is actually received, are left to the computers that attach to the Net rather than to the network itself. The Net's job has been determinedly simple: Any given intermediary will use best efforts to move the data it receives at least one step closer to its declared destination.

But a number of pressures are converging to complicate that job.

Internet service providers and their customers have long since tired of handling overwhelming volumes of spam. Parents want to shield their children from pornography and hate speech. Governments want to exclude certain content from their respective territories.

They share a common desire to readily categorize and filter out that which they don't want themselves or others to see. While there are a variety of possible solutions for each problem, one common approach is to ask the network to help: An end user's computer need not be burdened (or perhaps entrusted) with the task of sorting out what's desirable and what's not.

Documenting the new crop of discerning Net couriers among the old-time end-to-enders isn't easy. Any number of problems might prevent someone from reaching a requested Web page or other Internet resource, including network congestion, misconfigured servers or broken routers.

How, then, can you know when a blockage is due to the explicit filtering of content somewhere within the network at someone else's initiative?