U.S. National Science Foundation funds research on social impact of network surveillance technologies

Syracuse University Professor Milton Mueller was awarded $304,000 by the U.S. NSF for his research on “Deep Packet Inspection and the Governance of the Internet.” The research grant was made by the Science, Technology and Society program of the Social, Economic and Behavioral Science Directorate of NSF. The research will take place over two academic years, 2010-11 and 2011-2012.

Deep packet inspection (DPI) is a new network surveillance and traffic analysis capability that enables network operators to scan the payload of TCP/IP packets in real time and make automated decisions about whether to intercept, block, slow down, speed up or otherwise manipulate traffic streams based on that information. Mueller’s research will investigate whether the use of DPI by Internet service providers is producing major changes in the way users and suppliers of Internet services are governed.

The project will contribute to an understanding of how new technological capabilities interact with politics, public policy, regulation, and law. Drawing on research literatures in science, technology and society studies (STS), Internet governance studies and political science, it will test and improve theories about the co-production of technology and governance institutions, especially theories which assign agency to technological artifacts.

DPI has a variety of applications. It is most commonly used for bandwidth management by Internet service providers, and thus has figured prominently in policy debates over network neutrality. Copyright holders have sometimes advocated its use for combating illegal file sharing because of its claimed potential to recognize copyrighted material as it moves through the public network. DPI can be and has been used to censor content, most notably by the Chinese. It has also been used by the US and Iranian governments to monitor Internet traffic for national security purposes. DPI can be used to profile Internet users and contribute to the implementation of behavioral advertising as well. Each of these use cases provides the basis for two case studies in at least two different countries. The method of executing the case studies is based on a new conceptual framework for analyzing the interaction of technological capabilities and the process of public policy development.

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