Saturday, February 04, 2006

Internet or Intranet?

Reports that AOL will be charging to white-list incoming mail and that Google is working on it's own private internet are depressing. What part of "inter" didn't they understand?

Presumably unlike a lot of people now working at AOL and Google, I remember life before the Internet. I remember having to manually bang path an email to route it across the still relatively unconnected networks. I also remember having to multiple email address on different (unconnected) networks so everyone I needed to talk to could actually reach me, rather than because you just randomly accumulate them.
Before auto-routing mailers became commonplace, people often published compound bang addresses... to give paths from several big machines, in the hopes that one's correspondent might be able to get mail to one of them reliably. Bang paths of 8 to 10 hops were not uncommon in 1981. Late-night dial-up UUCP links would cause week-long transmission times. Bang paths were often selected by both transmission time and reliability, as messages would often get lost... - Wikipedia
The Internet isn't a network in itself, it's a network of networks. Here in the UK the academic sites sit on something called JANET. The network was originally intended to operate solely as an X.25 network using the coloured book protocols. But in 1991 a test bed service called JANET IP Service (JIPS) was established to route some TCP/IP traffic over the JANET network, and by November of that year IP traffic exceeded the native X.25 traffic. For those of us who were using JANET at the time it became another indistinguishable part of "the Internet".

This didn't happen because TCP/IP was a better protocol, although it was, at least the level where the user had to interact with it, but because that's what everyone else had decided to use. Nobody really cares about the underlying technology except for a few geeks like you and me, they just want to be able to send email to their Uncle Fred.

The steps AOL and Google are taking are going to threaten your average user being able to send an email to Uncle Fred, in the long term that's going to be affect the bottom line, and it's a return to the bad old days. It's also probably not going to work...

Within half an hour of Google launching it's shiny proprietary network to the public there will be e-mail gateways springing up to bridge messages from inside the Google-net back out to the existing Internet, and before long some users will figure out how to route their messages through these gateways by default. Other protocols will be bridged onto the new network, and eventually no matter how hard Google fights it'll be just one more network amongst networks. Just another indistinguishable part of "the Internet". Its been proved countless times that walled gardens don't work well, you only have to look at CompuServe or AOL itself to see that...
Tunc tua res agitur, Paries cum proximus ardet. - Google Secure Access
Maybe, but maybe not. People are really bored of spam, of the commercialisation of the web, and sheer amount of junk. What if Google isn't planning yet another walled garden, what if they're planning a ground up take-over of the existing infrastructure? What if, in five years time, there will be more Google-net traffic over the existing Internet than native TCP/IP?

If Google can figure out the right balance they might have a chance of pulling this off and maybe, just maybe, they're doing it for the right reasons. I think the Latin motto on Google's Secure Access client is interesting. It roughly translates to "It is your concern, when your neighbour's wall is on fire". Perhaps the bright young things at Google are actually old enough to remember a few things after all. Perhaps Google finally intends to end September?

Update: Inside Google reports that the story has made it into the main stream press. Predictably they've got a very different take on things, and they don't seem to understand what the phrase "competitor network" actually means when it comes to talking about the Internet. If Google is planning a walled garden, I think they're toast, if they're planning some sort of ground up take-over of the Internet I, like a lot of geeks, might even get behind them and push...

Update: Nick Carr has more on AOL's, and apparently Yahoo's, move towards tiered email delivery accusing them of attempting to destroy the treasured "network neutrality" that has defined the way the Internet works, at least up till now. Interestingly Daniel Dreymann, a co-founder of GoodmailSystems replies to Nick arguing that at least in "email space" this network neutrality is long gone.
There is an overwhelming consensus against being neutral about spam and phishing: filters are using artificial intelligence and manually tweaked whitelists and blacklists in an attempt to route messages... to the spam folder, and legitimate messages... to the inbox. Our endeavor is to do the same in a more rational way and with much better results. - Danial Dreymann
This is an interesting argument, but there is a fundamental difference between the filtering messages at the user end, and prioritising network traffic based on how much a user is willing to pay.
If AOL proves the viability of creating a tiered pricing system for email, would that provide its parent, Time-Warner, with a model and a precedent for introducing a broader tiered system for delivering internet content through its big cable business? - Nick Carr
At least to the backbone, your packets should be the same as my packets when it comes to delivery, and Nick's point is that anything anything that prioritises data based on willingness to pay hints that breaking that backbone neutrality is possible. That can't be a good thing, surely?

Update: I think the point I'm trying to make here is that Daniel's statement that "...of legitimate commercial email, 20 percent is caught in spam filters and not delivered or sent to junk mail folders" misses the point. Surely the point is that client side filtering means I get to decide what's legitimate, whereas tiered delivery means that AOL decided for me...

Update: More from the mainstream media, this time BBC News picks up the story of AOL and Yahoo charging for incoming email. They get all the facts right, but the story reads like a press release from GoodmailSystems and AOL or Yahoo, and in all probability that's where it originated from. There isn't any discussion of network neutrality or the down sides to charging here, only the cheery "you'll get less spam" message...

Update: Gizmodo have and different take on why the AOL's pay per email scheme just won't work. However they do think that the current system is so broken it needs throwing away and starting again, and they want us academics to do it for them, entirely new system of email “subscriptions” which ensures that email to and from the folks you want to receive email from is in your mailbox and everyone else is buffeted back. This will take a concerted effort by open source/academic folks to adopt and maintain this new system which will then trickle down to the corporate level.
Which is interesting, I think this is the first time I've heard suggested that the solution to the spam problem is in the hands of the academics...