I’ve been following efforts to block Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) traffic – essentially, phone calls over the Internet – for the past few years. The OpenNet Initiative, of which I’m a member, has been keeping an eye on this as well; we noted in our study on Internet filtering in the United Arab Emirates, for example, that two people who used VoIP to bypass the state telecom company’s monopoly were imprisoned. Now, it turns out that the UAE blocks Skype’s Web site as well (to protect Etisalat’s position). Who blocks VoIP? Belize (which held a hearing), Mexico, Israel, China (with help from Narus), Qatar, Oman, Guatemala, Saudi Arabia… It even happens here in the States, although the FCC cracks down on this.
VoIP blocking is worrisome for three reasons. First, although telecom companies are primarily responsible for blocks at the moment, this tactic maps out a way for governments to increase control over how their citizens communicate. ISPs are frequently deputized to implement Internet filtering, as in Iran or Yemen. Information control through technology is path-dependent; once filtering systems are in place, states will often find ways to misuse them. Authoritarian states fear that citizens may use programs such as Zfone to communicate in ways that can’t be tapped or recorded.
Second, VoIP filtering undercuts the “end-to-end” architecture responsible for the Internet’s generativity and promise as a platform. Innovators need not ask permission of intermediaries before launching new applications that communicate across the Net – they can depend on the brilliantly “stupid network” to transfer packets for their program in the same way that Web pages and e-mail messages travel from user to user. Much of the network neutrality debate thus far has focused on the risk that Google will have to bribe gatekeepers such as SBC to permit users to access its search engine. I’m less worried about this possibility – any ISP that prevents access to Google will commit financial suicide as consumers flee – than I am about the threat that intermediaries will choke nascent, promising applications to protect legacy business models.
Finally, I’m worried about distributional considerations. When I visited Ho Chi Minh City in March, I was astonished by the number of people using VoIP in cybercafes to make cheap phone calls overseas – it was far more popular as an activity than Web surfing, and many cafes explicitly focused their advertising on VoIP. Using blocking technology to shut off VoIP calls, and thereby keep the price of voice communication high, effectively transfers wealth from citizens in developing countries to protected, often state-owned telco companies. The Internet offers the possibility of heavily reducing the cost of communication, and allowing people in Hanoi the same ability to access and share information as people in Houston. VoIP blocking threatens to throttle that hope.