Enforcing the CDA Improperly May Pervert Internet Architecture
by David P. Reed

Friends -

I'd like to call your attention to a situation where misguided politics (of the "ends-justify-means" sort) threatens one of the fundamental principles of Internet architecture, in a way that seems like a slippery slope. I do not normally take public stands of a political nature, and I do not participate much in Internet architecture anymore, but I'd like to call your attention to a very severe perversion of the Internet architectural philosophy that is being carried out in the name of political and commercial expediency. No matter what you believe about the issues raised by the Communications Decency Act, I expect that you will agree that the mechanism to carry out such a discussion or implement a resolution is in the agreements and protocols between end users of the network, not in the groups that design and deploy the internal routers and protocols that they implement. I hope you will join in and make suggestions as to the appropriate process to use to discourage the use of inappropriate architectural changes to the fundamental routing architecture of the net to achieve political policy goals.

As you know, I am one of the authors, along with Saltzer and Clark, of the paper "End-to-end arguments in decentralized computer systems", which first characterized in writing the primary approach to the Internet's architecture since it was conceived, which approach arguably has been one of the reasons for its exponential growth. This philosophy - avoid building special functionality into the net internals solely to enforce an end-to-end policy - has led to the simplicity, low cost, and radical scalability of the Internet. One of the consequences is that IP routers do not enforce policies on a packet-by-packet basis, so routers can be extremely simple beasts, compared to the complex beasts that characterize even the simplest telephone central office switch. End-to-end policies are implemented by intelligence at the ends (today, the PCs and servers that communicate over the many consolidated networks that make up the Internet).

I just read in Inter@ctive Week (March 25, 1996) that Livingston plans to announce an "Exon box" - a router that is designed to enable ISPs to restrict access to "indecent sites" or unrated sites unless an "adult" enters an authorization code when opening a session to enable the router to transmit packets to the site.

The scam seems to be that Livingston has colluded with Senator Exon's staff to propose a "solution" to enable ISP's to implement parental controls. Exon's staff is using the announced solution as an example to demonstrate how simply ISPs can enforce local community standards and parental controls, thus supporting interpretations of the CDA requiring all access providers to include such capability in their boxes. Exon's staff is quoted as encouraging ISP's to install such functionality into the routers that serve as access points for nets.

Since I use an Ascend P50 ISDN router to make frequent, short, bandwidth-on-demand ISDN connections from my "Family LAN" to an Ascend multi-line ISDN router at my commercial Internet Service Provider, I am worried that this model is completely unworkable for me, and for others that will eventually use such a practical system. My family has minor children and adults who all happily access the Internet. My ISP has no clue whatsoever whether a child or adult has initiated the call, and in fact, if my child and I are both on different computers in different rooms, it is quite silly to imagine that the Ascend router at the ISP can figure out if it is me or my child generating each packet.

It is appalling to me that Livingston, which has some responsibility as a router provider to assist in the orderly growth of the net, is pandering to Exon's complete misunderstanding of how the Internet is built. I would hope that Ascend, with its much larger share of the ISP market, and other router companies such as Cisco and Bay Networks, would take a principled and likely popular position that the "Exon box" is not the way to go about this. I would hope that ISP's would in general avoid use of Livingston's products, and also refuse to cave into Exon's pressure. I believe, though I may be wrong, that Livingston has contributed to the RADIUS technology that many ISP's use to manage dialup access charging in a way that is consistent with ethe end-to-end philosophy, but any credit they are due is overwhelmed by the Exon box insanity.

I do work to protect my children from inappropriate material, but pressure from Senators to mandate technically flawed solutions, and opportunistic, poorly thought-through technologies from companies like Livingston are not helpful.

If you agree, please join me in attempting to call off any tendency for other router vendors and protocol designers to develop Exon box features. It would seem that the appropriate place for content restrictions, such as "parental controls", are in the end-to-end agreements between content providers and their users, not in the internal switching architecture of the net.

- David P. Reed

Notes: The end-to-end paper was edited and republished in several forms (with slight variations in title), generalizing its observations to systems beyond the distributed systems that were its original focus; the final and most accessible one is: Saltzer, J.H., D.P. Reed, and D.D. Clark, End-To-End Arguments in System Design. ACM Transactions on Computer Systems, 1984. 2(4) p. 277-288.

I don't have any more details on Livingston's technology or its marketing plans than what was presented in Inter@ctive Week. The Inter@ctive Week article apparently based its information on 'sources' describing a planned announcement, and also quoted Exon's staff. It is possible that Livingston will choose not to announce or position its technology in this form. It seems less likely that Exon's staff will change its position on forcing ISP's to adopt some kind of technological solution, however.

- David