Blocked Ports: A Story of Brazilian Net Neutrality

Emmy Tither
Jul 26, 2018 · 6 min read
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Salun lives in Brazil. He joined Bunny Studio as a software engineer in early June, 2018. He works remotely from home. When he joined, he had a pretty good internet connection. Pretty good for Brazil, at 15 mbps, but not good enough, not for the level of work he knew he would have to complete. It would be better to get a faster internet line.

So he did. He switched internet providers, from Vivo to Claro, and got a much faster, 120 mbps line. So far, so good right?

Well, kinda. The line was faster and worked well. Video calls became easier, with fewer connection problems. Things were good.

Until, well, they weren’t so good. As a developer, Salun has to be able to connect to Github and Bunny Studio’s databases. These services use different ports than, say, a standard HTML site. Which, normally, isn’t a problem.The internet is available to all, right?

Mmmm, not so much. In theory, yes, Salun should have been able to connect to any port. Except, he couldn’t access information coming through several ports, namely: 22, 21, 9010. As such, he couldn’t do his work properly. He couldn’t even access the Bunny Studio database.

So, he called his provider. And that’s where things started to get interesting.

Apparently, those ports were blocked. If he wanted to unblock them, Salun would have to register himself as a company, and expensive process in itself, and pay more for internet access through a corporate account. Those ports he wanted to access, his internet provider Claro stated, couldn’t be reached through an individual account.

Wait, what? Internet service providers can’t block access to ports, and to the internet, to individuals just because they feel like it. Right?

Net Neutrality 101

To fully understand this issue, we need to go back to the beginning.

“Net neutrality: you love it even if you don’t know what it is”. If you’ve spent any amount of time on the internet recently, you’ve probably heard about net neutrality. Just in case, though, here’s a summary.

Coined by Tim Wu in 2002, net neutrality is the principle that the internet should be available to all. Governments and service providers should treat all data equally, not block it or make it selectively accessible.

An example of a lack of net neutrality would be an internet provider making a deal with, say, Youtube, where the provider prioritizes traffic to that video streaming site while purposefully slowing down traffic to other video streaming sites, like Vimeo. Basically, net neutrality is what allows you to use the internet how you want, when you want to.

Different countries have different approaches to net neutrality. Some enforce it, with varying degrees of success, and some do not. What’s interesting, in this instance, is how Brazil has responded to net neutrality.

Net Neutrality In Brazil

In 2014, Brazil passed some unique legislation — the Marco Civil, or Internet Bill of Rights. Based on the Magna Carta, and crowdsourced from the beginning, the bill is the first of its kind. It is called innovative, and rightly so.

The legislation is comprehensive. It contains 32 articles and covers rights, principles, safeguards, net neutrality, data protection, third-party liability and the role of the State. Despite its comprehensiveness, issues have arisen in its implementation.

The issues came to a head in 2015 and 2016, when WhatsApp was blocked in the whole country by court order three times in 18 months. Each time, the decision was reversed by a higher court. Thankfully. This does, however, demonstrate the fragility of legislation, even such a robust one.

Having legislation to enforce net neutrality is a good step forward. But it doesn’t solve all problems.

Which brings us back to Salun.

What is happening with the internet?

Not being able to access GitHub or Bunny Studio’s database was frustrating for Salun, to say the least. He couldn’t do his work properly despite shelling out for the best, fastest connection he could find. Officially incorporating himself as a company wasn’t an ideal option, either. It takes time, money and legal advice to do so. Besides, why should companies be able to access more information than individuals? The internet should be available to all. In fact, the Marco Civil states that providers cannot block access to the internet.

What to do next, then? How could Salun unblock the necessary ports to be able to do his job?

Subsequent calls to his provider received a similar response to that of his first contact — certain ports, and thus certain websites, were blocked on individual internet plans. If he wanted to connect to them, he would have to register as a company and pay more for internet access.

Undeterred, and refusing to take this as an answer, Salun did some research. Had anyone else been faced with this problem? Well, he was not the first person this had happened to, it turns out. Numerous other people had, too. But only those on newer contracts, like himself. Older contracts did not have this problem. Nevertheless, no permanent solutions presented themselves.

So, Salun contacted Anatel, the Brazilian telecommunications regulatory agency, and filed a complaint. And waited. Officially, he would have to wait five days for a response.

One week later, Claro called. They had found a solution and would send someone over to fix the problem.

Well, how convenient.

The next day, he had a new router with all its ports unblocked. He doesn’t see this issue often, the Claro engineer said, because people usually just pay more for a company account.

Why is this? Well, a 2017 report states that 59.7% of the Brazilian population has access to the internet, with significant regional disparities. This is compared to, say, France’s 85.6% internet penetration rate in the same year. Making sure they can connect to all facets of the internet isn’t a priority for most people because the entire internet is not relevant to their needs. Someone who makes their living on the internet though, such as a software engineer like Salun, will find more sections of the internet relevant. They are the ones who will most likely come across blocked ports and, thus, this kind of censorship.

But, have things been solved?

Sure, yes, the issue is, on the surface, solved. Salun has a new router and he can access all the databases he needs to. It’s good that he didn’t need to register as a company. It’s good that his complaint to the regulatory body was acted upon by the internet provider. It’s good that the company did the right thing, upheld the Marco Civil, and now allows Salun access the information he needs to do his job.

What’s left unknown, though, is why Claro blocked those ports in the first place. And why they at first insisted that, in order to un-block them, Salun would have to pay more. According to the Marco Civil, providers are not allowed to block access to the internet except in cases that involve revenge porn or violate copyright law. Neither of which is the case here.

What is perhaps most troubling, however, is that not everyone will notice their access to information being curtailed in this way. Not everyone uses the internet like a software engineer does. Is censorship only relevant if you know you’re being censored? If you’re not interested in certain information, does it matter if you’re blocked from seeing it? Is it up to individuals to hold internet service providers and governments accountable?

The future of net neutrality is far from decided. As the internet and the access to information that it provides become even more enmeshed into our lives, cases like these will keep coming up, both in Brazil and elsewhere. Some of them might affect you individually, some might not. Is equal access to information important to you? That’s up to you to decide for yourself.

And that’s the goal of this article, really. Not to tell you about a problem one of our team member’s had, but to ask you that question. And maybe to prod you to think about your answer.

Is censorship only relevant if you know you’re being censored? Is equal access to information important to you?

Let us know your thoughts in the comments.

We Are Bunny Studio

At Bunny Studio, we team up the world’s best creatives

Thanks to Santiago Jaramillo

Emmy Tither

Written by

British-Peruvian-American currently living Albuquerque, NM, USA. Educator, audio geek, and psychogeography enthusiast. www.emmytither.com

We Are Bunny Studio

At Bunny Studio, we team up the world’s best creatives. We have a determination to pursue big goals, whilst working remote. This is where we share our stories. Visit us at www.weare.bunnystudio.com.

Emmy Tither

Written by

British-Peruvian-American currently living Albuquerque, NM, USA. Educator, audio geek, and psychogeography enthusiast. www.emmytither.com

We Are Bunny Studio

At Bunny Studio, we team up the world’s best creatives. We have a determination to pursue big goals, whilst working remote. This is where we share our stories. Visit us at www.weare.bunnystudio.com.

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