3G in Orange - now with less fat

12 Mar 2009 » permalink

Note: As many people have reported to me, the practices described below seem to be pretty common among mobile operators in Europe. To some extent the proxy can be bypassed — at least on the desktop.

Alternate Internet

Over the past couple of years a lot of effort and resources were invested into selling various variants of the ‘alternate Internet’. ‘Alternate’ meaning here — ‘Almost like the real thing, but…’

A prime example here is WAP. WAP was supposed to be this ‘Internet for mobile phones’ thing where providers would create an alternate WAP content of their websites. It ended up just being a synonym of Internet banking for geeks (at least in Poland).

Another example of an alternate Internet is what most mobile phones present when you type a url of a modern web page. You are supposed to believe that the crappy-formatted, layout-broken Frankenstein on the screen is the Internet.

It’s not.

In the context of the two examples above it’s not surprising the understand the sudden interest in mobile browsing when devices (ie. the iPhone or the Nokia tablets) started providing real, first-class Internet experience. People like the real thing, not the cheap imitation.

3G in Orange.pl

The worst kind of alternate Internet is the kind that’s advertised & sold as “the real thing” but it’s actually not. I'm talking here about what Orange does in Poland on it’s 3G network.

And what it does is: all images (jpg, png, gif) downloaded via the http protocol are being dynamically recompressed to their lower-quality representations. In other words: all images are being accessed through a proxy which serves them in a significantly reduced quality.

Here’s a more concrete example to illustrate how a Dilbert strip looks like on the iPhone. The left image is what you see when accessing it through the Orange 3G network. The right image is the original picture — as you can see it when accessed via wifi.

Comparison 1

It’s not hard to see the differences. The gif image on the left has a reduced color palette and the gradients look pretty cheap.

There is no way to avoid the recompression on Orange 3G in Poland. It seems to be happening on a binary basis (the proxy detects headers?). Sadly — it also affects all other applications accessing image data via http — not only the browser.

Below is an example of the Twitteriffic application on the iPhone. Again — left is 3G, right is wifi. Observing the avatars one can easily see that the pictures (jpg’s) on 3G (left) are quite blurry (compressed) when compared to the originals (right).

Comparison 2

Unfortunately, this is not all. Additionally to recompressing the images, Orange is injecting a 12kb piece of javascript code into all html documents. This code (which looks like originating from Sprint) is adding a right click option to images to “improve their quality” (meaning: load the original image). Obviously, this only works if you’re in a web browser and if the web browser is a supported one (sorry, no iPhone support).

Mind boggles

The whole idea is so broken that it’s even hard to start explaining all the problems with it. I could go on enumerating all the issues but I’ll just focus on two fundamental ones.

Firstly — the idea is not fair because customers are not being told the whole truth. They think they’re buying Internet access while in fact they’re getting lower-quality Internet access. It’s obvious why the recompression process has been put in place — lowering the image quality/size gives a fake impression of faster download speeds (this is by far one of the primary factors of the connection).

Secondly, I see a significant security/privacy infringement in those actions. Owning the pipe does not mean you can alter the content passing through it. In the corner cases there might be digital rights embedded in the pictures. But even in the standard case — silently injecting a piece of runnable code that gets executed on the user’s machine is, as far as my logic goes, highly illegal. Or at least — very evil.

The ability to recompress the traffic implies the ability to monitor it in the first place. What else is Orange in Poland doing with the traffic data?

I'm not sure if I want to know.