Google-backed tool detects Net filtering, blocking

A new open platform from Google, the New America Foundation, and PlanetLab allows consumers to monitor their broadband connection for Internet provider interference.

WASHINGTON--Is your Internet provider interfering with your network traffic, and perhaps even running afoul of Net neutrality principles? Google and some like-minded folks believe they've come up with what amounts to an early warning system.

The idea behind the so-called Measurement Lab, or M-Lab, is that just about anyone interested in Internet regulation--including consumers, regulators, and content providers--could use more details about their network's performance. Google, the Democratic Party-affiliated New America Foundation, and the PlanetLab Consortium (a university-business consortium devoted to next-generation networks) announced M-Lab on Wednesday.

The launch's timing is probably no coincidence: M-Lab may become especially relevant if the Net neutrality wars between Google and broadband providers in Washington heat up again. If Democratic legislators get their way, the so-called stimulus package expected to become law will require federal regulators to define and enforce "open access" rules for certain broadband and wireless networks. The 2007 discovery that Comcast was throttling BitTorrent traffic showed that it can be difficult to determine when network providers are interfering.

M-Lab

M-Lab aims to bring more transparency to network activity by allowing researchers to deploy Internet measurement tools and share data. The platform launched Wednesday with three Google servers dedicated to the project, and within six months, Google will provide researchers with 36 servers in 12 locations around the globe. All the data collected will be made publicly available.

Sascha Meinrath, research director of the New America Foundation's Wireless Future Program, said his organization's role in M-Lab is to translate the data collected into meaningful and understandable information for policymakers. M-Lab founders and supporters told an audience here at the New America Foundation headquarters that more information would lead to better policymaking from anyone's perspective.

"I'm going to argue no matter what position you take on Net neutrality, you should be happy things like M-Lab are being built," said Ed Felten, a computer science and public affairs professor from Princeton and the director of the Center for Information Policy.

"If you believe the government should take more active steps to mandate Net neutrality...it will help you gather the evidence you need" to support such policies, he said. On the other hand, he said, more transparent networks would give Internet service providers true market incentive to behave in consumer-friendly ways.

Meinrath, however, said they do not intend to use M-Lab data for any kind of political agenda.

"The goal is not to be actively involved in using that ammunition," he said. "It's just creating results."

For now, M-Lab is running three diagnostic tools for consumers: one to determine whether BitTorrent is being blocked or throttled, one to diagnose problems that affect last-mile broadband networks, and one to diagnose problems limiting speeds.

Vint Cerf, Google's chief Internet evangelist, said that while such information may be hard for some consumers to understand, it would help them explain their Internet problems to people with more expertise.

"This data could be made available to someone who is trying to help you," he said, "but instead of getting anecdotal information like, 'Gee, this is slow,' you could actually send this data."

"You'd have some raw data coming from the customer's point of view," he continued. "Maybe it will allow people to start businesses like 'Call a Geek' to figure out what's wrong with their Internet connection."

CNET's Declan McCullagh contributed to this report

 

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