Cold front for "weather" sites

Sites that report on network performance worry about the chilling effect of legal threats, such as one by MCI against the Internet Status Operation.

Paul Festa Staff Writer, CNET News.com
Paul Festa
covers browser development and Web standards.
Paul Festa
3 min read
Sites that report "Internet weather" worry that storm clouds are gathering on the horizon.

"Internet weather" sites report on network performance. They are concerned because one of their own, the Internet Status Operation (ISO), buckled under the pressure of a letter from MCI Communications' legal department. That letter protested statistics that showed MCI suffering between 14 percent and 21 percent packet loss over the past several weeks.

The ISO (not to be confused with the International Organization for Standardization--also known as ISO) posted a notice to its Web site saying the letter from MCI had caused it to fold.

"Basically the letter stated that I would be sued if I did not remove my 'inaccurate packet loss statistics' or use 'the proper methodology,'" read the unsigned letter. "Well, in no uncertain terms do I have the type of money it would take to butt heads over this issue with these kinds of people. So the site has been removed. I will never be bringing it back up and the domain name will be sold or fade away."

Today, however, ISO Web developer and Boston University computer science major Roddy Richards said the site would relaunch under his ownership in the next few weeks.

MCI's letter, a copy of which Richards provided to CNET's NEWS.COM, does not explicitly threaten to sue. But it does allege that the ISO violated state and federal law by providing false and misleading information that harmed the company's reputation and interfered with MCI's relationships with its customers.

The telco denied that it was trying to bully the ISO or sites like it.

"MCI is not trying to be some big threat and take down other people's Web sites," said company spokeswoman Caroline Rice. "The reason we investigated the ISO site is that we heard from concerned customers. We're not out here policing the Internet, but we have a responsibility to our customers. We're asking them to work on their methodology, not asking them to take down their site."

Richards disagreed. "They're using scare tactics," he said. "It's like saying, 'We don't like your information, so we want to shut you down.' That's my opinion of what they're saying. It's not something we can afford to debate, so it's a checkmate without a game."

In MCI's letter, dated April 9, company attorney Diana Winterson raised two objections to the ISO's methodology. The first was that the ISO observed MCI from behind another Internet service provider, distorting measurement of the telco's own performance.

"We believe your statistics are a result of the peer's inability to carry traffic to the NAPs [network access points] on your side of the connection, not MCI's capability at the NAP itself," wrote Winterson.

Richards countered that the ISO monitored MCI and other ISPs from sites in 13 different cities. The average of those measurements, according to Richards, provides a more accurate picture of performance than would a single location.

MCI's second objection was in using so-called ping packets to measure network performance. A ping packet is sent out solely to elicit a response from a server. MCI's complaint is that ping packets may receive second-class treatment on the Internet.

"This is a completely erroneous method of determining delay since the ping packets are given the lowest priority for return packet delivery by our routers that connect to the NAPs," stated Winterson.

Richards acknowledged that MCI's routers delayed ping packets, but noted that his measurements were of packet loss, not packet delay.

"It's my understanding that low priority affects only latency [or delay], not packet loss," Richards said.

MCI recently launched its own site to monitor traffic. The site includes a white paper on network performance monitoring.

Despite MCI's protestations that it isn't trying to strong-arm sites into closing or dropping coverage of its service, Winterson's letter and the temporary suspension of the ISO sent a chill through Internet weather monitors.

Internet Weather Report, a service provided by Walnut Creek, California-based Web development firm Clear Ink, uses a similar ping-based system of measuring network performance of ISPs, including MCI.

Clear Link president David Berke defended his company's methodology, and added that the various disclaimers posted throughout his site should protect him from legal action.

But that isn't keeping him from looking over his shoulder these days.

"Something tells me I'll be in MCI's sights quite soon," Berke said.