Google opened a new front in the network neutrality war between content providers and ISPs Jan. 28 by offering measurement tools to help computer users determine why their Web applications are balky.
The search company created Measurement Lab, an open platform upon which researchers can deploy Internet measurement tools, in conjunction with the New America Foundation’s Open Technology Institute, the PlanetLab Consortium and academic researchers.
Google Chief Internet Evangelist Vint Cerf, one of the Internet’s founding fathers, wrote in a post explaining M-Lab:
“When an Internet application doesn’t work as expected or your connection seems flaky, how can you tell whether there is a problem caused by your broadband ISP, the application, your PC, or something else? It can be difficult for experts, let alone average Internet users, to address this sort of question today.“
Cerf added that while researchers today are working on tools to let users gauge their Internet connection speeds and see if their ISP is choking certain Web applications, so far they lack the computing, connectivity and collaboration resources to do so with any authority.
To address this gap, Google will provide researchers with 36 servers in 12 locations in the United States and Europe. Data collected from M-Lab will be made public for researchers’ use.
The move is a warning to ISPs that prefer to manage their users’ Web connectivity and fight with content providers over this on one of the biggest Internet battlefields: network neutrality.
Part of the House Stimulus Package approved today, net neutrality calls for service providers to have no restrictions on content, sites or platforms, and on the kinds of equipment that may be attached and the modes of communication allowed. It also calls for communication not to be stifled by other communication streams on the Web.
Google, as company whose livelihood and success is predicated on connecting users to content as quickly as possible through its search engine and on delivering quality Web applications to users, is a staunch network neutrality proponent, as are most content providers.
The Net Neutrality Battlefield
ISPs occasionally run afoul of network neutrality, and legislators in Washington are pushing for network neutrality controls as part of the $6 billion broadband piece of the U.S. House’s overall $825 billion economic stimulus package.
In summer of 2008, the Federal Communications Commission said Comcast was violating the FCC’s Internet policy by blocking peer-to-peer traffic via BitTorrent. The agency also cracked down on Comcast for misleading consumers about its P2P policy.
M-Lab is Google’s way of fighting back against such transgressions. M-Lab is currently hosting three measurement tools running on servers near Google’s Mountain View, Calif., headquarters to help users diagnose Internet issues.
The tools are: a Network Diagnostic Tool that lets users test their connection speeds and diagnose connectivity problems; Glasnost, seemingly a response to the Comcast imbroglio, to let users see whether BitTorrent is being blocked or throttled; and Network Path and Application Diagnosis, which detects problems that affect last-mile broadband networks.
M-Lab fully discloses what data these tools collect, a crucial measure for Google, which is accused more and more of privacy infringement.
The Network Diagnostic Tool and Network Path and Application Diagnosis collect test results and record the user’s IP address, upload/download speed, packet headers and TCP variables of the test. Glasnost records the user’s IP address and all data packets received by the server from the user’s computer or sent by the server to the user’s computer.
Two more tools are currently in the works. DiffProbe determines whether an ISP is giving some traffic a lower priority than other traffic. NANO determines whether an ISP is degrading the performance of a certain subset of users, applications or destinations.
Both seemed designed to help researchers detect transgressions such as the one Comcast was found to have perpetrated when it blocked BitTorrent. More on TechMeme here.