Google, partners release net neutrality tools

Tools are designed to help broadband customers measure the performance of Internet connections

Google and a group of partners have released a set of tools designed to help broadband customers and researchers measure performance of Internet connections.

The set of tools, at MeasurementLab.net, includes a network diagnostic tool, a network path diagnostic tool and a tool to measure whether the user's broadband provider is slowing BitTorrent peer-to-peer (P-to-P) traffic. Coming soon to the M-Lab applications is a tool to determine whether a broadband provider is giving some traffic a lower priority than other traffic, and a tool to determine whether a provider is degrading certain users or applications.

[ Related: President Obama has stated his support for net neutrality. | InfoWorld's Bill Snyder defends Google from accusations of undermining net neutrality. ]

"Transparency is our goal," said Vint Cerf, chief Internet evangelist at Google and a co-developer of TCP/IP. "Our intent is to make more [information] visible for all who are interested in the way the network is functioning at all layers."

The tools will not only allow broadband customers to test their Internet connections, but also allow security and other researchers to work on ways to improve the Internet, Cerf said. Current Internet performance tools "are geeky to the extreme," he said during a Washington, D.C., forum on the M-Lab tools.

The M-Lab project, launched Wednesday, comes after controversy over network management practices by Comcast and other broadband providers. Earlier this month, two officials at the U.S. Federal Communications Commission questioned why Comcast, the largest cable modem provider in the United States, was exempting its own VoIP from traffic congestion slowdowns, but not offering the same protections to competing VoIP services.

The FCC letter to Comcast came after commissioners ruled in August that the broadband provider's decision to slow some P-to-P traffic violated the agency's network neutrality rules prohibiting broadband providers from blocking or slowing Internet traffic or applications. News reports in late 2007 unveiled Comcast's practice of slowing some BitTorrent traffic. Comcast later said it was slowing traffic only at times of peak congestion, but the FCC and other groups disputed that the traffic management was limited.

Comcast declined to comment on the M-Labs effort.

The set of tools will allow broadband customers to measure their providers' performance, said Michael Calabrese, director of the Wireless Future Program at the New America Foundation, a think tank involved in the M-Lab project. Consumers "deserve to be well-informed" about their broadband performance, he said.

Some of the M-Lab tools have already been released, but participants in the project plan to further develop the tools and host them on servers around the world, added Sascha Meinrath, research director at the Wireless Future Program. All the M-Lab tools will be released under open source licenses, allowing others to modify and improve them, he said.

People on either side of a debate on whether the FCC or U.S. Congress should develop network neutrality rules should welcome the tools, said Ed Felten, director of the Center for Information Policy and a computer science and public policy professor at Princeton University. It took months for policymakers to gather solid information on Comcast's network management practices, but net neutrality advocates can use the tools if they suspect broadband providers of interfering with traffic.

"If you believe that network neutrality government regulation is not needed, if you believe that the market will handle this ... then you should also welcome Measurement Labs," Felten said. "What you are appealing to is a process of public discussion ... in which consumers move to the ISP that gives them the best performance. It's a market that's facilitated by better information."

However, one ISP industry source, who asked not to be identified, questioned whether the tools would accurately point to the cause of broadband problems. Spyware or malware on computers can affect browser performance, and problems with the wider Internet can cause slowdowns, the source said.

The M-Labs partners seemed to bypass broadband providers when putting together their tools, the source added. "It may appear that issues that are occurring off an ISP's network may be the ISP's problem," the source said of the tools. "It's important for groups like this to collaborate, not only among themselves, but also with ISPs."

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