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1/28/2009
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Google Aims To Expose Network Meddling

Vint Cerf puts out the word that Google's Measurement Lab will make it more difficult for telecoms to degrade or block apps such as BitTorrent or Skype.

The father of the Internet on Wednesday revealed a plan to keep a closer eye on his creation.

Vint Cerf, Google's chief Internet evangelist and one of the architects of the Internet, announced the opening of Measurement Lab, an open research platform for testing Internet performance.

Measurement Lab is backed by Google, the New America Foundation's Open Technology Institute, the PlanetLab Consortium, and other academic researchers. It aims to provide Internet users with network-diagnostic information that can be used to identify network performance degradation. It also aspires to make such information easier to share.

"At Google, we care deeply about sustaining the Internet as an open platform for consumer choice and innovation," said Cerf and Google engineer Stephen Stuart in a co-authored blog post. "No matter your views on net neutrality and ISP network management practices, everyone can agree that Internet users deserve to be well-informed about what they're getting when they sign up for broadband, and good data is the bedrock of sound policy. Transparency has always been crucial to the success of the Internet, and, by advancing network research in this area, M-Lab aims to help sustain a healthy, innovative Internet."

Google's support for net neutrality is well known, and it's clear that by making network performance data more accessible, the company hopes to make it more difficult for telecommunications providers to degrade or block certain protocols or applications, such as BitTorrent or Skype, that undermine certain business models.

"Today the Internet is an information highway where anybody -- no matter how large or small, how traditional, or unconventional -- has equal access," wrote Google CEO Eric Schmidt in an open letter to Google users last year. "But the phone and cable monopolies, who control almost all Internet access, want the power to choose who gets access to high-speed lanes and whose content gets seen first and fastest. They want to build a two-tiered system and block the on-ramps for those who can't pay."

Telecom companies see things differently. A group called Hands Off the Internet, backed by the likes of AT&T, argues that existing rules already protect Internet users, that new regulations threaten job growth, that net neutrality laws have made it more difficult to block objectionable content, and that net neutrality discourages investments that increase network capacity.

This isn't merely a theoretical issue. Last year, the FCC upheld a complaint against Comcast for traffic management practices that resulted in the blocking of file-sharing services.

More recently, Cox Communications announced plans to delay Internet traffic that isn't time-sensitive in order to manage congestion. "In February, Cox will begin testing a new method of managing traffic on our high-speed Internet network in our Kansas and Arkansas markets," the company explains on its Web site. "During the occasional times the network is congested, this new technology automatically ensures that all time-sensitive Internet traffic -- such as Web pages, voice calls, streaming videos, and gaming -- moves without delay. Less time-sensitive traffic, such as file uploads, peer-to-peer and Usenet newsgroups, may be delayed momentarily -- but only when the local network is congested."

However, when Internet luminaries like Tim Berners-Lee, who is not affiliated with Google, argue that net neutrality "is basis of a fair, competitive market economy" and "is the basis of democracy," it becomes clear that network neutrality foes face an uphill battle.

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