Google [GOOG] has launched a new website in cooperation with a pair of nonprofit organizations. It does two things: it analyzes your network connection, and it makes companies like Comcast [CMCSA] and TimeWarner [TWX] wish that Google be wiped from the earth.
By allowing access to diagnostic information about their Internet connections, the new site, called MeasurementLab.net, lets users expose interference from oppressive ISPs. In the past, some service providers have been known to stall or cap users who use more-than-average bandwidth—an unfair practice that makes net neutrality advocates livid. Last year, the FCC censured Comcast for “secretly degrading” the speed of users of peer-to-peer clients like BitTorrent, a practice known as discriminatory network management.
Discriminatory network management isn’t just about punishing users who use too much bandwidth; it’s also a foot-in-the-door to other dangerous behavior. “Slippery slope” arguments don’t make for good journalism, but it’s worth laying out the scenario that has frightened Google into action.
If you’ve heard someone ranting passionately about net neutrality lately, this is the stuff they’re talking about. Imagine if your ISP could decide to slow down your connection to “inappropriate material,” forcing your computer to come to a crawl when viewing, say, radical political content. Imagine if they could charge more money for access to popular sites like Facebook or Flickr. Ultimately, consumers could end up using separate “Internets,” that behave like cell phone networks. Roam on another Internet, or contact a user there, and you get billed extra.
During last year’s censure, former FCC Commissioner Kevin Martin compared Comcast’s behavior to the postal service opening your mail and deciding whether or not to deliver it to you.
None of this behavior is criminal, but the FCC does have four “principles” it enforces in the interest of preserving the “open and interconnected nature of the public Internet.” (Comcast’s official offense was for discriminating in secret, thereby violating these principles. The company has since said it’s stopped discriminating.) While it’s been easy to get access to statistics about the Web at large, it has been difficult for users to analyze what kind of interference they’re getting between their own ISP and their home, on the so-called “last mile” of broadband networks.
Built by researchers in Germany, M-Lab is purpose-built to uncover that kind of discriminatory interference. Google has volunteered 36 servers in 12 cities to allow users to run the tests. And while that’s generous of the search-engine giant, Google isn’t wholly the white knight of open Web; as The Wall Street Journal reported in December, the company been amenable to non-neutral cost-sharing deals with ISPs that could get them a so-called “fast-lane” for data-heavy sites like YouTube.
Should President Obama listen to the chorus of net neutrality advocates and make good on his platform promise, net neutrality laws could be enacted soon. This would render discriminatory Internet management a higher-stakes game for ISPs (and deals like Google’s out of the question). If caught showing preference to certain users or sites, ISPs would be on the hook for heavy fines. Thankfully, tools like M-Lab would effectively crowdsource enforcement for FCC, saving that agency millions and giving the laws teeth.
The telecoms aren’t taking any of this lightly. An organization known as Hands off the Internet, which counts AT&T, Alcatel-Lucent and Qwest as “member organizations,” is vocal in opposing net neutrality by lobbying in Washington alongside representatives from other major telecoms like Verizon. Hands Off encourages legislators to strike down any net neutrality bills, that the organization says will hurt ISPs’ ability to address security breaches, viruses and attacks.
Unfortunately, M-Labs needs work. Of the listed servers for the basic network diagnostic test, only a few of them responded to my testing requests; the ones that did reported errors, even after attempts on several different Internet connections. Nevertheless, look for M-Labs to be an important, democratic weapon in the net neutrality battles of the next four years.