$1M Google award to give users more power on the web

Suite of tools promises view of throttling, meddling, censorship

Google is giving the Georgia Institute of Technology $1 million to help make the Internet more transparent. The two-year award will fund research into technology designed to let end users – not just network admins – identify when or how their Internet connections are being throttled, monitored or redirected.

The goal is a suite of Web-based applications that would be easy for non-techies to use, easily available online, and free.

The tools will measure how easily a user can reach various portions of the Internet, performance of the networks to which the user is connected, how that performance compares to guarantees from ISPs and the integrity of the data coming through the links.

“Ultimately we hope this project will help create a ‘transparency ecosystem,' where more and more users will take advantage of the measurement tools," according to Wenke Lee, professor of computer science and security researcher who is principal investigator under the grant. "[That], in turn will improve the accuracy and comprehensiveness of our analysis."

It's easily possible the result will actually be a set of tools similar to traceroute and whois – familiar to the point of banality to Internet cognoscenti, but mysterious or unknown to most web users.

They wouldn't be the first user-friendly version.

More optimistically, if their metrics were accepted widely enough, the suite might provide a benchmark that's easy to run, easy to understand and defensible enough give customers of Comcast, Verizon and other big carriers leverage they currently lack to enforce SLAs.

Being able to identify portions of the 'net being blocked, or someone else's fingers trailing through your packets would give the bulk of web users an awareness of the manipulation, espionage and virtual violence on the Internet currently only visible to those much closer to the conflict.

A few suspicious packets or insecure server query to servers in Iran just to see how alert its columns of cyberwarriors are would be entertaining the first time you did it. It would be useful after someone turned it into a widget that could stay resident on your screen so you could trace conflicts over access into Iranian cyberspace or your favorite corner of the net.

It could also be a cyberweapon for the equivalent of flash mobs who respond to human rights abuses or other international outrages by hitting the "send a million pings a second" button and going to lunch.

Yes, I know anyone with a little knowledge, a little freeware (or a Trojan they don't know about) can do that now. Most people can't – at least, not on purpose.

If the madding crowd had the mad skills Anonymous used against Visa, Mastercard and Libya, the web would never be the same.

Kevin Fogarty writes about enterprise IT for ITworld. Follow him on Twitter @KevinFogarty.

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