Google to Offer Broadband Users Tools to Monitor ISP Traffic Management

by on June 18, 2008 · 29 comments

The Register reports that Google is developing yet another suite of free tools for broadband users–this time aimed at allowing users to monitor traffic-management/shaping conducted by their ISP.

“We’re trying to develop tools, software tools…that allow people to detect what’s happening with their broadband connections, so they can let [ISPs] know that they’re not happy with what they’re getting – that they think certain services are being tampered with,” Google senior policy director Richard Whitt said this morning during a panel discussion at Santa Clara University, an hour south of San Francisco.

The article provides a short-but-interesting history of how Google’s views on Net Neutrality have evolved in recent years and about the debate inside the company as to whether to governmental prohibition of traffic management/prioritization by enshrining some conception of Net Neutrality in law.  Today, of course, the company has become perhaps the most outspoken corporate defender of Net Neutrality principles.  Google senior policy director Richard Whitt shows no sign of rethinking Google’s commitment to those principles, but suggests that the monitoring tools being developed by Google might fundamentally change the calculus of the debate:

“The forces aligned against us are real. They’ve been there for decades. Their pockets are deep. Their connections are strong with those in Washington,” he said. “Maybe we can turn this into an arms race on the application software side rather a political game.”

As Verizon’s Link Hoewing observes, these tools promise to increase dramatically the transparency of network management practices.  This increased transparency will provide a clearer picture of what ISPs are actually doing, something that is largely a subject of speculation today, while helping to remove the current uncertainty that fuels sometimes wild speculation about the “death of the Internet” and other calamities in a world without Net Neutrality.  Psychologically, transparency may thus remove much of the need for perceived need for Net Neutrality mandates.

But, of course, as defenders of traffic prioritization argue, there will be instances where ISPs “deviate from Net Neutrality principles” by prioritizing certain traffic to enable advanced voice and video services over more intelligent networks.   (Read, for example, George Ou’s post taking issue with aspects of The Register‘s story.)  Of course, some will surely point to such instances as further evidence of the perceived “need” for regulation, but the fact that these practices will be rmore readily apparent to more users than ever before will in fact provide three powerful alternative mechanisms for disciplining ISP traffic management.

First, it will be easier to hold ISPs accountable under their own terms of use–especially with the involvement of citizens’ watchdog groups such as Lauren Weinstein’s “Network Neutrality Squad.”  Clearly, if Google’s planned tools suggest that an ISP is violating the applicable provisions of its terms of use and if that suspicion can be properly confirmed, such a violation should give rise to a breach of contract claim or an unfair-and-deceptive trade practice action.  Increased user awareness of what traffic management actually involves and when it is actually being conducted should also create public pressure on ISPs to specify with greater granularity what they will and will not do.

Second, as demonstrated by the recent “Comcast Kerfuffle,” ISPs could suffer reputational consequences for either (i) violating their terms of use or (ii) simply conducting forms of traffic management that significantly degrade user experiences without any corresponding benefit to users.  The better users understand how ISPs manage their networks, the more likely they will be to appreciate the need for certain kinds of traffic management and the less likely they will be to equate all forms of traffic management with the dystopian scenarios thrown out by the Chicken Littles who insist that the digital firmament is falling and that the “End of the Internet” is upon us if we fail to regulate–and quickly.

Third, Google’s tools will facilitate good, ol’ fashioned self-help.   The more consumers know about traffic management, the more they will be able to find technological means of practices they consider particularly objectionable–the “arms race” referenced by Whitt.

Those of us who defend the ISP’s freedom to manage its network–and, like George Ou, the corresponding freedom of the user to choose prioritization–should never make the mistake of thinking that all prioritization is equally good.  Nor should we let our opposition to coercive Net Neutrality mandates diminish our appreciation for purely voluntary efforts like Google’s monitoring tools.  Surely we can join even those who favor Net Neutrality mandates in agreeing that “Sunlight is the best disinfectant,” as Justice Brandeis famously said.

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