Princeton computer scientists guide Internet transparency project

Princeton computer science and technology policy experts are playing key roles in a new project intent on illuminating the mysterious inner workings of Internet traffic.

The initiative, called Measurement Lab, will consist of a global network of computers that will allow computer scientists to investigate how data moves across the Internet, and aims to bring transparency to the debates over who should regulate that traffic.

The tools it provides are open for use by the general public and may help answer a question that has occurred to most Web surfers at one time or another: Why is my Internet connection so slow today?

Two Princeton engineering professors spoke at the launch event for Measurement Lab, held Jan. 28 at the Washington, D.C., headquarters of the New America Foundation, a public policy think tank that is sponsoring the initiative along with Google.

Measurement Lab

Larry Peterson (right), chair of Princeton's Department of Computer Science, explains how Measurement Lab will be used to study the Internet. Peterson was joined by Edward Felten (left), director of Princeton's Center for Information Technology Policy, and Vint Cerf, an Internet pioneer and a vice president of Google. (Photo: Courtesy of the New America Foundation)

Larry Peterson, chair of the Department of Computer Science, explained why research on global computer networks is important and how the Measurement Lab software is based on PlanetLab, an Internet network research project he spearheads.

Under Peterson's leadership, Princeton will serve as a key hub in the Measurement Lab network and a team of Princeton computer scientists will leverage expertise they gained from operating PlanetLab to run the new research network.

Edward Felten
, director of Princeton's Center for Information Technology Policy, discussed how the new research network will help inform public policy debates about the Internet, especially those related to the role of government agencies in regulating broadband Internet traffic.

"Many debates about the Internet and policy would benefit from more and better facts," Felten said during the launch event press conference. "Measurement Lab provides that. It provides a facility for aggregating information and fostering a fact-based public debate about what's going on and what government should do."

The research network was launched with three servers located in Google's Mountain View, Calif., headquarters and will soon grow to 36 servers in 12 locations around the world.

In addition to Princeton, Google and the New America Foundation, the consortium of organizations involved in the project includes a number of other universities and computer science research centers. Project organizers hope the network will grow far larger with time, as more organizations join the consortium.

The network will allow researchers to test Internet connections for speed and other functionality by sending data between Measurement Lab computers. Among other things, the computers can measure precisely when data leaves one computer and when it arrives at another, providing a sensitive gauge for Internet speed.

The project website offers several tools, two of which were built for use by members of the public to test their Internet connections.

The Network Diagnostic Tool measures a computer's upload and download speeds and determines whether problems lie with the individual computer's configuration or somewhere beyond in the networking infrastructure. Another tool, Glasnost, attempts to determine if an Internet service provider, such as Comcast or Verizon, is specifically controlling the data-transfer speed of programs such as BitTorrent, a popular file-sharing program.

In 2007, customers complained that their download speeds when using BitTorrent slowed dramatically, and Comcast later acknowledged that it was specifically limiting the speed with which BitTorrent could transfer files.

The incident fueled an ongoing debate about whether Comcast and other service providers should be allowed to control the access certain computers or programs have to the Internet. The service providers have argued that they have to manage the traffic effectively to keep data flowing smoothly, and that putting limits on traffic from one source is necessary.

Others have advocated for what they call "net neutrality" and charge that service providers currently have too much control over Internet traffic. They argue that allowing the providers to limit access to the network as they see fit could have a chilling effect on innovation and free-market competition.

"If we've learned anything at Google, and maybe we can say even anything about the Internet in general, it's that an open and accessible network induces and invites creativity and innovation," said Vint Cerf, a vice president of Google, at the Measurement Lab launch.

Cerf, who helped build the computer network that became the Internet and later developed the first commercial e-mail software, said the new network will make it possible to accurately determine whether information is flowing freely through the Internet.

Whatever side of the debate you're on, said Felten, Measurement Lab should provide much needed transparency. He noted that the policy discussions over Comcast's decision to curb BitTorrent traffic were often based on fuzzy details.

"It really was a process that was starved for strong factual evidence," he said. "There were assertions about what was happening, but there were not a lot of really well established consensus facts about what was happening."

He added that the project would have a global reach. "There are perhaps even greater opportunities and potential benefits from a project like Measurement Lab in the international setting," he said, "where … different national telecommunications and Internet authorities are doing different things. It would certainly be helpful for people around the world to know what's happening in their corner of the Internet."

Peterson, who is a member of Measurement Lab's steering committee, said that although the Internet started as a "playground" for computer scientists, their ability to study the behavior of the global network has suffered as the Internet has become more commercial. He said the new network will provide a welcome addition to PlanetLab, the Princeton-based experimental computer network, which has grown to about 1,000 servers worldwide.

"The public will be able to run these different diagnostic tools and the research community will be able to see the results of that," he said. "The research community will be able to see across the Internet what is or is not working."

Video and MP3 audio recordings of the press conference are available online.