Google funds tools to expose government attempts to censor, shut down the Internet

The timing of the award announcement is coincidental – the grant process was well underway before the anti-government revolutions recently grabbed international attention

In the wake of Internet blackouts in Egypt and Libya, Google has announced it is awarding at least US$1 million to Georgia Tech researchers working on tools that will immediately reveal when governments are trying to shut down or censor use of the Internet.

The timing of the award announcement is coincidental – the grant process was well underway before the anti-government revolutions recently grabbed international attention – but the aim of the research would address exactly some of the issues protesters and others have had accessing the Internet and certain applications or Web sites.  The Google Focused Research Award will be put to use building free Web tools designed to let Internet users, including those on smartphones and tablets, detect whether service providers are living up to service-level agreements and whether data or apps are being messed with along the way by governments or service providers.

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"The recent actions [Internet shutdowns] we’ve seen have been drastic, but this is by no means a new issue," says Nick Feamster, assistant professor in the School of Computer Science, who is a principal investigator on the project along with computer science professor Wenke Lee and three other co-principal investigators.

"What we are aiming to do is provide transparency for the user," he says. "Whether or not it is outright censorship of content, throttling of performance through traffic shaping or blocking of a particular application or domain, all these things could have either reasonable or unreasonable motives behind them. What we think is important is that the user have information about what is going on in the network."

The scheme will rely on participation from Internet users who deploy an agent on their computers to create a distributed watchdog system, Lee says. Had such a system been deployed in Egypt during the recent uprising, it would have discovered right away that the government was essentially shutting down the Internet there. "We will know instantly when a government or ISP starts to block traffic, tamper with search results, even alter web-based information in order to spread propaganda," Lee says.

Data from individuals using the tools will likely be aggregated by a neutral third party, such as a university research team, and reported back to end users so they can see whether other users are having similar network experiences. The more users that take advantage of the system, the more accurate it will become.

Among the challenges the team has in front of it is building tools that won’t be blocked or filtered by governments or ISPs. Feamster says one possibility to circumvent this might even include pulling a page from the way peer-to-peer based botnets work to elude security measures. "Could we borrow some of the design ideas from some of that type of infrastructure to build a resilient indication network that sends us good messages?"

Encouraging users to install the tools his team develops will be a challenge, Feamster acknowledges. The team is working to make the tools really easy to use, and a preliminary version takes the form of a Google Chrome extension (not that this is a Google-specific technology effort).

It’s also possible that by encouraging enterprise IT shops to adopt the tools that broader use of the tools will result, Feamster says. The tools Georgia Tech is developing might help system admins troubleshoot by figuring out whether performance problems are caused by internal or external networks, he says.

Asked if he personally had experienced much in the way of mysterious Internet slowdowns or blocked access, Feamster said yes, but that the problem always wound up being related to the choice of equipment he was using in his home, such as a DSL modem that had more buffering than it should have had.  And in fact, the Georgia Tech researchers are examining ways to drill down into information about how a user’s home network infrastructure or choice of ISP might affect the network performance they see.  The researchers have been deploying programmable home network gateway devices that replace the users’ existing gateways and taking a variety of active measurements of the users’ access links to better understand what causes performance degradation.

The $1 million Google grant is for 2 years, though another $500,000 could be awarded for a third year.

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Bob Brown and Tim Greene

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