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

Georgia Tech researchers devising tools to give end users visibility into government censorship, service provider bandwidth throttling, equipment issues

By and , Network World
March 22, 2011 10:12 PM ET

Network World - In the wake of Internet blackouts in Egypt and Libya, Google has announced it is awarding at least $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?"

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