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Joining forces with some close friends, Google has given the world an online lab for testing the behavior of its internet connections.

Yesterday, in tandem with the New America Foundation's Open Technology Institute and the PlanetLab Consortium, the search giant unveiled Measurement Lab - a distributed server platform where online researchers can set up their very own net tests.

"Researchers are already developing tools that allow users to, among other things, measure the speed of their connection, run diagnostics, and attempt to discern if their ISP is blocking or throttling particular applications," reads a Googlicious blog post. "These tools generate and send some data back-and-forth between the user's computer and a server elsewhere on the Internet. Unfortunately, researchers lack widely-distributed servers with ample connectivity. This poses a barrier to the accuracy and scalability of these tools. Researchers also have trouble sharing data with one another.

"M-Lab aims to address these problems."

Over the next year, Google will provide 36 test servers in 12 locations in the US and Europe. And all data collected on these boxes will be available to anyone.

Last summer, during a Silicon Valley panel discussion on the ever-contentious topic of net neutrality, Google senior policy director Richard Whitt indicated it was prepping its own suite of network analysis tools. "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," Whitt said.

But at the moment, Google's virtual lab is running three existing tools from outside academics, including an app that looks for BitTorrent blockage and another that measures connection speeds. Other researchers are on the verge of deploying tools that identify whether an ISP is degrading performance for particular users or particular types of traffic.

Which is particularly apropos after Tuesday night's announcement from Cox Communications. In February, the American cable giant will test mystery technology designed to slow-track certain traffic during periods of network congestion.

But M-Lab isn't a check on the likes of Cox and fellow cableco Comcast, which was slapped by FCC last year for surreptitiously blocking BitTorrents. "M-Lab is good for all strata of the internet," says Robb Topolski, the independent researcher who first uncovered Comcast's BitTorrent busting. "ISPs are purchasers of bandwidth too. There's no reason for anyone to believe that if ISPs are going to tinker with bandwidth provisioning, that third-party transit providers aren't also doing the same thing."

The New America Foundation, a policy think tank, and PlanetLab, an academic consortium that runs an existing global testing network, are old Google pals. CEO Eric Schmidt is the chairman of the New America board, and Google's Stephen Stuart is on the PlanetLab steering committee. ®

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