Researchers developing tools that tell who’s blocking Web information

You type in the address of a website, but nothing comes up. Did you make a mistake or is someone or something blocking the information you want?

Researchers at Georgia Tech are developing free tools that give Internet users worldwide the answer.
The device would have detected recent Internet blackouts in Egypt and Libya and could let people know if governments are throttling the Web without their knowledge, said Nick Feamster, a computer science professor who is one of the principal investigators on the project. It would also expose whether Internet service providers are delivering the upload and download speeds they promised consumers, he said.
Google recently awarded Tech professors at least $1 million to develop Web-based devices to improve transparency on the Web. The first tool should be available for anyone to download by the end of the year.
The goal isn’t to help people circumvent a blocked site, but rather to explain why it is inaccessible, said Wenke Lee, a computer science professor who is also a principal investigator.
“Information and our access to information has a lot of impact on who we are and how we live our lives,” Lee said. “Not having this information is similar to withholding knowledge from students or basically not giving children enough nutrition for them to grow.”
Feamster said they are not judging why a site is blocked. There are reasonable motives, such as protecting people from spam and cybercrime. And there are darker motives, such as censoring content, tampering with search results or altering information to promote propaganda.
“Users have the right to be aware of what is happening,” Feamster said. “This is a global issue.”
The Google Focused Research Awards program provided Tech with $1 million for two years’ worth of work on the project, plus an optional third year with an additional $500,000. The research program supports engineering and computer science projects that are of mutual interest to college researchers and the company.
“Georgia Tech has been a very strong partner for Google and we look forward to exciting things coming from this collaboration,” said Leslie Yeh Johnson, a Google university relations manager.
The project is in the early stages, but the team has developed a “browser extension” that would provide users with real-time information about blocked sites.
An icon, likely an exclamation point, would appear in the address bar. If users click on that, a message pops up saying the site is inaccessible and provides a link for more information. The link would explain, using a phrase such as “to the best of our knowledge” how long the site has been down, who or what caused it and whether users from a specific country or Internet service provider are impacted.
The project faces a couple of challenges, such as making sure governments or service providers can’t block or filter the device, Feamster said.
They must persuade people to use the tools and report network problems and issues so the team can gather information. The more people who report information, the more accurate the tool will be, Lee said. People at Google or Tech will vet the information to make sure it isn’t tainted or misleading, Feamster said.
Feamster and Lee have long worked to combat censorship. Censorship has become increasingly pervasive and studies find 60 nations restrict access to information on the Internet, they said. While much focus remains on the so-called Great Firewall of China, it also occurs in Australia, South Africa and the United Kingdom, Feamster said.
Emory University professor Ramnath Chellappa said there is always interest in tools that promote transparency on the Web.
Chellappa, an expert on information security and privacy, said the new Tech effort could benefit users in the Mideast and North Africa, but will likely have a greater effect on the issue of net neutrality, which advocates for no restrictions on content or access.
Lee said the project aims to create a “transparency watchdog system.”
“The idea is to give people something that provides better information about the accessibility of content,” Feamster said. “It could be censorship or an outage or somehow the user’s fault. The point is to be clear about what is really going on.”


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