WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Google Inc on Wednesday unveiled a plan aimed at eventually letting computer users determine whether providers like Comcast Corp are inappropriately blocking or slowing their work online.
The scheme is the latest bid in the debate over network neutrality, which pits content companies like Google against some Internet service providers.
The ISPs say they need to take reasonable steps to manage ever-growing traffic on their networks for the good of all users. Content and applications companies fear the providers have the power to discriminate, favoring some traffic over others.
Google will provide academic researchers with 36 servers in 12 locations in the United States and Europe to analyze data, said its chief Internet guru, Vint Cerf, known as the "father of the Internet."
"When an Internet application doesn't work as expected or your connection seems flaky, how can you tell whether there is a problem caused by your broadband ISP (Internet service provider), the application, your PC (personal computer), or something else?" Cerf wrote in a blog post.
The effort aims to uncover the problem for users, Cerf said. Cerf is widely known for his work for the U.S. government in designing the Internet protocol in the 1970s and 1980s.
In a precedent-setting decision last year, the five-member Federal Communications Commission voted to uphold a complaint accusing Comcast of violating the FCC's open-Internet principles by blocking file-sharing services, such as those that distribute video and television shows.
The case became a flash point in the Net neutrality debate. Comcast is fighting the decision in the courts.
In a move likely to fuel further debate, another large cable company, Cox Communications, said on Wednesday it would begin testing a plan to give priority to time-sensitive traffic like Web page views and streaming videos.
Less time-sensitive traffic, such as file uploads and peer-to-peer file sharing, could be delayed under the plan.
Cox said it will not discriminate based on owner or source of traffic.
Still, Net neutrality advocates are wary of such policies.
"The lesson we learned from the Comcast case is that we must be skeptical of any practice that comes between users and the Internet," said Ben Scott, policy director of Free Press, an advocacy group.
Researchers are already using tools to test connection speed and determine if an ISP is blocking or throttling particular applications. Google's effort will allow an expansion of that effort.
"The goal is to let consumers see what's under the hood of their Internet connection," said Sascha Meinrath, a wireless expert at the New America Foundation, a think tank in which Google CEO Eric Schmidt is board chairman. "Right now it's very difficult now to make an informed consumer choice."
Google has a business interest in keeping users' experiences fast and efficient, said Google policy analyst Derek Slater, who reserved further judgment until he could learn more about the new Cox policy.
"Our ability to innovate still depends on end users being able to use their broadband connections to access Google. To the extent that consumers are having problems doing that, that can directly hurt Google."
Reporting by Kim Dixon; editing by Richard Chang