Last week, the FCC announced the "FCC Open Internet Apps Challenge," a contest to attract software that helps ordinary users measure whether their Internet services — both mobile broadband and traditional "fixed" broadband — are consistent with open Internet principles. The FCC is also asking for submissions of "research papers that analyze relevant Internet openness measurement techniques, approaches, and data." This is a welcome effort from the FCC, and we hope to see software developers and researchers help the public better discover how our networks and service providers are treating our Internet communications.

While we have many points of concern about the FCC's net neutrality rules, EFF has always highlighted data, evidence, and provider transparency as unequivocally vital pieces of the complex net neutrality puzzle. Remember that in October of 2007, the Associated Press and EFF confirmed that Comcast was interfering with subscribers' BitTorrent activity. But the story didn't actually begin there — for several weeks beforehand, EFF had been receiving scattered, anecdotal reports of unusual BitTorrent behavior. However, until we had developed testing methods and tools to obtain some reliable data, there were countless technical questions yielding deeply complicated policy questions. Like, is Comcast actually responsible for the effects users are seeing, or is it some kind of bug? If Comcast is responsible, how irreversible or deep-seated is the method being used? Is this the kind of technical problem that users can address without inviting government regulation (from the FCC or otherwise)? Is there a form of government intervention that would be appropriate and effective to alleviate the actual BitTorrent blocking and other actions like it?

The best answers to these questions relied — and will continue to rely — on the public having real knowledge about how our Internet connections are functioning and whether or not ISPs are providing the open Internet that users want. EFF made an early attempt at providing such information gathering software with the Switzerland Network Testing Tool; the Measurement Lab is building an open platform to help give researchers more reliable, accurate tools for measuring Internet features; and hopefully the FCC contest inspires yet more innovation. As we continue to explore the challenges of maintaining an open Internet, strong data about the networks will be an important pillar in the defense of freedom of expression, user control, innovation, and more.

Submissions will be accepted from February 1 to June 1, 2011, and the winners will be invited to the FCC headquarters in Washington D.C. to meet FCC Chairman Genachowski, present their work to the commission, and have their work featured by the FCC online. Visit the portal for details about the contest.