The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) voted to roll back net neutrality regulations several weeks ago, leaving consumers on their own when dealing with heavy-handed ISPs. The FCC suggests that public outrage will prevent ISPs from doing truly objectionable things with data traffic, but how are we supposed to know what’s happening without the FCC’s transparency rules? There’s an app from researchers at Northeastern University that might help, but Apple has decided you don’t need it.
The app is called Wehe, and it was designed to further research conducted by David Coffnes at Notheastern University. Coffnes has spent years reverse-engineering the network technologies used by carriers and ISPs to throttle certain traffic. Now, his team has developed an app that can determine if your carrier has slowed your connection to any of seven different services: YouTube, Amazon, NBCSports, Netflix, Skype, Spotify, and Vimeo.
Wehe uses a “replay” server containing snippets of data from the above services, complete with metadata. The app reaches out to the server to replay those packets, tracking whether the metadata causes differentiation. Coffnes notes it’s not the actual source of the data ISPs use to decide what to slow down, nor is it the actual content of the packets. Your ISP uses so-called “deep packet inspection” to look at the metadata associated with a packet. If that text matches Netflix data, your ISP might choose to slow it down. That would have been illegal under the net neutrality rules in most circumstances, but carriers have offered a number of zero-rating services for video (eg. T-Mobile’s Binge On).
After submitting Wehe to the App Store, Coffnes got word from Apple that the app contained “Objectionable Content.” That’s the vague term Apple uses to describe anything it doesn’t want in the store. Coffnes was eventually told the app “has no direct benefits to the user” because it could be inaccurate. A lot of users would probably disagree. Coffnes’ work has been cited in numerous industry publications, and Verizon even contracts with his team to research its video service’s performance.
Luckily, Android users enjoy a less restrictive app experience. Wehe is available in the Play Store, compatible with almost all devices. I’ve tested the app on a T-Mobile account with Binge On. I have an older account with optional Binge On, and I leave it off all the time. With that feature off, Wehe detected no differentiation in the data. After activating Binge On, it detected YouTube throttling on T-Mobile’s end. That’s exactly what you’d expect.
If you’re on Android and want to give the app a shot, it takes about 5 minutes to run the test. You’ll be asked to contribute data to the research project upon first opening the app. If you’re an iPhone user, you’ll have to wait and see if Apple caves.
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