FCC launches Design-An-App contest; Goal: Equip citizenry for self-defense in Open Internet struggle

Are you a “citizen solver”? Do you want to become one?

As broadband providers across the country contemplate what they’re going to have to disclose to consumers under the FCC’s new “Open Internet” transparency requirement, the Commission is looking to open a new transparency front. The troops to be deployed to that front? An army of consumers, who would be provided with software that will reveal to them, in the comfort of their own homes, precisely what their ISPs’ traffic management practices are. 

And the Commission has thought of a fun and cheap – well, cheap, at least – way to accomplish this goal.  A contest!  Like one of those Thanksgiving Day essay contests, but with software and the Internet and stuff. You get to spend hundreds of hours designing a software application or writing a research paper, which you then submit to the FCC. If your entry wins, you get to travel to Washington, D.C., to attend a reception with Chairman Genachowski. And (are you sitting down?) up to $500 of your travel costs will be paid by Uncle Sam, plus if the winning entry is from a team, a total of up to $1,500 in travel costs will be reimbursed! Be still my heart! (There is no second prize, but if there were, we suspect it would be the opportunity to attend two receptions with the Chairman.)

The contest seeks to unleash the vast untapped potential of the nation’s civic-minded geeks (or, in FCC-speak, “citizen solvers”). It parallels several ongoing “civilian” initiatives to develop network detection tools, such as Measurement Lab (founded by Google, New America Foundation’s Open Technology Institute, the PlanetLab Consortium, and academic researchers) and the Max Planck Institute’s Glasnost project. In fact, the website mentions that applicants may coordinate with M-Lab directly to run their apps on its platform.

So, if you think you can design a better app than Google or the Max Planck Institute, better get started. Your software tool (which, by the way, would be a great name for a band) should provide users with “real-time data” about their broadband connections as well as accumulate data on Internet-wide patterns and trends. For example, it could let Internet users know if providers are interfering with “DNS responses, application packet headers, or content”. (DNS responses are those packets that Comcast faked in order to break off BitTorrent connections.)   Finally, it must be free to use and available over the Internet.

Two awards will be given for applications: one for the “best new or substantially improved open Internet app” and a People’s Choice App Award for “the most popular open Internet app”.  (The People’s Choice Award will be decided by on-line voting.) There is also an award for the best research paper that analyzes “relevant Internet openness measurement techniques, approaches, and data.” For full details, go to http://challenge.gov/FCC/114-fcc-open-internet-apps-challenge. (Heads up, though – the instructions are a tad sparse and not entirely consistent. For example, at one point we are told that research papers are limited to “20 pages (11 point font)”. But hold on there – three paragraphs later the word is that “there are no page limits for research papers.” Of course, this may just be a subtle ploy by the Commission to help it identify the real genius entries. We’ll have to wait and see.)

Entries can be submitted from February 1– June 1. Judging will run from June 15-July 15, including (get this!) on-line Internet voting in the People’s Choice App category. Winners will be announced on August 8. 

If things go awry for the Commission’s new rules (given their shaky legal foundation and the ominous rumblings from the House), at least consumers won’t be able to say the FCC never gave them anyway to help themselves.  But carriers must be wondering exactly what use will be made of the data – i.e., will it give rise to enforcement actions?