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by danps

The incredible shrinking Internet

5:31 am in Uncategorized by danps

Cross posted from Pruning Shears.

A couple of weeks ago, Yves Smith’s link roundup included a McClatchy piece about consumers dropping cable TV. She remarked: “Trust me, when you seem more consumers ditching cable, you’ll see the pipeline providers start charging based on how much you download a month.” Caps really aren’t necessary, though; connections are already capped by speed. You can’t download any more than the connection will allow. Consumers should be able to buy a connection at a set price, and the ISP should charge for it based on how much data it could transmit. Charge more for faster speeds, less for slower ones.

The big providers don’t want to do that, though, so instead they are trying to figure out ways to charge customers more for what they already pay for. And the amounts they are charging are exorbitant. For instance, Verizon Wireless’ HomeFusion service has a top tier of $120 a month for 30 GB, with a $10 charge for every gigabyte over that. Since, as the article notes, Netflix can take up to 700 MB for an hour of streaming, that cap will get blown through pretty quickly. And it’s completely inadequate for the next generation of video: you can forget about streaming a movie that takes 45 to 60 GB.

That’s not all of the bad news, either. Internet connections have traditionally worked like this: Select your package, pay for it, use it for what you want. That’s what you do with your ISP. That’s what Google does too. Everyone pays to get on. But now there’s an emerging talking point that web sites (for some reason called “edge providers” in a bit of unhelpfully obscure tech lingo) are somehow not paying to get on. Verizon is before the FCC right now arguing that prices are higher because edge providers – which, remember, already pay to get on the Internet – do not also pay to get off. In other words, when you use your Verizon connection to watch a YouTube video, YouTube is also somehow bundled in as a Verizon customer.

The reason they are doing this is because they want to do away with net neutrality. If lots of their customers are getting data from site A then site A is a problem. If only they didn’t have to connect their customers to it, or maybe if they could charge the site a premium! And that’s where usage based broadband pricing comes in. If Verizon succeeds against the FCC and net neutrality is gutted, web site owners face the prospect of being charged extra by providers for the privilege of delivering content to customers.

We are already seeing a version of that as providers make deals to serve certain content free of data cap usage. And when you’re on a plan that has a 30 GB per month cap with $1 for every GB over, that’s a pretty big deal. It begins to make sense to confine yourself to those sites that your ISP doesn’t count against your cap just to make sure you don’t accidentally blow through it. Of course, some take a more sanguine view:

The critics’ real worry, then, is that ESPN, by virtue of its size, could gain an advantage on some other sports content provider who chose not to offer a similar uncapped service. But is this government’s role – the micromanagement of prices, products, the structure of markets, and relationships among competitive and cooperative firms?

Read the rest of this entry →

by danps

Routing around Big Internet

12:51 pm in Uncategorized by danps

"Internet" by transkamp on flickr

"Internet" by transkamp on flickr

When the opposition to the radical Republican agenda in Wisconsin exploded over the winter, Russia Today highlighted a stark contrast in mainstream outlets: Attention and praise lavished on Arab Spring uprisings compared to an all-but-formally-declared news blackout in Madison.

Of course, inconvenient stories have always been politely ignored by big media; how many large circulation dailies have a labor section as a counterpart to business? How many news divisions with modest (or no) profitability exist at the indulgence of their corporate employers? Such operations inevitably have a nervous, business-friendly approach. Anyone there with a crusading Working Class Hero mentality is pretty much guaranteed to find the door pretty quickly.

Internet technologies threatened to give ordinary people a way around those obstructions, and when they work as expected they do. The problem is that Internet communication has already started a process of consolidation similar to what happened with print and electronic media, and even in this embryonic stage it seems fairly clear what the hazards will be.

What they will not be – at least in America – is the kind of heavy handed, obvious, hard censorship tried in Egypt and Lybia. Instead it will be the kind of soft censorship where things just seem to go wonky. We have seen exactly that with the Wall Street protests. Yahoo was caught red handed censoring emails that referenced the dreaded site OccupyWallStreet.org, then bleated out a couple of “it really would have been better to just keep your mouth shut” excuses. Read the rest of this entry →

by danps

The Government’s Subversion of Silicon Alley

3:41 am in Uncategorized by danps

No Associated Press content was harmed in the writing of this post

Prior to 9/11 the Bush administration had the National Security Agency (NSA) approach telecommunication giants and essentially coerce them into allowing the NSA to engage in warrantless surveillance. The one company – Qwest – that resisted was apparently retaliated against for its troubles. The rest, though, faced legal exposure – and were desperate to escape it. Further, it was urgent that the lawsuits be derailed before discovery could begin; if the public got to see the details of the indiscriminate spying its phone companies had engaged in against them it would have been a PR nightmare. So the president insisted Congress pass a law conferring retroactive immunity on them.

Interestingly, while researching for this post I came across multiple references to a New York Times article titled “Bush Presses Congress on New Eavesdropping Law” by David Stout. These contemporaneous accounts quote the article as follows:

President Bush prodded Congress on the issue of eavesdropping today, warning that he will not sign a new law unless it confers immunity on the telecommunications utilities that helped the National Security Agency eavesdrop without warrants. The issue of whether the telecommunications companies should have immunity has emerged as the most contentious point between Democrats and Republicans on Capitol Hill. President Bush is pushing hard for the companies to be immunized from civil suits for past actions.

The link now points to an article titled “House Panels Reject Appeal on Eavesdropping” by Stephen Labaton, and the text above is nowhere to be found. Please drop a note in the comments if you can shed some light on this curiosity! (Incidentally, this also might be an outstanding justification for bloggers generously copying and pasting from big outlets. If links can apparently get redirected without notice, a site like CovenantNews.com might be our only resource for even fragmentary originally-published material.)

Senator Barack Obama, desperate for some traction against Hillary Clinton in the fight for the Democratic nomination for president announced (via) he would support a filibuster if it contained retroactive immunity, but in the end he supported it. The phone companies were off the hook (har) and no one had to find out anything.

Why dredge up this ancient history? Because it sent the message to the business community that if the government comes calling it is best to go along. There is no downside to cooperating, apart perhaps from some anxiety while the pretty theater in the capitol plays out. There is a definite downside to pushing back, though.

This scenario appears to be repeating, this time with Internet companies. Twitter just received a subpoena for user data along with a gag order preventing it from telling the targets. To its enormous credit, it fought back, challenging and quashing the gag order. WikiLeaks – the target of the investigation – raised the entirely reasonable question of whether, say, Facebook and Google have received similar orders. What assurance can anyone have that their data is being protected from US government surveillance?

Other countries are already wary of the widespread collection of data by some American companies, as well as their cavalier treatment of it. Google in particular is having a devil of a time convincing foreign governments of the purity of its intentions. Its Street View program is drawing lots of unwanted attention – particularly in societies with unhappy histories of spying – and its nonchalant collecting of unsecured WiFi data is drawing fire too. Its IP address tracking program, innocuously titled Google Analytics, is also starting to receive scrutiny.

Companies like Google, Facebook and Twitter dominate the relatively new spaces of search, aggregation and social media. For as much as we like to think of Planet Internet as existing in the ether, everything gets passed along and kept (even if only briefly in cache) on a device. That device exists in a physical space, and the country where it sits will be uniquely well positioned to get its contents.

Obviously that is true everywhere, but it is not hard to imagine a scenario where the US turns into an IT pariah. Would you do business with, or even allow into your country, a company that might quietly work with a foreign government to turn over data on your fellow citizens? Or one that might not even be forthright about whether that was happening? Or retroactively cleared of lawbreaking?

Given America’s recent past there might be developing a powerful incentive for countries to develop their own alternatives to these companies, with the server farms located on their own soil thank you very much – even if those alternatives are much-diminished versions of the originals. Twitter might be fighting for more than just the integrity of its data. It might also be fighting for the long term relevance of its industry.

by danps

Recalibrating convenience, privacy and security

3:38 am in Uncategorized by danps

No Associated Press content was harmed in the writing of this post

We will probably always have to balance computer security and ease of use. Ideally security is baked in, and we go on our merry way without having to think about it. This is the case with viruses. Users were once expected to download service packs, signature updates, and so on. Since most people would not, the industry gradually moved to a silent update model. Now these things generally happen in the background. Provided you trust the company it is a much easier arrangement.

The IT industry is not always so helpful. The real money in the consumer market will be made on advertising, the most lucrative form of which will be targeted: using detailed user information to tailor a specific ad. This in turn can only succeed if, like software updates, the data is quietly collected. It is why over a decade ago then-CEO of Sun Microsystems Scott McNealy said “You have zero privacy anyway…Get over it.” It is why Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg seems to have no use for it. For several years now – starting with Beacon – Facebook has tried to sell user data without provoking a revolt. Many do not seem to be aware of this; they just signed up and started posting status updates. However, in what seems to be destined to be one of the great pearls of wisdom from this era Andrew Lewis (aka blue_beetle) quipped (via (via – woo!)) “If you aren’t paying for it, you are not the customer; you’re the product being sold.”

Thinking of ourselves as commodities seems terribly depersonalizing, but it could be a good defense mechanism. It could help raise awareness that we leave digital traces of ourselves whatever we do, even something as innocuous as a local print job. The point is not to make everyone paranoid, just more knowledgeable about the footprints we leave behind.

Keeping that in mind will only become more important as data collection becomes more sophisticated. Web sites were once content with writing the odiously-named cookies to local hard drives, but are now turning to more invasive techniques. This week a class action lawsuit was filed (via) against several companies engaged in what is called “history sniffing.” Look at the defendants: CBS News and McDonald’s among them. Do you think it will played up by CBS or any of McDonald’s major ad outlets? By its very nature it will not get widespread coverage.

Together with the recent California Supreme Court decision approving warrantless data seizures by police it paints a picture of users’ data being substantially more at risk. That data is only as secure as the policies protecting it, and they can be surprisingly weak – even with extremely sensitive data.

As the printer hard drive issue illustrates, data can be exposed in ways most folks simply never think of. It is not an accusation of bad faith to say law enforcement may not be competent to keep or copy seized data. There are simply too many vectors. People have jobs, and (someone else’s) data security will naturally gravitate pretty far down the “to do” list.

Protecting against that is a hassle and requires some work. You can encrypt a laptop hard drive and feel reasonably secure even if it does not make it past customs. You can look for browsers that offer a private mode, where history and cache get cleaned out. You can go with “security through obscurity” and pick products with relatively small market share – Opera for your browser, Eudora for email, etc. Conversely, be wary of the ones getting all the buzz. For as cool as the new Android phones are, they are also a fat, juicy bulls-eye for hackers.

Consider learning the basics of the GNU Privacy Guard, an email encryption program. It is not an intuitive program, especially if you have never worked at the command line, but getting conversant in it will give you confidence that you can keep your communication from prying eyes as it wings its way across the Internet.

None of these are perfect, nor are they meant to be. The point is not to be 100% safe; that will never happen. The point is to make it difficult to track you. Not because you are involved in some kind of top secret cloak and dagger skulduggery, but because what you do and what you write should be yours alone – unless you knowingly choose to share it. (“Knowingly” does not include some line buried in a 20,000 word End User Licence Agreement, either.) To the extent you do not want to bother, at least make peace with the idea that your data is substantially easier to get at. And that you are indeed the product being sold.

by danps

Building the Shadow Internet

3:27 am in Uncategorized by danps

Your connected experience. (photo: Keoki Seu via Flickr)

The rise of Internet-enabled mobile devices has had some interesting consequences. On the face of it, smart phones and tablets are a boon. They allow people to access email and web sites anywhere, not just when tethered to a desktop. Laptops, with their greater bulk and relatively short battery life, have traditionally been business devices for those who need to work remotely.

Smaller devices changed that. Now that consumers are used to having the Web in their pockets, or throwing a tablet into a small bag, everyone is trying to deliver a high quality mobile Web experience. Reduced screen sizes make many pages difficult to view, which leads to mobile applications (apps) designed specifically for the new form factor. Which then leads to app stores.

App stores have helped turn devices into unique ecosystems. In the desktop computer world this has not been an issue: most people would choose one operating system and stick with it. But if you own an iPhone, you’ll have apps designed specifically for it. You cannot just pick up a Blackberry and immediately start using it the same way. Sure you can find many of the same apps (and pay for them again), but that is a hassle. Now that carriers are starting to sign exclusive deals for content, it might become less and less an issue of what software runs on it than what agreements have been inked with whom.

All these new services will be introduced on spiffy new next-generation high speed networks. Which, incidentally, are being rolled out with absurdly limited usage caps. Which, incidentally, should not exist at all. Back in the mid-90′s there was lots of freaking out when AOL unveiled an unlimited dial up access plan for $19.95 per month. The conventional wisdom was that the infrastructure would not support the increased demand. Guess what? ISPs built out their networks, capacity rose to meet the new demand, and all was well. The same should happen now. If providers are concerned about where the money will come from, they should start with the $200 billion already lavished upon them by taxpayers for just this purpose.

Speaking of AOL, here is how the folks on CNET’s Buzz Out Loud talked about these new mobile environments (starts around 15:15):

Natali Morris: What they want you to think is that your computer is the Internet, not that your computer does anything else than what Google permits your computer to do, so not only do they own the Internet, they own your entire computing digital life.

Molly Wood: Well, because everyone is trying to own the connected experience, it is no longer the Web experience, it is the connected experience. And everybody wants to own that, and have your connection happen through their app.

Benito Gonzalez: It’s great – everybody wants to be AOL in the 90′s.

If you were actually on AOL in the 90′s you probably laughed at that last line, because AOL really did bend over backwards to get its customers to never stray from its sites. When you connected with AOL it launched with an AOL browser and showed you the AOL home page, which contained links to sports, entertainment, gossip, etc. – all on AOL. Many people thought AOL was the Internet because they never went anywhere else. That is what is happening again with these increasingly self-contained systems.

Consider this in conjunction with two other items. First, the increasing push for “cloud computing,” which is just a buzz phrase for remote storage. Instead of having a local hard drive, a provider like Google or Amazon makes their space available to you. All your files are on their servers; as long as your mobile device has an app for it, you can get to them. Tablet, netbook, cell phones – multiple devices all able to see the same stuff. Sounds much more convenient than having it all on a PC and copying it everywhere right? And they’ll take care of the backups, upgrades and other administrative chores too. What could be simpler?

Then think about the FCC’s soon-to-be released standards that will largely exempt wireless carriers from net neutrality rules. In practice it will socialize users to expect a more restricted experience with these devices (even more so than the reduced processing power and screen size already do). Companies will be free to throttle or entirely block sites and users accustomed to a more limited Internet will accept it (perhaps without even knowing it is happening).

Now let’s say all your data is on the cloud. It is very versatile and convenient, provided you remain on good terms with your provider. But as time goes on and more data gets on the cloud, you become more dependent on it. You can walk away from a service that has only a handful of files hosted. What if you put all of your data there? All your photos, music and so on? How long would it take to download all that if you had to without much warning? Would doing so bust your usage cap? How about private data like electronic tax returns? Will you keep a smaller, separate local drive for that or trust the provider to safeguard it? Keep them out of the cloud and you have two drives to keep track of. What happens if there is a dispute and the provider decides you have violated its terms of service? Will you be given the chance to retrieve your files? If so where will you put them?

There are worries beyond customer/business ones. What if you become troublesome to the powers that be? We already know the government will lean hard on hosting companies to pull the plug, and companies will comply. What guarantee is there that your files will not start getting mirrored by, say, the NSA? Recent developments notwithstanding, there is no reason to expect it couldn’t happen, and quickly. One of the reasons the FISA Amendments Act was so damaging was because it formalized a procedure by which the Constitution may be completely circumvented. It goes like this:

Government goes to the companies (and you better fucking play ball, mister) and says it wants absolutely everything, no warrants required. The companies hand it over. If it goes to court Congress will pass a law granting retroactive immunity before even discovery can begin. Case closed, problem solved. That is exactly how it played out in 2008. We have seen this play before. We know how it ends.

That is what is beginning now. Companies are offering an attractive, convenient and high speed (albeit capped and throttled) experience. Government sets rules privileging the handful of big providers, and an increasingly docile user base slowly funnels into one of those silos. Federal officials can then, if need be, work with these partners (Orwellian language intended) to get whatever it thinks it has to have – no legal hassles required. It is a very efficient way to manage an otherwise unwieldy population.

Many people are already thinking through the implications of all this. In an email exchange a couple weeks ago with CA Berkeley WV from wvablue.com and CPCEconomy, she wrote from her smart phone (republished with her permission):

I have this gadget here, but we still have copper wires to a rotary dial in the kitchen and the intertoobs in the front room comes from that same copper wire. Not ready to lay it all on the wireless altar.

Similarly, in the wake of the government seizure of dozens of domain names a couple weeks ago, a movement has started for a peer-to-peer Domain Name Service (P2P DNS) system. Instead of relying on domain services that bow to official pressure, activists are working on distributing their own list of names and addresses so that, for instance, WikiLeaks will resolve to 213.251.145.96 on your computer irrespective of what the US (or by proxy your ISP) might want. This of course would be vulnerable to sabotage as well as splintering of the “Judean People’s Front/People’s Front of Judea” variety, but it offers a way to be independent of the plutonomy.

We are seeing the development of an increasingly bright line in how users access the Internet. For most people, who don’t know or can’t be bothered, there will be an array of relatively cheap and fast wireless options that will allow them to stream media, store favorite music or picture files on remote drives, and generally live their digital lives happily in a gilded cage. (This all assumes no one takes an interest in the DRM status of their MP3 files or becomes concerned that their pictures might show things that touch on national security.) For those who do not want to live there – permanently, anyway – there will be another one: Wired, slower, locally stored and self-administered – that will provide access to that portion of the network that has not yet been smothered out of existence.

No Associated Press content was harmed in the writing of this post

Cross posted from Pruning Shears.