September 30, 2007

AT&T's New ToS: Damage Our Reputation and We Can Terminate You

Greetings. On the continuing subject of powerful telecom-related companies getting full of themselves, some sites are abuzz over what is apparently AT&T Bellsouth's new Internet Terms of Service (I haven't found an exact date associated with it yet).

Buried in the usual gobbledegook is this gem in paragraph 5.1:

Your Service may be suspended or terminated ... for conduct that AT&T believes ... tends to damage the name or reputation of AT&T, or its parents, affiliates and subsidiaries.

Now, no doubt AT&T would claim that this only applies to extraordinary circumstances, like maybe an international drug ring claiming to be an AT&T affiliate on an AT&T-hosted Web site or some such. But golly, the ToS doesn't seem to offer any limitations in this respect, so apparently the trusting customer must rely on AT&T's always equanimous behavior and good judgment (just ask DOJ!)

Just to be safe, perhaps it might be best if we all stopped being so critical of AT&T, and the other companies. You never know when something might happ_kEE)#@_QQ_Q_Qdkkd_eDD00@@

--Lauren--

Update (October 2, 2007): As I suggested above would be the case, AT&T has now issued a clarification claiming that they only would terminate users under this portion of the ToS in special circumstances -- like sites "advocating violence" for example. However, we're still left with the vague statement in the ToS, and AT&T calling the shots about what actions would actually trigger that clause -- "Trust Us" ...

Posted by Lauren at 06:27 PM | Permalink
Twitter: @laurenweinstein
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September 29, 2007

Darth Apple and the iPhone: The Dark Side Revealed?

"If you only knew the power of the Dark Side!"
-- Darth Vader (Dum dum dum ... dum dee dum ... dum dee dum)
[ Star Wars Episode V - The Empire Strikes Back (1980) ]

Greetings. I invoke Star Wars analogies at my considerable peril, but the current blowup (some are indeed calling it a "war") over the iPhone does bring elements of the films' saga to mind.

In Star Wars we had evil masquerading as good, evil that became good, and good that became evil. We had lowly Ewoks (let's call them "consumers") who defeated a would-be control-freak galactic empire (let's call that "Apple"). Now admittedly, the Ewoks are very nearly my least favorite Star Wars characters, only surpassed on that score by Jar Jar Binks, but we'll let that slide for now.

Other than the obvious "good triumphs over evil" stance of Star Wars, a key lesson of the films is that it's not always that easy to tell the difference between your friends and those who would exploit you, one way or another.

Apple has long been the darling of the "creative" community broadly defined, existing in the glow of being the anti-Microsoft, despite an extremely limited range of hardware platforms compared with the vast array traditionally available for Microsoft Operating Systems.

But Microsoft has (mostly due to its own actions over the years) taken on the mantle of the evil empire, while Apple -- especially since Steve Jobs returned to lead the company, bringing with him an air of widely admired "coolness" -- has been perceived as taking the moral high ground.

But now Apple seems eager to do battle with some of its strongest adherents, by trying to retroactively lock down the iPhone platform with their own technological version of the Death Star, wiping out third party applications and in some cases bricking the phones. It's enough to give one considerable pause and to question some basic assumptions.

On my belt is a Windows Mobile PDA phone. It cost less than the iPhone and unlike the iPhone was partly subsidized by Cingular (now AT&T). It runs a vast array of third party commercial and public domain applications -- all the relatively basic stuff that iPhone users say are missing from their phones, plus an incredibly wide range more besides.

By and large, the only people who brick Windows Mobile phones are ones who rewrite the OS firmware, which given the wide applications availability for these phones is really unnecessary except for the very hardest of hard-core hackers. To my knowledge, neither the phone's manufacturer nor the carrier have ever tried to erase, block, or otherwise tamper with these phones. Third party applications support are one of their main selling points, and we don't hear complaints from the carriers that these applications are somehow damaging their networks.

Apple's attitude is, by and large, "If you do stuff to your phone that we don't anoint as canon, and then it so happens that updates we send to your phone later f*** you up, don't complain to us."

This is, from a legal standpoint -- given the verbiage of the complex licenses associated with such products -- probably legitimate, at least in court.

But from a consumer standpoint, seeing this sort of attitude from the smiling face of Apple must come as something of a shock to many Apple fans, some of whom might be expecting to see Steve Jobs show up wearing a black cape at his next product announcement.

What's really going on is something that goes far beyond Apple. Technology companies are rapidly extending their complicated intellectual property agreements into the consumer devices that we buy and depend upon. In essence, we're more and more really renting these products, not actually buying them, since legally there are all sorts of restrictions on what we can do with these modern wonders, and often ways that they can be turned into useless junk by their makers if we don't play by their rules.

My sense is that intrusive intellectual property and Digital Rights Management are rapidly approaching a serious tipping point where consumer unwillingness to "just go along" with these restrictions could reach a fever pitch very suddenly.

Eventually, people get tired of being told what they can or can't do with electronic devices that they own, especially when faced with what seem to be unreasonable restrictions. This applies whether we're talking about the iPhone, DVD recorders that refuse to record since the local cable company has arbitrarily tagged even basic channels as copy protected, or to "self-destructing" next-generation DVDs when piracy is even suspected -- along with lots of other examples now and coming down the pipe very soon.

Like the Ewoks who were viewed as primitive beasts by the Star Wars Empire, consumers may not have the poison pill firmware updating power of the "Death Star" -- but they do have some items even more powerful at their disposal -- their wallets and their votes.

If they continue pushing so hard to ram these restrictive products and licenses into the consumer marketplace, many manufacturers, the telecom industry, and the entertainment giants alike may discover that their Ewoks aren't buying, and are instead voting for politicians with a more equitable view of how "the galaxy" should be run.

Of course the plot isn't finished -- in some ways it's only just begun. We might still see script twists that are impossible to anticipate, and the cast of characters, both good and evil, may yet change and surprise us all.

But consumers will always be the ultimate force to bring balance to these matters, if they choose to use that power wisely.

May the force be ... oh, you know.

--Lauren--

Posted by Lauren at 09:45 PM | Permalink
Twitter: @laurenweinstein
Google+: Lauren Weinstein


Analog TV Shutdown Fiasco Looms?

Greetings. To the surprise of no one who has been following this issue, concerns are rising at the FCC and Congress about the 51% of Americans who still don't realize that analog TV signals are scheduled to be shut down a year from next February. That's some 70 million television sets. Even more people who may have heard probably don't understand the implications. Many think that digital TV just means "fancy" hi-def screens that they're not interested in buying.

There are vast numbers of analog televisions still dependent on over the air signals from rooftop or set-top antennas, sometimes primary sets, sometimes secondary units in homes or other locations. Analog sets are still being sold in stores and by mail order with no warning of the drop dead date rapidly approaching. I have yet to see one of the fabled "inexpensive" digital set-top converter boxes that would allow off-air analog TV users to continue receiving signals.

Even worse, in the absence of an intensive and coordinated on-air and direct mail information campaign, the very demographics that tend to be the most dependent on these analog sets are the most difficult to reach, especially the elderly.

Most of the time (with some significant exceptions) digital TV signals are far superior to analog (where I am, the difference between snowbound channel 2 and KCBS-DT on 2-1 is remarkable, though my analog 56 looks good while the digital version tends to show annoying macroblock artifacts frequently).

The federal government is desperate to get the analog TV signals turned off so that those airwaves will be freed up -- that's what all these spectrum auction controversies are about.

But unless there's a massive change in the current abysmal information campaign, and maybe even in the face of such a change at this late date, we could be looking at something of an analog TV viewers' revolt come early 2009, and the politicians know that they are the ones who are going to get blamed.

Which leads us to an interesting question. Do you believe that U.S. analog television signals will really be terminated on the currently scheduled date, or would you bet that more extensions will ultimately be granted, as the politicos start to panic over the ineptitude of the transition campaign so far?

Let me know what you think. Thanks.

--Lauren--
lauren@vortex.com

Posted by Lauren at 08:58 AM | Permalink
Twitter: @laurenweinstein
Google+: Lauren Weinstein


September 27, 2007

Proposal for Breaking the Internet Network Neutrality Deadlock

Greetings. I've just posted a proposal for a project aimed at moving past the current Network Neutrality impasse, with the deployment of a distributed global Internet traffic measurement system as a major component.

Comments, questions, etc. are welcome. Thanks!

Breaking the Internet Network Neutrality Deadlock (HTML)

Breaking the Internet Network Neutrality Deadlock (PDF)

--Lauren--

Blog Update (October 1, 2007): Practical Issues of the Proposed "Global Internet Measurement Analysis Array"

Posted by Lauren at 02:46 PM | Permalink
Twitter: @laurenweinstein
Google+: Lauren Weinstein


September 26, 2007

Navy to Waste $600K Altering "Swastika" Building "Revealed" by Google Earth

Greetings. If you've ever doubted that our government has money to burn, you need only read the infuriating story of the Navy's plans to spend more than half a million dollars to alter the landscaping and roof of a barracks near San Diego that happens to look like a swastika when viewed via Google Maps, Google Earth, or similar services (it's in a commercial aircraft no-fly zone, so your average airline passenger can't see it from their flights).

The shape was apparently noticed by the Navy back in the late 60s shortly after groundbreaking, but they wisely decided not to spend taxpayer money making changes.

Now, after the shape revelation via Google aerial images, and complaints from the Anti-Defamation League in San Diego, the Navy has embarked on this significant waste of money. I'd say "colossal" waste, but obviously $600K means nothing to the Navy or the federal government, even though it likely would mean a hell of a lot to you or me.

Calling the Pentagon! If you've got money to spare for this sort of nonsense, Congress needs to be taking yet another look at your appropriations -- 'cause this expenditure stinks to high heaven.

And as for the Anti-Defamation League in San Diego, give us a break and spend your time dealing with serious issues within your mandate. There are plenty of them out there. Wasting government time and money by demanding building retrofits like this is unacceptable.

Has everyone gone completely crazy? At least nobody has blamed Google for this one ... yet.

--Lauren--

Posted by Lauren at 09:22 PM | Permalink
Twitter: @laurenweinstein
Google+: Lauren Weinstein


Verizon Wireless Blocks Pro-Choice Text Messages

Update (September 27, 2007): As predicted below, Verizon Wireless has now reversed themselves and lifted the ban, indicating that it ... was an incorrect interpretation of a dusty internal policy. I just love the word "dusty" applied to censorship controversies.


Greetings. I did a double take when I read the New York Times headline noting that Verizon Wireless had refused to allow a text messaging campaign from a pro-choice group. You can read the details for yourself.

Now, you may already know that I'm not a fan of third-party text messaging services, especially when fees are involved -- there's tremendous fraud potential in many cases, but the proposed messages being blocked by Verizon don't seem to fall into the abuse category.

Verizon's reaction does however make one wonder what country we're talking about. Usually if you want to find text messaging content control, you have to head over to someplace like China, not Basking Ridge, New Jersey, where Verizon Wireless apparently houses their content control star chamber.

With all of the utter garbage in unsolicited text messages flowing through the wireless carriers' networks -- including Verizon's -- for Verizon to take this stance sets the imagination into high gear. Is some highly placed mole inside the company setting out to make a case for legislated network neutrality -- against Verizon's stated corporate position on the topic? Or are we (much more likely, admittedly) simply dealing with corporate hubris run amok?

For after all, while we usually speak of net neutrality in terms of bits and bandwidth, other small matters like freedom of speech can also play into the mix.

Odds are that the negative publicity about this story will ultimately trigger a reversal on Verizon's part. But that's not the point. That Verizon Wireless even had the gall to take such a censorship stance on an important public policy issue in the first place speaks volumes.

Even Verizon's funky old "not the same old line" ancestor General Telephone couldn't have dreamt of such power over what people say to each other.

--Lauren--

Posted by Lauren at 05:45 PM | Permalink
Twitter: @laurenweinstein
Google+: Lauren Weinstein


September 25, 2007

Columbia's Bollinger: Making Matters Worse With Iran

Greetings. Yesterday, as I watched Columbia University's president Lee C. Bollinger's introduction of his invited guest, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the president of Iran, I felt increasingly uneasy, and then genuinely concerned.

Bollinger's scathing and impolite public attack in that forum, with Ahmadinejad sitting there quietly waiting to speak, would have been inappropriate with any guest, not to mention a democratically elected head of state.

As a point of fact, calling Ahmadinejad a dictator, as Bollinger did, is a gross simplification of the complex political and religious environment in Iran, a situation that the U.S. helped to create over decades and has continued to mishandle diplomatically in grand fashion.

And frankly, I don't care how much of a dangerous nut case Ahmadinejad may be considered to be or how much one might disagree with him, but damned if he doesn't still deserve to be treated with respect when he's your invited guest. Let his own words illuminate his thinking for the world to hear -- there's no need for the host to play attack dog.

Perhaps Bollinger is ignorant of how important the treatment of guests is in Iran's part of the world. If Bollinger quite understandably felt so uncomfortable with Ahmadinejad's policies and actions, then he shouldn't have been invited to speak at Columbia in the first place unless the appropriate courtesies were to be shown.

To invite the president of a country into your "home" and then launch the sort of tirade that Bollinger presented was nothing less than discourteous grandstanding, of a sort that is likely to do little except further degrade how Americans are viewed by many in the Middle East.

It was a bad lesson for Columbia students and for the world at large. While Bollinger may have earned some brownie points among those itching for a war with Iran, he likely has succeeded in making a bad situation even worse for everyone else.

Bollinger, please do us all a favor and don't invite any more controversial heads of state to campus. Your kind of assistance on the volatile world political stage is something that we can all most assuredly live without.

--Lauren--

Posted by Lauren at 08:53 AM | Permalink
Twitter: @laurenweinstein
Google+: Lauren Weinstein


September 24, 2007

"Young People Don't Care About Privacy"

Greetings. As reported in the New York Times, a firm called "Pudding Media" in San Jose is now providing an Internet phone service that offers free phone calls in exchange for enduring computer ads based on the content of your calls. That's right, they listen in and automatically pick out key words of interest, then target the caller (and they hope eventually, the callee) with advertising.

The founders, both of whom have worked for Israeli intelligence (as usual, you just can't make this stuff up) brush aside privacy concerns. First, they claim what they're doing is just the same as what Google does with Gmail. That's a simple assertion about a complex issue, and I won't attempt to dissect it right now, except to suggest that there are significant differences between text and voice. (I say this with the understanding that rumors continue to fly about a possible Google ad-supported cellphone service, which might conceivably be similar to the system being described above -- but we'll cross that bridge if and when we ever come to it.)

But Pudding's other claim is more interesting. They feel that since the service is targeted at young people, and since the firm believes that this demographic is less concerned with maintaining privacy than older people, the service will do just fine.

Coincidentally, the Times has another story running about the increasing use of "snipes" on television, the intrusive animations and promotions running on the screen blocking out the actual programming. The rationale? The broadcast industry wants to cater to what they view as the short attention span of young persons.

Meanwhile, we have operations like Facebook exposing and exploiting the personal data of their mostly youngish users, and other services aggregating personal information from social networking sites and potentially creating even more privacy problems.

Privacy issues affect everyone of every age. But if I were a "young person" today, I'd feel like I was being treated as a sucker when it comes to expectations of a laissez-faire attitude regarding my personal privacy.

The interesting question is, are the assumptions of people like the Pudding Media folks correct? Do young people really not care about their privacy? And if that's true, what does this mean for the future, when Pudding's current targets are older and have a lot more personal "baggage" to be concerned about?

Or, is Pudding Media simply full of tapioca?

--Lauren--

Posted by Lauren at 09:24 AM | Permalink
Twitter: @laurenweinstein
Google+: Lauren Weinstein


September 21, 2007

Hollywood's Anti-Piracy Gift to Hackers

Greetings. The New York Times today notes the continuing progress of media "fingerprinting" systems to identify copyrighted works on file sharing sites, networks, and services such as YouTube. Apparently the quality of these detection systems is getting better with far fewer missed or false hits than earlier technologies.

I for one feel that it's perfectly within the entertainment industry's rights to use such systems in conjunction with Web sites who wish to protect themselves from copyright-related litigation.

However, if attempts are made to extend this technology to ISPs generally -- perhaps via deep packet inspection of subscribers' Internet traffic, Hollywood is likely to trigger an enormous backlash. Similarly, any effort to mandate such systems for inclusion in common operating systems, media playback software, or consumer hardware, could set off an awe inspiring backlash.

Outside of the obvious efforts that will be made to bypass the fingerprinting system itself, this technology push is also likely to accelerate the trend to encrypt and move underground those sites that trade in copyrighted materials, making them even more difficult to track. The push will probably also inspire hacking just on a revenge basis, even by persons who actually have no real interest in the copyrighted materials themselves.

To the extent that the entertainment industry is seen to be treading farther into restricting what have been traditionally considered to be fair use applications, the risk of significant shadowy (but intelligent and powerful in their own right) forces dedicated to disrupting their anti-piracy systems rises greatly.

If the entertainment industry isn't careful, if they attempt to extend controls too far, they may find themselves winning a short-term battle but triggering a technology war the likes of which we haven't seen before, and that they might very well lose.

Perhaps this is something well worth considering, before too much mutual back-patting fogs their long-term perspective.

--Lauren--

Posted by Lauren at 05:20 PM | Permalink
Twitter: @laurenweinstein
Google+: Lauren Weinstein


Putting a Stop to Text Message Spams and Scams

Greetings. I've been watching the degenerating situation with text message (and multimedia message) cell phone abuse for some time.

Recently, the situation seems to be getting worse, and the hodgepodge, largely ineffective approach of the cellular carriers to the problem is no longer tolerable.

Spammers and scammers working their way through ranges of mobile numbers (unlisted or not) are throwing increasing amounts of garbage at cell users, messages that either cost money per item or at the very least eat up service plan message allocations for all but unlimited plans.

Worse, you can be hit by some major charges when crooked operations sign up your cell phone for third-party sex talk, joke-related, or other text services. You know the type -- they advertise in the dead of night with tiny fine print on the screen for a few seconds that describe their outrageous charges. They've filled the niche in the ripoff area of the telecom ecosystem that used to be loaded with 900 number services and the like.

It's bad enough when people fall for those ads and start to see sometimes massive monthly charges -- happily passed along by the cell carriers. But what's worse is that you can get signed up for these "services" without your permission or knowledge.

This morning I received (on my cell phone, whose number I don't release publicly) three text messages with the same timestamp. One invited me to a pay joke service. The next thanked me for signing up. And the third was the first inane joke. Needless to say, I'd never heard of or had anything to do with these idiots before.

AT&T Mobility (formerly Cingular -- a rose by any other name ... ) told me that they could do nothing to block such scams (other than turn off text messaging completely, apparently not all carriers are even willing to do that much).

They suggested that I go ahead and reply with "STOP" as instructed in the text messages themselves to cease the service.

My own inclination from the conventional spam-fighting world was not to respond at all, but I went ahead and got an "unsubcribed" message back. If a service charge shows up later they'll delete it, but they can't proactively prevent this from happening again at any time, and their only suggested solution for continuing text message abuse is changing my phone number. That's an inconvenience customers shouldn't have to deal with, and a lot of good that will do against sequential or random number spamming, right?

Some carriers (but apparently not AT&T) have Web sites where you can apply limited filters and rules for blocking inbound text messages -- especially Internet generated -- or block all Internet-based text messages entirely (though the scam that hit my phone did not appear to have an Internet origin).

But it's all an ad hoc mess, and in the meantime subscribers are continuing to get royally screwed.

One logical way to handle this would be to permit subscribers to specify that they would not accept any text messages (except those generated by the carrier itself, e.g. billing notifications), unless they began with a chosen word (that is, a passcode) at the start of the text message body. This would allow users to provide that code to persons from whom they were willing to receive text messages. Random messaging attempts would be blocked, and algorithms could watch for dictionary attacks and the like.

It's not sufficient to force subscribers to call "customer service" and sit on the phone for ages in the queue, just to try convince a rep to remove erroneous text message charges and associated third-party service fees. Many people won't have the time for this and will eat the charges themselves, to the benefit of the carriers' bottom lines.

If the cellular carriers aren't willing to collectively get their acts together on this issue in a systematic and organized way, it may be necessary to move toward a regulatory approach in order to move the ball forward.

And that's a message to make loud and clear.

--Lauren--

Posted by Lauren at 12:07 PM | Permalink
Twitter: @laurenweinstein
Google+: Lauren Weinstein


September 15, 2007

Detecting and Proving Network Neutrality Violations

Greetings. In a blog posting earlier today (Are You Being Cheated by Digital Cable?) I noted how cable companies can (and do, for various reasons) send customers analog television channels that are masquerading as digital service tier channels, and how difficult it can be to definitively prove this, to get anyone at these firms to admit what's going on, or to correct the situation.

You probably already knew where I'm headed with this. Most of these same cable firms are also major ISPs these days, that millions of people depend on for their Internet service.

The anti-network-neutrality camp, ranging from cable firms to telephone companies, DOJ, FTC, and others, repeatedly recite the tired assertion that there's no evidence of a problem, so there's no need for neutrality regulations.

But setting aside for the moment arguments about the advisability of "preemptive strikes" to avoid problems before they occur, let's ask a much more fundamental question.

Do we currently have the tools and algorithms to detect and demonstrate serious network neutrality violations by ISPs, in a manner that would lead to such violations being actionable and correctable? Or could neutrality violations be slipped into the network just like analog cable channels that pretend to be digital?

ISPs simply blocking sites would be quickly detected and likely to generate high-level complaints quickly, but what of more subtle approaches like "traffic shaping" -- that if used aggressively and inappropriately could certainly be defined as anti-neutrality mechanisms? Would the average ISP subscriber of cable Internet or a telco DSL Internet service have any obvious way to detect whether the slow throughput they were getting with particular sites was just an ordinary result of heavy Internet traffic, vs. their ISP purposely relegating the competitions' packets to the back of the bus, so to speak?

And if a customer did suspect that something nefarious was taking place in this regard, how could they prove it? Calling tier one customer support with suspicions alone is unlikely to do more than waste your time and send your blood pressure sky high.

Without an appropriately broad infrastructure to collect and process metrics associated with network neutrality, it is difficult to understand how anyone can reasonably assert that we would know if and when violations were taking place -- even today.

Solving this dilemma is not a minor undertaking. It may be possible to approach this problem on a highly distributed basis, e.g. through processes running on large numbers of cooperating user PCs to help detect conditions that could be indicative of neutrality violations. Another approach would be for a very large network entity (on the scale of, say, Google) to devote some resources to such metrics and analysis. Most likely some combination of both approaches would be the optimum path.

Without mechanisms and procedures along these lines of some sort, it is nonsensical for anyone to assert that we would necessarily know when neutrality violations were taking place, much less have an effective chain of authority for reporting such violations and obtaining timely amelioration.

More resources need to be put into this research area now, along with creating carefully defined structures to use the fruits of that research in a practical way to help keep the ISPs on the straight and narrow.

Not even the anti-neutrality folks should be able to logically argue against what might be termed a "trust, but verify" approach.

Right?

--Lauren--

Posted by Lauren at 03:37 PM | Permalink
Twitter: @laurenweinstein
Google+: Lauren Weinstein


Are You Being Cheated by Digital Cable?

Greetings. If you pay for digital cable television tiers, is the service as "digital" as it's supposed to be? Don't be too sure. As it turns out, cable companies can easily cut corners and "cheat" on some aspects of digital tiers in many cases, and you may be none the wiser -- but still negatively affected.

I'm not talking about the perennial controversies regarding the bandwidth cable companies provide on digital channels, vs. audio and video quality -- that's a story unto itself. Rather, let's talk about how you may be paying for digital channels and actually be receiving analog ones instead.

While there is an increasing trend toward all-digital systems, most cable companies these days still provide a mix of analog and digital channels. For example, a typical channel layout may have analog transmissions from channels 2-99, containing local broadcasts and "basic" cable channels like CNN, History Channel, C-SPAN, and the like. These are all channels that can be received without a cable company "converter" box (these days they are usually far more than simple converters), e.g. by "cable-ready" televisions.

Most other channels are in digital tiers, and require either a cable company box, or a third-party device like a TiVo HD, with installed cableCARDs, to handle available digital channels. (As I've reported previously, "switched video" systems may even prevent cableCARDs from viewing some channels.)

Frequently, some or all of the analog basic cable channels are simulcast in higher quality on digital tiers -- sometimes on completely different channel numbers, other times via "mapping" of digital channels onto what would otherwise be channels numbers in the analog tier under, say, channel 100. In the latter case, a digital subscriber tuning to channel 2 would get the digital version of broadcast channel 2, while an analog subscriber would get the analog rendition of broadcast 2.

In general, most cable companies want you to use their boxes (which of course you have to pay for by the month) rather than third-party equipment like TiVos with cableCARDs (even though you still must usually pay the cable company each month for the cableCARDs).

As implied above, just as cable companies can control the particular channels that you receive, a key aspect of modern digital cable system boxes and cableCARDs is that they have the capability to arbitrarily map channel numbers. That is, you may be tuned to channel 100, but actually be receiving a completely different channel. In fact, it's often possible for different subscribers or various classes of subscribers to have completely different mappings, depending on the particular technology in use.

So a cable firm can decide, for example, that users of their own boxes will get particular channels in digital, and they can also declare that third-party cableCARD device owners receive a completely different lineup of enabled analog and digital channels.

Now we get to the fun part. How can you tell if a channel that you're paying for as part of a digital tier is actually being delivered to you as an analog channel instead, and should you care?

Answering the latter question first, of course you should care! You're paying for digital, you should get digital. Outside of the lower video and audio quality that can be present on many analog feeds, third-party devices (like cableCARD TiVos) which could otherwise record a digital signal directly, will be forced to re-digitize an analog signal, with inevitable quality loss in the process.

But how to know for sure if a channel is digital or analog as received? Without access to the diagnostic pages of cable company boxes, this can be tough. However, some third-party devices will reveal the truth very quickly. I've heard examples of these situations from various areas, but here's a case that I'm dealing with myself right now.

The TiVo HD has easily accessible diagnostic modes which clearly spill all the beans relating to these issues. Here in the West Valley (Los Angeles) system of Time Warner Cable, I can clearly see that, at the moment, virtually all basic cable channels in the digital tiers that have simulcast analog (under channel 100) equivalents, are actually being delivered as analog channels, at least to my cableCARDs.

Example: When I tune to History Channel on channel 212 in a digital tier, the main channel displays all do say 212, but diagnostics tell me that I'm actually tuned to analog channel 39 -- the analog version of History Channel -- explaining the lower quality image and resulting recording issues on the TiVo. This is in fact the case for essentially the entire set of channels that exist in both digital and analog tiers on this system right now.

On the other hand, if I tune to channel 213 (History International) which exists only in a digital tier, it is received in digital form, naturally enough.

Why are so many channels being paid for as digital actually being received as analog? Cable company representatives of course attempt to blame the TiVo or the cableCARDs (they hate dealing with either), but the kind of deterministic channel mapping that is occurring cannot be the result of a failure or breakdown at subscriber equipment -- it has to be programmed that way via the cable company headend.

And whether this situation is the result of purposeful planning or cable company confusion isn't really terribly interesting either. If you're unable to get anyone in authority to admit that such channel switcheroos are going on, and can't get them resolved, you're simply not getting what you're paying for, and (to quote "Plan 9 From Outer Space"): "Somebody's responsible!"

So if it seems like your digital channels just aren't up to snuff, or your TiVo is treating digital channels as if they were analog -- well, you may actually be a victim of a cable company channel shell game, and you might want to let your cable company (and perhaps the FCC if your cable firm plays hard to get) know exactly how you feel about it.

When so-called digital channels are really analog, you're being cheated, plain and simple.

--Lauren--

Posted by Lauren at 10:57 AM | Permalink
Twitter: @laurenweinstein
Google+: Lauren Weinstein


September 14, 2007

Verizon Throws Tantrum (Files Lawsuit) Over Spectrum Auction Rules

Greetings. Well, the ink isn't even dry on the FCC's extremely conservative spectrum auction rules and one major telco is already playing the lawsuit game.

As you might recall from this blog entry, the FCC turned down the most significant portion of the Google proposal for auction rules, which would have mandated some key spectrum resale requirements to give new players a fighting chance to get into the wireless arena -- particularly for wireless Internet data -- in a significant way.

Instead, the FCC auction rules included the much more limited requirement that some auctioned spectrum have "device independence" and not subject competitors' data to blocking or purposeful slowing.

While there can be differing opinions on how important the "device independent" part of the rules really is (I personally don't think that it would make a great deal of difference to most consumers in the real world), it's clear that the rejected spectrum resale requirement would have been a very, very big deal indeed, so it was strongly fought by the telcos.

But now we see that even the much more modest device openness, etc. provision that the FCC did accept is just too much for Verizon to swallow.

Verizon wants it all. Not some, not most, not a fair shake -- all.

Though it won't always help, let's hope that the common carrier exemption gets pulled this time by Congress, as the FTC is requesting. The telcos need to be leashed -- the sooner the better for us all.

--Lauren--

Discussion at: PFIR Forums Google Topics

Posted by Lauren at 09:02 AM | Permalink
Twitter: @laurenweinstein
Google+: Lauren Weinstein


September 13, 2007

Microsoft Updating Without Permission: When No Doesn't Mean No!

Greetings. Back in June of last year when I revealed that Windows XP was "secretly phoning home" as part of its Windows Genuine Advantage anti-piracy system, there was considerable furor.

A key question raised in that case was, "Whose computer is this really, anyhow?" That is, who has the right to ultimately control operations on a system -- the owner of the computer itself, or a software vender?

Unfortunately, it appears that Microsoft has not fully internalized the lessons of that controversy. Reports have been coming in that Microsoft Windows Automatic Updates (under XP and Vista) has been discovered to be updating its own components, irrespective of users' configuration settings requiring notification and manual confirmation before installation of any Microsoft-generated changes.

More specifically, if you are an ordinary user of Windows "Automatic Updates" (reportedly most large enterprise distribution configurations are immune to this issue), and have chosen the option that you do not want any updates installed without your specific pre-inspection and permission being granted first, updates to Windows Updates itself will still occur without your permission, and without your being notified that the activity has taken place. That is, it's a "stealth" installation.

The only sure way for most users to prevent these actions is to not run Windows Automatic Updates in any form, regardless of its option settings, and despite Windows aggressively urging you to re-enable this functionality.

Microsoft has just now blogged their explanation for this behavior, amounting to (in my words): "We believe that the updates in question are so important that we need to install them regardless of what user option settings actually were set in Automatic Updates."

This is utterly unacceptable. If there are crucial updates, and an Automatic Updates user has specified manual control over which updates get installed, the responsible course isn't to sneak the updates in under the radar "because they're important" -- even if they truly are crucial.

The proper procedure is to notify the user -- with big warnings in no uncertain terms as necessary -- that this is a key update, but you still allow the user to make the final decisions regarding installations as per their option settings.

This isn't a matter of paranoia or over-protectiveness. In many environments, there are major security, privacy, and legal concerns that impact the appropriateness of all software updating. While it could be argued that the best course for concerned users would be to not run Windows Automatic Updates at all, this is not always practicable. If nothing else, users must have confidence that the options they set regarding update installations apply to 100% of updates, in all situations and cases.

In a phone conversation with a Microsoft official about this issue earlier today, I got the strong impression that they genuinely believed that this update policy was in the best interests of users and the overall reliability of the Windows updating environment. I have no reason whatsoever to doubt their honesty in this regard, but as I pointed out then, good intentions, however laudable, must not be allowed override users' specified security, privacy, or other policy settings. If nothing else, "stealth" updates sow the seeds of doubt and feed conspiracy theories and larger concerns -- something that's in nobody's best interests.

Ultimately, this is really pretty simple. There are guys in orange jumpsuits serving hard time for not understanding what "no" meant in their personal lives, even though they thought that they knew what was best for a relationship late one night. Similar erroneous reasoning could apply to the software world as well, with comparably negative results.

No really does mean no. If users have indicated that they want to approve all updates before installation, this must be honored, in all situations. Don't try to slide a few things in via the backdoor just because you figure that they're important enough to override users' choices. Those computers are owned by the users, not by the software vendors, nor by Web sites or Web services for that matter.

Users must be able to maintain complete control of their systems if they (wisely) choose to do so. Rationalizations and associated operations that attempt to bypass such controls are unacceptable, potentially dangerous, and cannot be tolerated.

--Lauren--

Posted by Lauren at 01:55 PM | Permalink
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September 12, 2007

Google Founders' "Party Plane" Gets NASA Landing Rights

Greetings. As reported in The New York Times, the Google founders have attained coveted and apparently pretty much unprecedented landing rights for their so-called "party plane" (a customized wide-body Boeing 767-200) at NASA Ames' Moffett Field.

Now, they bought and rigged out that baby using their own money, not Google corporate funds, so I personally don't think it's anybody else's business what they do with it. And hell, if I were them I'd probably try to get those landing rights myself -- the facilities are almost literally next door to the main Google campus.

However, given the controversial history of Moffett as relates to private individuals who have wanted access to the aircraft resources there, this does inevitably open up a number of questions concerning NASA, government installations, and of course equitable treatment for other Silicon Valley billionaires going forward. Not to mention reported ongoing community concerns regarding Moffett operations.

So, I'm genuinely curious as to what you think about this? Is it a win-win situation as NASA suggests, or is it undesirable and setting a poor precedent for the future?

Comments welcome over at the PFIR Forums Google Topics Area.

--Lauren--

Posted by Lauren at 06:17 PM | Permalink
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Public Records Data and Google Searches Privacy Issues

Greetings. I have previously offered some thoughts on Benefits and Risks in Google's Public Records Access Project. This project aims to make government public record databases more easily searchable via Google. There are significant potential benefits and notable negative aspects to this approach.

As an example, below is text from today's RISKS-Forum Digest that discusses privacy issues relating to online property assessment databases. It notes how in such cases, an inability to search through this data from Google is apparently viewed by the text's author as an important privacy-enhancing condition that significantly reduces the abuse risk potential of this data. Worth thinking about. Discussion welcome in the PFIR Forums Google Topics Area.

--Lauren--

- - - - - -

Date: Sun, 09 Sep 2007 02:10:02 -0400
From: Jonathan Kamens <jik@kamens.brookline.ma.us>
Subject: On-line property assessment databases a bit too accessible

While engaged recently in a discussion with a parent at our children's school whom I felt was being overly paranoid about sharing her home address with other parents, I googled her name, suspecting that I would be able to illustrate to her that the information she was trying to protect was already available on-line.

I succeeded far more than I'd expected to. One of the first matches returned by google was her home's property listing in the on-line property assessment database for the town of Arlington, Massachusetts, where she lives. Her name, her husband's name, their address, a picture of the house, a floor-plan sketch, the date they bought the house, their purchase price, and all of the information used by the town to calculate the assessed value of the house were instantly available.

Arlington's webmaster is guilty of two offenses: (1) providing an interface for searching the assessment database by name (i.e., if you go to <http://arlserver.town.arlington.ma.us/property/>, you can search not only by address, but also by the owner's name); and (2) allowing its assessment database to be fully indexed by public search engines.

This is not a small thing. Consider a domestic abuse victim who moves to a new house in a new town to get away from her abuser. She takes precautions to avoid being tracked down, e.g., ordering telephone service in a fake name and paying the telephone company extra for an unlisted number. Unfortunately, however, the town she has moved to is Arlington, which proceeds to publish her name and address on its Web site for the world to see and search.

The discovery of Arlington's carelessness with its residents' privacy prompted me to check on Boston, where I live. Boston, too, allows its assessment database to be searched by name, but at least its database isn't indexed in Google. Someone with nefarious intent trying to locate a Boston resident must already know that s/he owns a house in Boston. That's bad, but not as bad as Arlington.

I decided to check some other towns and cities in Massachusetts to see how they stack up.

I checked 61 towns and cities, of which only 9 had their data sufficiently secured (i.e., not easy to view the entire assessment database, not searchable by name, not searchable in Google). I found one town besides Arlington, Ashburnham, whose records were searchable in Google, and four towns (including Ashburnham) where it was easy to view the entire assessment database without needing to perform individual searches. In addition, I discovered that independent of town and city records, the registries of deeds of most Massachusetts counties allow their land records to be searched by name, most of them from a single, convenient Web site. See below for the details.

When assessment and land records were kept only on paper, they were organized by street name and number, not by owner name. When Massachusetts communities began to put these records on-line for public access, did they stop to think of the privacy, security and safety implications of allowing them to be searched by name? Apparently, only 9 of the 62 communities I looked at did, and most of them are probably in counties which didn't.

Is Massachusetts typical?

Jonathan Kamens

For those who are curious, here are the details of what I found:

[ Please see the original RISKS item for his detailed data availability breakdown (including Google search capability information) and the remainder of his message text. --Lauren ]

Posted by Lauren at 04:29 PM | Permalink
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September 11, 2007

Apple Declares War on Free Ringtones?

Greetings. Even AT&T or Verizon wouldn't pull a stunt like this. It appears that when Steve Jobs announced the ability for iPhone users to download ringtones (a function that most other phones have had for years) he didn't mean just any ringtones, he meant only the ones you bought from Apple.

As you hopefully know, most modern phones can play virtually any midi file -- and in many cases MP3s -- as ringtones. The steps required to get such free ringtones onto a given phone will vary in complexity, but it isn't usually a big deal. It's even appears to be completely legal if you otherwise have legit access to the audio in question, since a court ruling (at the urging of the RIAA it seems -- trying to cut down on royalty payments) determined that ringtones were not derivative works (that's my understanding of the legal situation, anyway).

But iPhone users reportedly learned quickly that an iTunes update prevented them from renaming files to install their own ringtones on the iPhone, that is, those not purchased from Apple. Workarounds for this restriction have already appeared, and unless there's some sort of bizarre confusion afoot, it looks like we're seeing the initial sorties in an Apple-inspired ringtone war.

If any other cellphone company tried to impose this apparently purposeful restriction, they'd be pilloried in short order. Let's see how the Apple faithful react to this one. And of course, if Apple chooses to explain that this is all a big misunderstanding, and that users are free to use whatever ringtones that they wish with the iPhone, regardless of source, that would be fascinating and welcome news as well.

The Internet has become the powerful tool it is today largely due to its open nature. While downloadable ringtones aren't a first-order issue in the Internet scheme of things -- certainly not when compared with key concerns like network neutrality -- attempts by firms to limit user choices through "closed ecosystems" are always suspect regardless of their specifics. Lately it seems that Apple has been providing something of an object lesson regarding closed thinking in this respect.

--Lauren--

Additional note: I've been asked specifically about the situation regarding ringtones and Verizon. While Verizon has been routinely blocking a variety of local operations on their phones (including some forms of local file transfer), it has typically been the case that you can still transfer files (including your own free ringtones) into most of these Verizon phones as e-mail or MMS attachments. I'd be interested in additional information about any other relevant Verizon-related restrictions.

As a point of information, AT&T (former Cingular) has not routinely restricted file transfer or related ringtone functionalities in their phones, at least in my experience.

--LW--

Posted by Lauren at 09:37 AM | Permalink
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September 08, 2007

DOJ Ridicules Network Neutrality -- Proof That It's Needed Now

Greetings. In a filing at the FCC two days ago, the Department of Justice -- apparently with spare time on its hands while waiting for Gonzales to clear out his desk and move on to the lecture circuit -- came out strongly against Network Neutrality.

With so much DOJ disarray these days and so many critical issues that have been left to molder, one might ask how they even managed to pull these utterly specious arguments together.

Actually, it's pretty obvious that they didn't even really have to write the text themselves -- it's essentially a word-for-word parroting of the standard anti-neutrality propaganda from the telco/cable/ISP public relations machine. It even repeats the ludicrous example of different classes of delivery services at the U.S. Postal Service. Apparently we have to say it yet again -- network neutrality doesn't mean that you can't have different classes of service, only that you shouldn't be allowed to discriminate unfairly in the provision of services.

And of course they also echo the balderdash that there's no need for neutrality rules until after anti-neutrality damage has been done. This is much the same sort of reasoning that the FAA has used to delay ordering the fixing of known plane problems until after deadly crashes. Oops!

That DOJ would be so firmly in bed with the anti-neutrality gang shouldn't be at all surprising, considering the department's "night moves" with those same shady cohorts for illegal wiretapping programs, the revealed scope of which seems to expand almost daily (including today).

Let me put it this way -- given DOJ's recent track record, the fact they've come out so firmly against net neutrality should be proof enough that there's a lot of merit to the neutrality concept.

And for that roundabout and unintentional boost for pro-network neutrality arguments, perhaps we should actually thank DOJ for their input, after all.

--Lauren--

Posted by Lauren at 11:30 AM | Permalink
Twitter: @laurenweinstein
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September 06, 2007

Steve Jobs Apologizes Re iPhone, Offers $100 Credit

Greetings. Well, if you went ahead and held your breath waiting for the $200 Apple credit I suggested in Apple Faithful React to iPhone Price Slash Concerns!, you can let your breath out now.

In an open letter just posted, Steve Jobs apologizes for Apple's treatment of early iPhone adopters (who bought the product over the last couple of months since its introduction), and is offering a $100 Apple credit.

That's only half as much credit as it really should be for persons who purchased the top tier version of the product, but it's certainly better than nothing, and demonstrates that even Apple isn't immune to bad publicity.

It also points out one other observation of note. Maybe, just maybe, Apple has been taking its customer base for granted too long, and this event shows that Apple customers care about value for their money and not being unfairly manipulated, even during a highly hyped and orchestrated product launch.

Still, I give credit where credit is due (no pun intended), and while this entire episode could have been avoided, I do congratulate Steve and Apple for not stonewalling in the face of this controversy.

Hopefully this puts the iPhone thread to bed for now.

Take care, all.

--Lauren--

Posted by Lauren at 01:50 PM | Permalink
Twitter: @laurenweinstein
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September 05, 2007

Apple Faithful React to iPhone Price Slash Concerns!

Greetings. The reactions are already pouring in from my note earlier today relating to the 1/3 price cut in the iPhone, just two months after its introduction.

Before I summarize their fascinating content, I should note that I have no personal stake in this issue. I don't own an iPhone. I don't want an iPhone. I wouldn't use an iPhone if someone gave me one for free, since it wouldn't run any of the multitude of public domain and commercial third-party applications that I use on my PDA Phone. So I'm not out a dime on this.

Reactions are by and large falling into two categories:

I love Apple. I knew Apple was going to screw me on the price, but I still love Apple. I'll take anything Steve Jobs wants to do to me anytime, anywhere. Did I mention that I love Apple?

and:

Those Apple fanatics should have known that they were going to get burned by Apple on the price. What else did they expect for being early adopters? Prices always fall on this stuff.

I tend to agree with the second view, except for a key point. We all expect the prices on highly hyped consumer electronics to fall eventually.

But the kind of cut we're seeing with the iPhone, so very fast, is unusual. A cut for Christmas buying? Sure, why not? But this dramatic cut after only 60 days or so suggests that this development was in the hopper all along, at least as a likely possibility.

So I'll stand by my analysis. We can all agree that price cuts are a good thing, but so is having some gratitude for those persons who get your products off the ground, if you're going to have drastic price reductions so soon.

If Apple really cared about its customers, it might say something like:

"Thanks gang for making the iPhone launch such a success. We're already able to reduce the price by $200 after only two months, and in appreciation of your early support, here's a $200 credit at the Apple Store or iTunes. Thanks again! You've made us proud."

Don't hold your breath waiting for this one.

--Lauren--

Update (September 5, 2007 1818 PDT): From Business 2.0: The iPhone Rebellion

Update (September 6, 2007 0900 PDT): I'm sorry. I can't resist. Will It Blend? Don't breathe this!

Blog Update (September 6, 2007 1353 PDT): Steve Jobs Apologizes Re iPhone, Offers $100 Credit


Posted by Lauren at 04:11 PM | Permalink
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Apple Slashes iPhone Price -- Anyone Feel Rooked?

Greetings. Perhaps some observers will just consider this to be standard operating business practices for Apple, but you really gotta give Apple credit for raw guts.

Today, in conjunction with Steve "our customers love us so much that we can do pretty much whatever we want" Jobs' announcement of yet more iPod incarnations, Apple slashed the price of the top iPhone model by one-third, and discontinued the lower-rung unit.

If most any other technology firm tried to pull such a stunt only two months after a massive publicity campaign and related product introduction, there would likely be lynch mobs forming outside corporate headquarters.

But one suspects that most Apple acolytes may protesteth not, even after forking over six bills so recently (without any cellular carrier subsidies, either).

Will any early adopter iPhone customers complain that perhaps they were just a wee bit taken advantage of by the timing of these developments? Or will they just smile and stare blankly at the glossy face of their iPhones, while chanting an Apple-inspired version of the Maha Mantra?

I may be a bit old fashioned when it comes to consumerism, and maybe I'm out of touch in thinking that $200 is a significant amount of money, but it seems to me that a bunch of people just got screwed.

--Lauren--

Blog Update (September 5, 2007 1615 PDT): Apple Faithful React to Iphone Price Slash Concerns!

Posted by Lauren at 01:15 PM | Permalink
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September 03, 2007

Blocking Web Ads -- And Paying the Piper

Greetings. Despite our relatively advanced intellects and associated achievements, humans remain intensely physical animals, and that physicality affects our judgment and viewpoints across the spectrum of our thinking.

The manners in which sex has driven our actions positive and negative since the dawn of biology are fairly obvious, but there are more subtle examples as well. In particular, we seemingly tend to view physical objects as having more intrinsic value in a economic sense than intangibles.

The same person who would never dream of ripping off a CD or DVD from the local Best Buy may happily collect and trade copyrighted online music or films to which they have no legal rights under current law, using a variety of rationalizations (e.g. "information wants to be free") to justify their actions. And it seems likely that overzealous lawsuits, prosecutions, and draconian DRM systems have driven even more people into the "pirate" arena.

But what's particularly interesting is that this usually all involves intangible bits, not physical objects. So it's not too surprising that the "free information" battle has found its way to the very heart of our current primary Internet operating model -- advertiser-supported Web sites.

Today's New York Times contains an interesting article regarding browser add-ons that block Web ads, and the reactions that some site owners have had to this technology.

This particular battle has the theoretical potential to upend the entire Internet in ways that are difficult to even imagine, but it seems to me that the fundamentals of the issue aren't particularly complicated.

We've all become used to an Internet where most resources are -- for all practical purposes -- free to access, at least in terms of actual monetary outlay. But we all know that Web sites cost money to operate -- for large firms vast sums of cold, hard cash.

It was not necessarily predictable that the ad-based Internet we see today would be the way that the Web would evolve. A primarily pay-per-use, pay-per-kilobyte model could have become the standard of choice, in fact at some stages it seemed much more likely.

Frankly, I like the fact that we have an Inter-Ad-Net rather than a Users-Pay-Through-the-Nose-Net. But still, somebody has to pay to keep those spinning server disks whirring and the fibers lit.

So the question is, are we willing to "buy-in" to the concept that user blocking of Web ads is a necessarily good idea, given the limited range of practical funding alternatives?

For sure, low-key ads tend to be much less objectionable than the more in-your-face obnoxious creations that take more bandwidth to display than the rest of a Web site combined.

And it's also a given, as far as I'm concerned, that users have a perfect right to block ads at their browsers if they choose to do so. I find the claims that such blocking is "illegal" or "stealing" to be unconvincing.

However, it can also be argued that private site owners (that is non-government sites, etc.) are also within their rights to determine which browsers they wish to support and rather broadly under what conditions. If a site owner determines that their site should not be viewed without the ads -- and to the extent that the site owner can actually accurately determine viewing status -- it's difficult to justify an argument that they shouldn't be allowed to serve those browser configurations that they wish to serve, just as they can choose to block viewers with particular geographic locale IP addresses.

I'm not suggesting that blocking users who don't appear to be displaying ads in their browsers is a good idea. In fact, I think it's a royally stupid and counterproductive way to behave. But it does seem to be a valid choice in various cases, nonetheless.

Before sharpening our weapons and strapping on the armor, perhaps we should give some serious thought to the ramifications of going down the path of this particular Internet war. If we are unwilling to view Web ads, then many useful sites will undoubtedly move toward more direct ways to collect fees -- or else close down operations entirely, leaving us all the poorer. If we don't want ads, and we don't want to pay directly for accessing most sites, there's a serious dilemma afoot.

Whether it's for eradicating rats or providing Web sites, we have to pay the piper somehow. There may actually be a free lunch from time to time, but there isn't really a free Internet.

--Lauren--

Posted by Lauren at 05:12 PM | Permalink
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