October 30, 2009

Big Tobacco and the Fight Against Net Neutrality: Smoke in the "Heartland"

Greetings. Several years ago, at an Internet issues-related conference, I was pulled aside by an attendee who identified himself as being involved in high level lobbying "inside the Beltway" (Washington D.C. area). He offered me some free advice. In essence it was this:

"You guys are babes in the woods when it comes to the ways of Washington. If you don't learn how to play the game the way the big boys do, you're all going to be plowed under when it comes to the Internet issues that you care about."

He was right of course. Pro-Net-Neutrality Google has been around just more than a decade, but anti-Neutrality telephone companies have been playing the Washington game for a good century of so. And technologists (including myself) often tend to view issues in logical terms. After all, our stock in trade -- literally -- usually depends on logic. So we're not inherently prepared when opposing forces attack with an emotional kick to the groin.

This has all taken on renewed meaning in light of the recent attempts by some elements of the anti-Net Neutrality camp to portray Net Neutrality as some sort of "communist" plot and those persons and organizations who advocate Net Neutrality as Marxist inspired. This is red-baiting in the finest tradition of "Tricky" Dick Nixon, and the rise again of this despicable technique almost a full decade into the 21st century seems both remarkable and nauseating.

But perhaps it's not really surprising, especially in an age of Big Lie politics, particularly among some elements of the Far Right. "Health reform will create death panels!" "Obama wasn't born in the U.S.!" Now add to these false memes, created purposely to sucker in the right-wing political faithful, the new Big Lie: "Net Neutrality is a dangerous government takeover of the Internet and a communist plot by Marxist sympathizers!"

It was this latter nonsense that I was reacting to with my (apparently controversial) video satire that I released a couple of days ago: Is Net Neutrality a Communist Plot? ("Declassified DoD Film").

But where are the accusations of communism and Marxist activities coming from in the first place? We know that "Mad Man" Glenn Beck (as Time called him) has picked up the refrain. But where did it all get started?

One source appears to be the "free market solutions" organization known as "The Heartland Institute." A recent Heartland paper by James G. Lakely, discussing Net Neutrality and the free software movement seems representative.

The string "communist" appears in the paper no less than twelve times. Excerpts from that paper have appeared on various religious and right wing-oriented political sites around the Web.

It turns out that The Heartland Institute has been around for about 25 years, but only recently really aimed its guns at Internet issues. The write-up of the company at SourceWatch makes for fascinating reading.

According to SourceWatch, Heartland reportedly opposes the Kyoto Protocol to fight global warming, promotes privatization of public services and the deregulation of health care insurance, and perhaps most interestingly, has also apparently been heavily intertwined with the tobacco industry in various ways, including funding from Philip Morris for a number of years at least (more recently, Heartland's corporate funding has been very secretive and opaque).

I'm certainly not saying that Heartland is doing anything illegal. They're welcome to their opinions, and politics isn't for lightweights.

But I am saying that the attitude of some persons in the pro-Net-Neutrality camp -- that logic and reasoning alone will convince regulators, courts, and legislators of the righteousness of Net Neutrality -- is extremely naive.

To use a dreaded Star Wars analogy, such attitudes are like pulling up in a tiny ship between the Death Star and a target planet, and transmitting "Can't we all just get along?"

The battle for Net Neutrality has now entered the realm of hardball politics at the most extreme levels. It's time to fish or cut bait. Either we play the game the way the Big Boys do, or we'll just be spinning our wheels with endless verbiage that in the end will probably amount to little or nothing.

If we truly care about the future of the Internet and the need for Net Neutrality, playtime is over. The war truly starts now.


Posted by Lauren at 08:17 PM | Permalink
Twitter: @laurenweinstein
Google+: Lauren Weinstein

October 29, 2009

Why Google Maps Navigation Won't Kill Standalone GPS

Greetings. There's a lot of excitement over Google's announcing that mobile Google Maps will be enhanced (at least for Android 2.0) with a true spoken turn-by-turn navigation system.

It reportedly will be chock full of nifty features, such as satellite image and Street View overlays, live traffic feeds and other goodies.

I won't even bother digging out all the links where I've spoken admiringly of Android, praised Google Maps, and even speculated on issues surrounding turn-by-turn navigation for Android. I'm looking forward to playing with Google Maps Navigation as soon as possible.

On the other hand, the breathless assertions from some observers that this development will destroy the standalone GPS industry seem exceedingly overblown. There are several reasons why.

First, the Cloud. The Cloud is both a strength and a weakness for Google Maps. If you're in a strong signal area, and have an unlimited data plan, loading maps from Google Servers can be entirely practical -- though the speed of some current phones can make this a bit sluggish even under good signal 3G conditions.

But users of other "data connection required" cell phone GPS services know, if you don't have a signal (or you have a poor signal) and you don't already have the needed mapping data cached on your phone -- well, you're out of luck. No signal, no maps.

This is problem amenable to technical solutions, but there can be interesting policy and licensing issues. Google could cache significant portions of planned routes, or even entire routes, on phones so that loss of signal would not cause a sudden lack of mapping data. Taking this idea even further, entire cities, states, or even countries could be cached in advance.

This latter concept is essentially the technique used by the $30 CoPilot Live Android application, which allows the user to download in advance essentially any part of the desired region (e.g. the U.S.) that they wish, and keep it resident on their phone. The amount of data involved is relatively reasonable, especially for individual cities and states. CoPilot then provides various live services to enhance that stored data.

CoPilot displays aren't likely going to be able to match the sheer classiness of Street View overlays anytime soon -- but knowing that I always have the entire street mapping database for the state of California on my phone, even if I'm out of cell range, is a significant comfort. Here in the traditional canyons and urban canyons around L.A., there tends to be an inverse relationship between cell signal availability and the degree to which I find myself disoriented in an unfamiliar location.

Google presumably could, if they wished, allow for a very similar degree of advance map downloading so that dependence on the Google Cloud in real time would be reduced or eliminated. But would they? I don't know. I can think of relevant issues both pro and con.

Here's another reason why traditional GPS isn't going away anytime soon -- it seems unlikely that most drivers who have become used to large in-dash navigation systems will want to switch to using a small cell phone display while driving. Though smartphone displays are certainly getting larger, there's going to be a limit beyond which further size increases will be impractical for a "pocket-size" device. And the smaller the display when driving, the bigger the distraction risk would seem to be as drivers try to focus on the display. In fact, a sort of "reverse flow" could be possible. Users whose first GPS navigation experience is on cell phones may be sufficiently smitten with GPS that they could be more likely to order more traditional large screen in-dash navigation systems (many of which now also include various "live" data sources) with their next vehicle purchase.

Of course, to the extent that drivers depend mostly on GPS voice directions and don't have to look at the displays, the size of the displays is of less importance. And it seems reasonable to assume that Android-based in-dash navigation units will appear -- an especially likely scenario given the insane price demanded for annual data updates to many in-dash navigation systems. Also, drivers without in-dash navigation systems at all (the 4-wheeled vehicle I drive seems almost old enough to require a starter hand crank) may clearly find simply plopping their Android phone down in a car mount (as I do) to be a practical alternative.

The next issue may be the toughest nut to crack. Those of us in the tech realm tend to live in an environment where it's easy to forget that not everyone in the world uses smartphones and has unlimited data plans. In fact, vast numbers of persons have no data plans at all, and even if the carriers gave away data for free, many people would be unlikely to use advanced phone features.

In fact, there's a very significant segment of the cell phone industry concentrating on what we'd consider to be low-end phones, free of all advanced features and frills, completely oriented toward basic voice communications. Yet users who tend to choose such devices may also want to avail themselves of GPS navigation, while still likely wanting to keep their phones small and simple as well.

Such persons -- and I believe they represent a significant and in some age ranges a growing segment of the population -- would seem much more likely to go out and buy a under-$100 standalone car GPS unit to clip on their sun visor, regardless of available phone features. Inexpensive Android-based "GPS-only" devices are also presumably possible, but the key point in this regard is that many persons are looking for basic GPS devices that do not depend on outside services, and this situation is unlikely to dramatically change anytime very soon.

The arrival of Google Maps Navigation for Android is a development many of us have been waiting for, and is a feature that I personally am very much looking forward to seeing in action on my own Android phone. Google Maps Navigation will be immensely useful to large numbers of persons. But the observers who seem to already be engraving tombstones for the traditional GPS navigation companies are -- in my opinion -- rather seriously jumping the gun.


Posted by Lauren at 06:57 PM | Permalink
Twitter: @laurenweinstein
Google+: Lauren Weinstein

October 28, 2009

Lesson: On the Internet, Satire Is at Your Own Risk!

Greetings. When it comes to the Internet -- no matter how long you've been involved -- never assume that you completely understand the social dynamics of cyberspace!

Yesterday, in Is Net Neutrality a Communist Plot? ("Declassified DoD Film"), I announced the availability of a "a long-lost U.S. government film that appears to shed unexpected light on accusations of a linkage between communist/Marxist ideologies and Net Neutrality."

My assumption was that the YouTube video in question was so obviously "over the top" that it would be immediately recognized by all observers for what it was, a satirical emulation of classic old U.S. government military training and information films.

I created this in reaction to the very real recent trend and false meme of some anti-Net-Neutrality "analysts" and media observers, who are now inanely and disgracefully "red-baiting" -- by asserting that Net Neutrality and its proponents are "communist" and/or Marxist inspired.

While I didn't explicitly mark the video as satire, I genuinely felt that the satirical nature would be obvious, I and didn't want to spoil the surprise for viewers.

Though the vast majority of viewers -- whether they agreed with my support of Net Neutrality or not -- seemingly "got the joke" immediately, apparently this was not universal.

To my surprise, I received a few queries, and discovered at least a couple of links, that indicated confusion about the true nature of the piece.

At least some persons thought it was a genuine U.S. Defense Department film. A couple of people expressed concerns that other people would think it was a legit military production. One expressed the view that it appeared "entirely authentic" in production values, but he was bewildered by some aspects of the content.

I did put considerable effort into giving the video a reasonably realistic feel, but I've never claimed to have the filmed propaganda editing skills of Leni Riefenstahl, so I've frankly been very surprised by such reactions. Of more concern to me is the possibility that there are additional folks out there who -- somehow -- assumed the "film" was real despite the included absurdities.

So to anyone who was confused by this effort, I apologize. To be honest, I still don't quite understand how the video's film could be interpreted as other than a spoof, but my apology is sincere nonetheless. I'll add something to the associated YouTube page to indicate explicitly that it's a satire.

But I also believe that there's a broader lesson here. When dealing with very large, and especially global audiences, any assumption of a "universal interpretation" of content may often be unwarranted. We after all see the world through the unique lenses of our individual minds, and no joke is guaranteed to be received the same way -- or even recognized as a joke -- by everyone, everywhere.

Perhaps very much something worth remembering.


Posted by Lauren at 02:27 PM | Permalink
Twitter: @laurenweinstein
Google+: Lauren Weinstein

October 27, 2009

Is Net Neutrality a Communist Plot? ("Declassified DoD Film")

Greetings. As a strong supporter of Net Neutrality, I've been increasingly concerned by recent accusations from some anti-neutrality forces and media commentators, who claim that Net Neutrality is actually an insidious and dangerous "communist plot" that must be destroyed at all costs.

Such a characterization has seemed utterly ridiculous to me, and hopefully also to most other reasonable observers.

However, a friend of mine working at a certain "Three-Initial Agency" (that must remain unnamed) recently uncovered a long-lost U.S. government film that appears to shed unexpected light on accusations of a linkage between communist/Marxist ideologies and Net Neutrality.

He managed to get the short film (only a few minutes long) rapidly declassified and shipped it out to me. I've now digitized the 16mm print and brought it online.

The complete film (with associated very brief explanatory text, etc. that I've included) can be viewed at the YouTube link:

Is Net Neutrality a Communist Plot?

I must admit, the film certainly had an impact on me!


(Blog Update: 10/28/09: Yes, the accusations of communism are real, but the film is obviously a satire.)

Posted by Lauren at 01:17 PM | Permalink
Twitter: @laurenweinstein
Google+: Lauren Weinstein

October 21, 2009

Announcing CFNN - "Consumers For Net Neutrality"

Greetings. Since the publication last week of the Internet Pioneers Speak Out on Net Neutrality letter to the FCC, I've received a pile of queries on network neutrality/transparency topics.

While many of these questions naturally relate to network neutrality-related FCC actions expected tomorrow (October 22), others quite appropriately note that in reality we stand at the very beginning of a long and complex process, which ultimately will involve not only technologists, regulators, ISPs, and other technology and service firms, but also likely various courts and perhaps even the U.S. Congress as well.

In others words, the one thing that we can be sure of is that Emerald City is a long way down the yellow brick road, and we've yet to even really step foot outside of Munchkinland.

But the single question I've received the most over the last week or so boils down to this, "What, as consumers, can we do to help in network neutrality efforts?"

A great question, given that in the final analysis it's Internet consumers of all stripes, from single moms to giant corporations, who have the most to gain from network neutrality and transparency, and the most to lose if these efforts ultimately are blocked or fail.

The concern has been expressed that many persons are reluctant to participate directly over on NNSquad - Network Neutrality Squad, due to the sense of its being driven mainly by hardcore technologists and their largely technical concerns, not the broader range of consumer Internet interests.

Fair enough. I would assert that there's lots of overlap between the two categories, but I do appreciate the dilemma.

So, as a partial solution, I'd like to offer CFNN (cfnn.us) - Consumers For Net Neutrality (a.k.a. Consumers For Network Neutrality), as an alternative venue specifically oriented toward consumer Internet ideas, concerns, questions, problems, and any related discussions. And despite the ".US" domain, relevant discourse involving any locales on the globe are very welcome.

To get us rolling for now, CFNN leads to a new discussion forum hosted under GCTIP. This is a threaded discussion forum where anyone can read postings (directly or via RSS), and registered users can post relevant messages and create new threads. Postings are not pre-moderated, though inappropriate postings violating the forum guidelines will be dealt with as deemed necessary.

Also, while I'm a fairly consistent Twitter poster myself these days (@laurenweinstein), several persons suggested using Twitter in a more expansive manner to help gather a broader sense of consumer interest in net neutrality issues. So I've created the CFNN companion Twitter account @cfnn. Please feel free to Twitter "follow" this account to help demonstrate solidarity with consumer net neutrality efforts and for related announcements and discussions, of course.

As one major Twitter fan suggested to me that since Pee-wee Herman (!) was able to achieve more than 100K Twitter followers in less than a month, surely consumers interested in net neutrality can ring up some significant fraction of that number in a fairly short order for @cfnn. So tell your friends! Retweet! And so on. We shall see ...

One thing's for sure, the Internet is on the cusp of entering a brave new world in many ways. Decades past the ARPANET experiments deep in a UCLA basement, the Internet of today is rapidly becoming fundamental -- literally -- to nearly every aspect of our lives.

The Internet should be for everyone. And this means that consumers should be playing a leading role in setting its direction, not just jerked along like a string of tin cans tied to the back of a telephone company or cable TV installation van.

My hope is that CFNN can help put consumers firmly into the Internet driver's seat, where they truly belong.


Posted by Lauren at 09:19 PM | Permalink
Twitter: @laurenweinstein
Google+: Lauren Weinstein

October 16, 2009

Internet Pioneers Speak Out on Net Neutrality

15 October 2009

Honorable Julius Genachowski
Chairman, Federal Communications Commission
Washington, DC
Via email

Dear Mr. Chairman:

We appreciate the opportunity to send you this letter. As individuals who have worked on the Internet and its predecessors continuously beginning in the late 1960s, we are very concerned that access to the Internet be both open and robust. We are very pleased by your recent proposal to initiate a proceeding for the consideration of safeguards to that end.

In particular, we believe that your network neutrality proposal's key principles of "nondiscrimination" and "transparency" are necessary components of a pro-innovation public policy agenda for this nation. This initiative is both timely and necessary, and we look forward to a data-driven, on-the-record proceeding to consider all of the various options.

We understand that your proposal, while not even yet part of a public proceeding, already is meeting with strong and vocal resistance from some of the organizations that the American public depends upon for broadband access to the Internet. As you know, the debate on this topic has been lengthy, and many parties opposing the concept have systematically mischaracterized the views of those who endorse and support your position.

We believe that the existing Internet access landscape in the U.S. provides inadequate choices to discipline the market through facilities-based competition alone. Your network neutrality proposals will help protect U.S. Internet users' choices for and freedom to access all available Internet services, worldwide, while still providing for responsible network operation and management practices, including appropriate privacy-preserving protections against denial of service and other attacks.

One persistent myth is that "network neutrality" somehow requires that all packets be treated identically, that no prioritization or quality of service is permitted under such a framework, and that network neutrality would forbid charging users higher fees for faster speed circuits. To the contrary, we believe such features are permitted within a "network neutral" framework, so long they are not applied in an anti-competitive fashion.

We believe that the vast numbers of innovative Internet applications over the last decade are a direct consequence of an open and freely accessible Internet. Many now-successful companies have deployed their services on the Internet without the need to negotiate special arrangements with Internet Service Providers, and it's crucial that future innovators have the same opportunity. We are advocates for "permissionless innovation" that does not impede entrepreneurial enterprise.

We commend your initiative to protect and maintain the Internet's unique openness, and support the FCC process for considering the adoption of your proposed nondiscrimination and transparency principles.


Vinton G. Cerf, Internet Pioneer
Stephen D. Crocker, Internet Pioneer
David P. Reed, Internet Pioneer
Lauren Weinstein, Internet Pioneer
Daniel Lynch, Internet Pioneer

PDF Version of This Letter

Posted by Lauren at 02:53 PM | Permalink
Twitter: @laurenweinstein
Google+: Lauren Weinstein

October 10, 2009

Microsoft's "Cloudburst" - Spectacular Data Loss Drowns Sidekick Users

Greetings. In one of those "How the bloody hell could this happen?" moments that had damn well better be a wake-up call for the computer industry, it appears that T-Mobile's Sidekick mobile users have been, well, "kicked in the side" by a massive and apparently permanent data loss at the servers that provide the data foundation for the entire Sidekick system.

While Sidekick mobile services are marketed by T-Mobile, the critical behind-the-scenes server functionality is provided by the (seemingly aptly named) "Danger" subsidiary of Microsoft.

The Sidekick service has been unstable for some days, and it now appears that -- stunningly -- all Sidekick user data that had resided on the servers, that wasn't currently also present on the Sidekick devices themselves, has likely been permanently lost. Users are being warned not to remove device batteries or let their batteries run down, or else any local data will also vanish -- the Microsoft/Danger network remains unstable, and devices are not being backed up to the net. This includes contacts, to-do lists, calendar entries, photos -- the whole enchilada.

This is obviously an incredibly dramatic systems failure, that by all expected standards should have been impossible.

Some observers are suggesting that such a breakdown is a condemnation of the entire "cloud computing services" concept.

I definitely would not go that far. Cloud computing has enormous promise. But, and this is one gigantic "but" -- only when such services are reliable both in terms of uptime and particularly relating to data protection, privacy, and security. As increasing numbers of individuals and organizations move their operations to cloud-based services, the impact of system failures can be enormous.

Another important related risk is being "locked into" particular cloud services. Most cloud computing services make it as simple as possible to get your data into their universe. But getting your data out again can often be anything but trivial. If your data is "trapped in the cloud" and something goes wrong, it can be a very serious double whammy indeed.

There are positive ways to proceed. Google, for example, a leader in cloud computing, has recently launched a specific project -- The Data Liberation Front -- explicitly including as a key facet the goal of making sure that users can quickly and easily export data from Google products. This ambitious and extremely important effort should be a model for the rest of the cloud computing industry.

The Sidekick/Microsoft/Danger "Cloudburst" -- as bad as it has been -- can still be a very valuable "teachable moment" in the short but already crucial evolution of cloud computing.

A sustained failure to learn from such events could very much "rain" on cloud computing's parade -- and on many other aspects of the computing and telecommunications industries as well.


Posted by Lauren at 09:36 PM | Permalink
Twitter: @laurenweinstein
Google+: Lauren Weinstein

October 09, 2009

The Saga Continues! Google Voice -- AT&T -- and Some Fun with Pure Hypocrisy!

Greetings. In the continuing saga of AT&T vs. Google Voice, now comes word that the FCC has sent a letter to Google asking for more information about Google Voice and Google's reportedly quite reasonable blocking of rural interexchange compensation scams.

As I noted a couple of days ago in Some Questions Answered Regarding Google Voice and WSJ on Net Neutrality, Google's position on this matter seems entirely justifiable, especially given the total insanity of the current rural interexchange compensation mess.

But there's another aspect to the story that I personally find highly amusing.

Ya' see, many or most of the lawmakers now pushing the FCC to investigate Google Voice have reportedly benefited quite nicely from AT&T and other Big Telecom campaign donations in the past. And, gee, oddly enough, it's many of the same rural lawmakers whose constituents have "cashed in" very nicely indeed from the rurally-based sex lines and other similar call termination compensation shakedowns.

Yet it gets even better. It turns out that at the same time as AT&T is trying to assert that Google Voice -- a non-common carrier service -- must meet the same call termination requirements as common carrier services, it turns out that AT&T has been refusing to pay its own bills owed to rural carriers!

Two South Dakota telephone carriers recently sent a letter to the FCC accusing AT&T -- who clearly under current law is required to pay those fees -- of outright hypocrisy in this matter:

"AT&T is engaging in very similar conduct to 'reduce its access expenses' by simply refusing to pay its bills," Buntrock wrote. 'Indeed, if one were to replace 'Google' with 'AT&T,' and call blocking' with 'no pay' in AT&T's [letter to the FCC], Northern Valley and Sancom would have little to add to describe AT&T's unlawful campaign.'"

Ah Ma Bell, the more things change, the more they stay the same!

Stay tuned! Don't touch that telephone dial! More to come ...


Posted by Lauren at 09:28 PM | Permalink
Twitter: @laurenweinstein
Google+: Lauren Weinstein

How to Get Rich Using Surveillance (CCTV) Cameras for Crime and Other Fun!

Greetings. I take a bit of flak from time to time over my public support for Google's Street View system. It seems to be politically popular to rake Google over the coals with claims that Street View is some sort of horrendous privacy violation. This is nonsense of course.

Street View provides static, non-real time imagery, currently typically months or even years old, and Google will remove any specific problematic images through a clearly defined reporting mechanism.

I can't count the number of times that Street View has already saved my butt navigating around L.A. -- and I've lived in this city my entire life!

Whenever I get complaints about Street View, I try to remind people that in stark contrast to Street View's harmlessness, a real, serious risk is in the rapid and in most cases largely unregulated increase in real-time, closed circuit TV (CCTV) surveillance systems, both in the public and private sector.

It's bad enough that there are many documented cases of government officials using these systems inappropriately -- for voyeurism or worse. But a new trend seems to be giving access to these systems to the public at large, in a sort of "turn everyone into a spy" mentality that would have warmed Stalin's heart.

Up to now this trend has been fairly limited. But it appears ready for a giant leap "forward" -- and it should surprise nobody that this is starting in Great Britain, home to enough CCTV cameras to seemingly cover just about every orifice of everyone in the country on a 24/7 basis.

Enter the Internet Eyes project. The project claims it will fight crime, by providing human monitors for the many CCTV cameras that are not being viewed at any given time. They're starting in England, and want to spread worldwide.

But if I was assigned the task of inventing a scenario with the most potential for providing a voyeur's wonderland, increasing the risk of damage and death to innocent individuals, and for creating the foundation for vast increases in criminal activity -- this sort of project would be it.

Internet Eyes plans to let random members of the public gain access to vast numbers of CCTV cameras on a real-time basis as part of a game. Catch the most criminals in the act -- win cash prizes. You can read the sordid details at the link above -- they're too stomach churning for me to repeat here.

The potential for abuse of such a system is incredibly vast, especially when viewers combine and coordinate criminal efforts. The inherent ability to save and trade images will create a new voyeuristic playground of enormous scope. While the promoters of the system claim protections against false alarms, these will be trivially bypassed. Working together, viewers will quickly built a database for rapid and easy identification of individual cameras, destroying the promised "anonymity" of the system.

Combine real-time access to these cameras, a camera locational database, perhaps an underground centralized viewing aggregation site, and cellphone Internet access -- then the real fun can begin! A scattering of Webcams of the sort generally available today presents a minimal risk. But the immensely vast and dense CCTV networks of the sort that would involved in projects such as Internet Eyes are of a wholly different order, with orders of magnitude greater risks:

"I see which house he went into. He'll pay big to keep his wife from finding out!"

"She's alone now! OK baby, here I come!"

"Only the clerk is in the store! Shoot him, grab the money, and get out fast!"

And so on. You don't need a lot of imagination to come up with even more dire scenarios involving terrorism and similar horrors.

Outside of the basic problems inherent in the vast spread of unregulated CCTV systems, projects such a Internet Eyes are dangerous because they implicitly assume that since most viewers will likely be honest, the ability of evil players to leverage the environment is very limited.

But in fact, the same technologies that make these CCTV systems possible, combined with the ethically-neutral capabilities of the Internet for sharing, aggregating, and quickly analyzing information, will in this case provide asymmetric advantages to those parties who would use access to the CCTV network for criminal and other evil purposes.

The entire concept of unregulated public access to dense, real-time CCTV networks, especially in the manner contemplated by Internet Eyes and similar efforts, is in its current form nothing short of a nightmare.


Posted by Lauren at 12:27 PM | Permalink
Twitter: @laurenweinstein
Google+: Lauren Weinstein

October 08, 2009

Some Questions Answered Regarding Google Voice and WSJ on Net Neutrality

Greetings. I received a number of queries related to my short posting recently on the NNSquad - Network Neutrality Squad mailing list, regarding the issue of the Wall Street Journal's latest anti-Google piece. That WSJ article appeared to conflate Net Neutrality issues with AT&T's claim that Google is in violation of law by reportedly refusing to terminate Google Voice calls to certain rural exchanges.

The nature of the questions suggested that a bit more background explanation would be useful.

First, to be very clear, the FCC's current actions related to Network Neutrality only involve Internet data traffic per se. They are specifically aimed at ensuring that ISP subscribers have access to Internet sites without unreasonable restrictions. In particular, these FCC actions do not relate to voice call telephone issues, except to the extent that actions by ISPs might interfere with use of VoIP-based services by ISP subscribers.

Most users of conventional voice telephone services are unaware of the complex, arcane, and bizarre interexchange compensation system that has developed over many years. In a "close enough for jazz" nutshell, this system of "per minute" charges moving between firms is supposed to appropriately compensate the various entities involved in placing and terminating voice calls. For a variety of reasons, these rates can vary quite significantly, with rural exchanges typically being at the high end -- that is, receiving the most compensation for calls terminating in those areas.

This disparity has long been of concern, but the issue has in recent years gone critical as some rural telcos found a way to "game" the system to their advantage. By enticing high volume call services to their exchanges (chat lines, sex lines, "free" international calling services, etc.) and then kicking part of the received termination payments back to those services, quite a nice little scam was created at the expense of the other players in the telecom ecosystem. This is the process that is generally known as "traffic pumping" (uh, the term applies whether you're dealing with sex lines or not, by the way ...)

AT&T and other carriers would very much prefer not to feed money into these scams -- and I don't blame them one bit. I'm not a lawyer, but my understanding of current law says that as common carriers they are nonetheless required to allow those calls to proceed and to pay the associated outrageous fees.

Now we come back to Google Voice, an application that is accessed via existing phone lines. It's not a common carrier, so doesn't fall into the legal requirement discussed above. Google has reportedly chosen -- in the same manner that AT&T and other common carriers would likely choose if they were permitted to do so by the FCC -- not to terminate calls into those "scam" service exchanges.

AT&T's attempt to equate this decision with a violation of network neutrality is specious. And Google is under no legal obligation that I can see to terminate those calls. Is there a "moral" obligation to participate in that scam, simply because common carriers are required to terminate into those exchanges? I don't believe so, but more to the point the real issue should be ending the interexchange compensation scams for everyone.

A number of persons asked me about number portability issues. Google's official position on porting numbers to Google Voice would seem to be on this help page.

"Although you can't currently port your existing number to Google Voice, we hope to offer this option in the near future."

One technology Web site has claimed that they know of a few people who have ported their numbers to GV on a purely experimental basis -- I have no independent information to confirm or refute that.

In my earlier posting, I said:

"It might be argued that if it were possible to 'port' your existing conventional phone numbers directly into Google Voice -- effectively making Google your local phone company -- this analysis might change."

To better understand this, it's necessary to realize that there are different scenarios for porting numbers. If a number is ported strictly for inbound calls (e.g., to Google Voice or another service), it effectively amounts to a form of "permanent" inbound call forwarding -- and conventional call forwarding is widely used with all of these services, as you'd expect.

Live inbound calls would still actually terminate to users via local telco landline or wireless lines. Outbound calls would be made via those same lines, and would show the ANI/CNID number identification information associated with those lines (though if the calls were completed via a third party service, the ultimate person called would likely be presented with the ANI/CNID number generated by that service).

This sort of "call forwarding number port" is unlikely, in my opinion, to trigger common carrier requirements on Google Voice or other third party services of the same type.

Another form of number portability is the kind with which most people are more familiar, and is used when you switch a primary access line between landline and/or wireless telcos. This is the scenario I was referring to when I said in my earlier posting:

"... effectively making Google your local phone company."

In other words, if Google offered a service which provided you directly with local dial tone or direct wireless access, replacing the primary access telco previously providing those services to you, I can visualize scenarios under which Google might then be potentially classified as a common carrier and become subject to the same termination requirements as, for example, AT&T. However, I've seen no indication to date that Google has plans to take on such a direct "telco" role.

As always in these situations, the devil is in the details, and the above is merely a summary. But I hope it clarifies some of the issues involved, especially for those readers who weren't -- or aren't -- traditionally trained phone phreaks!


Posted by Lauren at 10:24 AM | Permalink
Twitter: @laurenweinstein
Google+: Lauren Weinstein

October 04, 2009

Net Neutrality, Health Care, and "The Customer is Always Wrong!"

Greetings. The surest way to screw up future innovative applications would be for ISPs to make constraining assumptions about the future based on existing applications' performance. Discussing P2P behavior as if it were some monolithic, unchanging entity is simply wrong. What is P2P? BitTorrent? Skype? CNN live video feed fan-outs? And what of changes to these existing apps? What of future apps? By definition, the sort of "intelligent" network being promoted by anti-neutrality folks will only perform well when applications toe the line according to yesterday's definitions -- stifling true innovation at its core.

P2P paranoia and data jitter fetishes in this context are little more than attempts at obfuscation. The key "take away" lesson of the last few days over on the NNSquad list has been the spectacle of one technical party explaining what they needed from Internet access to conduct their business, and another technical party responding in essence "You don't need that! Make do! Be glad ISPs have deemed fit to provide you with any broadband at all!" Ah, future echoes of techno-arrogance in the finest tradition of Ma Bell's monopoly-era business practices.

But this all helps to illuminate a crucial point. The technical details are important of course, but at this stage in debates about "network neutrality" and transparency it's far more important to establish first principles. Access to broadband Internet facilities is becoming as crucial to everyday life in key ways as access to power and water. Yes, any given individual can probably live without the Net, but around the world it has become clear that lack of quality Internet access will be as debilitating to success and advancement in the long run as being forbidden a basic education.

There are disturbing parallels between these Internet-related controversies and the ongoing U.S. health care debate. In both cases, we have extremely large and powerful entrenched interests (giant ISPs, and enormous insurance companies) who act as "gatekeepers" to a range of services that consumers and subscribers want and need. These gatekeepers are hell-bent on protecting their turfs at all costs and on their terms, the real needs of broader society seemingly be damned.

The question is, will society at large accept such a state of affairs -- like lambs to slaughter -- indefinitely?


Posted by Lauren at 12:55 PM | Permalink
Twitter: @laurenweinstein
Google+: Lauren Weinstein