March 26, 2010

Google Fiber Application Deadline Passes -- and Some Insights from the GCTIP Broadband Survey

Greetings. Google has announced that the deadline has passed for applications related to their Ultra High-Speed Broadband Fiber experiments, and as you'd expect the applications have been pouring in. But now that the application window has closed, we can expect that communities will be putting away the clown suits, changing their names back from Googlesque variations to their original historic nomenclatures, and otherwise returning more or less to "broadband normal" status for now.

Despite the explosion of creativity unleashed by the application process, one might suspect that in the final analysis more mundane logistical issues might tend to steer Google's baseline consideration of the applicants.

All else being equal, it will be far easier to deal with communities where aerial cabling can be employed, as opposed to having to dig up streets and yards for underground installs, attracting the attendant ire of residents who might be more concerned about their fancy flowers than fiber feeds (where I live, AT&T had to get an easement order just to force my neighbors to allow them in to service my phone lines that terminated in an underground cable on their property!) Still, Google will probably want to do some underground installs to get a representative feel for the issues involved, and where new housing builds are concerned the cost differential may be minimal.

Even where aerial cable can be employed and local governments are enthusiastic, rights-of-way may still be an issue, especially when the pole infrastructure is owned by a dominant ISP who may view Google as a potential competitor.

Urban and suburban areas will likely have a leg-up over rural areas as usual, simply because the distances and costs involved per customer served are so relatively high in rural locales. Of course, if I were Google I'd want to do at least some rural deployment even at very high cost, again to get a good feel for the kinds of outlays and technical issues entailed.

But in any case, the experiences and information that result from the Google experiments with ultra high-speed fiber deployments will be extremely useful for the entire broadband industry and consumers in general, especially related to cost factors and other logistical issues. I look forward with great anticipation to future developments associated with the project.

- - -

Early this week I announced the GCTIP Broadband Survey, and a steady clip of survey forms have been arriving ever since, and are continuing to appear.

While I can't compete with the kind of application numbers Google has been getting, I currently have over 1200 valid survey submissions from around the world, with a heavy emphasis on U.S. broadband users. These are scattered widely across urban, suburban, and rural areas, and while the large, dominant ISPs appear in the percentages one might expect, there are also very significant numbers of people subscribing to small or medium-sized local wired or wireless (WISP) ISPs, some of which, frankly, I'd never heard of up to now.

I'm not ready to do the hard-core number crunching on the surveys yet (as I mentioned the survey is still open, and will be for some time), there are key obvious trends in the submitted surveys that I wanted to mention now because (to me at least) they're quite fascinating.

On the survey form I included -- almost as an afterthought -- a "questions and comments" box. I had not expected many people to bother using it.

I was wrong. A startlingly high percentage of persons chose to fill in comments, sometimes in great length and detail. Without a doubt these comments (often but not always in conjunction with other data on the form) provided the clearest insight
into how these persons at least felt about their broadband service.

Without getting hard numbers for now, here are some of my impression from manual scanning of the submitted surveys to date:

  • I had expected the survey to mainly be submitted by extremely tech-savvy individuals, and while these were certainly represented, large number of persons self-identified themselves as "ordinary," non-techie users.
  • While there are certainly some people who really hate their current ISPs, the majority of survey submissions tended to rate their current ISPs as at least "Adequate" -- even when they've included very specific gripes in the comments. The form defaulted to "Perfect" for this category. Very few "perfect" ratings were received, so people were clearly taking the time to make a selection for this question.
  • The overwhelmingly vast majority of submissions were marked to indicate that there is not sufficient local broadband competition in the local areas -- even when the submitters had indicated that their own current ISP is Adequate or better. The form defaulted to "Yes" (sufficient competition) for this question.
  • While rural users are most likely to be the most upset about a lack of broadband choice (sometimes no wired or WISP broadband availability at all), there were similar complaints among many suburban and even urban residents. Suburbanites complained that ISP builds were not coming to their area even though they were deployed nearby. Apartment dwellers complained that the building owners had contracted with a single ISP and would not allow competing ISPs access to the building, even when such local competition existed.
  • Rather surprisingly, there is no obvious correlation between the speed of Internet service (but see below) that a given subscriber uses, vs. their satisfaction or dissatisfaction with their ISP. To be sure, there are many people who want higher speeds, but users of relatively low-speed broadband seemed to be as likely as much higher-speed broadband users to rate their ISP as Adequate or above. True, some users who could only get low speeds wrote nasty comments about their ISPs that would peel the paint off the wall, and of course there were a number of "We want our Google Fiber!" comments as well. Hell, I want it too.
  • Variations and inconsistencies (from day to day and/or from hour to hour) in delivered downstream and upstream broadband performance appear to be of much greater concern to many users than the absolute maximum speeds promoted by their ISPs. Many users stated that they'd be completely happy for their purposes with the relatively low speeds that they received, if they could at least count on those speeds actually being available consistently at any given time.
  • Without a doubt the most common complaint on the surveys, far more than comments wanting higher speeds, were concerns about poor ISP customer service, both technical and non-technical. Some respondents detailed experiences lasting months or years battling their ISPs over technical and/or billing matters, and expressed exasperation at not having viable competitive options. Many of the technical matters described could have been easily fixed -- but stretched out due to incompetent call center handling and lack of adequate escalation protocols. In some cases, "simple" issues like inadequate ISP-provided default DNS services unnecessary hobbled performance that otherwise might have been fairly robust. In other cases (I've dealt with this myself) ISP refusal to believe that their equipment was at fault led to weeks or months of finger-pointing without problem resolutions.
  • Bundling of services by ISPs drives many subscribers absolutely crazy. Over and over again users commented that they simply wanted to pay a fair price for straightforward Internet access service, and felt that there were being extorted by ISP pricing structures into also buying television and/or phone services that they did not want or need.

There's lots more but that gives the flavor for now. I appreciate all of the survey responses to date, and welcome additional survey submissions.

Perhaps a main "take-away" from all this is that all the speed in the world is unlikely to make for a happy subscriber if they feel that they're being subjected to poor customer service and/or unfair pricing. Reliability and consistency of service may be more important than absolute speeds per se in many cases, and any given subscriber is likely to feel pretty good about their ISP if the subscriber feels that they're getting good value for their money and have sufficient broadband capability for what they themselves need to accomplish. And by contrast, high speeds don't necessarily buy a satisfied subscriber if the customer service and pricing don't meet customer requirements and expectations.


Posted by Lauren at 08:01 PM | Permalink
Twitter: @laurenweinstein
Google+: Lauren Weinstein

March 25, 2010

Entertainment Industry Asks White House for Vast New Internet Monitoring, Filtering, and Takedown Powers

Greetings. In a solicited filing with the new White House Office of Intellectual Property Enforcement Coordinator, seven entertainment industry groups including the RIAA, MPAA, SAG, and others, have asked the federal government to implement a sweeping new regime of ISP and privately-based monitoring, filtering, blocking, and reporting of presumed copyrighted materials, plus explicitly accuses search engines, ad networks, domain name registrars, proxy services, and other basic Internet infrastructure providers of being complicit in illegal activities.

Just three of the more notable bullet points:

# The federal government encourage ISPs to use, and companies to develop, monitoring, filtering, blocking, scanning and throttling technologies to combat the flow of unauthorized material online;

# Copyright holders be able to combat infringement by making a database of their works available to service providers, rather than submitting individual takedown notices. And once a work is taken down, service providers should be expected to employ "reasonable efforts" to prohibit users from uploading or even linking to them again;

# Copyright owners be able to block unauthorized streams of live broadcasts without going through the formal notice-and-takedown process

The entire document [pdf] makes for some interesting reading. I don't necessarily recommend perusing it on a full stomach, however.

Intellectual property theft is a serious problem. But attempts to remake the Internet into a preemptive automatic content blocking machine, where the concepts of users' privacy, due process, and fair use vanish into the ether, must be vigorously resisted.


Posted by Lauren at 11:38 AM | Permalink
Twitter: @laurenweinstein
Google+: Lauren Weinstein

March 24, 2010

Google's China Arc: Short Video Clip from the Epoch

Greetings. I've been taking considerable flak from some quarters, in reaction to my unabashed approval of Google's shutdown of their censored service in China, and my continuing condemnation of Microsoft's apparently enthusiastic willingness to continue censoring for China.

Some readers are questioning my belief that this decision on Google's part was ethically based, not some sort of underhanded attempt to extract itself from its status as a runner-up to Baidu. This despite the fact that various Google execs, including co-founder Sergey Brin, have been making it clear for quite some time that they were not comfortable with the China situation vis-a-vis Google, and that the attempt out outreach via might ultimately prove to be unsuccessful given increasingly heavy-handed actions by Chinese officials.

I've had a very similar perspective on the Google in China situation since day one. I was admittedly quite uncomfortable with the establishment of the censored, but I did understand both sides of the issues involved and how simplistic analysis of the situation was inappropriate -- and I've been saying that all along.

As I was noting this in correspondence, I remembered that I'd discussed this topic briefly in my talk at Google's Santa Monica facility back in January of 2006. In fact -- purely coincidentally -- that presentation took place literally hours after I learned of the launch of -- so the issue was fresh in my mind. I thought it might be interesting to review that talk relative to current events now. I was pleased to find that I can still comfortably stand by what I said at Google that day.

Since I had the video of the talk "in hand" this morning anyway (thanks again to Google for providing it originally) I extracted a very short (four minute) clip where I talked about China and other issues related to technology's impact in the real world. The date was January 24, 2006, in the midst of President George W. Bush's administration, during a seemingly endless series of revelations regarding prisoner abuses, unjustified warrentless wiretaps, and all manner of other controversies.

I've bumped the video up to 720p and added info overlays -- so blame me for any visual artifacts, not Google.

The brief clip is at YouTube as Thoughts on Google and China, etc. from 2006 Talk at Google Santa Monica.

The original video of the entire talk is also available, if you really, seriously have an hour or so to kill.

China has always been an enigma. Relationships between China and the rest of the world have never been simple. I believe that Google's actions to establish -- even though I personally wouldn't have made that choice -- were at least understandable, and arguably justifiable at the time.

And I feel that Google's shuttering of the censored -- a decision with which I wholeheartedly agree -- is an appropriate ending to an experiment that if nothing else, taught us and perhaps the Chinese people as well, a bit more not only about Google per se, but especially about the reality of China's government itself.


Posted by Lauren at 10:45 PM | Permalink
Twitter: @laurenweinstein
Google+: Lauren Weinstein

March 22, 2010

A Broadband Survey That Asks the Right Questions

Greetings. There's been considerable controversy -- including skepticism from yours truly regarding methodology -- related to the FCC's recently launched broadband performance self-testing regime (e.g. Why I'm Skeptical of the FCC's Call for User Broadband Testing and Amid Vendors' Finger-Pointing, FCC Says: "We Don't Endorse Our Broadband Speed Tests!).

But the FCC's moves in this regard do bring up some interesting questions -- such as just how satisfied are broadband Internet users with their Internet access service and ISPs? It's possible that many subscribers are far less (or far more!) comfortable with the value rendered by their ISPs than may be popularly assumed.

The FCC broadband tests didn't ask about such issues, so I will.

Under the auspices of my GCTIP project, I've set up a survey that asks a number of questions regarding typical consumer or business Internet broadband access services -- including key queries that the FCC chose not to make.

The GCTIP Broadband Survey asks what sort of Internet access service you have, the provisioned maximum speeds at your service level, and so on. If you've performed the FCC Broadband Tests, you can provide that data as well for comparison purposes. Perhaps most importantly, the survey asks about your satisfaction with your ISP, inquires regarding your feelings about ISP competition in your local area, and provides room for any other of your comments.

This is a self-selected survey of course (in the same way that the FCC broadband test project is consumer self-selected), so it will not have a basis for statistical rigor. On the other hand, I will promise up front not to use the results of the survey in any broadband planning proposals to Congress, and would not suggest that this data would have any value beyond helping observers get a feel for the range of situations, configurations, and feelings about ISP performance and value that participants in the survey choose to reveal. Naturally I will only report data from the survey participants in aggregate and summary form, without exposing any individually identifiable information that users might have (optionally) provided.

This survey is not limited to the United States. Wherever you are in the world, I hope you'll devote a few minutes to taking the GCTIP Broadband Survey.

Your consideration and participation is, as always, very much appreciated!


Posted by Lauren at 10:01 AM | Permalink
Twitter: @laurenweinstein
Google+: Lauren Weinstein

Why I'm Switching to the Google Chrome Browser (New Privacy Enhancements)

Greetings. You may recall my saying in the past how much I liked Google's Chrome Browser, and what enormous potential I thought it had for the future.

You may also remember that I've repeatedly stated that I would not consider using it as my primary browser until such a time that it included per-site cookie management tools at least on par with Firefox and Internet Explorer.

That impediment to the adoption of Google Chrome has now vanished.

At the start of this month, Google released a beta version of Chrome including a new array of content-related privacy controls. These new features have now migrated to the latest stable (non-beta, non-developer) Windows-based Chrome release (

This is a big deal from my standpoint. Site-by-site controls are now available in Chrome for cookies, images, JavaScript, and browser plugins, along with other privacy-related functions.

Especially given the speed and other performance advantages of Chrome -- including a rapidly growing and sophisticated plugin environment -- these new privacy enhancements remove the constraints that had previously forced me not to recommend Chrome for routine browsing (particularly in privacy-sensitive environments).

I have lately been decreasingly enamored of Mozilla Firefox -- my main browser of choice for years -- for a number of reasons, and the less said about Microsoft's Internet Explorer the better. And I'm really not interested at all in Apple's Safari browser -- the closed Apple ecosystem is a giant downer.

With per-site cookie controls and other privacy enhancements now in general release, Google Chrome looks to be a real winner and at the very least is definitely now worthy of serious consideration for all Web browsing purposes by all Internet users.

Looks like it's time to press the "Make Google Chrome my default browser" button. Sometimes change is definitely a good thing.


Posted by Lauren at 12:38 AM | Permalink
Twitter: @laurenweinstein
Google+: Lauren Weinstein

March 21, 2010

Two of the Scariest Health Care Reform Legislation Questions That We're Not Supposed to Ask

Greetings. Recently in Will Congress Wreck the Internet? I outlined certain similarities between the battles for better U.S. broadband and the current health care reform debate.

Perhaps not surprisingly in retrospect, many people responded to me regarding the health care aspects of that posting, with a variety of often very strong opinions.

Odds are that the House will approve the Senate version of health care reform sometime today (or perhaps in the wee hours of tomorrow morning). Whether or not the Senate will really follow-through with the reconciliation-based "fixes" the House wants applied to that legislation is still an open question.

And just as nearly anything the FCC does related to broadband is likely to trigger a cascade of court actions, the litigation response to the health care legislation if and when passed is likely to be nothing short of ferocious.

With that in mind, there are two questions -- I would have originally thought relatively simple ones -- regarding the current health care reform legislation that I have not been able to get reasonably answered. Maybe someone in the readership can help me with this.

The legislation appears to virtually immediately impose a number of new mandates on medical insurance companies regarding pre-existing conditions (for children, initially, later for everyone), annual and lifetime benefit limits, plus other provisions that in general most observers (including myself) would consider to be quite laudable and long overdue.

But those mandates are going to immediately increase insurance companies costs significantly. The new state-based "insurance exchanges" (of more use in big states than small ones) called for in the legislation don't get started for years. The dominant insurance companies successfully killed the "public option" or a Medicare "buy in" plan. Promised health insurance tax credits (which temporarily boost to higher levels under the reconciliation plan, then drop back to Senate levels a few years later) also apparently don't even begin until years from now. The talked about "National Rate Authority" to help control insurance companies premiums has -- last I heard -- been dropped from the current legislation.

I'm one of those people who got a letter recently informing me of a 40% increase on the already extremely expensive premiums for my very bare-bones health insurance policy with poor coverage and high co-pays -- not due to any changes in my situation, just because the company wanted to increase rates across the board. I've been struggling to afford keeping my medical insurance even at the previous rate.

Though I'd much prefer a conventional full-time job, I'm self-employed in a terrible economy -- which in my case is only a tiny notch above being totally unemployed.

Given the new costs that the insurance companies will immediately need to cover under the health care legislation, why wouldn't they further boost premiums even more than before -- especially on people like me who must buy insurance on our own without employers to help -- a particular problem in states like here in California where state officials do not have regulatory authority over those premiums.

Specifically, during the gap of years between the passage of health care legislation (and the triggering of mandates on the insurance companies) -- before the later starting up of insurance exchanges and tax credits -- what's to protect us all from being utterly reamed by a series of even more massive premium increases? That's question number one.

The health care legislation also contains a requirement that ultimately, we all have to buy health insurance, or pay penalties to the government. Personally, I'd gladly pay whatever I could toward a government-funded public option, Medicare buy-in, or true single-payer system.

But I find it remarkable in the extreme that the legislation insists that we individually must pay to further enrich enormously lucrative insurance giants who have played such a large part in making a terrible mess of the health care system in this country in the first place, and who have ruined (and even prematurely terminated) so many lives.

Like the FCC Broadband Plan, which seems to have been carefully designed to avoid stepping too hard on the toes of the giant, dominant ISPs, the health care legislation apparently was purpose-built to protect insurance giants and Big Pharma.

I'm not a Constitutional scholar by any means. But I can't think of another instance where the federal government has ordered citizens to buy a service from commercial private parties in such a manner as is required by the health care reform legislation.

Yes, you typically need to purchase private insurance to legally buy a home or drive a car -- but you aren't required to be a home owner or driver in the first place!

What am I missing here? Can anyone provide an example of previous U.S. legislation that ordered ordinary citizens to contract with commercial, for-profit firms in such a manner as the health care reform legislation demands? That's question two.

While it certainly can be argued that Congress could theoretically fix problems in the current legislation via other legislation down the line, there is no guarantee that they'll be willing and able to do so, especially in the current toxic political environment. Meanwhile, there's little in the current legislation to seriously control the current medical costs upward spiral.

I am extremely concerned -- frankly bordering on terrified -- about where this "perfect storm" of medical needs and political theater may be leading us.


Posted by Lauren at 01:05 PM | Permalink
Twitter: @laurenweinstein
Google+: Lauren Weinstein

March 19, 2010

Viacom vs. YouTube Lawsuit Meets Sergio Leone

Greetings. By now you've probably heard about the release of rather explosive court documents related to Viacom's three-year-old lawsuit against Google's YouTube, seeking [Cue Dr. Evil] one BILLION dollars in damages. Both Viacom's filing [pdf] and Google's filing [pdf] make for fascinating but highly discomforting reading.

Yet as painful as these documents may be, they represent only the tip of the iceberg relating to complex changes occurring throughout the Internet and the world.

The dramatic essence of the filings can be imperfectly but quickly summarized.

Viacom points to what many observers would categorize as rather arrogant and cavalier e-mail communications between YouTube's founders as supposed proof of a massive disregard for copyright laws. (Note to self: Avoid casual use of the word "evil" in tactical planning being discussed via e-mail, even in jest.) Viacom also points to internal dissent at Google regarding their potential purchase of YouTube and what was described as YouTube's heavily "pirated" content.

Google's document accuses Viacom of an astoundingly bizarre, massive, and utterly hypocritical stealth campaign to upload Viacom videos to YouTube even as Viacom was complaining about the videos' presence on YouTube itself, including hiring outsiders to do uploading (sometimes from sites such as Kinko's to obscure sources) and the use of "uglification" processing techniques to give the uploaded videos a more "amateur" gloss. Google also notes that Viacom's selective quoting of YouTube e-mail communications out of context cannot reasonably be expected to convey an accurate sense of deliberations within YouTube at that time.

Further complicating the situation is that Viacom itself had attempted to purchase YouTube before Google did actually acquire YouTube! And an interesting footnote: Viacom and YouTube seem to generally work pretty well together today.

But back to our story.

Uglification -- yes, that seems like the right word. The lawsuit documents -- taken at face value anyway -- make for a fairly ugly picture on both sides.

But rather than focus solely on the star players, let's pull out for the long shot and try bring the broader issues into focus.

Perhaps the late Sergio Leone's film work can help us.

While reading the Viacom and Google documents, I inexplicably found myself thinking about Leone's 1966 film masterpiece "Il Buono, il Brutto, il Cattivo" (U.S. title: "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly") -- one of my favorite films.

Vastly more than a simple Western, GBU is an intense portrait of very different, very human, and certainly imperfect individuals in the chaos of a rapidly changing world -- by necessity working together toward a common goal of gold -- while at times also trying to kill each other. Highly recommended. Do watch it if you can.

A fascinating aspect of the film's three main characters is that even while doing things that are clearly dishonorable at best -- and in some cases far worse, they are not merely black and white caricatures. They all exhibit aspects of ugly, good, and bad -- and a large dose of opportunism -- driving their actions forward through the storm of events (in this case the Civil War) surrounding them.

Today we're long past the Civil War, but we're well enmeshed in the Internet Content Wars.

Computing and Internet technologies have rendered fundamentally impotent the duplication and distribution cost elements that traditionally have protected copyrighted audio and video works, by virtue of it previously being inconveniently expensive in most cases to routinely obtain such materials from other than "official" sources.

But as I noted in Copyright: Dead Man Walking, the copyright game has fundamentally changed, and no amount of nostalgia for the "good old days" will put that genie back into his bottle.

As in Leone's GBU vision of the Civil War, there are chaotic aspects to the Content Wars as well. Some countries, including Western ones like Australia and New Zealand, are implementing ludicrous attempts at content filtering (China's censorship we already know about, of course.) Criminal convictions have taken place against Google executives over YouTube content in Italy. Google insists (correctly, in my opinion) that YouTube properly adheres to the U.S. DMCA and that YouTube's content fingerprinting system helps avoid copyright abuse.

But calls to pre-screen YouTube content before making it publicly available have been rising. Such screening procedures are completely impractical given the rate of YouTube uploads (currently running at something like 24 hours of video uploaded per real-time minute, and rising fast) -- even if it was straightforward to untangle myriad fair-use and other related issues associated with user-submitted video clips -- which definitely isn't the case. And on and on ...

Governor Tarkin said to Darth Vader: "This bickering is pointless."

And so it is. Ending the global Content Wars will not happen overnight. Perhaps we're looking at some sort of War Without End as domestic sensibilities conflict with an inherently borderless Internet. Perhaps. But I don't believe that such an unproductive course is inevitable.

There may be enough dirt to go around in Viacom vs. YouTube. Yet I would argue that cooperation is the naturally most beneficial state for entities such as Google/YouTube and Viacom. The time, money, and human energy being wasted in battles like this is disgraceful and toxic.

Search engines, content aggregators, content providers, content producers, and the other various aspects of the Internet content ecosystem -- they, and Internet consumers as well of course, all have chords to play in this vast symphony of technology and creativity.

Future historians may look back on this period of the Internet's genesis and chuckle at our naivete. "How could those ancients have possibly thought that they could keep obsolete concepts of copyright and content control alive in the face of the revolution represented by the Internet, even way back then?"

At the end of Leon's GBU, two of the main protagonists, one of whom is -- well, "hanging around" at the time -- "agree" to share the proceeds of their long quest. "Four for you ... and four for me!"

There was plenty to go around. And there still is.


Posted by Lauren at 09:52 PM | Permalink
Twitter: @laurenweinstein
Google+: Lauren Weinstein

Amid Vendors' Finger-Pointing, FCC Says: "We Don't Endorse Our Broadband Speed Tests!"

Greetings. A week ago in Why I'm Skeptical of the FCC's Call for User Broadband Testing, I questioned the FCC's methodology in loudly promoting a pair of Java-based broadband speed tests on their Web site, in close conjunction with the release of their National Broadband Plan. In that posting, I discussed a number of technical reasons why I was concerned that the FCC tests would confuse consumers and generate data of very limited value.

Now comes word from the FCC that they actually do not even endorse these tests! That amusing pronouncement comes in a Los Angeles Times article discussing how a reporter contacted the Commission after finding wildly varying results in his own use of the FCC-sponsored tests, and received finger-pointing responses from the tests' vendors -- each claiming that they were accurate and that the other test must be screwing up. One vendor even blamed the M-Lab servers.

The FCC also noted that "there might be more confusion for consumers than we realized" (technical term: "Duh") and promised to add new disclaimers to the FCC site regarding "widely varying results" from using the tests.

It's now more apparent than ever that this particular FCC effort at consumer broadband testing was in reality likely little more than a publicity stunt. Given the many variables faced by these sorts of manually-triggered "one-shot" consumer tests, they are by definition usually of use only in the sense of rather gross measurements. That doesn't make them worthless by any means, but does limit their applicability, and as we've seen can exacerbate consumer confusion, especially when vendors apparently don't always want to mention up front that these sorts of limitations exist.

I'm glad that the FCC now plans to better disclaim the constraints of these broadband tests. Of course, they should have done this originally, or more appropriately not have so loudly promoted these tests to the media with unsupportable hoopla in the first place.


Posted by Lauren at 10:03 AM | Permalink
Twitter: @laurenweinstein
Google+: Lauren Weinstein

March 18, 2010

Obama Apparently Pledges Support for Biometric National ID Card

Greetings. According to the Washington Post, President Obama has enthusiastically pledged support for the Biometric National ID Card system being pushed by Sens. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) -- in the guise of an immigration reform "tamper-proof Social Security card."

Just over a week ago I mentioned this effort by the odd bedfellows of Charles and Lindsey in "Your Papers, Please!" - Get Your Fingerprints Ready! Cross-Party Senate Alliance Pushing National ID Card.

They can call it what they will -- it's still a biometric national ID and a massive supporting government-operated ID infrastructure -- and the concept needs to be fought in every possible legal way. Regular readers will not need to be reminded of the many dangers in such ID regimes and the particularly fascinating risks of biometric ID systems.

Much more to come.


Posted by Lauren at 07:38 PM | Permalink
Twitter: @laurenweinstein
Google+: Lauren Weinstein

March 16, 2010

Will Congress Wreck the Internet?

Greetings. The Federal Communications Commission has finally released its long-awaited Broadband Plan, and many of the really meaty recommendations have been handed over to Congress for their studied analysis and actions. Other parts of the plan can in theory be implemented directly by the FCC -- but we can rest assured that all but the most trivial moves by either Congress or the Commission associated with ISP regulations, broadband deployment, or related topics, are almost certain to trigger complex litigation, in many cases lasting for years.

I'm not a lawyer, so I'll leave the legal fun and games to those parties whose fetishes run in that particular direction.

Nor will I for now dig into the technical aspects of the Plan, which when all is said and done are likely to look far different if and when implemented than what the Commission proposes, particularly after Congress and the Courts have had their says.

For now though I'd like to pose a hypothetical question. Is it reasonable to assume that Congress will handle these complex broadband-related issues any better than they've managed to mangle health care reform, another area where very powerful forces interplay with Congress, often to the detriment of average consumers?

I don't want to be overly pessimistic. I'll admit I frequently tend to see the darker side of possibilities, but I've found that unfortunately to often be more realistic than not. Back in my more hard-core software engineering days, I found a touch of the tincture of pessimism to serve me well while coding -- trying to figure out the many ways things could go wrong helped to avoid program execution disasters ("Oops there goes another pointer ker-plop!" Chorus: "Ker-Plop!")

But having watched Congress wading their way waist deep into the "Big Muddy" [YouTube] of health care reform (my apologies, Pete Seeger) I'm increasingly concerned about what Congress may do for -- and to -- the Internet.

The irony is that virtually everyone agrees that we need to improve broadband in the U.S. -- just as there's general agreement that the existing U.S. health care system is pathetic in the ways it affects vast numbers of us.

I'd love to see real health care reform. I'm one of those self-employed people hit very hard indeed by this economy, and who is being priced totally out of the health insurance market -- very scary for someone aged on the wrong side of 39. So I watch in something akin to horror as Congress seems poised to pass health care reform that apparently would allow insurance companies to continuing jacking up premiums for years. In fact, they'd seem to have even more incentive to screw individual policyholders, given the new mandates included in the legislation.

Yet the health care status quo is also unthinkably awful. And process counts at least as much as outcome, especially in the long run, regardless of whether or not health care reform as currently written actually passes Congress a few days from now.

So it's instructive to consider how one particular aspect of the health care reform debate -- abortion funding -- has worked so effectively to warp many aspects of health care reform legislation (along with a great deal of help from the insurance industry itself and Big Pharma, of course).

Could the same sort of thing happen when Congress gets their hands on massive new broadband plans? After all, Congress has been called the ultimate of "with strings attached" institutions.

The answer unfortunately seems to clearly be yes.

Let's look at just one aspect of this for the moment. It's time for another hypothetical question.

Can we realistically expect that once large amounts of taxpayer dollars are involved in broadband deployment, Congress will not wish to "mold" the Internet in a politically expedient manner?

The shape that Congress might wish for the Net isn't very hard to visualize.

Congress has passed legislation multiple times to impose all manner of content controls on the Net. The Supreme Court has fought back these laws to date, but terms-of-use precedents suggest that they might be far more accepting of such restrictions when major taxpayer funding is involved.

Add to that the many calls -- including from a key Microsoft executive -- for "Internet Driver's Licenses" that would decimate the concept of user anonymity -- and the prospects for serious undermining of Internet civil liberties appear to be not at all far-fetched. The moves by nominally democratic countries such as Australia and New Zealand into Internet censorship regimes lends support to those in the U.S. who simply salivate at the thought of clamping down on the "Evil Internet."

One can almost hear the impassioned Congressional speeches. "My constituents won't pay to support an Internet that allows porn and hate speech, illegal downloading, and anonymous users who refuse to stand behind their comments! If we're to fund these broadband networks, we must insist that they not be allowed to become tools for criminals, terrorists, and malcontents like the Internet has been up to now!" (Loud applause from the gallery. FOX News commentators nod appreciatively.)

Unless a politician represents San Francisco, West Hollywood, or similar enclaves, they'd probably find this sort of "Net-Baiting" harangue to be a sure-fire vote-getter in most parts of the country.

Because the sad truth is that many -- perhaps the majority -- of people in the U.S. appear to fear the free-speech and anonymity aspects of the Internet -- aspects that are in my opinion among the Internet's most important and admirable attributes, even though both of those aspects can be and are subject at times to abuse by less than honorable individuals and organizations.

Enough questions. Now for a thought. It is my personal opinion that as Congress proceeds to consider the FCC Broadband Plan and the many involved implications, we must be exceedingly diligent to at least try assure that Congress does not treat broadband -- the Internet -- with the same sort of all too often short-sighted, skewed, and in some critical ways cavalier attitudes that have shaped the health care reform debate to date.

We must move forward with real "broadband reform" in this country, just as not ultimately proceeding with true health care reform would be calamitous.

But while Congress can indeed do immense good, it also has a history of doing tremendous damage as well -- often with the best of intentions in play throughout the process in either case.

Would Congress willingly "wreck" the civil liberties of Internet users? For that matter, will Congress' current extended foray into health care reform do more harm than good?

In Greek mythology, we might look to Atropos [YouTube] and her "shears of fate" for some insight into such futures. Absent her sage counsel, we can only really look inside ourselves.


Posted by Lauren at 10:38 PM | Permalink
Twitter: @laurenweinstein
Google+: Lauren Weinstein

FCC: For God's Sake Don't Mention "Net Neutrality" in the Broadband Plan!

Greetings. The newly released FCC Broadband Plan contains a great deal of discussion in its more than 360 pages. There will be a lot to say about the specific provisions and recommendations of the Plan.

But it's something missing from the Plan that is a real eyebrow-raiser.

As far as I can determine, nowhere in the entire text of the Plan will you find the terms "Net Neutrality" or "Network Neutrality" -- a rather stunning development.

To be specific, the word "neutrality" apparently appears only once in the Plan, as in "budget neutrality." The word "neutral" appears a number of times, but none of these relate directly to the usual universe of Net Neutrality discussions as commonly understood, as far as I can tell. The "closest" usages I located are discussions of "neutral rights of way" (relating to broadband construction), remarks regarding a "neutral host facility" associated with public safety networks, and the term "network-neutral" specifically related to proposed set-top boxes (i.e., physical boxes that could connect to different networks).

If the Plan ever uses the terms "neutral" or "neutrality" in manners that most observers would consider to be related to common Net Neutrality discussions, especially associated with ISP operational issues, I didn't see such instances. Please let me know if you can find them!

Now, one might argue that the term Net Neutrality has over time come to encompass an ever widening range of specific issues, and the FCC has increasingly been favoring the use of terms such as "open," "transparent," and "nondiscriminatory" in preference to "neutrality" in their statements.

But the Commission itself has discussed the need to operate networks in a "neutral" manner. "Network [or Net] Neutrality" is the common term used to refer to the associated issues in public discourse, analysis, news stories, legislation, position papers, speeches, and in virtually all other contexts.

Net Neutrality is by far one of the most common search terms used by persons concerned about broadband policy issues.

Even if the FCC preferred not to use the "Net Neutrality" terminology in a descriptive sense in the Plan, it seems remarkable that they chose not to at least note the popular usage of these terms by consumers, media, legislators, and the like, and to explain (for the sake of searchers using the terms if nothing else) why the Commission preferred not to use such terminology in their own detailed discussions and recommendations.

I find it difficult to imagine how the terms Network Neutrality or Net Neutrality could possibly be missing from as important and encompassing a document as the FCC's Broadband Plan by happenstance.

It seems far more likely that a specific decision was made beforehand to avoid the use of these terms in any way (or that they were purged from drafts during the editorial process).

To be clear, I'm not suggesting any conspiracy or Orwellian attempt at Newspeak. But I do believe that the FCC Broadband Plan has done a disservice to the public by not at least acknowledging the existence of terminology used by the entire world -- including the U.S. Congress and Barack Obama -- to commonly reference these related issues.


Posted by Lauren at 01:05 PM | Permalink
Twitter: @laurenweinstein
Google+: Lauren Weinstein

March 15, 2010

Dot-Com Turns 25: The Oldest 100 Dot-Com Domains

Greetings. Today marks 25 years since the registration of the very first DOT-COM (.COM) domain, certainly a landmark of sorts in the history of the Internet. It's hard to believe that a quarter century has passed since then.

As you can see from this list of the 100 oldest still-existing registered .COM domains, the initial pace of registrations was fairly sluggish!

Various of these domains have changed hands over the years, but an example of one that has maintained the same owner registration since its registration on 27-Oct-1986 is #39 on the "oldest 100" list -- definitely my personal favorite.


Posted by Lauren at 08:29 PM | Permalink
Twitter: @laurenweinstein
Google+: Lauren Weinstein

March 11, 2010

Why I'm Skeptical of the FCC's Call for User Broadband Testing

Greetings. The FCC has issued a call for Internet users to test their broadband connections and report the results back to the FCC for analysis.

After inspecting the associated site and testing tools, I'm must admit that I am extremely skeptical about the overall value of the data being collected by their project, except in the sense of the most gross of statistics.

In random tests against my own reasonably well-calibrated tools, the FCC tools showed consistent disparities of 50% to 85%! Why isn't this surprising?

I'm a big fan of Google's M-Lab project (and was involved in the meeting at Google that served as the genesis for the project itself) but I must question the use of the Java-based M-Lab testing tool (and the other Java tool provided by the FCC site) in this particular manner. (Ironically, the FCC site stipulates that the M-Lab tool won't run under Google's own Chrome browser!)

The FCC testing regime provides for no control related to other activity on users' connections. How many people will (knowingly or not) run the tests while someone else in the home or business is watching video, downloading files, or otherwise significantly affecting the overall bandwidth behavior?

No obvious clues are provided to users regarding the underlying server testing infrastructure. As anyone who uses speed tests is aware, the location of servers used for these tests will dramatically affect results. The ability of the server infrastructure to control for these disparities can be quite limited depending on ISPs' own network topologies.

And of course, on-demand, manually-run tests cannot provide any sort of reasonable window into the wide variations in performance that users commonly experience on different days of the week, times of day, and so on.

Users are required to provide their street address information with the tests, but there's nothing stopping anyone from entering any address that they might wish, suggesting that such data could often be untrustworthy compared with (much coarser) already available IP address-based location info.

While these tests under this methodology may serve to help categorize users into very broad classes of Internet service tiers, it's hard to see how their data could be reasonably trusted beyond that level. ISPs may be justifiably concerned that the data collected from these tests by this FCC effort may be unrepresentative in significant ways.

There are certainly methods available to collect meaningful, longitudinal data in manners that would provide genuinely useful insight into the real-world characteristics of users' broadband connections' performance.

I discussed my own proposals along these lines a couple of years ago in:

Practical Issues of the Proposed "Global Internet Measurement Analysis Array"


Proposal for Breaking the Internet Network Neutrality Deadlock

I still feel very strongly that a methodology of the type that I suggested in those documents -- or something similar -- is an appropriate way to collect truly meaningful broadband statistical data, in contrast to the FCC's currently promoted approach that I believe to be of relatively limited value.


Blog Update (March 19, 2010): Amid Vendors' Finger-Pointing, FCC Says: "We Don't Endorse Our Broadband Speed Tests!"

Posted by Lauren at 12:30 PM | Permalink
Twitter: @laurenweinstein
Google+: Lauren Weinstein

March 08, 2010

"Your Papers, Please!" - Get Your Fingerprints Ready! Cross-Party Senate Alliance Pushing National ID Card

Greetings. According to the Wall Street Journal, U.S. Senate immigration reform advocates Chuck Schumer and Lindsey Graham are proposing a mandatory biometric (e.g. fingerprint-based) National ID Card system, and are attempting to brush away privacy concerns as trivial and irrelevant.

Touted as "merely" a "right-to-work" card aimed at addressing illegal immigration concerns, there's simply no fast-talking around the fact that this plan will set in motion a massive national ID infrastructure that will ultimately penetrate every aspect of our lives. Anyone who suggests otherwise is -- sorry to say -- either a liar or a fool.

I basically care not one whit what other countries have done in this regard. When it comes to civil liberties, each nation is in the end responsible for their own nirvanas -- or hells. So apparently we'll need to save ourselves from the seemingly well-meaning but clearly bullheaded and misguided efforts of these two usually relatively sensible Senators.

Frankly, I can't think of many more effective ways to trigger an outpouring of civil disobedience among otherwise law-abiding and patriotic Americans than trying to stuff biometric ID cards up our you-know-whats (where the new airport full-body scanners won't be able to see them, by the way).

"Your papers, please! NOW Comrade!"


Posted by Lauren at 11:48 PM | Permalink
Twitter: @laurenweinstein
Google+: Lauren Weinstein

March 04, 2010

An Experiment with YouTube's New Auto-Captioning

Greetings. In a move of potentially enormous positive importance to hearing-impaired Internet Users, Google's YouTube today announced the deployment of their "auto-captioning" capability across the entire universe of YouTube videos.

The rapid expansion on the Internet of uncaptioned video has been increasingly putting hearing-impaired users at a disadvantage, but the decidedly nontrivial work required to caption videos, especially for producers with limited resources, has until now greatly limited the numbers of YouTube vids that were available with full or even partial captioning.

I've captioned some of my own videos in the past, both with the help of rudimentary tools and completely manually, and I can definitely attest to the fact that it can be quite tedious indeed.

So given today's YouTube announcement (and the discovery that some of my YouTube videos were already enabled for auto-captioning), I decided to run a quickie experiment using one of my previously uncaptioned videos.

Automatic speech recognition is a very difficult task, especially in the presence of music or noise, and YouTube notes that auto-captioning must be expected to be imperfect. I was interested in seeing how well it would function to speed up the process of hand-tuning a completely accurate captioning transcription.

Executive summary: It helps a great deal, to say the least!

The video I used for this experiment was my Is Net Neutrality a Communist Plot? satire.

This video includes a number of aspects particularly useful for this test. While most of the voiceover is not accompanied by backing music, there are sections of narration that are layered on music beds. Also, the audio for almost the entire length of the production is mixed with a purpose-built "noise" track to simulate a rotting old reel of film, and there are various other audio timing artifacts that I had manually introduced as well.

You can inspect the results by watching the video and enabling captioning.

At the lower-right of the YouTube playback window is an upward pointing arrow. Hover over it (or click) and you'll see a "CC" option that you can click to enable (it will then turn red). Also, if you hover over the small left-pointing arrow on the left side of the CC option, you can choose between two captioning tracks.

"Hand-Tuned" is the default and is my final captioning track after I corrected and tuned the results of YouTube's automatically-transcribed captioning. "Machine Transcription" is the actual and original automatically-generated captioning track that YouTube generated on its own.

The automatic captioning track obviously contains many errors (and is rather humorous in places). But we definitely must keep in mind (a) that the presence of music and noise naturally degrades the machine-transcription process, and especially (b) the enormous time-saver that having this automatic track -- even with its errors -- represents when it comes to creating a hand-tuned and polished final captioning track.

I can't emphasize this latter point enough. Being able to use the automatically generated track as a foundation allowed me to create a finished captioning track in a fraction of the time that would have been required when working with a script from scratch.

Obviously, expected results will vary from video to video, but I would expect that many videos, particularly ones with quiet backgrounds, will yield rather spectacular results with a minimum of hand tuning, and in many cases will be highly useful to users without any tuning at all.

And of course, we can expect that over time the quality of the auto-captioning transcriptions will only improve.

This is a big day for Internet video accessibility in general, and for YouTube in particular. Kudos to the YouTube teams!


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