Blown To Bits

Archive for August, 2008

The Web Site Finds You

Friday, August 22nd, 2008 by Harry Lewis

Google has launched its “New Gears Geolocation API.” This is a set of developer tools making it easy to build applications that utilize location information reported by your cell phone to bring up content that depends on where you are — without your having to key in your location manually. Here’s an example Google cites of how useful this can be:

One of the most popular travel sites in the Europe, lastminute.com, has now location-enabled their new mobile restaurant finder to help you find restaurants near you without requiring you to type in where you are. If you’re in the UK, just go to fonefood at¬†m.lastminute.com, click the “Find your location” link on the home page, select the type of restaurant you want, and lastminute.com will automatically work out which neighbourhood and city you are in and find matching restaurants.

We discussed something similar in our Providence Journal opinion piece of a week ago — a facility that would steer you to stores near you that had in stock a product you wanted to buy. It’s coming!

Two Blown to Bits Audio Segments

Friday, August 22nd, 2008 by Harry Lewis

There’s an interview with Ken and Harry on the “Let’s Talk Computers” show, which is aimed at a general audience. Our show (officially dated August 23, 2008) is a friendly conversation, mostly about privacy issues.

Also there’s a well researched NPR program on cloud computing in which Harry is quoted. Laura Sydell, who did the research and interviewing, is a terrific radio journalist.

The Advertising Screen Watches You

Thursday, August 21st, 2008 by Harry Lewis

A story by Emily Steel in today’s Wall Street Journal, “The Ad Changes with the Shopper in Front of It,” reports that retail stores are increasingly moving to in-store advertising. The declining prices of flatscreen displays explains part of the surge. But of course with a digital advertising screen, the ads can change depending on local conditions. Proctor and Gamble is playing with some interesting ideas (my paraphrases):

  • * Put RFID tags on shampoo bottles. Then when a customer picks up a bottle from the shelf, flash at her some suggestions about matching conditioners.

That one is pretty weak, actually. But the next one is not.

  • * Put a camera at the screen to watch who is standing in front of it. Suggest different hair care products depending on the customer’s appearance. Can’t you just see it? “Hah! She’s graying. Let’s make sure she knows that even a computer notices, and pitch some hair coloring.”

It’s inevitable that these things will be tried. Will they work? Probably, creepy as they seem at first.

And of course a camera at the check-out could match faces and track what people actually buy, as correlated with what they looked at and what advertising they saw …

The FCC Rules Against Comcast

Wednesday, August 20th, 2008 by Harry Lewis

The Federal Communications Commission has issued its decision in the matter of Comcast’s violations of network neutrality, finding Comcast to have violated federal policy. The full opinion (and the opinions of individual commissioners) is posted on the FCC site (Microsoft Word document here). We cut and paste a few paragraphs below (omitting footnotes). Comcast’s response will apparently be just to slow down all traffic to its heaviest users during times of peak traffic — rather than peeking inside the packets to decide whom to delay or block.

The record leaves no doubt that Comcast’s network management practices discriminate among applications and protocols rather than treating all equally. To reiterate: Comcast has deployed equipment across its networks that monitors its customers’ TCP connections using deep packet inspection to determine how many connections are peer-to-peer uploads. When Comcast judges that there are too many peer-to-peer uploads in a given area, Comcast’s equipment terminates some of those connections by sending RST packets. In other words, Comcast determines how it will route some connections based not on their destinations but on their contents; in laymen’s terms, Comcast opens its customers’ mail because it wants to deliver mail not based on the address or type of stamp on the envelope but on the type of letter contained therein. Furthermore, Comcast’s interruption of customers’ uploads by definition interferes with Internet users’ downloads since “any end-point that is uploading has a corresponding end-point that is downloading.” Also, because Comcast’s method, sending RST packets to both sides of a TCP connection, is the same method computers connected via TCP use to communicate with each other, a customer has no way of knowing when Comcast (rather than its peer) terminates a connection.

but invasive and outright discriminatory. Comcast admits that it interferes with about ten percent of uploading peer-to-peer TCP connections, and independent evidence shows that Comcast’s interference may be even more prevalent. In a test of over a thousand networks over the course of more than a million machine-hours, Vuze found that the peer-to-peer TCP connections of Comcast customers were interrupted more consistently and more persistently than those of any other provider’s customers. Similarly, independent evidence suggests that Comcast may have interfered with forty if not seventy-five percent of all such connections in certain communities. Comcast also admits that even in its own tests, twenty percent of such terminated connections cannot successfully restart an uploading peer-to-peer connection within a minute. These statistics have real world consequences: We know, for example, that Comcast’s conduct disconnected Adam Lynn, who uses peer-to-peer applications to watch movie trailers. We know that Comcast’s conduct slowed Jeffrey Pearlman’s connection “to a crawl” when he was using peer-to-peer protocols to update his copy of the World of Warcraft game. We know that David Gerisch and Dean Fox had to wait hours if not days to download open-source software over their peer-to-peer clients. And we know that Comcast’s conduct entirely prevented Robert Topolski from distributing a “rare cache of Tin-Pan-Alley-era ‘Wax Cylinder’ recordings and other related musical memorabilia” over the Gnutella peer-to-peer network. These actual examples of interference confirm the observation that “[i]t is easy to imagine scenarios where content is unavailable for periods much longer than minutes.”

43. On its face, Comcast’s interference with peer-to-peer protocols appears to contravene the federal policy of “promot[ing] the continued development of the Internet” because that interference impedes consumers from “run[ning] applications . . . of their choice,” rather than those favored by Comcast, and that interference limits consumers’ ability “to access the lawful Internet content of their choice,” including the video programming made available by vendors like Vuze. Comcast’s selective interference also appears to discourage the “development of technologies” — such as peer-to-peer technologies — that “maximize user control over what information is received by individuals . . . who use the Internet” because that interference (again) impedes consumers from “run[ning] applications . . . of their choice,” rather than those favored by Comcast. Thus, Free Press has made a prima facie case that Comcast’s practices do impede Internet content and applications, and Comcast must show that its network management practices are reasonable.

44. Comcast tries to avoid this result by arguing that it only delays peer-to-peer applications, and that the Internet Policy Statement, properly read, prohibits the blocking of user applications and content, but not mere delays. We do not agree with Comcast’s characterization and instead find that the company has engaged in blocking. As one expert explains: “It is never correct to say that Comcast has delayed P2P packets or P2P sessions, because the P2P traffic will never flow again unless the end system initiates a new session to the same device, even though it now believes that device is unable to continue a transfer. The argument that terminating a P2P session is only delaying because a device may attempt to initiate a new session some time later is absurd. By this incorrect argument, there is no such thing as call blocking; there is only delaying.” Indeed, under Comcast’s logic virtually any instance of blocking could be recharacterized as a form of delay. We are likewise unpersuaded by Comcast’s argument that terminating peer-to-peer connections does not equate to blocking access to content because Internet users may upload such content from other sources — whether or not blocking content was Comcast’s intent, Comcast’s actions certainly had that effect in some circumstances. In any event, the semantic dispute of “delaying vs. blocking” is not outcome determinative here. Regardless of what one calls it, the evidence reviewed above shows that Comcast selectively targeted and terminated the upload connections of its customers’ peer-to-peer applications and that this conduct significantly impeded consumers’ ability to access the content and use the applications of their choice. These facts are the relevant ones here, and we thus find Comcast’s verbal gymnastics both unpersuasive and beside the point.

…

54. Remedy.¬†‚Äî We finally turn to the issue of what action the Commission should take in this adjudicatory proceeding. Section 4(i) of the Act authorizes us to tailor a remedy to ‚Äúbest meet the particular factual situation before [us].” Our overriding aim here is to end Comcast‚Äôs use of unreasonable network management practices, and our remedy sends the unmistakable message that Comcast‚Äôs conduct must stop. We note that Comcast has committed in this proceeding to end such practices by the end of this year and instead to institute a protocol-agnostic network management technique. We also recognize the need for a reasonable transition period. In light of Comcast‚Äôs past conduct, however, we believe that the Commission must take action to ensure that Comcast lives up to its promise and will therefore institute a remedy consistent with President Reagan‚Äôs famous maxim ‚Äútrust but verify.‚Äù Specifically, in order to allow the Commission to monitor Comcast‚Äôs compliance with its pledge, the company must within 30 days of the release of this Order: (1)¬†disclose to the Commission the precise contours of the network management practices at issue here, including what equipment has been utilized, when it began to be employed, when and under what circumstances it has been used, how it has been configured, what protocols have been affected, and where it has been deployed; (2)¬†submit a compliance plan to the Commission with interim benchmarks that describes how it intends to transition from discriminatory to nondiscriminatory network management practices by the end of the year; and (3)¬†disclose to the Commission and the public the details of the network management practices that it intends to deploy following the termination of its current practices, including the thresholds that will trigger any limits on customers‚Äô access to bandwidth. These disclosures will provide the Commission with the information necessary to ensure that Comcast lives up to the commitment it has made in this proceeding.

Those Chinese Gymnasts, Exposed Again

Wednesday, August 20th, 2008 by Harry Lewis

As previously reported by the New York Times and noted in this blog (The Google Cache Strikes Again), two of the medal-winning Chinese female gymnasts are only 14 years old, according to rosters posted on Chinese web sites at the time of earlier competitions. (They have since been furnished with passports showing them now to be the minimum Olympic eligibility age of 16.) The NYT found a copy of the roster cached at Google (see pp. 124-126 of Blown to Bits for an explanation of how this works).

Now blogger Stryde Hax has found traces of incriminating rosters at the Chinese search engine Baidu — the one controlled by Chinese authorities. Links to the two cached copies are here and here — though I don’t expect they will stay visible for long, now that they are being publicized. You need to read Chinese to pick out the gymnasts’ names.

As we say in the book, search is power. And bits don’t go away.

The whole concept of truth is being shaken by developments like this. Will the IOC be able to continue to accept the word of Chinese authorities that those new passports have the girls’ real birthdates and those old records are wrong for some reason?

Free the White Spaces

Wednesday, August 20th, 2008 by Harry Lewis

We’ve devoted a lot of attention on this blog to Net Neutrality — the principle that Internet Service Providers should, like telephone companies, be barred from picking and choosing what service to provide to whom on the basis of the content of the information being delivered. There is another important information policy issue at stake now, and there is an opportunity for members of the public to weigh in on it directly.

“White space” is a part of the radio spectrum not being used by any broadcaster or other party licensed by the government to use it. As we explain in Chapter 8 of Blown to Bits — it’s really the main lesson of that chapter — the government “owns” the entire spectrum and historically has given exclusive licenses to the choicest parts of it to broadcast radio and television stations. Some years ago, a few white spaces were made available for unlicensed use — over the objections of the incumbent broadcasters, who raised alarms about the risk of interference with their broadcasts but, not coincidentally, had nothing to gain from allowing any competing uses of the spectrum. From that small deregulation, the now-ubiquitous wireless Internet devices emerged.

With the switchover to digital television, vastly greater portions of the spectrum are being opened up for possible reassignment to unlicensed uses. Once again, the broadcast industry is mongering fear about degraded television reception. Public interest groups — and certain private companies, Google in particular — are strongly lobbying for deregulation of these white spaces.

You can get a good sense of the issues from reading the last chapter of Blown to Bits. We urge you to support the move toward freeing up the white spaces by signing the (click on it) Free the Airwaves petition. Every vote counts!

MIT Students are Free to Talk …

Tuesday, August 19th, 2008 by Harry Lewis

… but they still face trial, as things stand.

Judge George O’Toole, Jr., not the judge who imposed the gag order on the MIT students who intended to present their research about security problems of the MBTA’s fare system, has allowed that order to expire (CNET story here). The judge did not rule on First Amendment Grounds. He simply decided (correctly) that one of the legal conditions justifying the imposition of the TRO had not been met. To wit: He doubted that the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, which the students were charged of violating, actually applied to the oral and written communication of research results between human beings. (The law actually governs sending codes to a computer for fraudulent reasons.) The MBTA also failed to show that the students had actually cost it any money.

The MBTA is thinking about what to do. As we argued earlier, they should tend to their business and stop trying to criminalize the messenger.

“Opting-In” to Being Tracked

Monday, August 18th, 2008 by Harry Lewis

NebuAd, as we discussed earlier, extracts information from the individual data packets reaching you to help target advertising to you that will be relevant to your interests. Depending on how you look at it, this deep packet inspection is either a frightening invasion of your privacy — many people are not happy to think that anyone is keeping track of what web sites they are visiting — or a service that will benefit everyone, Internet users by not showering them with ads they don’t want to see, and ISPs by helping them make more money from advertisers (some of which, they argue, would be used to improve their services).

The subject has come up in Congressional hearings, where Rep. Ed Markey is talking about a federal Internet privacy law. Part of Markey’s proposal would be a requirement that customers opt-in to such privacy-infringing practices. Not needed, argues Cable One, which has already deployed this technology on a trial basis. As reported by Multichannel News, the company explains,¬†‚ÄúCable One customers opted in to our monitoring of their Internet usage and content consistent with this third-party test when they agreed to our AUP.” That is, the fine print in one of those endless “I agree” documents you have to click on in order to get Internet service implied that the company was free to collect such tracking information, and customers should have nothing to complain about.

No doubt we all click on those forms too quickly. But if there are only one or two choices of Internet Service Provider in your neck of the woods — and almost every neck of the woods is exactly like that — what good would it do to fully understand the implications of the fine print? In the absence of competition, the communications companies have much freer rein. They are inviting federal regulation by such see-no-evil pretenses.

The Paradox of Better Communication Technology

Monday, August 18th, 2008 by Harry Lewis

Off at my summer home on a mountain lake, I am trying to read about anything but bits. So I’ve read two good books — Susan Jacoby’s Freethinkers and Jules Tygiel’s Past Time. A history of secularism in America and a history of baseball. Unaccountably, each has a paragraph about the social consequences of improvements in communication technology. And the two paragraphs make closely related points. And the same issues are with us today, and relevant to the debates about whether the Internet can be a democratizing technology, what influence private carriers have over public understanding of the truth, and whether the unlimited availability of information will mean that we will in the end become more isolated through our ability to pick and choose the reality we wish to believe.

Jacoby discusses the influence of early radio on the secularism movement.

The farmers who rode fifty miles across the prairie to hear [famous agnostic orator Robert] Ingersoll in the 1890s were likely to be found in their own living rooms, listening to their own radios, in the 1920s — and radio sponsors did not spend their money to ¬†promote attacks on the God of the Bible. Freethought ideals did survive the disappearance of the freethought movement, but — unlike religious evangelism — they were ill suited, because of their emphasis on facts rather than emotions, to the new mass communications media. (p. 263)

Tygiel talks about how radio spelled the end of public scoreboards in cities, where crowds used to gather to see the telegraphed play-by-play of baseball games posted for public view.

The radio had, in a very important sense, democratized major league baseball, transmitting a more intimate sense of being at the game to millions who could never attend. Yet the process had become more familial or individualistic, replacing the communal experience with a more isolated one. Radio made baseball, more than ever, a national sport, but in a context far removed from earlier meanings of that term. (p. 73)

One of the big points of our book is that the digital explosion is not inevitably either good or bad. More capacity to communicate information does not automatically lead to greater enlightenment and greater democratic empowerment. The future depends on who has the power to control the communication media and how they use it. It’s important for us all to realize that nothing is inevitable — we need to understand, and to watch, what may seem to be struggles over obscure technical points, because the way the future will look may depend on choices being made today.

The Anti-Net-Neutrality Forces Stoop Low

Sunday, August 17th, 2008 by Harry Lewis

The FCC held hearings at Harvard last spring in which Comcast was challenged on its practice of manipulating the data stream reaching consumers — a bald violation of network neutrality, or, depending on your point of view, a reasonable business plan by a private enterprise. Some alarms were raised about Comcast’s bona fides when it turned out they had paid people who had no interest in the hearings to fill the classroom. This is a huge issue — McCain and Obama both mention neutrality specifically in their technology policies. (Obama is for it, McCain opposed.)

A week after the Cambridge FCC hearings, a peculiar opinion piece appeared in the Harvard Crimson. It was written by Mel King, a long-time Boston community activist and sometime mayoral candidate. The piece called the FCC hearings a “dog and pony show” and adopted a strong anti-net-neutrality posture.

I didn’t know King cared so deeply.

Turns out he does have a history of caring about the issue. He had previously come out IN FAVOR of net neutrality, which would be the politically natural position for him, given his previous history of social activism. But CNET’s Declan McCullagh figured out that he now works for the “Law Media Group,” which represents corporate interests on media issues. As LMG’s web site explains, “LMG uses a ‘political campaign model’ that integrates expertise in the subject matter, message development, aggressive, research-driven paid and earned media, on-the-ground coalition building, preparation of analytical and other policy papers, and a host of next-generation services such as viral and online campaigns.¬†¬†Our goal is to dominate the media environment on behalf of the client.”

“When asked about the details of the op-ed,” McCullagh writes, “King replied: ‘You can talk to Kevin Parker, he’s at the LawMedia Institute.’ Parker is¬†listed on the Naymz networking site as a ‘senior advisor’ to LMG.”

King signs his Crimson piece by noting only that he used to teach at MIT. And oh yes — whoever ghostwrote King’s piece seems to have done the same for Jesse Jackson, as several of the sentences in King’s piece are virtually identical to sentences appearing elsewhere over Jackson’s signature.

Comcast and its brethren must be worried, if they are prepared to stoop to this level to get public voices behind their leave-us-alone campaign. The question is, have Americans gotten so cynical about the way arguments get made that even the Harvard Crimson will shrug its shoulders about this level of misrepresentation?