The Philosophy of Nate The Bots Have Arrived <p>It’s hard to know exactly who, or what, an online persona actually is. We’re relatively sure that the people we know in real life are who they claim to be online (though their online life is likely nicer than their real one), but as for anyone else, it’s anyone’s guess. The fact that some larger social media sites, Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram in particular, are also home to the persona of brands further blurs the line of what’s real and what’s not. Then, there are the bots.</p> <p>Social media bots come in a variety of flavors. At their simplest, they’re helpful and provide things like unit conversions, periodic market prices, or other non-conversational information. At their more complex, they stand in for brands or people, tweeting about current news and even trying to talk to other users. With the more complex bots, it can be hard, if not impossible, to tell a bot from a real person. Due to that difficulty and the ability to manipulate online conversation by influencing trending topics (which is possible to do with enough bots), we’re entering a danger zone of manufactured conversation and artificially influenced views online.</p> <p>It’s possible to buy access to bots and there is suspicion that some brands do that to inflate their social media influence. Not only that, but there’s an entire online industry devoted to fake or bot accounts that follow, “like”, and comment on content to boost its social media presence. A Forbes contributor <a href="">describes the effect as “Bot Rot.”</a> We don’t reliably know how many social media users are real, though some platforms are more effected than others. In summer 2017, a security researcher published a study indicating that <a href="">millions of Instagram users are actually bots</a>. Twitter has <a href="">shut down millions of bot accounts</a> over the past year and it’s suspected that <a href="">at least half of Trump’s followers are bots</a>.</p> <p>The bot problem has implications for propaganda as bots have gotten more complex and bigger actors have learned to use them. In 2011, the <a href="">United States Central Command awarded a contract</a> for an “online persona management service” to a firm in California which included fake online profiles—effectively a bot army—so we know that even state actors have taken an interest.</p> <p>While it may seem a bit far-fetched that bot armies could be manipulating online conversation, it appears that it’s already happening and in alarming ways. In 2015, <a href="">over 75,000 online bots</a> were used to fight protests and critics of the Mexican government. Those bots appeared online in 2012 and were used to spam hashtags being used to document human rights abuses, among other things. Recently, an army of bots that spread fake news on a wide scale was discovered to have been <a href="">operating during the 2016 election</a> (and there are now online tools to see if you interacted with any). Just this year, in 2018, <a href="">it was reported</a> that bot armies were being used to beat down dissent against the Saudi Arabian government.</p> <p>Although it’s hard to believe that we could be influenced by armies of bots, we may be more impressionable than we think - and it’s really inexpensive to buy a bot army. The Daily Beast, a news outlet, <a href="">bought access</a> to a Russian bot army of 1,000 accounts for just $45 and found they could buy software to control it for $250. Bot armies are advertised for anywhere from the $45 The Daily Beast spent, to more for accounts that have existed longer or otherwise seem to be more legitimate. It takes far less than that to influence the conversation. <a href="">MIT found</a> that a single upvote on a story improves the response to it by 25% and an early downvote can make it be seen as a bad article. Facebook even <a href="">experimented with manipulating</a> its user’s moods by changing what words were seen in their feeds.</p> <p>Bots are not all bad. Armies of bots patrol Wikipedia, Reddit, and other sites, blocking malicious edits, moderating hate speech, and answering questions. But, armies of bots are also working to influence what we talk about and what we see online by poisoning hashtags, discussing fake news amongst themselves, and by voting and commenting on content. For the untrained eye, it can be very hard to tell what’s real.</p> Wed, 14 Feb 2018 00:00:00 -0500 The Unraveling Social Ecosystem <p>Social media promises to connect people across distances big and small, no matter where people are physically located. Social networks do provide a platform for that, but only if you become a member of the network that connects the people you want to connect with. If you use Facebook, while a friend uses Twitter, that’s a no-go unless you both use the opposing platform or look at things without interacting with them. It’s worse when it comes to interest groups that operate primarily on a particular social network. Without using the platform, it’s impossible to keep up with and to participate with the group. Many social platforms aren’t as open as they pretend to be, and limit how much you can see (if anything at all) and stop you from interacting until you sign up.</p> <p>Physical communities have been using online platforms to connect for a long time. Technologies such as email have provided open ways for anyone to be involved before the rise of social networks. The move to social media is logical because dedicated social networks provide more features and more powerful community building platforms. Unfortunately, as social networks have developed into their own fairly closed ecosystems, communities <a href="">have been closed off</a> from people who choose not to be part of those social networks. Some communities rely on social media so much that their social media presence is the only place they exist online. Membership rosters, events, and even organization documents might be inside a closed ecosystem.</p> <p>Although social networks such as Facebook like to remind us that “Your memories are important to us,” we don’t know how committed they actually are to that idea. On Facebook, communities have disappeared due to disgruntled users or political groups <a href="">abusing the “Report Abuse” button</a> or <a href="">for comments that weren’t their fault</a>. Facebook also makes changes to their news feed algorithm that make posts from fan pages and groups appear more or less often based on industry secrets. Just in the past month, <a href="">Facebook announced</a> they would roll out a news feed change that would change what shows up in news feeds, with a focus on friends more than groups and pages.</p> <p>Intentionally or not, this has some interesting effects. It gives the social network site the ability to control how real-world communities interact and what they see of each other by changing how often their posts appear—which is why a requirement of neutrality for online services is so important. It also forces more people to join the network to participate in even local communities, or to choose to be excluded if they don’t want to use the social network for any reason. Worse, it walls off information from the rest of the online ecosystem.</p> <p>The effect of walling off information extends beyond the network itself. News networks, local organizations, political figures, and all manner of other people and things encourage people to talk to them via social media. This can mean that it’s difficult to impossible to be heard by your local community, despite physically existing as part of it, if you’re a member of the wrong social networks. Or, maybe more interestingly, the section of your local community you can experience online isn’t one that matches your values. Demographics <a href="">differ a bit</a> between different social networks.</p> <p>Social media sites are generally free to run their service as they want to because other than outcry from their users and advertisers, there aren’t many hard rules they need to follow. We’re seeing social media giants—some of the most successful services online—break away from the principles of openness and choice that the Internet should provide. While this is a fairly recent issue, it only stands to get worse as services close themselves off more and wall off more information from the rest of the Internet. Should they develop political motives, go offline, or change their target audience, there is a lot of content and a lot of communities that could disappear from the Internet.</p> Sun, 04 Feb 2018 00:00:00 -0500 Your Internet Might Be Different From Mine <p>When we get online, we may not see the same Internet as others. All of us are living in what’s referred to as the “filter bubble,” or a manufactured version of reality produced by algorithms tailoring content to our interests. The effect produced is an echo chamber that reflects the beliefs social media and search engines think we hold. We may feel more connected and educated, even though the opposite is true.</p> <p>The online world has quietly evolved from one of openness and community to one divided by algorithms and artificial intelligence. Unfortunately, human nature makes <a href="">challenging our beliefs uncomfortable</a> so we haven’t noticed as our feeds changed to reflect us. Our social media is comfortable but <a href="">more divisive than we could have ever imagined</a>. It’s relatively rare for our feeds to show us opposing views, and our own behavior is a disincentive for sites to show opposing views to us because we’re less likely to click on them.</p> <p>The divisive nature of the filter bubble is most obvious when it comes to politics, especially with the 2016 election. A post titled “Why I’m Voting for Donald Trump” was shared over 1.5 million times <a href="">[infographic]</a> on Facebook. Another, titled “There are five living U.S. presidents. None of them support Donald Trump” was shared 1.7 million times <a href="">[infographic]</a>. Depending on which way Facebook thinks you lean politically, you likely only saw one or the other and only saw content related to the one you saw. This is why the fact that Hillary Clinton won the popular vote substantially and that Donald Trump became president were so shocking to opposing side. It’s also why some people <a href="">continue to believe</a> that Trump won the popular vote, though he didn’t.</p> <p>The degree to which sites change for different people varies. Facebook and other social media tend to be the most drastic, while search results on Google <a href="">tend to be the least effected</a> (though there are execptions). Personalization is no secret; Facebook <a href="">talks about it in their help center</a> and Google offers settings for <a href=";hl=en">news</a> and <a href="">ad</a> targeting. What we don’t know is everything that’s hidden, or why, as most sites keep their algorithms secret.</p> <p>The effect is interesting because it doesn’t only affect us as individuals (and where it does, the effects may not be as major, yet, <a href="">as we might think</a>). Pariser, the author of a study of filter bubbles, <a href="">points out</a> that some of the people most reliant on social media are journalists, and their own filter bubbles may be influencing what they write about.</p> <p>The fact is, we don’t fully understand the effect that social media and the filter bubble have now, and we don’t know how it will evolve in the future. Facebook, Google, and other sites could take steps to reduce algorithmic bias and to help us break out of our filter bubbles, but for now they don’t have much reason to. Until then, our filter bubble is ours to break out of because we know <a href="">we’re not always seeing both sides</a>.</p> Thu, 11 Jan 2018 00:00:00 -0500 We're Censoring Our Own Reality <p>The Internet is a place where freedom of speech reigns; except where it doesn’t. While everyone is free to share their thoughts, in whatever form they take, most sites impose limits on what can be shared. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing; unlawful or hateful content don’t share a platform with lawful free speech. Sites usually explain what’s acceptable to share in their Terms of Service or equivalent document normally written in more pages of legal language than any normal person would ever care to read. These limits don’t stop everything and sites rely on users to report unacceptable content, which invites human moderation or prompts the site to automatically take things down.</p> <p>Content moderation invites problems as much as it solves others. Algorithms that try to moderate content automatically are not perfect. YouTube, for example, has been <a href="">combating videos that are built to make it through their filters</a> for kid-friendly videos, but that have disturbing storylines or content that isn’t suitable for kids. When they do work correctly, algorithms aren’t necessarily unbiased; the software itself has no bias and is doing what it’s told to do, but the <a href="">people who develop the algorithms might be</a>. It’s not always intentional, either. Some things are not easy to measure directly, but might be measured indirectly; such as using a family history of crime to decide how likely it is that an individual would be to commit a crime in the future.</p> <p>We don’t really know how these algorithms decide what content is acceptable and what isn’t. They are, for the most part, trade secrets to the companies that use them. However, no matter how biased, manipulatable, or downright wrong they can be, they’re applied on a massive scale. Facebook, YouTube, and other services rely on these algorithms to decide what posts stay up and what gets shown in searches.</p> <p>However, algorithms are not the only moderation tool online. They miss things, as we know from YouTube’s ongoing battle. To compensate, sites also <a href="">rely on teams of humans</a> to check suspect posts or on their community of users to report posts. Reddit, for example, allows users to report posts to the moderators of communities and to Reddit itself, as well as to give negative feedback to content. With enough negative feedback, posts can effectively disappear from the site. This causes communities and even entire sites to develop a bias towards the beliefs of the majority of their users, contributing to the filter bubble effect. The algorithms that build individualized news feeds learn from this behavior as well.</p> <p>Content moderation, both algorithm and user-driven, can push anything offline from content to entire communities. Brigades of users have managed to get <a href="">Facebook groups and pages taken down</a> because they disagreed with them. This type of user-driven moderation is also taking down content uploaded from people trying to expose atrocities from places such as Aleppo. While this type of content can be gory and may be inappropriate for some users, dropping it from a site entirely may be making <a href="">evidence of war crimes disappear</a>. YouTube rolled out changes recently that took down over 900 channels that were documenting the civil war in Syria. Facebook has been removing images documenting atrocities committed by the Myanmar government as of September.</p> <p>With social networks removing content that users or algorithms find distasteful, we’re censoring the very networks that promise openness and global connection. While we worry—correctly—about ISPs and governments hiding content—we’re also doing it to ourselves. Worse, there’s little to no oversight to stop us, or the social networks we’re contributing to, from taking down things that are important.</p> Fri, 22 Dec 2017 00:00:00 -0500 The Net Neutrality Fight is not Over <p>Today, December 14th, the FCC passed the Restoring Internet Freedom proposal which <em>repeals</em> net neutrality rules in a 3-2 vote, to nobody’s great surprise. While the result is disappointing, this is not where net neutrality ends! We need to make a lot of noise and support organizations that are fighting on our behalf. The University of Maryland Program for Public Consultation and Voice of the People reports that <a href="">83% of Americans were against the repeal</a>. Popular opinion is on our side.</p> <p>Where we go from here is uncertain but it’s not over. Fights for net neutrality are already gearing up and lawsuits are being filed. The New York Attorney General announced he will sue the FCC, and other organizations will likely follow suit.</p> <h2 id="heres-how-you-can-help">Here’s how you can help</h2> <p>Visit <a href=""></a>. They’re still in the fight, and they’re now gathering support for Congress to overrule the FCC.</p> <p>Consider donating to the ACLU, EFF, FreePress, and other pro net neutrality organizations.</p> <p>Write to your government reps about net neutrality (this site helps! <a href=""></a>)—even if they’re on your side. Use ResistBot (text 50409) to fax them. Make sure to make an informed vote in your next election. Don’t forget about your local officials!</p> <p>If you have a municipal network, independent ISP, or mesh network in your community (or infrastructure that could support one of those), help fight for it in your community and get involved if possible.</p> <p>Make noise! Don’t stop talking about net neutrality online and off. Join protests if there’s one local to you. The worst thing we can do now is be quiet. We need to make sure that nobody forgets and our elected officials can’t ignore us.</p> <p><strong>Do it for the Internet we know and love. Do it for a fair, neutral, and open Internet.</strong></p> <p><em>Originally posted at <a href=""></a>. Minor edits have been made. More net neutrality resources are available at <a href=""></a>.</em></p> Thu, 14 Dec 2017 00:00:00 -0500 We Can't Tell When the Internet is Lying <p>We’ve long been told that we can’t trust everything on the Internet. At one point, that was a primary lesson taught to people new to the Internet. It turns out that we’re not very good at figuring out what online is true. In an effort to show more ads (and to keep people around longer) sites have made it harder to tell when something is true versus an ad. Many people have trouble telling when an image has been manipulated. With the rise of fake news, more people are confused or doubting real news, or simply care less about the truth as long as what the Internet claims matches their beliefs. Even the people we expect to be the most Internet-savvy are not good at figuring out what to trust in some cases.</p> <p>In a study of 700 men and women, only about 60% of participants were able to tell when a picture had been manipulated, which is only slightly better than guessing at random. Of the ones who were able to identify manipulated images, less than half could tell what in the image had been modified. That’s when people are looking for problems - in another study, <a href="">most high school students took photos at face value</a> without verifying them, even re-sharing them. This has real-world implications for how well informed we are. In several terrorist attacks, photos of the alleged terrorist have circulated, even driving sites such as Reddit to attempt their own community investigations. In several cases, the images circulated <a href="">were fake or completely unrelated to the attack</a>. In one case, the same image was circulated for two different terrorist attacks. More recently, a doctored image of Trump helping the rescue efforts in Texas after hurricane Harvey <a href="">was shared over 18,000 times</a> - the image had been edited from a 2008 photo from Iowa.</p> <p>We’re not much better when it comes to news and online advertisers are taking advantage of that. Sites run ads that pose as articles, something called Native Advertising. Most people <a href="">aren’t able to tell native advertisements from real articles</a>, according to a 2015 study even when they are marked as ads. However, most people feel that native ads hurt the credibility of the site that ran them, if they notice them in the first place. Similar statistics extend to people who have grown up with the Internet in their lives - middle schoolers <a href="">aren’t able to tell native ads from articles either</a>, and high schoolers couldn’t <a href="">tell a real news source from a fake one</a>.</p> <p>Fake news makes the effects worse in a way, by creating confusion about what online is true. People are aware that they should be cautious in what they trust but fake news and opinion pieces passing as news <a href="">leaves people doubting facts</a>. Unfortunately, this is in addition to the number of people who are willing to believe anything they read without verifying it. Somewhat worse, is that with more divided politics, people are willing to accept as fact things that may not be true, but are disliked or bad news for the opposing political opinion - <a href="">even if they are untrue</a>.</p> <p>All of this has real-world consequences, with incidents like the <a href="">“Pizzagate” shooter</a> who fired an assault rifle in a D.C. pizzeria in response to a Hillary Clinton conspiracy theory. The inability to identify fake images can impact court cases, which often use images as evidence. Without easy access to a neutral Internet, it’s much easier to get caught in an echo chamber of false posts and no way to know. Even some of the most trustworthy of sites run native ads (<a href="">including sites such as Forbes and The New York Times</a>), and sites assumed to be trustworthy have been fooled by fake news (<a href="">including Google</a>). With a neutral Internet, we can catch and correct, but with an Internet curated by ISPs or an online world controlled by large players in cloud services it’s much harder if not impossible to do so.</p> Tue, 07 Nov 2017 00:00:00 -0500 Who Owns Your Thoughts? <p>Targeted advertising and targeted news feeds are commonplace online. Services try to tailor what they show to keep you interested so you’ll spend more time on their site, and hopefully, click more ads. Using the information from how you react to what they show you, they build a profile of your interests to better tailor what they show you. Unfortunately, those services don’t have an interest in making sure you see a neutral view of the world or even that you see every post from the people or brands you follow. They’re interested in providing results that are relevant to you, whether or not they’re always correct, so they can gather more information and continue selling advertisements.</p> <p>Interest targeting takes a lot of different forms online. The most obvious is online advertising, which comes as no surprise to people accustomed to the Internet showing them ads for things they searched for recently. Much of the online economy and free-to-use services rely on this to fund websites. Some services sell ads directly, while others sell the targeting information itself. The same data is used by services to learn your tastes so they can suggest events, local restaurants, and other things to you. Data gathering for better targeting is expanding as tracking <a href="">moves towards mobile devices</a> that people carry with them, providing location and habit information beyond what can be tracked with a home computer.</p> <p>Targeting has made its way past ads and suggestions and into <a href="">news feeds</a> and to a degree <a href="">search results</a>. Services curate what they show based on what they think you’re interested in. The fact that they do this is likely unsurprising, but the degree to which they do it is much larger than is immediately apparent. Social media is similar, <a href="">hiding certain posts</a> from the things and people you follow if the site thinks you’re not interested. The resulting feeds can make it difficult to get honest information if the facts don’t match what a site thinks you believe. Worse, it can lead to an effect known as the <a href="">Filter Bubble</a> where sites confirm what they think you think, no matter if it’s grounded in any sort of reality or not. The sites you use may be choosing what you see without you realizing it.</p> <p>With some effort, it’s possible to escape your bubble. However, targeting has a deeper effect than trapping you in your own online reality. Targeted advertising, aside from its intended effects of convincing you to support or buy from a particular brand, can <a href="">manipulate your thinking</a> if you think it’s targeted. In a study, people shown an ad for something eco-friendly or sophisticated rated themselves as more eco-friendly or sophisticated, respectively, if they thought the ad was targeted to them. The caveat was that the targeting had to be at least slightly accurate to be effective, but it showed that ads have an effect even if we know—or at least suspect—that they’re targeted to us.</p> <p>By targeting users, or by pretending to target users, it’s possible to encourage a service or view over another. There are no neutrality regulations for online services so a site could push an agenda by showing only a certain type of ad. Sites that provide a tailored feed—including Google and Facebook—<a href="">keep their algorithms secret</a> so there’s no real way to know if they’re actively hiding something from you. This is dangerous for the future of democracy as more people rely on the Internet for news and information. The tailoring that tech giants market as an improvement to our online lives may actually be making it harder to be informed, especially since the tech <a href="">sometimes gets things wrong</a>.</p> Mon, 30 Oct 2017 00:00:00 -0400 Beyond Network Neutrality <p>Net neutrality is immensely important to keeping the Internet open for every voice and for ensuring that no ISP can curate what information its customers have access to. However, it’s not the only neutrality fight important to keeping the Internet alive. While net neutrality requires ISPs to provide access to the entire Internet and deliver every site equally, there are few neutrality requirements for online services themselves. As the world moves online and hosting services and social media become critical platforms for independent voices, <a href="">there is no guarantee</a> that those platforms will be neutral. With allegations around foreign interference via online platforms in the 2016 election and actions various cloud providers have occasionally taken to silence sites, the discussion of how online services can curate what their users see is building.</p> <p>Hosting and social media platforms have a lot of editorial power when it comes to what’s on their platforms. Services like Amazon Web Services (AWS), Microsoft Azure, Cloudflare, and others power large websites of all sorts of backgrounds. <a href="">A recent AWS outage</a> showed just how much of an impact AWS alone has on the Internet by bringing a huge number of sites down, including Netflix. Cloudflare, a different kind of service which promises certain security protections and performance improvements rather than hosting, provides services to <a href="">nearly 4.3 million websites</a>. All of these services have the ability to take entire services offline accidentally if they have an outage or intentionally if they decide to no longer do business with them.</p> <p>This has happened already; <a href="">Cloudflare dropped a neo-nazi website</a> that relied on its services this year (followed by the site being forced to move its domain registration out of the U.S. and eventually being pushed off the Internet entirely). Cloudflare’s CEO later suggested that the move was perhaps unwise, but that it was well within the power of companies to take such actions. It’s easy to side with Cloudflare and indeed, many celebrated Cloudflare’s actions which snowballed into the site going offline. However, the action raises a tough question of what powers online services should have. While taking away a platform for hate speech may generally be accepted, whether online platforms should be able to make that determination and whether they should have the power to silence something is up for discussion. Cloudflare’s CEO voiced his own views on the issue which boil down to saying web companies shouldn’t do what Cloudflare did, but that he still supported the action.</p> <p>The issue isn’t widespread as far as we know, but we see other censorship and targeting on a wide scale in other ways online. Interest targeting creates curated online worlds that vary from person to person. This is a widespread practice to keep users coming back and to improve the click rate of ads. Interest targeting isn’t necessarily malicious in intent as it’s primarily a side effect of algorithms designed to increase revenue. However, algorithms are not infallible. Even the most trusted of sites have had their services surface and promote entirely fake information, with <a href="">Google promoting conspiracy theories</a> and Facebook <a href="">allegedly influencing such stories</a> as they appear in its trending topics feature, where moderators allegedly suppressed conservative stories.</p> <p>Even if ISPs are required to be neutral carriers of data, curation of content by online services poses a problem. If the whole Internet forces something offline, it doesn’t matter how neutral your ISP is. In some ways, it’s more insidious because of how invisible and defensible it can be. GoDaddy, for example, dropped the aforementioned neo-nazi site explaining that the site was <a href="">violating their terms of service</a>, followed by Google with the same explanation. It takes very little to make a site disappear - simply dropping it to the second or third page of search results hurts a site tremendously, as 90% of people using Google <a href="">don’t venture past the first page</a>. If the right online services take issue with you, your voice can disappear and there’s not much you can do about it, if you even know what’s happening.</p> Mon, 16 Oct 2017 00:00:00 -0400 What does "metadata" actually mean? <p>One of the buzzwords around online surveillance and leaked NSA data collection programs has been the word “metadata.” The government doesn’t collect content of communication, just the “metadata” we’ve been assured, which seems to imply that collecting only metadata—though at times, far more than just metadata has been collected—is acceptable and respects our privacy. Unfortunately, “metadata” is a broad term and allows for a large amount of data collection. Not only that, but collecting metadata <a href="">is not subject</a> to regulations as stringent as those requiring warrants for wiretapping.</p> <p>The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines “metadata” as “<a href="">data about other data</a>.” Everything stored digitally has some sort of metadata associated with it, such as where it lives on a computer, who created it, who owns it, or where it came from. The <a href="">JPEG image format</a>, which is widely used by cameras and smartphones, includes the date and time a photo was taken, its location (as GPS coordinates, if available), the camera make and model that took it, and has support for adding arbitrary notes to a file. Often, metadata is almost completely invisible unless you’re specifically looking for it. Other times, it’s a core part of making things work. The “To” and “From” fields in an email <a href="">fall under the category of metadata</a> because they are data about the content—that is, where it’s intended to go and where it came from.</p> <p>When it comes to being invisible or keeping things private, metadata can be downright dangerous. It has helped law enforcement track files <a href=";pg=PA417#v=onepage&amp;q&amp;f=false">to specific individuals</a> who were breaking the law, such as in the case of Dennis Rader. In the case of Dennis Rader, that data came from a deleted Microsoft Office file which contained information that allowed police to determine who Rader was. Image sharing sites, which can seem fairly innocuous, have had problems around revealing the location and camera data embedded in photos. Imgur, a popular site for sharing images of all kinds, <a href="">attempts to strip that data</a> when pictures are uploaded as a measure to improve user privacy. The data can be used as a means of figuring out a photographer’s secrets to taking great photos, or can reveal where a person lives—including their home address—to strangers online. Exif data, which is the image metadata stored in JPEGs, <a href="">has been specifically listed</a> as one type of metadata collected by the NSA XKeyscore program.</p> <p>In addition to the information explicitly collected, metadata collected over time can reveal a lot about the context of someone’s activities. With a lot of data points, modeling a person’s behavior is possible. With information about the cell tower a person made a call from and the people they talked to, it might be possible to figure out <a href="">what someone was doing</a> especially with a lot of other data points to compare against. Over a number of years, call records can build a picture of who you talk to, who you’re close to, and when and where you talk to people. Theoretically, U.S. law protects U.S. citizens and limits how much information can be gathered without a warrant. However, a person’s network can include someone of interest to the NSA and it’s <a href="">difficult to determine</a> whether someone is a U.S. citizen based on their metadata. Without specific information about someone, it’s assumed that they’re a non-U.S. person and can be monitored freely. That’s not including, of course, the amount of data <a href="">collected domestically by accident</a>.</p> <p>With smartphones, we create more metadata than ever before with information tagged on images, emails, phone calls, and web browsing habits (because, yes, <a href="">the address of a website is metadata</a>). We create so much metadata, that a lack of it could be seen as suspicious. Even with nothing to hide, our privacy is at stake. We don’t know for sure how much data is collected, how it’s used, or how it’s secured. We might be sharing things we’re not even aware of and we may not know who is listening because in the past the government <a href="">appears to have simply ignored</a> data sharing rules, hacking and data leaks aside.</p> Mon, 04 Sep 2017 00:00:00 -0400 Opposing net neutrality threatens the viability of open source communities <p>The net neutrality discussion is, at its core, about free speech on the internet. Free speech online is a driving force for the online community; an average of <a href="">1.32 billion people each day share their voices on Facebook alone</a> (as of June 2017). It’s possible to be heard as well, with more than half of Americans using the internet as their primary source of information. Unfortunately, internet service providers (ISPs) want their own say in how free speech actually is online, with some <a href="">claiming their own rights to free speech</a> when it comes to what people can access.</p> <p>ISPs are serious about their free speech claims when it comes to net neutrality. Several ISPs and telecom associations have filed briefs with the U.S. Court of Appeals arguing that net neutrality prevents them from favoring their own services in order to send their own message. ISPs aren’t wrong in that part of their brief, however, because net neutrality does require ISPs to deliver all websites the same way, without any sort of paid prioritization or throttling.</p> <p>The idea of a telecom exerting editorial control over what parts of the internet can be accessed is deeply concerning. ISPs are not only a gateway to information, but many of them happen to own their own outlets which provide information.</p> <p>Violating net neutrality gives ISPs control over who can be heard, what can be accessed, and (potentially) what opinions can be held, and it isn’t necessarily obvious when they do. Research from Microsoft suggests that <a href="">slowing down a website by just 250 milliseconds</a> (the blink of an eye) makes users more likely to use a competing service, even though the speed difference is too small for humans to consciously notice.</p> <h3 id="open-source-intersection">Open source intersection</h3> <p>Such things could change the open source landscape drastically. Although open source software powers much of the modern world, <a href="">with 78% of companies running open source software</a> in 2015, that doesn’t mean projects won’t feel the effects of a more restricted internet. While larger organizations such as the Apache Foundation or Mozilla might fare okay in a world without net neutrality, smaller projects could be drowned out by ISP restrictions.</p> <p>Even those larger open source communities might find themselves becoming niche if they’re overshadowed by larger companies that can afford to sponsor data or exist in faster tiers. This could cause companies or individuals that would be otherwise willing to support free and open source software (FOSS) to choose a proprietary option due to better access.</p> <p>Zero-rating, ISP agreements, and throttling are already making this a possibility, with <a href="">a big-name ISP recently caught throttling Netflix</a>, and Netflix <a href="">making agreements with ISPs</a> to place servers on their networks for better performance. It’s much harder to argue for open source options when they come with an extra toll. This works in the reverse also, by making it harder to make meaningful open source contributions due to worse access, restricted reference materials, and limited data. Lack of competition in the ISP market may mean that, for most, a more FOSS-friendly option doesn’t exist.</p> <p>The good news is that the open source community can support net neutrality and alternate options for accessing the internet. Projects such as Tor, VPN technologies, and proxies make it harder for ISPs to track and restrict internet traffic, although they don’t avoid data caps. Other projects, such as community-developed mesh networks or municipal internet can provide more options for unrestricted access to the internet. Successful municipal networks have been developed in <a href="">at least 500 communities</a> in the United States (as of June 2017), including the often-cited Chattanooga, Tennessee, network. Community-owned mesh networks such as <a href="">PittMesh</a> in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, or the <a href="">Commotion</a> tool could operate on a wide scale with enough participants. Should net neutrality be overturned, these projects may be an essential part of getting online.</p> <p>This isn’t the first time we’ve had a discussion about net neutrality. The breakup of the Bell telephone monopoly was one major net neutrality battle that was fought and won, resulting in Title II and the phone network we’re accustomed to today. Cable TV was a net neutrality battle that was lost, giving us the cable networks—and their ability to drop networks that don’t agree to their terms.</p> <p>With strong net neutrality regulations and alternate options for accessing the web, the internet can stay a place where <a href="">freedom of speech reigns</a>. If we don’t fight for net neutrality now, we’ll see shrinking online communities, fewer choices, and less ability to make ourselves heard.</p> Wed, 26 Jul 2017 00:00:00 -0400 Keep Up with Net Neutrality - Preorder My New Book! <p>July 12, 2017 was the Day of Action for Net Neutrality. Across the Internet, sites showed banners, slowed themselves down, and tried to make it clear what a non neutral Internet might look like. It’s not pretty. A tiered, throttled, and restricted Internet would likely hurt your favorite web services, making them harder to access and more expensive.</p> <p>Net neutrality is one of the most important digital rights battles we’ve had so far. The battle is raging and doesn’t appear to be ready to end soon with the FCC suggesting it will ignore pro net neutrality comments and telecom lobbying kicking into high gear. Net neutrality matters to everyone because it prevents ISPs from picking and choosing what parts of the Internet - and what information - you have access to when you get online. If we lose net neutrality, ISPs will gain a lot of power over our ability to be informed.</p> <p>Net neutrality is so important, that I’m releasing a book about it on August 7, 2017. It details how some ISPs - maybe even yours! - have been working to undermine a neutral Internet and the consequences should they succeed. It’s currently available for preorder as an eBook for a discount until release. Make sure you know the details about net neutrality and that you’re on the right side of this digital rights battle.</p> <p>You can find store links and further details at <a target="_blank" href=""></a>. If you found my series of net neutrality posts informative or enjoyable, you’ll probably like this too. Help spread the word! Knowing is half the battle.</p> <p>If you want to take action in the net neutrality fight yourself, you can find out how you can help save the Internet <a target="_blank" href="">right here</a>.</p> Sat, 15 Jul 2017 00:00:00 -0400 Go Comment on the FCC Net Neutrality Proposal <p>This week, the FCC published its promised proposal to dismantle net neutrality rules. The proposal claims to “restore Internet freedom” by undoing Title II classification. In addition, the proposal asks whether net neutrality rules are necessary to protect the Internet at all. This comes after a court decision that refused to re-hear a challenge to Title II. Rather than focus on the benefits of Title II and net neutrality, as well as the fact that Title II has been found legal, it focuses on dissenting opinions which have in some cases been debunked (or that are generally accepted to be false) in order to explain unproven holes in net neutrality.</p> <p>The FCC head has called net neutrality a mistake, arguing among other things that there is plenty of competition in the broadband Internet market, that net neutrality would harm consumers, and that net neutrality would stifle innovation. Evidence to the contrary for all of those is prevalent. Very few people have more than two home Internet options available, and wireless service is mostly powered by only four networks (other carriers rent space on those networks). Net neutrality brings privacy and transparency requirements which protects ISP customers from their private data being sold and unfair pricing. Online innovation is credited to companies like Google, Netflix, and Facebook - not ISPs, who make up a minority of companies.</p> <p>Considering that the FCC has already ignored the previous round of comments, which were in favor of net neutrality, why is commenting worth the time? The FCC is not a typical legislative organization and is required to gather public feedback on their proposals (though many of them are things the normal person has no interest in). The FCC is required to take this feedback into account when making and voting on proposals - and the feedback is also taken into account when legal challenges to FCC regulations happen. While the commission appears likely to continue to ignore this feedback, there are multiple organizations preparing lawsuits should the FCC finalize their proposal for taking apart net neutrality requirements. In the ensuing legal battles, should Title II be voted down, the public feedback left on the proposal will be taken into account in the case against the FCC.</p> <p>Net neutrality matters to you because it prevents your ISP or wireless carrier from choosing what you can see, what services you can use, and whether you can share your own views. ISPs are powerful companies who could control your online world. Net neutrality may be one of the most important battles of the modern age when it comes to our access to information and our freedom of speech.</p> <p>The battle for net neutrality will not be a short affair - and hasn’t been a short affair. Join the nearly 2.6 million comments already on the proposal. Another vote will be held after the public comment period, so make sure your voice is heard - the Internet depends on it. <a href="">Help keep the Internet open, neutral, and competitive</a>. The FCC has implied that quality, not quantity is what’s most important to them in this round of commenting, so make sure to be precise and explain your views well. If you’re not sure what to write, that link has the option to use a pre-written letter.</p> Wed, 24 May 2017 00:00:00 -0400 The Fight for the Internet <p>In 2002, the FCC <a href="">classified Internet providers under Title I</a>, an “Information Service” classification. This is generally regarded as a win for net neutrality advocates but didn’t go as far as many wanted. Title I classification has been referred to as a “hands off” or “lite” classification in that it recognized that the Internet was an important means of communication but provided minimal regulations around that status. Specifically, Title I allowed the FCC some indirect authority to regulate interstate and international communications, but did not allow regulation of services themselves. Net neutrality advocates considered this to be too little. While the FCC promised that Title I would allow them to enforce net neutrality as needed, Title I by its definition did not allow them to follow up on those promises.</p> <p>ISPs (in particular, Verizon) fought Title I classification and <a href="">rightly won against the FCC in court in late 2013</a>. They argued that by the FCC’s own definition of the classification, the FCC was not permitted to regulate them. Verizon and others could not be fined for Title I violations that did not happen on an interstate or international level. The long-term outcome of the Verizon win was a formal declaration that ISPs would need to be classified under Title II if the FCC wanted to impose the regulations they promised. In 2015, <a href="">they did just that</a>.</p> <p>Title II <a href="">gives the FCC authority to protect ISP customers</a> from “unjust” practices such as discrimination against certain content types, among other things. It also gives the FCC the ability to enact policies that would encourage and expand competition in the Internet provider industry. Both of these are key for protecting net neutrality.</p> <p>While many articles surfaced claiming Title II was the nightmare of ISPs and ISPs themselves fought against it, there was minimal business impact. Verizon executives <a href="">are on record</a> saying that Title II would have no impact on their infrastructure investments or larger business. Sprint even came out in favor of net neutrality regulations, making a departure from other ISPs. To put it loosely, life went on but with a safer Internet. For service providers, it was business as usual - just with a few extra requirements for transparency and regulations around what they could and could not do to traffic on their networks. That’s not to say that telecoms are not continuing to fight against net neutrality.</p> <p>Due to the ongoing fight, net neutrality has never been fully secure. Despite advocates’ best efforts to be heard which in both 2016 and this year have crashed the FCC website, Congress and some members of the FCC remain opposed to net neutrality. While disagreement is a healthy part of a democracy, the public opinion is that the Internet <a href="">should have neutrality protections</a>. In 2016, millions of comments were submitted to the FCC in support of Title II classification. Just this month, the FCC website experienced problems yet again for more than a day due to the volume of comments (the filing period is still open, <a href="">and you can submit your own comments</a>). Despite that, Congress has in the past voted to strip some of the FCC’s regulatory powers and the current FCC itself has laid out a plan to tear apart net neutrality.</p> <p>From a non-legislative side the fight against net neutrality continues also. An ISP group is <a href="">currently running a misleading ad campaign</a> claiming their support of net neutrality but without Title II classification, suggesting that the two could not be equated. Verizon <a href="">published a video interview</a> with their legal counsel explaining that net neutrality was at the forefront of their priorities but that the legislation for it is a mistake. There are cable-industry run websites that attempt to make a case for why net neutrality is a problem. Claims were made that ISPs would remain committed to their customer privacy and to competition. However, telecoms <a href="">are the ones fighting privacy and neutrality regulations</a> that they claim to be in favor of. That’s not to mention that Title II is net neutrality, according to the court ruling in FCC and Verizon over Title I. Worse is the fact that telecoms have already blatantly violated net neutrality principles in the past and now have the technology to do far worse in less obvious ways.</p> <p><em>If you care about a neutral and open Internet, you can join the net neutrality fight too. <a href="">Get started here</a>.</em></p> Thu, 11 May 2017 00:00:00 -0400 Online Surveillance Briefing <p>Along with the free flow of information the Internet provides, the Internet has also been a powerful means of government and corporate surveillance. Learning a lot about someone is not a difficult task online even based only off of public information, which some websites even compile and sell access to. People such as Richard Stallman <a href="">have been vocal about governments keeping closer tabs on their citizens via the Internet</a> and through other means. For a long time, the theories of people like Stallman seemed plausible but unlikely and were pushed aside as nothing more than conspiracy theories. It wasn’t until the Snowden leaks that those ideas were proven to have some validity. It turns out that even the worst of Stallman’s suggestions about surveillance <a href="">are true</a> and that many government agencies use wide-reaching data capture programs to collect and store information about pretty much everyone.</p> <p>Most people are aware that publishing personal information to the Internet is a bad idea. However, it’s hard to denounce surveillance that uses those public sources of information—if the rest of the Internet can see it, then so could the government. Unfortunately, Snowden revealed that it goes deeper than that. As more data gets routed over digital networks - think <a href="">phone calls and text messages</a>, things people generally don’t consider as being “online” - the possibility for more data capturing gets bigger as well. The NSA has claimed that they only target suspected terrorists or people coming and going through international borders Unfortunately, their systems, from the leaks we’ve seen, are not nearly so targeted in their surveillance. There <a href="">is evidence that activity of normal law-abiding U.S. citizens is routinely scooped up as part of these data collection programs</a> and that it data of them is collected more than the data of people actually targeted by the program.</p> <p>As a law-abiding citizen, why should you care? You have nothing to hide from the government. Unfortunately, it’s not quite so cut and dry. The problem with these data collection programs is that <a href="">we don’t actually know</a> the entirety of what they’re used for and how they actually affect U.S. citizens. The NSA, in a single year, had <a href="">2,776 violations of policies</a> around accessing collected data. What’s worse is that the security of these government resources is imperfect. The information built up over time, even by accident and even for law-abiding individuals, is a massive treasure trove for hackers. The U.S. government has <a href="">had large data breaches in the past</a> which shows that even the government has problems protecting data. Whether the general public trusts the government with this data is questionable. As of a 2009 survey, only 19% of Americans <a href="">trusted the government to do what was right</a>.</p> <p>The NSA has made the claim that only “metadata” is collected and only on a very targeted basis. “Metadata” may not contain the actual content of communications, but it <a href="">contains a lot more information than those collecting it might have you believe</a>. With only metadata, it’s possible to track where a person goes, who they talk to and who they have relationships with, who they do business with, and their general routine. That’s enough information to stalk someone, blackmail them, or to know when they’re not home to stop a burglary.</p> <p>The amount of data collected stands to expand drastically with the explosion of the Internet of Things—devices that collect all sorts of seemingly mundane information about your life to make your life easier. These devices are making their way into everyday life and are always present, uploading information to various places to provide their features. Phones are already ubiquitous and in other countries <a href="">have used to track protesters</a>. And we know now, that there is far more to this than the ramblings of Stallman. While online surveillance has been a relatively quiet battle, especially while the more immediate issue of net neutrality rages, the fight against online surveillance has too been raging. Companies like <a href="">Let’s Encrypt now allow anyone to send their websites over an encrypted connection</a>, others <a href="">such as Google have started encrypting data in transit</a> over their own networks, and still others like <a href="">the EFF</a> are fighting for the right to privacy online. The fight against online surveillance is part of the fight for democracy, human rights, and the open flow of information in the digital era.</p> Fri, 28 Apr 2017 00:00:00 -0400 What Net Neutrality Is Not <p>Net neutrality includes a number of additional or enforced restrictions on Internet service providers to prevent them from prioritizing some content over others. Regulations such as these are essential for making sure the Internet is an open flow of information; that is, that ISPs are not gatekeepers to information. Internet providers often <a href="">argue that net neutrality rules would stop them from expanding and improving their networks</a> by removing their ability to force upstream service (like say, Netflix) to pay them for their traffic to be fast and reliable. Wireless providers have even suggested that they should be exempt from net neutrality guidelines <a href="">because bandwidth is more limited over wireless networks</a>. These arguments are not necessarily invalid. Service providers still need control over their own networks so they can continue to grow and evolve to support a changing Internet. However, net neutrality and an expanding Internet can co-exist and without making access more expensive.</p> <p>On most modern networks, different types of traffic have different needs and need to be prioritized differently to guarantee everything works reasonably well. Your phone call, for example, should not drop because someone on the same network decided to load up Facebook. Prioritizing traffic so that your phone calls can coexist with gaming and web browsing is called <a href="">traffic shaping</a>. Traffic shaping is important as more things - such as phone calls - are pushed to move over the Internet. Some networks route phone calls over the same network as data, with <a href="">something called Voice over LTE (VoLTE)</a> to provide better call quality. Other networks, such as Republic Wireless, use VoIP (voice over IP) to <a href="">route wifi calls over the Internet</a>. Prioritization of VoIP (or gaming, or streaming, etc) traffic does not violate net neutrality practices. Net neutrality involves regulations that prevent prioritization of websites - no matter how bandwidth hogging. So, while service providers can do the required prioritization of traffic for different types of traffic (traffic shaping), they cannot serve different websites at different speeds (content shaping) <a href="">due to strict rules regarding what reasonable</a>. Information can still be accessed equally but different types of traffic can be managed as needed. Equal access to information is what net neutrality provides - not restrictions on how a network can be managed.</p> <p>Worth noting is that net neutrality regulations <a href="">do not prevent Internet providers from protecting their networks against malware or other illegal activity</a>. Providers would still be able to block or throttle (slow down) illegal activity on their networks. Other regulations already pertain to such activities.</p> <p>Despite their general opposition to net neutrality, some ISPs have actually supported the principles of it. <a href="">Verizon and AT&amp;T in 2008 agreed with keeping their broadband open with regards to net neutrality</a> - although they were opposed to applying net neutrality to wireless networks. At the time, this made sense - mobile data was a relatively new technology in 2008 that had far more limitations. While wireless networks still have limitations, they do not need exception from net neutrality rules. Verizon is <a href="">considering using 5G wireless instead of laying cables</a>, and <a href="">uses Voice over LTE for some phone calls on its network</a>. Those two facts alone show that bandwidth is not at nearly of a premium as they would still suggest it is. What’s more, Verizon, T-Mobile, Sprint, and AT&amp;T are now aggressively marketing unlimited data plans and virtual carriers that use their networks, such as Ultra, now <a href="">provide similar unlimited data</a>. While the Internet has grown substantially since 2008, especially with streaming video from services like Netflix, networks have been able to keep up even with a mostly neutral Internet. Internet providers would have customers believe otherwise with data caps, but by their own admissions data caps <a href="">have nothing to do with actual network limitations</a>.</p> <p>Net neutrality does not mean making the Internet free at taxpayer expense. There are already subsidies in place for low-income households to gain access, <a href="">which in 2016 were expanded</a>. These subsidies are not related to the ongoing net neutrality fight. Net neutrality is about equal access to the Internet through a connection one is already paying for, if they’re able to afford it. This means that no matter where you go online, be it at home, on the go, at a public library, or anywhere else, you can expect to be able to access the same sites at the same speed (limited of course only by the connection speed). This is a similar expectation to using a telephone at any of those same places - equal ability to call anyone on Earth no matter where the phone is. The exception to this is areas that choose to implement municipal broadband. In those cases, there may be taxpayer expense for installing and maintaining a municipal network. Municipal networks help the cause of net neutrality but are not required for a neutral Internet.</p> <p>Net neutrality is still evolving with regards to legislation. Partly due to that and partly due to marketing and lobbying efforts, there are misconceptions about what net neutrality is and what it costs. The Internet continues to evolve at breakneck speed and is an integral part of doing business in the modern world. Making sure that evolution can continue while protecting access to information online is the point of net neutrality. As more people rely on the Internet for finding jobs, doing business, and staying informed about the world, ensuring ISPs do not become gatekeepers to information is extremely important.</p> Thu, 20 Apr 2017 00:00:00 -0400 What a Non-Neutral Internet Might Look Like <p>Verizon and Time Warner Cable (now Spectrum after a merger) have stated that they are committed to an open and unfettered Internet. However, recent practices such as zero-rating have started to bring those statements into question and show the possibility of the first cracks in net neutrality in the U.S. Already, services that provide access to only a small collection of websites exist. We can also look to the UK, where one ISP has taken things further by throttling (slowing down) certain types of traffic, imposing data caps, and selling Internet packages with varying privileges. This bears a strong similarity to how cable TV is sold, where the number of channels you can watch depends on the cable package you subscribe to, and where some networks such as HBO are often available only at an extra cost. China, which is well known for its restricted Internet, is another example of what a non-neutral Internet can look like.</p> <p>Although net neutrality <a href="">has improved since</a>, UK laws at one point allowed broadband Internet providers to impose any limits on Internet connections as long as they were transparent about the limits they had in place. In 2009, some UK providers took advantage of those laws to develop heavily restricted Internet packages. One major provider, called BT, <a href="">slowed down things including streaming video, much to the annoyance of the BBC which had a new streaming service in place for streaming BBC shows online</a>. They also throttled other services and would cap data and speeds of what they classified as “heavy users”. There were three plans offered to BT customers. The first allowed 10GB per month of data use with heavy throttling (for perspective, <a href="">in 2012 the average monthly Internet use in the U.S. was 52GB per month</a>). It also limited monthly video streaming. The second plan had 20GB of data allowed, still with heavy usage throttling. The third was an unlimited plan which still included throttling for “heavy use”. Of course, with a better plan came a higher monthly cost. The alternative was to switch to another service provider, which in the UK was less of a problem than it is in the U.S. because the UK has much more competition when it comes to Internet service. Other than the unlimited plan, the plans offered by BT would not have provided enough data for the average U.S. household in 2012, and would have made services such as Netflix a rarity due to the limits and throttling of streaming video.</p> <p>China, which is well known for its heavily restricted Internet, is another demonstration of a non-neutral Internet. Internet users in China are separated from the rest of the world by what’s known colloquially as “The Great Firewall of China” which <a href="">as of 2015 blocked access to some 3,000 websites</a>. The list of blocked websites included Google, Yahoo, and Twitter as well as a variety of news sites and other services. China’s Internet is so restrictive (and due to alleged state-sponsored hacking) that in 2010, Google <a href="">even considered shutting down their operations in China</a>. In fact, this website ( was blocked in China for a while - and after the posting of this article may be blocked again because websites that criticize the government or Chinese censorship are typically blocked automatically based on their content (you can check if it’s blocked <a href="">here</a>). Certain things <a href="">such as mentions of Tiananmen are a surefire way for a site to get blocked</a>. In order to provide a relatively modern Internet, there are state-sponsored social media sites as alternatives to the Facebook and Twitter of the rest of the world. While The Great Firewall of China makes it difficult to access a lot of information that the Chinese government deems distasteful, it isn’t perfect. Using services such as VPN - which have been blocked on and off as well - it is possible to access websites that are blocked. However, doing so can attract the attention of authorities. What can make these restrictions more frustrating is that certain sites are sometimes allowed and other times are not depending on where in China you happen to be and depending on current events in the world.</p> <p>In the U.S., it’s unlikely that websites would be all-out blocked on a non-neutral Internet. In particular, due to freedom of speech and freedom of the press guaranteed by the Constitution, it’s extremely unlikely that there would be widespread state-sponsored censorship of the Internet. However, service providers can encourage the use of other services through data caps and zero-rating or sell packages of websites or services. That would mean that instead of buying a speed of access, you might buy a “gaming” package for an extra cost or a “investing” package for access to financial news sites. This is something that is already happening from U.S. based companies. Some services like Facebook Free Basics (formerly - which are not sold in the U.S. currently - provide access only to a list of specific websites. If larger ISPs start to provide similar service tiers, there is no escape due to the lack of competition. Despite their claims to the contrary, mainstream Internet providers have already started to do this. Verizon and AT&amp;T have been named in net neutrality lawsuits for encouraging the use of their own services over others. What’s worse is that the FCC no longer wants to protect consumers from these practices, so a non-neutral Internet may be coming.</p> Sat, 08 Apr 2017 00:00:00 -0400 Your Internet Versus Your Privacy <p>While many of us are generally aware that various sites track us in order to sell advertisements, we usually don’t give much thought to whether our ISP might be collecting similar information. The expectation of privacy from an Internet Service Provider is important because they are the gateway to the Internet. No matter how many anti-tracking browser add-ons you might have, your Internet provider can still see what you visit online. The only way to avoid your ISP seeing what websites you visit is to use a service such as a VPN - which is sort of like paying for a secure gateway to the Internet somewhere else, that your ISP can’t see. This means that unless you are willing and able to pay for privacy, your Internet provider likely knows more about you than you’re comfortable with.</p> <p>As being tracked online becomes pretty much ubiquitous, <a href="">privacy has become more valuable</a>. Almost everything on the Internet has some form of tracking installed. Even this website ( uses a very common tracking tool called Google Analytics, which makes it possible to drill down into all kinds of information about visitors. Other websites gather data about visitors that they sell or use directly to target advertisements to the people who seem most likely to click on them. That sort of data is extremely valuable on a wide scale - <a href="">the U.S. was worth over $2.8 billion in advertising revenue to Facebook in 2016</a>. What’s worse, is that this tracking isn’t limited to a single site - <a href="">visiting any website with Facebook “like” buttons is enough for Facebook to track where you’ve been</a> - and there are many other services that do the same thing. This is often not a known problem for the layperson, but it can become one when a quick search results in a month of banner ads for something embarrassing (or amusing to the people sitting nearby on public transit). There are relatively easy ways to prevent this sort of tracking - <a href="">browser add-ons such as ublock can be installed that block most tracking services</a>.</p> <p>Since access to the Internet is more or less the normal state of affairs for many people, it’s easy to forget <a href="">just how much information can be gathered by a service provider</a>. While encryption helps, it’s still possible to see what websites are visited and how often. Hiding this usually requires buying access to a VPN service to hide traffic from your Internet provider or using a technology like Tor. At some point, the service you access the Internet through needs to know where to send your traffic. Your connected devices need to reach out to the Internet to fetch updates and other information and seeing what they talk to makes it possible to figure out at a minimum who made them. This information can be used to determine all sorts of things about a person’s political views, income, health, and even when they’re most likely to be home. Should this leak - either through hacking or from the highest bidder - this opens up a lot of potential problems. It makes it possible to trick people into giving their information to the wrong website (phishing) and even opens up burglary possibilities.</p> <p>Net neutrality regulations improve online privacy because they can help to restrict what ISPs are allowed to track in Internet traffic. By forcing Internet providers to treat all traffic equally, there is less reason for ISPs to examine the traffic passing through their network for tracking purposes. In the same vein, it makes defending any such traffic inspection much more difficult. There are valid and necessary reasons to inspect network traffic. ISPs <a href="">need to ensure the security of their network against malware, hacking attempts, and illegal activity</a>. Completely forbidding ISPs from looking at traffic would be very bad for the health of the Internet. However, other than for tracking individuals, there is <a href="">very little reason to keep records of traffic content</a> and of course, even less reason to sell them.</p> <p>Making privacy a commodity introduces yet another split between the informed elite who can pay for equal access to information and privacy, and those who can’t. Already, <a href="">there are problems with accessing the Internet at all in the U.S. with price being the main reason people don’t have an Internet connection</a>. What’s worse still, is that being able to afford privacy does not make privacy accessible. Knowledge of how to use a VPN or Tor requires some technical knowledge, which not everyone has. As we work to make the Internet equally accessible to everyone, more people are opened to the perils of their data being sold to the highest bidder or hacked, simply due to not knowing that protection is needed. The fight for equality needs to extend beyond the physical world and into the digital one, especially as the two mingle more and more.</p> Thu, 30 Mar 2017 00:00:00 -0400 You Already Paid for Net Neutrality <p>As with other infrastructure projects, taxpayer dollars have been granted to Internet providers for the purpose of expanding and upgrading their infrastructure. At a high level, this is fine because Internet is an important and arguably critical service in the modern world. Ensuring networks are up to modern standards is important for providing access to information, education, and other services. However, the network improvements expected from many of these grants have never materialized. Grants and subsidies amounting to over 400 billion taxpayer dollars by some counts have rarely resulted in larger or better networks. Despite those grants, there are still people in the U.S. who <a href="">do not have Internet speeds available to them that are usable for accessing modern websites</a>.</p> <p>ISPs have argued that if net neutrality dies and the regulatory schemes they support come to pass, <a href="">they will then provide Internet speeds that are competitive</a> with the rest of the world. In late 2015, the United States <a href="">ranked 42nd in average Internet speeds</a> out of 55 countries ranked by Akamai (<a href="">a huge cloud services provider</a>), despite being the country that is home to some of the largest online companies. The rating puts the U.S. below the global average for Internet speeds. The problem with the ISP argument that network improvements will come with a non-neutral Internet is that until recently, there has been little with regards to enforced net neutrality regulations. ISPs already have a rocky past with regards to keeping promises of network improvements, net neutrality or not.</p> <p>In New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania, Verizon <a href="">promised expansions to their fiber network (FiOS) in return for government subsidies and benefits</a>. However, while the government benefits were provided, at massive taxpayer expense, Verizon <a href="">never expanded their networks</a>. In New Jersey, the company even had its employees help it convince the New Jersey Board of Public Utilities <a href="">that DSL and the Verizon LTE network qualified</a> for meeting the terms of its agreement. LTE service from Verizon (and from most providers) is expensive, has data caps, and compared to fiber is extremely slow. Verizon even argued that the terms of the agreement did not require them to actually connect anything to the fiber they did install, just that they needed to run fiber down the street in front. What this means for taxpayers is that although they paid for fiber Internet service to be expanded to schools, libraries, and in some cases themselves, <a href="">they got no return for their money</a>.</p> <p>In West Virginia, <a href="">which in 2016 was still ranked almost last in the country for broadband Internet access</a>, Frontier was accused of misusing millions of dollars of Federal funds for Internet improvement. $40 million was intended for building a network that would improve ISPs’ ability to <a href="">provide service to some 700,000 homes and over 100,000 businesses</a>. Lawsuits from 2014 <a href="">allege that Frontier claimed that they had installed almost double the fiber they actually installed</a>. At the same time, Frontier <a href="">inflated their prices by overcharging for administrative activities and vehicles</a>, in amounts that were at times more expensive than the actual construction itself. Even worse, other lawsuits allege that Frontier used the federal funding to <a href="">further their monopoly on Internet service</a> by building what’s called a last-mile network to homes for their own service, rather than building a shared network for multiple ISPs to serve homes. In fact, after the Frontier project was completed, West Virginia ranked even worse for Internet access, at 53rd (including Guam, Puerto Rico, and D.C.) from 48th.</p> <p>In all, the U.S. <a href="">has spent some $400 billion to deploy fiber broadband connectivity</a>. Despite those investments, the U.S. is far from first in the world when it comes to Internet service. Despite hundreds of billions of dollars in government help to improve networks, ISPs still allege that they need to raise prices, cap and throttle data, and sell Internet in a similar fashion to cable. The fact that Internet providers can’t be held even to promises they made to local and federal governments underscores the need for better regulation and net neutrality. As taxpayers, we have paid thousands of dollars for Internet service improvements that have never happened, not to mention money spent directly paying for Internet service. Without regulations and enforced net neutrality rules, this stands to get worse.</p> Thu, 23 Mar 2017 00:00:00 -0400 How Net Neutrality is Being Undermined <p>By paying for an Internet connection - almost any Internet connection - it’s possible to get access to every piece of information and every viewpoint on Earth. It’s also possible through that connection to publish your own views across the Internet for no extra cost. What comes with this are certain privacy protections from your ISP (Internet Service Provider), which is important given that your Internet provider can see most of the things you do online. However, none of these are guaranteed rights. The FCC has minimal powers to enforce net neutrality, <a href="">thanks to a previous rule change by Congress</a> and currently calls net neutrality “a mistake.” Service providers also have the ability to discourage the use of certain services through practices like zero-rating and data caps, which starts to limit your online world to that which your service provider approves of.</p> <p>In the past, one of the biggest problems faced by net neutrality from a legal standpoint was a lack of enforcement. FCC penalties for violating net neutrality regulations have been <a href="">fairly minimal where they are listed at all</a>. Previous legal precedents even say that ISPs <a href="">don’t need to pay fines they weren’t warned about</a> - which means even when the FCC chooses to impose penalties, because there are no specific penalties in the regulations, ISPs can easily avoid them. Service providers already work around those penalties by carefully wording practices like zero-rating, explaining data caps as network constraints (<a href="">they have nothing to do with that</a>), and by lobbying Congress. The current FCC has worse ideas about net neutrality regulations. The current FCC head <a href="">has referred to net neutrality as “a mistake”</a> and has already <a href="">started to dismantle privacy</a> and <a href="">transparency requirements</a>.</p> <p>Zero-rating is <a href="">already in play from Internet providers</a>, which encourages customers to use one service over another. By making agreements with content providers such as Netflix or the NFL, providers offer access to online content that doesn’t count against data limits. It’s hard to complain about free data (if you happen to use the zero-rated services), which makes this practice particularly nefarious. In general, it looks good to consumers but it helps open the door for an Internet where providers <a href="">discourage using services other than the ones they zero-rate</a>. By encouraging the use of their own services over others, Internet providers create a walled garden which means the access you have to information is determined by which ISP you have access to. In a world of apps for every possible purpose, this can also mean Internet providers are able to control what features apps are able to provide by blocking access to some of the online resources they can access.</p> <p>ISPs taking control over what online services people can access is happening with services like Facebook Free Basics, which <a href="">provides access only to a collection of websites approved by Facebook</a>. Other free Internet providers such as Google Fiber have yet to directly do anything against net neutrality, but in a non-neutral Internet it would be within their rights to offer the same type of curated service. We can already see the effects of this walled garden approach to Internet access by looking at countries where Facebook Free Basics is a major service provider. <a href="">Millions of Facebook users connected with the service don’t know there is an Internet beyond Facebook</a>, according to a 2015 survey.</p> <p>Something that makes net neutrality a difficult battle is that a non-neutral Internet is profitable for both ISPs and massive online services. While Google, for example, may claim they support net neutrality, they have little to lose if net neutrality is overturned and <a href="">appear to only be making minimal efforts to support the cause</a>. Large services and content providers can afford agreements with ISPs to provide better access to their services, <a href="">something that is already happening</a>, while small competitors don’t have the same resources. This means it’s far more difficult to start a new online service, while existing services continue to grow. No matter how net neutrality is undermined or what form a non-neutral Internet takes, consumers are the ones who lose because it’s their access to information, choices, and reasonable prices that is in danger.</p> Thu, 16 Mar 2017 00:00:00 -0400 Protecting Net Neutrality with Regulation <p>In 2015, <a href="">broadband was reclassified under what’s called Title II</a>, which classifies it similar to phone service. This means that Internet Service Providers are not allowed to (among other things) “make any unjust or unreasonable discrimination in charges, practices, classifications, regulations, facilities, or services.” This is a good thing which protects ISP customers (which can be households, businesses, or even other ISPs) although Congress and the FCC could, and should go further by also using Section 706 or better, by creating Internet-centric legislation. Some service providers have been against Title II and Section 706, but interestingly Sprint <a href="">has spoken out in favor of it</a>, and Comcast <a href="">has admitted that net neutrality is not the problem ISPs have made it out to be</a>.</p> <p>The current Title II classification <a href="">gives the FCC authority to regulate ISPs in order to protect their customers</a> from “unjust and unreasonable practices.” This prevents service providers from discriminating against different content types for any reason (among other things). When ISPs own or are owned by media companies <a href="">as is the case for many Internet providers</a>, allowing them to give paid prioritization (“fast lanes”) or zero-rating to the services they want to encourage their customers to use is dangerous. In an ideal world, the media would be totally neutral, but as things are now, many media outlets lean in one political direction or another. In instances like this, a third party needs to step in to make sure all Americans have equal access to all viewpoints.</p> <p>Section 706 <a href="">allows the FCC to to use regulation to promote competition in the market</a>, which is another important piece of net neutrality. Service providers are capable of offering better service at far better rates, but because they actively avoid competing with each other, there is no economic driver for them to do so. This is apparent with the current battle between cell carriers to offer the cheapest “unlimited” data plan <a href="">[1 - T-Mobile]</a> <a href="">[2 - Verizon]</a> <a href="">[3 - Sprint]</a> <a href="">[4 - AT&amp;T]</a>. There are no network capacity problems that prevent them from doing so, <a href="">based on their own admissions</a>. This sort of competition is good for consumers who then have more options and better prices. In the wired world, service providers <a href="">quickly offered much faster packages at much lower prices when Google Fiber was expected to become available</a> in their area (which at one point offered a free home Internet package). When sudden competition can drive down costs so much, it’s clear that the current free market system is not working as it should. The ISPs get wealthier, while their customers find higher prices and lower quality of service.</p> <p>The legislative battle for the Internet is similar in many ways to legislative battles over cable TV and telephone, which provide a way to see some of the possibilities of a future with and without net neutrality. Telephone service over the majority of the United States was <a href="">provided by a single company called Bell System (known as Ma Bell) that exerted full control over the telephone lines</a>. They were effectively a monopoly. In order to connect something to a telephone line, even in your own home, you needed approval from the phone company. Often, you rented your telephone equipment from the same company. The company was broken up in the 1980’s and several <a href="">regulations followed that provide a more open and non-discriminatory system</a> that we enjoy today. Cable TV, on the other hand, <a href="">went the opposite direction</a> giving us service split into “packages” of different channels which sometimes disappear due to disagreements between cable providers and the broadcasting network - the reason why <a href="">WFSB is currently unavailable to Optimum customers</a>, and why <a href="">The Weather Channel disappeared from DirecTV</a>. A non-neutral Internet is likely to look more like cable TV with similar disputes and higher prices than the Internet we know now.</p> <p>Unfortunately, the FCC is limited in its powers to ensure that net neutrality regulations stay intact, and in its ability to enforce them. Indeed, the current FCC chairman has already described net neutrality as a “mistake” and even <a href="">quoted Star Wars Emperor Palpatine when to criticize the enactment of the current rules</a>. Congress also voted <a href="">to weaken the FCC’s powers to enforce rules</a> such as Title II classification. To be fair, current laws are not designed with the Internet in mind. However, in the absence of Internet-specific legislation, we need to be proactive about making sure access to all information is provided equally and fairly to everyone.</p> Wed, 01 Mar 2017 00:00:00 -0500 Your City Can Provide Better, Cheaper Internet <p>Municipal Internet (or, depending on the technology, “municipal fiber”, “municipal broadband”, or “public broadband”) <a href="">is Internet service provided partly or entirely by by local governments</a>. Usually, the networks providing service as well as their backing companies, exist on a local level rather than national. Being run with involvement from the local government means such services can provide access to the web at a much lower cost or in some cases even for free while being better tailored to the local community’s needs. Areas that have built successful municipal networks often are able to provide more equal access to the Internet and better connectivity which can be a driving force in attracting high tech companies, economic development, and job growth.</p> <p>In general, municipal Internet services are less expensive and much faster than their telecom alternatives which are the reason they can have dramatic impacts on their communities. An oft-cited example of a successful municipal network is in Chattanooga, Tennessee. There, an Internet provider option is EPB, which is an electric company. EPB offers a 100Mbps base Internet package <a href="">which is ten times faster (or more) than the majority of the Internet access in the United States as of 2015</a>. The price was half of what one other big-name ISP charged for similar speeds in certain areas, but without data caps which raise the cost-per-gig of service substantially.</p> <p>Less expensive or not, the idea of paying for a network you might not use through additional taxes is a frequent complaint about municipal networks. This is a fair concern because the price tag of a successful network, such as Chattanooga’s, isn’t tiny — <a href="">Chattanooga’s network came with a $330 million price tag</a>. Failed networks, such as the <a href="">UTOPIA project in Utah</a> and <a href="">another in Philadelphia</a> have come with large taxpayer expenses as well. However, not all municipal Internet projects are taxpayer funded — take Sandy, Oregon’s which offers similar service as the network in Chattanooga but was funded by revenue bonds. Others, like the fiber network in Monroe County, New York (which currently is limited to government use) were built as tax-efficiently as possible, <a href="">piggybacking on existing construction projects</a>. Successful networks provide a good return on the investment no matter how they’re funded, which we can again look to Chattanooga for an example of.</p> <p>Chattanooga has experienced what has been referred to as an “economic rebirth,” transforming them from a fairly no-name city to a technology hub. A boom in business has brought the city’s unemployment rate down from 7.8% to 4.1% alongside an increase in average wages. A local tech incubator formed with the promise of fast, inexpensive, and reliable Internet. And, the city’s downtown residents doubled with housing that in some cases offers free access to the Chattanooga network as an amenity. Of course, more equal access allows for people to be more informed and better educated, with access to news, online courses, and everything else the web has to offer.</p> <p><a href="">At least 500 communities in the U.S. provide some form of municipal network</a>, including Chattanooga, Tennessee and Sandy, Oregon. Not all local governments are equipped or willing to build municipal networks, however, but volunteers can sidestep them to build their own.</p> <p>Taxpayer funded or otherwise, there are clear benefits to public broadband and there are successful examples of how to implement such a network. There are ways to cut the costs of building a reliable network by using wireless technologies or mesh networks. Regardless, better access provides better opportunities and better equality. If nothing else, a municipal network adds competition for larger ISPs which can help drive down pricing and improve service even for those not using the municipal option.</p> Thu, 23 Feb 2017 00:00:00 -0500 Innovation and a Neutral Internet <p>The debate on the role of net neutrality when it comes to innovation is subtle. Both pro and anti net-neutrality debates <a href="">tend to involve innovation, but from different angles</a>. Internet providers are usually anti-neutrality with the claim that a neutral Internet stops them from charging more to move data, which would (in theory) prevent them from investing more into their networks. Large companies such as Google tend to be for net neutrality, because a non-neutral Internet would likely cost them more. The likes of Google, Facebook, Netflix and other huge online services grew and for now continue to grow in a neutral Internet. However, so do Internet providers, which <a href="">make far above what’s considered a “good” profit margin for a business</a>.</p> <p>Internet providers have already <a href="">admitted that limits such as data caps have nothing to do with their network capacity</a>. It is true that as high-bandwidth services like Netflix, Skype, and other streaming services are used by more people, more network capacity is required. However, the amount of data that is zero-rated - that is, it can be streamed without using up a data cap - makes it clear that capacity is not a huge concern. Companies like AT&amp;T have rolled out streaming services for live TV quickly and without capacity problems (though not without other problems) on more than one occasion. Further, companies like Verizon are <a href=";mc_eid=ac30b8596a">pushing landline customers to wireless rather than repairing copper cables</a>, which speaks to how much spare capacity they seem to have available (<a href="">certain wireless calls are routed over the Internet on some networks, including Verizon and AT&amp;T</a>).</p> <p>Looking at where money given to Internet providers has gone in the past makes the idea that ISPs would reinvest larger profits back into their services questionable. Most ISPs are public companies who answer to their shareholders, who have financial stakes in their success. Most likely, at least a large part of an influx of funding would be distributed to shareholders. An influx of cash to Internet Service Providers has happened before <a href="">where the government gave grants for network upgrades, and little to none of the funding actually went towards network improvements</a> - though company executives had <a href="">larger than usual bonuses for the years following</a>. The idea that ISPs are in any sort of need of extra funding is questionable in and of itself due to the profit margins we’ve seen through their history. <a href="">Most of the cost of running a network is in the geographic installation, rather than the day-to-day maintenance</a>. Not to mention, <a href="">ISP spending has actually fallen since 2007 (to 2014) per percentage of revenue</a>.</p> <p>Money that online services need to pay to ISPs for delivering their content is money that online services are unable to invest back into themselves. What this means for consumers is either higher costs for the same service, if online services choose to pass those costs on to their customers, or fewer improvements and fewer new features in the services they use. In a world where Internet service providers charged online services for bandwidth - which in reality, online services are already paying for, just not on the consumer ISP end - it’s far more expensive to build an online service. In the end, this is bad for consumers because it limits the competition that can develop when it comes to high-bandwidth services. Internet providers have used the argument that by charging high-bandwidth online services more for transporting their data, they can charge their customers less. In reality, customers are more likely to end up paying the same, if not more for their Internet when factoring in the cost of online services, even though their Internet connection could cost less.</p> <p>The fact is, the vast majority of companies are not Internet service providers. While Internet service providers need to continue to invest in their networks in order to deliver content to their customers, there’s too great a risk in allowing them to become the gatekeepers to the Internet. The shipping company analogy - where service providers should be able to charge companies more for moving their data and companies will pay for it if they need it - breaks down here. Access to goods and services is important, but waiting an extra week for an online purchase is nothing more than an annoyance (and where it is, there is a local option). Access to information needs to be equal.</p> Wed, 08 Feb 2017 00:00:00 -0500 Net Neutrality and Your Voice <p>Net neutrality aims to protect the many voices that compose the Internet from censorship. The web has made it more possible than ever before to be informed and to be heard. More than half of Americans use the Internet as their primary source of information. <a href="">An average of over 1.2 billion people per day shared their voices on Facebook</a> in March 2017. Unfortunately, access to the Internet is provided by an industry with a near monopoly on providing service, <a href="">that claims its own rights to free speech</a> when it comes to deciding what their customers have access to. If the ISP industry has its say, the world of free speech that exists online could be divided and censored based on what the industry determines people are willing to pay for.</p> <p>Service providers have in the past claimed—and some still claim—that <a href="">control over what their customers see is their First Amendment right</a>. Specifically, in a brief filed with the U.S. Court of Appeals, one of the Internet providers that still makes this claim says that net neutrality prevents them from favoring their own websites over other websites to send their own message. While a data provider claiming that it should have such control over what people can see is worrisome, the statement is true. Net neutrality requires Internet providers to deliver all websites at the same speed, the same way. The importance of that is underscored by the fact that large ISPs now often own their own media outlets. By throttling competing sites, encouraging their own services over others with zero-rating, or by outright blocking sites, ISPs control who can be heard and what can be known. As more communication moves to the digital world, ensuring that the same ideas that can be expressed in the physical world can be expressed without suppression on the Internet is extremely important.</p> <p>If a site lacks the funding to pay for their service to be part of the open Internet or an Internet fast lane, that service may be doomed to fail even if it isn’t outright blocked. Zero-rating can increase the use of the data-exempt service substantially. Research from Microsoft <a href="">suggests that slowing down a website by 250ms (the blink of an eye) makes users more likely to use a competitor</a>. What that means for the owner of a small business or a personal website who can’t pay to be in one of the so-called “fast lanes” or sponsored data plans is much more difficulty in keeping visitors. Large companies could afford to pay the fees to for carriage in those fast lanes which right away makes their voice stronger than those not in a fast lane. Fast lanes of a form already exist. Companies such as Netflix <a href="">pay for access to Internet fast lanes</a> by putting their servers directly on Internet providers’ networks.</p> <p>On a more individual level, <a href="">a non-neutral Internet takes away your right to choose what voices you listen to</a>. Internet service providers are for-profit companies whose goal is to maximize their already astronomical profits. By discouraging people from accessing sites—through the use of data caps, throttling, or zero-rating, service providers take control of what people are able to see. The vast majority of Internet subscribers in the U.S. have access to only one or two Internet providers. With so few options, there’s no easy way to vote with your wallet or choose a different ISP that offers you more access. Without competition, there’s little to stop ISPs from offering limited service at high prices.</p> <p>Through net neutrality rules and regulation, we can keep the Internet an even playing field where <a href="">all data and views are equally accessible</a>. Internet service providers should not be gatekeepers to being heard online. The fact that an information provider would argue that they should be able to provide an editorialized version of the Internet is concerning, particularly when many of them own media outlets. <a href="">We have had this discussion before with cable TV which due to legislation is not neutral</a>. That means television carriers (cable providers) can drop networks that aren’t willing to pay their fees—<a href="">as recently happened with a state news network in Connecticut</a>—and that independent producers are almost entirely blocked from being shown. Without protections for net neutrality, the same could happen online. If we don’t fight for net neutrality now, we may find ourselves with few choices, limited information, and less ability to share our views. Large companies would rule and startups, individuals, and independent creators would be shut out.</p> Thu, 02 Feb 2017 00:00:00 -0500 The Problems with Tiered Internet <p>We’re generally familiar with how buying cable works. Usually, there’s a collection of packages including an increasing amount of channels with increasing cost. Adding “extras” like HBO cost extra. The Internet does not work the same way. Rather than paying for access to collections of websites, we pay for different speeds, and the entirety of our Internet will be delivered at that speed. The Internet operates very differently, so this sort of access scheme makes sense. A tiered Internet would operate more like cable; you might pay for faster access to a collection of websites, and your cable company might charge companies to allow their services to be available to you at better speeds.</p> <p>In a tiered Internet, you pay twice for the services you use. In a world of Internet fast lanes, some companies could pay Internet providers for their service to be faster than others. In return, they would pass the costs of doing so on to their subscribers. This means that consumers end up paying their service providers as well as paying more for the services they use. Service providers such as AT&amp;T <a href="">have already complained that online services don’t pay them</a>. The problem with this argument is that the end user buying Internet service is paying for that data already. Internet providers have already explained that data caps are not related to congestion or network limitations, so the idea that an online service would need to pay an Internet provider to provide access to their service is entirely profit driven. Further, <a href="">the cost for moving data across the Internet is very low - less than a penny per gigabyte</a>. Online services already pay for bandwidth anyway - just not to a consumer service provider.</p> <p>Tiered Internet plans divide the Internet into two Internets; an elite, unlimited and privileged Internet, and a slower, limited Internet. <a href="">With a majority of people using the Internet</a>, this creates a split in how well people are able to be informed about the world. Already (as of 2013) <a href="">26 million Americans are not able to afford access to the Internet</a>, let alone being able to afford access to a top-tier open Internet. It’s unlikely that a service provider would outright block access to websites. However, by slowing them down or introducing caps on data outside an Internet package, service providers can effectively discourage people from visiting them. There’s a lot more on the Internet than many people realize - everything from news, to source code, to online courses - parts of which many people may not use. The problem is, by discouraging use of those less common places, it becomes harder to get a view of what’s going on a wider scale.</p> <p><a href="">The technology exists</a> (and is widely available - even your home router likely supports it) to allow certain types of data to move faster than others. Typically, this would be used to allow VoIP (Internet telephone, basically) to operate faster than say, loading Facebook so loading Facebook doesn’t cause call drops. Without net neutrality, <a href="">service providers can artificially limit speeds based on the Internet packages their customers subscribe to</a>. This could mean that someone would need to pay extra for their gaming to be faster, or for the ability to work from home, or even just to have Skype work reasonably well. While service providers likely wouldn’t block services altogether, a tiered Internet could be built around that sort of traffic shaping. There isn’t a technological reason for Internet providers to do this, <a href="">given their own admissions that network capacity is not a problem</a>. Unfortunately, there’s also no way to escape it as a customer because there are so few Internet options available. <a href=""> Net neutrality rules prevent this from happening</a>.</p> <p>What makes the Internet so powerful and so useful is that once you pay for access, you have access to everything and at the same speeds. No matter what, it’s possible to access any information at any time. On a tiered Internet, that isn’t so. Tiered Internet packages create an elite Internet of people who can afford to access the whole Internet at the same speed, and who therefore have more reliable access to information. It also puts Internet providers in control of what users of the lower tier, less expensive Internet can see. That becomes a huge problem for living in an informed democracy.</p> Wed, 25 Jan 2017 00:00:00 -0500 Why Zero Rating Actually Sucks <p>Everyone loves zero-rating, <a href="">which is when certain services don’t count against your data limit</a>. Depending on your provider, anything from NFL games to Pokémon Go might be free to use without using up your data. There are two ways carriers do this: by having the company behind the zero-rated service pay for the data use, or by simply not counting it for promotional reasons. For us as users, it seems pretty good. Unfortunately, zero-rating brings a number of serious problems that hurt users in the longer term. It hurts competition between online services, limits and disincentivizes users from freely accessing the Internet, and costs more. It turns out that as great as it seems, the problems zero-rating has are big.</p> <p>Zero-rating can be anti-competitive because it gives large advantages to the services that zero-rate their own apps. This can be particularly problematic when service providers zero-rate their in-house services, especially where there are few choices. <a href="">Zero-rating a service, even for a short time, has been shown to cause huge spikes in the usage of that service</a>. That means that where services are zero-rated, people are more likely to use the zero-rated services over other alternatives. It’s understandable because data plans tend to be expensive. Unfortunately, that makes it much more difficult for competition to grow, so there’s little reason for the zero-rated services to offer better prices (or service). A new competitor would need to make the case for why someone should use their limited data on them, versus using the other service that doesn’t count towards their data. In the end, the user loses to potentially worse service and higher prices.</p> <p>Services that are zero-rated because of agreements with a carrier usually pay for data used to access their service on behalf of their users. This means that if you have a data plan that allows you to stream sports for free and you stream NFL games, for example, the NFL may need to pay for the data you’re using. Carriers and service providers still want the data paid for so if you’re not paying for it, <a href="">then the service you’re using data-free is</a>. In response, those services still need to make their own money, which could mean raising their own prices in response. This means that users can end up paying more - first for the data subscription package with zero-rating, and then again for the data they’re (invisibly) paying for via the subscription fees for the zero-rated service. Service providers <a href="">explain that they don’t “double-dip”</a>, which is likely true, but <a href="">that doesn’t mean it isn’t a good deal for them</a>.</p> <p>Due to zero-rating, users can be artificially limited to a small portion of the Internet, and are discouraged from using anything outside of that because it would cost them data. This has been used as one of the biggest arguments against Facebook Free Basics, <a href="">which provides free Internet access (limited to Facebook and some other sites Facebook chooses) to people who couldn’t otherwise afford Internet access</a>. This effectively makes Facebook the gatekeeper to the Internet - only allowing Free Basics users to see what Facebook wants them to be able to see. On a larger scale - not just with Free Basics but with all Internet providers - this means not everyone can hear everyone, or make themselves heard. An open, neutral and non zero-rated Internet makes it possible for anyone to publish a website or an app. With zero-rating on a large-scale, that is no longer the case because users are less likely to visit new places that will count against their data. Service providers already zero-rate their own services, which can include news networks, which means users can be less likely to seek out a wider world view.</p> <p>What’s nefarious about zero-rating is how hard it is to get past the “free stuff” part of it. Encouraging people to use more of (or only) certain services by zero-rating them is bad for consumers and in the end, even costs them more. Some countries <a href="">have even banned services like Facebook Free Basics</a> because of their zero-rating aspects. Even in the U.S., the FCC <a href="">has taken notice of zero-rating</a> practices. Without rules protecting a non zero-rated Internet, the future of the Internet (and our ability to be informed) might be sold to us as a collection of services that don’t use up our data.</p> Mon, 16 Jan 2017 00:00:00 -0500 How Data Caps Hurt the Internet <p>Data Caps (also called Bandwidth Caps) <a href="">are a limit on how much you can upload and download through your Internet provider</a>, often on a monthly basis. Most of us are familiar with data caps from cell phone data plans, although data caps on home Internet also exist. Usually, they’re sold as a quality and fairness measure, so that no one person can hog the service provider’s network. Whether or not that’s widely believed is questionable, since customer protest usually causes ISPs to roll out data caps as a voluntary way to reduce bills or as “tests” in a certain area. In modern networks, data caps are not necessary to ensure quality of service for everyone on the network and <a href="">actually have little to nothing to do with actual usage</a>. It turns out that data caps are more profit driven and actually influence consumers to spend more for their Internet than they need to.</p> <p><a href="">One thing that data caps are effective at is lowering data usage</a>. Generally, people are good at keeping track of how much data they use and managing it over the course of a month, and use less towards the beginning of the month. Towards the end of the month, they’ll use more in order to get all the data they feel they’re paying for. This isn’t terribly surprising since intuitively most people want to make sure they’re not spending more data than they have, but then don’t want to “lose” the rest of it. Data caps do sometimes come with higher speeds, which is a great way to sell them since they are otherwise extremely unpopular. At a glance, this can sound like a good thing, but cable companies have <a href="ttps://">admitted that caps have nothing to do with network congestion</a>, which would be the suspect cause for lower speeds.</p> <p>More recently, as streaming services such as Netflix and online gaming have become more popular, data caps tend to limit choices. Most cable companies provide their own on-demand services for access to movies and TV shows. In some cases, they even offer their own online gaming platforms. With both, usage usually does not count against data caps. This means that users who require data for different things - working from home, for example - are less able to make use of other services. Caps tie users to their provider’s services more - which can become a problem since many providers also own their own news outlets which they can easily decide not to count against your data. With bias in news a real issue and data caps that limit the amount of other information users can access, that spells bad news for staying informed. If nothing else, limiting choices can also limit competition, as it’s difficult to start another streaming service or news network when accessing it is too expensive to people with limited data.</p> <p>It turns out that data caps actually make Internet access more expensive. People are so afraid of going over their caps and getting charged overage fees (or having their access cut off) that <a href="">they often buy more expensive Internet service than they need for higher caps</a>. Few people are fully aware of how much data they use over the course of a month for their home Internet, so when data caps are introduced, they pay more for data they don’t need. What’s more, is that people on plans that did not limit data <a href="">paid almost 80% less per gigabyte of data</a>, which is a huge difference. That statistic alone shows that claims that metered (limited) plans are less expensive are not true.</p> <p>Data caps are not about fairness or improving network technologies, as has been claimed in the past. Not only have service providers <a href="">admitted they have nothing to do with congestion</a>, they’ve even <a href="">told their call centers to stop claiming that it does</a>. If data caps were about fair pricing and paying only for what you use, then there would be lower level packages - there isn’t anything fair about someone who only needs Internet to check their email once a day paying $50/month for access to do so.</p> Tue, 10 Jan 2017 00:00:00 -0500 Net Neutrality and Access to Information <p>The Internet is a major source of information, providing digital outlets for nearly any information. Almost 40% of Americans get their news online, according to <a href="">a Pew Research study in 2016</a>, making the Internet a news source second only to television. In addition, a majority of adults happened to <a href="">get news from social media</a> - which is a problem because social media provides only a curated view of the news. These statistics underscore the need for open access to news and information online. Limiting access to information - fake news is a different issue - makes it much more difficult to stay informed. Easy access to information is empowering.</p> <p>Many news sources tend to have a political bias, to the point where <a href="">studies have connected the ideological views of people to their preferred news network</a>. Though people often pay more attention to news they agree with, having all sides of an issue available is very important. Without exposure to other views, it’s much more difficult to find the truth in an issue. As the Internet has taken hold, we’ve enjoyed having easy access to those differing views which helps to provide more accurate insight. <a href="">Having an informed populace is extremely important to our government functioning well</a> and the Internet has the hope of making it easier to be informed than it ever was before.</p> <p>One of the things that net neutrality brings is equal access to every viewpoint. We know that there are biased media outlets, and we also know that people watch them. This isn’t necessarily a problem because no matter what, it is possible to fact check and compare views. However, <a href="">many Internet service providers own or are owned by those same media companies</a>. Comcast, for example, owns NBC and MSNBC, which in the past have been accused of leaning left. Media outlets get advertising revenue from their services, so they are incentivized to promote their services over others.</p> <p>Service providers already prioritize certain services over others through <a href="">Zero Rating</a>. Zero Rating is when certain services don’t count towards data caps - such as T-Mobile allowing services such as Spotify to be used without using your data, or <a href="">Comcast allowing you to stream Comcast’s services without hitting your data cap</a>. Zero Rating is technically not allowed by net neutrality rules because it could be applied to anything, including news outlets. What this means is your Internet provider can encourage you to use their own media outlets, or ones they agree with. In a world of zero rating, it’s hard to argue that if you pay for access to the Internet through a company, you shouldn’t also have access to their own services - but many service providers also have their own news networks.</p> <p>Even if service providers don’t go so far as to outright block things, they are able to slow them down. It turns out that it doesn’t take much to deter people from visiting a website. <a href="">People are unwilling to wait for a page to load</a>; a quarter of people visiting a page that takes 4 seconds to load will leave the page instead of waiting. Worse, there have already been issues with service providers slowing down certain services. In 2014, <a href="">Netflix found that Comcast was slowing down their streaming</a>. Comcast claimed that streaming Netflix videos took too much bandwidth; however, Netflix is far from the only service that streams video.</p> <p>Research has shown that adults who have reliable access to the Internet <a href="">are more likely to try to learn more about their world</a>. Access to a wide variety of viewpoints is important for people to make informed and empowered choices. With the Internet becoming a standard tool for accessing those viewpoints, it’s vital to make sure that Internet providers don’t become gatekeepers for information.</p> Wed, 04 Jan 2017 00:00:00 -0500 Why Internet Providers Don't Compete <p>In the United States, <a href="">most people have access to only one or two</a> Internet Service Providers. <a href="">Only 28% had access to three or more for speeds one might consider tolerable, and 9% for speeds one might consider “fast” as of 2014</a>. Since that data was collected, some providers have merged with others so there are fewer options available. Mobile Internet is better, as most people have access to more than three providers for standard speeds.</p> <p>The lack of options isn’t surprising. Unlike most other industries, <a href="">building an Internet service provider (ISP) is prohibitively difficult</a>. It requires large, expensive installations of equipment, and requires buying Internet service (to basically re-sell) from an existing service provider which could be a competitor. In addition, the initial costs are so high that a new service provider is unlikely to make money for several years after construction. <a href="">New neighborhoods are generally built with only one cable provider in mind</a> as well, which removes competition from the start. It isn’t impossible to create a new ISP, but it is far too difficult and expensive for most people to do it. Even Google is getting out of the fiber business after entering a few cities. Consider how difficult it would be to start a new electric company; starting a new ISP is similar.</p> <p>In addition to the technical problems with adding competition to the ISP market, larger ISPs actively avoid competing. In 2016, Charter agreed to FCC rules intended to increase competition in order to buy Time Warner Cable and Brighthouse, <a href="">then sued the FCC to overturn those rules</a>. Also in 2016, Charter explained that they don’t compete with other cable companies <a href="">because it would make it impossible to buy them</a>. In 2008, <a href="">Comcast even sued a city to block them from building their own local ISP</a>. In an industry that is already extremely difficult to get started in, these practices make it almost impossible to start another option.</p> <p>When service providers are forced to compete, their prices often drop substantially. When Google Fiber announced they would offer Internet service in Tennessee, for example, Comcast and AT&amp;T suddenly <a href="">began offering substantially lower prices and more products</a>. AT&amp;T cut prices for some of their products by as much as 40%. In Charlotte, Time Warner Cable <a href="">made their products 6x faster</a> when Google Fiber was expected to become available. Until there is competition, providers can offer any prices they want because there is no cheaper option. With how quickly ISPs are able to offer lower prices and better service when a competitor arrives, it’s clear that it’s possible to do better. Unfortunately, there’s no competitive push for improvements because competition is so rare.</p> Fri, 23 Dec 2016 00:00:00 -0500 Explaining Net Neutrality <p>Net Neutrality is the idea that all data on the Internet, regardless of who it comes from, its political affiliation, company, or who’s consuming it, should be treated the same way and should move at the same speed. We’ve enjoyed a mostly-neutral Internet for some time now, which is what has allowed the Internet to become an important means for moving information around the world. A neutral Internet is also the reason it’s easy for new companies to get up and running online and find their customers. It’s difficult to explain well in a short blog post the importance of a neutral Internet, so be sure to take a look at the links throughout for more information.</p> <p>At a glance, it can be difficult to understand why Net Neutrality matters, in particular because we’ve never seen a non-neutral Internet. A non-neutral Internet can even seem appealing from the marketing suggestions that service providers publish, in that you can pay only for what you need. Unfortunately, service providers themselves are far from neutral. If you like, or take issue with channels such as NBC, CNBC, MSNBC, FOX, or other major media outlets, you should be aware that they either own, or are owned by, service providers. Let’s take a look at a few commonly known ones:</p> <ul> <li>NBC, CNBC, MSNBC - Owned by Comcast <a href="">(From Freepress)</a></li> <li>CNN - Owned by Time Warner, which was recently bought by AT&amp;T <a href="">(From NPR)</a></li> <li>Newsday, AMC - Owned by Altice (Formerly, Cablevision) <a href="">(From Wikipedia)</a></li> <li>FOX, Dow Jones - Owned by NewsCorp, which has large stakes in several Internet service providers <a href="">(From Wikipedia)</a></li> </ul> <p>This is far from an exhaustive list; the intent was to highlight the fact that major media companies are not neutral. Considering the (generally) limited number of cable and Internet service providers in most areas, it’s not terribly unlikely that your Internet and cable is provided by a company with opinions that differ from yours. Further, a number of online and even print publications are owned by the same companies. If your cable or Internet service provider isn’t in that list, there’s a fair chance that it’s still owned by one of those companies. Still other companies are able to exert control over service providers due to their sheer size; <a href="">companies such as Disney, Viacom, and others you might not even consider such as GE</a>.</p> <p>Net Neutrality protects consumers from the positions that these media companies may hold by requiring them to not only allow you to see other viewpoints from theirs, but to allow you to access them just as easily. It’s reasonable to assume that the United States would protect that fact by law, but we don’t. In fact, in 2014, <a href="">the government agency that normally enforces that was stripped of its power to enforce it through their normal means</a>. Further, the sheer size of these companies, and the fact that they often have regional monopolies on the services they provide, means there is limited competition to fight the problem from a business standpoint.</p> <p>If Net Neutrality sees its end, those companies have the ability to control what you see. Most of us have seen channels (usually temporarily) disappear from our cable lineup because of disputes with companies over money and contracts. We would see more of that, and we would see it carry over to online content. In the 2016 election we saw huge amounts of fake news from both sides; but we had the ability to fact check it. That isn’t the case when the company providing your access limits what you’re able to see.</p> <p>When corporations have the ability to control the information that areas of the country have access to, it breaks democracy. Democracy only works with an informed populace; a populace that can be convinced to be divided and one whose opinions are manipulated is far easier for an authoritarian government to control. Alternatively, it also becomes possible for a very small elite to control elections by manipulating what people see. Many of us use the Internet to stay informed about what’s happening in the world around us and we need to make sure the Internet remains a neutral place to do that. And, if nothing else, a non-neutral Internet allows service providers to charge far more for delivering Internet service, something which has <a href="">a 97% profit margin already</a>.</p> <p><em>For more resources on Net Neutrality, see also:</em></p> <ul> <li><em><a href="">What is Net Neutrality - American Civil Liberties Union</a></em></li> <li><em><a href="">Net Neutrality: What You Need to Know -, Presented By Freepress</a></em></li> <li><em><a href="">Net Neutrality - Wikipedia</a></em></li> <li><em><a href="">What Will a Non-Neutral Internet Really Be Like? - CBS MoneyWatch</a></em></li> <li><em><a href="">What is net neutrality and what does it mean for me? - USA Today</a></em></li> </ul> Mon, 05 Dec 2016 00:00:00 -0500 Encryption is not the enemy <p>Encryption is a well-understood and well-known technology in the world of computing. Though the media would have us believe otherwise, <a href="">encryption is not much more than fairly basic math</a> involving some large, random numbers. There’s a little more to it than that, but it’s based around the fact that modern computers take a really long time to do certain things. That’s not that it’s complicated, just that it’s something computers happen to be fairly bad at. Most things that use encryption use methods that are widely used and known; it’s the keys (or passwords) that are not. No dark magic, and no weird science, just a little math and some keys. If you felt inclined, you could do the tedious job of encrypting something without a computer as long as you had some notes on the math and a calculator.</p> <p>While it isn’t always made clear, encryption is imperative when doing almost anything in the modern world. The <a href="">green lock icon in your address bar means you’re using a website over an encrypted connection</a>. If you have medical records, do banking, or use a credit card, encryption is involved in keeping you safe. All of us are directly or indirectly using some form of encryption in our daily lives often without noticing. Without this encryption, our data would be open for everyone to see and access. Stealing unencrypted information, especially while it’s moving over a network, is incredibly easy to do and requires nearly no “hacking” skills. In fact, there are apps available for “<a href="">network sniffing</a>”, as it’s called, <a href="">for your phone</a> and even <a href="">for your web browser</a>, because it’s a useful tool even in applications that don’t involve stealing data.</p> <p>Unfortunately, as we hear in the news in cases such as the San Bernardino iPhone case, encryption can keep valuable information out of the hands of governments involved in investigations. These cases get used to demonize encryption technologies to push for everything from backdoors (alternate ways of getting access to the information) to outright bans on encryption. These suggestions raise a lot of potential problems.</p> <p>Backdooring encryption is often propositioned as a reasonable “compromise” approach, but it doesn’t work. On the darker side of society, knowledge of how to break into a system and steal data via a backdoor can sell for huge amounts of money. It’s so lucrative, that there are people, companies, and governments all over the world who find and sell backdoors, and there are even people who do it for a living. No backdoor is perfect; for any of them, it’s only a matter of time before they get discovered, leaked, or sold by an unhappy employee to the highest bidder. In just the past month this has happened twice, resulting in the leaks of <a href="">NSA hacking tools</a> and <a href="">Microsoft’s Secure Boot master key</a>. Earlier this year, Juniper Networks announced they had <a href="">found and released a patch for a backdoor</a> possibly placed by the NSA in their systems - which are used by NATO and the U.S. government, among others. There is no such thing as a secure, invisible backdoor and the U.S. is far from the only entity trying to find and exploit backdoors.</p> <p>Like all technologies, encryption gets used from time to time by unsavory people. However, that does not give us a reason to compromise all of our safety in order to see what they’re hiding. The amount of fraud, data theft, and hacking that would result from the loss of secure encryption is far more dangerous. As far back as 2001, <a href="">NIST estimated that the net value of encryption ranged from $345 billion to $1.2 trillion</a> which puts a number to the major implications of breaking encryption (via a ban or backdoor). Encryption is a huge and important part of the modern world, and the calls to require backdoors, bans, or to start “Manhattan Project[s] for Encryption” as we hear officials suggest, are misguided.</p> <p><em>Endnote: I highly recommend reading the resources linked throughout if you’re interested in learning more. They’re highly informative and not overly technical in most cases, and provide a good overview of real-world events and research.</em></p> Sun, 28 Aug 2016 00:00:00 -0400 On Orlando <p>When I woke up yesterday morning, I saw that there had been a mass shooting in Orlando. It’s really telling that when I saw the headline, my reaction was “ugh, again?” and I kept scrolling. We’ve reached the point as a country where my generation considers mass shootings to be so common that we hardly react to the headlines and we forget about them quickly. Earlier this month, there was a murder-suicide at UCLA that we’ve already stopped talking about and others we haven’t even heard about. It’s clear that we need to do more, both legislatively and culturally, to work towards a resolution of these issues. When we politicize human rights and safety, this is the result and will continue to be the result.</p> <p>The attack on Pulse was a direct attack against LGBTQ+ individuals as well as U.S. citizens, Latinos, and Muslims. At least forty-nine innocent people died in the attack and fifty-three were injured, some in critical condition as of last night. Over 100 circles of families and friends are grieving, praying, and worrying; their lives will never be the same. It is nothing short of devastating.</p> <p>Those of us who are members of or allies of the LGBTQ+ community feel as though we’ve lost family and friends, even though most of us likely didn’t know any of the victims personally. Every one of us understands how it feels to come out, to have our first real kiss, and to have the strength to press on through the storms of gay slurs and anti-gay legislation. We’ve struggled, and we continue to struggle, for our love and our true genders to be recognized and accepted. We fight feelings of humiliation, of not being “man” or “woman” enough, nervousness of being who we are, and uneasiness of expressing our love where others can see it. For many attendees of Pulse, it was likely the one of few places where they could be themselves without fear. The victims are our people, our friends, and our family. All of us are grieving.</p> <p>It’s easy to assign blame to somewhere else. And indeed, Daesh has claimed responsibility. But, as Orlando slips below the fold on Facebook’s trending topics, we’ll do nothing but blame, and nothing to prevent the next shooting. We need to counter the culture of violence, racism, xenophobia, homophobia, sexism, etc that has come to light in this round of presidential primaries. Until we do, it’s all of our fault and will happen again, and again, and again in everyone’s communities and no amount of surveillance will prevent it.</p> Mon, 13 Jun 2016 00:00:00 -0400 Explaining Software to Non-Engineers <p>If certain stock images are to be believed, software engineering is equivalent to reading the source code of the Matrix. It’s not tremendously surprising to see it depicted that way. Software is a very abstract concept that is frequently communicated very poorly by the people who build it.</p> <p>As we learn about the world, we develop what are called mental models, <a href="">which are thought processes surrounding how something works</a>. When we learn about something new, we look for ways to apply our existing mental models to it, sometimes incorrectly. A great example of a mis-applied mental model is someone experienced with film cameras equating a digital camera’s memory card to film and replacing it when full. Mental models are usually functional so they don’t work as well when applied to something abstract such as software construction. Most people also don’t have a mental model that can be applied to software so they’re more inclined to use something they know such as the Matrix, hence amusing stock images.</p> <p>Not only is software an abstract concept, it’s surrounded by a lot of jargon. To a fellow software engineer, a statement such as “The API call to the MySQL database throws a null pointer exception” is perfectly understandable. To a non engineer, that sentence likely has absolutely no meaning at best, and at worst makes technology seem far more intimidating than it actually is. It’s okay to just say that something broke. If more information than that is needed, the person is probably at least slightly technical but even saying that “when the program tries to get data, it doesn’t get anything and crashes” conveys information without saying something that <a href="">sounds like television static</a>. Real world analogies can also be helpful since it’s <a href="">easier to fit a mental model to things that can be pictured</a>.</p> <p>I’ve seen a lot of engineers take a “tell me more” or a “how does that work” as a cue to give tons of details and watched the eyes of the person they’re talking to glaze over. A lot of people will smile and nod no matter what is said as soon as the technical details are completely incomprehensible to them, in hopes of seeming like they understand. It can also start an interesting game of Telephone if they try to explain it to someone later. Eventually, we end up with magic and aliens.</p> <p>Most of the time, we don’t need to explain the low levels of how an application works to someone who asked about it but it can be hard to gauge how technical to go. Unless someone asks, it’s better to keep it simple and explain the idea behind it like you’re trying to sell it as something cool. Maybe the messaging framework your microservices use to talk to each other is super cool, but your grandma probably doesn’t need to know about it. In fact, she probably doesn’t even need to know about the microservices, just the end goal that your application fulfills.</p> Wed, 16 Mar 2016 00:00:00 -0400 Blogging with Git and Jekyll <p>With most blog platforms, the process of creating a blog post is pretty similar. It usually looks something like: log into your blog, click the “create post” or equivalent button, fill out the title, write the post, add tags, and click save. Of course, it varies a little bit across platforms because some platforms offer niceties that others don’t. However, other than a few niceties here and there blogging using most platforms is pretty much the same. The workflow for a static site is a departure from that: open a new file in a text editor, write a few pieces of data at the top, write your post, save it, and use your tool to regenerate your site. The simplicity is great because it means you can adjust the process and the tools to make it your own.</p> <p>My website is hosted on Github Pages which means it’s version controlled using Git. Git, and version control in general, keeps track of everything you noted that you changed, effectively allowing you to time travel and “undo” back to the very beginning of your project if need be. In addition, Git has what are referred to as “branches” which allow you to go on a tangent to try something new and either keep it or not depending how it works out. Github provides some tools for making this prettier to use but I usually work out of a console and do things manually.</p> <p>So, let’s tie this back into writing a blog.</p> <p>It’s worth noting that Jekyll itself supports drafts of blog posts. Drafting a post in Jekyll involves creating the draft in a draft folder and later moving it to the folder where your published blog posts live. This works perfectly well, but when Git is involved it feels messy since Git branches provide a different concept of drafting that doesn’t require moving files to their final location.</p> <p>When writing a new blog post, I draft it in place (in my published posts folder) where all of my published posts live. Before I commit (officially log changes) in Git, I create a new branch for it. I can work on multiple drafts on different branches which helps remove the temptation to multitask because when on one branch, drafts on other branches are invisible. I can work on and commit to my draft as much as I want and even push it to Github if I want to share it without publishing it. Once I’m done with a draft, I merge it into the master branch of my website where it goes live when I push to Github.</p> <p>Here’s how this post came into existence:</p> <ol> <li>Create a new branch<br /> <code class="highlighter-rouge">git checkout -b blogging-with-git</code></li> <li>Write the post<br /> <code class="highlighter-rouge">vim blog/_posts/</code></li> <li>Commit the post to Git<br /> <code class="highlighter-rouge">git commit -m "Create blogging with git post" blog</code></li> </ol> <p>And how it got published:</p> <ol> <li>Switch to the master branch of the website<br /> <code class="highlighter-rouge">git checkout master</code></li> <li>Merge the draft in<br /> <code class="highlighter-rouge">git merge blogging-with-git</code></li> <li>Push the changes to Github<br /> <code class="highlighter-rouge">git push</code></li> <li>Github Pages then runs jekyll build and the post goes live!</li> </ol> <p>For me, it’s a great experience. It’s super lightweight so I can do it on any system that has Git installed, it’s very similar to my process of writing software, and it’s really easy to avoid distractions while I write. It’s also flexible which makes adapting it to different needs or habits really easy.</p> Tue, 09 Feb 2016 00:00:00 -0500 Creativity in Coding <p>As a culture, we tend to have a difficult time seeing technical disciplines as creative. It can sometimes be hard to imagine engineering as something creative because it frequently comes in the form of exact results and is spoken of in terms that are sometimes difficult to understand. This divide is imaginary because the technical and the creative are perfectly capable of coexisting. Working within the constraints of an engineering project does not restrict creativity, <a href="">it tends to encourage more of it</a>. Engineering products are creative works even though it’s sometimes hard to see them as such.</p> <p>Examining the technical/creative mix from a software standpoint, there is a lot of room for and a lot of need for creativity. Source code can be written many ways to solve the same problem. Developers frequently have their own style and their own method of solving problems. In fact, <a href="">a recent research project</a> discovered that it’s possible to identify who wrote a section of source code based on the style of the code and how it worked. Developers have the ability, for a very simple example, to decide between using a ‘while’ or ‘for’ loop or recursion, all of which are usually interchangeable. There may also be constraints based on what the computer the code will run on is capable of doing that require some creative thinking. A great example of this is in the Quake III Arena game source code, which needed to take the inverse square root of a number frequently and very quickly. This resulted in the creation of a novel method of doing the math in code involving a constant (unchanging) number, documented in the code as “what the fuck?” and known as the <a href="">fast inverse square root</a>.</p> <p>In addition to the source code itself, there is an amount of architectural design that goes into software. During the planning stages of a project, there are architectural drawings created and revised. There are accepted patterns to use to ensure that a design makes sense even after the original designer leaves the project but how they are used and combined is up to the discretion of the designer. There may also be constraints that the engineer needs to work within, which can involve designing workarounds or more novel methods of doing things to make everything fit. Creative minds are much better at thinking in subtly different ways, rather than trying to slam pieces together to make them fit.</p> <p>By limiting ourselves (and our idea of others) to the idea that technical disciplines lack creativity, we create a closed-minded view of the world. Sure, source code may not be an interesting read to the layperson, but seeing novel ways of doing things in it is just as interesting as reading a new spin on an old story. Technical people benefit from building their creative process as much as a more typical artist. Creativity yields solutions to problems that other people could easily overlook, no matter the field.</p> <p>We all see the world in different ways. Whether we choose to express our views as code, schematics, paintings, writing, or anything else, we still stand to gain from nurturing our creativity. A technical discipline is no less creative than an artistic one, the work produced just takes a different form - and often, many forms - before it reaches the form people experience it as. No matter what though, just as there is bad art, there is bad code.</p> Wed, 13 Jan 2016 00:00:00 -0500 Taking Time Off From Software Engineering <p>A lot of us in the software field live, breathe, and even dream software. We love what we do so we surround ourselves with it; we join massive groups of software engineers where we constantly ask for critiques of our websites and resumes and show off our new thing we’re building from something new we’re learning that we’re sure is going to change the world while we flaunt our startup ideas because we want to create the next big thing but often we put things on hold “to come back to” (except we never get back to them) to play with the new new thing so we don’t fall behind while the live stream of someone programming or the most recent Hackathon sits on our second screen so we can learn something else new or to look at the latest high stakes in competitive coding then we get home from work or school and immediately dive into our personal software scene so we don’t miss a beat while we’re awake and later we get woken up at 3AM by our phone because someone we once talked to online a year ago started a company and wants to hire us and in the morning we wake up to swim through emails of bug reports and feature requests on a project we built that someone noticed and now a bunch of people use.</p> <p>That paragraph was one long sentence with little punctuation so you’re probably out of breath. Take a breath.</p> <p>One more for good measure.</p> <p>That’s what it sometimes feels like to be involved in software. Don’t get me wrong, we love every second of it. Software engineering isn’t an easy discipline as it’s a mashup of tech and creativity and that’s what makes it interesting. Unfortunately, it’s easy to get so invested that we start to take it for granted and to forget that there’s a life away from the screen. If we’re not careful, we can start to burn out as we software becomes just something we do, rather than something we enjoy doing.</p> <p>Admittedly, software is difficult to take a break from. As software engineers, we create things that are used everywhere; we go about our day and immediately notice when software could be written better. We notice when it takes the clerk ten taps to put in our two item order and we notice the weird hoops our web banking forces us through to log in. It sometimes takes a conscious effort to say “No. I don’t need to work on this problem right now.”</p> <p>If we don’t slow down and take some time to look at the bigger world, we start to burn out. We forget we still need to experience the bigger world that we’re trying to improve if we want to continue to improve it. Even worse, we start taking our engineering world for granted. When that happens, we start to feel jaded and we forget our enthusiasm for what we do. We need to take time to breathe so we can remind ourselves why we enjoy software, notice the new things we can fix, and rest our fingers.</p> Mon, 02 Nov 2015 00:00:00 -0500 Journey to a Static Site <p>For the longest time, I was enamored by the idea of having a dynamic site. Everything remotely dynamic on my site was powered by external services such as Disqus or Blogger. Despite that, I imagined I would eventually come up with some cool, dynamic content to put on my site and that I should pre-emptively fill that void if and when I would ever need it. To fill this imaginary need I ended up building my own PHP web framework, complete with its own (really terrible) database layer. I learned a lot while doing it so it was a worthwhile project and it even worked fairly well for a while. Eventually though, it became too large, and debatably too broken of a project to continue working on alone, especially with much better frameworks out there.</p> <p>I still wanted to push for that dynamic site. My PHP framework wasn’t working out anymore and I didn’t feel like dealing with Wordpress or figuring out another framework, so I turned to Django. I rewrote my site (in under a quarter of the code), wrote importers and exporters that allowed me to automatically pull everything from my site into the new system and was up and running in a couple days. It wasn’t bad, except for the several things I wanted that I hadn’t had time to build, and the several others that were kind of broken. I was still not too keen on maintaining the code, so finding the time to add those features became a challenge, especially in the absence of something new and interesting to work on instead of just making my website operable again…and again.</p> <p>What’s funny about my insistence aboug having a dynamic site is that my site isn’t particularly dynamic. In fact, it’s gotten less so over the years. When I had Blog comments, it was via Disqus which was much more of a complete service than I would have built myself. Tracking was and is via Google Analytics. All in all, I was maintaining hundreds of lines of code (or in the case of Thenaterweb, thousands) to serve what could just as well be done with something like Jekyll. Or, if I was absolutely insistent on a non-static site, an install of Wordpress, Ghost, or other existing system that I could customize.</p> <p>A month or two later, after repairing the posting system on my site for the umpteenth time which was broken because of other changes I’d made, I finally decided the gig was up. It turns out that, unsurprisingly, maintaining a dynamic content site alone is a bit of a time sink. More importantly though, I finally was coming to terms with the fact that if I was going to build a service with dynamic content, it probably wouldn’t run off of my personal website. I decided to scrap the pile of Django (which was not worth open-sourcing) that powered my site and switched to Github Pages with Jekyll.</p> <p>Transitioning to GitHub pages and Jekyll was pretty painless. I found a new and much cleaner template to use, since I was going to be cutting it up into template files for Jekyll and I didn’t want to put work into the one I had, which I wasn’t overly happy with. Since Jekyll’s templates are pretty standard there wasn’t much new to learn so getting everything set up was pretty easy and was just a matter of putting everything in the right place. Jekyll even let me import my blog via my existing feed so I didn’t need to write another slew of code. I was able to make the transition in about a day without any interesting problems.</p> <p>In the end, I’m pretty happy with it. I dislike deleting code, but I deleted the mess of Django that powered my site for a few months for cathartic reasons. Dropping the pretense that I needed to maintain a framework for some imaginary dynamic content gave me back a lot of time. I won’t claim to have mastered Jekyll at this point, but I will say that it’s way less painful than dealing with the mess of code and broken features that I was slogging through before. There’s also the bonus that I can use Jekyll to dump it as a static site that I can host anywhere. As cool as writing software is, there are places that are better left to more simple solutions so you can focus on writing way cooler things, take it from me.</p> Tue, 15 Sep 2015 00:00:00 -0400 Collecting in a Digital World <p>Let’s be honest. For the layman, there isn’t a real need to own media anymore. No matter what it is, the Internet makes it easy to find and easy to get no matter where or when you are. We’re lazy—someone else already did it and most of the time we’re willing to pay them instead of devoting our own time to finding everything we want. Despite that, some of us still choose to maintain our own collections. These media libraries often amount to dozens upon dozens of terabytes of media on an array of drives somewhere, that we stream with Plex or Emby or a similar solution. It eventually amounts to more media than one person is actually able to realistically consume. To add a little perspective, a collection in the low end of that consisting only of HD video would take over a year to watch in its entirety if played 24/7/365 with no breaks.</p> <p>Looking generally at why humans collect anything digital or physical, collecting (not hoarding) is associated with positive emotions. There is a satisfaction associated with searching and finding things to add to a collection and connecting with like-minded people. This works the same way with collecting media, although amassing what often will eventually become a large amount of digital data brings about some interesting challenges. For the problem solvers in us, it couldn’t be better.</p> <p>One of the largest challenges is figuring out the logistics of finding, downloading, and organizing everything. Once you own more data than can fit on one or two hard drives, there are better ways of storing things than just throwing it on a hard drive and calling it a day. There are considerations for what filesystem to use, what RAID level to use, whether to rent cloud space or buy a server, and how to back it up. If we’re downloading ongoing TV shows, there’s the added problem of how to keep our collection up to date with the latest episodes.</p> <p>There are also people who simply prefer to own their media rather than to stream it from someone else. While the world of Netflix and Amazon Prime make it more convenient than ever to simply not own media, online services keep tabs on what you watch and the availability of media depends entirely on them. It also stays available even if the Internet isn’t, which occasionally happens with enough bad weather—often the times you want your media the most.</p> <p>Owning media has the added benefit of allowing you to choose the quality of what’s in your collection. While for the layman HD is usually enough, the compression that some services use isn’t always totally up to par. With a higher end system it can be really noticeable and at times extremely annoying (looking at you, Netflix). If nothing else, owning things is just satisfying, even if it is just a server full of a dozen terabytes of media.</p> <p>So why do we keep amassing media that we don’t necessarily need? It opens up a world of new toys and new challenges that are hard to find somewhere else. We have the option to store and consume our media however we want and in whatever quality we want, no matter what the Internet thinks. Although we may have so much media we never watch a movie twice (or sometimes, at all), we get just as much fun figuring out the best way to store that movie as we do from sitting down to watch it.</p> Mon, 27 Apr 2015 00:00:00 -0400 Human Interaction Through Analytics <p>With social media, we have more people to talk to than ever and more ways to talk to them. However, our bigger networks do not translate to more meaningful social interactions. Everything we share is carefully curated and censored to show only what we think makes us look our best to the network we’re sharing with, removing spontaneity and authenticity from how we interact.</p> <p>As our interactions become less genuine, we feel increasingly lost in the crowd and we get lonely. We expand our friend lists and gather followers to make up for feeling lonely, but this doesn’t make up for the human element that we’re losing. No matter how many hashtags we add to our posts, how much we post ourselves all over our profiles and other people’s profiles, we still can’t achieve the genuineness of speaking in person and being heard that we as a species need.</p> <p>To counter the feeling of not being heard, we seek out statistics that make us able to feel like we’re getting noticed. The first manifestation of the desire to know if the Internet heard us was the Geocities era visitor counters that were worn at the bottom of personal websites as badges of honor. Another indication of the demand for analytics was the spam that appeared in our Facebook news feeds a few times a week promising statistics on who viewed who’s profiles, which got clicked and shared repeatedly.</p> <p>Analytics are certainly not new — Urchin (eventually Google Analytics) came about in 1997, and they were not the first solution. Businesses have long been using analytics to make their websites better to better serve their visitors and improve their bottom lines. It comes as no surprise that various providers stepped up to provide more powerful tools on the end where money was involved. On the consumer end, there was little money to be had so there was little reason for providers to step up and provide the same services.</p> <p>These days, those of us who run our own websites or otherwise administer web properties have our pick of a variety of tools and can keep track of huge amounts of information about our content and our visitors; everything from where they are, to what kind of computer they have, to the interests Google thinks they have, far beyond the basic visitor counter. However, a large portion of the online community doesn’t run their own web property, and thus doesn’t have the ability to make use of such tools. Social media is slowly catching up and services such as LinkedIn and Twitter now offer various statistics about personal profiles and others are sure to follow.</p> <p>Why the demand for analytics? Most people are not monetizing their web content and aren’t looking to improve their bottom line. As we feel less noticed since posting to our growing groups of followers is equatable to throwing papers into the wind, we crave more connection.</p> <p>Over the majority of sites, other than direct interactions with our posts as “likes” or comments or similar, we have no way of knowing that the words we threw into the cyber wind were noticed, much less that anybody actually cared. Statistics give us another piece of feeling as though we interacted with people — they show us that maybe, just maybe, we were noticed. It allows us to think that at least some of our connections might be listening, similar to how having huge networks makes us think we have a lot of people to interact with.</p> Mon, 30 Mar 2015 00:00:00 -0400 When to Bail and When to Sail <p>A couple years ago, I decided to learn PHP since I had a website and I felt that my knowledge of web development was lacking without it. I started off with a few simple PHP pages, and didn’t really intend to go much farther than that. I knew that creating my own web platform would be pretty futile, since as one person who didn’t really know anything about how frameworks worked under the hood, I likely couldn’t come up with something better on my own. The plan was to learn PHP, then switch over to something that was already an accepted solution. Always up for a challenge however, I kept going and a few pages written with a smattering of PHP evolved into an actual piece of software that did more than show a different greeting every time the page was loaded. I knew what I was doing, but I pushed on anyway because things were going pretty well - I had a simple blog, pages, a login system - and they worked fairly well. I kept thinking of ways to do it better so I improved as I went, and added new features. The framework evolved from a few lines of PHP code to an actual framework with over 5,400 lines of source code and over 1000 commits. My main goal wasn’t to build a new web framework so much as it was to hone my skills as a developer, but I kept pushing forwards despite my better judgement.</p> <p>Unfortunately as a project reaches that size and continues to evolve heavily, it becomes incredibly difficult to maintain independently. It became a challenge just to keep everything working, let alone to add the new features that I wanted. I had no support in my efforts (everyone else was sane enough to keep their distance), and components of my site broke frequently as I improved other sections. I started to set up Travis CI but I started too late, and putting together all the tests was tedious and did not turn out to be work that I enjoyed. I finally started looking into alternative frameworks for my site because it was just too much work to maintain my own and I wasn’t getting the enjoyment out of it that I started with. My desire to work on the project started grinding down and sections of the framework stayed broken for longer periods of time. I eventually came to terms with the fact that the project had reached its peak, so I decided to finally put it to rest, turn my back on the smoldering pile of PHP code that ran my website and find a different solution.</p> <p>Although I eventually chose to bail on it, Thenaterweb was a valuable project. It was useful - kind of - for a period of time, but turned out to be a huge learning experience. It’s interesting to look through the history of the code to watch my skills, and therefore the code, evolve and improve. What started as what should have been a few days of PHP work to learn a new language turned into a huge saga of learning standards, working with databases, feeds, and all manner of other things. Probably most importantly though, I learned when to bail. It’s easy to keep slogging through the mud on a project hoping to see it to some end for the sake of ego or accomplishment, but some things are never destined to make it to that point. Thenaterweb was a prime example - it wasn’t intended to exist, but always seemed to be going somewhere and I was intent on getting it wherever that was. Although it was difficult, I was able to put my ego aside and move on to bigger and better things. Bailing on a project can be hard, particularly as an engineer (we’re known for having big egos), but some projects are meant to be laid to rest without being seen through.</p> Sun, 08 Feb 2015 00:00:00 -0500 To Update or Not to Update <p>With the official end of life for Windows XP quickly approaching and some people scrambling to migrate to a new system, it’s interesting to look at the reasons for and against pushing through an upgrade. Upgrading to a new version of an operating system or a different operating system entirely can be a lot of work with migrating files and settings over. This is especially the case with XP, since there is no direct upgrade path from XP (which is 13 years old) to Windows 7 or 8 - or Linux/Mac for some.</p> <p>Since upgrading to a new operating system is generally more of an ordeal than updating individual applications, there’s those who consider hunkering down rather than moving on when end of life comes around. There are always reasons against it - it takes time to get everything on the new system set up, there may be a learning curve, it might be expensive. The issue is that while these are valid concerns, choosing to stay with an aging system that is out of support is dangerous. Security issues can be discovered in newer versions and will be fixed, but the fixes won’t be pushed to the older version and as more come to light, the less powerful even the best antivirus is to actually keep things safe. In addition, as the system gets older and further out of life, technology moves on and more developers will stop making sure their things work on it.</p> <p>As a software engineer, I generally use the latest and greatest of the available software offerings. I upgraded to Windows 8 before Windows 8 was publicly available, and I run Arch Linux which gets software updates multiple times a day. There are a number of motivations for this, but one of the biggest is that I work on the “behind the scenes” of software that most people don’t experience. I get to see (and in some cases, work on) all the interesting software bugs and evolutions of pieces of software. Having that firsthand awareness, I push to keep everything I use up to date because I want to avoid the lingering issues and potential security flaws in the software I use.</p> <p>So what’s the case for XP? Windows XP is 13 years old. Already it isn’t possible to upgrade its copy of Internet Explorer and the patches and bugfixes are over for consumers and most businesses come the end of life in April. As new security holes are found in newer versions of Windows, they will not be fixed on XP, though they will be published. Antivirus and security software is very limited in its capabilities as far as protecting against security flaws in Windows go and won’t protect against everything, making XP a sitting duck. Further, the world of computing will move on and leave XP behind even if not everyone else does. New technologies will come out that XP simply will never have support for. While hunkering down on XP may seem like an okay plan, in the world of the Internet it simply isn’t.</p> <p>Where will you go? There are new versions of Windows to be had. Windows 8 is the latest (though to many, not the greatest), and Microsoft will give a $100 discount to anyone who upgrades from XP to a new Windows 8 system. Other options might be Linux or Mac. If you’re still running XP and not feeling the pressure to upgrade, it’s possible that you might even be able to replace it with an Android tablet or a Chromebook. No matter what you choose, take it from a software engineer: staying on Windows XP is a <strong>bad idea</strong>.</p> Wed, 26 Mar 2014 00:00:00 -0400 Tech Tasks to Start 2014 <p><em>For feed subscribers: Please update your subscription URL to Email subscribers do not need to take any action.</em></p> <p>Now that we’re on to the beginning of the first full week of the new year and we’re setting into 2014, it’s a good time to take a look at the technology status quo and see what adjustments can be made for a safe, secure, and productive new year online.</p> <p><strong>Change passwords.</strong> Although once a year is much less frequent than passwords should be changed, memorizing new passwords can be a pain. Once a year is better than never, especially when the same passwords have been around for a while. Take some time to come up with a good pattern for passwords that is easy to remember but difficult to guess then stick to it. Use a pattern that results in different passwords for each website without easily guessed information in it and has a mix of numbers, letters, and other symbols. Interestingly, though it may seem like a good idea given the symbol recommendation, using characters from other languages may not be a good idea as many sites don’t handle the characters correctly, making a password including them less secure. Another option is to use a password management program such as LastPass to store passwords. Storing passwords using a browser is not secure.</p> <p><strong>Clean up Social Media.</strong> Facebook, Twitter, and the like are great for keeping in touch with friends or pretending to keep in touch with various celebrities, but they inevitably end up subscribed to people who served a temporary purpose - a project partner, workmate, or otherwise someone who we don’t intend to be in contact with anymore. Clean them out and make room for the next wave of temporary contacts of the new year. As much as we like sharing things, making sure privacy settings are up to date and still only show the things to people that we expect to be sharing with people is still important. Similarly, it may be a good time to go through and take down anything that shouldn’t have been shared so that they’re less likely to be dug up by anyone or any other services.</p> <p><strong>Update software and devices.</strong> Although turning of Windows Update or the equivalent for phones, computers, and various other devices can be tempting if it gets in the way (and we all knows Windows is great at updating at the worst times), it’s still important to make sure software stays up to date with the latest security patches regardless of operating system. Make sure everything gets updated and if possible, change the update schedule so that things update themselves at more convenient times. Remember! Windows XP stops receiving security updates (and all updates for that matter) in April, so make sure to have an upgrade plan in place when the time comes.</p> <p><strong>Start backing up your data!</strong> Backing up important files to cloud services or other devices is important to do on a regular basis in case of a disaster. Spilling coffee on a laptop, losing a device, or any number of problems can pop up unexpectedly and jeopardize your data. As more and more important information is stored digitally, making sure that multiple copies exist is a must. Backing up data is as simple as copying files to another place and regularly making sure the copies are up to date. Alternatively, sign up for a cloud service such as Dropbox, Google Drive, Copy or others, which have the added bonus of keeping files in sync across multiple devices.</p> <p>And, of course, have a safe and happy 2014.</p> Mon, 06 Jan 2014 00:00:00 -0500 Stuck in the Monkeysphere <p>Humans are a social species, so as a species we don’t like being alone for long periods of time, and we like the attention of others. The Internet seems like a great thing with the rise of various social networks that let us share our interests and thoughts with people across the globe and allows us to gather a large social following of like-minded people. Given that, it would seem that the Internet should make us all happy as we expand our circles globally and to people we may have never met in person. Social networking is now the number one activity on the Internet (displacing porn, which was at the top for quite a while).</p> <p>As we spend more time online with our virtual friends, we start to lose some of our ability to manage real-world social interactions to the point where picking up the phone or meeting someone in person makes some people incredibly nervous. Research is showing that as our relationships increasingly move to the Internet, our satisfaction in these relationships falls dramatically to the point where they almost no longer count as “real” relationships. This becomes apparent as most people (unconsciously) put on a facade to make themselves look better on the Internet so their online network becomes a group of people who are less able to relate to each other on a genuine level, and as friends lists surpass several hundred people who may not know each other in person (and may never). We feel more connected, but the more connected we are, the more opportunity we have to present ourselves in the way that we want to be seen so the less genuine our relationships become. Reports of people with large online networks who feel lonely or isolated from their friends are becoming increasingly common as we lose the ability to be alone, since there’s so much focus on being connected to everyone else (even when we can’t or shouldn’t be).</p> <p>An interesting phenomenon that exists - and becomes more pronounced with social media - is the Monkeysphere. The Monkeysphere was discovered in monkeys (who are also social creatures) and found that the size of the groups of monkeys is limited to about 50. Beyond that, social interactions and relationships start to break down and so the group breaks apart. Humans experience a similar phenomenon, and our limit is on average 150 people. Considering that we can only intimately know around 150 people at any given time, the fact that our friend lists far surpass 150 people in a lot of cases shows that we want more and we’re trying to get more, but there’s a lot of people in our social groups who we may not have the capacity to have relationships with (simply because we’ve surpassed our limits). We may try, and the Internet makes it easier to pretend we’re good at it, but in actuality we can’t handle it and we don’t know where we fit in.</p> <p>As our friend lists grow, our online relationships become lower quality, and we lost the ability to deal with being alone, we start to feel lonely and isolated and we’re not sure why. Years ago, when social networking was much newer it would be easier to limit it and go outside more, but it’s too late for that since society is too wound up in Facebook, Twitter, Google+, Instagram, and the like. It’s much more work to have real relationships and because we’re not accustomed to it, interacting in the real world where we can’t edit everything before we say it becomes disconcerting. The Internet is great for keeping in touch with people we may not see much, but not really so great at creating new relationships with people we’ve never met.</p> <p>Sources</p> <ul> <li><a href=""></a></li> <li><a href=""></a></li> <li><a href=""></a></li> </ul> Wed, 04 Dec 2013 00:00:00 -0500 Biometric Badness <p>There’s nothing quite like the slick, high tech (when it works, at least) feeling of swiping your finger to unlock your devices. It’s fast, it’s convenient, and it feels futuristic, which explains why there are so many laptops that are capable of authenticating users via their fingerprints. Unfortunately, using fingerprints as a “more secure” login system should have been a short time fad. Although the technology continues to improve, it provides a false sense of security.</p> <p>Why is this significant now? The technology has been embedded in laptops for some time - I have one too - but Apple is the first to put it on a phone which, if the past is any indication, will cause it to make its way into other phones as well. In terms of the implementation of it, from what I have read it sounds fairly sound. Fingerprint data is hashed (converted to an irreversible string of data that looks nothing like a fingerprint) and stored in a dedicated area on the iPhone. iOS has access to this only to ask if a fingerprint is valid or not and other apps don’t have access to the reader or to stored fingerprint data. That’s not to say that won’t change in the future, but that is the case for the iPhone 5s.</p> <p>Mobile devices pose an increasing privacy risk for their carriers as well as their contacts, since most (smart)phones are now able to carry a contact list, logged-in applications, credit card numbers, and all manner of other things. Far too few people secure them adequately, opening up routes for invading privacy and stealing money. There are far too many stories of someone’s phone being stolen and accounts being hacked into, or the thief running up hundreds of dollars in data use. There’s a number of ways to make it somewhat more difficult for a thief to gain enough access to a phone be it with a PIN code, password, or what-have-you depending on your device. By adding TouchID to the iPhone, Apple has provided yet another method that hopefully more people will make use of.</p> <p>The issue with using fingerprint data for authentication is that unless we walk around wearing gloves, we leave our fingerprints on everything we touch. Most significantly - right on our keyboard or phone touchscreen; conveniently right next to the thing that reads them and logs us in. In consumer electronics, the readers aren’t tremendously difficult to fool by lifting the fingerprints and making copies. Some readers can even be fooled with a conductive print of the lines from the fingerprint. Apple’s reads fingerprints at a much higher resolution (they say), but even that one has been fooled.</p> <p>While we should provide more ways to secure devices so that more people are inclined to use them, providing a false sense of security with flashy biometric readers is unsafe. While it keeps out the casual thief - hopefully - too many people and even companies consider fingerprint data to be far more secure than it actually is. Phones are a difficult devices to provide good security for because of how easily they’re lost or “borrowed,” and if more people choose to use any security at all it’s better for all of us. Let’s be careful with trusting them with anything highly secure, however.</p> Mon, 23 Sep 2013 00:00:00 -0400 Bridging the Technology Gap <p>The world of computing has come a long way in the area of usability. It’s possible for anyone to pick up a device and find their way around it because of clean graphical user interfaces. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a great thing that makes the Internet accessible to everyone no matter of age. The problem is that this is moving a large part of the population to the point where they are computer illiterate, with little to no understanding of how to fix or how to manage their own computers. As we collectively decide to delegate the duties of maintaining and building devices to the IT departments and engineers - who many think rather low of - we start to remove the understanding of how to manage an increasingly computerized world from policy makers.</p> <p>As we move to more accessible computers, we start to introduce kids to technology at younger and younger ages, it’s easy to lead ourselves to believe that kids are getting increasingly computer literate. While we are giving kids access to a wealth of information and are acclimating them to using technology, we are not promoting any kind of computer literacy. Using a computer is becoming a skill nearly ubiquitous as knowing how to speak, but as with knowing how to speak not involving any particular amount of literacy, knowing how to navigate through menus doesn’t make one computer literate. Instead of pushing for skills on how to manage a computer we delegate all of the “hard” tasks that we would rather not understand to the lowly IT department and engineers, effectively taking control of our data out of our own hands. We’re creating a generation of people who understand technology less than the alleged “technologically illiterate” older generation which is nothing short of downright dangerous when it comes to a new generation of people writing policies and managing companies. We’re losing control of our data and our technology as we remove ourselves from it.</p> <p>We need to fix the problem before we lose control of our own devices as they get increasingly locked down and we’re no longer able to manage them. For some, that may seem appealing, but it isn’t a bright future when our data and the abilities of the things we use are entirely at the mercy of the computer shop down the street or the IT department in the basement, or the policymakers governing what we are allowed to do with them. Already we see problems with this with attempted policies like SOPA and CISPA trying to take what we are allowed to see out of our hands.</p> <p>To prevent this, we need to put aside the irrational fear of knowing how our devices work under the hood. We need to look at the under the hood as another place for our kids to explore, whether or not we understand it ourselves. There’s a whole world to be explored beyond the safety of Microsoft and Apple with a lot of exciting things to discover. Linux is free, the source code is feely and legally available, and a number of projects are open to people looking to learn and contribute. Languages like Python are free, easy to learn, and easy to develop in.</p> <p>Projects such as the Raspberry Pi are a great place for anyone willing to learn to dive into learning Linux and how to make a device do anything, limited only by your imagination. We need to put aside our irrational fear of letting our kids explore a place safer than the Internet that lies behind every device we use and broaden our horizens to become computer literate again. Take it from a software engineer - it can be intimidating, but it’s an important skill. We need to stop allowing kids to just use their devices but to push them to explore further than ‘liking’ and ‘following.’</p> <p>Useful resources for learning or teaching:</p> <ul> <li><a href="">Raspberry Pi Foundation</a></li> <li><a href="">Code Academy</a></li> <li><a href=""></a></li> <li>And more…</li> </ul> Tue, 20 Aug 2013 00:00:00 -0400 Augmented Reality and Privacy <p>Augmented reality uses a computer to overlay information on our view of the real world to enhance it by providing more information or entertainment or even ads. While it has been a feature of science fiction - in spacesuit helmets, targeting computers, and the like - for some time, it’s working its way into the real world. One of the first practical applications of it was Google Goggles, which uses the camera on an Android phone to search via images or bar codes and to overlay extra information on the view through the camera. This is something that gets more useful as the technology becomes wearable - as with Google Glass - and has some obvious uses, such as navigation.</p> <p>The fact that in order to be useful, augmented reality technology requires a computer to be tracking in real-time what the user is doing while the technology is in use raises some concerns about privacy and security, both for the user themselves as well as for anyone around them. Some of these concerns came up when mobile devices began to include cameras, such as making sure it’s not possible to take pictures secretly (this is why mobile cameras make obnoxious sounds when they take pictures). The problem with augmented reality is that when the technology is worn, it’s much harder to make it clear when events are being recorded. Google Glass currently requires a spoken command to take pictures and videos, but doesn’t make it obvious if the user continues to take video. Additionally, by using facial recognition with Facebook or Google, it becomes possible to identify anyone in the line of sight of of the user - and Google recently turned down a Glass app that did just that. Although most of us don’t expect a huge amount of privacy while walking in public, giving anyone the ability to identify us on the spot without ever saying a word is incredibly creepy. Forget targeted Internet ads, real-life salespeople could show you only products you might be interested in, based on what they surreptitiously learn about you before saying a word. The Internet already tailors itself to what it thinks you want to see, and with AR the real world could follow suit.</p> <p>The issue of privacy and security gets more interesting when you consider that the computer driving any augmented reality is a computer - likely attached to the Internet - running software that could contain any number of security holes. Google pushed a patch to Glass a few days ago where Glass automatically identified and executed data stored in QR codes that it recognized as pictures, because it was found this could be exploited to make Glass stream video to a paired bluetooth device without the user knowing. While an exploit such as this isn’t necessarily useful given the limited range of bluetooth and pairing requirements, it reminds us that there can be exploits. Glass, for example, knows where you are and what you’re looking at which could yield a wealth of personal data to advertisers and hackers. While wearing an augmented reality device, simply looking at a credit card would be enough to lead to identity theft if the device has been exploited, for example.</p> <p>What this means for the rest of us is that as more augmented realities work their way into everyday life, the amount of privacy we can expect drops substantially. Google turns down apps for Glass that allow identifying people, but there is no way of knowing if other manufacturers would do the same. For individual users, augmented reality needs to know a minimum of what the user is looking at which doesn’t necessarily allow for a lot of privacy. The issue of security and privacy is one thing where the Internet is concerned, but as it works its way more substantially into the real world, it raises some interesting and definitely not unfounded concerns.</p> Thu, 18 Jul 2013 00:00:00 -0400 The Worth of Your Email <p>When it comes to using the Internet, an email account is the base requirement for providing identification. Nearly everything from commenting on an article to creating an account on a new website requires an email address. Most of us log into websites with our email without giving it a second thought, which is understandable because it’s the standard for confirming who we are at least once. Given how easily we throw our email addresses around, it’s easy to forget the importance of the data that is or will eventually find its way into the inbox. Password reset links, account confirmations, bank statements - it all ends up in that one, convenient spot.</p> <p>Unfortunately, most people don’t keep their email as secure as the data their inboxes contain would warrant. That’s actually incredibly alarming considering once someone has access to an email account, taking over additional accounts, sending spam, and stealing data and money is not a difficult task. Perusing the Internet and attempting to send password reset links from all the commonly used websites will yield a fair number of additional hijacked accounts that are incredibly difficult to reclaim ownership of. If you use any sort of online file storage or a chat service bundled with your email, your attacker now has access to a large amount of your data to do with as they please - and they likely won’t be friendly with it. Finally and most publicly is the spam that your contacts would be receiving from someone masquerading as you.</p> <p>Unfortunately, that’s not the full extent of what can be obtained. By looking through the contact list, trash, and archive folders it isn’t a stretch to determine what banks you use, where you work, and who you talk to. In all likelihood, your online banking accounts will also send account confirmations and password reset emails to your inbox as well. At this point, it’s possible for an attacker to literally hold your accounts for a ransom. However, If the attacker isn’t up for putting on a show, then they’ll likely take what they can get their hands on and sell the rest. Many established accounts with online retailers and social networks can be bought and sold as commodities on the darker side of the Internet.</p> <p>Considering that access to a single email account can destroy every side of an online identity from public accounts to private files, something that does happen - one such story was covered by me: <a href=";node=2012.08.08">;node=2012.08.08</a>, better ways of securing email are being implemented by webmail providers. The web can be a scary place, and the fact that in general people don’t put a lot of effort into making sure the center of their personal web is secure is scary and easily remedied. Many webmail providers including Google, Yahoo, and Outlook now offer additional two-step authentication so that logging in requires both a password and your cell phone. Keeping your data safe on the web is up to you, not just the services you entrust it to, so make sure to use the security features available.</p> <p>Also see: <a href=""></a></p> Mon, 17 Jun 2013 00:00:00 -0400 Historically Searching... <p>Digging through the data that the online services you use have stored (and available to you) is always an interesting endeavour. At this point, most people realize that no matter what websites you’re signed up for, most, if not all of them store some amount of information about you. Some sites choose to tell you about the data they collect, and others even give you a nice log of everything from where you’ve logged in from to everything you’ve searched for. Generally, the reasoning behind keeping this data is that it allows services to show you more relevant ads and to customize your searches so that you’ll only find the things you want to see. It’s actually a very interesting exercise to make a new account on Google, for example, on a brand new browser and start searching for things. After a surprisingly short amount of time, Google stops showing you things that you disagree with.</p> <p>Microsoft and Google, both running search engines and having a fair amount of social network users at their disposal not to mention file storage, hold a massive amount of information about users. That fact isn’t surprising, it comes with the territory of providing a large number of services to users that to a degree evolve around each user. Both companies customize search results and advertising around what their users do. Microsoft is actually the lesser evil here, because they don’t index emails in order to provide the ads on their free email service, but they do keep tabs on what gets stored on their services. As we all know, if you upload data to any online storage, the company can have their systems take a look and target ads. What else do these services keep around? Not a lot of people consider that their searches hang around.</p> <p>It’s an interesting exercise, particularly with Google, to go and take a look at your search history. Google gives you a nice panel of statistics about your searching as well as every search you’ve ever made while logged in. Bing allows you to look through your history but doesn’t give you any statistics about it. My Google account has on record 19,031 searches since I created it in 2009. I can clearly pick out the blocks of time where I was learning a new programming language as well as what classes I was taking at the time, down to the time of day. The majority of my searches happen 4-8pm. The takeaway from this is that Google has on record 4 years worth of my online activity, and Bing has longer since that account is much older. Both allow you to clear your history, which they both recommend that you not do because it puts you back at square one for ads and suggestions, although it doesn’t take very long to end up back in your search bubble. As someone who is security and privacy conscious, I’m not particularly fond of having my searches logged. If you agree, clear out your history regularly or use a search engine such as which doesn’t log searches. No matter what your stance, it’s important to keep in mind what and how much data gets stored about you as you go about your online life. I respect the fact that some people are conscious to the fact, which is why I offer the option to opt-out of being tracked across my site (privacy page if you’re looking) to the degree that I have control over. Most sites just log everything and everyone.</p> <p>Useful Links:</p> <p>Google Search history:</p> <p>Bing Search history:</p> Thu, 16 May 2013 00:00:00 -0400 Saying Goodbye to a Dinosaur (Windows XP) <p>Twelve years ago in 2001, Microsoft announced the release of Windows XP. Windows XP was the best version of Windows to that point and a way of forgetting Windows ME, which we don’t speak of. In a lot of senses, Windows XP is still a fairly rock solid operating system which is pretty impressive for how old it is, almost 12 years. Twelve years and 3 versions of Windows later, 38% of Internet users are still trying to hang on to XP.</p> <p>According to Microsoft, it’s time to upgrade as support for XP ends 362 days from now, on April 8, 2014. For those who use XP because they prefer its interface over Vista onwards or who simply can’t afford to upgrade, that’s a scary thought. Once support expires, that’s 38% of Internet users who are now at more of the mercy of the Internet. To be fair, your computer isn’t going to spontaneously combust when support expires, but with no more patches to fix security holes, antivirus can only do so much to keep you and your data safe (so it may burst into flames later on).</p> <p>Microsoft has unsurprisingly been pushing XP out for a while at this point with campaigns to upgrade Internet Explorer (but if you have XP, not past 8!) and actually not supporting XP anymore for a number of their software offerings. Although a lot of large software providers still support the old operating system, once Microsoft’s support ends that could very well change despite how well-liked it still is. For now, XP is still fairly viable but it’s pretty much fair game in either direction come April 2014.</p> <p>So, for those who are caught up in the mix, there’s a few options. Staying with XP is a possibility but definitely not the best choice in the long run. Although most major pieces of software will still run on XP at least for now, it’s only a matter of time before companies move on after formal support is up. For those who want or need to stick with Windows, 7 is probably the best option considering how disliked 8 seems to be. In my opinion, the hate for Windows 8, though catchy to say, seems incredibly misplaced, but to each their own. Grabbing a new version of Windows will probably set you back about $100, since Windows isn’t exactly inexpensive. For those feeling a little more adventurous there’s also Linux, which is free and will almost definitely run on your hardware, in addition to coming with whatever interface you could ever care for. For those considering a Linux distribution, Linux Mint would probably be a good place to start since Ubuntu is starting to go in a weird direction, but a little searching will turn up anything you might be interested in. Since it’s free, it’s entirely within your power to experiment with different distributions and to play around to get what you want. Mac OS is another option, but will set you back substantially more.</p> <p>Regardless of what you choose, make sure to make an educated decision and bunker down or get settled somewhere else come April 2014.</p> Thu, 11 Apr 2013 00:00:00 -0400 Lovin' those Facebook Likes <p>When it comes to the Internet, it’s always interesting to see how things evolve once they come about and sometimes, how they get contorted into very different things. Nearly everyone knows about or at the very least, has heard of the idea of ‘liking’ things on Facebook. ‘Likes’ started off as Facebook Fan Pages just a few years ago where brands, or anyone for that matter, could start a public Facebook page to promote themselves and form an interactive community. In keeping with Facebook’s (at the time) new ‘like’ button, the idea of becoming a fan of something was turned into “Liking” the page, in order to make interaction with Facebook more consistant and in their words “more lightweight.” ‘Liking’ brands, celebrities, and causes is now the new thing to do, and people click the like button as though their lives depend on it. It does raise some awareness of certain causes, although given how many causes some people have listed in their likes, it seems like some people might actually buy into the “For every like I’ll donate to xx cause.” Granted, organizations with Facebook pages occasionally have actual posts like that on their page and do donate to causes, but the idea of ‘liking’ has actually gotten contorted in some really weird ways.</p> <p>Now that liking is just something that everybody does, it carries with it some interesting meanings for the person doing the liking. A recent publication shows that what you like on Facebook actually carries some deeper meanings that you probably weren’t aware of. Who knew that liking curly fries on Facebook could actually say something about who you are, other than your like of curly fries. The study that was published shows that the pages you like can predict your level of intelligence, sexuality, gender, religion, and political views correctly at least 60% of the time. More specifically, looking at lists of the pages liked on Facebook without looking at the person provided enough insight to correctly predict male sexuality 88% of the time, whether the person was African-American or caucasian 95% of the time, and whether the person was Republican or Democrat 85% of the time. Apparently, the majority of likes didn’t specifically point to things - only ~5% of gay users ‘liked’ gay marriage, and those who were generally smarter tended to ‘like’ curly fries - but combined, these likes said a lot more about the person than they said at face value. Clearly, if you’re applying to college you also should go and ‘like’ curly fries, just in case. That’s not to discount the credibility of the study by any means seeing as they spent a lot of time crunching a ton of data to come up with these statistics, but it goes to show that ‘liking’ something isn’t nearly as innocuous as it seems at face value. It’s already apparent that Facebook targets ads in part because of what you ‘like,’ but this opens up a lot of potential new avenues for advertisers and anyone else who might want to know about you.</p> <p>Then, of course, comes the darker side of Facebook likes. One of the recent trends on Facebook is to put up pages for various causes or to post pictures saying “like if you think…” where basically everyone would agree and like the page. I see the posts scroll by in my news feed pretty frequently and I ignore them, but the reason I end up seeing them is because not all my friends do the same. Although there needs to be a little thought put into what you choose to ‘like’ because of what it says about you, a lot of people click ‘like’ because they agree, because it’s there, or for a variety of other reasons because liking is fun. In actuality, the majority of these pages aren’t actually legitimately representing what they claim to be. For every cause on Facebook there’s basically one or a few legitimate pages, and the rest have very little to do with the cause other than the name. This becomes a problem because Facebook likes have become a commodity, so promoting any cause that would get a lot of ‘likes’ is actually profitable. Some of the less legitimate pages actually get auctioned off and are bid on based on the number of likes so that another brand can have a pre-made Facebook community (this works because renaming pages is really easy to do). There have been businesses selling ‘likes’ for a long time now, but selling actual pages is relatively new. It’s really interesting to see how ‘likes’ - formerly ‘becoming a fan’ - have evolved into things that can be bought and sold.</p> <p>The main thing to take away is to be careful what you associate yourself with online, be it with ‘likes’ or following various Tumblr blogs or whatever else you like to do online. You never know when your ‘like’ of The Dark Knight (which tends to be liked by those with fewer Facebook friends) will come back to haunt you. Privacy settings are important, but they aren’t the whole story seeing as next to nobody really pays attention to things like ‘likes’ that don’t seem like a big deal. As was always the case, moderating what you do and follow online is the most important thing.</p> <p>More information:</p> <p></p> <p></p> Tue, 19 Mar 2013 00:00:00 -0400 We're Moving! <p>There’s been some big changes in the works for The Philosophy of Nate for a few months now, and it’s finally time to show them off. I’ve been working on developing my own platform to host The Philosophy of Nate in hopes of migrating the blog from Blogger to a new platform that’s faster, cleaner, and especially, focuses on improving how readers such as yourselves interact with my blog. The new platform has substantially better integration with the rest of my website which allows me to make browsing more uniform and to expand options such as my website’s “do not track” feature.</p> <p>I expect to make the switch sometime midweek. Everything is set up for the migration to be clean and simple so on your end, the blog gets a new look and some new options but otherwise should continue to work as it always has since all the web addresses will redirect. However, those who subscribe by any means may run into a few bumps with the feed switching over depending how FeedBurner handles the change. I apologize in advance for any extra feed notifications or emails (FeedBurner is configured to only send one email per 24 hours, so those getting emails will get at most 1 email). Comments and the commenting system will get pulled over a few days after the switch is made.</p> <p>If you’re interested in taking a look at the new platform before the blog officially gets moved over or you want more information, visit <a href=""></a>. Feedback is always welcome.</p> <p>Meanwhile, if you’re new to The Philosophy of Nate, welcome! If you like what you see, consider subscribing to stay up to date.</p> <p><strong>Update: The migration is complete and everything appears to be working as it should.</strong></p> Sun, 24 Feb 2013 00:00:00 -0500