Goodbye Privacy. Goodbye Open Internet?

The famous story of the pregnant teen outed to her father by Target epitomizes the power of big data and advanced psychometrics to wring potent conclusions from seemingly innocuous snippets of data. Andreas Weigend, the former chief data scientist at Amazon has written a must-read book that dives deep into this topic. And an article in The Observer shows how these learnings are being applied to influence voters:

“With this, a computer can actually do psychology, it can predict and potentially control human behaviour. It’s what the scientologists try to do but much more powerful. It’s how you brainwash someone. It’s incredibly dangerous.

“It’s no exaggeration to say that minds can be changed. Behaviour can be predicted and controlled. I find it incredibly scary. I really do. Because nobody has really followed through on the possible consequences of all this. People don’t know it’s happening to them. Their attitudes are being changed behind their backs.”

– Jonathan Rust, Director, Cambridge University Psychometric Centre.

So metadata about your internet behavior is valuable, and can be used against your interests. This data is abundant, and Target only has a drop in the ocean compared to Facebook, Google and a few others. Thanks to its multi-pronged approach (Search, AdSense, Analytics, DNS, Chrome and Android), Google has detailed numbers on everything you do on the internet, and because it reads all your (sent and received) Gmail it knows most of your private thoughts. Facebook has a similar scope of insight into your mind and motivations.

Ajit Pai, the new FCC chairman, was a commissioner when the privacy regulations that were repealed last week were instituted last fall. He wrote a dissent arguing that applying internet privacy rules only to ISPs (Internet Service Providers, companies like AT&T or Comcast) was not only unfair, but ineffective in protecting your online privacy, since the “edge providers” (companies like Google, Facebook, Amazon and Netflix) are not subject to FCC regulations (but the FTC instead), and they are currently far more zealous and successful at destroying your privacy than the ISPs:

“The era of Big Data is here. The volume and extent of personal data that edge providers collect on a daily basis is staggering… Nothing in these rules will stop edge providers from harvesting and monetizing your data, whether it’s the websites you visit or the YouTube videos you watch or the emails you send or the search terms you enter on any of your devices.”

True as this is, it would be naive to expect now-chairman Pai to replace the repealed privacy regulations with something consistent with his concluding sentiment in that dissent:

“After all, as everyone acknowledges, consumers have a uniform expectation of privacy. They shouldn’t have to be network engineers to understand who is collecting their data. And they shouldn’t need law degrees to determine whether their information is protected.”

So it’s not as though your online privacy was formerly protected and now it’s not. It just means the ISPs can now compete with Google and Facebook to sell details of your activity on the internet. There are still regulations in place to aggregate and anonymize the data, but experiments have shown anonymization to be surprisingly difficult.

If you don’t like playing the patsy, it’s possible to fight a rearguard action by using cookie-blockers, VPNs and encryption, but such measures look ever more Canute-like. Maybe those who tell us to abandon the illusion that there is such a thing as privacy are right.

So, after privacy, what’s the next thing you could lose?

Goodbye Open Internet?

Last week’s legislation was a baby-step towards what the big ISPs would like, which is to ‘own’ all the data that they pipe to you, charging content providers differentially for bandwidth, and filtering and modifying content (for example by inserting or substituting ads in web pages and emails). They are currently forbidden to do this by the FCC’s 2015 net neutrality regulations.

So the Net Neutrality controversy is back on the front burner. Net neutrality is a free-market issue, but not in the way that those opposed to it believe; the romantic notion of a past golden age of internet without government intrusion is hogwash. The consumer internet would never have happened without the common carrier regulations that allowed consumers to attach modems to their phone lines. AT&T fought tooth and nail against those regulations, wanting instead to control the data services themselves, along the lines of the British Prestel service. If AT&T had won that battle with the regulators, the internet would have remained an academic backwater. Not only was the internet founded under government sponsorship, but it owes its current vibrant and innovative character to strongly enforced government regulation:

“Without Part 68, users of the public switched network would not have been able to connect their computers and modems to the network, and it is likely that the Internet would have been unable to develop.”

For almost all US consumers internet access service choice is limited to a duopoly (telco and cableco). On the other hand internet content services participate in an open market teeming with competition (albeit with near-monopolies in their domains for Google and Facebook). This is thanks to the net neutrality regulations that bind the ISPs:

  • No Blocking: broadband providers may not block access to legal content, applications, services, or non-harmful devices.
  • No Throttling: broadband providers may not impair or degrade lawful Internet traffic on the basis of content, applications, services, or non-harmful devices.
  • No Paid Prioritization: broadband providers may not favor some lawful Internet traffic over other lawful traffic in exchange for consideration of any kind — in other words, no “fast lanes.” This rule also bans ISPs from prioritizing content and services of their affiliates.

If unregulated, ISPs will be compelled by structural incentives to do all these things and more, as explained by the FCC:

“Broadband providers function as gatekeepers for both their end user customers who access the Internet, and for edge providers attempting to reach the broadband provider’s end-user subscribers. Broadband providers (including mobile broadband providers) have the economic incentives and technical ability to engage in practices that pose a threat to Internet openness by harming other network providers, edge providers, and end users.”

It’s not a simple issue. ISPs must have robust revenues so they can afford to upgrade their networks; but freedom to prioritize, throttle and block isn’t the right solution. Without regulation, internet innovation suffers. Instead of an open market for internet startups, gatekeepers like AT&T and Comcast pick winners and losers.

Net neutrality simply means an open market for internet content. Let’s keep it that way!

The Post PSTN Telco Cloud

I will be moderating a panel on this topic at ITExpo East 2012 in Miami at 3:00pm on Thursday, February 2nd.

The panelists are Brian Donaghy of Appcore, LLC, Jan Lindén of Google, Hugh Goldstein of Voxbone and Danielle Morrill of Twilio.

The pitch for the panel is:

The FCC has proposed a date of 2018 to sunset the Public Service Telephone Network (PSTN) and move the nation to an all IP network for voice services. This session will explore the emerging trends in the Telco Cloud with case studies. Learn how traditional telephone companies are adapting to compete, and new opportunities for service providers, including leveraging cloud computing and Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS) systems that are being deployed with scalable commodity hardware to deliver voice and video services including IVR, IVVR, conferencing plus Video on Demand and local CDNs.

In related news, a group of industry experts is collaborating on a plan for this transition. The draft can be found here. I volunteered as the editor for one of the chapters, so the current outline roughs out some of my opinions on this topic. This is a collaborative project, so please contact me if you can help to write it.

FCC to address White Spaces at September 23rd Meeting

The agenda for the September 23rd FCC Commission Meeting lists:

TV White Spaces Second MO&O: A Second Memorandum Opinion and Order that will create opportunities for investment and innovation in advanced Wi-Fi technologies and a variety of broadband services by finalizing provisions for unlicensed wireless devices to operate in unused parts of TV spectrum.

Early discussion of White Spaces proposed that client devices would be responsible for finding vacant spectrum to use. This “spectrum sensing” or “detect and avoid” technology was sufficiently controversial that a consensus grew to supplement it with a geolocation database, where the client devices determine their location using GPS or other technologies, then consult a coverage database showing which frequencies are available at that location.

Among the Internet companies this consensus now appears to have evolved to eliminate the spectrum-sensing requirement for geolocation-enabled devices.

The Register says that this is because spectrum sensing doesn’t work.

The Associated Press predicts that the Order will go along with the Internet companies, and ditch the spectrum sensing requirement.

Some of the technology companies behind the white spaces are fighting a rearguard action, saying there are good reasons to retain spectrum sensing as an alternative to geolocation. The broadcasting industry (represented by the NAB and MSTV) want to require both. It will be interesting to see if the FCC leaves any spectrum sensing provisions in the Order.

Net Neutrality heating up

I got an email from Credo this morning asking me to call Julius Genachowski to ask him to stand firm on net neutrality.

The nice man who answered told me that the best way to make my voice heard on this issue is to file a comment at the FCC website, referencing proceeding number 09-191.

So that my comment would be a little less ignorant, I carefully read an article on the Huffington Post by Marvin Ammori before filing it.

My opinion on this is that ISPs deserve to be fairly compensated for their service, but that they should not be permitted to double-charge for a consumer’s Internet access. If some service like video on demand requires prioritization or some other differential treatment, the ISP should only be allowed to charge the consumer for this, not the content provider. In other words, every bit traversing the subscriber’s access link should be treated equally by the ISP unless the consumer requests otherwise, and the ISP should not be permitted to take payments from third parties like content providers to preempt other traffic. If such discrimination is allowed, the ISP will be motivated to keep last-mile bandwidth scarce.

Internet access in the US is effectively a duopoly (cable or DSL) in each neighborhood. This absence of competition has caused the US to become a global laggard in consumer Internet bandwidth. With weak competition and ineffective regulation, a rational ISP will forego the expense of network upgrades.

ISPs like AT&T view the Internet as a collection of pipes connecting content providers to content consumers. This is the thinking behind Ed Whitacre’s famous comment, “to expect to use these pipes for free is nuts!” Ed was thinking that Google, or Yahoo or Vonage are using his pipes to his subscribers for free. The “Internet community” on the other hand views the Internet as a collection of pipes connecting people to people. From this other point of view, the consumer pays AT&T for access to the Internet, and Google, Yahoo and Vonage each pay their respective ISPs for access to the Internet. Nobody is getting anything for free. It makes no more sense for Google to pay AT&T for a subscriber’s Internet access than it would for an AT&T subscriber to pay Google’s connectivity providers for Google’s Internet access.

Test your broadband connection at the FCC

The FCC has launched a broadband speed and quality test presumably to gather information about the real state of broadband in the US. This is a great initiative and I encourage you to go and run the test.

I tried it myself, and it wouldn’t let me take the test because I put in an English zip code, because that is where I happen to be this week. So I put in my Dallas zip code instead and it ran the test. I hope that there is some check in there that compares the zip code to the geographical location of my IP address, and discards the ones that don’t match, or the results will presumably be worthless.

[Update:]Lauren Weinstein mentions this issue, as well as several others…

Network Neutrality – FCC issues NPRM

I wrote earlier about FCC chairman Julius Genachowski’s plans for regulations aimed at network neutrality. The FCC today came through with a Notice of Proposed Rule Making. Here are the relevant documents from the FCC website:

Summary Presentation: Acrobat
NPRM: Word | Acrobat
News Release: Word | Acrobat
Genachowski Statement: Word | Acrobat
Copps Statement: Word | Acrobat
McDowell Statement: Word | Acrobat
Clyburn Statement: Word | Acrobat
Baker Statement: Word | Acrobat

The NPRM itself is a hefty document, 107 pages long; if you just want the bottom line, the Summary Presentation is short and a little more readable than the press release. The comment period closes in mid-January, and the FCC will respond to the comments in March. I hesitate to guess when the rules will actually be released – this is hugely controversial: 40,000 comments filed to date. Here is a link to a pro-neutrality advocate. Here is a link to a pro-competition advocate. I believe that the FCC is doing a necessary thing here, and that the proposals properly address the legitimate concerns of the ISPs.

Here is the story from Reuters, and from AP.

Femtocell pricing chutzpah

It’s like buying an airplane ticket then getting charged extra to get on the plane.

The cellular companies want you to buy cellular service then pay extra to get signal coverage. Gizmodo has a coolly reasoned analysis.

AT&T Wireless is doing the standard telco thing here, conflating pricing for different services. It is sweetening the monthly charge option for femtocells by offering unlimited calling. A more honest pricing scheme would be to provide femtocells free to anybody who has coverage problem, and to offer the femtocell/unlimited calling option as a separate product. Come to think of it, this is probably how AT&T really plans for it to work: if a customer calls to cancel service because of poor coverage, I expect AT&T will offer a free femtocell as a retention incentive.

It is ironic that this issue is coming up at the same time as the wireless carriers are up in arms about the FCC’s new network neutrality initiative. Now that smartphones all have Wi-Fi, if the handsets were truly open we could use our home Wi-Fi signal to get data and voice services from alternative providers when we were at home. No need for femtocells. (T-Mobile@Home is a closed-network version of this.)

Presumably something like this is on the roadmap for Google Voice, which is one of the scenarios that causes the MNOs to fight network neutrality tooth and nail.

FCC to issue Net Neutrality rules

In a speech to the Brookings Institution today, FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski announced that the FCC is initiating a public process to formulate net neutrality rules for broadband network operators based on six principles:

  1. Open access to Content
  2. Open access to Applications
  3. Open access to Services
  4. Freedom for users to attach devices to the network
  5. Non-discrimination for content and applications
  6. Transparency of network management practices

The first four of these principles were initially articulated by former FCC Chairman Michael Powell in 2004 as the “Four Freedoms.” Numbers 5 and 6 are new. The forthcoming rules will apply these six principles to all broadband access technologies, including wireless.

Genachowski made the case that Internet openness is essential and that it is threatened. He acknowledged that network providers need to manage their networks, and said that they can control spam and help to maintain intellectual property integrity without compromising these principles.

The threats to Internet openness come from reduced competition among ISPs and conflicts of interest within the ISPs, because they are also trying to be content providers.

Genachowski rightly sees these threats as serious:

This is not about protecting the internet against imaginary dangers. We’re seeing the breaks and cracks emerge, and they threaten to change the Internet’s fundamental architecture of openness. This would shrink opportunities for innovators, content creators and small businesses around the country, and limit the full and free expression the internet promises. This is about preserving and maintaining something profoundly successful and ensuring that it’s not distorted or undermined.

These rules will be very tough to enforce. The fundamental structure of the business works against them. A more effective approach may be to break up the ISPs into multiple independent companies, for example: Internet access operations, wide area network operations, and service/content/application operations. The neutrality problem is in the access networks – the WANs and the services are healthier. With only the telcos (DSL and fiber) and the MSOs (cable) there is not enough competition for a free market to develop. This is why Intel pushed so hard for WiMAX as a third mode of broadband access, though it hasn’t panned out that way. It is also why municipal dark fiber makes sense, following the model of roads, water and sewers.