A pig in a poke no more: students take on the ISPs (4)

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Back in the fall semester of 2015, I wrote a series of posts on an experiment I’d been conducting with my students. It was a novel kind of written assignment — what we were calling a “field report,” as opposed to the usual essay or research paper they were used to doing in most of their courses. 

The point of the exercise was to provide a clear, accurate profile of the technical and financial arrangements made with their ISP. As we discovered, it’s frustratingly difficult trying to get information like the cost of a data cap overage or what uplink speed someone was paying for. Continue reading

Sidewalk Toronto looks a lot like another Internet gatekeeper

Sidewalk Toronto will let you kayak right up to your “smart” condo

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Last week, I attended a public lecture given by Andrew Clement, professor emeritus at the U of T Faculty of Information, and longtime advocate for the public interest in the digital life. His subject was the Sidewalk Toronto project, known as Quayside — aimed at building an honest-to-goodness Smart City on a 12-acre parcel of land on Toronto’s waterfront.

The project is controversial, not surprising since it’s the brainchild of Sidewalk Labs (SWL) — in turn the brainchild of Alphabet and “sibling” of Google. SWL isn’t an ISP and Google isn’t readying one of its Google Fiber deployments up here. Still, SWL is clearly emerging as the kind of gatekeeper that inspires mistrust and suspicion — just like the incumbents who control our Internet access.

Privacy, meet information asymmetry

Clement provided a balanced but highly critical account of how Google and Waterfront Toronto got us into what promises to be a hot public policy mess. He did so by presenting what is known about the project, then asking a lot of challenging questions. Many were related to the issues of jurisdiction, ownership, control and, most importantly, how the public will actually benefit from the deal while having their, our, welfare protected. Prof. Clement was particularly concerned about the delicate topic of the risks Quayside might unleash on privacy — already a lively part of the debate in the media. Continue reading

Enough about Facebook. What’s your ISP done for you lately?

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We’ve been inundated lately by a deluge of disturbing news about the Silicon Valley Five. I say time for a bracing reminder about the real gatekeepers in digital life — your ISP. You can quit social media. But unless you’re going off the grid to embrace a 19th century lifestyle, you’re stuck at home with an access provider. Which is where the trouble starts. 

I’m going to open with a look at how astoundingly unpopular ISPs are in the US, and why that has a lot to do with chronic lack of competition in retail broadband. We’ll then dig into the FCC’s international comparison of broadband speeds and prices as they affect both Canadians and Americans — and compare those comparisons to what Canadian studies have found. We’ll close by looking at how a class assignment I launched a few years ago has given my students a hard-won understanding of the acutely anti-consumer spirit that rules the industry.

American Customer Satisfaction Index, 2018 Telecommunications Report: Comparative results for all US consumer industries

The unpopularity contest

The graph above shows the latest ranking for firms operating in the US consumer economy as compiled by the ACSI, the American Customer Satisfaction Index. You’ll notice that the industries occupying the two ranks at the very bottom are Internet service providers, ISPs, and their subscription TV services. Yes, ISPs are more unpopular than airlines, hospitals and banks — more than any other industry in the entire U.S. consumer economy. Continue reading

We only hurt the ones we love: phoning in more bad news

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Everyone I talk to concedes smartphones are bad for us. Very few agree on exactly what the harms are — let alone what to do about them.

Experts have two main takes on where to look for digital harms. One is directed at the reader. Your digital life is a misery, here’s what to do. Author Paul Greenberg will soon publish iQuit: 50 Things to Do iNstead — and gives us a foretaste in a piece titled “In Search of Lost Screen Time.” With a forthright sub-title: “Imagine what we could do with our money, and hours, if we set our phones aside for a year.”

The other approach is to blame everything on Silicon Valley, and these days who wouldn’t. One recent example is A People’s History of Silicon Valley by Keith Spencer, with another forthright sub-title: “How the tech industry exploits workers, erodes privacy and undermines democracy.”

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How convenience is killing our online privacy

A growth industry

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The massive corporate hacks just keep coming. Let’s embrace the good news — they’re shining a long-overdue spotlight on the real villains.

Facebook’s September data breach affecting 50 million users was child’s play compared to the 500 million accounts compromised by Marriott in November. Except Facebook has so many other things to apologize for this year — the latest phase in what Zeynep Tufekci refers to drily as Zuckerberg’s “14-year apology tour.”

Last week another screwup exposed photos stored by 7 million Facebook users in so-called “private” folders — Facebook’s answer to the wireless carrier’s “unlimited” data. Their PR lede: “We’re sorry this happened.”

Web destinations like to keep costs down, what business doesn’t. Unfortunately, that means cheaping out on security. American firms keep getting away with this outrageous corner-cutting since there are no serious, government-imposed consequences for lousy security, regardless of how many users have to suffer the inevitable result.

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Does the Internet have a future?

Toronto hipster hangout Regulars, where real life is staging a comeback

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As William Gibson once said: “The future is already here – it’s just not evenly distributed.” Gibson himself isn’t sure how he came up with the idea. But uneven distribution looks like a good call these days.

Recent developments indicate the U.S. digital divide has reached a stubborn pause; global growth of Internet access has slowed dramatically; and the “public” Internet is on its way to breaking up into three large pieces.

US market saturated

In September, the Pew Research Center announced that after a long period of growth, the share of Americans who go online, use social media or own key devices has plateaued. The market is saturated, with a catch: it’s only saturated among consumers already participating in digital life. Continue reading

Banned! France vows to make school kids pay attention

The cool French kids: ditching their phones at school?

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In January, I mentioned a bold move promised by French education minister Jean-Michel Blanquer: a ban on phones in the lower grades. I took exception to two planned exceptions noted by the minister:

“You may need a mobile phone, for example, for educational purposes, for emergency situations…” Oops. As soon as you allow that phones have any legitimate purpose in the classroom then students, vendors and campus admins will all find ingenious wedges to beat the system.

I also pointed out France had had a similar law on the books since 2011. Fast forward to last month, with the new rules in place (an official announcement is posted on the ministry website).

The new law is aimed at school kids in “écoles” (grades 1-5) and “collèges” (grades 6-9). It’s remarkable the authorities have passed legislation to confront this crisis of inattention, which covers all networked devices. Even more so that they’ve gone way back to 1st grade, recognizing that bad habits begin early. Continue reading

Let’s not confuse online privacy with tech business practices

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In yesterday’s post I made a few snarky comments about this week’s upcoming hearing before the US Senate Commerce Committee, featuring a half-dozen of the IT firms we love to hate: Amazon, Apple, Google, Twitter, AT&T and Charter Communications. Wednesday’s theatrics are billed as “Examining Safeguards for Consumer Data Privacy.”

In the leadup discussing Tom Wheeler, I noted one of his main policy goals is to find ways to give consumers “control of how their information is collected and how it is used.” I neglected to mention what Wheeler does not recommend:

“Losing control of personal information means losing control of the economic equilibrium that originally established the exchange of “free” services for targeted information. The solution is not to eliminate the exchange of information for value…” (emphasis added)

This position is in keeping with Wheeler’s view that killing the core tech business models is less likely to produce happiness than fixing them to benefit of all parties. Easier said than done.

So I was struck by what NY Times technology reporter Natasha Singer has to say this weekend about the Senate hearing and the way forward for consumers: summed up in the title, Just Don’t Call It Privacy. Continue reading