Why algorithms are bad for you (Pew/Elon 2016)

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Statue of al-Khwārizmī, the 9th-century mathematician whose name gave us “algorithm”

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I’ve written a lot about the Pew Research Center. Pew does a great deal of invaluable survey research on the behaviors and attitudes we develop online (okay, “we” means American here). In a departure from the science of probability surveys, Pew teamed up with researchers at Elon University back in 2004 to launch their Imagining the Internet project.

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About every two years, the team prepares a set of questions that’s sent to a list of stakeholders and experts around the world. The questions reflect current hot-button items – but ask the participants to imagine how online trends will look a decade from now. The topics have ranged from broad social concerns like privacy and hyperconnectivity, to more technology-oriented questions like cloud computing and Big Data.

The 7th version of the survey was fielded this summer; it’s my 4th shot at predicting what life will be like in 2025. (For a look at what the survey tackled in 2014, see my posts starting with one on security, liberty and privacy.) Continue reading

Broadband as essential and affordable: what the research says

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Internet founders Cerf and Kahn

In most developed countries, broadband Internet connectivity has become a necessary part of life. That claim will come as little surprise to anyone who’s been forced to spend even a few hours without Internet access. But it’s a long way from how you feel when cut off, to defining broadband as an essential service to which all citizens have a legal right.

Much ink has been spilt over the quality, speed and price of broadband in recent years, lots of it right here. These issues keep getting increasingly weighty as broadband keeps getting increasingly essential. The importance of broadband is reflected in its wide-ranging role as the enabling technology responsible for bringing us social media, VoIP, streaming TV shows, cloud computing, multiplayer gaming, software upgrades, e-books, government services, job applications and a great deal more.

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As broadband has become essential to participation in social, cultural and economic activities, its affordability has become an important policy question in many high-income countries. In Canada, the CRTC has historically taken an explicitly hands-off approach by not regulating what we pay for retail broadband. In the spring of 2015, however, the Commission launched a public proceeding to explore whether it’s time to declare broadband an essential service (CRTC 2015-134). As part of its deliberations, the CRTC decided to look at the affordability of broadband access for Canadians with low incomes. (I participated in this proceeding as a consultant to OpenMedia, a consumer advocacy organization based in Vancouver. A final CRTC decision is probably several months away.)

Our study for the CRTC on affordability in communications services was completed in the spring of 2016

Late last year, the CRTC signaled its interest in research on the concept of affordability – not just pricing but the more complex concept of ability and willingness to pay an ISP for service in a given broadband market. Last January, with the goal of collecting more information on this topic, the Commission asked my colleagues at Ryerson University, Reza Rajabiun and Catherine Middleton, as well as yours truly, to prepare an independent review of research on affordability in the communications industries. We were asked in particular to identify empirical thresholds for measuring the affordability of essential communications services in Canada, with an emphasis on broadband because of its central role as an enabling technology.

One of our key findings was that access to essential broadband services is not affordable for households with incomes below $25,000 per year. We based this calculation on the standard income threshold used by the UN Broadband Commission for defining the affordability of communications services. In the course of the proceeding noted above, some consumer advocacy organizations recommended that the CRTC adopt this measure for purposes of its policymaking framework.

Our final report is in the public domain, but hasn’t been officially released by the Commission. As provided in our agreement with the CRTC, we’re therefore making the report available for those interested in looking at what academic, industry and government researchers have written in the last several years about the affordability of broadband services in a wide range of developed and developing countries. The full pdf is available here.

D.E.

Et tu, Reed? Big media’s war on privacy (3)

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Netflix CEO Reed Hastings tells investors what he thinks of privacy advocates

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Back in March I wrote two posts to express my surprise and frustration that Netflix would no longer let its customers gain entry through a VPN or virtual private network. Turns out the problem hasn’t gone away. Also turns out Reed Hastings is still every bit as dismissive of our privacy concerns – and our customer experience – as he was in January.

A lot of the recent coverage of the Netflix vs privacy phenomenon was prompted by my colleagues at OpenMedia, and in particular Laura Tribe, who acts as the advocacy group’s digital rights lead. When I spoke to her this morning, she pointed to the large number of media outlets that have covered the OpenMedia campaign against the Netflix VPN blockade (OpenMedia pays me from time to time as a policy consultant).

In an email letter to supporters last Friday, Laura and her team laid out the case, opening thusly:

Is protecting your privacy and security “inconsequential?” That’s what Netflix CEO Reed Hastings seems to think, based on recent comments reported in WIRED magazine.

It’s time to remind Netflix that privacy and security matter to us. Yesterday your open letter made international headlines.

If you want to throw your name in the ring, the OpenMedia campaign page for Netflix is here. Continue reading

Why is Reed Hastings bent on killing my privacy? (2)

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Hollywood vs the Boston Strangler

jack_valenti_4The Kings of Content have always shown an intense and belligerent dislike for new technologies, regardless of their promise or popularity. History is littered with the embarrassing results. Take Jack Valenti.

For over 35 years, Valenti was head of the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA). In 1982, the studios were in court trying to prevent Sony from shipping a single VCR to the US because of the alleged threat of piracy. Here’s how Valenti famously described the dangers of the VCR to a Congressional committee:

“I say to you that the VCR is to the American film producer and the American public as the Boston strangler is to the woman home alone.”

Continue reading

Why is Reed Hastings bent on killing my privacy?

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“I don’t think we will see any impact.” — Reed Hastings, January 19

“The VPN crackdown is meeting fierce resistance from privacy activists and concerned users, with tens of thousands calling upon the streaming service to reverse its broad VPN ban.”Torrent Freak, Feb 26

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Since Netflix came to Canada in September 2010, I’ve written 51 posts carrying the Netflix tag. I’ve sung the praises of Reed Hastings; objected to the anti-Netflix manipulation of data caps by our incumbents; defended Netflix’s right to operate in Canada over the self-serving protests of our media establishment; and sympathized with Netflix for the archaic treatment meted out to streaming services by the CRTC.

Netflix-6.0-for-iOS-app-icon-smallThe longest pair of posts I’ve ever written (about 6,000 words) was on the attempt by the CRTC and selected media barons to make life as difficult as possible in Canada for Netflix. That was 2011: Get yer grimy paws off my Netflix: Ottawa’s big OTT scam (part 1, June 16; and part 2, June 18).

There was a single exception. I fell off the wagon when Netflix linked arms with Facebook and produced one of the worst privacy policies I’ve ever read: Netflix showing way too much love – for your Facebook data (Oct 2011).

Which brings us to the much bigger privacy problem Netflix has created for itself. Continue reading

Networked disinformation: Bell wins against the facts

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Last February 24th, Ottawa City Council voted on a resolution tabled by councillors Jeff Leiper and Diane Deans to support a now pretty well known CRTC ruling. The Commission decided last July to require the incumbent ISPs to provide their smaller competitors with access to their new fibre networks, which are the future of the Internet.

The resolution called for “the city of Ottawa [to] support the CRTC’s decision to require the sharing of fiber-optic networks between large and small competitors.” That position took an implicit stand against the petition submitted by Bell to the federal cabinet last November calling for the government to over-rule the CRTC on sharing fibre networks.

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Fibreoptic connections use extremely fine strands of glass to transmit data across networks. Instead of electrical pulses, they use beams of light to carry information inside each strand, sometimes with several different wavelengths each carrying huge amounts of data (hence the reference to “optical”). Fibreoptic technology has major advantages over the copper infrastructure used by telcos and cablecos. Fibre has far greater bandwidth and can readily achieve speeds in the tens or even 100s of gigabits per second (1 Gbps = 1000 megabits per sec, 50 times faster than a typical home connection). Optical fibre is much sturdier and cheaper to maintain than copper. It can also carry data over much longer distances without the need for powered devices like repeaters. Optical fibre is being introduced in “last-mile” connections between end-users and ISPs as fibre to the premises (FTTP). It’s FTTP technology that’s at the heart of the debate between Bell and proponents of competitive, affordable Internet access.

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bell-denied-2I watched the live stream of the Ottawa debate and was surprised at the extent to which some councillors had swallowed Bell’s party line. The nays voted down the resolution by a wide margin – 17 to 7. I had an op-ed on the subject published by the Ottawa Citizen the day of the vote, as part of a push by OpenMedia to support the CRTC and discredit Bell’s campaign against competition in Internet access: “Ultra-fast broadband is a local issue, Ottawa.” The Ottawa vote stood in sharp contrast to the very similar exercise that took place in Toronto on February 4 – a triumph for the good guys at 28 for and 5 against a resolution supporting the CRTC decision. Continue reading

Oh what a tangled web: Bell vs the Internet at Federal Court

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Bell Mobility’s legal team conferred on a break

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On Tuesday, January 19, the Federal Court of Appeal heard oral arguments from several parties about Bell’s Mobile TV service and whether it had violated Canadian law. In attendance were 13 lawyers, not counting the panel on the bench, which made it 16 lawyers, just shy of the spectator count in the gallery.

The spectators included several staunch advocates for the open Internet (Ben, Reza, JF, Laura, Cynthia, me), not to mention our tireless legal counsel, Philip Palmer, who agreed to represent a ragtag bunch he barely knew.  Continue reading

More on the student ISP ratings: Bell’s Internet disaster (3)

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A new bundle from Bell: Internet access with poutine

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I have bad news for Bell. On our campus, those steaming piles of french fries and gravy didn’t help convince any of my students that Bell has the “best Wi-Fi” or the best anything. And I have detailed files to prove it.

Poutine aside, why would Bell’s marketing department create an association between students resenting their roommates and students signing up for Wi-Fi? Well, first of all because Bell is counting on nobody actually knowing what the hell the “best” Wi-Fi would look like. Wi-Fi is a highly unpredictable technology whose performance depends on many factors out of Bell’s control, from the composition of walls to the type of data being transferred, the age of the router, the extent of bandwidth sharing and so on.

Meanwhile, there’s no clear value proposition for a commodity like bandwidth, except variations on “We’re the Best, period.” So Bell is betting that its brand equity will be enough to get people signing up, even as it’s getting its ass kicked in the Internet access market by Rogers. Bell has other trucks cruising around my neighborhood with another peremptory message slapped on the side: “Bell Internet. Perfect for laptops.Continue reading