Remedies large and small for our Internet ills (1)

“Breaking things is easy, dealing with the effects is hard.” –Tom Wheeler, August 2018

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I had a conversation this morning with a neighbor who, like some of my best friends, is a practising lawyer. The talk turned to privacy, which is of considerable interest to people who trade in privileged information.  

I had some unkind words for Google, and suggested he try using DuckDuckGo instead of the obvious choice. I had to spell the name several times. But what about all those other ways Google gets you, he asked — including Gmail, which I’d urged him to start using a few years ago, he reminded me.

Recent figures illustrate the uphill battle even this small step entails. As of July, Google’s search engine owned over 86% of the search market in the US. DuckDuckGo sits at 0.64%, comfortably ahead of MSN and Yandex RU. Continue reading

Digital classrooms are the problem, not the solution

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Naomi Buck wrote a thoughtful piece in the Globe recently entitled “A hard lesson: The digital classroom can really fail.” It’s a rare acknowledgement that “digital” and “classroom” may not go together the way everyone assumes — or would like. 

Getting digital tech into the classroom has reached motherhood status. The latest well-intentioned effort to keep kids plugged in comes from US Senators Udall and Gardner, who’ve written a bill to ensure school buses get equipped with Wi-Fi — so the kids will ignore Instagram and dive into their homework.

Good luck with that, Buck might say, pointing to the “misuse” of tech as a good reason not to give schoolkids ubiquitous access. Misuse is what everyone wants to stamp out in class — as in content that’s “inappropriate” for our tender offspring. Misuse, sadly, is baked into the system. Kids can’t be expected to resist the addictive temptations of digital life — especially, I would add, given the poor example set by their parents.  Continue reading

Net neutrality isn’t the endgame

In case you’ve been hiding under a rock, Pai did kill the neutrality rules today.

(A version of this post was published last night on the HuffPo site.)

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Ajit Pai, Chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, has a “fix” for the Internet that sets new records for doublespeak, hypocrisy and brazen contempt for evidence.

On Thursday, his draft order — wittily entitled “Restoring Internet Freedom” — is likely to be was blessed by the FCC’s Republican majority, in the face of massive opposition from activists, tech leaders including the Internet founders, the public at large and even some Republican lawmakers. If it does pass, Pai will has realized his heartfelt goal: eradicating the rules established by his predecessor, Democratic chairman Tom Wheeler, designed to safeguard Internet access through the protections afforded by network neutrality (known as the Open Internet Order, launched by the FCC in 2015).

The battle to challenge Pai’s order and save net neutrality is well under way. But even if the battle succeeds, that by itself won’t accomplish what we ultimately hope for: an open Internet used by everyone in the way that best suits their needs. The fundamental issues go much deeper than the current debate. 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.

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

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

Broadband as a basic service: be careful what you wish for (4)

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[This post continues from the previous one, comparing the FCC and CRTC approaches to the principle of universality, and finding the CRTC’s approach to broadband puts this principle at risk.]

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For my money, the key lesson we can take from Chairman Wheeler’s FCC lies in the willingness to admit when they’ve got a big problem on their hands. The FCC spends little time reflecting on its successes, compared to worrying about how they will correct market failures and right social injustices. In that spirit, Wheeler’s recent statement on the new Lifeline proceeding gets straight to the main issue: “…nearly 30% of Americans still don’t have broadband at home, and low-income consumers disproportionately lack access.”

Compare that blunt admission to the CRTC’s habit of seeing the world through rose-colored glasses. The rosy glow is not confined to decisions; it’s also been a feature of the CRTC’s research documents. Take last year’s Communications Monitoring Report on telecommunications (pdf uploaded here). Turning to the section on the Internet market sector and broadband availability (p.171), the reader is hard-pressed to see that anything is amiss in this parallel universe. Continue reading