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

Facebook may be the least of our worries

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It’s no fun being a pessimist. But the leading indicators keep suggesting life online will get a lot worse before getting better. Let’s see what we can foretell from these four recent items…

  • Facebook’s market cap plunges 19%
  • Your smart-TV is spying on you
  • Teens are online constantly
  • Phones in class impair performance

1. Facebook: schadenfreude. Last Thursday Zuckerberg dropped a theoretical $19 billion from his net worth, as investors blew off $119 billion of the company’s stock-market value — the biggest one-day drop in stock-market history. Investors were annoyed about Facebook forecasting a drop in revenue and continuing rise in expenses, not about the company’s tacky treatment of its users — although the increased expenses probably have something to do with remediating said tacky treatment. 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.

fiber-optic-cable

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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

A pig in a poke no more: my students rate the ISPs

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The carrier hotel at 151 Front St West, Toronto, the meeting point for dozens of ISPs and other network operators

“75% of respondents to PIAC’s survey did not know the speed tier to which they subscribe even though 83% of consumers identified download speed as very important or somewhat important when choosing an ISP for their home.”  –Public Interest Advocacy Centre (PIAC), Ottawa, January 2013 – Transparency in Broadband Advertising to Canadian Consumers (pdf)

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Like the great majority of the online population, even 20-something communications studies majors have little or no clue what they’re buying from their ISP. That’s why we talk a lot about ISPs in my classes. They’re the main contact point for most people with the public Internet. They’re also the key to understanding what broadband is, how regulation works (or doesn’t), and how gatekeeping is exercised.

One challenge in helping undergrads understand how the Internet works (not just the technology, but the policy and business perspectives as well) is that there’s no textbook. Good sources have to be cobbled together, and there’s often a trade-off to be made between what’s topical and what’s authoritative. So when I went looking for a more engaging kind of written assignment a few months ago, I figured why not have the students develop the data themselves. Send them out to the field – well, at least as far as the living room – to find out exactly what they’re getting from their current ISP, then see if they could do better from the competition. Continue reading

CRTC’s code of conduct for TV providers: too little, too late?

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The CRTC is moving ahead with its Code of Conduct for TV service providers (TVSPs). The Code was initially announced on March 26, as a by-product of the Let’s Talk TV proceeding (Broadcasting Notice of Consultation CRTC 2015-105). Now, in its best populist spirit, the Commission is asking for public comment on its TV Code:

“Canadians sent us a strong message that they were encountering problems with their television service providers. The CRTC is acting on these comments and has prepared a draft version of a TV Code that reflects what Canadians told us. I invite them to take an active part in the discussions. Now is the time to shape your TV Code.”–CRTC Chair JP Blais, May 12, 2015 (emphasis original)

Less consulting, more research

The Commission may have the substance right, but it has the timing and execution all wrong. The idea that TVSPs provide lousy service isn’t exactly new. Much of the evidence has been anecdotal. A public consultation, however, will not make up for that shortcoming. Worse still, the idea of holding this public consultation arose from the earlier public consultation that was part of Let’s Talk TV. They’re breeding. Continue reading

Canada’s outmoded communications laws: a 21st-century reality check

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Next week, a group of conferees (including me) will meet in Ottawa to discuss an important and difficult question: Is it time to overhaul Canada’s communications legislation? Two bedrock pieces of legislation are at issue: the Broadcasting Act of 1991 and the Telecommunications Act of 1993. The two-day event has been organized by the Forum on Research and Policy in Communications (FRPC), through the efforts of Monica Auer and Sharon Jeannotte. They’ve headlined it Rebooting Canada’s Communications Legislation.

Monica and Sharon have done something very unusual in planning this confab. They’ve sent out lengthy, detailed instructions to all the participants to manage everyone’s expections – on the substantive issues, not food allergies and room rates. (On the strength of this attention to quality alone, I’d recommend Rebooting highly.)

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tv-flag-4Canadian families spend an average of roughly $200 a month on communications services, a figure that keeps rising. Our federal and provincial governments are also heavy spenders in this sector, across a range of programs that include cultural agencies (e.g. CBC, Telefilm); direct subsidies (e.g. the Canada Media Fund); indirect subsidies (e.g. tax credits); and other periodic expenditures (e.g. broadband infrastructure). The money certainly matters. But Canadians also invest a great deal of time, faith and social equity in our broadcast media, especially television, as well as the telecom networks that power our smartphones and home Internet access.

Behind all the hours we spend with electronic media, there’s an overarching set of policy goals enshrined in our broadcasting and telecom legislation. The Rebooting conference is designed to examine those goals with a critical eye, in light of new developments on the ground, as the journalists say. The panel I’m on is called “Window to the world, mirror for ourselves: socio‐cultural objectives of communications legislation.” The organizers are particularly interested in hearing from us whether these objectives are still relevant. The initial puzzle, of course, is relevant to what? Beyond that, another difficulty looms.

The objectives of the Broadcasting Act in particular are deeply woven through regulatory policymaking, forming what the legislation calls the Broadcasting Policy for Canada. It stipulates that the broadcasting system should, for example, “serve to safeguard, enrich and strengthen the cultural, political, social and economic fabric of Canada.” Among many other things, the system should also:

“serve the needs and interests, and reflect the circumstances and aspirations, of Canadian men, women and children, including equal rights, the linguistic duality and multicultural and multiracial nature of Canadian society and the special place of aboriginal peoples within that society…” [emphasis added: see below].

And so on, for a grand total of 1,100 words.

I’m not giving much away if I say here I find that the section 3 objectives are not merely unrealistic and unworkable, but have militated against the public interest by promoting the success of a small number of firms and industry personnel at the expense of consumer welfare. I base this bold claim on the possibly unconvincing observation that I’ve had a long-time interest in how the objectives for broadcasting fit the realities of audience, marketplace and political behavior. By way of illustration, I once wrote the following to sum up my opinion on the merits of section 3:

“Little can be gained from debating whether certain objectives of the system and the national service [read: CBC] are appropriate, when many technical and cultural realities of the system and the national service are simply not addressed by the major institutional provisions of the Broadcasting Act.”

Not to say I told you so, but I wrote this passage in the summer of 1978. I’d been asked by the late, lamented Dept of Communications to write a potted history of the first few decades of our system. What emerged a year later (1979) was a publication entitled Evolution of the Canadian Broadcasting System: Objectives and Realities, 1928-1968. Even in those days, the then Broadcasting Act, dating from 1968, had a section 3, devoted to the Broadcasting Policy for Canada. The tenor hasn’t changed much since, except it’s become much longer – almost four times longer.

That means our current policy framework is almost a quarter-century old, measured against the current statute. But if we measure from the real starting point, the 1968 version, the policy is 47 years old. Consider that the 1991 Act came into force a few months before the very first Web page became available on the public Internet (February 1991 vs August 1991: contrary to widespread belief, the Web and the Internet are two entirely different animals).

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The special legislative place accorded aboriginals is not reflected in available resources

SOME problems with the goals are intrinsic, like provisions without substance or import. The illustration I’ll discuss in a later post concerns the identification of “the special place of aboriginal peoples” in Canadian society and Ottawa’s failure to give that special place any practical meaning (see chart above). Many other problems arise from a disconnect between objectives and the changing realities of the marketplace. To illustrate that idea, I’ll look at the predicament of conventional broadcasters, whose audiences and revenues are fleeing, while the legislation and regulations still enshrine TV as the cornerstone of our culture (see chart below).

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D.E.

It’s 2015: Cancon is the aberration, not VPNs or the Internet

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WiTopia is a provider of personal VPN services

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In a Globe and Mail piece last Friday, Kate Taylor starts off by asking the wrong question: Digital content may be cheap, but who will pay to create it? Things go downhill from there.

Ms Taylor’s old-fashioned apology for Cancon, with its predictable sideswipes at “freeriding” Netflix and marauding pirates, is based on ideology rather than evidence. It completely misconstrues the role of security tools like VPNs, at a time when Canadians should be far more concerned about their privacy and security online than about shelf space on the network for domestic TV shows. Most of all, it treats the Internet like a cultural and economic aberration that’s ruining our TV system, when the aberration is Canada’s bizarre and unworkable framework for broadcasting.

Virtual private networks and why you need one

What the article says about VPNs:

“The latest scheme is to use a virtual private network, or VPN, to trick Netflix into believing you are located in the United States and can thus subscribe to the video-streaming service’s American catalogue….

Internet advocates love to preach choice, diversity and freedom – after all, a VPN can also be used by citizens in China to access content censored by their government.”

A VPN is specialized client software that encrypts online messages, and is said metaphorically to “tunnel” through the public Internet. It’s a “virtual” network because there’s no real tunnel or separate physical network. Your data packets are still co-mingling with other people’s packets, but only you and folks with the authentication tools – like a password – can read those packets. The VPN is said to be private for exactly that reason, like an office behind a locked door. Continue reading

Now playing at the CRTC: your precarious future on the Internet (2)

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In this post, I follow up on my comments about the first day of the CRTC’s hearing to review its framework for wholesale services in the telecom industry. Since the most significant sector to be affected is Canada’s residential broadband service, I’m summarizing evidence here that was compiled recently by the Open Technology Institute (OTI) that compares broadband in 24 cities in Europe, East Asia and the US, along with Toronto. This evidence is consistent with findings from other international studies. It shows Toronto lags far behind the broadband leaders in available speeds; in the penetration of fiberoptic platforms; in symmetric connectivity (uplink bandwidth matches downlink bandwidth); and, most seriously from a social policy perspective, in the high prices Torontonians are forced to pay. I take this evidence as a strong argument in favor of maintaining and extending the regulatory regime that ensures open access to networks for smaller, competitive ISPs – including not just legacy platforms like DSL, but also emerging fiber platforms. Unless the CRTC includes these next-generation platforms, Canada will fall even further behind in its long slide into slow and expensive broadband connectivity.

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“We are now ready to take our place as the most technologically advanced nation on the planet.” –Stephen Harper, Digital Canada 150, April 2014

Last month the Open Technology Institute released the third in a series of annual studies of broadband speeds and prices in 24 cities in the US, East Asia and Europe, plus Toronto (originally 22 cities). I wrote about OTI’s first report back in November 2012 (CRTC’s 2nd pro-consumer decree: 4 reasons not to celebrate); and I had comments a year later about the second report (Broadband data for Toronto: more bad news and getting worse). Continue reading