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

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

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

Remedies large and small for our Internet ills (2)

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If we’re short on remedies for our Internet ills, we’re sure not short on the red flags and warning signs.

Last week, for example, celebrity cryptographer Bruce Schneier published his 14th book –– Click Here to Kill Everybody: Security and Survival in a Hyper-connected World. It seems to be selling well — hardly surprising given the importance of the topic and Schneier’s knack for describing arcane technical ideas in a punchy, readable style.

Schneier shares an abiding interest in tech policy, much like former FCC chair Tom Wheeler, whose own policy prescriptions we looked at in the previous post. His recent paper — “Time to Fix It: Developing Rules for Internet Capitalism” — argues it’s time for the IT industry to “deal responsibly with the world they created.”

Wheeler reminds us that in Washington, tech companies have been “taking fire from both sides of the aisle.” The appearance before Congress two weeks ago of Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg and Twitter’s Jack Dorsey showed how daunting it will be to “regulate” the big platforms. And the Internet’s biggest monopolist — Google/Alphabet — didn’t even show up for this convo. What’s a good Republican supposed to do with that kind of snub? Continue reading

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