What Net Neutrality Means To You

The FCC recently lost an important ruling on net neutrality. The case concerned Comcast’s throttling of high-traffic users, primarily those using the BitTorrent service to transfer large files. The ruling is a setback for the FCC’s goal of preventing Internet service providers from filtering or blocking Internet traffic or prioritizing some kinds of data over others.

On the surface the case seems relatively benign. After all, why shouldn’t an Internet provider like Comcast be able to prevent users from taking up the bulk of its bandwidth, or offer some premium services at faster rates than others? But net neutrality is important for anyone who runs a small business or uses a home computer.

Imagine you run Mom-N-Pop Widgets, and your biggest competitor is Real Big Widget Company. Without net neutrality, Real Big could use its real big budget and influence to prioritize its data traffic over yours. Your web site might load more slowly than Real Big’s, or might not be available at all to some visitors.

Or, imagine you are a home user trying to get information about a cause that interests you — let’s say breast cancer. But what if drug manufacturers pay your Internet provider so their content is prioritized? You would receive skewed results favoring the drug manufacturers’ solutions over other, perhaps lesser known but valuable options. In other words, whoever has the money will be able to pay to be seen, while smaller entities may be unable to compete.

How about censorship? The incident with Google in China shows how governments or other entities may try to assert control over the Internet. Net neutrality is about freedom of speech as well as fairness in business practices.

Previously, the FCC described the “Four Freedoms” upon which Internet communications law should be based. These were described by FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski in a speech last year:

Network operators cannot prevent users from accessing the lawful Internet content, applications, and services of their choice, nor can they prohibit users from attaching non-harmful devices to the network.

Genachowski added two more principles:

The fifth principle is one of non-discrimination — stating that broadband providers cannot discriminate against particular Internet content or applications.

The sixth principle is a transparency principle — stating that providers of broadband Internet access must be transparent about their network management practices.

If you read the speech you’ll find examples of how these principles have been violated in the past. Without codified rules preventing such abuse, the Internet would quickly devolve into a world of haves and have-nots, and the kind of innovation that resulted in eBay, FaceBook and Netscape could be curtailed.

Naturally, some Internet providers have criticized the FCC’s proposal, claiming such rules are not needed. But, as Genachowski states:

This is not about government regulation of the Internet. It’s about fair rules of the road for companies that control access to the Internet. We will do as much as we need to do, and no more, to ensure that the Internet remains an unfettered platform for competition, creativity, and entrepreneurial activity.

As a small business owner and a consumer, I want the Internet open and available to anyone regardless of how much clout or money they might have. The Internet is vital to global communications and the future of humanity. Let’s not see it reduced to a fraction of its potential.

Cloud Computing For Consumers Makes Me Cringe

The latest buzz in the IT world is all about “cloud computing” and “software as a service” (SaaS). These two related terms refer to doing all your computing via the Internet rather than software locally installed on your computer. But the idea of consumers relying solely on cloud computing makes me cringe. Why?

  1. It’s not secure
    Microsoft’s upcoming incarnation of Office is an example. Office Web will offer versions of Word, Excel and PowerPoint than run directly from the Web. But consumers don’t know or care where their applications come from as long as they work. So let’s say Jane Consumer wants to open financial data stored in an Excel file. She may not know she’s trusting her entire fortune to the cloud (e.g. the Internet). What about a consumer who is working from a home computer, opening confidential documents that ought to be kept within the confines of the corporate network? When you use the Internet, you never know who might be intercepting your information. I wouldn’t want my data trusted exclusively to the cloud. I wouldn’t even be satisfied with regular local backups. I want my data where I can see it, smell it, touch it, and above all control it.
  2. Your environment can be changed at the whim of developers
    Many web mail users complain to me that they don’t like it when their provider changes the look and feel of their email service without notice. Imagine if your word processor and spreadsheet did the same thing. There is something to be said for locally installed software that you can manage as you prefer. Apparently consumers feel the same way, given how many people are still using Windows XP so they don’t have to deal with Vista’s changed interface. You could also consider the huge number of complaints Microsoft received when they removed the tried-and-true Office menus in favor of Office 2007′s (gack) ribbon toolbar.
  3. What if your Internet connection goes down?
    Purveyors of SaaS promise ways to work offline. But how well will it work in reality? Do you really want to count on having a reliable Internet connection just to open a document? What about people in areas who have no access to steady high-speed Internet?
  4. What if your SaaS provider pulls the plug?
    You could wake up one morning, turn on your computer and discover that the software you need to do your work is vanished, gone, kaput. You might even be at the mercy of vendors who change your license agreement, then demand a ransom to keep your software alive. We’ve already seen that happen with the way some antivirus software vendors gouge you for automatic payments. What if they offer a full-fledged product, then strip the features and start charging extra for them? Or what if your vendor goes under? With locally installed software, at least you still have the software. With SaaS, you might lose the software and your data, too. Worse, what if they decide they now own all your data and can do with it whatever they like?
  5. Advertising and fakes
    How would you like it if you were working on a document and an advertisement interrupted you? Or what if you received a phony popup pretending that your document is corrupt and you suddenly need to buy some nifty (fake) software that will solve the purported problem? This already happens with fake antivirus software. I don’t need it in my word processor.
  6. The potential for censorship
    Look at China’s attempts to firewall their entire country and crack down on social networking sites. Relying exclusively on cloud computing could, in theory, give a government the ability to silence what it doesn’t like. This is the same reason I believe in net neutrality: freedom of expression.

Of course, there may be some advantages to consumer cloud computing.

  1. Ease of use
    Imagine not waiting for your computer to start up or load an application. This would appeal to many consumers. With cloud computing you could access your software as easily as opening a browser window.
  2. Your environment can be changed at the whim of developers
    Yes, I said that above, but it can be a good thing too. You could get new features without having to install new software. It might even be cheaper since you wouldn’t have to pay for the CD or DVD. Perhaps you could buy features for short-term use, as you need them. I’ll bet people who make casual use of super-expensive software like Adobe Photoshop would enjoy that ability.
  3. Less expensive hardware
    Google’s Chrome OS will run at first on netbooks, inexpensive PCs that require only minimal hardware to operate. With cloud computing the vendor takes on the burden of processing power; all you need is a Web browser. Again, this might be highly appealing to consumers and could help bring computing power to those who currently cannot afford it.
  4. Convenience
    Many consumers enjoy being able to work on their documents anywhere, anytime, without the need to log into a home machine or fiddle with a USB drive. That’s why Google Docs is popular. People are often willing to trade privacy for convenience.

In my opinion, cloud computing is too new and untested to be forced down consumers’ throats just because it’s the latest IT craze. But, as an option rather than a requirement, it may provide some advantages. For more, check out this op-ed from the WSJ. Be sure to read the comments, they’re interesting!

Is AOL Censoring Blogspot Links?

This is why I started Triona’s Tech Tips – because there are murky things going on in the computer world that consumers have no way of detecting. Today it’s your Internet service providers, who are once again doing things without telling their subscribers.

In starting this blog, I naturally added its address to my email signature:

www.guidryconsulting.com/techtips

In the course of checking my Monday morning mail, I sent a reply to a client with whom I’ve worked for years. Imagine my surprise at the following bounce message:

PERM_FAILURE: Rejected by the recipient domain. The error that the other server returned was:
554 554-: (HVU:B1)http://postmaster.info.aol.com/errors/554hvub1.html
554 TRANSACTION FAILED.

I recognized the error because it’s an unusual one, and because I’d just seen it over the weekend when sending a non-work-related email. I immediately recognized the commonalities: both emails were addressed to AOL users, and happened to have links to Blogspot blogs.

A little web sleuthing came up with this:
http://blogging.nitecruzr.net/2008/05/aol-vs-blogspot.html

It appears AOL has decided, without telling its users, that it’s no longer going to accept email messages that happen to contain Blogspot links. And Blogspot happens to be owned by Google.

This is a horrible precident, one that echoes the arguments in favor of net neutrality. If it’s okay for an Internet provider to decide which links it will allow in email, what’s to stop them from, say, refusing all emails from non-affiliated providers? Imagine if your cell phone company decided you couldn’t receive calls from another company’s customers!

This isn’t going to provide computer security for AOL users, as the error message implies. It’s going to send those users – who are already plenty ticked about their degrading service, especially dial-up – straight into the arms of some other provider.

If you’re an AOL user and suddenly not receiving some emails, this may be part of your answer. And if you are emailing AOL users, you’ll have to break up the “blogspot” address, like this:

b l o g s p o t . c o m

Otherwise your message may never reach your recipient, and you may never know why.