Get ready to be a guerrilla activist for net neutrality

The Thinker by Rodin

These regulations to end net neutrality the FCC are likely to pass next month makes no sense. Okay, it does make sense if you want to free Internet Service Providers to discriminate the delivery of content over the web or if you think it makes sense for them to prohibit some content from being delivered at all. That’s clearly how it could end up affecting us customers. What doesn’t make any sense is the rationale that FCC commissioner Ajit Pai is using to end net neutrality.

Pai argues that free of the burden of net neutrality, ISPs will want to invest in their infrastructure instead, presumably delivering us more and greater broadband and more services. No, really! This is truly so laughable it’s amazing if Pai can say this with a straight face. Free of the “burden” ISPs like Comcast – if they think they can get away with it – will work hard to figure out how to pad their bottom line in new and creative ways and spending money to build higher speed networks won’t do that. It’s not you they care about; it’s their stockholders but also how much money they can make off their monopoly in bonuses and stock options.

With a few exceptions, ISPs have monopolies. With net neutrality though they can’t discriminate on what content is delivered and how quickly it is delivered. We still have to pay their ridiculous usury fees but at least we don’t have to pay extra for the privilege of streaming Stranger Things or worry that if we want to wax our carrots on pornhub.com we need to chip in an extra $10 a month for an “all adult access pass”. We don’t have to worry that Time Warner will cut off our access to washingtonpost.com because they don’t like its liberal content or force our browsers to show news clips from Fox News.

It’s hard to know now which of these scenarios will actually happen if net neutrality rules go away. We do know that in Portugal the mobile carrier Meo “innovated” by letting you decide what sort of content packages you want. Want access to social networks this month? Meo will charge you €4.99 a month for the privilege and if not, well no Facebook or Twitter for you. I strongly suspect that given the “magic” of the free market here in the USA things will get much more creative than this.

And it’s not like you are likely to have a choice, certainly not here in Western Massachusetts where I live as Comcast has the lock on high speed internet. You choices are to maybe get a dial up service if there is still a phone company out there doing landlines and your house is suitably wired, which is what I was doing until 1999. Or you could stick a huge satellite antenna in your yard (if you have a yard and the HOA allows it) and point to a Hughes satellite, and pay handsomely for the privilege of really crappy Internet service. You can also try to run your Internet through your cell phone on a network like Verizon although 4G speeds are mediocre at best compared to broadband and wireless Internet tends to be pricey. Or I suppose you could exercise your freedom by disconnecting from the Internet and maybe going once a week to use a computer at your public library to check your email.

Comcast says it supports net neutrality but it wants to be free of its rules anyhow, which is a polite way of saying it doesn’t support them and will see how much it can get away with once the cops go away. If you are lucky enough to have a choice of high-speed Internet providers maybe you will get some competition and relief from these rules. When we lived in Northern Virginia we could choose between Cox and Verizon FiOS. We paid about $25 less per month for better service than we get here.

But really, what incentive will Comcast and other ISPs have to improve their network? What usually drives these improvements is competition, something they don’t have to worry about any more than Ma Bell had to worry about it in the 1960s in most communities. Ma Bell did have to worry about Public Service Commissions, but with the FCC going to a hands-off mode there will be virtually none of that at the FCC. Supposedly the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) will take up the slack, according to Pai. There are two problems with this approach. First, the FTC is understaffed so it won’t have much ability to take action, a situation the Trump administration is likely to make worse. Second, since they have no rule making authority they can only say that in this instance an ISP is acting against trade rules.

So how do you fight this, particularly when the FCC appears so tone deaf that it will ignore 20 million comments filed, mostly in support of net neutrality? Since these rules seem likely to pass, we have to hit ISPs where it hurts: in the pocketbook. Here are my suggestions:

  • Municipalities should build their own broadband networks. No one in Chattanooga, Tennessee is complaining about their municipal network but you can bet Comcast doesn’t like it and has been working state legislators to get rid of it. Their rationale: it’s not competitive but nearby communities that aren’t on the municipal network pay Comcast a lot more than city residents do for inferior service. Such innovation!
  • Boycott ISPs to the extent possible if they don’t practice strict net neutrality. ISPs usually provide cable services. Cut your cable to a basic plan or get rid of it altogether and use a HD TV antenna instead. Let them know why you are doing it and that you won’t come back until they practice strict net neutrality again.
  • Use a VPN service while you can. I wrote about this back in April. With these new rules, ISPs will be free to track your usage and sell the information to the highest bidder. Until they block VPN ports or degrade service, this at least allows you to get the full Internet, perhaps with some degradation of service as content will have to go through a proxy. Most likely though ISPs will either block or degrade VPN services, but it may work for a little while.
  • Protest regularly outside local, regional and national ISP office. Be noisy and in their faces. If you own stock in these companies, go to their annual meetings and raise holy hell.
  • Petition Congress. The FCC is clearly planning to stay tone deaf while the Trump Administration survives. You can complain to your representative and senator and pledge to vote against them if they don’t support net neutrality.
  • Vote for candidates who support of net neutrality. Democrats are not necessarily supporters of net neutrality. It took a major campaign in 2013 to get the Obama Administration to favor rules in this area. Expect Congress and the Trump Administration to stay tone deaf, but definitely support candidates that promise to bring back net neutrality. By and large they will be Democrats. If you can, do more than vote for these candidates, but use your friends and social networks (to the extent ISPs will allow you to!) to campaign for them as well.

I bet these new rules likely to pass next month probably won’t last long. But it will take major activism from many engaged Americans to roll these back. Plenty of energy is there already if 20 million comments were filed, but apparently we need more. So be prepared to take action and not to roll over on this. Complain to your ISP and cut back your use of their services if they discriminate based on content origin. And protest, protest, protest! This should be an issue that both Democrats and Republicans can agree on.

It’s time to use a virtual private network

The Thinker by Rodin

As a tech guy, it’s rare for me to find technology and politics intersecting. Both are my passions. Last week though it did and at the suggestion of my wife (actually her friend) we subscribed to a virtual private network service.

Why? Well, if you live in the United States it’s hard to miss the news that Congress passed and on Monday Trump signed into law a bill that allows Internet Service Providers (ISPs) to sell your Internet usage data. The law prohibits the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) from implementing a rule planned for later this year. That Obama FCC rule would have prohibited ISPs from selling your Internet access information without your explicit consent. With the new law, ISPs don’t need your consent. So in addition to paying companies like Comcast $100 a month for your Internet service they now have government sanction to do whatever they want with your Internet access information and without your consent too. You would think they would at least give you a kickback depending on the value of the information.

Being money grubbing, profit-making corporations of course ISPs will try to sell your information for as much as the market will allow. There are likely to be plenty of buyers because what they have to sell is likely plenty valuable. Think about your Internet life. Perhaps it is quite G-rated, as mine is most of the time. But even if you lead a G-rated life your browser history will still be tracked and analyzed, and sold to companies that will want to sell you stuff. Of course it’s much easier to sell you stuff when they already suspect you have an interest in what they are promoting, which is why it will likely generate a lot of profits for ISPs. In the sales business, this is called prospecting. It used to be done door-to-door and now it’s done electronically and you have no say in the matter because it’s like leaving your front door open for marketers to roam around in at any hour of the day to observe your behavior.

This practice isn’t news. You probably get targeted ads that follow you online, as I do. It’s probably not Comcast (yet) selling this information, although in the past they were not legally prohibited from selling it. (Most of these are site owners sharing information they collect about your access on their site, principally your IP address, to others.) The issue was murky so ISPs appeared to be refraining from doing it. That’s not the case now and really if you complain what are you going to do? Most of us don’t have the option of choosing another ISP. I sure don’t here in Massachusetts where Comcast holds the monopoly. My only choice is to give up the Internet altogether or access it from public libraries. Obviously this is not a viable solution today. Google and Facebook of course make lots of money selling targeted ads. However, you don’t have to use Google or Facebook, and they don’t charge you for the privilege. Using it is a choice.

With no constraints on what ISPs can do with information it collects about you while using its network, pretty much anything about your Internet usage is now available potentially to anyone with the money. ISPs could even give it away for free. Perhaps you don’t mind getting targeted ads so you think, okay, I’m in. If I have to have ads thrown at me online all day, maybe they can at least be relevant. But consider some of the other ways this information could be misused:

  • The government could pay ISPs to collect all this information and store a copy in its own servers. You could even make a case for it. If the NSA is looking for potential terrorists, knowing you keep going to an al Qaeda website sure would be good to know. Of course while they are in there they could also learn that you frequent PornHub.com or regularly contribute to the American Communist Party. If you want to create a police state, this is a pretty efficient way to get one started.
  • Political parties could use it not just to find new voters, but also to target voters they don’t want voting because they suspect you will vote against their interests. This is similar to what the Russian government is accused of doing in our last election through fake news sites and sophisticated web robots that promoted false stories that it believed we were likely to fall for. It’s quite likely that Hillary Clinton lost the election through the promotion of fake news stories about her email server or actions on Benghazi while Secretary of State.
  • It would make it much easier for the Russians to affect future elections. Now they have to hunt to find gullible people. Buying the information up front is so much easier and allows a broader scope. Russia need not be the only state actor. Any nation with the cash (like China) could play.
  • Your spouse can find out that you frequent ashleymadison.com or gay porn sites.
  • Your Googling of medical conditions might suggest to health insurers that you are a bad bet and they might deny you a policy or cancel an existing one.
  • You may have related confidential family information, maybe about your kid’s run in with the law, or a son’s ADHD, or a sister with Alzheimer’s Disease, stuff that is your business, but not some stranger’s business.
  • Political enemies could discover you and target you, perhaps with a brick through your window because you gave to the ACLU and Planned Parenthood. (I am guilty of both.)

In short this should be very alarming. In more reasonable places, like most of Europe, laws prohibit this stuff. It doesn’t generate controversy because no one would consider an idea as radical as the bill Trump signed on Monday. Ah, but here in the USA we’re all about extreme capitalism. Those with the money make the rules and that appears to be Republicans since they moved this law, and very quickly too.

What can you do about it? I don’t intend to get into the many ways to safeguard your privacy on the web that have been around for years. In this case though you are being mined and recorded without your consent. Your Internet address is stored, geolocation information too along with a host of other information, like your web browser, the page you were viewing and the page that referred you to the page. It can all be logged and put into vast data warehouses and there is nothing you can do about it.

Okay, there is one thing: use a virtual private network (VPN). It’s hardly a perfect solution but it’s the next step. Unfortunately, a VPN service is rarely free, which means that if you value your privacy like everything else you will probably pay a cost, most likely in money, but perhaps just in your time. A VPN is a secure tunnel that your ISP cannot read, aside from knowing that you are connecting to a VPN site. Your web requests essentially are proxied through the VPN provider you choose.

(A side note: Congress is also considering legislation to do away with “net neutrality”. If passed, ISPs could use this is an excuse to block VPN sites or to charge them extra for the privilege, costs which would trickle down to you. This is just another reason that I think net neutrality is essential.)

We took the plunge last week and bought a year of VPN service from Private Internet Access. It’s a pretty good deal. ($40 a year for up to 5 simultaneous devices, if you pay for a year in advance.) I am not endorsing the company as we have just started using it. Of course you have no idea if the VPN service is reselling your information just like Comcast. You have to trust them. Private Internet Access’s terms of service suggest that if you are doing illegal things they can detect it and might report it. I’m quite confident that if they get a search warrant they can turn on logging easily enough. Of course they would not be in business long if they were engaged in these sorts of activities routinely. Private Internet Access, like most VPNs, says they don’t keep logs of your access. If true, it’s reasonably private.

So if you are shopping for a VPN, by all means shop around. This recent PC World article reviewed a bunch of VPNs so it’s a good place to get unbiased advice. (Private Internet Access is one of their Editor’s Choice winners.) Some, like one built into the Opera browser, are free. Most cost money. As you might expect the quality of the service you get depends principally on how much you are willing to pay. With Private Internet Access so far I have noticed:

  • I could not access Craigslist until I pointed it to use a connection point within the United States
  • I could not use it at the same time with another VPN. Since I teach at a local community college, I use its VPN from time to time. I could not use it until I first turned off the Private Internet Access VPN.
  • Content streaming is not noticeably slower but it is probably slower in general because there is an extra server between me and the content I want

Hopefully in time we’ll get a Congress and president again that will respect our privacy. Like with the Citizens United decision, Americans are overwhelmingly against this law, and that includes Republicans. So it’s likely Republicans will eventually pay a price for this heavy handedness. In the meantime if you value your privacy, you probably need to get a VPN.

The Internet is already not net neutral

The Thinker by Rodin

Upset by proposals by the Federal Communications Commission to create “express lanes” on the Internet? If the current proposal now out for public comment becomes a rule, it would allow Internet Service Providers (ISPs) like Verizon and Comcast to charge a fee to those web sites that want faster content delivery.

This is the opposite of net neutrality, which is the principle that all web content should be delivered by an ISP at the same speed. (Actually, it’s at the same bandwidth, since all network traffic is effectively at the speed of light.) The argument goes that without net neutrality, those companies with deeper pockets, particularly those who are already established, such as Netflix, have an unfair competitive advantage over other services or start ups without such deep pockets. It’s a concern I certainly share, so much so that I first blogged about it in 2006. Bottom line: I am still concerned and I think this proposal must be fought.

What I didn’t write about back in 2006 was that there was no net neutrality back then either. Effectively, bandwidth is already discriminatory because it is based on ability to pay. It’s just based on your ability to pay, not the content provider’s. For example, Verizon has basically four tiers of Internet service from it’s “high speed” service (actually it’s lowest speed service) where content delivery does not exceed 1MB per second to its “high speed Internet enhanced” service where you can download at up to 15MB per second. It’s hard to quantify what the cost of the 1MB/sec plan is compared to the 15MB/sec plan, because it depends on many factors including what bundle you may or may not choose. Suffice to say if you want a 15MB/sec service, you will pay more than a 1MB/sec service. So if streaming Netflix is critical to you, consider their 15MB/sec service. (Of course, this assumes that the port between Verizon and Netflix can handle 15MB/sec. If it can’t then there is no point in paying Verizon the premium.)

You can think of the Internet connection from your ISP like a water pipe. If the water pipe is big (and the water pressure is high enough) you can get more water per second through a bigger pipe. What the FCC is proposing is to take this pipe and put two pipes inside it. One is a fat pipe that will serve certain content very quickly, the “fast lane”. The other smaller pipe is for those who can’t afford to pay ISPs these premiums, i.e. the “slow lane”. Since I live in traffic-congested Washington D.C., I think of the “fast lane” as the pricey HOT (High Occupancy Toll) lanes on the beltway, and the “slow lane” as the toll free and usually congested other lanes. It’s not hard to imagine the Internet feeling a lot like it did in 1995, when the hourglass was principally what you saw in your web browser. Pages took forever to load, if they ever did. For those of us who remember those days, revisiting them sounds quite frightful. ISPs would have every incentive to throttle the slow lanes, because it would mean that web content providers would come to them and negotiate to use their fast lanes. In addition, they would have little incentive to increase bandwidth for their customers overall, but plenty of profit to funnel back to stockholders from those that pay for fast lanes. It is the antithesis of what the Internet is about.

So already there is no net neutrality of content delivery, unless you have an ISP that provides a “one speed for all customers” plan. The issue is not content delivery; it is the speed of particular content distribution within the ISP’s network. Which brings up another less noticed way that the Internet is not equal. It has to do with Content Delivery Networks (CDNs).

If you access my blog with a browser you will notice it takes a while to render a web page. Why is that? It’s because I don’t pay for a content delivery network. I did a test from home on accessing my web site. I had to go through 13 routers (switches on the internet) between my home computer and my web host:

1 wireless_broadband_router (192.168.1.1) 0.525 ms 0.244 ms 0.216 ms
2 l100.washdc-vfttp-93.verizon-gni.net (173.66.179.1) 7.083 ms 7.095 ms 8.161 ms
3 g1-5-3-0.washdc-lcr-21.verizon-gni.net (130.81.216.76) 9.435 ms 12.101 ms 12.305 ms
4 ae7-0.res-bb-rtr1.verizon-gni.net (130.81.174.208) 9.731 ms
   so-12-1-0-0.res-bb-rtr1.verizon-gni.net (130.81.151.230) 27.151 ms
   ae7-0.res-bb-rtr1.verizon-gni.net (130.81.174.208) 8.855 ms
5 0.ae1.xl1.iad8.alter.net (140.222.226.149) 10.166 ms
   0.ae5.xl1.iad8.alter.net (152.63.8.121) 9.396 ms 10.254 ms
6 0.xe-8-3-1.gw12.iad8.iad8.alter.net (152.63.37.14) 9.610 ms
   0.xe-8-0-0.gw12.iad8.alter.net (152.63.35.134) 9.693 ms
   0.xe-10-1-0.gw12.iad8.alter.net (152.63.35.102) 10.872 ms
7 customer.alter.net.customer.alter.net (152.179.50.206) 8.733 ms 10.023 ms 9.717 ms
8 he-2-4-0-0-cr01.ashburn.va.ibone.comcast.net (68.86.83.65) 10.252 ms
   he-2-6-0-0-cr01.ashburn.va.ibone.comcast.net (68.86.83.73) 14.819 ms
   he-2-5-0-0-cr01.ashburn.va.ibone.comcast.net (68.86.83.69) 12.388 ms
9 he-4-3-0-0-cr01.56marietta.ga.ibone.comcast.net (68.86.89.150) 39.468 ms 42.618 ms 37.101 ms
10 he-1-12-0-0-cr01.dallas.tx.ibone.comcast.net (68.86.88.234) 42.852 ms 45.176 ms 44.283 ms
11 be-22-pe01.houston.tx.ibone.comcast.net (68.86.85.174) 50.270 ms 49.438 ms 50.270 ms
12 as8075-1.2001sixthave.wa.ibone.comcast.net (75.149.230.54) 49.692 ms 85.009 ms 50.379 ms
13 216.117.50.142 (216.117.50.142) 49.597 ms

Electrons still travel at the speed of light, but they are thirteen stoplights between my computer and my web server, at least for me. You can see how long my request took at each stop. For example, hop 13 took 49.597 milliseconds. Add up all the milliseconds to see how long it took for me to get to my site. If you do the same thing, the number of hops will probably vary, along with the access time. In short, it’s relatively slow to get to, which alone may explain why my traffic is down. People are impatient when they click on a link to my site from a search index. So they go elsewhere or get an effective CDN by using a subscription service to read content like Feedburner or feedly.com.

This is not much of a problem if I go to google.com. Here is the route:

1 wireless_broadband_router (192.168.1.1) 0.557 ms 0.229 ms 0.202 ms
2 l100.washdc-vfttp-93.verizon-gni.net (173.66.179.1) 6.919 ms 8.588 ms 7.432 ms
3 g1-5-3-0.washdc-lcr-21.verizon-gni.net (130.81.216.76) 12.248 ms 12.530 ms 9.252 ms

So basically Google has figured out a way for its servers to be “close” to me, usually geographically, so I get their content more quickly, or at least with fewer stoplights between their servers and my computer. This magic is done through a content delivery network. I’m pretty sure Google rolled their own, and that takes a lot of money, which Google helpfully has.

You can imagine if a company wanted to create a new amazing search index, it would be at a significant disadvantage if it didn’t have a content delivery network. They probably won’t roll their own like Google, but use one of the companies out there that do this for profit, like Akamai and Level 3. The technology behind this is interesting but I won’t detail it here. The linked Wikipedia article explores it if you are interested. Suffice to say it does not come free, but there are times when it is justified. The U.S. Geological Survey where I work uses a commercial content delivery network. Whenever there is a major earthquake they push the content out to the CDN, otherwise their servers would get overloaded and it would be like a massive denial of service attack. It also gets this data out more quickly to the public, as the typical customer probably only has to traverse three hops instead of thirteen to get the information.

We like to think that the Internet is free, but of course it isn’t. We all pay for access to it. Even if we don’t pay it directly, we pay indirectly, perhaps for the cup of coffee at Starbucks while we surf on their wireless network, or through taxes if we use Internet kiosks at our local library. Doing away with net neutrality is just another means by which ISPs hope to make gobs of money from having a monopoly on the last mile between the content you want and your computer. This may be due, in part, by our refusal to pay for their pricier tiers of service. The only difference is that this time you are not directly paying for it but other content providers will be. (You would think ISPs might cut you in on the deal and discount your rate, but that assumes they are benevolent, and not the profit-obsessed weasels they actually are.) As we all know, nothing is free, so these costs will certainly be passed on to you if you are a subscriber, and that profit will go to the ISP.

Given that bandwidth to the home is a limited commodity, giving discriminatory access to web content providers that can afford to pay must by necessity mean that others will get less access. In that sense, the latest FCC proposal is smoke and mirrors, and it is in everyone’s interest to get off our lazy asses and oppose it.

You can leave a short comment to the FCC here or a long comment here.