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About Karl Bode

Karl Bode lives in New York and has spent the last decade writing about telecom and broadband for one of the Internet's largest and oldest technology communities: BroadbandReports.com.

Posted on Techdirt - 28 March 2014 @ 7:39pm

Anne Rice Battles Mean Anonymous Amazon Trolls, Ignores Fact Many Anonymous Users Add Great Value

from the baby-with-the-bath-water dept

Anne Rice appears to be taking a break from sexy rock and roll vampirism to take on a new form of monster: Amazon trolls. The author claims there's a growing wave of "bullying and harassment" of authors going on in the Amazon books reviews section, and as such she's started a new petition demanding that Amazon do something about it by eliminating anonymity entirely from user reviews. The move is necessary, Rice claims, because some people were once mean to her on the Internet when she was busy trying to help aspiring authors:

"Then the bullies, trolls, jerks, whatever you want to call them, found the thread. That's when the attacks started happening. It got very ugly very fast … With each attack, Anne tried to diffuse the situation and out these people for what they are: bullies. Well, that just made them frenzy even more. Eventually, I left the thread. It got too ugly for me. Anne stuck it out for a while, but finally she called it quits, too."
It sounds to me that Anne might be new to the Internet, and hasn't quite learned yet that it's unhealthy and pointless to spend too many calories battling (or feeding, as it were) the vitriolic troll hordes. Rice's complaints also seem to falsely believe that said trolls have started targeting authors in particular, as opposed to them simply enjoying getting a rise out of her. The assumption seems to be that people would be nicer if they weren't anonymous, which simply isn't the case if you've spent any amount of time around the general public. In the petition however, Rice argues that killing anonymity can change everything for the better:
"By removing their anonymity and forcing them to display their real, verified identities, I believe that much of the harassment and bullying will cease. It may continue elsewhere on the web, but not on Amazon, the largest online retail marketplace in the world, where it really counts. Buyers of products on Amazon must have their identities verified, so it should be an easy transition to implement a policy whereby reviewers and forum participants must also have their identities verified."
There's a difference between Amazon needing better comment moderation (violence and the worst sort of miserable commentary being deleted more quickly, obviously) versus killing off anonymity in the belief it will somehow magically deliver elevated discourse. As we've long argued at great length, anonymity in online comments can actually benefit the website, community and the overall discourse immensely. For every "Hotstud77" making fun of your nose, there's someone who is using a nom de plume to potentially add something useful to the conversation they might not have been able to anyway (a publisher or author that has something to add, for example, but doesn't feel free to do so under their "brand" name).

Yes, opening your comments to the anonymous hordes results in lots of crazy comments, but it also results in plenty of excellent insight that might otherwise never see the light of day.

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Posted on Techdirt - 18 March 2014 @ 5:52am

We've Entered The Age Of 'Fiber To The Press Release'

from the make-believe-bits dept

Google Fiber's entry into the broadband market has done a lot of great things, especially if you're one of only a few people who can actually get a 1 Gbps connection for $70 a month. While the actual launch is slow moving and small, Google's intention was always to create a louder national dialogue about the fairly pathetic state of broadband competition, and the sorts of protectionist laws incumbent ISPs have managed to pass in more than twenty states. That's not to say Google fiber doesn't have problems, like Google's decision to back away from offering an open access model where multiple ISPs are invited in over the top to compete. Google Fiber also isn't answering the age old question of how you get broadband to lower income neighborhoods.

While Google Fiber has managed to get ISPs to compete in the areas it's deployed, the project has also managed to spawn a new, misleading but entertaining phenomenon I've affectionately labeled "fiber to the press release." In a fiber to the press release deployment, a carrier (usually one with a history of doing the bare minimum on upgrades) proudly proclaims that they too will soon be offering 1 Gbps broadband. The announcement will contain absolutely no hard specifics on how many people will get the upgrades, but the press will happily parrot the announcement and state that "ISP X" has suddenly joined the ultra-fast broadband race. Why spend money on a significant deployment when you can have the press help you pretend you did?

One case in point is AT&T, which soon after Google Fiber's launch announcement in Austin, declared that it too would be offering 1 Gbps in Austin under the GigaPower brand. Taking things one step further, AT&T proclaimed that it had always planned to offer 1 Gbps fiber in Austin (most customers remain on 6 Mbps DSL, and a select few can actually get their top speed of 45 Mbps) and that the timing of its announcement was just a coincidence. Hard details of actual deployment stats are impossible to find, outside of the fact that AT&T wants to charge users a $30 premium if you don't want to be spied on by its deep packet inspection hardware. AT&T this week proudly proclaimed its fiber to the press release efforts would be expanding into Dallas:

"We are redirecting VIP investment to fiber to the home deployment, and in fact we are going to launch the service in Dallas this summer," stated Stephenson. "...You are going to see other communities as we begin to deploy this technology emerge around the United States," said the CEO, adding that the company was going to be a "little more aggressive and assertive in deploying that technology around the country."
When? How many customers? Timelines? Who cares! The fun part is that while AT&T's CEO is using words like "aggressive" and "assertive" when describing the effort publicly, he's also on record publicly telling investors that these efforts should have "no material impact" on CAPEX and spending. How is that possible? Because all AT&T is really doing is bumping speeds to select high-end development communities where they've already run fiber during construction, but kept those lines capped at DSL speeds. Bump a handful of those users to 1 Gbps, maybe run a few lines to large apartment complexes, hold some PR junkets, and you look like you're on the cutting edge of broadband deployment and aren't being out-performed in your home state by -- a search engine company.

AT&T's fiber to the press release, however dismal it is, is actually more substantive than many I've seen. Hoping to grab some Google Fiber buzz, Alaska cable operator GCI launched a new brand called "fiber re:D" that, according to their FAQ, might actually result in somebody getting 1 Gbps broadband sometime in 2015. To prove it, they've got a supposed deployment map that shows you absolutely nothing. CenturyLink is another company that is happily crowing that it's offering 1 Gbps service to "select communities" (check out their ads), hoping you'll ignore the fact that the vast majority of its customers are "lucky" to have 3 Mbps DSL with a 150 GB per month cap -- and likely won't be upgraded any time soon.

Generally these efforts all now follow the same pattern: deploy actual fiber to a handful of businesses and a few high-end developments (if that), dress the effort up in a layer of public relations paint that makes it look like an aggressive, significant deployment (how about some Google-esque videos!), then pretend that you're not actually lagging horribly on broadband upgrades courtesy of limited competition. Most companies have taken some PR cues from Google as well, usually pretending that communities can "vote" democratically on who gets upgraded next (like Google's "fiberhood" rallies), even if, unlike Google Fiber, the upgrade locations are usually determined well in advance based on which upscale communities already had fiber buried in the ground.

For minimal effort, fiber to the press release generates a huge amount of national press about how cutting edge your company is, at a tiny fraction of the cost required to actually upgrade your network. Publicly, your company gets to look like it's a highly flexible, competitive juggernaut, while privately the company gets to remain apathetically and comfortably ensconced in the same, uncompetitive duopoly market it has always enjoyed.

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Posted on Techdirt Wireless - 17 March 2014 @ 8:52am

'5G' Wireless Doesn't Even Technically Exist Yet, But Everyone's Pretty Sure It's Going To Fix Everything

from the this-network-runs-on-nonsense dept

When it comes to wireless networks, no amount of hype is too little when it comes to trying to promote looming standards or the next-generation of wireless technology. You probably remember WiMax, which Intel hyped as the "the most important invention since the Internet itself." The press gladly grabbed Intel's claim willingly and ran with it, insisting repeatedly that the technology was going to change absolutely everything. As it turned out, WiMax wound up being a niche solution that barely made a dent before being made irrelevant by other standards, like HSPA+ and LTE.

You might also be familiar with the constant marketing distortions that herald the arrival of the latest "next-generation" (third generation=3G, fourth generation=4G) wireless standard, whether it's the way Verizon initially pretended that their old network was 3G, or the way that all carriers currently pretend to offer the largest 4G network. Ultimately carriers "fixed" complaints about them being misleading by convincing the ITU that they should be allowed to call pretty much everything 4G, regardless of whether we're talking about LTE or carrier pigeon.

Enter the fifth generation of wireless (5G), which hasn't even been defined yet, but which people are already fairly sure is going to wash your dishes, cure cancer, and help John Travolta with his pronunciation problems. The generations generally come in ten year increments, and while 5G is just a vague outline currently, South Korea appears prepared to lead the charge, spending $1.5 billion to research next-generation 5G networks (whatever they wind up being) that they claim will provide speeds 1,000 times faster than what's available today.

Despite the fact that 5G is barely an embryonic concept, and any real networks likely won't even appear until at least 2020, it's never too early to dive head-first into the shallows of the hype pool. Samsung, for example, has been insisting that pretty much anything they cook up in their their labs is 5G. Broadcom insists their new Wi-Fi gear is 5G, even if it has nothing to do with cellular networks. News outlets are happy to help with the confusion too, calling 4G technologies 5G -- just because. The European Union, like everybody else, has absolutely no idea what 5G wireless is -- but they're pretty damn sure it's going to help them fix youth unemployment and your case of the sniffles:

"Neelie Kroes, vice president of the European Commission, sees 5G as a potential cure for youth unemployment, which has reached 70 percent in some areas of the European Union. It's also going to be key for e-health services and the automotive industry, she said at a news conference in Barcelona."
Is there anything the next, entirely ambiguous incarnation of wireless technologies can't do? The best part moving forward is, even if you're not actually offering "5G" any time in the next decade, you can always just pretend you do. Put "5G researcher" on your next resume update even if you're a janitorial custodian. Sell "5G" burgers! Insist your company's network is the only network that's 5G, and everybody else's network actually runs on pudding! Go ahead! Nobody will fact check. Enjoy!

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Posted on Techdirt - 14 March 2014 @ 6:30pm

Survey: 27% Think A Gigabyte Is a Type Of South American Insect [Update: Or Not]

from the I-see-dumb-people dept

Update: Or not. It appears that this survey may be bogus. Still, the key point, that we've noted for years, is that the average person has no idea how much a gigabyte really is -- and we'd bet that's still true, even if this "survey" appears to be just a marketing stunt.

A new survey from a UK company unsurprisingly found that more than a few people are slightly clueless when it comes to technology terms. The multiple-choice survey, which polled 2,392 U.S. men and women 18 years of age or older, found that one in ten Americans believe that html is some form of sexually-transmitted disease. While most survey respondents knew the definition of more general terms (like "dialect"), the full survey (pdf) found that even basic tech terms confused many people. 42% thought a motherboard was a deck on a cruise ship, 15% thought that software was comfortable clothing, and 77% of respondents didn't know what SEO meant.

Interestingly, while 67% respondents knew that a gigabyte was a unit of measurement of digital information (though the survey didn't ask them how much information is contained in a gigabyte), 27% believed that a gigabyte was a type of South American insect. That's actually a better statistic than I've seen in the past. A 2008 poll suggested that 87% of those polled had no idea what a gigabyte was or how many they use. The New York Times did an entirely unscientific street poll a few years back and found that few, if any, passers by knew what a megabyte is:

"If a sampling of pedestrians on the streets of Brooklyn is any guide, most people have only a vague idea. One said a megabyte was “the amount of something we have to use the Internet,” adding, “We should have three or four." Miranda Popkey, 24, was closer: “It’s a measure of how much information you store. If there are too many of them, I can’t send my e-mail attachment."
The thing is, most people can get away with not knowing what a motherboard is without losing a limb. Thinking that USB is an acronym for a country in Europe may not make you the smartest person in the room, but it's not going to hurt your wallet. Even the 29% of survey respondents who thought a migraine was a type of rice should probably make it through the day without any major repercussions (assuming they don't choke on their own tongue or something). But with both fixed line and wireless carriers increasingly charging by the megabyte and gigabyte, people might want to brush up on the term before they have to take out a second mortgage to fund their Angry Birds habit.

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Posted on Techdirt - 14 March 2014 @ 5:22am

Wireless Carriers Quietly Admit New 'Price War' With T-Mobile Doesn't Really Exist

from the sorta-kinda-competition dept

A lot has been made about the wireless industry's recent bout with price competition, most of it courtesy of T-Mobile. Through a number of more consumer-friendly programs ranging from the elimination of device subsidies to offering free international data, T-Mobile has started finally getting larger carriers like AT&T and Verizon to respond ever-so-slightly on price (not without ample hand wringing and consternation of investors). With CEO John Legere mocking companies like AT&T almost every day on Twitter, the overall narrative is that the wireless industry is seeing an intense, fresh burst of competitive energy and that consumers are reaping the rewards through cost savings, right? Not so much.

In reality, prices steadily continue to go up as carriers cut prices on some services, but raise prices elsewhere or redesign pricing entirely to recoup any losses. While you might now save money on voice and text under AT&T and Verizon's new shared data plans, for example, you'll now pay more money for data and to simply connect your phone to the network. While you'll no longer pay a subsidy on your phone or sign a contract, you might wind up paying more for one of the carriers' new handset early upgrade programs or get dinged by a random new fee. That's not to say that a lot of what T-Mobile is doing competitively doesn't benefit users, but price competition is still intentionally being kept to a minimum by all parties involved in contrast to the press narrative.

As such, it's amusing to see T-Mobile's CEO busily playing rock star and professing to love cutting prices, while the company's CFO quietly admits they're not actually interested in a price war:

"T-Mobile raised the cost of its core unlimited data plan on Friday. The carrier says it has been competing more effectively by doing away with subscriber "pain points" like service contracts and international data fees. But its executives have also been signaling that they don't plan to start a price war. "When you really analyze a lot of the pricing moves that have been made, there has not been a significant repricing," (T-Mobile) Chief Financial Officer Braxton Carter said at a Morgan Stanley conference last week."
And Verizon, despite T-Mobile's supposed waves in the sector, similarly admits they're not really seeing things all that differently:
"I think it is interesting given my years in the industry, how you hear things like price war and all that being kicked around in the media today and this is really nothing different than we have seen over the last couple of decades," Verizon Chief Executive Lowell McAdam said on a conference call last month."
That's not too surprising, as Verizon has a vested interest in assuring stockholders things are fine, and they've long argued their superior network is ample justification to refuse to compete on price. In contrast, T-Mobile wants investors to see the company as disruptive, but investors also know that a price war will greatly hamper efforts to improve T-Mobile's greatest weakness: much smaller overall network coverage.

Still, the fact companies are allowed to pick and choose when they actually get to engage in a price war is pretty telling about the state of competition in wireless. Despite the ample press coverage T-Mobile is generating, AT&T and Verizon together control about two-thirds of the retail market (and the resulting profits), they've cornered most of the available spectrum, and they control roughly 80% the "special access" market (they lease point to point connections that power all other services). Carriers have enjoyed some absolutely amazing profit margins on wireless for years (SMS, which costs carriers virtually nothing to provide, being just one example), and absolutely nobody wants to kill the cash cow.

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Posted on Techdirt - 13 March 2014 @ 5:22am

If You Want To Fix U.S. Broadband Competition, Start By Killing State-Level Protectionist Laws Written By Duopolists

from the long-overdue dept

For fifteen years now I've watched as phone and cable duopolies lobby to pass draft legislation designed to keep broadband uncompetitive. Specifically, in more than a dozen states these protectionist measures either hinder or outright ban a town or city's ability to wire itself for broadband (either alone or with a private industry partner) -- even in cases where nobody else will. If the laws don't ban such efforts outright, they force anyone looking to build a broadband network to jump through layers upon layers of bureaucratic hoops, during which the regional duopolies with limitless budgets harass the efforts with lawsuits and negative publicity campaigns (I've seen ISPs hire push pollsters to tell locals that a government-built network would ban their religious programming).

The worst part of these bills is that at their base they're simply duopolists buying laws that keep towns and cities from making regional infrastructure decisions for themselves, whether that's building their own core fiber network or developing a public/private network build partnership. Carriers get to have their cake and eat it too; they're not going to build you better broadband networks, but they're not going to let anybody else do it, either. Some of these projects work, some don't (it depends on the specific business model), but if the country is actually serious about improving broadband competition, these miserable bills are the very first thing that need a long, hard look.

For many years these bills were quickly passed without much debate, public scrutiny and absolutely no tech-press attention. All too often, when they were noticed, they were defended using traditional partisan tropes. Locals simply trying to get connected by any means necessary are usually vilified and portrayed as supporting "government meddling with industry." It's a shame, given that, like so many technical issues, there should be nothing partisan about protecting your local rights. Fortunately, with Google Fiber's entry into the market I've seen a renewed flurry of attention on these bills, in large part because several would have impacted Google Fiber's expansion, and Google Fiber, as I've noted, appears to have captured the imagination of the public.

In Kansas, for example, cable operators recently ran into a bit of a chainsaw when they attempted to ban towns and cities in the state from running their own fiber or working with partners like Google Fiber (operating in Kansas City). SB304 claimed to allow such efforts if they targeted unserved customers, but then sneakily defined unserved as someone unable to even get satellite or a cellular dial tone, ensuring that nobody would get that designation (a pretty common trick to make the bills seem more reasonable). In Utah, SB190, one such bill pushed in part by regional incumbent CenturyLink, also won't be surviving this year thanks in part to the new attention Google Fiber (who purchased a network in Provo) has brought to the issue.

A few years ago, these bills would have flown through state legislatures with nary a mention. Not only are new bills starting to fail more regularly under heightened public awareness, I'm starting to see -- for the first time in my many years covering the industry -- pushes to roll back some of these ridiculous protectionist measures. In Tennessee, for example, there's four different bills in process that would roll back such incumbent-friendly bills, and they're coming from both sides of the political aisle. Jon Brodkin at Ars Technica, who has been doing an absolutely fantastic job lately making these important issues interesting for readers, notes how local ISPs quickly complained about the sea change:

"We are particularly concerned about four bills that have been introduced this session," Tennessee Telecommunications Associations chief Levoy Knowles said in an announcement. The TTA claimed to be presenting "concerns of rural consumers" but are more worried about the potential of losing customers. "These bills would allow municipalities to expand beyond their current footprint and offer broadband in our service areas. If this were to happen, municipalities could cherry-pick our more populated areas, leaving the more remote, rural consumers to bear the high cost of delivering broadband to these less populated regions," Knowles said."
Yes, god forbid you'd have to face a new competitor and adjust your business model accordingly; you might even have to work with a local government to determine what works best in each region! Meanwhile, Google Fiber's recent announcement to help 34 cities in nine regional markets examine local fiber needs should bring greater attention to the issue. Google intentionally targeted regions like North and South Carolina, where regional incumbent Time Warner Cable passed protectionist bills a few years ago (on their fourth try). It only took fifteen years, but we're only just starting to see people realize that perhaps letting your regional duopolists write laws dictating what you can and can't do for your own community might not be the best idea.

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Posted on Techdirt - 11 March 2014 @ 3:38pm

Facebook's Broadband By Drones Latest In Very Long Line Of Unfulfilled Aerial Hype

from the hot-air dept

Apparently, if you just mention the word drones you're pretty much guaranteed a ton of press coverage, at least based on the reaction to Amazon's immensely unlikely (for most people) Amazon Prime Air R&D effort. It's unsurprising then to see Facebook receive a lot of attention for what may be an equally unlikely endeavor: delivering broadband to developing countries by drone as part of the company's developing world Internet.org initiative. Rumors have emerged that Facebook is in talks with drone maker Titan Aerospace, with the hope of beaming broadband to users from the stratosphere:

"Titan Aerospace says that its solar-powered drones are capable of staying in the air for five years at a time. And when used as a communication hub, Titan Aerospace says that a single drone could create a voice and data network with "the reach of over one hundred terrestrial cell towers."...Titan Aerospace's entire production would go toward Internet.org. The initial goal is reportedly to build 11,000 of its Solara 60 model drones for the initiative."
Each time one of these broadband by X (drone, plane, blimp, hot air balloon, goose) ideas gets proposed interest is greatly piqued, ignoring the long list of companies (Iridium, Globalstar, etc.) backed by heavy hitters (Bill Gates, Paul Allen) that have tried similar efforts but failed, often spectacularly. Like Sanswire Networks, for example, which pitched the deployment of "stratellites" for the better part of a decade to an unskeptical press without ever fielding a substantive product to show for it.

Please note that's not to say that we shouldn't try to dream about new solutions to old problems. It just seems like most of these efforts are driven by the false idea that you can simply skip the blood sweat and tears involved in building real networks in the real world and just arrive at connectivity magic, if your engineers are clever enough and your PR videos are sexy enough.

On one hand the appeal of developing a technology that flies above the status quo, monopoly markets and the heads of regulators is obvious. But this isn't the first alternative aerial broadband rodeo, and history is starting to gain weight from the number of these projects that failed from ballooning costs, tricky technology and unreasonable expectations. Though he almost buries his point underneath a clumsy and misguided swipe at "Libertarians," Iain Marlow at the Globe and Mail points out that these loud efforts to "fix" developing nations with our Western creativity just wind up being kind of stupid after a while:
"But every once in a while, international aid in the form of technology metastasizes into something particularly stupid – like Kony2012 – and the ideas gain outsized attention (and funds and credence) by playing on simplistic assumptions by people who know absolutely nothing about the situation on the ground. There are thousands of smart Africans already working in technology in Africa, and doing amazing things, and I don't hear many of them talking about balloons and drones (except those other sorts of drones)."
The point could be made that it makes sense to help those real world, blood, sweat and tear efforts to shore up traditional wireless communications networks, as opposed to throwing yet additional billions at new, slightly too clever technologies that often prove too costly to be viable for what they actually wind up offering. Also, giant drones tend to hurt when they fall out of the sky:
"Drones are much more likely to be able to maintain position. But both they and the balloons are going to get pushed around a lot by stratospheric winds, which can get up to 100 miles per hour."..."One danger I can think of is one of these drones falling into a populated area," says (Skycatch CEO Chris Sanz). At 165 feet wide and weighing in at 350 pounds, a Solara could do a lot of damage if it fell out of the sky."
You also have to wonder exactly which countries are horribly excited to have a permanent flock of drones doing lazy circles overhead in the wake of the NSA revelations. Again, not to say that research shouldn't be done in this important area, but at some point you have to wonder just how many boring, old cellular towers could have been built while we spend seemingly-unlimited billions and an ocean of manpower on proving not only that we care, but that we're so very, very clever.

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Posted on Techdirt - 11 March 2014 @ 9:15am

Comcast: Throwing Money At Congress To Approve Our Merger Is Ok Because Congress Represents The People!

from the public-relations-gobbledygook dept

Comcast is using a variety of sophisticated lobbying tricks to get the company's proposed $45 billion acquisition of Time Warner Cable approved, including using minority groups and an endless roster of think tankers to parrot merger support. They're also taking a few cues from AT&T's blocked T-Mobile deal and avoiding making any promises the company knows it can't deliver (like claiming a merger that will likely kill jobs will somehow create jobs). But one thing Comcast is doing that's decidedly unsophisticated is its practice of throwing money at absolutely everybody (in truly bi-partisan fashion) in the hope it's really just as simple as buying merger support:

"...money from Comcast's political action committee has flowed to all but three members of the Senate Judiciary Committee. Checks have landed in the campaign coffers of Sens. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) and Mike Lee (R-Utah), who oversee the chamber's antitrust panel. Meanwhile, the cable giant has donated in some way to 32 of the 39 members of the House Judiciary Committee, which is planning a hearing of its own."
Another recent report noted that House members of the Subcommittee on Communications and Technology received $853,525 from Comcast between January 1, 2001, and December 31, 2012. Members of the 109th, 110th, 111th and 112th Congresses also received $6,678,446 from Comcast between January 1, 2001 and December 31, 2012. Amusingly, Comcast tries strangely to downplay throwing cash at lawmakers by somehow insisting that because those same lawmakers are supposed to also represent Comcast employees (who'll likely see layoffs) and Comcast customers (who'll certainly see higher prices and anti-competitive behavior), that somehow this is all ok:
Comcast stresses its donations are a function of its business. "Comcast NBCUniversal operates in 39 states and has 130,000 employees across the country," said spokeswoman Sena Fitzmaurice. "It is important for our customers, our employees and our shareholders that we participate in the political process. The majority of our PAC contributions are to the senators and members who represent our employees and customers."
So if I follow Sena's logic to its dizzying conclusion: dumping money into the laps of lawmakers so they'll approve a merger that benefits only Comcast is justified because if those lawmakers weren't busy having Comcast cash dumped in their laps -- they might actually represent the people that voted for them? I've seen a lot of spin, and that one is pretty fantastic. We're not lobbying solely for the company's financial gain, you little people benefit too because lawmakers are technically supposed to be representing you. That is, if we weren't paying them to do otherwise. Isn't engaging in the political process fun!? Don't you feel engaged? Why aren't you laughing?

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Posted on Techdirt - 11 March 2014 @ 12:34am

Gibberish-Loaded Fake Papers Are Flooding Academia And A New Cat And Mouse Detection Game Is Afoot

from the gyre-and-gimble-in-the-wabe dept

At the beginning of the year, Mike pointed out the strange and funny tale of Navin Kabra, an entrepreneur in India. Kabra started wondering if the requirement frequently placed on students in India to have two papers "published" at various conferences was little more than a huge scam, designed largely to get students to pay the fees for the submissions and the conferences. Despite claims that these works are "reviewed by panelists from a panel of international experts using a double-blind review methodology," Kabra didn't think they were actually even being read.

To go about proving his theory, he started using the science gibberish-generating SCIgen app to submit papers to conferences. It's worth noting he didn't even try to make the papers sound coherent or logical, burying entire paragraphs referencing things like The Hitchiker's Guide To The Galaxy or using dialogue from movies like My Cousin Vinnie. In numerous spots within the papers he clearly admits that a nonsense generator is writing the text:

"As is clear from the title of this paper, this paper deals with the entertainment industry. So, we do provide entertainment in this paper. So, if you are reading this paper for entertainment, we suggest a heuristic that will allow you to read this paper efficiently. You should read any paragraph that starts with the first 4 words in bold and italics – those have been written by the author in painstaking detail. However, if a paragraph does not start with bold and italics, feel free to skip it because it is gibberish auto-generated by the good folks at SCIGen."
His two bogus papers were accepted (one he paid to have published), and Kabra hoped at the time that his experiences would build awareness of the issue. Apparently that hasn't been the case. As it turns out, the practice isn't just occurring in India -- it's happening everywhere, and has been seemingly spreading for some time. This week it was revealed that just two publishers, Springer and the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers (IEEE), had published more than 120 bogus papers packed with nonsense:
"Over the past two years, computer scientist Cyril Labbe of Joseph Fourier University in Grenoble, France, has catalogued computer-generated papers that made it into more than 30 published conference proceedings between 2008 and 2013. Sixteen appeared in publications by Springer, which is headquartered in Heidelberg, Germany, and more than 100 were published by the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers (IEEE), based in New York. Both publishers, which were privately informed by Labbe, say that they are now removing the papers."
Labbe has one-upped Kabra's exposure attempts by also publishing fake research of his own; research that helped him fairly easily boost his reknown in the Google Scholar database:
"Labbe is no stranger to fake studies. In April 2010, he used SCIgen to generate 102 fake papers by a fictional author called Ike Antkare [see pdf]. Labbe showed how easy it was to add these fake papers to the Google Scholar database, boosting Ike Antkare's h-index, a measure of published output, to 94 — at the time, making Antkare the world's 21st most highly cited scientist. Last year, researchers at the University of Granada, Spain, added to Labbe's work, boosting their own citation scores in Google Scholar by uploading six fake papers with long lists to their own previous work."
He's taken things one step further, creating a web-based program to help publishers scan for SCIgen gibberish, the technical specifics of which he has published with Springer. With this story now starting to see broader traction, it's probably safe to assume publishers are quietly pretty busy reviewing the archives to determine just how embarrassed they should all be. We've essentially just witnessed the evolution of a new generation of cat and mouse bullshit creation and detection, something somebody should clearly write a preferably-factual and coherent research paper on.

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Posted on Techdirt - 10 March 2014 @ 2:19pm

The Escapist Website Still Blames Users For Its Business Model, Won't Let Them Even Mention AdBlock

from the censorship-and-venom-will-surely-fix-everything dept

Every few years a website somewhere on the internet decides that it's a good idea to treat ad block technology users like violent criminals. You might recall a few years back when Ars Technica whined a bit about how ad blocking was "destroying" the websites you love. As we noted at the time, if your ads are so obnoxious that they have users running to block them, that says more than about your advertising choices, management and business model than it does your users. As we also discussed in great detail, there are a myriad of ways that users bring value to a community, outside of forcing their eyeballs to stare at ads.

You might recall that a few years back the Escapist website launched a rather misguided attack on ad blocking technology, banning users in the website's forums for simply mentioning Adblock. The since-deleted thread in question involved a user complaining about a specific ad that seemed to be slowing down his machine's performance, to which responders suggested that he might want to try AdBlock. Those users, who didn't even state that they used Adblock themselves, found themselves completely banned from the forums. After some Internet-wide hysteria over the ham-fisted nature of that decision, Escapist backed off the policy, unbanned the users, and then just tried to shame all of them into feeling guilty.

Fast forward a few years, and it's not particularly clear that the website has learned much of anything from the experience. In a video rant by The Escapist's reviews editor Jim Sterling, Sterling acknowledges that he doesn't think using Adblock is technically stealing, and he blames bad advertisers and bad advertising for a lot of the problem. Still, he apparently believes that using Adbblock is very, very naughty, you should feel horrible, and if you want to get back on the right side of morality you should send him toys (he provides a handy link to his Amazon wishlist). But it's the Escapist forums where things continue to be, well, weird.

Users still seem to get banned if they so much as mention the word Adblock outside of threads specifically designed to discuss Adblock. Even in the thread specifically designed to discuss Adblock and Sterling's video about Adblock, the thread is pockmarked by moderation where users are given repeated slaps on the wrist for simply discussing the website's ad choices. Unsurprisingly, users then get confused about what the hell they can and can't talk about:

"Can mods give clarification on how we're to discuss this? Normally adblock threads are instantly closed with participants warned and if there's to even be a comments section for this video they'll have to be some sort of exception."
On page six, Escapist staff member "Kross" tries to explain the website's thinking on banning the very mention of an incredibly common Internet tool:
"...in order to save our very overworked moderators from having to deal with constant sophistry on what does or does not constitute discussion, we've added the line that says don't talk about it at all. Very little of use was lost (people on a non-advertising forum that isn't read by anyone who makes such decisions can no longer talk about a topic that only causes more work for moderators), but threads like this can open the discussion in a more controlled manner."
I've moderated a significantly larger Internet forum (DSLReports.com) driven almost solely by ads for almost fifteen years now. I can't even imagine the epic shitstorm we would face if I started blaming our users for failures in our business model, then started banning everyone who talked about a common technology I just happened to dislike. I do know such a position would be an utterly ingenious way to drive our userbase away. Kross proceeds to explain to users that life as an Internet website is hard, effectively admitting that massive annoying ads tend to show up more on the website because they pay so much:
"AS FAR AS OBNOXIOUS ADS are concerned, they come from two directions. One is from an advertiser saying "hey we know this is obnoxious, but we'll pay you SEVERAL TIMES MORE per view for this because it is so obnoxious. The other is from "filler ads" that bring in a whole network. When we can't run targeted ads (due to nobody wanting to buy that space or not being selected for the ad lottery that month and getting no real ads) we run filler ads, which are a network that we tell "give us X categories of ads". These networks allow us to retro-actively block certain ads, but we mostly rely on them to block "bad" ads from getting through."
Obviously it's the Escapist's forum and it's certainly their prerogative to do anything they see fit, including banning the discussion of waffles, aardvarks, acrylic painting and recombination gene technology. Still, I don't see the logic in being this adversarial with your userbase, then expecting it to help drive up site revenues when you're the one fracturing and annoying the community with horrible ad choices and bans (hyperbole + blame + censorship surely = profit!). If it's your obnoxious ad choices that are driving users to Adblock in the first place, then fix your obnoxious ad choices. That's not on users, it's on you. Don't beat your users about the head and face with censorship and public shaming because you can't adapt to a new market reality you just happen to dislike.

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Posted on Techdirt - 10 March 2014 @ 10:15am

Google States Unequivocally It Was 'Attacked' By The Chinese... And By The United States

from the with-friends-like-these dept

Among the biggest revelations made by the Snowden documents so far was of course the fact that in addition to negotiating with companies like Yahoo and Google for user data via the front door (PRISM), the NSA was also busy covertly hacking into the links between company data centers for good measure (trust is the cornerstone of any good relationship, you know). The moves pretty clearly pissed off Google engineers, who swore at the agency and immediately began speeding up the already-underway process of encrypting traffic flowing between data centers.

Speaking at South By Southwest, Google's Eric Schmidt for the first time (that I'm aware of) unequivocally stated that what the NSA did wasn't just surveillance or your garden variety hack -- it was a direct attack on one of the United States' most successful companies:

"The solution to this is to encrypt data at multiple points of source. We had already been doing this, but we accelerated our activities," he said. "We’re pretty sure right now that the information that’s inside of Google is safe from any government’s prying eyes, including the US government’s… We were attacked by the Chinese in 2010, we were attacked by the NSA in 2013. These are facts."
You're the executive chairman of one of the most powerful, wealthy companies in the world and you're "pretty sure" Google's internal networks are secure? Somehow I doubt that's the case, given the fact that most of us forget we're already working off of antiquated information provided by Snowden, and the NSA could have developed an unknown number of additional attack vectors since then. There's only so much that the cat and mouse game of security can accomplish without the kind of meaningful intelligence oversight the United States government has made very clear they're entirely disinterested in.

Last fall Schmidt stated that Google had briefly considered moving servers outside of the United States to avoid the NSA before the logistical nightmare (and likely futility given NSA's reach and the even greater lack of oversight) of that concept had time to sink in. The reality is that no matter the endless analysis and constant promises of both companies and industry, we'll probably have to wait until the next whistle blower emerges before we have any accurate, current idea of just how little privacy we currently possess.

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Posted on Techdirt - 7 March 2014 @ 6:36pm

Some Chefs Still Insisting That Photographing Meals Steals Some Of Their Intellectual Property

from the just-a-wafer-thin-mint-sir dept

A few years ago we noted how there appeared to be a growing belief among some chefs that taking photographs of their dishes when you're in their restaurants is somehow "taking away their intellectual property." We've discussed a few times about how restaurants are just one of many industries where a lack of copyright protection has actually helped innovation flourish (read: an industry that shows that there can be great creativity without saddling the entire apparatus down with copyright, such as magic or stand up comedy).

While many chefs seem to simply think that foodies and patrons photographing their food is a sign of respect or just begrudgingly tolerate it, others seem to have succumbed to copyright maximalism disease, whereby one believes that you're allowed to "own" things you're clearly not entitled to. Despite the idea being rather groundless, it appears that it has recently caught on among a smattering of chefs overseas:

"Gilles Goujon, from the three-starred L'Auberge du vieux puits in the south of France, has stated in an interview with news website France TV that foodtography is not only poor etiquette but he believes that when his dishes appear online, it takes away "a little bit of my intellectual property". Another chef in La Madelaine-sous-Montreuil has also included a "no camera" policy on his menus for this reason."
While kicking people out of your restaurant is certainly your prerogative (and there certainly are people who are so in love with their smartphone that dining with them is annoying), why would you want to punish paying customers for appreciating your work? The end result would likely hurt your brand long before it managed to protect any personal acumen in your stated craft. Other chefs lament that not only are you stealing their IP, you're doing a really crap job of it because you're probably a bad photographer:
"US chef RJ Cooper, from Rogue 24 in Washington DC, has made similar claims...: "They publish food photos without your consent, which is taking intellectual property away from the restaurant. And also, generally, the photographs are terrible. "If you're publishing something in a public forum without written consent, that's problematic."
That seems about as logical to me as the superstition that taking photographs of an individual leeches away a tiny part of their soul. Just because I take a photo of your meal, does that mean I'm somehow magically also stealing what is probably a complicated recipe? So what you're saying essentially is you "own" the IP of laying several strips of beef just so and dribbling the entire concoction with sauce in a particular way? It's quite a bit of nonsense, and fortunately for patrons, no lawyer appears to have been interested in testing this theory, even if it's starting to seem like only a matter of time before one does.

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Posted on Techdirt - 7 March 2014 @ 5:32pm

Is A Free, Ad-Laden, No-Privacy, Walled-Off Version Of The Internet Better Than No Internet At All?

from the welcome-to-the-not-quite-Internet dept

Overseas there has been a growing push to draw in more Facebook and Google users by making it so select Facebook or Google content doesn't count against your mobile data plan. From the Philippines to Kenya, you can see these efforts exemplified by services like Facebook Zero and Google Free Zone. Facebook Zero, for example, allows you to browse Facebook almost as normal, though you'll be charged normal data rates if you try to download something like photos and video, or in some cases if you travel to any other website.

Now, news has emerged that Facebook is spending $60 million to acquire drone-manufacturer Titan Aerospace. The idea is that Facebook could use these drones to provide fly-over connectivity for lower income nations. While it makes for good headlines whether that ever actually happens is pretty dubious, given there's a long history of mixed results when it comes to providing broadband by aircraft, whether that's via hot air balloon, Santa sleigh or drone. Really, when it's all said and done, it's an effort to grab a larger chunk of potential ad eyeballs under the pageantry of purported altruism.

Here in the States, we haven't experimented with the idea of free gateway access yet much, though companies like T-Mobile prepaid brand GoSmart have hinted at the idea. Speaking at the Mobile World Congress trade show this week in Barcelona, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg stated that he'd really like to see his expanded free ambitions take off further in additional countries:

"Zuckerberg said that Internet.org, which Facebook and other partners announced last year, is designed to create a reliable program to help "on-ramp" those customers to the Internet by offering a free tier of service, much like 911 on the wired telephone network. "We want to create a similar kind of dial tone to the Internet," Zuckerberg said...Facebook's work with wireless carrier Globe in the Philippines has doubled the number of people there accessing the Internet. He said in that program Globe is making access to Facebook free and then charging for access to other sites. In a separate effort in Paraguay, where Facebook is working with operator Tigo, the number of people using data has jumped 50 percent, and the number of people using it daily jumped 70 percent, by offering free access to Facebook."
Usually, these statements are followed by citing a lot of studies about how improved Internet penetration helps developing nations (studies focused on actual Internet access, not Zuckerberg's definition of it). Critics contest these users aren't really being connected to the actual Internet and all that entails. They're being connected to bizarre new walled-garden universes where privacy doesn't exist, connectivity is fractured, and they themselves are the product. Is this helpful if you step back and take a longer view? Folks like Susan Crawford don't seem to think so:
"For poorer people, Internet access will equal Facebook. That's not the Internet—that’s being fodder for someone else’s ad-targeting business," she says. "That’s entrenching and amplifying existing inequalities and contributing to poverty of imagination—a crucial limitation on human life."
I honestly find myself quite torn between thinking that any connectivity is better than none (it depends entirely on the implementation of the effort), and the idea that we're establishing a painfully-low baseline of expectation in developing countries in terms of what the Internet is supposed to be. How different is what Facebook is doing from AT&T's sponsored data idea when you strip away a few layers, and if people are introduced to the Internet as a fractured, distorted walled garden at their first encounter with it, what does it evolve into for them down the road?

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Posted on Techdirt - 7 March 2014 @ 3:33pm

Learning From AT&T's Blistering Hubris On T-Mobile Deal, Comcast Tries A Dash Of Subtlety

from the BS-can-only-take-you-so-far dept

While the assumption was that AT&T's attempted takeover of T-Mobile was shuttered simply because it eliminated a needed competitor from the market, one of the biggest, under-stated reasons was simply AT&T's immense, blistering hubris, forged by decades of being pampered by the government. AT&T didn't just push for the T-Mobile merger, they lied aggressively and at every possible opportunity about the deal's benefits, believing themselves to be impervious to repercussions. They lied in claiming the deal would create 100,000 jobs. They lied about needing to acquire T-Mobile or their network would implode from lack of spectrum. They lied in claiming that eliminating a competitor would somehow magically improve competition.

And they didn't just lie -- AT&T was loud about it. Via lobbyist, consultant, think tanker, and anyone else on the payroll, AT&T lied using every manner of lobbying trick in the book, from paying an army of third party groups to parrot merger support, to running an onslaught of constant full page advertisements repeating the same, easily-disproven lies ad nauseam. At the end of 2011, Cecilia Kang at the Washington Post penned what was essentially an obituary for the AT&T T-Mobile deal, with an overlooked paragraph that explained precisely why the deal became too much for regulators to swallow:

"The letters from third-party groups raised eyebrows at government agencies and on the Hill, where people began wondering why groups with no obvious ties to broadband were writing in. News reports emerged showing that many of the groups had financial ties to AT&T. Then there were the ads that staff members at the FCC said they couldn't avoid when they opened a newspaper, fired up their iPads or watched TV — all touting the merger's ability to put thousands of Americans to work. But who had ever heard of a big company merger creating rather than destroying jobs?"
The Post noted that instead of all this noise and fury helping to get approval, it actually caused regulators to take a closer look at claims where otherwise they wouldn't have. The sheer volume of nonsense coming from AT&T actually worked to amplify media and political pressure where it might not have existed otherwise. The end result was regulators actually doing their jobs and digging into the promises more deeply, only to find AT&T's arguments lacking:
"AT&T's blitzkrieg of ads, which claimed that the promised expansion of broadband would create 100,000 jobs, wasn't helping either. A deal's impact on jobs is not typically part of an evaluation by antitrust officials, but this time regulators thought AT&T's campaign had forced them to take a closer look. They found holes. For one, the company refused to divulge how many jobs it would eliminate in the merger."
Enter Comcast, who is busy trying to get regulators to approve their $45 billion acquisition of Time Warner Cable. Renata Hesse, who was the lead FCC antitrust official during the AT&T T-Mobile deal, will be overseeing the Comcast review at the DOJ. While Comcast is using many of the very same strategies AT&T employed (like paying minority groups to parrot merger support, and throwing money at everyone and everything) they seem to have learned a few lessons from the AT&T T-Mobile deal, and have dialed back the volume on their nonsense just enough so that it vaguely-resembles subtlety:
"Industry lobbyists familiar with both deals say they observe Comcast approaching this merger in a much quieter, more subtle way than AT&T did. Many of Comcas's lobbyists are staying silent about the deal altogether, and not just around reporters. Even at social gatherings and business functions where it might seem obvious to mention the deal to lawmakers or administration officials as a way of smoothing the way forward, Comcast's lobbyists have, in many instances, made nary a peep about it, according to sources. "The way Comcast is approaching this is very interesting,” said a veteran telecom lobbyist. "Everybody's writing the easy story about how many lobbyists Comcast has, but the way they're lobbying this, they're being very inside baseball, very surgical."
That's not to say Comcast isn't paying a ton of other people to make stupid, loud arguments for them, but they're pretty clearly trying to tone down the rhetoric the public sees as having come from Comcast itself. Comcast's steering clear of unsubstantiated job claims, and seems intent on keeping any promises they do make vague (like arguing the deal is simply "pro consumer"). Will a tiny bit of subtlety let Comcast fly under the regulatory M&A skepticism meter? Maybe. Comcast has proven pretty good at getting regulators to push for meaningless merger conditions (though AT&T was pretty good at that too). I'm going to bet you see deal approval; not because the deal is necessarily good, but primarily because AT&T taught Comcast an important lesson on the limits of bullshit.

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Posted on Techdirt - 7 March 2014 @ 2:37pm

The NSA Has An Internal Office Advice Columnist And Yes, She's An Inconsistent Hypocrite Too

from the spy-versus-spy dept

Peter Maass, who I've been fortunate to meet and has had a pretty amazing career as an embedded war journalist, has penned a pretty fantastic read over at Glenn Greenwald's new The Intercept venture. In it, Maass points out that among the ocean of compelling bits buried in the Snowden documents is this strange little fact: the NSA has an advice columnist who routinely provides NSA employees with office politics and interpersonal advice under the pen name "Zelda." Her column, titled "Ask Zelda!," routinely appears for employees with adequate security clearance via the agency's intranet.

Many of the advice columns released via Snowden's document dump deal with perfectly ordinary office politics, like complaints about stealing sodas out of refrigerators, stinky co-workers, or bosses who can't be bothered to respond to e-mails. But Maass points out that one of the more entertaining columns involves complaints by an NSA worker who is concerned about their boss spying on them. In a column signed "Silence in SID," an employee writes in:

"Here's the scenario: when the boss sees co-workers having a quiet conversation, he wants to know what is being said (it's mostly work related). He has his designated “snitches” and expects them to keep him apprised of all the office gossip – even calling them at home and expecting a run-down! This puts the “designees” in a really awkward position; plus, we're all afraid any offhand comment or anything said in confidence might be either repeated or misrepresented."
The tension created by having an overly nosy boss has resulted, the employee claims, in workplace efficiency problems and a growing lack of trust in the establishment:
"We used to be able to joke around a little or talk about our favorite “Idol” contestant to break the tension, but now we're getting more and more skittish about even the most mundane general conversations (“Did you have a good weekend?”). This was once a very open, cooperative group who worked well together. Now we're more suspicious of each other and teamwork is becoming harder. Do you think this was the goal?
Zelda is quite-amusingly shocked by the boss's behavior inside of an agency of spies:
"Wow, that takes “intelligence collection” in a whole new – and inappropriate – direction. …. We work in an Agency of secrets, but this kind of secrecy begets more secrecy and it becomes a downward spiral that destroys teamwork. What if you put an end to all the secrecy by bringing it out in the open?"
So spying over-broadly on people you don't think should be spied upon destroys teamwork, fosters distrust and erodes overall efficiency, huh? Gosh, what if you took that concept and applied it to an entire planet? As Maass notes, at no point while giving advice on spying inside the NSA does Zelda seem to have awareness of the possible lessons that could be applied to spying going on outside the NSA (at least that we get to see):
"Her response to “Silenced in SID” does not acknowledge the irony – or hypocrisy – of an employee at a spy agency complaining about being spied on. But Zelda directly addresses the long-lasting effects of inappropriate surveillance. “Trust is hard to rebuild once it has been broken,” she observes. “Your work center may take time to heal after this deplorable practice is discontinued."
So remember, dear readers: inappropriate surveillance erodes trust, destroys teamwork, damages the overall community, and creates a general downward spiral that's bad for everybody involved. Unless we're doing it to the general public, in which case -- who cares? Now get back to work!

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Posted on Techdirt - 7 March 2014 @ 1:05pm

New Social Networking Site (And Likely Hoax) Will Only Let You Enter If You're Drunk

from the (hic) dept

There has been no shortage of social networking ideas that have come and gone, some being useful, some being silly, and some being downright stupid. But Reddit user MFLUDER recently directed my attention to a new social network app that only lets you enter and participate -- if you're drunk. The LIVR social network and associated app website claims the idea will launch launch sometime this Spring (assuming my gut is wrong about it being a viral hoax). To join, you've got to plug a breathalyzer device into your phone, and if your blood alcohol content is high enough you're allowed to enter. What could possibly go wrong?

The website claims LIVR users get to use a number of features once they've drunkenly stumbled through the virtual door, including getting to play "crowd-sourced truth or dare," maps that will highlight the other drunk nerds in your immediate vicinity, and the ability to randomly drunk dial another LIVR user. The website also promises users a "blackout button" that will erase all of your incoherent and inappropriate tirades at the end of the evening or the next day, giving users what the founders claim is encouragement to just "go nuts" and "be their true self" without worrying that said true self might result in joblessness, divorce, or worse:

"What Happens on LIVR Stays on LIVR It's 4 AM. You've posted uncensored selfies. Flirted with Drunk Dial. Racked up Truth or Dare points. But you don't want your boss to see. Just hit the Blackout Button and all record of your night is permanently cleared. Relax. Be yourself. Your secret's safe with LIVR."
Right. Except the Internet generally doesn't work that way, and there's really no such thing as privacy online. The potential for abuse seems somewhat high for law enforcement, the NSA, stalkers, and in generally encouraging people to get the highest score when it comes to their BAC. Not that people don't generally do this stuff without the help of an app, but you have to imagine LIVR, if it's even actually real, is going to need some decent lawyers on retainer for the flood of lawsuits headed their way.

"I think some of our best ideas are found at the bottom of a glass," insists Brooklyn-based founders Kyle Addison and Avery Platz in a promotional video for their unlikely-sounding new endeavor:

LIVR App from LIVR on Vimeo.

Says the website:
"LIVR isn't just another tired social network. It's an online party at all times… guaranteed. No baby photos. No puppies. Mom isn't here. Just a global network of similarly buzzed people looking to have a good time."
Yes an endless virtual "party" where half of the people are incoherently arguing over who is the most drunk, and the other half are busy pretending they're drunk by using mouthwash to trick the BAC meter. Who would possibly get tired of that? I still think it's likely a hoax ("Avery Platz," for example, has a strangely-nonexistent digital footprint outside of the LIVR announcement for a Brooklyn developer that likes to drink and talk), but it's still a pretty damn good one.

Update: And, yep.

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Posted on Techdirt - 7 March 2014 @ 9:19am

Comcast Still Blocking HBO Go On Roku (And Now Playstation 3), Incapable Of Explaining Why

from the crash-the-gatekeepers dept

For years, HBO and Time Warner have refused to give people what they want and offer a standalone streaming video service, because they're afraid of shaking up their cozy, promotion-heavy relationship with the cable industry. Instead, HBO's Go streaming service has been made available on desktops and a growing number of devices, TVs, set tops and game consoles -- provided you log in with your traditional cable subscriber information. It's a half-measure, and availability to this day remains a little fractured.

Case in point: Sony this week finally made HBO Go available on the Playstation 3 (despite HBO Go launching in early 2010), but not the new Playstation 4. The new Playstation 3 version works for most cable operators in the country -- except for users on Comcast. Why not? Comcast doesn't really give an answer other than to say the massive (and soon to get much larger) company only has so many people available to ensure TV Everywhere authentication works on new devices:

"With every new website, device or player we authenticate, we need to work through technical integration and customer service which takes time and resources. Moving forward, we will continue to prioritize as we partner with various players."
Which might almost sound like a reasonable explanation -- until you realize that HBO Go on Roku hasn't worked for Comcast users since 2011, despite Roku being one of the most prominent Internet streaming devices available. Apparently, it's a matter of priorities? Comcast's argument for being allowed to acquire companies is always that these acquisitions make them bigger and more efficient. So apparently, getting simple TV authentication to work takes Comcast years longer than every other pay TV operator because Comcast is simply too big, efficient and fantastic?

Now, Playstation 3 users have joined the Roku user chorus, asking Comcast in their official forums why they can't use HBO Go, and are being greeted by the same silence Roku owners have enjoyed for years. I'm not sure you can get away with calling this a net neutrality violation (I think the term is mutated to the point of uselessness anyway), given HBO Go on Roku will work if you have Comcast broadband -- but get HBO from another pay TV provider like Dish. Still, it's fairly curious how Comcast's own Internet video and on-demand offerings (which include HBO content) tend to take priority.

The problem illustrates once again how the TV Industry's "TV Everywhere" mindset fails because it winds up taking value away from the user, not delivering it. It's also another shining example of how HBO should shake off its fears, embrace innovation, leapfrog the gatekeepers and release the standalone Internet streaming app everyone has been clamoring for.

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Posted on Techdirt - 6 March 2014 @ 4:35pm

Our $7 Billion Emergency LTE Network Appears Stuck In Corrupt, Bureaucratic Purgatory

from the more-of-the-same dept

Ever since first responder emergency communications failed back on 9/11, there has been a concerted effort to try and build some kind of wireless, national emergency communications network. In typical Congressional fashion, this included several years of yelling, screaming, disagreement, and general histrionics. After more than a decade, the Middle Class Tax Relief and Job Creation Act of 2012 finally created the First Responder Network Authority (FirstNet), which according to its website will coordinate the build of an 700 MHz LTE-based emergency broadband network that piggybacks on existing networks.

FirstNet was recently hit with a small scandal after Iowa Sheriff and board member Paul Fitzgerald complained that FirstNet had been hijacked by large carriers like Verizon and AT&T. According to Fitzgerald, FirstNet spent its first few years of existence with carrier-tied leaders conducting secret meetings, making decisions outside of the board room, hiring outside industry consultants with ties to industry, and elbowing out participants with actual security and emergency backgrounds.

Not to worry though, because FirstNet, whose GM is former Verizon executive Bill D'Agostino, investigated itself and declared that nobody broke the law. Granted, concerns were about conflict of interest, not violation of law, and an investigation is ongoing by the Inspector General of the Department of Commerce. While these accusations were being flung about, companies like Motorola were also rumored to be trying to scuttle the whole project, preferring to continue to make money off the scattered ad hoc selection of emergency communications services using their radio hardware.

Not too surprisingly, all of this appears to have resulted in little to no actual work getting done despite the $7 billion budget (which most agree will balloon handsomely before anything even gets built). According to a new report by a FirstNet State Point of Contact in the State of Washington, the entire project now appears to be stuck in neutral as agencies and companies scurry for their piece of the pie, with key staffing positions remaining left unfilled two years later, and the people who were hired getting paid handsomely with not much to show for it:

"I’ve heard – but cannot verify – that some of the contract staff hired in late 2012 and 2013 were paid $300 an hour...The contract under which the staff were hired expired in October 2013. Most of the existing 35 or so contracted staff (who were quite competent, by the way) were laid off. Three new contracts were established in October. But as of this writing – four months later - no technical contractors, and only a handful of public relations contractors, have been hired. How do you create a nationwide design and individual state-specific plans for a wireless network without technical staff?......key positions go unfilled, such as the CIO and CTO positions."
Two years into a $7 billion project and just 25 people have been hired, many of them focused on public relations. Worse, numerous existing communications networks that were being used were put on indefinite hold so this new network could be built, meaning in some areas emergency communications is actually worse for our $7 billion. If that's not a fantastic start I'm not sure what is. Can the United States actually work cohesively together to build anything on a national scale anymore (OK, outside a total surveillance state)? Or are we really so broken, corrupt and incompetent that even providing emergency communications to the people who save our lives is a bridge too far?

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Posted on Techdirt - 6 March 2014 @ 3:34pm

CBS Wants Dish To Make Their Ad-Skipping Hopper DVR Even Less Useful If They Want Streaming Video Rights

from the just-get-the-hell-out-of-the-way dept

As we recently noted, Dish has announced a new content distribution deal with CBS that's quite the double-edged sword. On one hand, Dish has agreed to cripple the ad-skipping feature on their Hopper DVR for ABC and Disney content for the first three days after a new episode airs. In exchange for Dish making their service less useful, ABC has agreed to drop their absurd lawsuit claiming that ad-skipping violates copyright. ABC has also agreed to loosen up restrictions on streaming content, allowing Dish to potentially offer an "over the top" Internet video streaming service sometime down the road.

This has, of course, resulted in the usual press hype from reporters who don't understand how difficult broadcasters make getting these types of services off the ground (just ask Intel, Sony, Microsoft, Apple, Google, and countless startups). Bloomberg, for example, right after telling readers it's too early to speculate on price for such a service, immediately proceeds to speculate on price for such a service -- claiming a new Dish Internet TV service would only cost users between "$20 and $30 a month."

There's still a lot of things standing in Dish's way -- assuming Dish is competent enough to craft a decent service in the first place. We can't read the contract, so we have no idea what restrictions Disney, ABC and ESPN are going to layer on this new licensing agreement to cripple it to the point of uselessness (oh hi Hulu, didn't see you standing there). Dish also needs to sign on a lot more broadcasters to flesh out a service catalog, something that's not going to be easy. Quickly proving that point, CBS CEO Les Moonves stated at an investor conference he's going to expect Dish to cripple Hopper much more severely if Dish expects a similar deal from CBS:

"Mr. Moonves, speaking at a Morgan Stanley investor conference, said the arrangement is "not quite enough for us." Several broadcasters, including CBS, say increasing numbers of viewers are watching TV shows more than three days after they air, via DVRs or on-demand services. Mr. Moonves has been among the executives pushing for the industry to shift to a model where advertisers pay for seven days of viewing instead of three. He said CBS's carriage deal with Dish expires this year, and he expects to take a different approach than Disney in the negotiations with Dish Chairman Charlie Ergen. "We are going to want to do some different things," he said, noting that Disney has different assets and priorities."
Who knows what kind of demands CBS is going to make, but it's pretty clear the demands will include making the Hopper DVR even less useful, while saddling any streaming agreement with just enough restrictions to prevent it from actually being disruptive. On one hand it could make sense for Dish to tell CBS to go to hell, as the broadcasters losing in court would set precedent that protects ad skipping from copyright claims. On the other hand, doing that would mean yet another over the top disruptive Internet TV service would die in the cradle thanks to myopic, terrified broadcasters.

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Posted on Techdirt - 6 March 2014 @ 11:34am

Government Sues Sprint For Overcharging For Wiretaps Under CALEA

from the everybody-loses dept

As we just got done discussing, AT&T, Verizon and Sprint recently were able to dodge a long-running lawsuit alleging the companies have been dramatically overcharging the government for wiretaps for more than a decade. The lawsuit was filed by former New York Deputy Attorney General John Prather, who spent thirty years in the AG's office (and six years on the Organized Crime Task Force in NY) helping to manage wiretaps and invoices for wiretap provisioning. Prather filed the suit on behalf of the U.S. government, but telco lawyers were able to have the suit dismissed by arguing that Prather couldn't technically sue the telcos under the False Claim Act as a whistleblower, because he filed the original complaint while working for the government.

Now it appears that at least one of the telcos is being focused on for round two, with the news that the government is suing Sprint for overcharging for wiretaps under CALEA. Under CALEA phone companies are allowed to recoup "reasonable expenses," but the lawsuit claims that Sprint overcharged the government to the tune of $21 million, overinflating charges by approximately 58 percent between 2007 and 2010. The Prather case claimed the telcos overcharge for taps in general, but have historically dodged culpability by simply hitting the government with large bills that don't itemize or explain why a wiretap should magically cost $50,000 to $100,000.

Sprint appears to have been specifically nabbed by the Justice Department’s Inspector General because it wasn't clever enough about passing on the costs of modifying its network to adhere to CALEA back to the government, something the law prohibits:

"Despite the FCC’s clear and unambiguous ruling, Sprint knowingly included in its intercept charges the costs of financing modifications to equipment, facilities, and services installed to comply with CALEA. Because Sprint’s invoices for intercept charges did not identify the particular expenses for which it sought reimbursement, federal law enforcement agencies were unable to detect that Sprint was requesting reimbursement of these unallowable costs."
It should be interesting to see if AT&T and Verizon face similar lawsuits down the road, or if their lawyers and accountants were simply better at obscuring overbilling. It's kind of a lose-lose scenario for you and me either way. Not only do we get to be spied on, we likely paid for these wiretaps both on the taxpayer side and on the telco side as the companies passed on both real and imaginary wiretap costs to you.

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