Sunday, April 27, 2014

We Need to Raise a Stink about Net Neutrality

Image showing the base price of a fake company's DSL connection, with add-on pricing for access to groups of web sites, such as streaming sites, news sites, shopping sites, etc.
Found this on the Twitters in @CypherTheDane's tweet. Read a full-text version of this graphic.

In January I wrote about the latest risk to net neutrality here in the U.S (Net Neutrality News). Unsurprisingly, the only change since then is that net neutrality is more at risk, despite some brief outcry and even a million-signature petition.

You should care. We should all care. Remember, it's just a matter of time before that thing you like to do on the Internet is throttled down to painfully slow in favor of that other thing you don't like on the Internet.

Want to play a video game with your friends? Maybe Microsoft is paying to prioritize its XBox traffic over your Sony Playstation. Want to watch Netflix? Good thing Netflix is already paying for priority access and probably passing that cost on soon enough. Want to found an internet business and compete with the likes of Twitter? Ask your funding source to compete with Twitter's pocketbook just to get access.

The thing is, as consumers (which include those of us on our couches and those of us running a business) we cannot afford to stand by and hope this sorts itself out in favor of anyone but the telecommunications industry.

Why We Cannot Hope for the Best

I am loathe to dive directly into politics here. Few people want to hear me rant about my plan for outlawing Crocs and regulating the chocolate industry to require that white chocolate is made with real cocoa butter. However, this is important.

We can look to our president and hope that he is going to stand up for net neutrality. We can even feel good about a promise he made in 2007 when running for office (as reported by Cnet):

I am a strong supporter of Net neutrality. What you've been seeing is some lobbying that says that the servers and the various portals through which you're getting information over the Internet should be able to be gatekeepers and to charge different rates to different Web sites…so you could get much better quality from the Fox News site and you'd be getting rotten service from the mom and pop sites. And that I think destroys one of the best things about the Internet—which is that there is this incredible equality there.

He seemed to get it. He referenced Fox News, arguably his biggest mass media critic then and now, as someone who could pay for more access. I thought we could count on this guy.

Except President Obama has made other promises that haven't panned out (like every other modern president, of course), including ones that have led to the situation we're in now. Relevant here is his campaign promise to not put lobbyists in his administration, which Politifact rated as broken as early as 2009.

The FCC's current chairman, Tom Wheeler, is an example of that broken promise. Tom Wheeler's FCC bio lists his books and some of his jobs. It fails to note, however, his roles as President of the National Cable Television Association (NCTA) and CEO of the Cellular Telecommunications & Internet Association (CTIA) (1992-2004), both lobbying organizations.

It's easy to make the case that his nomination to the FCC post is a function of his campaign donations. For Obama's first run at the presidency, Wheeler raised between $200,000 and $500,000 and personally gave $28,500 to the Obama Victory Fund. For Obama's re-election campaign he hosted a $5,000 to $20,000 per plate fundraising lunch.

To recap, the guy in charge of making the decision over net neutrality is a former lobbyist for the very industry that wants to prevent net neutrality. He likely got this job as a function of his financial support for getting his future boss elected. It seems unlikely net neutrality will find a friend in either Tom Wheeler or President Obama.

Realizing that this is the kind decision that the FCC and White House might be motivated to make quietly, someone took the time to start a petition on WhiteHouse.gov (the ideal armchair activist site). The idea here is that once (if) it hits 100,000 signatures, the White House (President Obama, but likely his proxy) will have to respond.

If the White House truly complied with its own rules about honoring 100,000 signatures with a response, then we might have gotten a non-answer (though I hoped for a deportation) on the Justin Bieber petition. Ok, that one is clearly a tongue-in-cheek (not really) petition, but others have been ignored altogether, resulting in a petition to get petitions answered (a similar one from 2011 didn't get a response even after it met the then-25,000 signature limit).

Sadly, the FCC is making its own decision on or shortly after May 15. The petition closes 9 days later, so there is no way the White House will be issuing a response before the FCC is already off to the races.

Maybe you can find help via Congress, although you'll probably not get it from the likes of people like Lamar Smith or others who demonstrated a fundamental misunderstanding of the internet with regard to SOPA and PIPA (or demonstrated that they were easily bought by special interest).

What To Do?

Sign the petition. Ideally it will hit 100,000 signatures before its close date and before the FCC's May 15 date. Just maybe the FCC will listen before it goes and breaks the internet for Americans.

The FCC has set up an email address, openinternet@fcc.gov, to solicit comments from the general public. Use it.

Maybe write a blog post, or a news article, or something visible to the general public to help add to the public discontent.

Then express your displeasure, repeatedly, by tweeting, calling, emailing, and so on, the White House, the President, your representatives, the FCC, and for good measure perhaps the first lady, the press, and the (sadly, now deceased) emperor of San Francisco.

Here, I've started a couple tweets for you:

.@BarackObama Honor your campaign promise to maintain net neutrality. (Tweet it)

.@TomWheelerFCC @FCC Guarantee all Americans have access to the internet and our own government by maintaining and codifying net neutrality. (Tweet it)

Related

Update: May 2, 2014

Bill Stewart has written an excellent post that attempts to explain to those who are less technical than the average developer why net neutrality is important. Go read it and share it: Explaining Why Net Neutrality is Important

Update: May 13, 2014

If you're still a bit confused on net neutrality and have 11 minutes to spare for a primer, take this one for a spin:

Update: June 7, 2014

On Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, he takes just over 13 minutes to explain, justify, and then instruct how to defend net neutrality. I have embedded the video below, but for those who just want to act, he points out that the FCC has decided to take comments from the public, which you can do at: fcc.gov/comments, or specifically proceeding 14-28.

As of this writing, there are 49,206 comments, only the most recent 10,000 of which (for reasons unknown) can be viewed (oddly, with addresses) in PDF format (which I cannot explain) at http://apps.fcc.gov/ecfs/comment_search/execute?proceeding=14-28

If you still aren't sure why you should take the time to do this, I present John Oliver's argument:

Update: August 30, 2014

I stumbled across this piece that, while a little late to the party, lists examples of where phone and cable companies have already been violating any prior agreements or statements to honor any kind of unofficial net neutrality: Net Blocking: A Problem in Need of a Solution

Update: November 10, 2014

President Obama appears to have finally remembered the promise he made while running in 2007. Having waited until the last minute, ignored petitions, ignored general calls from industry, he has finally outlined some high-level guidelines and asked the FCC to maybe consider them (I left the tt elements in place in the citation below, though I don't know they are there):

  • No blocking. If a consumer requests access to a website or service, and the content is legal, your ISP should not be permitted to block it. That way, every player — not just those commercially affiliated with an ISP — gets a fair shot at your business.
  • No throttling. Nor should ISPs be able to intentionally slow down some content or speed up others — through a process often called “throttling” — based on the type of service or your ISP’s preferences.
  • Increased transparency. The connection between consumers and ISPs — the so-called “last mile” — is not the only place some sites might get special treatment. So, I am also asking the FCC to make full use of the transparency authorities the court recently upheld, and if necessary to apply net neutrality rules to points of interconnection between the ISP and the rest of the Internet.
  • No paid prioritization. Simply put: No service should be stuck in a “slow lane” because it does not pay a fee. That kind of gatekeeping would undermine the level playing field essential to the Internet’s growth. So, as I have before, I am asking for an explicit ban on paid prioritization and any other restriction that has a similar effect.

Despite this positive statement, I think this quote is more telling (subject-verb agreement issues notwithstanding): The FCC is an independent agency, and ultimately this decision is theirs alone.

In short, he's doing nothing.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Patents versus Accessibility

Just one example of the many gesture patents rolling around in the USPTO database, this one for denoting something important by making a heart shape over it.

I haven't ranted about patents for a while, which doesn't mean there hasn't been any activity. In fact, there has been activity in precisely the space where I think patents can disproportionately hurt users — in accessibility technologies.

A couple weeks back Don Norman put together an overview of gestures as user interface behaviors in Gestural Control: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. His opening salvo sums up the concern with patent encumbrance:

I await the day when gestures become standardized. When systems combine the best of all worlds: gestures, voice, and menus, keyboards, and pointing devices. But before we can do this, we have a simple task to do: reform the patent system.

He rightly notes that while gestures can be powerful, they are not universal. Cultural differences alone can make gestures difficult to translate across users. Implementation of gestures is also inconsistent, even across devices from one manufacturer (looking at you, Apple, Microsoft, and everyone else). He does identify a scenario where gestures can be consistent:

Yes, some groups of people such as athletes and referees, military squads and others learn standard gestures to let them work efficiently where other means of communication are not possible, either because of the need to be silent or because of a high noise level.

I argue that this statement also applies to users with disabilities. For example, sign language is a common set of gestures that allows its users to communicate regardless of the ability to hear (whether by audio impairment or, as in the case of some of my friends, stealthily complaining about the server).

Patents on gestures is nothing new. The opening example of a heart-shaped gesture to allow Google Glass users to "like" things they see in real life dates back to 2011. That is from a very quick search in the US Patent & Trademark Office (USPTO) database for "gesture." If had a budget to search, I suspect I could find older.

The problem here is that gestures are already obtuse and complex enough in many cases, but patent-encumbered gestures will result in even more unintuitive and bizarre contortions to perform the same function across devices. This will also make it that much harder for users to switch platforms, let alone learn a first platform.

Think about this in the scope of accessibility. As I mused on Twitter, wouldn't it be nice if a user could enable and use accessibility features on any device with the same gesture (or set of gestures)? Just as I can pick up any device and read words on the screen in a generally consistent way, or just as I can expect a ramp to work that same way no matter the building to which it's attached, I think consistency removes a barrier to entry that is otherwise being built up more and more.

Example of a GUI with accessibility features in an Apple patent.

If you think accessibility features will be somehow immune to the patent process, consider Apple's patent for a graphical user interface for the visually impaired (there's a PDF of the entire application as well).

That Apple patent likely means if Samsung wants to use an interface that has even a passing resemblance to the one Apple has patented, you can expect Apple to sue. The same goes for a gesture. The same will go for gestures that are tied to accessibility features.

We've already got a patent system that's out of control, with even the most basic ideas receiving patents. It seems the same patent process is also building barriers to accessibility using the very ideals that should be using to tear barriers down. Ideally with enough people raising a stink we can slow or even stop the process.

Previous Patent Rants

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Burying Windows XP with IE11 Enterprise Mode

Chart showing the IE8 is the browser common to Windows XP and Windows 7.
Screen shot from Microsoft's presentation on IE11 Enterprise Mode, showing what browsers are available on what versions of Windows. Note that the Venn-ish diagram has no IE11 intersection for Windows 8.

As of today, Windows XP has effectively reached its end of life. What I mean by that is that Microsoft will no longer be releasing security patches for Windows XP. Those of you waiting to deploy those XP exploits can run at the platform unopposed.

While this may be a nuisance for the home user (and the family who acts as his/her tech support), this has larger implications in the business world. For example, if you work in the healthcare world you may very well be in violation of HIPAA / HITECH laws if you're still running Windows XP tomorrow.

What's really annoying about this is that so many web-based applications were built to support the dominant browser(s) at the time — Internet Explorer 6 through 8. What that means is users on Internet Explorer 11 are being locked out of these online tools, making the transition away from Windows XP (which cannot have a version of IE greater than 8) a tough proposition for organizations.

Simply put, poor web development practices have created an environment where upgrading to the latest version of IE is directly at odds with keeping your productivity up (if it requires you to stay on an old version of IE). Complicate that by now making that old version of IE a vector for security breaches and compliance penalties/lawsuits.

But fear not! As long you have the hardware and licenses to run Windows 7 or Windows 8.1 (notice, not Windows 8), you can still use those Internet Explorer 8 web sites without being locked out (you're SOL if you need IE6).

With a week before Windows XP turns into a zombie, Microsoft released Enterprise Mode for Internet Explorer 11. After all, you only needed a week to get all that hardware in place and configured, right?

Enterprise Mode doesn't just emulate IE8, it masquerades as it. Some of the benefits of Enterprise Mode:

  • Enterprise Mode sends the IE8 user agent string to defeat misguided browser sniffers;
  • it mimics the responses IE8 sends to ActiveX controls, ideally allowing them to keep working;
  • it supports features removed from later versions of IE (CSS Expressions, woo hoo!);
  • pre-caching and pre-rendering are disabled to keep from confusing older applications;
  • IE8's Compatibility View is supported, so odds are many applications designed for IE7 will work.

Some web developers have panicked that now they'll have to support another browser or browser mode, but so far the evidence doesn't bear that out.

Enterprise Mode will be controlled by a central source, most likely corporate IT departments, and will only be enabled for sites that have been manually identified. Intranets and custom-built un-maintained web-based applications are an easy fit here. If an IT department deems it appropriate, it can also allows end users to decide to enable Enterprise Mode on a site-by-site basis.

Microsoft has been testing this in many industries and countries (though not China, the biggest culprit for old, and illegal, versions of Windows). Hopefully this will help speed users to upgrade to IE11, even if it doesn't provide motivation for organizations to upgrade their legacy IE8 applications.

In addition to the links above, you can get more information from the video of Microsoft's Enterprise Mode presentation, or you can just view the presentation slides alone.

In short, this is a great band-aid for organizations that already have Windows 7 or 8.1, but won't be helping to push IE8 out of the way (despite the best efforts of some). In short, as web developers, we can expect to support IE8 for a while still.

Related

With the demise of Windows XP (even though we know it's not suddenly gone today), Internet Explorer 6 is also at its end of life (because no supported platform can run it). We know that it won't go away completely, but it's still being celebrated at sites like IE6death.com.

Update: April 11, 2014

I mentioned HIPAA above and linked to a post that argues for the presence of Windows XP as an automatic HIPAA violation. A more balanced and, and well-cited, post is over at the Algonquin Studios blog: So You’re Stuck with Windows XP but Still Need to be HIPAA Compliant