Categorized: Government

Distrust and Verify: Your ISP and Choosing a VPN

Earlier this year, I noted that the Senate had eliminated consumer protections for broadband customers. This change could result in Internet Service Providers sniffing your broadband data to potentially sell your browsing history to marketers. Yes, it sucks.

I also noted that one way to counter this practice would be to mask your broadband traffic through a Virtual Private Network (VPN). When you tunnel your traffic through a VPN, your ISP can’t tell what websites or Internet hosts you are visiting. All it can see is that you’re transmitting and receiving encrypted data to your VPN provider.

However, tunneling all your traffic through a VPN is not an ideal solution because the performance of your broadband connection will suffer. There are still perfectly good reasons for using a VPN:

  1. You’re connected to an untrusted network, such as a public WiFi hotspot in a cafe, hotel, or airport.
  2. You’re trying to access geofenced content, such as information that is not available in your country but is in another.
  3. You don’t trust your Internet connection because you’re in a foreign country or on the premises of a business competitor.

But a VPN doesn’t provide you with 100% security or privacy. Instead you’re simply replacing the ISP you might distrust with a VPN provider that you might trust a bit more. Your VPN provider will “know” every website that you visit while you are connected to it. And just as your ISP does, some VPN providers keep logs of what sites their users are visiting.

Boni Satani recently coauthored a guide on The Best VPN that surveys 118 VPNs and their policies that indicate that they do not keep logs of their subscribers’ activity. If you’re considering subscribing to a VPN, I would recommend reviewing this guide to help find a VPN that does not log your traffic. Of course, you’re the final arbiter of what is the best VPN for you. Do your homework and choose widely.

Personally, I use TunnelBear for occasions when I’m at an untrusted public WiFi network and don’t want someone to “sniff” my data. Their privacy policy states that they do not “store users originating IP addresses when connected to our service and thus cannot identify users when provided IP addresses of our servers.” They may log what site you visit but they cannot associate that information with you. And they have those cute bears.

Update: I should reiterate that using a VPN doesn’t guarantee complete privacy or anonymity. For example, the FBI was able to use PureVPN’s IP address logs to determine that a PureVPN user was allegedly cyberstalking a former roommate and her friends. PureVPN was listed in the Best VPN survey of VPNs that do not keep logs. They apparently do.

Trumpcare Collapsed Because Republicans Cannot Govern

As you may have heard, Trumpcare—the efforts to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act—appears to be dead. Jonathan Chait attributes the reason to the Republican party and conservatism as a movement because it is incapable of governing and meeting basic public needs. As he writes:

The collapse of the Republican plan to repeal and replace Obamacare is an especially vivid demonstration of the broader problem. The cohesion Republicans possessed in opposition disintegrated once they had power, because their ideology left them unable to pass legislation that was not cruel, horrific, and repugnant to their own constituents.

Frankly, I couldn’t agree more. Back in May, I wrote that the Republican Party is incapable of governing because their ideology is incompatible with government playing any role in most aspects of public life. In other words, they can’t govern because they basically want to abolish government. However, the reality is that government intervention is necessary when the market fails to provide necessary services. For most of the twentieth century, the government has generally balanced private industry and public intervention on the grounds of the “public good,” using a formula that looks something like this:

  1. Allow the market to operate freely and provide whatever it is we need.
  2. Identify areas where market failures do not provide for the public good.
  3. Devote government resources to provide those necessary services.

We’ve done this with labor protections, the environment, civil rights, education, and, in expensive localities, with rent control. But we haven’t done this with healthcare, and that’s why we’re in this mess.

Market-based healthcare is a failure because healthcare providers charge as much as they want and because patients have no idea or control over what those costs are. Insurance providers and government health plans can only negotiate with the providers in an opaque system that keeps costs high for everyone. This is even more true for those who aren’t covered by a group insurance plan, such as those provided by an employer, or by a government health program, such as Medicaid or Medicare.

What is necessary to truly reform healthcare is universal regulation over rates for health services. The free market has failed to control costs, and that’s the real reason why health insurance premiums are higher every year. There’s nothing to control those underlying costs. The Republican Party line—that “Obamacare is a failure”—is true because it didn’t address the cost of health services: it only made it so that health insurance cover more people that couldn’t afford it before, including the poor and patients with preexisting conditions. The Affordable Care Act can’t keep premiums low because it is an attempt to reform from the supply side. Its aim is to give health insurance companies more customers so they could spread healthcare costs over a bigger pool of patients. But what we truly need is a demand-side reform. Regulate the health services markets, standardize the rates, freeze their costs, and reward providers who implement efficiency measures to provide better health services at a lower price. In essence, this is what single-payer healthcare does, but this is not the only possible solution.

Government reform of the health services market would do what we need most in the US healthcare system: cover everyone and keep health insurance premiums down. But doing this requires Congressional leaders to put on their big-kid pants and to actually govern, and we see what happens when we let try to do that.

Defend Net Neutrality…Again

John Oliver did it again. Two nights ago, on Last Week Tonight, he covered net neutrality, explaining it in an accessible way, and advocating everyone to visit the FCC’s website to comment on the proposed rules.

As he explained on the show and what should not come as a surprise given the corporate lapdog that now runs the FCC, commenting on the proposed rules to revoke net neutrality regulation is a lot harder than before. But the Last Week Tonight producers made it easy to comment. They mapped the domain name http://gofccyourself.com to the comment form. (Deep linking FTW!)

While Oliver explains a lot of reasons why net neutrality is important, it might be better to see this from the perspective of Title I vs. Title II. Oliver offered to contrast it, but the explanation comparing the difference between the two didn’t materialize. Nevertheless, it might be helpful to think about Title I vs. Title II in these terms:

  • Title I is an information service. A cable company operates under Title I because the cable company curates the channel lineup and offers a package of television channels. Users have little choice in what channels they get, aside from choosing a tier of channels.
  • Title II is a common carrier utility. A landline telephone company operates under Title II because it doesn’t not select or curate your phone calls. It simply connects one telephone to another.

Most of us think of our Internet service provider as a common carrier. We subscribe to one ISP versus another based on a few factors: upload and download speeds, reliability, and price. We don’t do so because of “exclusive content” or any synergistic nonsense like that. With any ISP, we expect to reach any website, connect any device, and run almost any application.

On the other hand, we think of major platforms on the Internet, such as Facebook or Google, as an information service. However, no one relies on only one of these platforms. Remember when Facebook partnered with HTC to make a “Facebook Phone?” It was a disaster because no one wants to live in this walled garden, even if we might spend a lot of time there.

We have only had net neutrality for two years, but we must keep it because we don’t want our Internet service providers to become an information service.

When an ISP acts like an information service, we get something like we had with America Online (AOL). Today, most people shudder when I mention AOL because think of slow dialup connections and the shrieking modem-handshake sound. But honestly, what made AOL so bad was that it was your internet service provider and your content provider, and while it was easy to use, it was really bad. It was not only a walled garden, like Facebook today, but unlike Facebook, you paid by-the-hour while you were on AOL. I don’t think any consumer wants to go back to these days.

AOL CD 700 Free Hours

You don’t want to know how much you had to pay after AOL’s free 700 hours.

The same is true for wireless. The iPhone was revolutionary, not only as a mobile computing device, but because Apple insisted that it have complete control over the hardware: the wireless carrier could not install any software nor brand the phone. The iPhone was a success in part because Apple relegated AT&T to the role of a wireless common carrier, keeping them from acting like an information service.

I certainly remember this was not the case with some of my old phones, such as a Sprint-branded phone that I got in 2001, that came with the “wireless web.” It was basically an AOL-like service provided by Sprint that had local weather, news, and sports scores. It sucked. The only redeeming feature of this service was that it allowed you to enter a URL, and there were a handful of sites that offered mobile WAP sites, largely because of the success of Palm handhelds.

Sprint PCS Wireless Web, circa 2001

This was the Web on a Sprint PCS Wireless Phone, circa 2001.

The one thing that Pai gets right about “net neutrality” is that is a confusing term. But in this case, let there be no confusion. Internet service providers are by their very nature common carriers. That’s how they market themselves, that’s why consumers subscribe to one ISP versus another, and that’s how the Internet as we know it has flourished in the last decade and a half. Moving ISPs to Title I—as information services—will invite those ISPs to become gatekeepers and walled gardens that stymie innovation. Let’s not go back to the days when “surfing the web” meant scrolling through a mobile “wireless web” browser’s menu or, heaven forbid, entering AOL keywords.

Tell Chairman Pai: Go FCC Yourself-dot-Com!

Dismantling Government is Hard When You Have to Govern

In the aftermath of 11/8/16, there have been a lot of uncertainties about the direction of our country, but last month at the CPAC conference, senior advisor to the president Steve Bannon very clearly outlined the game-plan for the Trump administration. All of the goals seemed terrifying to anyone with a sense of history because it threatened to undo nearly 100 years of economic and social progress. But one goal stood out: the dismantling of the administrative state.1

Since the inauguration in January, we’ve seen Trump and his administration use executive authority to tear down parts of the government, piece by piece, and to pave the way for an autocratic, neoliberal state that would have made even Ronald Reagan nervous. One of the first steps to undo the administrative state was to repeal the Affordable Care Act. To do this, Trump needed the help of his party, but as has been clear for a generation now, the Republican Party is incapable of governing.

Economist and former secretary of labor Robert Reich notes as much in a piece, “No, Paul Ryan, Your Healthcare Defeat Wasn’t Because of ‘Growing Pains,'” published yesterday. He writes about the Republican Party

Their real problem isn’t the “growing pains” of being out of power. In reality, the Republicans who are now control the House – as well as the Senate – don’t like government. They’re temperamentally and ideologically oriented to opposing it, not leading it.

Repealing Obamacare wasn’t the problem. The Republicans had all the pieces necessary to do it: they had a majority in the House and a Senate process in place to pass it. They had a president ready to rubber-stamp whatever bill he received.

The political reality, however, required them to craft a replacement plan, and the party of “nay” couldn’t do it. They couldn’t figure out how to actually make a better plan and sell it to members of their own party, much less the American people.

Aside from trying to repeal Obamacare, the Republicans spent the entire Obama presidency fighting him on two very public fronts: raising the debt ceiling and passing a Federal budget. Those battles culminated in a downgrade of the US government’s credit rating in 2011 and in the government shutdown in 2013. Both are coming up on the Congressional agenda in the coming months, and both will require making an actual plan. Unless the Congressional leadership reaches out to Democrats to counteract the persistent “nay” votes, expect more of what we saw during the Obama presidency. Congress will kick the can down the road and will pass more continuing resolutions to keep the government from shutting down.

This however doesn’t mean that the Republicans can’t succeed in tearing down the government. Dismantling the administrative state won’t always require replacement legislation to do so. There’s plenty of opportunities for Republicans to do lots of, what Robert Reich calls, “irrevocably awful” things between now and when we get to vote for a competent government in 2018.


  1. Bannon actually said “deconstruction of the administrative state,” but he meant “dismantling.” Deconstruction means to take something apart to analyze it, not to destroy it. 

Senate Eliminated Broadband Consumer Privacy Protections Today

Earlier today, the Senate voted 50-48 to repeal rules meant to protect broadband consumers’ privacy from being collected and sold by requires Internet Service Providers (ISPs). The rules, passed last October in the final months of the Obama administration, required ISPs to do two simple things:

  • allow users to opt-out of collecting consumer data
  • require ISPs to opt-in to the collecting of more sensitive data, such as financial information and browsing history

This still has to pass the House and get signed by the President, but if you’re expecting either to block passage of this repeal, I have a bridge to sell you.

With the Senate passing the repeal, those rules protecting your privacy are now history. Your ISP can collect and market any information they have about you or can gather through sniffing your broadband connection. Of course, in an ideal world, you could switch to another ISP, which might not do this collecting. But because of the great expense required to enter the broadband market, there is no true ISP competition. Hell, even a well-heeled company like Google couldn’t penetrate this market. Online privacy is basically toast.

As an armchair political observer, two things stick out:

  1. Is this against the Senate’s own rules? Repealing these rules was because Congress passed and the President ratified the “Congressional Review Act.” The Act’s aim is to allow Congress to repeal any rules that had passed in the last months of the Obama administration with a simple majority, which the Republicans currently have in both chambers. Accordingly, repealing broadband privacy protection rules needed just a simple majority, rather than the filibuster-proof sixty-plus votes required to pass new legislation. I wonder if someone could argue that repealing old laws requires the passage of a new law. Isn’t that how it worked with Prohibition: repealing the 18th Amendment required passing the 21st Amendment?

  2. Since when is privacy a partisan issue? Except for the legislators who are in the pockets of the telecom industry, I don’t see how this is a partisan issue, where fifty Republicans supported it and forty-eight democrats opposed it. I can’t imagine how even the most right-wing fascist would be in favor of this, much less entertain the idea of a left-wing extremist consenting to corporations harvesting selling our consumer data. Like globalization, free trade, and income inequality, these are issues that bind the left and the right together more than it divides them. I thought only corporate fat cats and their lap dogs favor this kind of stuff.

Perhaps it’s time to consider tunneling all your traffic through a VPN to protect your privacy, although that is not a very practical solution.

A Week Later

A week ago, it seemed like the US was on the cusp of having its first woman president of the United States. We had been preparing for this moment for a very long time, and as early as May, well before the party nominations were wrapped up, the New York Times published this map. They projected Clinton to carry these states.

It didn't work out this way.

It didn’t work out this way.

As you know, things didn’t turn out that way.

Were Clinton voters and democrats living in a filter bubble, similar to the one Mitt Romney supporters inhabited that made their candidate’s loss in 2012 unthinkable? Did the Democrats think that they could just run anyone against Trump and that the voters would reject an emotionally unstable, intellectually vacuous, and bigoted white man from New York?

The shock of a Trump presidency has been very difficult to process. It’s embarrassing that we as an electorate voted this way. A man who who has been a huckster and a charlatan will be a peer to the Roosevelts, John F. Kennedy, Abraham Lincoln, and Thomas Jefferson. A man who’s name signified tackiness enshrined in gold will be the chief executive of the country. A man whose companies have declared bankruptcy several times will be the one who will be negotiating treaties and passing budgets. (I wonder what will happen when the debt ceiling will need to be raised in the March 2017: my guess is draconian cuts to spending and an attendant economic recession.)

No matter how embarrassing it is to watch Americans install a caricature of a successful businessman in the White House, the prospect of who will be running the federal government is an even more chilling prospect. Are we setting up to live in an autocracy? It certainly seems feasible with a pliant and spineless Republican Congress who will choose party over country every time. Our only hope is that the petit bureaucrats in Washington do their thing and bring sensible inaction to their jobs, but when did they ever come through for us?

Around here, the election and the aftermath has been a lot like a death. Many of us are in mourning, knowing that a lot of the the progress we made in the last decade will almost certainly evaporate. Many us fear what will come in terms of deportations, anti-semitism, rampant racism, misogyny, science denial, and good old fashioned crony capitalism. And we are stung by the unthinkable reality of an uncertain future as a failed state. As in mourning, emotions overwhelm rational thought.

But once we start to think more clearly, weren’t we unsatisfied with Hillary Clinton as the standard bearer for not only the Democrats but also for American women. Back in the spring, I wondered whether the ascendance of Bernie Sanders as a viable candidate was partly due to women supporting him—not Hillary Clinton—because they were hoping for someone better to be the first woman president. Sanders was more aligned with their interests, despite being a man, than Clinton was simply for being a woman. It reminded me of the days when the Democrats would try to put forward someone like Jesse Jackson or Al Sharpton as the first black presidential candidate of their party. We deserved better. And in time, we got Barack Obama. We deserve better than Hillary Clinton and someday we will know who that better candidate will be.

And after this mourning period, we start to move on and begin to see silver linings. One such bright spot Trump’s victory is that the Democrats and the nation have finally gotten rid of the Clintons and their moderate liberalism. They not pulled this country so far right that Richard Nixon could be a liberal Democrat today, as Lawrence Lessig pointed out last Wednesday morning, they unabashedly [sold the party out to Wall Street]. He published that piece hours after many of us awoke to realize that Trump would be the 45th president of the United States, and, at the time, it was cold comfort for what the future could hold. In time, we’ll excitedly move on.

And that is what must happen after the death of a loved one or a similarly stunning loss. We will move on. Things will never be the same again, but we will cope, and as a country, we will get through it.

Demagogues at Film Forum

NewImage

Just in time for the General Election next Tuesday, Film Forum is starting a very timely, weeklong film series tomorrow: films about demagogues.

While I would highly recommend against watching all of the films in the series, simply because it would be too emotionally and spiritually draining to see all these exercises in mass persuasion over and over again, there are some really great titles in the series you really should see. And a good number of them are packaged as double features.

My favorite aspect of this series—other than the timing—is the range of causes for the demagogue’s rise. Newspapers empower them in Meet John Doe and Citizen Kane, while the then-nascent medium of TV is to blame for Lonesome Rhodes, played by Andy Griffith in his first film role, in A Face in the Crowd. The plots get a little more dark in films like The Manchurian Candidate and Seven Days in May with full-on conspiracies at work.

Update: I just noticed that TCM aired a lot of the same movies on Friday, November 4.

Details

  • November 4 – November 10
  • Film Forum, 209 W. Houston St, NYC
  • $14.00 General, $8 Members
  • Buy Tickets

Take the Internet Health Test

The Attorney General of New York, Eric Schneiderman, has been on a populist mission lately. Not only has he essentially banned the daily fantasy sports sites from New York state, he was also been an advocate for access the Internet. Earlier this year, he hired Timothy Wu—the professor at the Columbia School of Law, coiner of the phrase “network neutrality,” disenchanted United Airlines passenger, and author of one of my favorite books on media technologies—as a special advisor on “technology, competition, and internet policy and legal issues.”

The New York Attorney General’s office is asking the public to test its broadband speeds to determine whether customers are getting the advertised speeds to all network services.

The test measures the connection to several different CDNs to determine whether those connections are “healthy” enough to be considered “network neutral.” If a connection to a particular CDN is consistently too fast (or too slow), it could lead investigators to learn whether an ISP is deliberately accelerating traffic to its partners or debilitating the throughput as an anti-competitive measure.

Unlike voting, you are encouraged to take this test frequently to help provide the AG’s office with more data on the health of those connections.

Take the Internet Health Test

Title II > Title I

It’s been an exciting week for Internet advocacy in the United States. To put it in crude, succinct, and kinda androcentric-and-infantilizing terms, the Federal Communications Commission grew a pair and ruled to…

  1. regulate ISPs as a Title II Common Carrier instead of a Title I Information Service Provider.
  2. prohibit restrictions against community broadband, such as those in Chattanooga, Tennessee and Wilson, North Carolina, where they get faster and cheaper Internet access than in New York City.

Everyone has gone gaga over the first ruling, but I think the second one is just as crucial. Why? If net neutrality is “Obamacare for the Internet,” community broadband is the “public option” we didn’t get with the Affordable Care Act. It subjects commercial ISPs to competition that is primarily concerned with serving its citizens rather than enriching its shareholders.

The commercial ISPs have complained that if they were subject to Title II common carriage regulation, they would be less inclined to invest in their infrastructure. They would be less likely to expand access, and they would be less likely to increase broadband speeds in the coming years. In other words, they would act like a telecommunications monopoly with little incentive to improve their product. Guess what? They already behave that way.

Most of the country lacks access to viable broadband. For many of those who do have access, they face a Hobson choice when selecting Internet service providers. As for average broadband speeds, at 11.5 Mbps, the United States is hardly in the lead. We rank somewhere between Taiwan (9.5 Mbps) and Singapore (12.2 Mbps) among Asian nations and between Israel (11.4 Mbps) and Finland (11.7 Mbps) among EMEA nations.1

Throughout the twentieth century, AT&T, the telephone monopoly in the US, improved the technology to connect local and long-distance calls more efficiently, but the end-product was more or less unchanged for seven decades. AT&T held a monopoly over US telephone service beginning in 1913, under the Kingsbury Commitment, until 1984, when it was forced to fragment and sell its local exchanges into seven regional Baby Bells. In that time, there were very few functional improvements to the telephone receiver.

Comparing two receivers—one from the 1930s and one from the 1980s—it’s hard to tell what specific improvements there were. Both receivers consisted of a dial and a corded handset, and you could have one in any color you wanted… as long as you wanted black. Why was there no speakerphone? Where is the touchtone keypad? Why couldn’t someone put a call on hold or mute the receiver? If someone missed a call, why couldn’t the phone indicate so with a notification? And, why could someone not walk around any further than the length of the receiver’s cord?

Carterphone

The Carterphone from the late 1960s allowed telephone users to bypass the telephone cord.

The key reason why AT&T did not innovate and improve its product for the consumer was not because it was closely regulated as a utility and that it had to provide universal access, it was because it was a monopoly and no had little incentive to innovate. It was not until the 1980s that consumers were finally able to connect foreign attachments to their telephones, such as answering machines and modems, purchase their own phones, including cordless and touchtone devices, and choose their own long-distance telephone provider and calling plan.

Touchtone telephone

Touchtone “dialing” finally arrives in the 1980s. Was that really so hard?

In other words, with viable competition in underserved markets, commercial ISPs will be forced to, in the words of countless entrepreneurial free-marketeers, “innovate or die.”

Updated because the new WordPress for iOS app turned my Markdown into HTML. Yuck.


  1. This is based on Akamai’s State of the Internet report for the third quarter of 2014. http://www.akamai.com/dl/akamai/akamai-soti-q314-infographic.pdf 

Lapdogs Unite Against Net Neutrality

Next Thursday will be a big day for telecommunications policy in the United States. The FCC is scheduled to vote on whether it will reclassify broadband Internet service as a common-carrier utility (Title II) instead of its current destination as an information service (Title I). Classifying broadband as a utility would allow the FCC to enforce regulations aimed at prohibiting discriminatory and preferential treatment of Internet traffic. In short, under Title II, the FCC could institute and enforce net neutrality rules for an open Internet.

Because these rules threaten the status quo of telecommunications companies, particularly the MVPD (“cable companies”) that dominate the broadband market in the United States, there is an offensive designed to turn public opinion against net neutrality.

One unexpected place for this anti–net neutrality discourse came from the FCC itself. Earlier today, the FCC posted a press release on its website titled “What People Are Saying About President’s Plan to Regulate The Internet.” The document is a selection of quotes that oppose net neutrality, characterizing it as a regulatory burden on the innovative broadband industry.

According to some veteran communication lawyers who monitor the FCC, it is unprecedented for the FCC to release a preemptive, partisan position, such as this one, especially since this is a collage of quotes rather than an actual announcement. Press releases are intended to give news agencies content to reproduce or adapt for their publications. By releasing a series of quotes without any background, this release could serve as the basis for anti–net neutrality news articles, in the coming days, on the eve this potentially historic vote. This is especially troubling since, under the banner of the FCC, it sounds like a quasi official endorsement of these positions. Moreover, the title of the release includes references to “people,” giving the position a folksy, common-sense tone, and to the “president’s plan to regulate the Internet,” which not only sounds like a top-down executive decision but also a push to impose burdensome regulations on “our Internet.”

If this language–of President Obama threatening free-enterprise with regulation–sounds like a tired-old Republican talking point, that’s because opposing net neutrality is a tired old Republican position.

The FCC has five commissioners, each is appointed by the president. In order to ensure some political balance, no more than three commissioners can be from the president’s political party. The source of the press release referenced above is Brendan Carr, a staffer for Commissioner Ajit Pai. Commissioner Pai is one of the two FCC Republican-party commissioners and a net-neutrality opponent.

Another one of Commissioner Pai’s staffers, Matthew Berry, has been active on Twitter promoting Pai’s appearances on conservative talk shows decrying net neutrality and also childishly referring to FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler as a lapdog. for following the call of President Obama—and nearly four million comments from the public—to reclassify the Internet as a utility.

Even former chairman Robert McDowell (yes, another Republican) has chimed in comparing Obama’s push for net neutrality to the actions of Saudi and Russian dictators. Throughout his seven-year tenure at the FCC, he dogmatically opposed communications policies like net neutrality, universal access, and reviving the Fairness Doctrine. It’s nice to see he has been keeping busy since stepping down from the Commission in 2013.

It’s been over a decade since I’ve last lived with a dog—a small Tibetan Spaniel named Capella—but I think I know what a corporate lapdog looks like.

Update: The press release now indicates that it was issued from the office of Commissioner Ajit Pai.