Tagged: Internet

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.

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

Buy the Inflight Wi-Fi…on the Ground

Around 2009, I began noticing Wi-Fi on more and more flights, especially on transcontinental flights between New York and Los Angeles. Regardless of the airline I flew, such as American, United, or Virgin America, the service would always be provided by Gogo Inflight. The price varied, especially as the product got off the ground—so to speak. One could score promo codes fairly easily or buy a pass before a flight to get a discount. In 2010, Gogo offered prepaid multipacks, and I bought a six-pack that I used over the years. The price was always about $10-12 for an entire flight. On a six-hour westbound flight to California, it was worth the price to get a lot of work done.

A few days ago, I knew that I had a lot work to do on today’s flight to LA, and I looked into getting online for the flight. From the looks of things, the best option for me was the $16 day pass.

Screen Shot 2015 04 24 at 11 14 55 AM

But as far as I could tell, there was not any discount for buying a pass in advance so I held off and waited to buy one in the air. After all, all-day passes bought online were about $15 a few years ago and buying in advance cost saved only about three dollars or so.

That proved to be a rookie mistake. Buying an all-day pass in the air costs a sky-high $34, compared to the $16 it costs on the ground.

Screen Shot 2015 04 24 at 10 04 35 AM

I recognize that this was the ultimate first-world problem—that it cost $18 more to buy inflight Wi-Fi in the air as it did on the ground. But to me, it was steep enough to do some offline work and wait until I got on the ground, at a fussy coffee shop near downtown Los Angeles, to get online and do my work.

Didn’t Louis CK do a bit about airline passengers belly aching over inflight Wi-Fi?

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 

A Sad Journey through My Web Browser’s Bookmarks

As a man of a certain age, I have been an active Internet user for over twenty years, beginning with email and USENET. I have also been using the graphical web since about late 1995 or early 1996, around the time I figured out how to set up a dialup SLIP connection at home. As someone initially intimidated by computers, getting my Quadra on the Internet via a phone line—without a commercial service like AOL, Prodigy, or Compuserve—was an initial step in becoming the lonely, over-inquisitive technophile that I am today.

Over that time, I have collected (and lost) a bunch of web bookmarks. We all have. In my days of doing desktop support, my users bemoaned getting a new computer because they feared losing their documents, which we diligently transferred, and their bookmarks, which we also migrated to their new browser.1 Each user’s bookmark collection was like a box of digital heirlooms.

Some of my own bookmarks are really, really old. They have migrated from one browser to another—Netscape to Internet Explorer to Safari—and outlasted about a half-dozen Macs, starting with a PowerMac G3. Over the weekend, I was typing some address in the Safari web location bar. After a few keystrokes, the auto-complete feature suggested something long-forgotten, though kinda-familiar: The Standpipe Gallery at http://standpipegallery.com. Don’t bother following that link because it’s dead. In fact, after clicking through my other bookmarks, especially those dating from when I still organized them into folders, very few sites still exist today. That was kinda depressing.

Here’s a sampling:

Site What was/is it? Status
NZ English to US English Dictionary My friend Nina, a Kiwi, talked funny. I used this to understand her. Alive
Pulpculture Don’t remember Dead
Voice of American Pronunciation Guide I once thought I was a cosmopolitan and wanted to learn to pronounce everyone’s name right. Alive
Plan 59 Cool midcentury commercial art. Great for slide decks. Alive
Geneva and Aron’s Wedding Page A website for my friends’ wedding. Dead, though they’re still happily married
Baseball Strategy Guide for baseball strategy, I guess. Dead
Dodger Blues A frustrated Dodger fans making me laugh. Alive, but dormant since 2012
Bike Summer NYC A group/event I followed back in 2003. Dead
Pike 2 Bike Tunnel Trail A bike trail in Pennsylvania that Sarah and I were going to ride one day Dead, and we never rode it
Cosmic Baseball Association: Bolex Poetics An imaginary baseball team comprised of experimental filmmakers Alive, shockingly
DVDxDV Handbrake before there was Handbrake Alive
Independent Student Media Project It might have been related to the Iraq War Dead
Commanderson Communication Studies professor Tim Anderson Dead, though the professor still lives
Count Smokula Accordion-playing clown for the hipster set Alive, but dormant since 2005
Contaminated Records A record label, I guess Dead
Dot Dash NYC Rock ‘n’ roll music promoters Dead
Siberia Bar Dive bar and music venue near Port Authority Bus Terminal Dead
dINbOT Musician Dead
Quarterslot Music performer named Jessica-something. Also, I was her TA Dead
Bloody Panda Dark metal band that had its day for a while. Dead
Nineteenth Century Slang Dictionary A fun resource, probably where I looked up the term “grass widow Dead

I’d go on, listing more of them, but I already feel old and sad enough without plunging any further. At one time, my bookmark collection, and the sites collected therein, meant something to me. They either provided some utility, some insight, or even a laugh, but now, years later, they’re gone. And had I not impulsively followed one of them, they would all have been forgotten, too.

There’s some truth to the claim that the Internet never forgets, a fact that makes me think twice before I post something here. But there’s something else that’s also true about us and our digital artifacts. Someday, we will all be dead. And once our domain registrations expire and our hosting plans don’t renew, our web sites will be dead, too. Just like us.

As for the Standpipe Gallery that initially piqued my curiosity and triggered this post, I figured out that it was a gallery founded by Alison Pierz, the wife of a grad-school colleague. Much like the website, the gallery no longer exists. However, there’s an “archive” available of the work shown there over the years. It survives as a Facebook page.


  1. If I remember correctly, for a time, there was even some issue with browser lock-in. Your Netscape bookmarks would not easily transfer to Internet Explorer, or vice-versa, or maybe, I’m just making that up. 

How Much Do You Know About Internet Technology

PI 14 11 25 TechWebIQQuiz landingImage copy

The Pew Research Center for Internet and American Life has published a quiz on Internet technology. The Center administered the quiz in September to a “nationally representative” sample in September 2014 and published a report based on those findings.

Today, they released the twelve-question quiz to the public. If you can spare a few moments, take the quiz yourself and see how you do.

I correctly answered 10 of the 12 questions. These are the are the ones I missed:

In my head, Moore’s Law was that the speed of computers processor would double approximately every eighteen months, or so. But I suppose that increase in speed is made possible due to cramming more transistors onto a chip.

I’m attributing this to a good, old-fashioned brain fart. I knew that Mark Zuckerberg went to Harvard and started Facebook there. After all, I saw the movie! But, for whatever reason, I answered MIT.

Poor Little Rich Broadband

At first I thought it was an April Fool’s joke, but The Guardian reported yesterday, on April 6, that the wealthy are stranded in digital dark age as expensive properties lack fast internet in London’s most exclusive housing developments:

Only the most wealthy can afford a pied-à-terre at the One Hyde Park development opposite Harrods, in Knightsbridge, but it seems even the average £22m price tag is not enough to buy a superfast internet connection. The flats went on sale just three years ago, but their broadband speed is well below the national average.

While it might be tempting to shed a crocodile tear for these poor little rich people, it turns out their broadband speeds aren’t all that slow, at least compared to the United States.

One Hyde Park has a top speed of around 10 megabits per second – well below the 18Mbps national average.

By comparison, the average broadband speed in the United States is 10 megabits per second, the same as the relatively “slow” speeds of One Hyde Park and well below the average data rate of the United Kingdom.

But, of course, in the early twenty-first century, being rich has its perks. The developer is looking to accelerate those broadband speeds.

The building’s developer, Candy & Candy, says it is now negotiating with BT to install a 100Mbps service.

In the United States, one hundred megabits per second for residential broadband is almost science-fiction fast.

Web at 25: Things You Probably Didn’t Know About the Web

The proposal that Tim Berners-Lee sent to his boss at CERN, Mike Sendall, who called it “vague, but exciting,”  would ultimately become the World Wide Web. That proposal is twenty-five years old today.

The Web of today was built – and continues to be built – by everyone. Yet it owes much to many people, some who came before its invention in 1989, and all those who have since then made it an invaluable resource for humanity.
To celebrate 25 years of the Web we have gathered 24 facts about Tim Berners-Lee, the Web, the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), and the World Wide Web Foundation. In the spirit of the Web, we want your input on what the 25th fact should be. Tell us on social media with hash tag #web25fact.

My nomination for a #web25fact would be a ratio that would consider the disparity between producers and consumers of web content. For each person that builds a web page, how many have never even considered doing so?

An Online Magna Carta (or Bill of Rights)

Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the World Wide Web, calls for bill of rights for the web:

Berners-Lee has been an outspoken critic of the American and British spy agencies’ surveillance of citizens following the revelations by National Security Agency whistleblower Edward Snowden. In the light of what has emerged, he said, people were looking for an overhaul of how the security services were managed.

At the twenty-fifth anniversary of the World Wide Web, it’s going to be hard not to look back and regard Edward Snowden as instrumental a figure as Tim Berners-Lee, Vincent Cerf, and Robert Metcalfe.

(Via a student who pointed me in this direction through a Huffington Post article, which calls it a “Bill of Rights.” The original article from The Guardian (UK) refers to it as a “Magna Carta.” They translated it from English to English.)

Not Neutrality

It’s been a busy month for those of us who love streaming video and are suspicious of the cable or telco companies that function as our broadband providers.

First, there was the announcement that Comcast is acquiring Time Warner Cable to increase its position as the largest provider of multichannel video and broadband Internet in the United States. Second, Netflix released the second season of House of Cards over President’s Day weekend led to some quality of service issues for Verizon customers in the Washington, DC area. It was such a popular story that it was the basis of a sales pitch for a Roku Streaming Media player, warning that the days of streaming video might be numbered. Third, over the weekend, a Comcast announced that it had struck an interconnection agreement with Netflix. All of this news comes within the context of a DC district court ruling that the FCC lacks the authority to enforce net neutrality rules over wired Internet service providers.

Dan Rayburn, who writes for the insightful Streaming Media blog, takes issue with the coverage of the Netflix-Comcast deal.

Many of these same people are also implying that because Netflix has to pay Comcast, consumers will foot the bill for this as Netflix will have to charge more for their service. This could not be further from the truth. Those stating this have no clue how Netflix delivers their content today or what costs they already incur. If they did, they would know this is not a new cost to Netflix, it’s simply paying a different provider, and it should be at a lower cost. It should actually be cheaper for Netflix to buy direct from Comcast, and they also get an SLA, which also improves quality and that’s a good thing.

Netflix and Comcast: Get a Room

I’m still trying to figure this out, but it appears that with this agreement, Netflix connects its own routers with Comcast’s. That obviates the need for Netflix to use and pay a third-party content delivery network, such as Cogent or Level3, to route its traffic directly to the ISP. Instead, Netflix will have a direct connection to the Comcast’s pipes and to its broadband customers.

One of the crazy facts about the Internet is that is very much like the telegraph network of a century and a half ago. Yes, both disrupted our conceptions of space and time, but they also share two technical details: both are based on a binary code, and both rely on relays for interconnection. Almost every single transaction you do on the Internet is converted to binary, grouped together as a stream, and then broken up into packets[1]. It then goes through a series of routers that transit your packets to your intended destination. In the days of the telegraph, your message would transit from one telegraph office to another until it finally arrived at its final destination. Messages were priced according to length and distance because you were using up more resources than someone sending a short message to the next town.

A popular Internet service such as Netflix doesn’t have just one server to distribute all of its video content. It has dozens of them. They are located in places that are nearest to their customers. The aim is to minimize not only the distance each data packet has to travel but to also minimize the number of hops. Netflix contracts with companies that provide this service, each is known as a CDN. It appears that this deal merely cuts out the “middle man,” a third-party CDN that transits the data in this case, and allows Netflix connect directly to Comcast’s routers and have access to its customers all the way to the final mile without a third-party intermediary. Comcast subscribers should have a better experience streaming video from Netflix.

Is This Neutral?

With this deal, Netflix on Comcast will be better than Netflix on Verizon. Netflix on Comcast will also be better than another comparable video service (YouTube?) on Comcast that doesn’t have an interconnection agreement. But it should not impact upstart content providers. One of the major concerns of net neutrality is whether smaller players will have their traffic treated equal to the major players. In this case, it appears that the answer is no.

That argument however doesn’t consider Netflix’s size and its footprint on broadband networks. If it truly accounts for nearly a third of all Internet traffic in the US during primetime, it has few, if any, peers. Netflix has joined a new tier of Internet content providers, something like:

  1. Websites, blogs, and commercial services hosted on one server. If you’ve ever paid for a web hosting account, chances are you did this. You can get away with doing this because you are not serving much content and can stay within the bandwidth limits of your hosting plan. A dedicated server would be next option once you outgrow your shared hosting account.
  2. Websites, blogs, and commercial services hosted across different servers. Once a website becomes even more popular, it could outgrow that one server, and will have to shift its content across a number of servers. Many sites pay a CDN for the trouble of locating servers across different locations because it can be expensive— think rent and utility bills.
  3. Netflix. It is in a class by itself, connecting directly to the ISPs network. It has outgrown the third-party CDN model and struck a deal with the ISP itself. It is both a content provider and a Tier 2 network.

Again, I’m still trying to understand all of this, but it appears that net neutrality is still important even if it doesn’t apply to this case. Content providers in the first category above are safe because their volume of bandwidth is relatively low and won’t overwhelm ISP networks. Content providers in the second category should also be safe should they not overwhelm ISP networks. However, content distributors might have cause for concern if too many of their customers are like Netflix and begin overwhelming their peer networks. It’s just hard to determine what the line might be and how much it will cost to join this elite class of an upper-tier network. It’s also hard to predict if peer agreements effectively constitute preferential treatment.


  1. This is largely metaphorical. Forgive me if my use of this terminology is imprecise.  ↩