We know that NSA is hurting tech companies – that’s a good thing

Snowden leaked his documents a year ago. We’ve been getting a slow trickle ever since. However, some of these documents are getting date and surely the NSA is doing more stuff than they had in the past. That being said, they are continually being surprised by a new document that’s released or another. They clearly haven’t fully figured out the full list of documents that Snowden managed to take. Furthermore, they haven’t learned anything by not changing the techniques that they currently use. The NSA should have systematically shut down every program that could have been possibly leaked and moved onto something different. They haven’t, which means that they don’t really feel they need to change anything unless we force them to acknowledge that they’re doing something Americans (and the rest of the world) don’t want.

Today the guy that founded Netscape (a Silicon Valley Venture Capitalist) thinks that the fact the Edward Snowden released these documents hurt US technology companies. He thinks that because we now know that the US government does bad things with OUR tech company’s technology before it reaches a customer is hurting our companies. He blames Snowden. This is the most assinine thing I’ve ever heard. Marc Anderssen should be pissed off at the US government and praising Snowden because NOW US tech companies can DO something about it.

This is what a good manager or leader does. They support and acknowledge the fact that a person raise the attention of a problem, used them to address the root cause of the problem, and move on to the next problem. This is what Lean process improvement is all about. You NEVER shoot the messenger, you shoot the root cause of the problem eliminate it and make sure it never comes back. Saying that Snowden is a traitor because he highlighted the fact that the US government is taking good companies work (Cisco) and add malware is counter productive. We need to know when anyone government or otherwise is intentionally trying to break the internet. I do not believe that Mr. Netscape believes that the person who leaked the TransPacific Partnership is a traitor – when they essentially highlighted a similar problem.

I also believe, that labeling Snowden a traitor implicitly removes any blame from those companies that are being harmed by the US government. In many cases those companies have bee fully complicit with not just the US government, but “rogue” states (Iran, China, and other oppressive regimes) as well as companies (like Comcast, TWC, etc..) through enabling deep packet inspection (which allows anyone to snoop at anything you do. All of these have to have been enabled by a US technology company. These companies found a benefit to their benefit by doing this.

Now other companies, like Google, WordPress, and others are trying to get around both of these by encrypting their data. I actually suggested this as a tool to get around data caps or fast/slow lanes (if all data is encrypted you can’t slow or speed up traffic). This will inherently force a more net neutral internet (baffling deep packet inspection) and defeating much of the tools of the NSA.

All of these are good things. We know this because of Snowden. We know that tech companies need to address problems that the NSA and other government agencies have caused. This is a cause for celebration not condemnation. We need more people like him so that the internet can continue to thrive and be an economic driver. Don’t blame the messenger, if the US government is hurting US tech companies, we need to know so we can stop that from happening.

Driverless cars aren’t without ethical quandaries

While driving home the other day I was thinking about the new Google Driverless car stuff that I’ve seen. It’s an interesting looking vehicle, see it below. Apparently, one of the reasons why Google went fully autonomous was that people would be first hyper vigilant, then so lazy that they completely trusted the car in any and every situation.

Google’s fully automated driverless car

I believe it’s likely that the first round of driverless cars won’t be fully automated. Data will eventually show that the fully automated cars are perfectly safe, but we’re a paranoid lot when it comes to new technology. I also think that there are definitely risks with a fully autonomous car in regard to hacking and spoofing the system. I have a feeling that will become a game with hackers to try to trick the car into thinking that a direction is safe when it is actually not. To continually combat these risks Google will have to make it very easy to update the software, possibly while driving, as well as the hardware. I believe this is one of the many reasons why Google just announced their 180 internet satellites that they will be launching soon.

However, I think that the best of intentions will likely lead to some serious issues for Google and law makers in the next few years. For some of them an author at the Guardian wrote a few of them. That being said, I think that the first cars will not be fully automatic until enough data comes into show they are safe going highway speeds consistently. I think that this will lead to issues for Google.

One of the things that is missed in the Guardian article above is that if you’re an Android user, those very things could happen already. Your phone already tracks not just GPS but also nearby cell towers, so you could very easily subpoena either Google or your cell provider for records of your whereabouts. However, the interesting thing that Google talks about in regard to safety, is that drunk driving will be a think of the past.

As I mentioned before I think that there will be a manual mode and I think there will have to be one for a while because of definite hacker threats. You’d need to override. I also think that this would require a mechanical switch that literally overrides the system. The system would still run, but would not be able to override the human driver. Maybe I’m just paranoid, but I don’t think that anyone can create a truly secure vehicle like this and if one is compromised then all of them would be under the exact same risk.

Now, let’s say a guy goes out drinking. Google knows where he is. Google knows that he took pictures of his shots Instagraming “#drinktilyoublackout!”. Google also knows that he texted a few friends through Hangouts fully integrated texting capability. Furthermore, he tweets to @Google “Getting Black out drunk no #DD #DriverlessFTW”. This guy then gets into the car, switches it to manual override for whatever reason gets in an accident, who is at fault here? Clearly the guy that’s driving right? Well, if he had a fully automated car with no other option he’d not hurt anyone. Google knows everything he’s doing. Google knows everywhere you go already because of how their devices work. The difference is now that they can control where you’re going and how you get there.

Is Google responsible for building a car with a manual override that could save people’s lives in other instances? Is the State responsible for mandating that Google put in that switch? Should Google have built in safety measures that make the user go through a series of actions or prove the driver is capable of overriding the car?

I think that we need to hash out all of these before these cars are allowed on the road. I also think it’s going to be vitally important that we understand what happens with that data from all our cars, who can access it, and if we really have any privacy in a fully automated car like that. Simply by participating in our culture with a cell phone we’ve already eroded our privacy a great deal in both the public and private realm. Driverless cars will further impact that and will likely end up being a highly political issue over the next several years. Taxis, Lyft, and Uber will be out of business – the Car2Go model will beat them out any day of the week if the cars are autonomous. Direct to customers, like Tesla is pretty obvious. Lots of changes are going to happen through these cars.

We can’t just let this happen to us, we need to make decisions about how we want to include driverless cars in our lives. They aren’t inevitable and definitely not in their current incarnation.

Book Review: The People’s Platform: Taking back Power and Culture in the Digital Age

I just finished reading “The People’s Platform: Taking Back Power and Culture in the Digital Age” by Astra Taylor  I really found this book to be interesting. I believe it offered a very different critique on the digital age than Evegny Morozov’s “Click here to Save everything” where he focused on the arrogance of the algorithm and total solutionism of the movement, Taylor focused on the cultural cost of our digital economy. I think combined the philosophizing of Morozov with Taylor’s discussion of the value of culture and the economic forces behind these changes is an extremely powerful argument. Alone they are both excellent, but I think they offer balancing points that compliment each other well.

First of all, I don’t think everyone will like this book. I don’t think a lot of my readers will like large portions of the book. However, even the most libertarian will agree with some portions of it. I think that’s the power of this book. It’s not really fair to one side or the other, although is really obvious she has a bias – which she wears pretty proudly. Knowing this bias is there allows the reader to decide which portion is Occupy Wall street dreaming or which is really a problem (of course one can go too far either direction).

Taylor’s cultural argument is powerful because we are all part of that economy. We all consume cultural artifacts or perhaps, like myself, make them. The fact that these have been commoditzed to a cost of nothing while still valuable is something we deal with daily. The choice between pirating a movie, renting, streaming it on Netflix, or buying it all are choices we decide on a regular basis. I think that even the most hardcore pirate buys a lot of cultural goods.

Many of us, even if we don’t produce cultural goods, know someone that does. You might watch a video game streamer, you might have a friend or two that are in various bands, you might read my blog or another friend’s blog. All of these people want to use these artifacts to either live on or perhaps enhance their career in some fashion.

However, in the digital space most of the companies that share or distribute cultural activities are funded by ads. Twitch makes most of it money from ads, Google makes $50 billion/year on ads, Facebook makes the most money on an ad whenever a friend “Sponsors” that ad with or without our active agreement to “sponsor” the ad.

Taylor argues that we need to help develop a cultural public space that helps create value for other cultural goods that you may not actually consume (which is why I wrote this blog).

Many of the ideas in the book are anti-corporation, but not because they make money. Instead, it’s because they make money in ways that aren’t obviously ads and that control our cultural destiny. She is pro-net neutrality, she supports companies making profits from ads, but she argues for more transparency that an article is actually sponsored.

Her argument isn’t that we should tear down companies, but instead that we pull back some of the power that these companies have simply taken without any real conversation. We need to look at the ethics behind the algorithms they are using and understand their biases. We need to enable true conversations about these topics. Ad driven content leads to self-censorship and lower quality products.

Is this book perfect? Not by a long shot, but it really made me think about some topics and I think that we need to have more conversations about not just ads, but also about why companies behave the way they do. We need to find a better balance than we currently have.

I rate the book 5/5 for making me really think about topics

Should we celebrate about Google joining net neutrality fight?

It’s time we be skeptical of high tech companies that support policies that we want. Today, a large number of tech companies came out against the FCC’s plan to allow internet fast lanes. They aren’t as bold as Mozilla in their claims, they don’t push for the most extreme best for the consumer perspective. We, as consumers, have to understand there’s a reason for this. These companies (and there are a lot) wrote the letter without stating what their position actually is, just that they are for a “free and open internet.” This is essentially a dream statement for a lawyer/lobbyist, because “free” and “open” can mean a variety of things based on that company’s perspective.

These companies are willing to push for a free/open internet insofar as it enables them to make money. We have to understand that. Many of these companies are looking to disrupt incumbent market players and are leveraging the internet to enable them to do that.

Normally, I’d be really excited about all these companies coming out in favor of net neutrality. However, because of their tepid support, their lack of recommendations of what to do to address the net neutrality issue, and tardiness to the conversation I’m concerned as to what their actual motives are for this debate. This is a very different discussion than SOPA, where just coming out against the bill was enough. In this case it’s not, we need them to provide clear direction on what the FCC SHOULD do instead. This provides the FCC a path forward and a way to drive the conversation. Without that, essentially there’s no clearly articulated alternative during THIS debate. Yes, they’ve made an argument before, but they aren’t this time.

I also am concerned by this turn of events because of the recent report that Google and the NSA had a very close relationship. In very strict version of net neutrality deep packet inspection wasn’t possible because there was no way to actually do it. The first step to packet discrimination is knowing what’s in the material. Truly end-to-end net neutrality precludes the ability to eavesdrop and snoop on content being passed along the IP backbone. Any sort of relationship between the NSA and arguably the largest internet company in the world necessarily limits the full extent that Net Neutrality can actually be implemented.

Furthermore, we also must remember that a large number of these companies that are now for Net Neutrality were also for CISPA which includes handing over data to the government. Which, based on Google’s relationship with the NSA, they essentially did anyway.

So, it’s a good thing that these companies came out for Net Neutrality because truly only the power of their lobbying can overcome the FCC’s proposal and push Comcast and Verizon into accept the new rules. I don’t think that we citizens could do it on our own.

(if you want to try to fight corruption that’s sort of on display here, check out Mayone.us)

Data, Monopolies, and the Comcast/Netflix Deal

So, apparently, there are these groups that sell bandwidth for data transit to companies like Netflix. These companies interface with the major ISPs like Verizon and Comcast and connect the broader backbone of the internet to specific ISPs. These interfaces, like any interface can become over burdened – similarly to a congested intersection on the road. The problem is that with data information can be lost or transmitted extremely late, the lost data is called a “dropped packet.” These packets are like little packages of data that will likely provide some desired bit of image, article, or video.

These companies have typically provided “peer connections” that are free to transmit data because, well you’re paying to access the data and Netflix is paying to allow you to send the data. Win-win for both user, ISP, transit company (Cogent), and Netflix. Pretty good system right? Well it was until Verizon and other ISPs went and decided that they wanted to charge Cogent to for access to their networks so their users can access the data that Cogent is transmitting for Netflix.

Why can the ISPs do this? They are acting like monopolies in many ways. These companies are essentially islands of monopolies that do not compete with each other. With little incentive from the market to change behavior they are able to seek additional monies from their customers and providers without much risk of member defection. Furthermore, as Verizon is continually posting higher and higher Average Revenue Per User (ARPU), they are making more from the same number of people. When you have no where to go, that means raters are going up, and if they aren’t investing that additional money, that means profits are going up.

What does this all mean? It means that Netflix is getting the squeeze in a way that they weren’t expecting and with the proposed merger between Time Warner and Comcast things are only getting worse. The ISPs are able to say that they aren’t negatively hurting Netflix alone, because everyone that uses Cogent is getting hit the same way. It’s intentional according to the Cogent CEO. To get around the Cogent bottleneck, Netflix has decided to have a direct connection between Comcast and Netflix. This means that Netflix services will have less of a bottleneck to compete with other bits of data. This is a big deal for Netflix as lost data packets likely mean blocky video or video that is unwatchable.

Netflix decided to push for their members by paying for higher speed access directly to Comcast. This is great, but on the other hand terrible. It’s terrible because one of the greatest champions of Net Neutrality has bowed out of the fight giving in and paying to provide higher speed video quality to their members. It’s good because they are doing what’s right for their members, even though Comcast is at fault here by making cynical business choices to negatively impact the quality of the services provided over their pipes.

This could have interesting implications if a company decides to use this clear agreement as an obvious breach in the NBC/Comcast Net Neutral agreement. This could, if pushed correctly, have serious far reach implications for the company. However, I’m not sure who would push for this law suit. Hulu won’t, as it’s partially owned by Comcast, maybe Google will as they are looking to compete head on with Comcast as an ISP, video content provider, and in other realms. Another potential is Aereo that has already won a few major victories over NBC/CBS in copyright (The company streams over the air HDTV as a DVR service). So if they don’t have equal access as Comcast or Netflix, they could certainly sue over this – as it would hurt their business growth possibilities.

Update: Apparently Netflix is in negotiations with both AT&T and Verizon as well. Furthermore, Verizon believes that these agreements are clear that we don’t need more “regulation”in the form of net neutrality. Clearly, if a monopoly can extract as much money from both their members and the content that brings value to their networks, there’s no need for regulation!

I think that these practices are going to seriously impact the ability of smaller firms to compete. I also would fully expect a company like Twitch to start feeling the pressure next.