The FCC Hijacks the Free and Open Internet

Why the change in thinking now, Obama?

Why the change in thinking now, Obama?

It’s hard to put into words my emotions right now. I feel like I’ve been punched in the gut (and having trained in martial arts, I know exactly how that feels). To me the Internet is the the greatest tool for freedom mankind has ever known and one of the greatest entrepreneurial engines in history. Now the censorship arm of the federal government, the FCC, has hijacked control of the Internet – ironically under the guise of “Net Neutrality.” I find it hard to fathom how giving control of the Internet to an agency tasked with restricting the free flow of information is a good idea. I doubt many others do either. However as I wrote before, I believe the FCC, seemingly at the behest of President Obama, has deftly pulled off a political maneuver to give themselves control of the Internet. It is not exaggeration to say that this may be the biggest government slight of hand in history. Make no mistake, government has pulled the rug out from underneath our freedom, and many who believe they are protecting the Internet are cheering this development.

I honestly have so many thoughts going through my head that I struggle to put them all down. So let me just write down some various observations and questions:

  • When the FCC proposed different rules last year, they allowed an extended period of public comment. This year we did not get a chance to comment. In fact the new proposal was created and voted on in less than a month. Why the rush with this set of rules?
  • FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler claims that the comments from last year are sufficient for this new set of rules. However, this set of rules is so different from last year’s proposal that it is hard to accept that argument.
  • Not that the public really got a chance to understand this year’s proposal. The proposal was kept hidden from the public until after the vote was taken. Tom Wheeler steadfastly refused to reveal the proposal, even after congressional requests. Why the secrecy?
  • This year’s “Net Neutrality” rules are almost a complete reversal from what the FCC proposed last year.
  • The FCC’s actions are unprecedented in scope. For something so important, I would think that a poll consisting of only 3 yes votes is not sufficient.
  • How is it that a commissioner appointed by Obama could originally suggest rules that were almost in complete opposition to what Obama later called for? Then so easily flip-flop?
  • Just because one calls a set of rules “Net Neutrality” doesn’t make them so. Especially when the same label was given to a previous set of rules that is almost completely the opposite of what is being proposed now.
  • There was no threat to Net Neutrality last year. The only threat was from the FCCs’ proposed rules.
  • I doubt that most people who support Net Neutrality fully support an FCC takeover. Especially if they were given time to understand all the ramifications. Which I guess is why these new rules were rushed to vote.
  • Nearly everything about this situation stinks. I mean really, really stinks.
  • If the danger of a big government bureaucracy isn’t evident now, it should be. IT TOOK ONLY 3 PEOPLE VOTING YES TO USURP THE MOST IMPORTANT TECHNOLOGY ADVANCEMENT IN HISTORY!
  • Ok, forget 3 people, this appears to be basically an executive order from Obama.
  • Give the importance of the Internet to our future freedom, this feels like a Coup d’état.

How to get the public to accept government control of the Internet in three easy steps:

  1. Use the FCC to propose a set of rules that puts the public into a hysteria about “Net Neutrality.”
  2. Suggest that the only way to protect “Net Neutrality” is for the FCC to take full regulatory control of the Internet.
  3. Have the FCC propose a new set of rules that ostensibly protects “Net Neutrality” while giving full regulatory control of the Internet and rush the rules to vote, not allowing the public to scrutinize the rules or comment on them.

At this point I am resolved to fight this tooth-and-nail. This was just the first battle. The war for control of the Internet and our freedom has just begun.

Net Neutrality Astroturfed? Have We Been Snowed?

I’m from the FCC and I’m here to censor … I mean “protect” your Internet.

Something about the sudden mainstreaming of the Net Neutrality issue last year struck me as odd. Where the topic had been around for many years, it was mostly an issue that was discussed in techie circles. Why did it suddenly become so hot last year? In observing the way the FCC is handling the situation now, I am starting to wonder if the way the debate evolved was no accident. I have suspicions we have all been set up by a well thought out political manipulation.

It is very important to keep in mind that unlike many other countries, in the United States our government can not currently censor the Internet. For all the teeth-gnashing done last year, the fact is we HAVE Net Neutrality right now. No Internet provider did anything last year to threaten this state of Net Neutrality. So why the sudden thrusting of the Net Neutrality debate into the mainstream? The event that triggered the groundswell of Net Neutrality hoopla were some proposed new rules by the FCC. Yes, it was the FCC themselves that initiated a firestorm of media coverage of the topic, highlighted by viral videos produced by popular pseudo-news programs such as The Daily Show with Jon Stewart and Last Week Tonight with John Oliver. To reiterate, it was not the Internet provider industry that threatened Net Neutrality last year, it was people’s fears that the FCC was was to give away Net Neutrality that started us down this road last April. Keep that in mind as you keep reading this article.

In a seemingly sudden reversal, now the FCC is proposing different rules that will classify Internet services under Title II of the 1934 Communication Act, an unprecedented action and seismic shift in the free and open nature of the Internet. Make no mistake about it, the FCC is about to engage in a historical naked power grab, simply making up authority where none is given in law. It is ludicrous to believe that a law written in 1934 could possibly be applied to something that didn’t truly exist until over 60 years later. It is not a fanciful notion to think that had the FCC proposed such an action at this time last year or in years prior, it would have been met with incredible resistance from anyone who cares about the potential censorship of the Internet. But this year, after approximately nine months of nearly constant Net Neutrality fear-mongering and a public proclamation from President Obama that he wants this action, it would appear that Title II classification has public support. The questions we must start to ask ourselves are that without the rules proposed by the FCC last year, would we have proposed Title II action this year? If it seems reasonable to think that one action resulted in the next, were these actions simply happenstance? And does Title II classification truly have public support?

While I have no inside information and I have no way to know for sure, it certainly feels like last year’s Net Neutrality “movement” was contrived. Based on my knowledge and observation of politics along with my extensive experience inside Internet culture from the beginning of its mainstreaming, I would certainly not be surprised if this entire sequence of events was orchestrated. The supposed “grassroots” feel of the Net Neutrality movement could have been wholly “astroturfed”. It would certainly explain how such a geeky topic suddenly went viral. The politics of technology isn’t exactly mainstream watercolor talk.

The really insidious aspect to the current Net Neutrality debate is that the proponents have done an artful job conflating the issue. There is no doubt that people want a free and open Internet. We do not want our Internet access to be restricted by our Internet providers. All the discussion of Net Neutrality in the last year has brought that concept into the mainstream. What is not so clear is whether people want the FCC, the agency responsible for the censorship of radio and TV, in charge of the Internet. As I mentioned in a previous article, the current Net Neutrality debate is really about whether we want government intervention in the Internet market, or what I call Government Regulation of Internet Providers, i.e. GRIP. With the media presenting no other options besides GRIP, it is no surprise that many people think that the only way to ensure the continuance of Net Neutrality is by government action. However, I strongly believe that even people who claim they support GRIP don’t want the government to go as far as Title II classification. It is a clumsy, heavy-handed, throwing the baby out with the bathwater approach to Net Neutrality.

Most people who support GRIP simply want government regulation that will prevent “slow lanes” on the Internet. They don’t necessarily understand the wholesale ramifications that Title II classification of Internet service would bring. I truly believe that the people who created a culture of freedom and openness on the Internet have no desire for FCC control. But someone has done a masterful job of changing the discourse from simply “Net Neutrality” to complete FCC control of the Internet. I don’t think those who were vocal in support of Net Neutrality last year are necessarily excited about Title II. But it may be too late. The powers that be have used the quick popularity of the debate last year to create a proposal that encompasses much, much more than simply stopping the creation of “slow lanes”. However, this proposal isn’t being given time to be debated in the public space. It is being rushed to a vote. In fact, the public hasn’t seen the actual proposal the FCC will be voting on. So far we have only been given lip service about it. The public has no clue what is about to transpire, other than a supposed vote on “Net Neutrality”.

We must ask ourselves what is the rush to pass this latest FCC proposal? When the FCC proposed rules last year, they asked for public input, which was one of the reasons for the media circus around Net Neutrality. They are not asking for any such commentary on this proposal, which is way above and beyond the context of stopping slow lanes. I’m now seeing news reports that the Obama administration is directly involved in the latest FCC proposal, which is not surprising considering President Obama himself said he believes Internet service should be classified under Title II. At the same time, I’m also reading articles that the Federal Election Commission is considering ways to regulate bloggers and other political content on the Internet. This is not a new development, considering that many prominent elected officials have claimed that bloggers are not “real journalists,” and therefore are not protected under the 1st Amendment. Are you starting to see my overall concern?

The Internet has been a bastion of freedom and free press since it went mainstream in the mid 1990’s. It has resulted in a transformation of the media landscape unlike any other in history. Old World mainstream media is losing the control it had on the flow of information. Politicians do not like the fact they can not control the New World media like they could the old. Remember, it wasn’t mainstream media that broke the Monica Lewinsky story – it was the Drudge Report. In fact, the lead of the Drudge Report article was “Newsweek Kills Story on White House Intern”. Traditional media was happy to kill a story that has now become a significant episode in our history. We may never have known about the Monica Lewinsky affair if it were not for Internet media. Are we all that surprised that politicians want to control this source of information? Even if you are concerned that Net Neutrality is in danger, you can not believe the Internet would be safer under the control of the FCC.

The bottom line is it looks like we’ve all been snowed. The federal government has pulled off a shrewd sleight of hand, seemingly convincing us that in order to protect us from the big, bad, cable and telephone companies, they must take over control of the Internet. Remember, the FCC itself was the entity that scared the media into the Net Neutrality debate last year and now conveniently has had an about-face. However, if we truly care about the freedom of the Internet – if we truly care about our own freedom – we must recognize that this is the worst thing that could happen to the Internet. We must question if we have been pawns in a larger game over the future of the free and open Internet and not give in so easily to those who wish to control us.

Net Neutrality – Only For “Legal” Content

Internet at the speed of bureaucracyMake sure to read my previous article: Net Neutrality – The Untold Story

FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler’s recent proposal for reclassifying Internet service as a public utility includes some language I think most coverage is glossing over. According to CNET.com, the yet-to-be publicly disclosed proposal has the following phrase in reference to Internet Service Providers restricting access: “may not block access to legal content, applications, services, or nonharmful devices.”

At first glance, this seems reasonable. No one has a problem with legal content or nonharmful devices, right? But one must wonder why the words “legal” and “nonharmful” were included? Reread the phrase and leave out those words. Does it really change the meaning? Would Net Neutrality proponents care if those words were left out? Do Net Neutrality proponents actually prefer that those words were left out? Perhaps you are now starting to see my concern.

What about “illegal” content or “harmful” devices? At first you may think, “who cares”? If it is illegal or harmful then why does it matter? Well it might matter if your content is suddenly deemed “illegal” or your device is classified as “harmful”. Is it inconceivable to think that powerful lobbies could influence the government to deem content or devices they don’t like as “illegal” or “harmful”? (as an aside, what the heck is a “harmful” device?) They can’t do that now, because the federal government and FCC do not have the authority to regulate the Internet. But soon they might claim this authority. Then what?

Astute readers will probably point out that the FCC proposal doesn’t obligate Internet Service Providers to block illegal content or harmful devices. True enough. But if the FCC claims they have the power to control what Internet providers can do, how far of a stretch is it to surmise that the FCC will one day claim they have the power to censor the Internet? Of course, it will be ostensibly for “the public good”, as they claim their rules for Net Neutrality are as well. Understand that the FCC already censors radio and TV. The great thing about the Internet is that it IS free and open (well, at least until the FCC gets hold of it). The stark contrast between the uncensored Internet and FCC-censored radio and TV is one of the reasons the Internet has transformed society.

Keep this in mind: the freedom of the Internet – our freedom – is about to be decided by 5 unelected bureaucrats. People who have incentive to give themselves more control. Because control means power and what government entity doesn’t love power? Net Neutrality proponents fear being controlled yet they are about to hand over the Internet on a silver platter to the most powerful and controlling entity on Earth. Can someone explain to me how that makes any sense?

Net Neutrality – The Untold Story

Net Neutrality I Do Not Think it Means What You Think it MeansWhile the topic of Net Neutrality has been one of the hottest debates of the last year, I have remained mostly silent. I had wanted to compile my thoughts as completely as possible before commenting since the issue is very complex. When it comes to the subject of Net Neutrality, I could write a book. In fact, I probably will one day soon. But for now, events unfolding have made expressing my thoughts on the topic much more urgent and I can not wait any longer. While I have tried to condense my thoughts, the following post is a little long. However, if you want a thorough understanding of the Net Neutrality debate, please read, share, and comment below.

My relationship with the Internet is a unique one. I lived the whole of my childhood never having heard of the Internet. Yet I’ve spent my entire adult life growing up along with it. I’m just old enough to know what it is like to have grown up without the Internet but just young enough (and techie enough) to have embraced it as an integral part of my life. I am an Internet “colonist” if you will. For me personally, the Internet has transformed me as much as it has transformed society. My adult life and my career have been inextricably entwined with the evolution of the Internet into mainstream society. As a student of technology, history, and liberty, I regard the Internet entering the mainstream as a watershed development in the history of mankind. This time in history will be regarded as a pivotal era in the evolution of human civilization. Sure, I enjoy cute kitten videos as much as the next guy, but to me the Internet is much more than entertainment. I see the Internet as the greatest tool for freedom mankind has ever known and one of the greatest entrepreneurial engines in history. If technology is one of the highest forms of human expression, then the Internet is the greatest medium for that expression ever created. So believe me when I say I value the openness and freedom of the Internet as much as anybody and will do everything I can to protect it.

What Exactly is “Net Neutrality”?

The term “Net Neutrality” was coined way back in 2003 by Columbia University media law professor Tim Wu, so it should be obvious that the issue is not new. I personally have been following the subject for many years and actually had experience with some of the precursor issues back in the late 1990’s. Net Neutrality has received a lot of mainstream attention in the last year so it suddenly has moved to the forefront of techno-political conversation. A big problem for those wishing to understand the discussion is that the concept of “Net Neutrality” is simultaneously both complicated and simple. The term can mean different things to different people and most people really don’t have any clue of the underlying technology or politics. Shallow soundbites and buzzwords tend to oversimplify the subject. So allow me to quickly break it down – and don’t skip ahead because understanding the underlying issues is critical in understanding the debate at large.

I think that for most people, Net Neutrality is the idea that Internet Service Providers stay “neutral” when it comes to delivering the content you are accessing. For example, an Internet provider should not be able to block or throttle data coming to you from a company like Netflix. But to many it also means that they should not be able to block data that is politically sensitive or information that may be controversial.

I can’t imagine anyone wanting their choices restricted. I would assume that if given a preference, most people would say they want the freedom to read or watch anything on the Internet and not have the quality of their service arbitrarily degraded. Incidentally, I think most people would also say the same thing about TV and radio service, if they had the choice.

So who could possibly be against Net Neutrality? Obviously the big communication companies that provide Internet service are always looking for ways to increase their revenues. One way that has seen some interest is the idea of “paid prioritization” where Internet providers can prioritize traffic coming from certain sites. For example, Netflix could pay various ISPs to ensure that their streaming video data had prioritization on the network so that users could have the best viewing experience possible. In a legally regulated Net Neutral scenario, ISPs couldn’t do this and therefore would lose out on potential revenue. It should be obvious that ISPs would rather not be restricted by rules that limit revenue.

Therein lies the debate as far as most people are concerned. They believe it is simply an issue of keeping the Internet free and open for everyone vs the profit of large communication companies. Now these people aren’t exactly wrong. But they are not getting the whole truth.

The Devil is in the Details

Most proponents of Net Neutrality want the government to be able to intervene and enforce rules that would prohibit ISPs from implementing paid prioritization. How exactly this should be done depends on who is proposing the rules, but regardless they all revolve around government controlling the ISPs.

Most opponents of Net Neutrality say they don’t want the government to get involved and that Internet service providers aren’t truly interested in creating Internet slow lanes to extract payments out of Internet content companies. They say the Internet is already neutral and government regulation will only stifle the openness of the Internet as well as investment and growth of Internet technologies.

As I’ve discovered in many things political, both sides actually want the same thing – in this case a free and open Internet. Of course, both sides differ in the way they want that achieved. And unfortunately when arguing the issue, each side paints the other with a broad brush.

Net Neutrality proponents claim that all Internet providers want to set up paid prioritization schemes so that they can control what you are able to access in a way similar to how cable TV subscription packages work today. Internet providers are only interested in profit and they could care less about Internet freedom.

Net Neutrality opponents claim that Internet providers have no interest in restricting access to particular content and would self-regulate so that they would never use their position as last-mile provider to extort money from businesses that provide content. Net Neutrality proponents are only interested in stifling profits as a way to punish rich companies.

Obviously, neither exaggeration is correct. But what both sides miss are some fundamental understanding of the way Internet service works and the politics around it.

What’s a Guy or Gal To Do?

Those who know me or read this blog would probably assume that I would fall on the side of less government involvement. However, it isn’t that simple.

Let me be clear on one thing: I do NOT want Internet service providers making decisions for me on what type of content I can view or restricting the free flow of any type of information that I want. This is something I would fight tooth-and-nail against. But I am also fearful of government doing the exact same thing! Does it really matter if it is a corporation or a government restricting my free and open Internet? Neither is something I want and I assume most people would agree with me. However, very few people are talking about the danger of giving the federal government control over Internet Service Providers which essentially gives them control over the Internet itself.

The Net Neutrality Conundrum

As someone who believes in the free market, Net Neutrality is a tricky subject. Instinctively I know that government regulation can’t truly help the situation. But in the same breath, I also don’t trust the big Internet service providers. I really have no doubt that big ISPs would follow the paid prioritization model if they felt it would be profitable. Would they use their position as the last-mile provider to exploit Internet content companies? That isn’t as clear, but for argument’s sake I can make the assumption. With this bleak scenario in my head, what besides government intervention can stop big ISPs from wrecking the free and open Internet? The answer is clear: competition. But when it comes to the current state of Internet providers, that isn’t the whole answer.

Competition is ultimately what gives consumers the power in any free market. A company that does unpopular things to consumers will lose business to other companies that don’t do unpopular things. The threat of collusion is greatly diminished the more competition there is. The profit motive tends to incentivize companies to outflank their competition rather than colluding to keep the status quo. But something is missing when it comes to competition in today’s Internet provider market. There seems to be a distinct lack of it.

And therein lies the rub. People complain about Internet service providers like they do about cable TV or phone companies. Which isn’t surprising because most ISPs are in fact cable or phone companies. For all the complaining done about these companies, the problem is that people feel trapped. Many people feel like they don’t have a choice. What is it about cable and phone companies that make people feel that these businesses have so much power over them?

That really is the question to ponder. Nobody likes to feel like they are being controlled. Regardless if it is big business or big government, people do not want outside entries dictating what they can or can’t do or what information they have access to. No one wants feel trapped because they can’t leave the influence of an entity that wants to control them. I’ve thought about this question for quite awhile. This is the key to the Net Neutrality debate and it seems like no one is discussing it.

The reason cable and telephone companies have such control over the people they serve is because their infrastructure is under the protection of a government-sanctioned monopoly. Cable and telephone companies do not need to worry about competition from other cable or telephone companies because local governments make it illegal for competitors to exist in their jurisdiction! Instead of adding more government regulation to fix problems created by government regulation in the first place, we should attempt to repeal that regulation which is causing the problem!

The Real Issue is GRIP

Since there is so little competition in the Internet provider market it is feasible that companies could leverage their power to increase revenue at the expense of a free and open Internet. Nobody seems to want that to happen but the problem exists because of past government action, not the lack of it. However, most Net Neutrality proponents are only calling for more government intervention so the idea of Net Neutrality seems married to increased regulation.

The arguments from Net Neutrality proponents are very emphatic that big Internet providers will eventually conspire to lock us into the type of subscription options that exist today for cable TV. Again, I actually somewhat agree with this assertion. I don’t trust the big Internet providers to always do the right thing. However, I definitely don’t trust big government to always act in the best interest of the people. Net Neutrality proponents rarely discuss the danger of big government to the very Internet they claim to hold dear.

The main thrust for most “Net Neutrality” proponents isn’t so much an actually neutral Internet, but rather that we entrust the Internet service provider market to government. And the main counterpoint by Net Neutrality opponents isn’t that a neutral Internet is a bad thing, but rather that government regulation is. Therefore it is this “Government Regulation of Internet Providers”, or as I now simply deem, GRIP, that is the actual sticking point. Everyone seems to want a free and open Internet, we all just disagree on how to best ensure that.

Tightening the GRIP

Proponents of GRIP use terms like “fast and slow lanes” to describe what they think Internet providers will eventually offer to subscribers. As I said before, in no way do I want this type of Internet service. I want exactly what I have now, which is a high-speed connection that is not traffic-shaped or prioritized to the detriment of any site or service I wish to access. I believe this is also what most people want as well, which is why any threat to free access of any site or service on the Internet is met with such resistance. People want freedom and the Internet is the greatest tool of freedom the world has ever seen. So it is not surprising that when people are told that large Internet providers have plans to restrict their freedom that they would look to government to stop this from happening.

The Internet service provider industry by-and-large reject the idea of GRIP because they claim that it will stifle investment and growth of the Internet. Honestly, I could care less about such arguments, except when it comes to continued improvement of bandwidth and access. I’m not sure why the ISP industry chooses to hang their hat on this argument because the optics play out like they are greedy bastards, more concerned with profit than anything else. Instead, they should be focusing on the real specter of GRIP: the fact that once the government can regulate the Internet service provider industry, they can regulate the Internet itself.

The very thing that people are up in arms about regarding “Net Neutrality” is exactly why they should fear GRIP. If they believe competing companies will collude to restrict the freedom of the Internet, I’m not sure why they think that a government with enormous power wouldn’t be corrupted to do the same thing. The only difference, and the key factor to understand, is that competing companies in a free market answer to their customers whereas a government bureaucracy effectively answers to no one. It is much easier to fire your ISP than it is to root out layer upon layer of bureaucracy – especially when most of those bureaucrats are unelected – we can’t simply vote them out!

A Solution Looking for a Problem

Another issue that proponents of GRIP rarely mention is that we actually currently enjoy Net Neutrality! Yes, without the FCC interfering, after about 20 years of mostly unregulated service, our Internet service is not throttled by any major Internet providers. Yes, there have been examples of companies attempting to mess around with the data transmitted over their infrastructure, but the customer backlash was quick and fierce and those companies promptly backed down. While proponents of GRIP try to use these incidents as proof of the big, bad wolf trying to blow down your free and open Internet, I look at these situations as examples of why we don’t need the government to get involved. We the people exert plenty of pressure on the ISPs to provide the type of service we want. We simply do not need a so-called government solution to a problem that does not exist! What we need is more competition and the solution is to remove the government-created barriers that restrict all existing and future communication companies from competing with each other in local markets.

We are actually very lucky that cable companies have their roots in TV and phone companies in telecommunications because governments allowed both entities to exist since they served different markets. The reality is that now cable and phone companies actually offer virtually identical services: Internet, TV, and phone. There is virtually no difference in the services they provide, other than the infrastructure in which they arrive at your house or business. This should make one thing very clear: there is truly no need for governments to sanction monopolies to communication companies anymore. If two providers can exist in an area, why not three or more? When it comes to Net Neutrality, competition is the prevention and cure to any company restricting the freedom of the Internet. It is time to create more competition, not continue to cripple it.

The Bleak Future of GRIP

At best GRIP is a solution looking for a problem. At worst, GRIP is a calculated attempt by big government proponents, including big business, to begin government regulation of the Internet so they can exploit it later. Be certain about this point – big business is a big fan of GRIP. Those who support GRIP under the guise of Net Neutrality are basically handing control of the Internet to the very interests they claim to fear. Just a quick study of the recent repeated attempts at Internet regulation (SOPA, PIPA, CISPA) should indicate that powerful entities abound that wish to regulate the Internet. Of course, they couch this regulation under the guise of protecting copyrights or national security, neglecting to acknowledge the privacy infringements these laws would cause. GRIP, under the guise of “Net Neutrality”, is potentially even more insidious. Once government has control of the Internet Service Provider market, it is not a stretch to believe their control will overflow. Today’s proposed rules are ostensibly for the protection of the consumer. Tomorrow’s regulations could be to “protect” copyright holders or to give the NSA access to your private data. Make no mistake about it, whatever bad things a corporation could do to your Internet pales in comparison to what big government can do. How sad would it be for proponents of Net Neutrality to wake up to a future where their worst nightmares have come true – but not because of greedy corporations – but because they turned over control of the Internet to the only entity actually capable of restricting it?

A Final Thought

Let me leave you with this final thought: the history and legacy of the FCC is control and censorship. If you believe the FCC will ultimately do anything different with the Internet, I know a Nigerian prince with millions of dollars ready to transfer to your bank account.

The Tablet that Desperately Wants You to Buy it

microsoft tablet virusesOver the holidays I chuckled a little bit every time I saw a commercial for the Microsoft Surface. It wasn’t hard to see the desperation in those commercials that were trying so hard to convince people to replace their MacBook with a Surface. What is pathetic is that these commercials were using the same old tried-and-failed tactics that Old World Technology companies have been using for years with little success. Now they are using them seemingly louder and more often, which only makes them all the more sad.

First, the commercials focus almost exclusively on hardware features. From the particular processor they use, to the removable keyboard, to the use of a stylus, the marketing team behind these campaigns still believe that people buy technology devices based on nothing but hardware specifications. That ship sailed way back in 2007 with the introduction of the iPhone. However, it’s the only weapon that Old World Technology companies have in their holsters, so they’ll keep pulling the trigger even if it is out of bullets.

The reality is that the commercials don’t mention that these Windows-based devices run Windows 8 because you might as well say these tablets are infected with Ebola. The common perception of Windows 8 is not favorable (to put it mildly) and Microsoft is doing marketing gymnastics to avoid talking about Windows 8 while promoting Windows 8-based devices. No wonder Microsoft has now announced that Windows 10 will be free to Windows 7 and Windows 8 users.

It’s also interesting that Microsoft chooses to compare their devices to a MacBook laptop instead of an iPad tablet. The definition of a “laptop” is blurred, since for what a lot of people do, an iPad is more than enough. People can also buy keyboards for the iPad and make it much more like a traditional laptop. Styluses can also be added to an iPad. However, an iPad starts at $499 where a Microsoft Surface Pro 3 starts at $799. Then to get the keyboard that Microsoft raves so much about will set you back another $129. And don’t think that the keyboard is an “optional” accessory. Attempting to use the Surface Pro without a keyboard is like attempting to use, well, a laptop without a keyboard. So in reality the Surface Pro starts at just under $1000 So maybe now we see why Microsoft wants to position the Surface against the MacBook. The prices are comparable. It is a very tough sell to convince someone to buy $1000 Surface over a $499 iPad. The problem is that people don’t really want a tablet that can replace their laptop. They want a tablet. Just a tablet. A tablet that is simple to use, won’t break the bank, and that doesn’t require overly complex accessories.

Let’s talk a little more about the keyboard and stylus that Microsoft thinks are the best thing since sliced bread. As I mentioned above, for all the talk that the Surface is a tablet with an optional detachable keyboard, if you’ve ever used a Surface you know that the keyboard is virtually non-optional. The same thing goes for the stylus. The commercials say, “I can write with a pen.” The reality is, “I MUST use a pen.” Attempting to use the Surface without a stylus is an exercise in frustration. The reason is that for everything that Microsoft says about the Surface Pro being a modern tablet, its operating system is still rooted deeply in the traditional (i.e. Old World) Windows desktop model.

Does anyone remember the “Tablet PCs” that Bill Gates declared were “the future” back in the year 2000? Probably not, because if you were unfortunate enough to get suckered into purchasing one back then, you found out that the “Tablet PC” was really just an over-priced, overweight laptop that had a stylus. Sales of the so-called Tablet PCs were abysmal, eerily reminiscent of how the Microsoft Surface line has sold so far. The main problem then, as now, is that attempting to use an operating system designed for a keyboard and mouse with a touchscreen interface is unwieldy, cumbersome, and generally just plain awkward.

microsoft tablet windows 8Of course today Microsoft has Windows 8, which is an operating system designed for tablets and mobile devices so things should be better now, right? Unfortunately, Windows 8 has only made things worse for Microsoft. Windows 8 is a Frankenstein of an operating system, attempting to combine the old desktop paradigm with a new touchscreen interface. The problem for Microsoft is that people nearly universally hate the new Windows 8 touchscreen interface. So they fall back to the familiar desktop Windows interface which is really hard to use with a touchscreen. All the controls are too small to effectively use with a fingertip, so a stylus is not optional but a practical necessity. But then this introduces a new problem: using a tablet with a stylus in one hand is doubly awkward. So that lauded kickstand suddenly becomes not just a nice feature, but something that is absolutely required because you need to put the device down on a table to actually use it with a pen. Suddenly that tablet isn’t much of a tablet. Oh, and hopefully you don’t lose that Stylus because it costs $45 to replace. It’s also easy to lose, by the way, because unlike previous Tablet PCs, there is no place to slide the stylus into when you’re not using it.

If you’ve ever attempted to use a Surface as a true tablet, you quickly realize that it is just not the right shape to use effectively. It is simply too tall to use handily in portrait mode (i.e. “vertically”) and too wide to use comfortably in landscape mode (i.e. “horizontally”). It is quite apparent that the Surface line was designed as a laptop with a detachable keyboard. For some reason Microsoft thinks that people really want their tablets to be laptops. But it doesn’t take a genius to see that this is not true. There is a reason the iPad sales took off like a rocket. It was the right combination of computing device with no baggage required. Most people didn’t miss the keyboard. Virtually no one complained that there wasn’t a stylus. For those who did want keyboards and styluses, a plethora of third-party options are available, but the important point is that none of these add-ons are necessary. The iPad works just fine with nothing more than your fingers.

Then there are some issues of fit and polish. The fact that the Surface Pro is really just a traditional Windows PC stuffed into a very thin form factor brings along the issues of heat that affect all PCs. One of the first things people will notice about the Surface Pro as compared to other true tablets is the sound. No, not the audio from YouTube videos but rather the sound of a fan. Yes, the Surface Pro requires a fan to keep it from overheating. People will also notice if they hold the Surface is that it gets fairly hot, even with the fan. Not that these issues are truly that big of a deal, but it again just goes to show that the Surface is not truly a tablet, but rather a laptop with a detachable keyboard. A lot of tech companies fail to appreciate the fine little details that can make or break the success of a device. The sum total of all the fine little touches (or lack thereof) in a technology device can be the difference whether people enjoy using a device or begrudgingly tolerate it.

Finally, if all that weren’t enough, Windows still brings along the baggage that is malware. Conveniently Microsoft doesn’t mention that the Surface is still as susceptible to malware as any other Windows-based computer. All the detachable keyboards in the world can’t stop a Surface from getting infected with a virus that brings it to its knees. Its stylus can’t remove malware either. In my experience, malware is one of the most frustrating experiences a computer user can have. It is also one of the main motivations for people leaving the Windows platform over the last several years. If we completely ignore every detail I wrote about in the rest of the article, I can’t imagine that people would happily leave the virtually malware-free comfort of an Apple MacBook or iPad to go back to dealing with malware. This issue alone should be a deal-breaker. Until Microsoft can adequately address the issue of Malware, those who use Windows-based devices are setting themselves up for a world of hurt.

In all honesty, I think the Surface Pro is actually a very good device for some very particular uses. I have in fact recommended the Surface Pro to a clients as a best-of-breed device when they required a Windows-based laptop/tablet hybrid with a stylus. The main use case are doctors who want to be able to use a stylus when working with Windows-only practice management software. It is a little ironic that the price caused a few of my clients to decline my recommendation, but I digress. I believe Microsoft should stop attempting to sell the Surface as a replacement to the MacBook or even iPad because it just makes them look desperate. Plus if any unfortunate consumers actually believe Microsoft’s commercials, customer dissatisfaction will probably do more to hurt Microsoft in the long wrong.

Technology and Economic Change

A friend on Facebook posted the following:

tech-032212-003-617x416I’d like to share some thoughts on ideas from an article I read recently (and unfortunately can’t locate at the moment).

The gist of the article is the Technology (or Internet) Revolution of the last few decades has widened the gap between the rich and non-rich much as the Industrial Revolution of the 19th Century did. Not as the result of governmental policies due to fundamental changes in how our economic system functions. For example:

* Technology has resulted in the concentration of wealth, power and technology.

* Technology has eliminated many low-skill and/or repetitive jobs that traditionally served as a way out of poverty and into the middle class.

* Technology has opened up competition for many higher-skill jobs (design, coding, journalism, automation, etc., etc.) to the global market resulting in wage stagnation for middle-class workers.

What I took away from the article is that – just as the abuses of the Industrial Revolution lead to many labor, industrial and economic reforms – the current revolution will require systemic changes to our economic framework. And, more importantly, traditional Liberal and Conservative ideologies, which are based upon the experience of the 20th Century, really aren’t equipped to provide those solutions

Any thoughts?

Any thoughts? Of course I have thoughts on this topic! But a Facebook comment simply won’t do my thoughts justice, so I told him I’d write a blog post.

The points presented obviously slant towards technology being a negatively disrupting force in the economy. Then my friend’s takeaway was that because of these negative disruptions, systemic changes will be required to our economy. I must assume he meant governmental regulations, because he then talks about liberal and conservative ideologies.

I must say that when presented in this context, the technology and Internet revolution sure does sound like a scourge on humanity! Who wouldn’t be for controlling this abomination? But of course, this is only one side of the story. Before we can discuss this topic, we should take a more balanced look.

Has technology concentrated wealth and power? Undoubtedly people have become extraordinarily wealthy from their Internet businesses. But it has also created incredible opportunities for everyday entrepreneurism that could never have been imagined before. When companies that didn’t exist before 1995 like Amazon.com can become the world’s largest book seller and topple old giants like Borders, technology has also created a more even playing field. When the Internet has basically destroyed the stranglehold the recording industry had on music, it must be talked about in the same breath as any claims of power concentration. Certainly the Internet has caused a de-concentration of power as well as any perceived concentrations.

Besides these big examples, the Internet has created entirely new career categories such as web developers, social media marketers, mobile app developers, and YouTube celebrities. Which if it is true that the Internet has eliminated low-skill and/or repetitive jobs, then we must also acknowledge the creation of new jobs. We must also accept the fact that the Internet has made it easier for entrepreneurs to find customers and therefore made it easier for non-technical businesspeople – from housekeepers to accountants – to compete against big companies.

It’s no secret competition is good for consumers. When the Internet makes it easier for small business to compete, consumers win. Not only does competition help keep costs down, but it also increases innovation and gives consumers more choices. Potentially with competition keeping costs down, wages may be affected. But while some wages may stagnate, others may increase for those who take the bull by the horns and adapt to the changes the Internet was brought forth.

So with the perspective of a more balanced viewpoint, do we really need government to “reform” our economy? Technology has transformed not only the economy, but almost all aspects of our society. The fact that this conversation started on social media and that I can publish my response on a blog that anyone in the world can read are proof alone of that. What we must realize is that regulation has side-effects. If we want to stifle the supposed negative ramifications of technological change, we need to accept that we will also dampen the positive effects that technology can bring to the economy and society.

I do agree on one of my friend’s points: that traditional political ideologies aren’t suited to provide solutions to a rapidly changing economy, especially when most politicians don’t even understand that which they would attempt to regulate. I would go so far as to say that any political ideology that says they need to control the economy is not suited to The New World of Technology.

Instead of the violent, forceful change that government brings, I trust in the natural, holistic evolution that free people bring about on their own as they adapt to change. Systemic changes have already happened and will continue to happen as the market transforms. Not through any action of government, but rather through the behavior of free people in a market that has been relatively free of regulation. The technology industry is one of the closest examples of a functioning free market that we have seen in recent history. Luckily by its nature of rapid advance, there has been little opportunity for governments to suppress it, at least in this country. Which has been a good thing because it was the technology industry that burgeoned our economy in the 1990’s and has almost single-handedly kept it afloat through the rough times of the 2000’s. That and it fundamentally changed the way we live and communicate. Certainly we must be appreciative of the positive advances that this market free of government interference has brought forth.

We must understand that we are only at the beginning of the technological advances coming. If we attempt to apply control and regulations now, based on our rudimentary understanding of technology as it exists today, we potentially strangle the benefits of technology that hasn’t even been invented yet. We threaten to stifle the advancement of modern technology much in the same way that was done in the early part of the 20th century with the heavy-handed government regulation of radio and telephone communication. This resulted in the government-sanctioned monopoly of AT&T and the concentration of power in politically-favored media companies. Ironically, this concentration of power has only started to erode because of the Internet. What a shame it would be to strangle the freedom the Internet has brought us because we are frightened of change. What a shame it would be if our fear returned us to the pre-Internet world where our information was tightly controlled by a select few from government and big corporate interests.

Bottom line, free people adapt to change. The relatively free market that technology has developed in has brought us amazing advances in our society and economic growth. Why would we want to endanger it? Attempting to control the economy amounts to playing god and not doing a very good job of it. No politician is smarter than all of us. Offering them control of the new economy is a foolhardy endeavor, certainly destined to be a so-called “cure” worse than any perceived “disease”.

Apple, Samsung, the Evolution of Smartphones, and Real Innovation

Apple-Samsung-logoNow that the iPhone 6 models have been released, the buzz among consumers and competitors alike is in full swing. Both Apple fans and detractors are lighting up the Internet with their opinions on larger screen sizes and claims of which companies are the most innovative. For me, it has been interesting to observe the evolution of the smartphone and the corresponding market. I feel that we are now at the launch point for the next stage of advancement in mobile technology so it is a good time to reflect and look forward.

Let’s be clear that Apple created the smartphone market as we know it today. Sure there were “smartphones” before the iPhone, but that is like comparing DOS-based computers to the Macintosh and all graphical computers after. They simply weren’t in the same league. For all the talk about Apple not innovating lately, I think a lot of people are missing the big picture. The iPhone was a huge leap forward from the “primordial” smartphones, just as the Macintosh was a huge leap from early text-based personal computers. Once a market segment is created, competition begins to fill in. But competing in an established category is quite different from creating a market and continually moving it forward.

Considering how so many people felt themselves “technology illiterate” in the PC era, the fact that millions upon millions of people now own smartphones is quite a feat. But obviously this didn’t happen overnight. It’s been seven years since Apple introduced the original iPhone and 6 years since they rolled out the App Store. Every year Apple brings out some new advances, but while other companies want to ride the bleeding edge, Apple has been very different in their approach. It’s almost as if Apple knows that too much, too quickly has the potential to turn off consumers. They seem to understand that mainstream society needs to get used to technology advancements before building further upon them. Steve Jobs once used the analogy of people and technology being on a “first date” in the 80’s and I think the analogy somewhat extends out now. Move too fast and someone will get dumped. Had Apple gone too quickly and made the iPhone too complex or less reliable, it may have stymied the adoption of the iPhone and smartphones in general. However, as Apple was slowly bringing us along, being careful not to move too fast or introduce bleeding-edge technology that could have negatively impacted user experience, a certain set of users wanted to move faster.

In the early days of Android, phone manufacturers tried just about everything and anything they could to compete with the iPhone and differentiate themselves from other Android phones. I likened it to throwing everything against the wall to see what would stick. For all the gimmicky things that Android phone manufacturers tried, the one thing that actually seemed to stick was bigger screen size. Ironically, bigger screen sizes may not have been an intentional development, but rather done out of necessity, as the phones that initially supported LTE needed bigger batteries to handle the increased drain that the early LTE chipsets required. Bigger batteries required bigger phones and correspondingly bigger screen sizes. Samsung then took the larger screen size concept to the next level with the Galaxy Note in 2012. It isn’t hard to understand why certain people like a bigger screen. Techie-types seem to like anything with bigger specs, and those with bad eyesight think that bigger screens means they are easier to read. Others simply like to have more screen room to work with. Regardless, Samsung’s bigger screens ended up being virtually the only thing that average users could identify with on non-Apple phones. Somewhat paradoxically, while competitors claimed bigger screens on phones were better, they simultaneously pushed smaller screens on tablets! But that is a discussion for another time.

Where Apple was being careful in not pushing technology too fast, they may have been just a little too cautious. The mainstream that was “technology illiterate” became savvy quicker than Apple expected. Ironically, it appears that the ease-of-use Apple was so careful to protect empowered users to not be so fearful of technology, emboldening them to explore products from other companies. Samsung’s bigger screens was a simple draw to those who were wanting to push the technology envelope. The simple fact that Apple has now introduced larger screen sizes shows that there must have been significant customer demand for them. From my own personal experience as a technology consultant, I can say that I was asked many questions about larger screen sizes in the last couple of years. Several people indicated that they were contemplating leaving the iPhone to get a bigger screen. Congratulations, Samsung! Even a blind squirrel finds a nut sometimes!

Now don’t get me wrong. I think competition is a great thing. It keeps all on their toes, constantly working to improve their products or services. Ultimately consumers win from varied choices and lower costs. But I think one can tell a lot about the company behind the products from their advertisements. Why does it seem that the large majority of Samsung’s ads are trying to poke fun at the iPhone? Samsung perhaps doesn’t realize (or perhaps they do) that they are also making fun of people who use iPhones. This isn’t a good way to win friends and influence people. If your products are so great, Samsung, why do you need to build them up by trying to tear down others? And what does it say about the people who are influenced by this type of conceited, self-congratulatory commercials? It’s a throwback to the Old World of Technology where many technology professionals gave off an aura of smug superiority. I think most people have no desire deal with egotistical technology professionals any longer.

Unfortunately for Samsung, the jig may be up. For all those people who claim that having a bigger screen was innovative, it was something that was very simple to copy. Now that Apple has introduced bigger screen sizes, Samsung no longer has an easy claim to fame. The fact that sales of the iPhone 6 have been record-setting seems to indicate that while people did in fact want smartphones with big screens, what they truly wanted was an iPhone with a big screen. For all of Samsung’s hype, their “Next Big Thing” usually was simply their next “big” thing. Now that everyone’s big, what will Samsung do? When the “we had big screens first!” marketing campaign fizzles out, what gimmicky tech features will they resort to next?

Hopefully Samsung enjoyed their time in the sun because it seems that Apple is back with a vengeance. Their current path of innovation, save the Apple Watch, may seem subtle at this point, but it all stands to fundamentally reshape not only the mobile device market, but the entire technology landscape as well. Besides making incredible technology products, what Apple does at its core is bring technologies into the mainstream. By making technology easy to use and accessible, Apple makes technology more powerful than any hardware specification alone can. Let’s look forward a little bit:

  • HomeKit will become the standard for unified home automation across disparate devices. The “Jetsons” home will finally come closer to reality.
  • HealthKit will become the standard for organizing personal health information from various sensors and data input. Soon we will hear stories about how Apple technology is literally saving people’s lives.
  • Apple Pay will move forward the payment transaction industry that has been quagmired. Where other tech companies have tried to bring mobile payments to the mainstream, only Apple has the customer base and industry influence to actually pull it off.
  • All these technologies will be also tied into Apple Watch, which already seems like it will be one of the hottest tech items of the coming years. I will write more about Apple Watch in a future article.

The problem for Samsung, or any other competing manufacturer, is that unlike a simple large screen, none of these technologies that Apple is bringing forward are easy to copy. This is because Apple isn’t just bringing raw technology advances to the table. Apple is doing the very hard work of making the technology easy to use and accessible. This requires a lot of development work as well as significant investments in creating industry relationships. Companies that are primarily manufacturers do not have the nearly 40 years of R&D and ingrained culture of innovation that Apple has. It’s quite a different thing to bring genesis to an entire ecosystem of amazing user experience than it is to throw some tech specs at a board and slap together cheap electronic devices. To Samsung, smartphones are just another TV or microwave that they churn out en masse. But to Apple, it’s personal. They aren’t just a manufacturing company. They really do care about making “insanely great” devices. This is the legacy of Steve Jobs. The payoff for Apple is that they are clearly the most valuable company in the technology industry, even if we don’t look at the numbers. Apple’s clout among companies and consumers in the economy at large is priceless and the fact that the entire world waits with baited breath to see what Apple does next is proof enough.

For those that think they can compete with Apple when they have established mainstream success with technology ecosystems, they should learn from recent history. Many tried to knock Apple off the iPod/iTunes pedestal. All failed miserably. Corporate juggernauts like Microsoft and Sony seemed feeble when attempting to replicate the success that Apple had. Again, this was because Apple wan’t simply making digital music players. Anyone could and did make those. Apple knew that they had to focus on the entire user experience and make it brain-dead simple for users to not only play songs on their devices, but also purchase and organize their music as well. Getting music on early MP3 players was a chore for all but the most techie among us. It seems obvious now, but if you couldn’t get music on your device, the device itself was pretty useless, no matter how great its tech specs were. The same will hold true for HomeKit, HealthKit, and Apple Pay. While its competitors were all busy trying to make phones with the biggest, baddest, tech specs, Apple was quietly leapfrogging them in technology that consumers will truly care about. By the time other companies figure this out, assuming they ever will, they will likely be too late. If Apple is successful in creating new technology ecosystems around their new innovations, it will be extraordinary hard for anyone to compete. This will be especially true for a simple manufacturing company like Samsung who doesn’t even make the operating system that runs on their phones.

Apple’s marketing slogan for the iPhone 6 is “Bigger than Bigger”. Subtle, but absolutely on point. While it seems that size may in fact matter, at the same time it really doesn’t matter. There are bigger things than big screens and we are about to see this come to fruition. It will certainly be interesting to see what Apple’s competition does next.

The Apple-IBM Deal: No, Hell Didn’t Freeze Over

Steve Jobs Flips off IBM

Steve Jobs Flips off IBM

If you have even a rudimentary knowledge of the history of the personal computer, you know that during the 1980’s Apple and IBM were considered mortal enemies. In a fight to the death for dominance of the personal computer market, it was the upstart Apple who created the personal computer revolution vs the old guard IBM who was the 800-pound gorilla in the technology industry. To this day there are still perceptions of Apple and IBM as distinct opposites in the technology world. This is even though a lot of time has passed since the PC wars of the 80’s and things have changed quite a bit. So when Apple and IBM announced a strategic partnership it wasn’t surprising that many people were somewhat confused. How in the world could these two companies form a strategic partnership?

If you know the history of technology as well as I do, the announcement wasn’t actually all that surprising. While at first IBM was in fact Apple’s antagonist, Microsoft actually became the common enemy of both companies. Let me give you a brief background.

Yes, it was IBM that came out with the “IBM PC” that ran a DOS operating system made by Microsoft. But due to shortsightedness on IBM’s part, along with some strategic maneuvers on Microsoft’s part, Microsoft became the big winner in the personal computer market, crushing every personal computer maker that didn’t run MS-DOS (and later Windows). Apple was virtually the only personal computer company to survive, albeit just barely. At the same time, the PC revolution crushed nearly every old-school technology company that was prominent during the mainframe era of the 60’s and 70’s. Even IBM itself was nearly put out of business by the onslaught of IBM-compatible PC clones running Microsoft operating systems.

What saved Apple was the return of Steve Jobs and the subsequent expansion of Apple’s technology offerings into mobile devices such as the iPod, followed later by the iPhone and iPad, along with the revenues of the iTunes and App Stores. What saved IBM was their refocusing on their corporate services offerings back in the 1990’s. In fact, IBM was the first big name to get out of the PC business in 2004, when they sold their PC division to Lenovo. Only after Apple ushered in The New World of Technology with the iPhone and iPad, drastically changing the technology market, did other names such as Dell and HP begin to seriously target the corporate services market that IBM had long dominated. Both Apple and IBM realized that the PC market was beyond direct competition with Microsoft, but there were bigger things in store. Apple focused on the consumer market and IBM focused on enterprise services.

Fast-forward to present day and the deal really makes perfect sense. Apple is the dominant force in the consumer and small business market due to the iPhone and iPad. IBM commands a lot of influence in the corporate world. IBM wants to grow with the mobile device revolution and perhaps due to the lessons learned in the 1980’s, knows that there is plenty of money to be made in offering services instead of trying to create their own devices. Apple would love to get more enterprise business and knows that partnering with such a well-respected name like IBM is probably the quickest way to achieve growth.

So it really is just a very simple strategic alliance between two companies with a lot to gain between them. Yes, it seems a little funny at first, but the reality is that both companies are very mature and powerful and stand to get more powerful together. What was your first reaction when hearing this announcement?

The Facebook Messenger App is NOT the Devil!

The Facebook Messenger App - Could it be SATAN!? No, just some sensationalist claims gone viral.

The Facebook Messenger App – Could it be SATAN!? No, just some sensationalist claims gone viral.

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you are well aware of all the dire warnings about Facebook’s “new” Messenger app floating around the Internet. At first I wasn’t going to write anything about it, but it seems that the story continues to get bigger. So I feel it necessary to discuss the warnings and how it all got started.

An article written by Nick Russo for a Houston radio station claimed that the Facebook Messenger app would have permissions to do all sorts of privacy-invading things if you installed it. For some reason, the article went viral. Well, it probably went viral for the same reason people send chain letters about virus hoaxes. It had just enough sensationalism mixed in with an authoritative tone to seem credible. The name of Nick’s radio station is “The Bull,” and perhaps that should have been an indication to people reading it that his article was for the most part, BS.

I’m not sure why this radio personality felt it necessary to pretend to be a technology expert. The very first time I read the article I knew there was something just not right. I tried to research his claims for some friends who were asking and for the life of me I couldn’t find anything about this guy stating that he had any professional experience besides working in radio. There’s nothing wrong with working in radio, but if you’re going to use your platform to disseminate information, please be sure you know what you’re talking about! As far as I’ve seen, Nick has not yet written an apology for his fear-mongering article, but rather has shifted into portraying himself as some sort of privacy advocate. Once again, I’m all for privacy advocates, but if you’re going to advocate – know of what you speak beyond just a cursory scratching of the surface.

Nick Russo made a lot of outlandish claims regarding what the Facebook Messenger app could do. The first problem with his claims were that he didn’t make a distinction between smartphones. I knew right away when reading his article was that there was no way Apple would allow an app like that to get into their App Store. Certainly it might be possible with an Android-based phone, however unlikely it would be, but Apple puts every single app submitted to their store through an approval process. Every. Single. App. Yeah, there’s no chance that Apple would allow Facebook Messenger, or any other app, to do the following as claimed by Nick Russo:

  • change or alter your connection to the Internet or cell service … for its own reasons without telling you.
  • send text messages to your contacts on your behalf … when they want
  • see through your lens on your phone whenever they want .. listen to what you’re saying via your microphone if they choose to
  • read your phone’s call log, including info about incoming and outgoing calls … Facebook will know all of this
  • read e-mails you’ve sent and take information from them to use for their own gain.
  • read personal profile information stored on your device … addresses, personal info, pictures or anything else
  • Facebook will now have a tally of all the apps you use, how often you use them and what information you keep or exchange on those apps.

It’s not like Apple iPhones are some off-the-wall brand that can be safely overlooked when discussing smartphones. They are just a *little* popular, to put it lightly. So to write an article like this with such extreme claims and not know about Apple’s approval process is simply irresponsible. But even if we were to ignore iPhones for the moment, does anyone really think that Facebook would want to do most of what is claimed above to their users? Perhaps Mr. Russo should have put in a call to someone at Facebook to ask a few questions first? Or at least do a tiny little bit of research on this thing called the Internet before publishing an article like this? I bet even the resident PC guy at “The Bull” probably could have warned Nick that his claims were pretty far out and to be careful before publishing his article. But alas, Mr. Russo took a little sliver of knowledge and believed he knew more than he did – running off like “The Bull” in a china shop and starting a viral tidal wave in the process.

To be fair, in theory – extreme theory, what Nick Russo claims above could possibly be accomplished by highly malicious apps running on some smartphone platforms. But Facebook Messenger isn’t a malicious app. And Nick must have found that out because in his next article he states, “I’ve now learned that both the New Facebook Messenger App and the original Facebook app have many of the SAME permissions.” Yes, I’m sure he did learn a few things once his article went viral! But perhaps those things should have been learned BEFORE publishing! As it turns out, the Facebook Messenger app (which isn’t new, but has been out for years), does virtually nothing different than any other similar app, including the normal Facebook app that billions of people already use. Oops!

Apparently once he found that out, Nick choose to portray himself as a privacy advocate, championing the idea that he made people more aware of the privacy choices on their phones. Fair enough, but let’s call a spade a spade. If he really cared about people’s privacy choices, he would have done some research and consulted with technology experts so that he could have written a balanced article. Any good that he has done has been completely obscured by the hysteria he created. Advocacy by accident at best. Fear-mongering at worst.

Bottom line, there are many articles that debunk Nick’s claims. Here is another article discussing some of Nick’s claims as “myths”. Facebook even posted an article discussing the privacy concerns. So the moral of the story is that we can’t believe everything we read – especially when it comes to technology topics. While we may not like the fact that Facebook is making everyone use a separate app for Messenger, spreading misinformation isn’t helping anybody.

IRS: Bad Sectors or Bad Intentions?

obama_open_governmentIn my previous article, I mentioned that all the attention paid to the details of Lois Lerner’s hard drive crash was just a red herring. I believe that the IRS attempting to use the hard drive crash excuse is simply the least important link in the chain of a comprehensive “innocence by incompetence” campaign. However, as weak of an excuse as it is for the IRS, the technical details of Lois Lerner’s hard drive could actually could end up being a smoking gun if we investigate far enough.

As I mentioned in my last article, I’ve seen more than my fair share of hard drive failures in the course of my 20 year professional career. I am very familiar with the functioning of hard drives, both in their mechanical and digital operations. So allow me to offer a quick primer on hard drive failure.

Any hard drive failure is commonly referred to as a hard drive “crash”. Technically the term “crash” has a very specific meaning in reference to hard drives – a head crash, if you care to know – but non-technical people may use the term “crash” to refer to any number of hard drive problems. Usually most people will say a hard drive crashed if the failure prevents data being read from the drive by normal methods and/or the computer will no longer boot from that drive. However, there are many less serious problems that could seem like a hard drive “crash” to non-technical users and restoring the drive to normal operation in those cases would not be difficult for a technology professional. More serious failures involve problems with the physical drive mechanism and may require the drive be sent to a data recovery specialist or forensic lab with highly sophisticated equipment to retrieve data.

In my experience, hard drive failures are unfortunately far too common. I have no problem believing that a hard drive crash could have befallen the computer used by Lois Lerner. Sure the timing seems questionable, but from a purely technical standpoint, this isn’t the smoking gun by itself. We must begin by questioning the specifics of the actual drive failure. Was it an actual head crash or a less serious glitch? Unfortunately the IRS has reported that the hard drive in question has already been recycled so no further attempts at recovery can be made, nor can the true cause of the hard drive failure be verified. All we know is that an e-mail from an IT manager to Lois Lerner in August 2011 said, “The sectors on the hard drive were bad which made your data unrecoverable.”

At this point I don’t believe the technical diagnosis of the hard drive failure nor the details of the recovery efforts made by the IRS IT department have been made public. These details need to be uncovered because if we know the diagnosis of the failure of the hard drive, we can begin to understand if the drive and data on it was intentionally destroyed. Alternately, we can also begin to deduce if the IRS IT department was using proper procedures during the recovery attempt and if there was any intentional wrongdoing within the IT department – or simply further incompetence.

According to the e-mail trail provided after Lerner’s hard drive failed, the data on the drive was deemed so important that the IRS IT department even went to the unusual lengths of sending the hard drive to their criminal investigation division’s forensic lab so they could attempt data recovery. A forensic lab often is able to piece together some data from a failed drive even if all the data on a drive is not recoverable. For a forensic lab to not be able to recover any data at all is highly unusual. This indicates that either the drive was wiped clean using advanced data deletion technology or it suffered extreme damage. Extreme damage is a rare occurrence for normal hard drive failures. Because the drive was sent to a criminal forensic lab, in theory the forensic specialists should have been able to tell if the hard drive was intentionally damaged or if there was anything unusual about the condition of the drive.

Lerner’s hard drive was reported as crashed on June 13, 2011. It wasn’t sent to the forensic lab until August 5, 2011. That’s a long time. Talk to any technology professional who is competent in data recovery and they will tell you the longer a failed drive is running in an attempt to recover data, the more damage that can be done. What was the IRS IT department doing that it took two months before they determined the drive was so bad it needed a data recovery lab? Especially if it was later determined that the “sectors on the hard drive were bad”. That type of failure should have been fairly obvious early on. Regardless, “bad sectors” do not take out all the data on a hard drive unless virtually the entire drive was damaged. In theory it could be possible that the efforts over two months by the IRS IT department could have damaged the drive beyond the point of data recovery even by a forensic lab. That would be a fairly inexcusable case of incompetence – or an intentional effort to scrub data from the drive. Either way it’s not a show of good faith on the IRS’s part.

Bottom line, there appears to be a chain of IT employees at the IRS that had access to the hard drive at any point in time, as well as “HP experts” and forensic specialists at the IRS’s criminal investigation division. If there is in fact a cover-up, the weak link in the chain may very well be any one of these IT people. Assuming they are not as politically motivated as IRS officials, it may be possible to get expert testimony from any one or more of the IT people that worked with and examined Lois Lerner’s hard drive that would conclude the drive had been tampered with or intentionally damaged. At the very least, we could find out why no data could be retrieved at all.

My hope is that if Lois Lerner’s hard drive is a smoking gun, one of the IT people involved will be brave enough to testify to this. The world could use another Edward Snowden right about now.