This Week in Tech 681: That Grips My Muffin

This Week in Tech

– Tech companies are meeting in secret to discuss election security.
– FB wants your MRI to train its AI.
– The nightmare that is Facebook moderation.
– Refuse to unlock your phone in Australia, go to jail for 10 years.
– It’s still very hard to figure out how to stop Google from tracking you.
– New iPhones coming September 12th, we think.
– Verizon throttles firefighters.
– IMB patents thought-powered drones that deliver coffee straight to your mouth.

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Google, Microsoft, Salesforce and Verizon are all reportedly interested in buying Twitter

By Shawn Knight | TechSpot

Twitter last October brought back former CEO Jack Dorsey to once again helm the company he helped create. More importantly, they needed him to help steer the ship back on course following multiple miscues.

Twitter has been taking on water for a while but you’d never know it at first glance. The social network is seemingly preferred by every major celebrity and Internet influencer and hashtags have invaded our daily lives. You can’t even watch the evening news without hearing about what ordinary people think about a given story courtesy of Twitter.

Dig a bit deeper, however, and you’ll find a myriad of problems plaguing the microblogging platform.

The company has failed to curb the rampant bullying and abuse that takes place each and every day on its platform. User growth has remained flat for several quarters. Revenue is tough to come by as larger companies are getting the lion’s share of advertising dollars.

It’s no surprise, then, that Twitter may soon find itself under new ownership.

CNBC on Friday said that Google and Salesforce are both interested in making an offer for Twitter. What’s more, TechCrunch notes that Microsoft and Verizon are also interested although the latter may have too much on its plate right now given its recent acquisition of Yahoo (and AOL before that) as well as its interest in Vessel.

Share value in Twitter is up more than 20 percent on the buyout chatter.

In the meantime, Twitter is attempting to reinvigorate itself as a video streaming platform as evident by recent deals with organizations such as the NFL.

ESPN sues Verizon over Custom TV, but skinny bundles seem here to stay

Verizon’s attempt to offer smaller, cheaper television bundles could be short-lived if Disney’s ESPN has its way.

The sports broadcasting giant has sued Verizon over new “Custom TV” bundles that give users a small base package of channels plus optional add-on packs, CNBC reports. The new TV package arrived last week, and costs $25 less per month than Verizon’s standard 235-channel bundle. ESPN is part of the “Sports” add-on pack, which costs $10 extra per month if subscribers don’t choose it as one of their two free add-ons. (Check out my latest cord-cutting column for all the details and gotchas with Custom TV.)

Even before filing the lawsuit, ESPN had made its displeasure known. The company had been telling reporters that Custom TV “would not be authorized by our existing agreements,” which don’t allow ESPN or ESPN2 to be part of an optional sports package. Fox Sports and NBC have also been grumbling about Verizon’s plan, but so far haven’t piled on with their own lawsuits.

Still, Verizon believes it’s within its rights to offer skinny bundles to TV subscribers. “We believe that we are allowed to offer these packages under our existing contracts,” CFO Fran Shammo said in an earnings call last week.

Clearly, both sides are interpreting their contracts differently. The question is whether Verizon will try to defend its interpretation in court, or collapse under pressure.

The story behind the story: This dust-up only highlights the strain that cord-cutting has put on the traditional pay TV business. Verizon realizes its subscriber base is at risk, and wants to reach the growing number of people who are walking away from expensive TV package. Networks, however, don’t want to lose the revenue that comes with being part of a huge channel bundle. Even if Custom TV dies, it’s unlikely that TV providers will stop trying to come up with smaller packages.

via ESPN sues Verizon over Custom TV, but skinny bundles seem here to stay | PCWorld.

AT&T kills the ‘permacookie,’ stops tracking customers’ Internet usage (for now)

In recent weeks, Verizon and AT&T have been caught up in a privacy firestorm over their use of so-called “permacookies,” a method of tracking what their users do while browsing the Web with the intent of sharing that data with advertisers. Verizon’s permacookie program lives on, but AT&T has ceased the practice, ProPublica reported on Friday.

At least for now.

AT&T tells ProPublica that its use of permacookies was “part of a test,” which has since wrapped up, but the company says that it “may still launch a program to sell data collected by its tracking number.” For its part, AT&T says that it will allow customers to opt out of the program if—or when—it decides to use permacookies for advertising purposes.

The story behind the story: Permacookies aren’t cookies in the traditional sense: Instead, they’re unique identifiers appended to website addresses you type in on your device that let carriers see what kinds of sites you visit.

Permacookies exist for the same reason traditional tracking cookies exist—so advertisers can see what sorts of things you might be interested and serve up related ads in the hopes that you’ll click on them. But unlike regular tracking cookies, which you can easily delete from your browser or block entirely, there’s no way of removing or blocking permacookies since they’re handled entirely by the carrier.

Permacookies here to stay?

Despite the outcry from consumers and activists, it’s hard to shake the feeling that permacookies aren’t going away now that the proverbial cat is out of the bag. Both Verizon and AT&T have said they allow (or will allow) customers to opt out of the advertiser data sharing program, as ProPublica notes (though Verizon won’t let you opt out of the identifier program), but you’re still very much at the mercy of the carriers.

If you’re on Verizon and are concerned about the privacy implications, our Ian Paul has a couple suggestions: First, use Wi-Fi instead of the cellular network whenever possible so you bypass Verizon’s network entirely. If that’s not practical, though, consider using a VPN to help keep your Web browsing private.

via AT&T kills the ‘permacookie,’ stops tracking customers’ Internet usage (for now) | PCWorld.

Verizon: Heavy Web users should pay more

Heavy broadband users should help shoulder the cost of their traffic, but Verizon Communications does not give preferential treatment to some Web traffic, the company’s CEO said Monday.

Still, Verizon has had its own interconnection discussions with Netflix related to increasing the video provider’s traffic speeds on the broadband carrier’s networks, Verizon Chairman and CEO Lowell McAdam said. Following a Sunday announcement that Comcast and Netflix had reached an interconnection deal, McAdam said his company has had similar discussions with the video provider.

The Comcast and Netflix deal shows “the commercial markets can come to agreement on these to make sure the investments keep flowing,” McAdam said.

McAdam addressed the U.S. Federal Communications Commission’s proposed net neutrality rules during a conference call about the company’s acquisition of Vodafone’s 45 percent stake in Verizon Wireless. The FCC’s move this month to resurrect net neutrality rules should provide “clarity” for the broadband industry, said McAdam, whose company successfully challenged an old version of the regulations in court.

McAdam dismissed concerns that his company would selectively block or slow some Web content. “We make our money by carrying traffic,” he said. “That’s how we make dollars. So to view that we’re going to be advantaging one over the other really is a lot of histrionics, I think, at this point.”

But McAdam suggested that broadband power users should pay extra. “It’s only natural that the heavy users help contribute to the investment to keep the Web healthy,” he said. “That is the most important concept of net neutrality.”

The FCC needs to look at the broad Internet industry, not just broadband providers, when it considers new net neutrality rules, McAdam said. Companies like Netflix, Apple, Microsoft and Google have a role, and “any rules will have to include all of these players,” he said.

McAdam called for the FCC to create “light touch” rules on net neutrality. The FCC needs to consider growing uses of broadband in medicine and other fields, he said. “Everything from health care to telematics to the energy grid need to be balanced with someone who’s trying to watch last year’s episode of [TV show] NCIS,” he said.

McAdam said he’s “encouraged” that the latest FCC effort may bring clarity on net neutrality rules.

via Verizon: Heavy Web users should pay more | PCWorld.

Verizon denies throttling Amazon’s cloud, Netflix

Verizon is denying a charge leveled by a security expert and seemingly acknowledged by its own customer service department that it is “limiting bandwidth” to Amazon Web Services, and by extension Netflix, in response to a recent court decision.

Just a few weeks ago a Washington D.C. appellate court struck down the Federal Communication Commission’s net neutrality rules. The judge ruled that the FCC cannot regulate how ISPs like Verizon deliver services, which could open the door to ISPs providing different connect speeds to different services. Verizon says it has not changed its connection policies since the net neutrality rules were struck down.

David Raphael, director of engineering for cloud security provider iScan, outlines in a blog post how he began noticing that his Internet connection at home was slow. It got to a point where it began impacting his streaming service from Netflix, he says. So he did a couple of tests. From his home he got a bandwidth rate of 40kbps when accessing Amazon Web Services’ Simple Storage Service (S3). When he tested it from his work, he got 5000kbps. Both his home and work use Verizon’s FiOS Internet Service.

He contacted a Verizon customer support representative to inquire about the issue. After what he says was about a half hour, he asked the representative point-blank if Verizon is now limiting bandwidth to cloud providers such as AWS. “Yes, it is limited bandwidth to cloud providers,” the online chat representative said. Raphael responded, “And this is why my Netflix quality is so bad right now?”

The Verizon representative’s response: “Yes, exactly.”

Raphael says he’s worried the net neutrality wars are upon us. “In my personal opinion, this is Verizon waging war against Netflix. Unfortunately, a lot of infrastructure is hosted on AWS. That means a lot of services are going to be impacted by this.”

Verizon denies favoritism in speeds

In response to a request for an explanation, executive director of communications for Verzion Edward McFadden replied:

“We treat all traffic equally, and that has not changed. Many factors can affect the speed a customer’s experiences for a specific site, including, that site’s servers, the way the traffic is routed over the Internet, and other considerations. We are looking into this specific matter, but the company representative was mistaken. We’re going to redouble our representative education efforts on this topic.”

Raphael’s blog post is already garnering considerable attention on social media sites. On Twitter some users are wondering if Raphael’s account is one of the first results of the net neutrality ruling. On HackerNews, a tech forum, users point out that the statement is from a Verizon customer service representative and should be taken in that context.

Following the net neutrality ruling, Verizon stated that it had no plans to make any changes to its Internet service. “Today’s decision will not change consumers’ ability to access and use the Internet as they do now,” company officials wrote in a statement posted on its website. “The court’s decision will allow more room for innovation, and consumers will have more choices to determine for themselves how they access and experience the Internet.”

Neither Amazon nor Netflix immediately responded to a request for comment.

via Verizon denies throttling Amazon’s cloud, Netflix | PCWorld.

Intel’s Internet TV project failed because they couldn’t secure content deals

Intel was secretly testing a set-top box with more than 2,000 employees last summer as the company was sparing no expense to get said box up and running. But as the year ticked by, rumors surfaced that Intel was looking to offload the yet-to-be launched service for around $500 million. Buy why?

As Intel CEO Brian Krzanich recently told Re/code, the chip maker ran into similar problems that have reportedly plagued Apple for years – securing content deals. In an interview with the publication, the CEO said Intel’s set-top box is actually a very good product in terms of hardware and technology.

He revealed that the concept was to have three days of everything that is on TV at a user’s instantaneous access but regardless of how good a device it, it’s nothing without content. Krzanich said that when you go and play with the content guys, it’s all about volume. Intel came at it with no background or volume since they were starting from virtually zero.

It doesn’t necessarily sound like Intel is giving up on the idea completely, however. The chief said they are out looking for a partner that can help them scale their volume at a much quicker rate.

One company that could help Intel do just that is Verizon. The telecom already has content tie-ins with providers thanks to its cable service and we’ve been hearing rumors that big red is the front-runner to partner with Intel.

With any luck, we’ll hear more about it at next week’s Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas.

via Intel’s Internet TV project failed because they couldn’t secure content deals – TechSpot.

Verizon’s bid to kill network neutrality law goes to court Monday

In December 2010, the Federal Communications Commission adopted the Open Internet Order, enshrining the concept of “network neutrality”—that Internet Service Providers must treat all data on the Internet equally—into law.

Although wireless broadband was exempt from many of its restrictions, the FCC’s net neutrality law says that fixed broadband providers “may not block lawful content, applications, services, or non-harmful devices” or practice “unreasonable discrimination” that slows content down or degrades its quality. They also must disclose information about their network management practices.

ISPs don’t like this, naturally, but Verizon has objected most strenuously of all. The company sued to halt the Open Internet Order, and after a couple of years worth of legal filings the case is now set to be decided by the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit.

Verizon and the FCC on Monday will each get 20 minutes to make their oral arguments. There won’t be a trial, as the oral arguments are typically the last step before the court makes its decision, said Senior Staff Attorney John Bergmayer of Public Knowledge, an advocacy group that filed briefs in the case supporting the FCC’s position.

“It’s really just a chance for the judges to ask questions they feel are not answered in the briefs, to poke at weak points in arguments, etc.,” Bergmayer told Ars.

The court will issue a decision when it’s good and ready. We don’t know when that will happen.

Verizon: Our “First Amendment” rights are under attack

As a refresher course on this complicated topic, Public Knowledge published a series of blog posts on what net neutrality is, what the FCC’s Open Internet Order does, and what the appeals court will decide.

Verizon is arguing that the FCC over-stepped its authority in issuing the regulations in the Open Internet Order, that it has a free speech right to block or degrade content under the First Amendment, and that the FCC didn’t do a good enough job explaining its reasoning and the evidence that the rules are necessary.

Verizon outlined its argument in a 118-page brief (PDF) filed jointly with MetroPCS in January. MetroPCS dropped out of the case after being acquired by T-Mobile, leaving Verizon to fight alone.

The Open Internet Order exceeds the commission’s authority as granted in the Communications Act which “expressly forbids the FCC from applying common-carrier regulation to broadband Internet access,” Verizon wrote. The FCC’s net neutrality rules “subject broadband providers to quintessential common-carrier duties by compelling them to carry the Internet traffic of all comers, and to do so at a uniform, nondiscriminatory price of zero.” The Communications Act includes no other provisions giving the FCC the authority to make the net neutrality rules, Verizon argued.

The FCC rules are also unconstitutional, violating the First and Fifth amendments, Verizon said. “Broadband networks are the modern day microphone by which their owners engage in First Amendment speech,” Verizon wrote. “The FCC thus must identify an actual problem and narrowly tailor its solution to solve that problem. The FCC’s ‘prophylactic’ rules cannot pass that test. The Fifth Amendment likewise protects broadband network owners from government compulsion to turn over their private property for use by others without compensation, especially in light of their multi-billion-dollar investment-backed expectations.”

Finally, Verizon argued that the FCC order is “devoid of evidence of any problem sufficient to justify these extensive regulations. The FCC also arbitrarily applied its rules to a single class of service providers even though myriad others in the Internet economy can engage in ‘gatekeeping.'”

Full Story: Verizon’s bid to kill network neutrality law goes to court Monday | Ars Technica.

Is 3G/4G slower indoors? Not as much as you might think

In this year’s wireless speed tests, TechHive and its testing partner OpenSignal focused on getting real-world results. That’s why we used ordinary, readily available smartphones and tested in the physical spaces where real people use such devices, both inside and outside buildings.

Drive test metrics are great to have, and they help mobile carriers improve service and target problem areas on their networks. However, with over 34 percent of households in the United States claiming a mobile phone as their only phone, we know that most smartphone users are either at home or at work, presumably somewhere inside a building.

The results

In our tests, outdoor service was usually better than indoor service, but not by much. Both 4G and 3G service suffered an average speed loss of less than 0.7 megabits per second (700 kilobits per second), but that small difference turned into a big one for services where download speeds were less than 1 mbps to begin with.

Overall, 3G service showed marginal speed decreases when we used it indoors. Sprint, T-Mobile, and Verizon 3G speeds degraded by 5 to 9 percent in indoor usage. AT&T was an anomaly: Its 3G service produced download speeds that were 5.28 percent faster indoors than outdoors.

Full Story: Is 3G/4G slower indoors? Not as much as you might think | TechHive.

California man finds limits of Verizon FiOS unlimited data broadband service: 77TB

Verizon offers unlimited data for their FiOS fiber-optic broadband service, but as one person found out recently, as with all things, it’s not truly “unlimited.” A California man, who goes by the handle Houkouonchi online and preferred not to be identified by name in his interview with Ars Technica, said he got a call from a Verizon representative after he used 77 terabytes of data in one month.

Houkouonchi has a truly impressive server rack in his home, filled with seven servers and a combined 209TB of raw storage. He said he provides a host of services to friends and family, including a personal VPN, video streaming, and peer-to-peer file services. As an IT professional managing a test lab at an Internet storage company in California, this guy knows his way around a rack.

The massive collection of hard drives is primarily filled with media files, which Houkouonchi sets up his friends to stream from his servers to their homes.

After using an average of 50TB per month since January, Verizon engineers noticed the unusual data usage and got a hold of him. “Basically he said that my bandwidth usage was excessive (like 30,000 percent higher than their average customer),” Houkouonchi said. He explained to the rep that he has a full rack of servers with which he hosts data, and was promptly informed that this is against Verizon’s Terms of Service for FiOS, which prohibits use for “high volume purposes” and the hosting of any type of server. He was told he would need to switch to a business line or be disconnected in July, which he made out to be a non-issue in the interview.

Since this turned out to be a case of violation of the ToS, it’s not technically illustrative of the limits of an unlimited data plan, but in Verizon’s favor, anyone would have trouble using more data than this without breaking some rules. For now, technically, FiOS is still unlimited.

via California man finds limits of Verizon FiOS unlimited data broadband service: 77TB – TechSpot.