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Comcast has disabled its congestion management system

Heavy internet users will no longer have their internet browsing speed slowed down

Earlier this week, Comcast announced that it’s ending its practice of throttling heavy internet users that are clogging the network.

The company’s congestion management system had been in place for a decade prior to the announcement. However, it had been “essentially inactive for more than a year,” Comcast told the Verge.

“As reflected in a June 11, 2018 update to our Xfinity Internet Broadband Disclosures, the congestion management system that was initially deployed in 2008 has been deactivated,” Comcast said in a statement.

“As our network technologies and usage of the network continue to evolve, we reserve the right to implement a new congestion management system if necessary in the performance of reasonable network management and in order to maintain a good broadband internet access service experience for our customers, and will provide updates here as well as other locations if a new system is implemented.”

Throttling no longer necessary

Comcast says congestion isn’t as burdensome to its servers and modems as it used to be, so it’s no longer necessary to throttle speeds to slow down heavy internet users.

Users should be aware that although the company has disabled its throttling system, it will still maintain data caps and charges for overages in 27 states.

Comcast made its announcement the same day net neutrality regulations were officially repealed. Under the new Restoring Internet Freedom Order, companies may have more freedom to block, speed up, or slow down access to specific online services, or offer premium internet speeds at premium cost.

At the same time net neutrality rules were rolled back, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) also updated its transparency rules. Comcast likely made its announcement in an effort to comply with the new rules.

Earlier this week, Comcast announced that it’s ending its practice of throttling heavy internet users that are clogging the network. The company’s cong...
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Facebook and Qualcomm partner to deliver high-speed WiFi to cities

The collaboration may help improve internet speed and reliability in dense urban areas

Facebook and Qualcomm are teaming up to bring super-fast WiFi to cities across the country for "a fraction of the cost" of fiber, the companies announced Monday

The partnership will use Facebook’s Terragraph technology to build a multi-node wireless system based on 60GHz technology from Qualcomm, with the ultimate goal of bringing high-speed internet connectivity to dense urban areas.

The social media giant has been working on Terragraph for several years in an effort to replace fiber broadband with 60GHz millimeter-wave wireless. Facebook first unveiled Terragraph at its annual developer conference back in 2016, touting it as a wireless service that could deliver faster and more reliable coverage in dense urban areas.

Improved connections and speeds

The technology was designed to offer a replacement for fiber or cable in homes and businesses. It works by utilizing a large number of antennas, channel bonding, time synchronized nodes, and TDMA protocols -- enhancements that help direct signals around urban obstacles like concrete buildings, serve more users, and reduce costs.

Qualcomm will integrate its upcoming chipsets with Facebook’s Terragraph technology, enabling manufacturers to build 60 GHz millimeter wave solutions using the unlicensed 60GHz spectrum and provide Fixed Wireless Access (FWA).

"With Terragraph, our goal is to enable people living in urban areas to access high-quality connectivity that can help create new opportunities and strengthen communities," said Yael Maguire, vice president of connectivity at Facebook.

Trials slated to begin next year

The collaboration will hopefully help to reduce congestion in overcrowded urban wireless networks.

"Our collaboration with Facebook will bring advanced 11ad and pre-11ay technologies to market increasing broadband penetration and enabling operators to reduce their capex [capital expenditure] for last mile access," explained Irvind Ghai, vice president, product management, Qualcomm Atheros, Inc.

"Terragraph cloud controller and TDMA architecture coupled with Qualcomm Technologies solution's 10 Gbps link rate, low power consumption, and early interference mitigation techniques will help make gigabit connectivity a reality."

Trials of the new technology are expected to begin in mid-2019. The companies didn’t announce which cities would receive the service first, but Facebook previously suggested that Terragraph would be tested in San Jose.

Facebook and Qualcomm are teaming up to bring super-fast WiFi to cities across the country for "a fraction of the cost" of fiber, the companies announced M...
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Study finds mainstream ads on 'extremist' YouTube videos

Videos about white nationalists and pedophiles draw ads for household names

Ads for major corporations that are household names are routinely shown on YouTube videos identified as “extremist content,” according to a CNN investigation.

The TV network said it counted at least 300 businesses and organizations whose ads have run on videos about white nationalists, pedophilia, and even North Korean propaganda.

When an advertiser places a buy on YouTube, its message is inserted into the site’s content, sometimes playing before the start of a video. YouTube, which is owned by Google, often tries to match the advertiser's message with the tone of the video, but sometimes the ads are placed at random.

The CNN report found five U.S. government agencies had paid for ads that were paired with the out-of-the-mainstream videos, meaning U.S. tax dollars went to the videos' producers.

In addition, the analysis found ads for Hershey, Facebook, Nordstrom, Amazon, Hilton, Netflix, Adidas, and Under Armour on these videos. When contacted by CNN, the companies said they were not aware they were sponsoring extremist content.

Under Armour pauses ads

A spokesman for Under Armour told CNN the company is suspending its advertising on the video platform until it can investigate how its messages are being displayed.

YouTube gives advertisers a tool that can be used to target advertising messages to certain demographics and user behavior. They can block specific topics and employ a filter that keeps ads away from videos pertaining to sensitive subjects.

A spokeswoman for YouTube told CNN that the company has worked with advertisers to implement better controls, stricter policies, and greater transparency when it comes to ad placement.

“When we find that ads mistakenly ran against content that doesn’t comply with our policies, we immediately remove those ads,” she said.

YouTube policy

A year ago YouTube made changes to the way video producers can monetize their videos on the platform. The change requires video producers to rack up at least 10,000 lifetime views on their channel before they have the option to have ads appear in their videos.

YouTube made the change, not to weed out extremist content, but to crack down on copycat creators – those who copy videos from other sources and put them on their channel.

Ads for major corporations that are household names are routinely shown on YouTube videos identified as “extremist content,” according to a CNN investigati...
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New DNS service promises faster speeds and increased security for internet users

The tool reportedly erases browsing histories after 24 hours and allows for ultra fast internet speeds

Cloudflare has released a free website performance and security tool called 1.1.1.1., billed as “the fastest, privacy-first consumer DNS service.”

At a time when prying eyes seem to be popping up everywhere, hackers are having field days, and the net neutrality rules are being tossed aside by the Trump administration, having someone ride in on a white horse might just be the answer consumers were looking for.

Cloudflare plans to stake its reputation on the promise that 1.1.1.1.  will be “the internet’s fastest, privacy-first consumer DNS service.” The company vows to wipe clean all logs of DNS queries within 24 hours.

Making internet browsing more private

DNS stands for “Domain Name System” -- a system of computers that allow users to browse the internet by connecting Internet Protocol (IP) addresses to a website’s server. In the simplest of terms, it’s what gets an internet user to the site they want to go to.

“Cloudflare's business has never been built around tracking users or selling advertising. We don't see personal data as an asset; we see it as a toxic asset,” wrote Matthew Prince, co-founder & CEO of Cloudflare.

“We began talking with browser manufacturers about what they would want from a DNS resolver. One word kept coming up: privacy. Beyond just a commitment not to use browsing data to help target ads, they wanted to make sure we would wipe all transaction logs within a week. That was an easy request. In fact, we knew we could go much further. We committed to never writing the querying IP addresses to disk and wiping all logs within 24 hours.”

Unfortunately, the DNS servers also allow Internet Service Providers (ISP) to identify any site that’s visited, which raises questions of privacy. In the wake of the criticism Facebook took over the misuse of its users’ data and Equifax’s hack last year, putting privacy back into the hands of the user might be a welcome relief.

An ISP typically takes care of the DNS for the end user, but the downside is that it gives the ISP a way to track and log every website you visit. Data like that, as the world found out in the Facebook data brouhaha, is worth money to data collectors that do deep dives on internet users’ browsing histories. With 1.1.1.1. keeping that information out of the grasp of an ISP, it makes it that much harder to track and tally a web surfer’s site visits.

Did someone say “fast” and “easy”?

DNSPerf analyzes the speeds of DNS providers worldwide. In its latest survey, Cloudflare’s speed ranked first with a query speed of 13.06ms -- twice as fast as Verizon ROUTE, nearly four times faster than GoDaddy, and almost five times faster than Google Cloud.

Whether you’re a novice or a geek, Cloudflare claims that setting up 1.1.1.1 takes two minutes and requires no technical skill or special software. All an interested Internet user needs to do is type 1.1.1.1 into their web browser to get started.

Who is Cloudflare and why do they want to help us?

Cloudflare claims to “run one of the world’s largest networks, powering more than 10 trillion requests per month.” The company’s customer base is made up of everything from local blogs to international Fortune 500 companies. And in its attempt to raise venture capital, tech giants like Microsoft, Qualcomm, and Google have all stepped up to write a check.

Cloudflare’s partner in 1.1.1.1. Is APNIC (Asia Pacific Network Information Centre, pronounced A-P-NIC), a not-for-profit, membership-based organization whose primary role is the distribution and management of internet protocols such as IP addresses. APNIC’s members include ISPs, universities, telecommunication providers, and others in the Asia Pacific region’s 56 economies, which include China, India, and Australia.

The marriage of Cloudflare and APNIC came out of a parallel desire to help build a better Internet. Cloudflare could provide the network and APNIC had the IP address (1.1.1.1).

“We talked to the APNIC team about how we wanted to create a privacy-first, extremely fast DNS system,” commented Prince. “They thought it was a laudable goal. We offered Cloudflare's network to receive and study the garbage traffic in exchange for being able to offer a DNS resolver on the memorable IPs. And, with that, 1.1.1.1 was born.”

Cloudflare has released a free website performance and security tool called 1.1.1.1., billed as “the fastest, privacy-first consumer DNS service.”At a...
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FCC approves SpaceX’s plan for broadband internet satellites

The U.S. government wants to bring high-speed internet access to rural areas that lack service

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has approved Elon Musk’s SpaceX plan for a 4,425-satellite broadband network.

The broadband service -- which is currently set to go by the name “Starlink” -- would deploy satellites that operate 700 to 800 miles above Earth. The FCC will require SpaceX to launch at least half of the units in its 4,425-satellite constellation within the next six years.

"This is the first approval of a US-licensed satellite constellation to provide broadband services using a new generation of low-Earth orbit satellite technologies," the FCC said in a statement. "With this action, the commission takes another step to increase high-speed broadband availability and competition in the United States."

Providing broadband to rural and remote places

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai presented Musk’s plan for approval back in February. In his presentation, he told fellow commissioners that satellites can help extend broadband to consumers who live in rural or remote places where fiber optic cables and cell towers don’t reach.

"Although we still have much to do with this complex undertaking, this is an important step toward SpaceX building a next-generation satellite network that can link the globe with reliable and affordable broadband service, especially reaching those who are not yet connected," Gwynne Shotwell, president and chief operating officer at SpaceX, said in a statement.

SpaceX plans to start launching operational satellites for the network starting next year. It will be competing with rival space internet provider OneWeb. Musk has said he hopes Starlink will have more than 40 million subscribers by 2025.

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has approved Elon Musk’s SpaceX plan for a 4,425-satellite broadband network.The broadband service -- which...
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One in four Americans are online ‘constantly’

A new study shows consumers of all ages are spending more time on the internet

As internet-connected devices become more widespread, a growing number of consumers admit to spending a majority of their day online.

About 26 percent of adults in the U.S. say they’re online “almost constantly,” up from 21 percent who said the same in 2015. Forty-three percent of respondents said they go online “several times a day,” according to a new Pew Research study based on January data.

Overall, the researchers found that 77 percent of Americans go online on a daily basis. Just 11 percent said they only use the internet several times a week or less; the same percentage said they don’t use the internet at all.

Higher for younger adults

Time spent online each day was higher for younger adults and people in higher income brackets, the research found. Thirty-nine percent of 18- to 29-year-olds now go online almost constantly and 49 percent go online multiple times per day.

Americans between the ages of 30 and 49 aren’t too far behind, with about 36 percent using the internet almost constantly (an increase of 12 percentage points since 2015). Just 8 percent of those 65 and older go online almost constantly and just 30 percent go online multiple times per day.

Mobile connectivity a key factor

Adults with the ability to access the internet on the go through a mobile device are especially likely to be online for a significant portion of their day.

A majority of mobile internet users (89 percent) go online daily and 31 percent go online almost constantly. By contrast, 54 percent of Americans who don’t use a mobile device to go online do so daily and just 5 percent say they go online almost constantly.

Role of household income

People in higher income brackets are also more likely to be on the internet frequently.

About 35 percent of adults with an annual household income of $75,000 or more are on the internet almost constantly and 91 percent use it daily, according to the study. Just 24 percent of people making less than $30,000 are on the internet almost constantly.

People living in non-rural areas are also more likely to be online a lot. Among adults who say they’re online almost constantly, 32 percent live in urban areas, 27 percent are suburban residents, and only 15 percent are rural residents.

As internet-connected devices become more widespread, a growing number of consumers admit to spending a majority of their day online. About 26 percent...
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Study finds 178 million exposed cyber assets in the U.S.

Consumers can be spied on and could become part of a crime ring without adequate security

Are your cyber assets exposed? If so, you're not alone. A new study by Trend Micro finds that no fewer than 178 million internet-connected devices in the U.S. are exposed to hacking.

Very simply, an exposed cyber asset is a device like a router, webcam, or DVR that's connected to -- and visible on -- the public internet. Such devices can be used to spy on their owners and can often be taken over and used in cyberattacks on others.

The study looked at the ten largest U.S. cities and found that Los Angeles has the highest number of exposed assets, followed by Houston and Chicago.

Interestingly, the study said that the majority (79%) of exposed DVRs are in Chicago and more than three quarters (80%) of all exposed DVRs are made by TiVo.

Internet-connected cameras that are most exposed include home cameras made by D-Link and security cameras made by GeoVision and Avtech

What to do

The router is like the front door to your home's internet. If it is not secure, criminals can break into your local connection and potentially monitor your activities and even, in some cases, make off with your private data.

An unsecured router can also be turned into a "zombie," meaning that it can become part of a "botnet" (the cyber equivalent of those roving bands you see on The Walking Dead). While this may not affect you directly, it turns your home into a crime scene and makes you part of the global networks that support terrorism, child pornography, and identity theft.

The most basic security step is to never buy a used router. Second is to always change the password on any router you buy. The password you choose should be long (preferably 16 characters or so) and complex -- a combination of upper- and lower-case letters, numbers and symbols.

Write the password down, but don't leave it in plain view where visitors can see it. It's important to note here that we're not talking about the password you set up for wi-fi (which can be a little simpler if you wish) but rather the administrator password for the router. 

Thie third step is to buy a router that has an embedded security solution. Trend Micro notes that it has partnered with ASUS to pre-install a security layer on ASUS routers. Similar solutions are available from other vendors.

Trend Micro offers a free guide to securing your router. 

Are your cyber assets exposed? If so, you're not alone. A new study by Trend Micro finds that no fewer than 178 million internet-connected devices in the U...
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Why most of us still stand a good chance of getting hacked

Survey finds many consumers still use incredibly weak passwords

In recent years hackers have shifted their primary aim from individual consumers to large retailers and corporate networks because it offers more bang for the buck.

It's a good thing too, because most of us individual consumers are sitting ducks.

Make no mistake, hackers still launch attacks on individuals. It's one way they harness millions of individual zombie computers to carry out their various nefarious deeds. And Keeper Security, a cyber security firm, says consumers make it easy for them by using pathetically-easy passwords.

In its blog, the company said it reviewed the passwords that leaked to the internet from data breaches in 2016, looking for the year's most common passwords. Incredibly, it found nearly 17% of consumers are still using “123456” as a password. That was number one. Believe it or not, the eighth most-common password in 2016 was “password.”

Main takeaways

Keeper Security says the main takeaways from its analysis include the fact that the list of most-used passwords hasn't changed much over the years. In other words, we haven't gotten very creative.

“While it’s important for users to be aware of risks, a sizable minority are never going to take the time or effort to protect themselves,” the company writes. “IT administrators and website operators must do the job for them.”

Long passwords are best, but four of the top 10 passwords on Keeper Security's list, and seven of the top 15, are six characters or shorter. Those passwords are no match for hackers' state-of-the-art tools that can break those flimsy passwords in seconds.

Less random than you think

Some consumers may think they're well ahead of the hackers by using passwords like “1q2w3e4r.” When you look at the sequence of numbers and letters it may appear random, but it's not. If you'll glance at a qwerty keyboard, you'll quickly see the combination is assembled by moving diagonally to the right from the number row to the top letter row. It's little more inventive than “123456.”

The company says email providers should be doing a better job of using their services for spam delivery, and the way to do that is by enforcing tougher password rules.

“We can criticize all we want about the chronic failure of users to employ strong passwords. After all, it’s in the user’s best interests to do so,” the company writes. “But the bigger responsibility lies with website owners who fail to enforce the most basic password complexity policies. It isn’t hard to do, but the list makes it clear that many still don’t bother.”

Keeper Security said it had no trouble finding passwords published on the internet. It says there were at least 10 million of them, the result of 2016's data breaches.

In recent years hackers have shifted their primary aim from individual consumers to large retailers and corporate networks because it offers more bang for...
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What consumers can do to make connected devices more secure

For starters, change the default password on all connected devices

As we have recently seen, everyday devices that connect to the internet – the so-called Internet of Things (IoT) -- are vulnerable to cyber-attack.

Last month, a hacker harnessed tens of millions of these devices to launch denial of service attacks that temporarily blocked access to major web destinations like Amazon, Netflix, and Twitter.

Apparently, it wasn't that hard to do. These devices, for the most part, are largely unprotected by security software. How many IoT devices are in your home? Probably a lot more than you think.

The IoT includes things like your router, your DVR, and your printers. But it might also include your refrigerator, smart lighting system, and your thermostat.

Invasion of the botnets

A clever hacker can easily penetrate these devices and insert a botnet, ready to take over the device and follow the hacker's orders. Botnets have taken over PCs for years, using them to send out spam emails. Now that they can seize millions of other devices, they are even more of a threat.

Security Intelligence, a cyber-security publiction, raised the IoT security issue two years ago. Back then, it pointed to several potential pitfalls.

First, with so many devices – and some estimates predict 30 billion connected devices by 2020 – it will be next to impossible keeping security on them up to date.

Because there will be so much data moving through the IoT, how do you tell the good data from the potentially harmful data? And with companies using proprietary implementations, it could make it harder to find hidden or unknown zero-day attacks.

What to do

While there are step consumers can take to make their IoT more secure, California Attorney General Kamala Harris says manufacturers of these devices have not done a good job of telling consumers how to do it. A first step, she says, is for consumers to change the default passwords for any and all devices that connect to the internet.

To do that, find the default login information in the user manual, or in some cases, on the device itself. If it isn't obvious, do an online search for “default router, DVR, or webcam username and password,” then check for the name and model of your device.

You then use the default log-in to access your account and change the password.

Ultimately, Harris says manufacturers need to do a better job of making their devices more secure to start with, and regularly updating their security protection.

As we have recently seen, everyday devices that connect to the internet – the so-called Internet of Things (IoT) -- are vulnerable to cyber-attack.Last...
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Why the internet has gotten so annoying

Advertising threatens to obscure the web's more useful functions

Once upon a time – let's say five or 10 years ago – the average internet user could enjoy a wide range of free content on the internet in relative peace.

Suddenly, there are ads everywhere. Not unobtrusive display ads like you find in newspapers and magazines, but pop-ups that entirely obscure the page, and video ads that start playing as soon as you land on a page.

If you are trying to read an interesting article, sometimes it is next to impossible because you have to stop every few seconds to try to close an ad, or stop a video from playing.

Mark Havenner, a vice-president at The Pollack PR Marketing Group in Los Angeles, traces the escalation in annoyance to just two years ago.

“Pop-ups have been around forever and they've always been disruptive,” Havenner told ConsumerAffairs. “Online advertising has never really worked. We've seen data that suggests disruptive advertising has a negative effect.”

The Facebook factor

But around 2014, he says, Facebook began to score spectacular results with “native” advertising. Native advertising blends in with the content of the site you are on. If you are looking at your Facebook timeline, you get video ads mixed in with everything else. The difference is, the content of the ads matches things you are more or less interested in. It's more effective for the advertiser but less obtrusive for the reader.

Because Facebook has been so successful with that strategy, Havenner says nearly all advertisers are now trying to replicate it, even though it might not be practical for their kind of site.

“When you're on a news site, that's different than being on Facebook,” Havenner said. “On Facebook you're looking at content. On a news site, you're just reading articles, you're not actively looking for something like a video ad. But advertisers want to catch your attention, so they just start playing them.”

Not all internet advertising is as infuriating as the ads that interfere with how you are trying to use the web.

Hulu and YouTube play commercials within videos. Hula commercials come within the content, much like TV commercials would. YouTube plays commercials at the beginning of videos but most of the time you can skip out after a few seconds.

“That kind of advertising doesn't mess with people,” Havenner said.

Ad dollars moving online

Another part of the problem is that a huge transition has taken place in how people consume media. Television viewership is down, with most of those eyes moving to the internet. The advertising dollars have followed and web publications are fighting for them.

If you want to blame someone for the annoying state of the internet, Havenner suggests blaming the online publications that allow jarring and disruptive advertising. Because of it, he believes these publications are losing readers. If so, does that mean there's hope for the future?

“I suppose there is,” Havenner said. “If they start losing readership over it. They see the analytics and see that when that ad is displayed people left their site. So I would hope they would make changes.”

Havenner's advice to fed up consumers is to simply avoid going to sites with obtrusive ads. Eventually, he says, advertisers will get the message.

Once upon a time – let's say five or 10 years ago – the average internet user could enjoy a wide range of free content on the internet in relative peace....
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Could this be the answer to the ransomware threat?

Computer scientists create tool that limits the damage

For hackers and cybercriminals, ransomware is literally money in the bank.

If a target clicks on a link in an email, designed to appear as though it is from a familiar source, the malware is unleashed on the victim's computer, encrypting every file.

The only way for the victim to regain access to these files – photos, documents, or multimedia files – is to pay the hacker a ransom in Bitcoin. The threat has grown exponentially, ensnaring individual consumers as well as businesses and organizations.

Researchers at the University of Florida (UF) now say they have developed a solution, a software tool that will stop ransomware in its tracks. They call it CryptoDrop. The researchers say it works in a very different way than antivirus software.

Limiting the damage

Instead of identifying the ransomware before it can download to a target computer, CryptoDrop springs into action a nanosecond after the process begins. As a result, only a tiny fraction of files get encrypted.

“Our system is more of an early-warning system,” said Nolen Scaife, a UF doctoral student and founding member of UF’s Florida Institute for Cybersecurity Research.

Scaife says CryptoDrop steps in to prevent the ransomware from completing its task. A victim might lose a few photographs, but that is the limit of the damage. There is no reason to pay a ransom.

The UF researchers say antivirus software has a hard time stopping ransomware because it needs to have seen the malware before in order to be effective. But hackers are constantly tweaking their ransomware bugs, making them unrecognizable.

CrytoDrop is like a security guard, always looking for signs of a ransomeware attack. When it sees the malware encrypt a file, it springs into action to stop the process from going further.

Instead of looking for a particular software profile, it is instead looking at what the software does. If hackers come up with a new malware every week, it won't matter.

Growing threat

In the last few years ransomware attacks have targeted hospitals and even police departments. In 2015 police in Tewksbury, Massachusetts, admitted that they'd had to pay an untraceable $500 Bitcoin ransom to the hackers who'd encrypted the department's computer files.

Also last year, a new form of ransomware emerged, in which hackers planted child pornography images on victims' phones until a ransom was paid.

It's gotten so bad that some companies now build ransoms into their operating budgets, expecting that sooner or later they'll have to pay up. The UF researchers, however, say that might not be necessary.

“We ran our detector against several hundred ransomware samples that were live and in those case it detected 100% of those malware samples and it did so after only a median of 10 files were encrypted,” Scaife said.

The research team says its prototype works with Windows-based systems and the researchers are now seeking a partner to put it on the market.

For hackers and cybercriminals, ransomware is literally money in the bank.If a target clicks on a link in an email, designed to appear as though it is ...
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Warren Buffett among the bidders for Yahoo, reports say

Verizon's AOL had previously been considered the leading bidder

Value investor Warren Buffett is said to be among a group of investors making a bid to acquire the core assets of Yahoo, the moribund internet portal that has been slowly sinking into obscurity.

Press reports, citing unnamed sources, say that Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway has teamed with Quicken Loans founder Dan Gilbert and other investors to make the bid. AOL parent Verizon had been seen as the leading contender to acquire Yahoo's assets.

Buffett is not a fan of high-tech investments and generally sticks to bread-and-butter companies like railroads and food processors, although his group has become a leading investor in community newspapers. 

Yahoo and other websites are generally regarded as technology companies, as illustrated by the way their managers mangle their media components but underneath all the tech hype, a website like Yahoo is not fundamentally different from a TV network or newspaper.

All provide content that is primarily ad-supported but most tech ventures for some reason put editorial functions in the hands of engineers, often producing results that are similar to what would happen if newspapers turned over publishing duties to their pressmen.  

Content still king

Through his investments in community newspapers, Buffett has been seen as voting for the concept that content is king, especially in smaller communities where a local newspaper has a virtual monopoly on local content. 

Gilbert built Quicken Loans and went on to become a professional investor, taking chunks of numerous high-tech and traditional ventures. He also owns the Cleveland Cavaliers.

Verizon's interest in Yahoo is thought to center on the added heft it would bring to AOL, which has emerged as the cornerstone of Verizon's attempt to become a major content player. 

Others thought to be circling Yahoo include Bain Capital, Mitt Romney's former company, and other private equity firms. 

Yahoo once ruled the internet roost with an elaborate catalog of online resources but was displaced by Google's keyword-driven cataloging strategy. It has suffered through an endless series of CEOs, including the incumbent, Marissa Mayer, who left Google to attempt a Yahoo turnaround that most analysts agree has fallen flat.

Value investor Warren Buffett is said to be among a group of investors making a bid to acquire the core assets of Yahoo, the moribund internet portal that ...
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AT&T creating a streaming version of DirecTV

Details are scarce but the service looks to be similar to Dish Network's Sling TV

When AT&T; bought DirecTV, it was seen as a rather traditional -- even backward -- move. After all, the common wisdom is that satellite TV is old hat, soon to be replaced by streaming TV.

Could be, but DirecTV has what in the retail world would be called inventory -- it has contracts with top content producers, everyone from ESPN to HBO, and AT&T; is now in the process of making much of that content availble as streaming video.

It will be making cable TV programming available without the cable or the satellite, much as Dish Network is doing with its Sling TV. It will also have a mobile version and a free, ad-supported version, the company said.

Few details

AT&T; announced its plans for the service earlier this week but released few pricing or content details. That's because it is still renegotiating its contracts with the program producers, some of whom may not be too eager to see their shows streaming on the Internet. 

Cable companies aren't thrilled with the prospect either. As we reported last week, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is investigating whether cable companies are putting pressure on program producers to keep their shows off the Internet.

It's not pretty to watch but the cable and TV businesses as we know them are starting to crumble. Consumers are fed up with constantly rising cable rates, ridiculously dated proprietary set-top boxes and other absurdities of the now-fading cable monopoly era. 

Streaming pioneers like Netflix have a head start, but AT&T; and other big players bring a lot of heft to the game. AT&T; not only owns DirecTV but also has its own cable networks, as do Verizon, Comcast, and other big telecom and cable players. They may not be consumers' favorites, but they wield a lot of negotiating power with program providers.

Separately, AT&T; has said it is working on a system that will let advertisers buy ads through a digital interface similar to that used by advertisers who buy those ubiquitous Google ads. That system could presumably be used to buy ads on the streaming video channels as well.

Anyway you look at it, this is an adventure series that will last a lot longer than 13 weeks. Stay tuned.

When AT&T bought DirecTV, it was seen as a rather traditional -- even backward -- move. After all, the common wisdom is that satellite TV is old hat, soon...
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Congress permanently bans taxes on Internet access; measure awaits Obama's signature

States that collect these taxes will need to cease doing so by 2020 if Obama signs the bill

A long era of uncertainty over the future of Internet taxes may be coming to a close. With a 75-20 vote in the Senate today, Congress passed the Permanent Internet Tax Freedom Act (PITFA), which bans taxing Internet access.

Summed up by Congress, the act “amends the Internet Tax Freedom Act to make permanent the ban on state and local taxation of Internet access and on multiple or discriminatory taxes on electronic commerce.”

While billed as a pro-consumer measure, the measure was supported most fervently by the cable and telecommunications industries.

"We applaud the Senate on today’s passage of the Permanent Internet Tax Freedom Act (ITFA)," said Michael Powell, president of the National Cable & Telecommunications Association, the cable industry's trade association. "Internet access is more than a convenience, it’s critical to the daily lives of Americans."

"By keeping Internet access free from state and local taxes, ITFA will permanently keep down the cost of connectivity, enable more American consumers and businesses to get online and allow the Internet to further power economic growth. We urge President Obama to sign this important legislation to make ITFA permanent once and for all,” said Powell. 

Permanent tax ban

PIFTA makes permanent the Internet Tax Freedom Act (ITFA), which was first passed in 1998. It placed a temporary ban, or moratorium, on taxing Internet access. 

The key word here is “temporary.” ITFA was never made permanent, even though it received bipartisan support. Some senators consistently prevented the tax ban from being made permanent. Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), for one, wanted to make passage of PITFA contingent on passage of another piece of legislation called the Marketplace Fairness Act (MFA), which stipulates that consumers must pay sales tax on online purchases.

After being promised a vote on a new MFA in 2017, Durbin finally relented and agreed to the bill’s passing, ending 17 years of annual ITFA extensions. 

The bill now awaits the signature of President Barack Obama. Whether he intends to sign it is unknown. If he does, states who have taxes in place for Internet access will need to cease collections by 2020.

A long era of uncertainty over the future of Internet taxes may be coming to a close. With a 75-20 vote in the Senate today, Congress passed the Permanent ...
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Consumer groups want FCC to curb targeted ads

Websites are beyond the FCC's reach but broadband providers are not

A coalition of consumer groups wants the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to keep broadband providers from serving targeted ads to subscribers.

It's part of a growing wave of resistance to marketers tracking consumers and serving ads that match the profiles that are built from such tracking. On another front, Internet pioneer Brendan Eich is launching a new browser, Brave, that blocks targeted ads and inserts more general advertising.

While websites themselves are beyond the reach of the FCC, broadband providers including telephone and wireless companies and satellite TV providers are not. and the groups say the FCC should crack down on them.

"Providers of broadband Internet access service ... have a unique role in the online ecosystem," the organizations say in a letter to FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler. "Their position as Internet gatekeepers gives them a comprehensive view of consumer behavior and until now privacy protections for consumers using those services have been unclear."

The 59 organizations signing the letter include the Consumer Federation of America, Electronic Frontier Foundation, and Free Press. The Electronic Privacy Information Center submitted a more detailed letter.

"Chilling effect

They are asking the FCC to adopt rules that would prohibit broadband providers from collecting and sharing data about consumers without their explicit consent. The watchdogs also say the FCC should require providers to notify consumers about data breaches, and should require providers to "clearly disclose" data collection practices.

The groups also say the prospect of online surveillance "can create a chilling effect on speech and increase the potential for discriminatory practices derived from data use."

Wheeler has said he intends to propose new privacy rules, something the FCC is able to do because of its recent decision to reclassify Internet service providers as common carriers. That move subjected broadband providers to some of the same confidentiality requirements rules as telephone companies.

The commission currently advises broadband providers to follow the “core tenets of basic privacy protections” but has not yet enacted specific privacy regulations.

"The capital asset of the 21st century is information, and it ends up being information about you and me," Wheeler told talk show host Charlie Rose last November. "You and I ought to have a voice in the collection of information about us. Nothing about me without me, is what the expression is."

A coalition of consumer groups wants the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to keep broadband providers from serving targeted ads to subscribers.I...
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Ad blockers are as annoying to websites as ads are to consumers

Publishers and marketers are becoming apoplectic at the growth of ad-blockers

My internist is the ultimate geek. He has been lugging a MacBook from one exam room to another for years and is a pioneer at integrating software into every aspect of his medical practice.

So when I started a small community news site and offered him free ads for a year, he excitedly accepted. I designed and posted the ads but was puzzled when he didn't mention them on my next visit, even though he talked about other aspects of the site.

One day, he brought the site up on his laptop as we were discussing it and I realized why he hadn't seen his free ads: he was running an ad blocker. I said nothing but wondered how he would like it if I started running a payment blocker, something that would magically stop him from being paid for our visits. After all, how much does it take to give somebody a flu shot and lecture them about cigars?

This, on a much larger scale, is the dilemma now facing websites and their readers and advertisers. Websites, especially those that provide news and other content that is expensive to produce, need revenue. But readers are becoming fed up with the sheer number of ads and the obtrusive and noisy nature of many of them and are fighting back with ad blockers.

Survival threat -- or payback?

For sites already struggling to keep the lights on, this represents a real threat to their survival. But critics say sites have brought this on themselves by flooding their pages with huge pop-ups, auto-play videos and those follow-you-everywhere ads based on what Big Data thinks you're interested in.

Some sites are fighting back, installing software that blocks ad-block users. Others are putting together public relations and, yes, ad campaigns urging consumers to be a little more ad-receptive.

Ad-blocking is all anybody in the ad business is talking about these days. Last week, just in case you missed it, was Advertising Week, when the ad biz celebrates itself. But last week's conferences weren't quite as buoyant as usual, as advertisers and their agencies contemplated the prospect of consumers shutting them out.

Ideas bounced around just the way they do in the brain-storming sessions that produce the ads that fill our lives. Cries of, "better creative," "tighter targeting," and "ads people love" filled the air.

But AOL CEO Tim Armstrong shot down some of the more exuberant cries, berating his fellow media and ad execs for discussing the issue without any consumers in the room.

"Everyone is spending all their time talking about ad blocking right now," he said, AdAge reported. "Everyone should be spending all of their time talking about why consumers feel the need to block ads. ... Few things are more annoying than pop-ups on mobile."

Fox Networks Group President of Ad Sales Toby Byrne agreed and said publishers, marketers, and agencies should work to provide a "better ad experience."

Newspapers grouse

Newspapers, which used to complain constantly about such things as the cost of newsprint, now grouse bitterly about ad blockers, denouncing them as just another form of theft. This ignores the sad fact that many newspaper sites are so packed with ads and subscription come-ons that news-hungry readers are being driven away -- to Business Insider, the Huffington Post, Buzzfeed, and so forth.

Being a lifelong content producer, as we're now called, I have always eschewed ad blockers, regarding them basically as akin to stealing candy from babies. But duty calls, so a little while ago, I loaded a Google Chrome extension called AdBlock.

I hate to say this, but I should have done it years ago. Part of my daily drill involves looking at major newspaper sites, something that over the last few years has come to rival a dental visit. But today I whipped through five or six of the usual suspects in record time, even managing to look at a couple of Tribune and Gannett newspapers which have up until now been completely barricaded behind full-screen ad blitzes.

Not only are there fewer ads to sit through, the pages actually load like lightning, making it possible to see if there's anything worth reading before it makes the transition from news to history.

There's a lot more to this argument, and the giants of the Information Age are trying to figure out which side they're on. Consumers should do the same. Anyone who regularly reads, uses, or otherwise benefits from a site should be willing to look at a few ads or pay a few dollars.

But the reality is that, thanks to ad blockers, no one needs to voluntarily submit to a daily blizzard of ads that obscure the content and render the whole experience an exercise in frustration. It's up to publishers, advertisers, and marketers to figure out how to put out an appealing and profitable product.

Build it, as they old saying has it, and they will come.

My internist is the ultimate geek. He has been lugging a MacBook from one exam room to another for years and is a pioneer at integrating software into ever...
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Verizon buying AOL to beef up its digital content & advertising

Maybe grandpa will finally be able to cancel his AOL subscription?

Verizon is buying AOL for an estimated $4.4 billion, saying the purchase will help its efforts to "drive growth in video and digital platforms," subject to the usual regulatory approvals. AOL owns major content brands including The Huffington Post, TechCrunch, Engadget, MAKERS and AOL.com.

“Verizon’s vision is to provide customers with a premium digital experience based on a global multiscreen network platform," said Lowell McAdam, Verizon chairman and CEO. "This acquisition supports our strategy to provide a cross-screen connection for consumers, creators and advertisers to deliver that premium customer experience.”

AOL still makes much of its money by billing customers for dial-up servicers many consumers don't even know they still have. Others think the monthly charge is for AOL email, which is actually free. Those who discover the charges often have a difficult time trying to cancel.

A 2013 class action lawsuit accused AOL of ripping off non-tech-savvy seniors, citing the case of Harvey Dunn, then 76. He was still paying AOL for outmoded dial-up service, which he was no longer using since he had become a Time Warner client.

When Dunn saw the monthly $17.95 charges on his credit card bill, he didn't realize that AOL was charging him for content and email services it gave away free to others. 

Nearly obsolete

"AOL is well aware that the vast majority of its paying customers are not using its nearly obsolete 'dial-up' services, and misunderstand what they are paying for," the complaint stated. "AOL's technology allows it to easily tell which of its paying customers are using AOL's dial-up ISP services. AOL knows that plaintiff, and millions of other consumers have absolutely no use for their paid accounts, or AOL dial-up service they do not need and are not using."

It was recently estimated that 2.6 million Americans were still paying AOL for dial-up service. The company was something of a pioneer, introducing an easy-to-use Internet dial-up service in the 1990s. Its attempts to become an advertising-supported content provider have returned spotty results, apparently making AOL reluctant to turn its back on all those widows and orphans sending in their $20 or $30 each month.

If anyone thinks Verizon will be quick to release customers still stuck with its outmoded dial-up, McAdam's press release listed AOL's "subscription business" as among its "key assets."

Verizon says the acquisition will help drive its LTE wireless video and OTT (over-the-top video) strategy. The agreement will also support and connect to Verizon’s IoT (Internet of Things) platforms, creating a growth platform from wireless to IoT for consumers and businesses, the company said.

Verizon is buying AOL for an estimated $4.4 billion, saying the purchase will help its efforts to "drive growth in video and digital platforms," subject to...
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Mobility is key to surviving the next Google update

Web sites scramble to polish their mobile sites as the April 21 drop-dead date approaches

How often does this happen to you -- you type a search query into your smartphone, click on the first link and find yourself at a site that looks like a schematic of an anthill? You know -- tiny letters, paragraphs that run off the page, photos the size of a deer tick. 

It happens to everyone. A lot. And the reason is that way too many sites that rank highly on Google have for whatever reason not bothered to make their sites "mobile-friendly" -- a phrase that simply refers to having a separate format that automatically displays to users who are using a phone or small tablet.

It's hardly a secret that mobile devices are steadily replacing desktop and laptop computers, after all. You may not be aware of it but your browser communicates with every site you visit, passing along information about your operating system, browser and device, among many other things, so it's not as though the world's webmasters don't have access to the information.

Currently, it's reported that 29% -- nearly one-third -- of Google's search queries come from smartphones and tablets and the number is growing fast.

Why would a site not want to accommodate those visitors by presenting a layout that's easy to read and understand? Good question. While it's obviously a no-brainer for retail sites, the simple truth is that consumers aren't just using their phones and tablets when they're out and about, perhaps looking to duck in somewhere and buy something. They're using them at home, at work and at school as well. It's no longer unusual to watch television with one eye while nosing around on an iPhone with the other, so every kind of site needs to make itself mobile-friendly.

If you've muttered to yourself that someone should do something about this little annoyance, rest assured. Someone is and that someone is Google, a name that gets attention from web publishers everywhere.

Web aflutter

The web is all aflutter today because come April 21, Google will be making a major modification to its search algorithm. This is something that happens every now and then and is greeted with the awe and trepidation usually reserved for the unveiling of a new Apple product.

Earlier Google algorithm changes have resulted in many previously successful sites being shoved off the edge of the earth. Companies large and small have literally gone out of business in some extreme cases when they were banished from the first few pages of search results. 

Major changes over the past few years have been aimed at eradicating sites that trafficked in stolen content or played games with keywords, hoping to lure visitors who were looking for topic Y only to find a site that instead specialized in topic X. Or even XXX.

The change now pending could be even more far-reaching. It is intended to recognize -- and reward -- sites that are optimized for mobile users. In other words, if your site looks good on an iPhone or other mobile device, it will be more likely to rank highly in Google's index. If not, well ... you can always get a job driving for Uber.

Google takes heat for some of its ventures but no one can say it doesn't try to stay ahead of trends on the web. While those who lose out in the algorithm upgrades are understandably critical, there's general agreement among experts that Google does its best to deliver honest, useful results and that its algorithm adjustments are made with the consumer's best interests in mind.

So the results come April 21 should be mostly good for consumers, even though they're likely to take a big bite out of the traffic totals for many sites that have failed to look out for mobile users.

Smaller sites

For smaller sites that use WordPress and other popular content management tools, it's not that hard to get into the mobile era, experts assure us. To test this theory, I went to one of the small community sites I manage and ran Google's mobile test and found my site did about as well as I did the summer I took intensive Russian. Flunked, in other words.

Ah, but salvation sometimes is easy for little guys. I loaded a small plug-in (free, open source) called WPtouch Mobile, activated it and ran the test again, with much better results. If you have a small site, you should do the same. If your site is built in what webmasters call "flat HTML," you may have to do a little more work but it's not all that difficult. Easy-to-use programs are available from comanies like CoffeeCup. That's the good news. 

233 big bad sites

The bad news is that for a large site, becoming mobile-friendly is no simple task. You could just as easily invent a new and improved version of the aardvark as totally rework a site that sprawls over thousands and thousands of pages and has all kinds of complex interactive elements.

Big sites that have retooled for mobile users have spent months and hundreds of thousands of dollars, if not more, trying to prepare for April 21, a date that is now circled in very thick red ink on web developers' calendars.

Not all big sites are going to make the deadline, however. Some are working feverishly but others appear to be asleep at the switch, a ConsumerAffairs survey found.  

We looked at the top 1500 sites, as determined by Quantcast, and found that fully 233 did not pass. Among the flunk-outs were 8 sites in the top 100, including MSN.com.

Perhaps because they are not as plugged into audience statistics and generally don't sell advertising, .org sites seemed to be over-represented in the no-pass list, including PBS.org and ConsumerReports.org. 

But other no-shows were a bit more puzzling. They included RollingStone.com, which has recently flunked a couple of other tests we could mention. (At the last minute, RollingStone completed an upgrade and now passes Google's test). 

And then there are the .gov sites. Flunk-outs include irs.gov, weather.gov, nih.gov and senate.gov. It's perhaps not a surprise that many of them didn't make the grade. Given the speed at which government moves, it may very well be that efforts to upgrade mobile readability are just about to get started after a few more studies and may even begin to show results in a few more fiscal years, which would probably be considered -- as the old saying has it -- good enough for government work. 

What about the states? Same story: va.gov and wa.gov lead the no-shows with many trailing behind.

So what?

What does this mean to Joe and Jill Consumer? Maybe not much in the abstract but in terms of the Google searches we all rely on for day-to-day tasks, it may very well mean that some familiar sites no longer pop up where we expect them. The next logical conclusion is that some sites we may not know about will get their chance to rise to the top and may turn out to be not only more user-friendly but much more useful all around.

After all, a site that pays attention to its technology to make sure it delivers the most useful possible product to its visitors probably pays attention to the other parts of its business as well.  

Those who criticize Google for gobbling up so much of the known universe may want to pause and be thankful that, unlike other companies that grab a big share of the market, it at least keeps stirring the barrel, keeping things frothy and fresh rather than stable and stale.

Despite the discomfort it causes webmasters, it should make life easier for consumers. 

IRS.gov How often does this happen to you -- you type a search query into your smartphone, click on the first link and find yourself at a site that ...
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Revenge porn site banned by feds

Women were forced to pay hundreds of dollars to have their images taken down

The operator of an alleged “revenge porn” website has been banned from sharing nude videos or photographs of people without their consent and will have to destroy the intimate images and personal contact information he collected while operating the site.

The Federal Trade Commission’s complaint against Craig Brittain alleges that he used deception to acquire and post intimate images of women, then referred them to another website he controlled, where the women were told they could have the pictures removed only if they paid hundreds of dollars.

“This behavior is not only illegal but reprehensible,” said Jessica Rich, director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection. “I am pleased that as a result of this settlement, the illegally collected images and information will be deleted, and this individual can never return to the so-called ‘revenge porn’ business.”

According to the FTC’s complaint, Brittain acquired the images in a number of ways, such as by posing as a woman on the advertising site Craigslist, and offering nude photos purportedly of himself in exchange for photos provided by women. When women provided him with the photos, Brittain posted them on his site without their knowledge or permission.

In addition to collecting and posting the images himself, Brittain solicited viewers of his site to anonymously submit nude photos of people to his site, according to the complaint. He required submissions to include sensitive personal information about the people in the photos, including their full name, town and state, phone number and Facebook profile.

Bounty system

Brittain also allegedly offered a “bounty system” on his site, wherein users could offer a reward of at least $100 in exchange for other users finding pictures and information about a specific person. Overall, Brittain’s site included photos of more than 1,000 individuals, according to the complaint.

Brittain’s site also advertised content removal services under the name “Takedown Hammer” and “Takedown Lawyer” that could delete consumers’ images and content from the site in exchange for a payment of $200 to $500. Despite presenting these as third-party services, the complaint alleges that the sites for these services were owned and operated by Brittain.

The operator of an alleged “revenge porn” website has been banned from sharing nude videos or photographs of people without their consent and will have to ...
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Google turns tables, sues an attorney general

Mississippi AG calls a truce after Google accuses him of selling out to Hollywood

We've all read a lot of stories about attorneys general suing big Internet companies but when's the last time you read a story about a big Internet company suing an attorney general?

It's odd but that's what's happened in the ongoing scuffle between Google and the attorney general of Mississippi, Jim Hood (no relation to the author of this story).

Hood has been a leading critic of Google and, along with AGs from other states, has persuaded Google to block at least some search queries for child porn and to stop carrying ads for illegal drugs. But Hood says more needs to be done and he and 23 other AGs have written letters over the last year requesting meetings with Google. Stymied by a lack of positive response, Hood issued a 96-page subpoena asking Google to produce various documents.

Google did produce some documents, although Hood says they were so jumbled as to be useless, but it also filed suit against Hood in a Mississippi federal court accusing him of conspiring with the movie industry.

Cloak-and-dagger

How, you might ask, do movies come into it? Well, Google contends that powerful movie industry lobbyists have been using Hood to bring pressure on Google to make it harder for consumers to find pirated movies and other contraband on the Web.

Hood was supposedly being influenced by a former Mississippi attorney general who is now a lobbyist for the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), according to a recent report in The New York Times. 

But Hood says he was merely trying to protect consumers in his state from child sex trafficking, illicit drug use and other evils, and says Google is using the recent Sony hacking scandal to draw an overblown picture of influence-peddling in the entertainment business.

"Feeling emboldened with its billions of dollars, media prowess and political power, some of [Google's] more excitable people have sued trying to stop the State of Mississippi for daring to ask some questions," Hood said in a prepared statement. "We expect more from one of the wealthiest corporations in the world."

Besides its allegations of cloak-and-dagger activities, Google argues in the suit that Mississippi and other states do not have jurisdiction over the Internet. Hood says he and the other AGs are simply trying to enforce their states' consumer protection laws.

Hood has now called a "time-out," saying he hopes that cooler heads prevail. But whether Google will withdraw the suit remains a question. 

We've all read a lot of stories about attorneys general suing big Internet companies but when's the last time you read a story about a big Internet company...
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Adobe issues critical new Flash security update

Whether you use Windows, Mac or Linux, you need this patch right away

Time to update your Adobe Flash Player, right now: Adobe has issued new patches, the second this month, to fix critical security errors in Flash for Windows, Mac and Linux. This patch is being released outside of Adobe's usual security update cycle, since the previous patch didn't quite fix the problem — or, rather, since hackers were able to quickly develop new ways to work around the patch.

Sophos' Naked Security blog referred to this latest security patch update as a “booster dose” for the previous one. Sophos also went so far as to advise its readers to “Try uninstalling Flash to see if you can live without it. As this incident reveals, Flash is popular with crooks, who put plenty of effort into working out how to exploit it.”

But if you keep Flash installed, try changing your browser settings to require the “click-to-play” or “Ask-to-activate” option, which requires your permission every time before Flash runs on your computer.

And definitely check to make sure you get this patch, although most Adobe users have Flash set to update automatically.

Time to update your Adobe Flash Player, right now: Adobe has issued new patches, the second this month, to fix critical security errors in Flash for Window...
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Newly discovered comment security bug affects 86% of WordPress blogs

Even if you only read blogs without commenting, you need to be wary of this

Bad news for bloggers as well as their readers: IT researchers in Finland recently discovered a four-year-old comment security bug estimated to affect up to 86 percent of all current WordPress sites.

Finnish IT firm Klikki Oy announced on its own blog that it

has located a critical security vulnerability in WordPress. The problem affects version 3 of the blogging and content management system. According to WordPress's statistics as of November 20, about 86% of all WordPress sites used a vulnerable version. At the time of reporting (September 2014), the percentage was about 90%. In order to exploit the vulnerability, the attacker needs a text entry field such as the comment form which is enabled by default.

WordPress 3 was first introduced in 2010; according to Klikki Oy, the security bug has been present all that time.

By the way, while WordPress was created as a blogging platform -- you know, for people who work at home in their pajamas -- it has since become by far the most widely used content management system anywhere. It users include CNN, eBay, the Guardian and just about everyone else, so don't assume you never visit WordPress sites.

What it means

As a practical matter, what does this mean for blog readers or producers? Blogs that don't allow comments – those with no text entry fields, in other words – basically have nothing to worry about, even if they use WordPress 3. Klikki Oy clarifies that, “The exploit requires a text entry field. A site using a vulnerable version isn't always exploitable.”

As for those blogs which are vulnerable … that's a different matter. If your WordPress 3 blog (or even a blog you occasionally visit and read, whether you leave comments or not) allows the posting of comments without requiring authentication, then a hacker can post a comment containing malicious code targeting any site visitors or administrators.

Klikki Oy was also able to use the exploit to successfully hijack a WordPress site administrator's session – a hacker could then have used that ability to lock the administrator out of his own site, and use it for malicious purposes of his own.

Blogs powered by WordPress version 4.0, released in September, are not vulnerable to this comment bug. However, late last week WordPress released a security update for 4.0, to fix some unrelated cross-site scripting problems.

Bad news for bloggers as well as their readers: IT researchers in Finland recently discovered a four-year-old comment security bug estimated to affect up t...
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Changes coming to Firefox: Yahoo search, and Do Not Track

Google to lose ten-year-old default search status next month

Starting next month, Mozilla and Yahoo will both be implementing some changes to their respective business models: Mozilla will abandon Google in favor of making Yahoo the default search engine on its Firefox browser, and Yahoo will start honoring some of its customers' Do Not Track requests for a change.

Mozilla first made this announcement in a Nov. 19 post on the Mozilla Blog, noting that “Search is a core part of the online experience for everyone — Firefox users alone search the Web more than 100 billion times per year. … Google has been the Firefox global search default since 2004. Our agreement came up for renewal this year, and we took this as an opportunity to review our competitive strategy and explore our options.”

For now, any Firefox browser comes equipped with a Google search window (usually in the upper-right corner of the toolbar). Of course, any Firefox user is free to that setting, so that the search window instead goes to Bing, DuckDuckGo, or other options. Starting sometime in December, the default will change from Google to Yahoo Search, powered by Bing – though, again, Firefox users will have the option to change those default settings if they wish.

Mozilla added that “Under this partnership, Yahoo will also support Do Not Track (DNT) in Firefox.”

That is a significant change from Yahoo's previous policy. Last April, Yahoo made a point of announcing that it wouldn't even allow Do Not Track requests to be made — which, arguably, was a better (or at least more honest) policy than what it had before: allowing Do Not Track requests, then ignoring them.

Not that Yahoo was or is unique in that regard: most browsers that accept “Do Not Track” requests tend to ignore them. Google Chrome's Do Not Track Page, last updated in October 2012, says this:

Does Chrome provide details of which websites and web services respect Do Not Track requests and how they interpret them?

No. At this time, most web services, including Google's, do not alter their behavior or change their services upon receiving Do Not Track requests.

"Personalized experience"

So in April, when the “Yahoo Privacy Team” updated Yahoo's policy blog, it boasted about making “a personalized experience” for users: “As of today, web browser Do Not Track settings will no longer be enabled on Yahoo. As the first major tech company to implement Do Not Track, we’ve been at the heart of conversations surrounding how to develop the most user-friendly standard. However, we have yet to see a single standard emerge that is effective, easy to use and has been adopted by the broader tech industry. … The privacy of our users is and will continue to be a top priority for us.”

So what happened to change Yahoo's mind about Do Not Track since then? The Do Not Track initiative thus far has (unsurprisingly) proven spectacularly unpopular with advertisers, presumably because they figure that the more data they have on you, the greater their chances of making money thereby.

Last June, an ad-industry trade group called the Digital Advertising Alliance urged a web-standards group to abandon their Do Not Track efforts, for fear that ordinary web users like you and me might be tricked into inadvertently having our online activities not-tracked when we'd actually prefer everything we do be tracked non-stop, or something:

Microsoft, for one, now turns on the do-not-track signal automatically for some Internet Explorer users.

The ad industry says that do-not-track signals set by default don't reflect a user's preference to avoid tracking across Web sites. But the industry also says there's no good way to distinguish between a signal set by a user and one set by a developer.

So, as of last summer, Microsoft's policy set it apart from such companies as Google and Yahoo: they wouldn't honor Do Not Track requests even when they received them, whereas Microsoft made Do Not Track a default setting.

Fast-forward to this month and Mozilla's upcoming changes to its Firefox browser: the Yahoo Search function coming to Firefox is powered by Microsoft Bing. Will Yahoo henceforth honor Do Not Track thanks to a newfound appreciation for user privacy, because they can't avoid it with Microsoft, or for some other reason?

She's inspired

Yahoo CEO Marissa Meyer didn't say one way or other, in her blog post trumpeting the new arrangement between Yahoo and Mozilla, Meyer made no mention of privacy or Do Not Track, but discussed how the new arrangement was sure to be wonderful for Mozilla, Yahoo and all customers thereof, and added:

Our teams worked closely with Mozilla to build a clean, modern, and immersive search experience that will launch first to Firefox’s U.S. users in December and then to all Yahoo users in early 2015. The interactive and integrated experience also better leverages our world-class content and personalization technologies.

Search inspires us because we think it’s something that will change and improve dramatically, and because fundamentally, search is about human curiosity — and that is something that will never be finished.

Starting next month, Mozilla and Yahoo will both be implementing some changes to their respective business models: Mozilla will abandon Google in favor of ...
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Use caution when searching Internet for weight-loss advice

Don't just click on the first link

When 2015 arrives in a few weeks millions of Americans will resolve to lose weight. What will be their first step in planning a strategy?

For many it will be sitting down at their computer and using a search engine to find the best weight loss programs. But it may surprise them to learn that to get the best advice, they need to go beyond the first few results that pop up.

A study appearing in the American Journal of Public Health shows that when using a common search engine like Google, the first page of results on the subject of diet and exercise is likely to display what the authors call “less reliable sites,” instead of more comprehensive one. Further, the results may contain sponsored content that makes unrealistic weight loss promises.

The research started from a personal observation. François Modave, chair of the Department of Computer Science at Jackson State University, led the study after hearing friends and family spout information they got from the Internet – information he knew to be hokum.

It didn't take long to put 2 and 2 together, since he knew the first links that appear in an Internet search, no matter what the topic, get nearly 90% of all clicks.

Putting it to the test

We decided to put Modave's observation to the test. Using Google, we entered “weight loss programs” in the search field.

The first three results were clearly marked as advertisements. The first non-sponsored link was for Dr. Oz's 2-Week Rapid Weight-Loss Plan Instructions, perhaps not the most authoritative source. Next was an article in US News about The Best Weight-Loss Diets. That was followed by Nutrisystem's corporate website.

The fourth entry was Healthy Weight Loss, a page on the National Institutes of Health's (NIH) website.

When we conducted the same search using Bing, there were no government health websites or independent medical authorities among the first page of search results.

Note to government webmasters

The researchers say federal agencies, academic institutions and medical organizations need to work a lot harder at search engine optimization (SEO) to get their links on top of searches.

Until that happens, Modave says it's up to consumers to be more critical when doing online searches for important health information.

In 2012, Modave and his team looked at 103 websites for questions about weight loss and rated the content based on available evidence-based guidelines for weight loss.

They found medical, government and university sites ranked highest, along with blogs. They also found a lot of dubious information. Most of the websites couldn't manage a score above 50%.

Additional research

And it's not just weight loss where an Internet search can present you with some less-than-objective information. As we reported earlier this year, researchers at the University of Florida (UF) found overall health information obtained online was not only lacking in quality, but could be hazardous.

The UF researchers made an interesting discovery. The broader the search topic, the more reliable the web sites in the search chain. For example, “ear infections” linked to reputable sources higher in the list than a highly specific topic, such as “vaccines for newborns.”

The takeaway? It's similar to what the Jackson State study concludes.

“Based on these results, health consumers and patients may feel assured that they can find some high-quality health information when using a search engine,” said study co-author Christopher A. Harle. “However, consumers and patients should know that searches for some health topics, such as nutrition or fitness, may result in more information that is potentially lower quality.”

When 2015 arrives in a few weeks millions of Americans will resolve to lose weight. What will be their first step in planning a strategy?...
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Cats crusade against cybercensorship

Pussy Cat Riot protests censor of the Internet by China, Russia

Who can hear better than a dog? Why, a cat of course. Dog owners might not like hearing that but facts are facts -- cats have Bose speakers when it comes to hearing.

Those little pointy ears can detect a larger range of sounds than most ever thought -- a not too shabby 11 octaves, to be precise, which is two octaves more than a human, and one octave more than a dog.

Cats need supersonic ears so they can hear a mouse when he comes around or a bird lands nearby and starts scratching a log. It's all in the name of being a hunter. If you watch a cat you can see him listening when his body is quite still and you see only his ears move back and forth.

Very cool cats

This past week some very cool cats were given the treat of listening to music that human ears could not hear with shrill, high-frequency cat-only versions of Jay-Z, BackStreet Boys and the "Back to the Future" soundtrack.

The cats seem to like it but if you have ever had a cat, you know that they aren't big on being exuberant so not a ton of emotion was displayed. The piano that they heard it on was built so humans could hear the sounds as well but the cats were listening via the cat mode -- rocking out to the ultra-high frequencies.

The keyboard for cats was made as part of the viral protest called  “The Pussycat Riot.” The protest, known also as #ThePussycatRiot on social media, is part of a campaign against countries such as Russia and China that censor the internet.

"It is imperative we recognise and challenge the powers that restrict not only the public’s access to the simple joy of funny cat content, but to information as a whole," their website says, continuing: 

Freedom is knowledge. Knowledge is power. Cats know everything.
From the very heart of the Internet we raise our banner with #ThePussycatRiot: a new protest movement to unite the cats of the world and their owners in opposition to cyber censorship. We aim to raise awareness of the oppressive regimes preventing people from freely enjoying the boundless wealth of mankind’s innovation and creativity... And cat videos."

Who doesn't love a good cat protest?

Who can hear better than a dog? Why, a cat of course. Dog owners might not like hearing that but facts are facts -- cats have Bose speakers when it comes t...
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Are consumers relying too much on YouTube?

British survey finds 7% would try to rewire their house with YouTube's help

If you need to learn how to do something, chances are you can find more than one video on YouTube to walk you through it.

The Google-owned video service has nearly 3 million instructional videos – some from professional sources and some from amateurs. And therein lies the problem, say the professionals.

If the amateur is knowledgeable, experienced and knows what they are doing, chances are their instructional video will be very helpful. But if they are not, you could get into trouble by following its advice.

The problem is knowing the difference – and there is no way to really know until you follow their advice.

Lots of do-it-yourselfers in the UK

In the UK, Electrical Safety First, an electricity safety non-profit education group, conducted a survey to ask people if they would use a YouTube video to perform a home improvement project themselves. It found more than half said they would.

In the area of electrical do-it-yourself jobs, the survey found that 39% of homeowners would consult YouTube to rewire a small appliance while 34% would use a YouTube tutorial to rewire a light fixture. Incredibly it found 7% said they would try to rewire an entire house with YouTube's assistance.

All of this worries Electrical Safety First, which says the availability of online instructions may be putting people at risk. For example, fitting a new bathroom or rewiring a house are complicated tasks that should be carried out by qualified, licensed experts.

1 in 16 cause significant damage

The group claims that 1 in 16 people have caused significant damage to their property or have had to pay for costly repairs because of botched DIY after following advice found online.

“The Internet is a fantastic resource and the new generation of YouTube DIYers shows just how much we have come to rely on it,” said Emma Apter, spokeswoman for Electrical Safety First. “But there’s only so much online videos and tips can tell you and not everyone will have the knowledge or experience to carry out more complicated tasks. Ask yourself: ‘If I have to Google this, should I really be doing it?’ If in doubt, get a professional in – it could save you a lot of time and money in the long run.”

Health misinformation?

Consumers might run into the same problem if they rely too much on YouTube for information about their health. Researcher writing in the October issue of Emergency Medicine Australiasia investigated the accuracy of YouTube videos on CPR, checking them against the 2010 CPR guidelines.

It concluded that the majority of YouTube video clips purporting to be about CPR are not relevant educational material. Of those that are focused on teaching CPR, only a small minority optimally meet the 2010 guidelines, the study found.

That's not to say there isn't reliable, relevant information on the Internet. The trouble is finding it.

Medical researchers at Johns Hopkins say you will get better results if you restrict your search. Instead of searching the topic on YouTube, start your search at a reputable health data site – such as Johns Hopkins Medicine Health Library.

If you need to learn how to do something, chances are you can find more than one video on YouTube to walk you through it....
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Marriott blocked customers' personal wi-fi to sell its own Internet access

Company to pay $600,000 in FCC fines; $0 in customer refunds

Marriott has been fined $600,000 for violating the Communications Act of 1934 (section 333 of which forbids “willful or malicious interference” with radio communications signals), the Federal Communications Commission announced.

What did Marriott do wrong?

By the company's own admission, its employees at the Gaylord Opryland Hotel and Convention Center in Nashville deliberately disabled customers' personal mobile wi-fi hotspots, so that anyone wishing to connect to the Internet would have to pay to use Marriott's network — and exhibitors at the conference facility say Marriott charged them anywhere from $250 to $1,000 per device for that connection.

In addition to paying the fine, Marriott agreed to stop blocking personal wi-fi networks, and must submit a compliance plan and agree to FCC inspections every three months.

There was no mention of Marriott having to refund any actual convention-goers or hotel guests who paid up to $1,000 for use of Marriott's connection after their own wi-fi ability was illegally disabled.

Marriott has been fined $600,000 for violating the Communications Act of 1934 (section 333 of which forbids “willful or malicious interference” with radio ...
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Is the Internet broken?

Maybe “Internet security” is bad because it was never intended to exist

You can't go a week anymore without hearing news of yet another massive computer-security breach.

Sometimes it's a business-specific hacking: “Everyone's at risk who used a credit or debit card to make payment at a given restaurant, retailer or service provider in the past year or so.”

Sometimes it's a bank-specific hacking: “All clients of this particular financial institution are at risk.”

Then there's the healthcare hackings: “Beware if you sought treatment from any hospital, physician or medical center in this network.”

And the government hackings: “This state's licensed drivers are at risk after hackers broke into the DMV database.” “That state's income taxpayers are at risk.”

Car insurance or security companies have started putting out lists of which makes and models of automobiles are at the greatest risk of hackers hijacking their vital control systems. And as people equip their homes with Internet-connected “smart” devices, they risk hackers taking control of everything from their baby monitors to their HVAC systems.

Global risks

In addition to these relatively “localized” computer-security problems, there's also the occasional gigantic security flaws affecting the entire Internet: the “Heartbleed” open-source security flaw discovered last April put almost every password-protected online account at risk. The current “Shellshock” flaw discovered last week in software widely used in UNIX, Linux and Mac OS X systems can apparently let hackers take control of any computer that visits a compromised website.

Of course, there are certainly ways you can reduce your vulnerability to some online security flaws – I for one pay with cash in lieu of credit card anytime I can (though as a practical matter, credit cards are mandatory if you want to go on vacation: renting a hotel room or a car is impossible without one). This cash-only policy is partly to avoid the temptation of spending/charging more than I should, but mainly so I needn't bother getting a new credit card every week after my last one got compromised in the database hacking du jour.

But unless you completely drop out of modern mainstream society, staying out of all hackable databases simply isn't possible: if you hold a job, pay taxes, have a driver's license or visit a doctor, your personal information is at risk.

Can't patch the holes?

And if you're old enough to have adult, or at least teenage, memories of life before the Internet, you might occasionally grow frustrated enough to wonder: how did we reach the point where pretty much our entire system of business, finance and government is reliant on this constantly insecure network? Can't we patch these security holes, and fix the Internet?

Jose Pagliary, writing about “the cybercrime economy” for CNN, suggests the answer to that last question is “no.” Or maybe it's even the wrong question: these massive security flaws aren't a sign that the Internet is broken, so much as an indication the Internet is being used for purposes it was never intended to serve. As Pagliary said (bold print from the original):

The Internet was never meant for this. We use the Internet for banking, business, education and national defense. These things require privacy and the assurance that you are actually who you say you are.

The Internet, as it was designed, offers neither. When the Worldwide Web was built 25 years ago, it existed as a channel for physicists to pass research back and forth. It was a small, closed community. The scientists at Stanford trusted the researchers at the University of California - Los Angeles.

In other words: the whole point of the Internet was originally about making it easier to share information – remember the “information superhighway?” – whereas for modern “online security” concerns, the point is to prevent unauthorized sharing (read: “theft”) of information.

You can make it easier to share something, or you can make that something harder to steal – but try accomplishing both tasks at once, with the same tool, and you've got a problem. And that, in a nutshell, is what's wrong with “Internet security.”

Pagliary notes:

In 2014, it's still standard to send Internet communication in plain text. Anyone could tap into a connection and observe what you're saying. Engineers developed HTTPS nearly 20 years ago to protect conversations by encrypting them -- but major email providers and social media sites are only now enabling this. And sites like Instagram and Reddit still don't use it by default.

Not everyone favors privacy

One problem Pagliary does not mention: in a post-Edward Snowden world, where it's common knowledge that the NSA engages in warrantless monitoring of pretty much all American electronic communications, some members of the American government actively oppose certain forms of Internet security.

When Apple bragged last month about the secure encryption it uses on it iPhone 6, for example, FBI director James Comey said he was “very concerned” about what he considers “companies marketing something expressly to allow people to place themselves beyond the law.”

Yet even assuming encrypted communications win out over law enforcement's desire to read communications at will, that alone wouldn't be enough to make the Internet “secure,” thanks to problems not just in the software itself, but in the very culture that creates it.

Pagliary said “software is a hodgepodge of flawed Lego blocks. The big, ugly secret in the world of computer science is that developers don't check their apps closely enough for bugs. ”

Even professional developers – those getting paid for their efforts – don't have time to properly vet their software, in the fast-paced world of computer and Internet technology where anything more than a few years old is most likely obsolete. Pagliary notes that the problem's even worse with open-source software (like Linux) made and maintained mostly by unpaid volunteers:

Sometimes, that flawed code becomes widespread. Most of the world relies on open-source software that's built to be shared and maintained by volunteers and used by everyone -- startups, banks, even governments.

There's an illusion of safety. The thinking goes: So many engineers see the code, they're bound to find bugs. Therefore, open-source software is safe, even if no one is directly responsible for reviewing it.

Nope. Last week's shellshock bug is the perfect example of that flawed thinking. Bash, a program so popular it's been placed on millions of machines worldwide, was found to have a fatal flaw that's more than 20 years old.

So what do we do? We live in a modern society where our allegedly confidential and secure data is stored in and shared by an inherently insecure system – yet abandoning the Internet clearly isn't a feasible option (and few would want to try it, anyway). How do we leave the corner we've painted ourselves into?

Maybe we can't. Pagliary ended his piece with a quote by Scott Hanselman, a programmer and former college professor living in Oregon, who made this analogy: “It's not Toyota having a recall. It's like tires as a concept have been recalled and someone says, 'Holy crap, tires?! We've been using tires for years!' It's that level of bad.”

You can't go a week anymore without hearing news of yet another massive computer-security breach....
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Smart email app acts as your assistant

Inky is a free app that manages your mail

Social media may now provide the favorite way to communicate but email – boring old email – remains indispensable for most people. So when someone comes along and says they've improved email, people tend to listen – albeit with some skepticism.

But Dave Baggett, who studied computational linguistics at MIT in the 1990s, has been turning heads in the tech world lately with his new email app, Inky. Baggett, co-founder of software start-up Arcode, wanted to produce an email client that did more to help consumers manage their email – especially consumers who have multiple email accounts.

The result is a free and eye-pleasing program that pulls all of your email accounts into one place.

Streamlined

“We've made it much more streamlined compared to something like Outlook,” Baggett told ConsumerAffairs. “With Outlook there's a hundred controls on the screen. We tried to boil that down to a small set of controls that are intuitive but retain all the power.”

To do that Inky has to be a little different. It has to think and make decisions.

“My background is all about trying to extract information from text,” Baggett said. “I wanted to make a mail system that would understand your mail. It knows what your mail is about, instead of being a passive observer.”

All sorts of emails come in on a daily basis. There may be a daily deal. You may be on the distribution list for a dozen newsletters. Some of these messages are more important than others.

Sorts by relevance

One of Inky's tasks is to sort through all these messages and make sure the important ones – emails from your boss or spouse – don't get overlooked.

A shipping confirmation may come in from Amazon, with a tracking number. You're busy, so Inky retrieves the tracking number and figures out the location of the package.

“That smartness is what I think is the underpinning of email 2.0,” he said. “We certainly won't be the only ones that do this, but I think we're at the leading edge of this, the way I think email is going to work.”

Inky is currently available for Windows desktop and Mac OS X. The mobile app is limited to the iPhone but an android version is planned for release before the end of the summer.

Simple set-up

To use it you simply download the app to your device and start entering your email addresses. Consumers who have multiple email addresses know that can sometimes be a cumbersome process with a smartphone.

With Inky, you just enter the email address and the password. It does the rest.

“We put a bunch of work into figuring out how to automatically connect to your account, just from your email address and password,” Baggett said. “You'll see other clients do that for the major ones, like Gmail, but not for email addresses from Godaddy. I wanted to make it so that it was 2 pieces of information, you type them in, and it connects.”

Privacy

Baggett said he built the system around privacy. He set out to make Inky different from other email apps and program, which he says store consumers' email on servers.

“That means their employees can read your mail,” he said. “They'll tell you they don't read your mail and they have safeguards, but they still can. And of course, law enforcement can get to it that way too.”

As Baggett explains it, Inky simply downloads your mail to your device. It doesn't get in the middle of the connection between your device and your mail server.

“Your mail never touches our network,” he said. “We have no ability to read it.”

Baggett thinks privacy is something consumers should care about. But even in the wake of revelations of NSA snooping, he thinks he may be a little ahead of the curve.

“I'm not sure this emphasis on privacy matters to people yet but I believe that someday it will,” Baggett said. “I don't see share moving because of privacy issues. I don't see people moving off Gmail because of privacy concerns. But I wonder if one day it'll start to shift.”

Social media may now provide the favorite way to communicate but email – boring email – remains indispensable for most people. So when someone ...
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A short cut through companies' terms of service agreements

Website offers Cliff Notes version of these wordy documents

Last week we reported on non-disparagement clauses many companies are now slipping into their wordy terms of service agreements. Our piece highlights the importance of reading these documents when making an online transaction.

But who has the time to wade through all that legalese? And sometimes it might take a legal mind to even understand what it means.

Fortunately, some brave soul has volunteered to do it for the rest of us. The website TOSDR.org – which stands for Terms of Service – Didn't Read – has reviewed terms of service agreements for social media sites like Twitter and Facebook, as well as a host of sites that sell products and services.

Cutting to the chase, it reviews each of these sites' terms of service agreements and, in bullet point form, gives consumers a thumbs up or thumbs down review of the most important clauses.

Rating the sites

For example, Google's terms of service agreement gets an overall “C” rating. But among the important points, TOSDR.org gives all “thumbs down” ratings.

It notes that Google keeps your searches and other identifiable user information for an indefinite period of time. That's changing in Europe, however, as Google has responded to a European Union edict by deleting search data under the EU's Right To Be Forgotten law.

Other negative factors include Google's use of your content for all existing and future services, its tracking your movements on other websites and its sharing of your personal information with third parties.

Oh yes, if a government agency asks Google for your data, it doesn't have to tell you.

YouTube, owned by Google, earns a “D” rating. TOSDR.org lists five points it sees as negatives.

The terms can change with no notice; YouTube may remove your content without telling you; the copyright license is overly broad; the legal period for cause of action has been reduced; and deleted videos aren't really deleted.

Things earning a positive rating

Earning a “B” rating, meanwhile, is SoundCloud. a streaming audio service. It wins a “thumbs up” for allowing you to stay in control of your copyright; collected personal data is only used for limited purposes; and when changes to the agreement are made, you have 6 weeks to review them.

What about big retail sites? Amazon, for instance, hasn't been assigned a letter grade yet but does have five “thumbs down” notations. Terms can change with no notice; Amazon tracks you on other websites; it enables advertisers to target you by default; it won't promise to tell you if a government agency asks for your data; and provides no transparency on law enforcement requests.

While these bullet points might prove helpful in assessing whether you want to do business on a particular website, it should be noted that they are simply opinions – what TOSDR.org has gleaned from reading these sites' terms of service agreements.

Consumers, of course, should read the terms of service agreement for themselves. But TOSDR.org's Cliff Notes version is probably not a bad place to start.

Last week we reported on non-disparagement clauses many companies are now slipping into their wordy terms of service agreements. Our piece highlights the i...
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Grams: an illegal-item search engine for the Internet's evil twin

Touted as the first search engine for the Dark Net

Not that you'd have any use for such a service, but a developer has created a search engine for illegal items — like Google, only for the black market.

Grams is not affiliated with Google although they look similar, with the same multicolored font against a plain white background.

The other difference is that Google searches the mainstream Internet whereas Grams searches the Dark Net, which might be described as the Internet's secret evil twin — though not particularly well-known in mainstream circles, it's been around since the World Wide Web was still ARPANET, and you can't even log on to the Dark Net unless your computer's outfitted with anonymizing software.

Once you're on the Dark Net it's still hard to find anything, since the web addresses change all the time (if you're running an illegal market, you don't want to stay in one place for too long). Hence, Grams the search engine.

When the developer discussed Grams on his (or her?) blog, the sample screenshot showed search results for MDMA, the illegal drug also known as ecstasy. That was a clever PR move on behalf of Grams' developer — after all, though MDMA is undeniably illegal under U.S. law, there are many who believe “Taking MDMA (or other illicit drugs) is a victimless crime, and should therefore be legal.” From that perspective, a presumably secret search engine like Grams strikes a blow for liberty, in the “help evade unjust laws” sense of the word.

Problem is that apparently, Grams can also be used to commit crimes with genuine victims — such as, searching for stolen credit card numbers to commit identity theft.

Media outlets ranging from SFGate to Ars Technica listed stolen card numbers among the types of items Grams can help you find.

That said, it's not certain if Grams will last, as it might be illegal in two different ways: one, for helping to facilitate illegal activities and two, for using a style and color scheme that's an obvious ripoff of Google's.

A developer has created a search engine for illegal items—like Google, only for the black market....
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Overcoming the uncanny valley to catch a pedophile

Dutch non-profit animates a 10-year-old “Sweetie” as bait

Technology is all too often used by pedophiles and those who cater to them. Now a Dutch non-profit has turned the tables and is putting technology to work stopping pedophila.

Computer animation experts working for the Terre des Hommes International Foundation (“For children, their rights and equitable development,” according to its website) have managed to overcome the “uncanny valley” and create a CGI avatar good enough to fool webcam-watching pedophiles.

The avatar, named Sweetie, looks like many young Filipinas recruited to the sex trade. Appearing to be just 10 years old, she spends her days online fielding offers to perform sex acts online. 

“Sweetie” had 20,000 visitors during the eight weeks she spent online last year. Luckily, she wasn't a real little girl forced to perform on camera for paying pedophiles, but a computer-generated avatar created by Terre des Hommes, and controlled by researchers in an Amsterdam warehouse.

During the initial interactions, the researchers gathered information about the predators through social media to uncover their identities. Online contact was cut off before any simulated sexual acts were performed.

Worldwide campaign

Sweetie is part of Terre Des Hommes' campaign to stop webcam child sex tourism, which it calls a “quickly spreading new form of child exploitation that has got tens of thousands victims involved in the Philippines alone.”

TdHIF's website also includes an eight-minute video discussing the child webcam sex industry and Sweetie's part in fighting it (the video contains no sexually explicit content but you might want to avoid watching it at work anyway, as certain parts of it could sound incriminating if overheard out of context).

Of course, Terre des Hommes is hardly the only group working to combat child pornography on the Internet; so is every reputable tech company out there.

Last November, for example, Google launched an anti-child porn initiative involving changes to its search algorithms (to make child pornography harder to find or share online), image-recognition technology to automatically identify potentially problematic pictures, and individual human oversight to, for example, distinguish between exploitative images and harmless photos of kids in the bathtub.

Technology is all too often used by pedophiles and those who cater to them. Now a Dutch non-profit has turned the tables ...
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Websites race to fix "heartbleed" flaw that can expose sensitive information

The problem affects hundreds of thousands of web and email servers worldwide

A software flaw in a server extension called "heartbeat" is creating data leakage, dubbed "heartbleed," which in turn is causing severe heartburn for hundreds of thousands of web and email server administrators worldwide.

The flaw afflicts servers that use a package called OpenSSL, one of several extensions that enable SSL -- secure socket layers -- to encrypt data moving to and and from their sites. 

What that means for consumers is that personal information -- including passwords, account numbers and other sensitive data -- can be, and perhaps already has been, exploited by hackers.  

Sites ranging from the FBI to Yahoo and everything in between have been affected. The flaw also potentially affects ATM machines that communicate via the web. Google is not affected by the problem and data on Google servers is safe, several experts agree.

What to do

So, what's a consumer to do? Unfortunately, the answer is "not much." Experts say that this would be a good time to take a few days off from doing your banking and e-commerce chores, to avoid revealing your password and other data to anyone who hasn't already stolen it.

Unfortunately, other experts say this would be a good time to reconcile your bank and investment accounts daily. 

If you must use an ATM, it's safest to use one at your bank, rather than an out-of-network machine. While this may not eliminate web-based data transfers, it should at least minimize them.

This is not the time to change your user ID and password. It's best to wait a few days until the vulnerability has been patched. Changing your password now simply makes the new one vulnerable to thieves.

Ironically, SSL is used to secure websites, by encrypting data traveling between the user and online sites. Normally, sites that use SSL are much more secure than sites that don't. 

This is one of those times when the front door is locked tightly but the back door is open and swinging in the wind. 

Sites around the world are racing to update their server software but it's not an easy fix and it may take several days for larger sites to have everything locked down again.

Common server operating systems that may be affected by the problem include Debian, CentOS, RedHat, SUSE Linux and Ubuntu.

A software flaw in a server extension called "heartbeat" is creating data leakage, dubbed "heartbleed," which in turn is causing severe heartburn for hundr...
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Another take on the digital divide

Mandatory web use leaves many seniors out in the cold

When policymakers refer to the “digital divide,” most often they are referring to an economic disparity in who has access to the Internet.

Because high speed Internet usually costs $40 or more a month low-income consumers, it is argued, often lack access. The digital divide has also separated rural consumers from urban dwellers, since high-speed Internet has been harder to find outside the city.

But there appears to be another digital divide, having nothing to do with how much money you have or where you live. It has to do with how old you are.

It's true that millions of seniors are very active on the Internet and are very comfortable using it. But it is equally as true there are millions of seniors who aren't.

When asked to explain why enrollment under the Affordable Care Act was so far short of goals, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) struggled last week for an answer before finally blurting “people need to be educated on how to use the Internet.”

The response drew jeers from Republicans but Reid may have been trying to articulate something real that may only now be dawning on policymakers.

Enrolling in Obamacare has to be done online. Millions of people are challenged by that.

No longer optional

Using the Internet was once a helpful option for people who needed to interact with corporations and government agencies. But recently it has gone from being an option to being mandatory.

If you'll indulge me I'll recount a couple of personal examples from just the last two weeks.

My neighbor Doug, a retired engineer in his early 80s, called me in a panic. It was time to file the neighborhood association's tax return with the state, which had been his job for years.

He had just discovered that now it must be done online. Though he had a computer and used the Internet for some things, he was either unwilling or unable to try to file the return online.

The previous week my father and step-mother wanted to bid on a foreclosed property being auctioned by Citrus County, Fla. The county had automated the auction process, requiring it to be carried out online.

But not to worry, the county provided a training class in how to do it. Of course, the course was in the form of a webinar! Completely befuddled, they turned to me for assistance.

Glass half-empty?

A 2012 report by the Pew Research Internet Project found that, for the first time, more than 50% of Americans 65 and older used the Internet. But that means nearly 50% don't.

And “using the Internet” can mean different things. It can mean sending an email or checking Facebook for the latest pictures of the grandchildren.

It doesn't necessarily mean filing a tax return or signing up for Obamacare. Yet the assumption now is that everything can be and should be done online.

To save money, businesses and government agencies increasingly interact with the public only online. Have a question that isn't listed in the FAQs? Good luck talking to a human being.

For consumers comfortable with technology, getting things done online is often faster and smoother. But for a rather large segment of the population, the often mandatory requirement that you use the Internet means they can't fully function in today's world.

When policymakers refer to the “digital divide,” most often they are referring to an economic disparity in who has access to the Internet.Bec...
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AOL buys Gravity, a "personalization" start-up

The software creates a "fingerprint" for each visitor, then tailors content to them

Internet portal AOL has agreed to pay about $90 million to acquire Gravity, a software startup that tracks users to show them personalized ads and content.

"The web is moving to the era of personal, and a personal web filter will reshape how consumers get information and services," said AOL Chairman and CEO Tim Armstrong. "Gravity is joining AOL to lead the personalization transformation of AOL's brands and platform partners."

Gravity already works with a group of publishers and advertisers, including Sony, Intel, USA Today and GAP. Since the launch of the Gravity API last year, there have been more than one billion personalized page views per month on some of the biggest publisher sites on the web, and its technology has increased engagement by 240% compared to sites that do not have personalization, AOL said in a prepared statement.

Overwhelming amount

"Every day we're presented with an overwhelming amount of information to consume on our favorite websites and apps," said Gravity CEO Amit Kapur. "It's time to move beyond searching for the best content to having the best content search for you. We believe that by combining AOL's vast brand, publisher and advertiser network with Gravity's interest graph technology, we can do just that."

Gravity "personalizes the Internet beyond search and social by applying a personal and real-time filter to the ever-growing volume of digital information available for consumption," the company said.

Gravity's patented technology creates "Interest Graphs" based on individuals' interests, preferences and habits and allows publishers to offer a tailored and relevant selection of editorial and advertising content to readers.

Internet portal AOL has agreed to pay about $90 million to acquire Gravity, a software startup that tracks users to show them personalized ads and content....
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Consumer journalism awards announced

The top award honors Martin H. Bosworth, ConsumerAffairs' late managing editor

A new series of awards recognizing outstanding reporting of consumer issues launches this year, a joint project of the Media Policy Center, ConsumerAffairs, and Woodbury University.

Awards will be given for the best reporting in five major categories: print, the internet, radio, television and magazines.

The overall winner will also receive the Martin H. Bosworth Award for Outstanding Consumer Reporting. The award is named for the late managing editor of ConsumerAffairs, a consumer news and information center now in its 16th year. Bosworth was 35 when he died at his Los Angeles home in 2010 of a circulatory disorder.

“Martin was a tireless and fearless crusader for the everyday consumer. His outstanding work benefited millions of individuals and lives on to this day in ConsumerAffairs’ reporting and consumer empowerment efforts,” said James R. Hood, the site’s founder and editor. “He was a big guy with a big voice and consumers lost a real champion when he was taken from us long before his time.”

One of the first peer review sites on the Web, ConsumerAffairs, founded in 1998, publishes consumer reviews that empower consumers to collaboratively find the products and services that best suit their needs and helps them identify shoddy practices and outright scams. Its news reports deal with automotive, personal finance, health, travel and other consumer issues.

The Media Policy Center addresses issues of social welfare, public policy, education, the environment, and health care. Its primary goal, through media, is to inform, challenge, and ultimately engage a responsive citizenry and to encourage full and meaningful debate and participation across the political, social, and economic spectrum.

Dr. Edward Clift, Dean of the School of Media Culture & Design will be representing Woodbury in this new enterprise. “We are excited to be working with Jim Hood and the team at MPC,” said Dean Clift.

This is the second project to come from Woodbury’s new alliance with the Media Policy Center. The School of Media Culture & Design is also partnering with MPC in a new Masters graduate program, Media for Social Justice set to begin in September 2014.

The University seeks to transform its students into liberally educated professionals and socially responsible citizens by integrating transdisciplinarity, design thinking, entrepreneurship, and civic engagement into all programs. Woodbury achieves academic excellence by creating external partnerships, implementing effective internal processes, and ensuring quality in all programs and services.

Award competition entries must be submitted by April 15. An entry form is available at www.mpcawards.org.

Martin Bosworth (staff photo)A new series of awards recognizing outstanding reporting of consumer issues launches this year, a joint project of the Med...
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Yahoo hit by massive malware attack

Company says Americans unaffected; few Americans feel reassured

If you visited Yahoo.com or any of its subsidiary websites at any time between Dec. 31 and approximately five seconds ago, you might need to check to ensure your computer wasn't one of the countless millions infected by a massive malware attack against Yahoo's ad servers: the advertisements on certain Yahoo.com pages took advantage of security weaknesses in Java to install “exploit kits” and multiple forms of malware on people's computers.

Though maybe this was only a problem for Yahoo users in Europe. Yahoo spokespeople said in a Sunday email that “On Friday, January 3 on our European sites, we served some advertisements that did not meet our editorial guidelines, specifically they spread malware. We promptly removed these advertisements. … Users in North America, Asia Pacific and Latin America were not served these advertisements and were not affected … Additionally, users using Macs and mobile devices were not affected."

And of course, before listing all these Yahoo users who were not affected, the email first assured everybody that, “At Yahoo, we take the safety and privacy of our users seriously.”

Credibility gap

Unfortunately (from the perspective of embattled Yahoo public-relations folks), in the past couple of months, the company has developed a bit of a reputation for saying things customers don't necessarily believe—like last October, when Yahoo completely revamped its email system and then insisted that the changes were wonderful and well-beloved, even though the actual email customers (not to mention the majority of Yahoo's own employees) insisted that they hated the new email and pretty much everything about it.

And that was before big chunks of the Yahoo email system went kaput, so that some large but unknown number of emails sent between Nov. 25 and Dec. 9 vanished altogether.

So when Yahoo kicked off 2014 by admitting to the malware attack, the public responded with overwhelming cynicism. For example: on Jan. 5, five days after the initial attack, the Washington Post tech blog posted an updated story assuring its readers, “Worried about Yahoo malware outbreak? If you're in [the] U.S., you're probably safe.”

One commenter promptly questioned: “Does anyone really believe Americans were unaffected? Likely, they haven't caught it yet or are straight up lying to the public.” On the other hand, it is possible that Yahoo is telling the truth: online advertisements tend to be tailored to specific geographic locations, so that someone living in the US almost certainly isn't going to see (for example) the same local-business ads as would someone in London.

The news-aggregator Fark, meanwhile, linked to news of the malware attack under a sardonic one-word headline: “Yahoops.”

As of Monday morning, Jan. 6, Eastern time, Yahoo has released a couple of statements to the press, but (as a CNET security blogger pointed out) still has not mentioned anything about the malware attack on its public Tumblr blog. When we checked the blog, its most recent story was dated Jan. 3 and headlined “Boomshakalaka! The Yahoo sports app just got way more fun with loops,” but we couldn't find anything advising European Yahoos to check their computers for possible massive security failures. Yahoops.

If you visited Yahoo.com or any of its subsidiary websites at any time between Dec. 31 and approximately five seconds ago, you might need to check to ensur...
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BBB chastises Charter for dissing AT&T's broadband speeds

Charter's speeds are faster but BBB says the comparison wasn't fair

It might seem odd that globe-girdling duopolist AT&T would feel the need to go running for help because it was being bullied by relative pipsqueak Charter, which is only the fourth-largest cable operator in the country.

But that's what happened and the Better Business Bureau's National Advertising Division sided with AT&T, the marketing journal MediaPost reported.

Charter, you see, had been running ads for its broadband service claiming it was faster than AT&T's. Well, in fact, it is but the BBB said that Charter unfairly compared its broadband service, which offers speeds of 30 Mbps, to AT&T's DSL, which is only one-fifth as fast.

Of course, Charter's broadband is also faster than AT&T's U-Verse, which pins its needle at 24 Mbps.

Charter was unfair

Consumers rate AT&T Uverse

But the BBB said it was unfair of Charter to say that AT&T business subscribers were using "outdated, slow equipment” and it also took offense at Charter's claim that “AT&T can’t keep up with your business. It’s time to move on.” 

Not only that, but the BBB also said Charter shouldn't have suggested that AT&T was hindering business with its slower speeds. 

“While a difference of even a few minutes in downloading a file can be substantial for a business, there is no evidence in the record that companies who use AT&T’s DSL and phone service are less productive and/or successful than businesses who use other providers (such as Charter Business),” the NAD wrote.


Charter denigrated AT&T in ads for broadband service by implying that companies with AT&T service “are using outdated, slow equipment,”...
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The case of the vanishing Yahoo emails

Inaccessible email accounts and vanishing messages add to an already poor reputation

The German word fremdschämen refers to that feeling of vicarious shame or embarrassment you feel on someone else’s behalf when you watch them make fools of themselves. We came down with a mild case of fremdschämen a couple of weeks ago, when we told you the embarrassing story of how the new Yahoo email is so bad, even Yahoo’s own employees don’t want to use it.

Not that Yahoo executives paid any attention to customer complaints about the new email; they only kept insisting, “This new email is great, especially all the rich new features we added” and “Don’t you just love our feature-rich new email system? It is great,” and “This new email differs completely from the old one. Ergo, greatness ensues. Check out all these rich new features!”

Unfortunately, these new features apparently don’t include “ability to send email” or “ability to receive email,” which is why our personal fremdschämen levels rose right off the charts when we read the latest installment in the Yahoo email saga: Certain Yahoo users found themselves unable to access their email, starting Monday night – and as of Thursday, some still can’t.

New account? Forget it

Our editor, by the way, reports that he tried to open a Yahoo account a few days ago to see for himself how good/bad it was. Unfortunately, the process hung about halfway through and he was never able to complete it. Not a good sign, really.

Just to add to your holiday cheer, there’s a chance any emails sent between Nov. 25 and Dec. 9 might have vanished altogether. So if you’re a Yahoo email user wondering why you haven’t been getting responses to things like job-application emails or Christmas gift orders — well, it’s possible the problem lies in the quality of the job application itself, or the mail-order-company’s customer service. But it might also be true that these emails never arrived in their intended recipients’ inboxes.

To console you, here are some reassuring words from that magnificent memo written by Yahoo execs Jeff Bonforte, SVP Communications Products, and Randy Roumillat, CIO, urging employees to switch to the new feature-rich Yahoo email:

“Certainly, we can admire [other established email systems Yahoo employees stubbornly insist on using] for its survival, an anachronism of the now defunct 90s PC era, a pre-web program written at a time when NT Server terrorized the data center landscape with the confidence of a T-Rex born to yuppie dinosaur parents who fully bought into the illusion of their son’s utter uniqueness because the big-mouthed, tiny-armed monster infant could mimic the gestures of The Itsy-Bitsy Pterodactyl.”

Confession: we still don’t know exactly what this means, possibly because every time we try reading it our vision gets blocked by enormous blinding clouds of fremdschämen. We were going to ask that you email us if you can explain it, but if your email account is with Yahoo you’d just be wasting your time anyway. Forget we even brought it up.

The German word fremdschämen refers to that feeling of vicarious shame or embarrassment you feel on someone else’s behalf when you watch them ma...
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Bank of America is optimistic about Bitcoin's future

Says the virtual currency could become a "major means of payment"

We’re still living in what future historians will call the earliest era of the Internet age, and it’s still too early to predict exactly how that will play out, which aspects of contemporary web life will remain and which will fade away. But evidence is growing that virtual currency Bitcoin (or some future variant of it) might be a permanent part of the virtual landscape, rather than a flash in the pan.

Indeed, analysts with Bank of America Merrill Lynch released a Dec. 5 report suggesting that Bitcoin has the potential to become “a major means of payment for ecommerce” and a “serious competitor to traditional money transfer providers.”

Bank of America certainly isn’t the first to take an optimistic view of Bitcoin’s future; the day before the report, CNNMoney reported that former congressman Ron Paul said Bitcoin might “destroy the [U.S.] dollar,” and predicted a crackdown because “Governments absolutely demand a monopoly on money and credit. They're not going to give it up easily ….They will come down hard."  

Arguably, “they” already have; last May, the US government froze funds at the largest Bitcoin exchange, due to vague and undescribed reasons cited by the Department of Homeland Security. On the other hand, even those wont to distrust government secrecy must admit there are some legitimate, non-tyrannical reasons governments might want to crack down on Bitcoin: namely, anti-fraud measures, On Nov. 6, the New York Times’ Dealbook warned readers about a “pump and dump” penny-stock fraud scheme being played out on Bitcoin.

Cracking down on fraudsters is difficult enough with traditional banking and its extensive paper trails; in the anonymous world of Bitcoin it may be close to impossible.

We’re still living in what future historians will call the earliest era of the Internet age, and it’s still too early to predict exactly how th...
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Online banking becoming the norm but still carries security issues

Banks encourage it but consumers need to use care in their transactions

It's getting to the point that if you are one of those rare consumers who doesn't use the Internet you are finding it more and more difficult to function in modern life.

Take banking, for instance. In the past you made regular trips to your nearest branch to make deposits and cash checks. You spent a lot of time at the end of the month writing checks to pay bills.

Now, you don't have to. Banking is easily done from your computer or mobile device and research suggests more of us are taking advantage of it. Ally Bank, an online institution, recently conducted a survey that found 24% of consumers now bank primarily online. The increase includes all age groups and shows a significant rise since 2010.

"Our survey data indicates a shift over the last several years, as more consumers look online to manage their finances," said Diane Morais, Ally Bank deposits and line of business executive. "Banking with a direct bank offers the same, if not more, opportunities and advantages as traditional banks with physical branches, and consumers appear to be gravitating toward this approach."

Banks encourage it

Make no mistake, banks – even those with huge investments in brick and mortar branches – would prefer that you do your banking online. Most banks offer incentives to you to do so, often waiving or reducing checking account fees if you use direct deposit and pay at least a few bills online each month.

As you might expect, younger consumers have embraced online banking with the most enthusiasm. The survey found that only 31% of consumers age 18-34 said visiting a bank branch is their primary method of banking. Among Millennials, 62% use either an ATM, visit the bank online using a computer or tablet, or use mobile banking either on a cell or smartphone.

That's a big change in just one year. In 2012 the bank's survey found that 46% of Millennials were visiting bank branches for customer service issues. That figure is down to 39 percent this year.

To resolve an issue Millennials said they either call the bank's customer service department by phone, utilize a live chat with a customer service representative, use email or utilize social media channels.

Mobile banking concerns

Banks are encouraging their customers to utilize online banking because it reduces their costs. But to make the practice universal may require a bit more persuasion, especially when it comes to mobile banking.

A study by Kaspersky Lab and B2B International, companies involved in cyber security, found about one third of users expressed concerns about the safety of conducting financial transactions using mobile devices. By the same token, only 22% said they had no concerns about moving money around with a smartphone or tablet.

Are these concerns justified? To some extent they may be. A mobile device can be easily lost or stolen and, if the user hasn't used password protection, whoever has the phone may be able to access your account. Even if the phone has some security protection, a skillful hacker may still be able to break in.

Public wi-fi no place to do business

Connecting your phone or tablet using a public wi-fi can be very dangerous if you are making a financial transaction. User names and passwords can be stolen and used to obtain access to online bank accounts.

Mobile apps sometimes are contaminated with viruses and malware. Downloading them may then give a hacker access to the device.

“Mobile banking is incredibly convenient, but customers need to remember that any device used to connect to the Internet is vulnerable,” said Frank Keating, President and CEO of the American Bankers Association (ABA). “Customers play an important role in the work that banks do to protect data.”

A recent ABA survey shows eight percent of consumers now prefer to do their banking using their mobile device. That may sound like a small number but it's a 30% increase in one year.

It makes security precautions all the more important – except for those consumers who still aren't using the Internet.

It's getting to the point that if you are one of those rare consumers who doesn't use the Internet you are finding it more and more difficult to function i...
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FTC taking a look at sponsored stories

Presenting paid content as "real" may be deceptive

Say what you want about the news media, the very definition of news is that it's written and edited by disinterested journalists -- "disinterested" meaning the reporters and editors have no financial stake in the outcome.

The constant persecution of legitimate news outlets by loudmouthed bullies and the sprouting of talking-head channels that do nothing but spout opinion and call it news have helped destroy public confidence in an institution that is essential to democratic government.

But neither of these is anywhere near as dangerous as the latest craze sweeping the media world. It's called "sponsored content" and, very simply, it amounts to commercial interests paying media outlets to run a story supplied by the sponsor. It's generally regarded as reprehensible by Ivory Tower dwellers. Struggling publications counter that, as long as it is clearly labeled, there's nothing wrong with it.

For some reason, advertisers and marketing types have adopted the term "native content" to describe the practice of placing paid stories in media outlets. What's "native" about it is a mystery but it's not the first time advertising has adopted innocuous names for dubious practices.

So far, there hasn't been much of a fuss about this latest form of corporate propagandizing but tomorrow, the Federal Trade Commission is hosting an informal workshop for advertisers, publishers and legal experts. The conference title pretty well says it all: "Blurred Lines: Advertising or Content?"

The commission says the conference isn't a hearing or investigation of sponsored content or its practitioners. But it could serve as a jumping-off point for the FTC, which is charged with preventing unfair or deceptive advertising practices, to eventually establish guidelines governing sponsored-content practices.

The FTC's interest is nothing if not timely. Spending on sponsored content is expected to grow 24% this year to $1.9 billion. That's a lot of articles about superior pest control, flawless lawn manicuring and brilliant software innovation.

A lot of the largesse goes to Facebook, Yahoo and other social and search media, which probably aren't of much interest to purists. But "legitimate" publications are also accepting sponsored content in growing numbers. Critics say they're hastening their own demise by destroying the credibility that sets them apart from social media and the more ludicrous content farms that infest the web.

Say what you want to do about the news media, the very definition of news is that it's written and edited by disinterested journalists -- "disinterested" m...
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Memo: Yahoo's own employees don't like new Yahoo Mail

We dare you to read that memo without feeling vicariously embarrassed for Yahoo execs

Just over a month ago, we told you about “Yahoo Mail users in uprising over system changes.” The super-short capsule summary of the story is this: in October, Yahoo drastically changed its email service, and said the changes are wonderful improvements over the old standard. Actual Yahoo users looked at the changes and said, “Yuck. This is awful; please bring back our old email service.” Yahoo spokespeople reiterated, “No, really, they’re great changes and everyone loves ’em. You love ’em.” Customers re-reiterated, “No, actually, they’re awful and we hate them,” and so on.

And now, a month later, a corporate memo leaked out of Yahoo HQ reveals that Yahoo’s new email interface is so bad, Yahoo’s own employees don’t even like it.

The memo, signed by Jeff Bonforte, SVP Communications Products and Randy Roumillat, CIO, might actually have been written with the intention of being leaked to the media. Here’s what it actually said to Yahoo employees, though:

Hello Yahoos,

Earlier this year we asked you to move to Yahoo Mail for your corporate email account. 25% of you made the switch (thank you). But even if we used the most generous of grading curves (say, the one from organic chemistry), we have clearly failed in our goal to move our co-workers to Yahoo Mail.

It’s time for the remaining 75% to make the switch. Beyond the practical benefits of giving feedback to your colleagues on the Mail team, as a company it’s a matter of principle to use the products we make. (BTW, same for Search.)

Fair enough. Of course, a cynic could counter: as a company it’s a matter of principle to make products we actually want to use without being nagged into doing so. No matter; the Yahoo corporate message went on to list and dismiss some possible objections people might have to giving up their old email in exchange for Yahoo’s new offering, then continued:

 “First, it doesn’t feel like we are asking you to abandon some glorious place of communications nirvana. At this point in your life, Outlook may be familiar, which we can often confuse with productive or well designed [sic].”

True. By the same token, though: At this point in your life Yahoo may be different, which we can often confuse with better or well-thought-out.

“Certainly, we can admire the application for its survival, an anachronism of the now defunct 90s PC era, a pre-web program written at a time when NT Server terrorized the data center landscape with the confidence of a T-Rex born to yuppie dinosaur parents who fully bought into the illusion of their son’s utter uniqueness because the big-mouthed, tiny-armed monster infant could mimic the gestures of The Itsy-Bitsy Pterodactyl. There was a similar outcry when we moved away from Outlook’s suite-mates in the Microsoft Office dreadnaught. But whether it’s familiarity, laziness or simple stubbornness dressed in a cloak of Ayn Randian Objectivism, the time has come to move on, commrade [sic].”

We too are fans of overdone and somewhat hallucinatory metaphors which is why, when we read that, we imagined Yahoo executives as a starving but wily Coyote, futilely chasing the Road Runner of Relevancy through the Desert of Internet Popularity before running off the edge of the Cliff of Not Understanding What the Hell Ayn Rand has to do with Reluctance to Switch to an Inferior Email Product, and falling with a crash down into the Canyon of Cluelessness.

The Yahoo memo goes on to say: “Using corp mail from the Y Mail web interface is remarkably feature rich.” The next two paragraphs list various features along with reassurances that said features are wonderful and extremely popular. “We have been testing this feature with select users in and out of the company and the response has been fantastic: 'Whoa!', 'Amazing', 'Already in love with it. Woot!' and, my favorite, 'So nicely integrated that it appears as if it’s always been there. I already can’t imagine it not being there again'.”

How wonderful! If the new and improved Yahoo Mail is even half as fantastic as the corporate memo claims, we can’t imagine why only a quarter of Yahoo’s own employees have gone along with it, let alone Yahoo customers whose salaries and job security don’t require them to support Yahoo products.

Just over a month ago, we told you about “Yahoo Mail users in uprising over system changes.” The super-short capsule summary of the story is th...
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Are hackers attacking healthcare.gov?

If so, they're having little effect on the troubled site's functioning

You’ve probably noticed how, ever since the website Healthcare.gov first went public, there’s been a constant stream of news reports on the theme “Disastrous rollout of the Affordable Care Act, a.k.a. Obamacare, namely because it’s impossible for anyone to actually navigate the website.”

So when we read this Information Week article with the headline “Hackers threaten destruction of Obamacare website,” we weren’t sure if the hackers’ efforts should be considered too little, too late or mere overkill.

But that’s not stopping the hackers from trying. As security writer Marc Eisenbarth noted on the Arbor Networks Security Blog:

“Reports have indicated that the site has been inaccessible to some people when they have attempted to visit it.  ASERT has no direct knowledge of any significant denial of service attacks directed towards the site.  However, ASERT has recently found one tool that is designed to overload the webpage.”

Not really hacking

A denial of service (or DoS) attack isn’t really “hacking,” in the sense of breaking into a computer or database to steal or corrupt any files within. It’s more like the Internet equivalent of having thousands of people constantly call a telephone number, solely to tie up that phone line and prevent other calls from getting through.

ASERT discovered a social media site offering to let users help “Destroy Obama Care” [sic] by using a program that constantly alternates between visiting the healthcare.gov site and its “Contact Us” page.  

Ominous as that sounds, Eisenbarth wrote that “the request rate, the non-distributed attack architecture and many other limitations make this tool unlikely to succeed in affecting the availability of the healthcare.gov site.”

So while this particular attack may not have much effect, it’s worth counting as a data point toward a possibly disturbing trend: “This application continues a trend ASERT is seeing with denial of service attacks being used as a means of retaliation against a policy, legal rulings or government actions.”

You’ve probably noticed how for the past several days, ever since the website Healthcare.gov first went public, there’s been a constant stream ...
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Los Angeles launches bid for citywide broadband network

A chicken in every pot and broadband fiber to every home

Now that the Bloomberg Era is drawing to a close in New York City, who will launch such ambitious municipal projects as citywide bike lending, restrictions on Big Gulps and new laws to prohibit smoking at home?

Perhaps it is Los Angeles that will take up the cudgel. It is launching a project that would bring free -- yes, we said free -- broadband fiber to every home and business and provide free hotspots in public areas.

Now, there are about 3.5 million people in LA and hundreds of thousands of businesses. Public areas we don't know about. Do you think they'll count the freeways? If so, you're talking about a lot of wi-fi.

It's a massive undertaking, perhaps one that skeptics might say is hardly necessary, since Los Angeles already has the Internet, courtesy of Verizon, Time Warner, Charter, AT&T and numerous other providers. Why does the city think it needs to shove its way into the telecom business? Who knows?

Who pays?

And then there's the question of cost. Who's going to pay for all this? Ah, that's where those clever devils at City Hall are way ahead of us. The city plans to put the project out for bid, basically. Whoever "wins" the bidding will not only get to build the network, it will also have to pay for it.

Oh, and besides the estimated $3 to $5 billion construction cost, it will have to pay the costs of any city agency that has to trouble itself to aid in the build-out. And maintain the network, of course.

"The city is going into it and writing the agreement, basically saying, 'we have no additional funding for this effort.' We're requiring the vendors that respond to pay for the city resources needed to expedite any permitting and inspection associated with laying their fiber," said Steve Reneker, who is the general manager of the Los Angeles Information Technology Agency.

(Who even knew there was such a thing? Well, the LAITA, we'll have you know, operates the 311 phone number that you can call to report a dead squirrel or a burned-out street light. It also operates the city's various websites, its fire and police dispatch centers and so forth. So it is clearly up to the job. Too bad LAITA wasn't in charge of setting up Healthcare.gov.)

"If they're not willing to do that, our City Council may consider a general fund transfer to reimburse those departments, but we're going in with the assumption that the vendor is going to absorb those up-front costs to make sure they can do their buildout in a timely fashion," Reneker added, just to make it perfectly clear the the contractor had better finish on time ... or else. Or else what? Good question. It's not like the city is dangling a check in front of whatever lucky company "wins" the contract.

Yes, but who pays?

So let's ask this again: just how, exactly, is this gargantuan undertaking supposed to be financed?

Well, let's see. Los Angelenos will get free Internet access of 2 Mbps to 5 Mbps or so. If they want higher speeds, they'll have to pay for it. So there's a few bucks right there.

Oh, and maybe the network will be supported by advertising, the city fathers indicated. You know, like those ads they have on buses? Except these would be on like the, you know, Internet. 

Hey, no worries.

Now that the Bloomberg Era is drawing to a close in New York City, who will launch such ambitious city projects as citywide bike lending, restrictions on B...
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Yahoo Mail users in uprising over system changes

Company says changes were made to improve service

The Internet has been buzzing in the last week with angry Yahoo Mail users, who discovered the email service they have been using has changed, adopting a look and feel similar to that of Google's Gmail. Many have taken to the Internet to vent their frustration.

“The first time I saw this I thought I had some kind of virus,” reports Lucille, of Heathsville, Va. It looked completely different. New emails with the same subject line as an old email doesn't show up on a new line, but rather is connected to the old emails. It's easy to miss something.”

That's something Gmail users have always had to deal with. And indeed, the Yahoo Mail program now looks a lot like Gmail, which might not be surprising since CEO Marissa Mayer came over from Google.

Petition

Yahoo Mail user Jan Hyatt, of Severna Park, Md., says she chose Yahoo for her email because she didn't like Gmail. Angered by the change, Hyatt has submitted a petition for Change.org, calling on the company to go back to the old interface.

“Many of us have used Yahoo mail for over a decade,” the petition reads. “It's been reliable, functional and served the needs of a wide variety of people - for personal and business use. Yahoo has changed it, taking away the ability to organize emails, switch from writing to reading emails without losing work, incorporating ads into the inbox (that, if clicked on by mistake, lead to spam websites) and hiding essential functions, like printing.”

Hyatt says, under the new system, years of emails are disappearing, contact lists are being deleted, orders are disappearing before they can be filled and, in at least one case, a flight squadron couldn't get flight plans.

"Yahoo Mail no longer works," Hyatt said in an email to ConsumerAffairs. "I hear from users who have already moved to other providers or front-ends, and from many others who are looking at options to move as well."

'Almost worthless'

Donald, a ConsumerAffairs reader, insists the change has made Yahoo Mail “almost worthless.”

“Compared to Classic or even the previous version, it it dysfunctional,” he writes. “You might say it is 'void and without form.' It is like stepping back into the stone age.”

Upset Yahoo Mail users quickly found a home on Facebook, setting up a group called Yahoo's New Mail Fail – Open letter to Marissa Mayer.

“They made a grave mistake alienating their customer base - we should be their best marketing tool, but now the word-of-mouth is their worst,” wrote one member, identified as Tina Vozick.

While the vast majority of Yahoo Mail users pay nothing, Vozick said she is a paying customer, getting certain added features on her Yahoo Mail account.

“I will leave when I can figure out how to get my message history,” Vozick writes. “It's business, Marissa - you should understand that.”

Company response

Despite the heated criticism, Yahoo said there are plenty of users who like the new interface. It says the changes were designed to provide users with a more modern and personalized experience.

"As with any significant product change, it is typical to see varied reaction, particularly in the beginning and with products that have a large user base,” a Yahoo spokesperson said in an email to ConsumerAffairs. “The level of response we are seeing is in line with previous releases and we've heard from many users that they are enjoying the new experience. For users who need help navigating the new Yahoo Mail, we have a dedicated customer care team in place, as well as help pages that provide details on specific features.”

Even so, the spokesperson added that user feedback is extremely important and “we are actively listening to our users and will continue to iterate on our products to provide the best user experience possible."

Alternatives

By Monday the Facebook page was offering members advice on switching to another email provider. A member identified as David Borgioli said he has been using Mail.com and GMX.com for about a week, which is not enough time, he says, to tell which is superior. The major task, he writes, is transferring all those Yahoo emails to the new service.

“To get my mail from the folders, I created duplicate folders in both Mail.com and GMX.com,” he writes. “I also created a folder in each called Inbox Two. I moved all mail from the inbox to Inbox Two in Yahoo, Mail, and GMX. Then I move everything from one folder to Inbox. After a few minutes the mails will start to come into Mail and GMX. I found it helps, in Mail and GMX, to move the incoming mails to the corresponding folder after I get between fifty and two or three hundred. Once I confirm that all e-mails have been imported, I go back to Yahoo and move the e-mails back to the appropriate folder. Yes, this is a bit of a pain in the neck.”

Though there is no way to tell for sure, many of the complaints about the change suggest they come from business users. The petition calling on Yahoo to change back to the old interface reinforces that perception.

“This debacle is a disaster for business,” the petition reads. “We understand Yahoo is targeting the mobile market, and while we love mobile, we DON'T use mobile for business!”

Hyatt predicts Yahoo users will leave the service in droves if the issue isn't addressed. Yahoo doesn't think that's the case. Time will tell.

The Internet has been buzzing in the last week with angry Yahoo Mail users, who discovered the email service they have been using has changed, adopting a l...
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Yahoo spiffs up its email

New lay-out, fancy themes and a enough storage to last several lifetimes

Yahoo is getting to look a lot like Gmail. Yahoo unveiled a major redesign of its email today, offering Gmail-like threaded conversations and Flickr photos as background themes.

Jeffrey Bonforte, Yahoo's SVP of Communication Products, said the changes were timed to coincide with Yahoo Mail's 16th birthday and are intended to make the service not only more elegant but also more efficient. 

"Things you do all of the time like search, starring, and deleting are now one-click actions that appear when you hover over an email. We also wanted to give you more breathing room in your inbox, so you can collapse the left-hand toolbar to be more productive," Bonforte said in a posting on Yahoo's company blog.

As party favors, Yahoo is throwing in features previously reserved for Premium Mail Plus customers. Disposable email addresses, enhanced filters and automatic message forwarding are now available for everyone. Yahoo is also increasing storage to 1 terrabytes (TB), enough to last several lifetimes for just about any user. 

It's part of an effort by CEO Marissa Mayer to boost user engagement with Yahoo's products. Yahoo mail is an especially vital element, as it can serve as a gateway to other Yahoo services.  

There's also a big of window dressing in the new design. 

"We wanted to bring a little inspiration into your inbox — dress it up a bit if you will.  We’re doing that by introducing visually rich themes, including curated Flickr photos, for your browser, smartphone and tablet. Choose a new photo theme in one place, and it will apply across all your devices. After all, your inbox doesn’t have to be a plain white box with text dropped into it," Bonforte said.

Yahoo is getting to look a lot like Gmail. Yahoo unveiled a major redesign of its email today, offering Gmail-like threaded conversations and Flickr photos...
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Oyster hopes to be a Netflix for books

No movies but new start-up offers a $9.95 per month subscription to 100,000 books

OK, we've got streaming music and video from Netflix, Amazon and other providers. So why not streaming books?

Well, it might be kind of hard to read streaming text but you get the idea. A new start-up called Oyster is promoting an all-you-can-read service for $9.95 per month. It has an initial library of 100,000 books and unlike a bricks-and-mortar library, you don't have to wait if someone else is reading the title you want.

Taking a page from the snobbish Google-style rollout that gives first crack to those who are for some reason anointed, Oyster advises that the common rabble can't sign up yet. But Oyster promises that if you ask nicely, they'll let you know when you might be admitted.

At least that's what we think the site's home page says. It would take a mirror to read the text in the blue box, but perhaps that's a test to exclude those not deemed worthy of admission.

"We created Oyster to evolve the way people read and to create more of the special moments that only books can offer," Oyster's site advises, failing to mention it also apparently hopes to modify the accepted usage of "evolve," which has not previously been a transitive verb.

For now, the VIPs will have to read their books on iPhone although Oyster says it will have an iPad app this fall. No word on an app for Android. Too common, perhaps?

OK, we've got streaming music and video from Netflix, Amazon and other providers. So why not streaming books?Well, it might be kind of hard to read strea...
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Homeland Security: Android platform attracts the most malware

Syrian attacks on New York Times could have exposed readers to malware

Google's Android platform is getting a bad rap from the feds. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security says in a new report the Android platform accounts for the majority -- 79% -- of mobile malware and warns government agencies to install antivirus software on their Android devices as a precaution.

Mobile and online security is getting to be serious business, as the Syrian Electronic Army vows to step up its attacks on major American sites if the U.S. takes measures against Syria. The group claimed responsibility for yesterday's attacks on The New York Times site, which experts said could have exposed readers to dangerous malware.  

The DHS report warns federal, state and local authorities about the dangers of security vulnerabilities. The report notes that 44% of Android users are still running an outdated version of the operating system known as “Gingerbread,” which includes a number of security issues.

"The growing use of mobile devices by federal, state, and local authorities makes it more important than ever to keep mobile OS patched and up-to-date," DHS said. 

Syrian attacks

Yesterday's attack on the Times site was particularly vigorous. The site was unavailable for much of the day, as hackers got control of the Domain Name System and redirected the www.nytimes.com URL to servers allegedly controlled by the Syrian Electronic Army.

Would-be readers who landed on the SEA-controlled site could have been exposed to malware, experts warned.

Twitter, the Huffington Post and some other media companies also lost control of their sites during the attacks yesterday.

The Times attack was particularly upsetting to security experts, who said the Times has put a lot of effort into making its system secure. The hackers made their way into Melbourne IT, an Australian company that hosts the Times' DNS servers.

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security has released a new report that highlights the fact that Google’s Android platform accounts for the...
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It's turning into a bad week online

First Google, now Amazon run into problems that leave their users high and dry

You've heard the phrase "bad technology day." Nearly everyone has them now and then, but not on the scale we've seen the last few days.

On Friday, Google went dark just about everywhere in the U.S. causing a 40 percent drop in web traffic. And today, Amazon.com went down for about 30 minutes.

No one has calculated the cost of the Google outage or thought much about possible consequences other than lost business. Maybe it will be like those big blizzards or black-outs that hit the East Coast every now and then? They're often followed by a baby boomlet nine months later. But just 30 minutes? Well, maybe not.

Back in June 2008, Amazon had a big outage that cost it about $31,000 per minute. Forbes calculates today's outage at $66,240 per minute, or nearly $2 million.

AWS affected too

Amazon Web Services (AWS), the company's giant web hosting and data storage cloud business,  was also affected by the outage. Advisories to customers said "increased latency" affected some services for about an hour around noon Eastern time.

You've heard the phrase "bad technology day." Nearly everyone has them now and then, but not on the scale we've seen the last few days.On Friday, Google ...
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Study: Craigslist took $5 billion bite out of newspapers

It's not the "free news" on the Internet that's killing newspapers

Nearly everything you read about the cratering American newspaper industry blames the "free news" that readers are able to find on the Internet. Newspapers have responded with paywalls that bring in pocket change but mostly chase away readers.

But in fact, the most catastrophic impact of the Internet on newspapers has nothing at all to do with news. Rather, it's the dowdy but powerful site called Craigslist, which took about $5 billion away from newspapers during the period from 2000-2007, according to a new study.

How? Simple. Craigslist offers free classified ads, enabling consumers to sell their old exercise machines, auto parts and attic fans without shelling out the $50 or so most newspapers would have charged them. Equally important, it made it possible for employers to advertise jobs for as little as $25 instead of the hundreds of dollars big-city dailies charge.

Point of view

Whether this is a bad thing depends on your point of view. If you own a newspaper, it's bad. But it has saved consumers billions and has probably expanded economic activity by making it easier to buy and sell goods and find jobs. It has certainly made it easier for free lance writers, designers, programmers and others to find part-time gigs or even open their own businesses, although we're not aware of any rigorous research on the topic. 

The professors found that local newspapers that relied heavily on classifieds suffered an average 20.7% drop in classified advertising rates after the entry of Craigslist in their markets, according to the study by professors at the NYU Stern School of Business and Harvard Business School.

The study, titled “Responses to Entry in Multi-Sided Markets: The Impact of Craigslist on Local Newspapers,” found that newspapers that were more reliant on classified revenues saw a bigger drop-off after Craiglist entered their markets.

Besides cleverly walling off their newspaper content online, many newspapers responded to falling classified revenue by raising their home-delivery subscription prices, thus chasing off even more business. 

The NYU-Harvard study found that, sure enough, the migration of their classifieds business to Craigslist had secondary impacts on local newspapers. They found subscription prices rose an average 3.3% while circulation fell an average 4.4% and display advertising rates fell 3.1%.

The authors note that these results are still relevant today -- and not just to newspaper publishers -- as “the boundaries between media industries are blurred and advertisers are able to reach relevant consumers through a variety of platforms, such as TV, the Internet and mobile devices.”

By offering buyers and sellers a free alternative to paid listings in newspapers, online classifieds site Craigslist saved users about $5 billion from 2000...
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Hackers branching out to newly-networked smart devices

Baby monitors, home security systems, smart cars, medical equipment -- all are vulnerable

It took awhile but consumers are becoming more vigilant about protecting their computers and smartphones against hacking and malware. Unfortunately, hackers are now turning their attention to fertile new fields -- including cars and homes, which are increasingly controlled by microprocessors that are vulnerable to intruders.

In one particularly frightening case, a Texas family says its baby monitor was hacked. Marc Gilbert said a hacker took control of the camera on the device and heckled his deaf daughter, 

Upon discovering the intrusion, Gilbert said he disconnected the Foscam IP camera from his Comcast router and connected it directly to his computer, enabling him to discover that someone had set up a new user account for the camera and changed the password.

Gilbert said he had strong passwords on the router and camera and had enabled the internal firewall on the router, though on its lowest setting.

It's not quite clear how the intruder got into the system but if it was not through the Internet, then it must have been a local job -- meaning someone within range of the Gilbert family's router must have infiltrated their WiFi network.

Not an isolated problem

While perhaps a little more dramatic than similar incidents, the Gilbert case illustrates the risks affecting a long list of "smart" devices -- insulin pumps, heart monitors, HVAC systems, home automation systems, and cars.

Security researchers are regularly discovering dangerous -- even life-threatening -- security flaws in networked consumer devices and those in hospitals, offices and institutions. 

But the warnings from security experts are often ignored or -- even worse -- used to demonize the white-hat experts who are trying to alert the unsuspecting, DarkReading.com recently reported. 

Security experts are often viewed as the black-hat hackers they are trying to expose, as networked equipment spreads far beyond the world of information technology, where security has been a top priority for decades.

"If you have a hacker who's an expert on a flaw [in a consumer device] and you put him in front of a policymaker, they see a hacker, someone who can't be 100 percent trusted," said Nicholas Percoco, a researcher and senior vice president of Trustwave's SpiderLabs quoted by DarkReading, an infotech security site.

Percoco says there's an urgent need for trusted "white hats" who can bridge the gap between those who are unaware of the risks they're facing and those who are trying to educate them.

"We need ... to find spokespeople for our industry who have a knowledge of the hacking and security community, but are well-seated in the medical device or automotive industries," he said.

It took awhile but consumers are becoming more vigilant about protecting their computers and smartphones against hacking and malware. Unfortunately, hacker...
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Consumers getting fed up with Internet ads

Search engines get much of the blame for advertising overload

Remember how annoying all thosee radio and TV ads used to be? Pandora, HBO and so forth have helped cut down the irritation factor but now it's the Internet that's starting to really annoy consumers.

The latest American Customer Satisfaction Index E-Business ranking reports that major declines in satisfaction in search engines such as Google -- and social media sites, including YouTube -- have dragged the overall score to its lowest level in more than 10 years.

The overall score for e-business fell 3.9% to 71.3 on ACSI’s 100-point scale -- the lowest since 2002. Search engine and portal satisfaction slid 3.8% to 76, its lowest score since 2007, with every measured site in the category falling. 

“The crux of that change is the increasing encroachment of advertisements,” said Eric Feinberg, senior director of mobile, media and entertainment at ForeSee, the Ann Arbor, Mich.-based company that compiles the index, according to Marketing Daily. “It’s not that the experience has become terrible. It hasn’t changed much. It’s that consumer expectations continue to rise and companies don’t meet that challenge.”

The search engines -- and Google in particular -- are taking a lot of the blame, as they try to jam as many ads as possible into a relatively small space and still deliver at least a few search results. Google's score in the index declined 6% to 77. 

Some 22% of all search engine users say the ads are what they like least. 

“There hasn’t been tremendous innovation on the search space for a period of time,” Feinberg said. “And that leaves the door open for someone to come in with big changes, especially as we see such a sizable shift to the mobile market.”

Social media

Social media sites are wearing out their welcome as well, declining 1.4% to 68 overall, the lowest score of any category in the index.

Wikipedia, with a score of 78, is the category’s most satisfying site, “because it has maintained its purity as an information source,” he says. Pinterest’s scores increased enough to move it into second place. YouTube satisfaction falls 3%, Twitter rises 2% to 65, and LinkedIn slips 2% to 62. While Facebook gains 2% to 62, it still remains at the bottom of the satisfaction heap.

“Consumers continue to go to Facebook because all their friends are there,” he says, “but their perception is that the newsfeed approach to advertising is encroaching on what was once a more pure, person-to-person or one-to-many experience.” 

As is usually the case, it's not all ads that enrage consumers. It's the ones they feel have the least to do with them. In that vein, Fox News earns the highest marks from users who say the ads Fox feeds up are relevant to them.

Index scores for news and information sites came in at 73, unchanged for the third year in a row.

Remember how annoying all thosee radio and TV ads used to be? Pandora, HBO and so forth have helped cut down the irritation factor but now it's the Interne...
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Forget NSA. AOL may be watching you too

New AOL unit uses your webcam to monitor your facial expressions

It's been kind of amazing to longtime Washington operatives to see the response to the news that the National Security Agency has been monitoring telephone and email traffic. You call that news? NSA and other agencies have been doing that for years in one way or another. Everybody knows about it. 

What nobody in taxpayerland seemed to remark on was how the most sensitive tasks imaginable had been outsourced to an independent contractor with a GED. This, after all, is the real secret of Washington -- the government itself doesn't do a whole lot, it just farms stuff out and then sits back and "manages." Or tries to.

But forget that for a minute. Here's something that will send you seeking a piece of gauze to tape over your computer's webcam: An advertising unit set up by AOL says it can monitor how you feel about the ads the Web constantly throws at you by watching your facial expressions.

Heh, and you thought that camera only worked when you asked it to.

Watching you watching us

Turns out AOL's "Be On" platform watches you watch the Web and measures your response to what you see by tracking your eye movements and other facial responses.

The platform is powered by Realeyes, a tech firm that says it has figured out how to control the cameras built into your laptop, desktop, tablet and smartphone to "read faces and measure human emotion." 

But don't worry. The company says that at the moment it is only spying on consumers who have opted in to tests being organized by a couple of market research firms.

But that, of course, is only the beginning. Be On CEO René Rechtman says AOL is already considering ways it could deploy the technology to track the emotional sentiment of its general users who want to opt into it, Online Media Dailyreported.

“It has always been very clear that content that has a strong emotional component has a much greater engagement and consumer response. We always knew that, but we didn’t have the science to execute it,” Rechtman said. “Now we have the technology and the science to measure how content affects people emotionally.”

Content, in this instance, is presumably ads. But then again, not necessarily. Perhaps the next step in the "happy talk" that infects TV news is to use Be On's technology to weed out stories that upset viewers, concentrating instead on stories about cute kittens and brave children who overcome adversity.

Politicians could make good use of it too. Although, come to think of it, if we knew they were watching us while we were watching them, there could be interesting consequences, not all of them necessarily tasteful.

It's been kind of amazing to longtime Washington operatives to see the response to the news that the National Security Agency has been monitoring telephone...
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Online threats increase, get more serious

MacAfee report reports "hacker economy" thriving

While the world economy mostly just marked time in the first quarter of 2013, the “hacker economy,” populated by operators who use a large number of threats to compromise corporate and consumer computers, did quite well.

Security software maker McAfee reports hackers continued to make inroads in their increasingly sophisticated efforts to gain access to everything from your online banking account to the space on your hard drive. It all makes today's computing environment very different from the late 1990s, when most of the threats were of a more benign nature.

“Ten years ago we were still at that transitional point, transitioning from geeks trying to prove a geeky point to a Mafia-dominated black market trying to infect people in order to get their information,” said Adam Wosotowsky, Messaging Data Architect at McAfee.

While it is true that today's protections are better and more robust, the threat is even more dangerous. The stakes are higher. After all, ten years ago almost no one used online banking.

“The targeting level, the amount of information and their willingness to try financial fraud to get money out of you is much more aggressive and dangerous today,” Wosotowsky said.

Koobface

In the first quarter of 2013 MacAfee found a big spike in the presence of a social networking worm called Koobface. In fact, it found almost three times as many samples of Koobface as it found in the previous quarter. Almost anyone who has spent much time on social networking sites like Facebook or Twitter has seen examples of Koobface.

“It's something that works very well in a social networking environment,” Wosotowsky said. “They put up a message that says something like 'hey, I found naked pictures of you on the Internet, click here.' Someone clicks on that and they try to do a drive-by download or some sort of Javascript that either infects their machine or tries to do something with their account in order to send the same message to more of their friends and then more of their friends.”

If you haven't come across a message like that, it's because the social networking companies monitor what's in their system. When they see something like that, they remove it. But they can't be everywhere at once and many of these bogus messages manage stay up for a while.

“As a way to distribute malware, it's a pretty good one,” Wosotowsky said.

When you see messages that make you feel even slightly nervous or uncomfortable, Wosotowsky said the best course of action is to simply ignore them. If they are malware the social networking site will at some point remove them.

Low profile

With organized crime more heavily involved in today's malware, the hackers' footprints are harder to detect. In the past many viruses and malware might “brick” a machine. In other words, it might make your machine run slower or grind to a halt altogether. It was a dead giveaway that your computer had been infected. But times have changed.

“Operators in the Mafia-dominated malware area don't want to brick a machine,” Wosotowsky said. “They want to make money off those machines, whether it's sending spam, doing denial-of-service attacks or engaging in financial fraud. “If you've been infected with a really professionally-made virus, your computer might even run better afterward.”

In spite of early predictions that 2013 would be the year of mobile malware, MacAfee reports the evidence has yet to emerge. In fact, growth of mobile malware declined slightly during the period. However, there was an alarming 40% increase in Android malware.

“What we've started to see are attempts to do drive-by downloads on the Android operating system itself,” Wosotowsky said.

That means the threat isn't just from downloading a suspect app, as it was in the past. It all points to the need to be more careful online, whether you are at your desk or on the go, and taking advantage of every security measure available.

“Having up-to-date anti-virus on you system is important but people should understand that it is your last line of defense,” Wosotowsky said. “Once hackers get past your anti-virus, they're going to have their way with your machine.”

While the world economy mostly just marked time in the first quarter of 2013, the “hacker economy,” populated by operators who use a large numb...
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Get ready for new web browsers

New browsers are popping up and the mouse may be headed for extinction

Microsoft's Internet Explorer, Google Chrome and Mozilla Firefox are instantly recognizable as today's top web browsers. But for how long?

As technology changes, web browsers will have to change too, as people don't use the Internet in the same way as they did even 10 years ago. Many people are constantly online or they're using smartphone apps, but web browsers have stayed more or less the same.

Take Internet Explorer for example. It hasn't changed that much at all over the years, but now according to the Wall Street Journal, Microsoft is going the touch-screen route and creating a web browser that can be manipulated by a press or a swipe.

Since a lot of folks are using apps today almost as much as they're using the web, companies are attempting to make web browsers just as fast and easy to use as today's apps.

Just this past April, Google released its updated version of Google Chrome which includes a voice feature so you can surf the web by talking instead of typing. The new Google Chrome is still in beta.

Mitchell Baker, Chairperson of the Mozilla Foundation and former CEO of Mozilla Corporation, said web browsers have to be updated to meet the ever-changing ways that people are using the Internet.

Consumers no longer browse, Baker says says. They have specific destinations they like to visit and most times they know what pages they want to go to. Browsers should accommodate that. 

"The way we think about it is much too concrete. We don't browse anymore for sure," said Baker at the LeWeb conference in Paris.

No longer mysterious

And it's true. The web is no longer this new and mysterious thing that we want to explore. Most of us know which pages we want to visit and we visit these same pages every day.

Then there's the touch-screen, which seems bound to replace the mouse. In February, Microsoft released a new browser for Windows 7 and 8 called Internet Explorer 10, which takes the touch-screen concept and completely runs with it. 

Instead of clicking on different icons to access the site you want, all you have to do is touch a page to open it. Microsoft says Internet Explorer 10 is the first browser that's perfect for touch.

Cloud browsers

With most people having multiple devices, many want to be able to access their files, sites, apps and messages whether they're on their computer, smartphone or tablet. So companies like Maxthon Ltd.are creating browsers that allow them to do that.

Similar to Dropbox, the Maxthon "cloud browser" lets users send or download information to a cloud-based account and access that information on multiple devices.

Right now Maxthon customizes its browsers for whatever device you're using, whether it's your smartphone, home computer or tablet. 

In addition, Maxthon announced a deal with Pioneer Electronics to create touch screens in cars. That's not popular with safety advocates but there may be ways to reduce the risks from driving while browsing or texting. Maybe a new kind of browser could do that somehow.

Then there's Servo, a relatively new project created by Mozilla and Samsung that's supposed to reinvent how web browsers function as well.

"Servo is a research project to develop a new web browser engine," said a Mozilla employee during an interview with NetMagazine"Our goal is to create an architecture that takes advantage of parallelism at many levels, both on the CPU and GPU, while eliminating common sources of bugs and security vulnerabilities associated with incorrect memory management and data races."

"With Servo, we aim to take the kinds of fluid, richer multimedia experiences expected in today's smartphone and tablet applications to the next level on tomorrow's web and tomorrow's hardware," the Mozilla worker said.

Internet Explorer may even have to come up with a new name eventually, because we don't explore the Internet anymore. We quickly grab our devices, visit a page, then move on.

Microsoft's Internet Explorer, Google Chrome and Mozilla Firefox are just some of today's popular web browsers.But as technology changes, web browsers wi...
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Web tools to help you plan for death

From disposing of digital files to making out your will, there's an app for your final exit

Two things in life are certain, death and taxes. Having just paid your taxes you might want to spend a little time planning for the other certainty. Fortunately, the Internet offers a growing number of handy tools to help.

As we recently reported, Google has announced a new feature that allows you to tell Google now what to do with your digital assets, such as Gmail folders, if you die or become incapacitated. It's a way around the problem of most online services refusing to release user IDs and passwords to survivors without making them jump through various hoops.

Do your own eulogy

Meanwhile, two St. Louis women have founded a website where you can record and upload a video eulogy to one day be played at your funeral. Alba Carrico, co-founder of myowneulogy.com, said the idea for the site came after attending funerals of friends' parents and noticing the eulogies were fairly generic, almost like obituaries.

“Sometimes the priest doing the funeral knows who you are but doesn't really know you,” Carrico said. “We felt people should be able to leave their own eulogy and tell it the way you want to be remembered.”

You could have your best friend or an older relative record your eulogy. But Carrico says most people record their own closing remarks.

“For example, I would be addressing the crowd at my funeral,” she said. That's what we're trying to make people understand. That it's easier to say good-bye when you're healthy and you aren't really thinking about dying. We want people to feel comfortable when they say good-bye and tell people they love them.”

Accessible through QR code

To make your eulogy accessible long after your funeral, you can link your video to a QR code that you can have placed on your headstone or urn so people can scan it and see your eulogy years after you're gone.

“We wanted to make our website like a YouTube for the afterlife, now,” Carrico said.

The site has rapidly grown in less than a year of operation and Carrico and her partner are currently seeking crowdfunding through indiegogo.com to expand it.

Another site, DeathClock.com, tries to help you plan for the post-life experience by predicting the exact day you'll depart this earth. The site features a “death calculator,” into which you enter your birth date, your sex, and “mode.” That's a description of your outlook, whether you tend to be an optimist or pessimist.

It also asks whether you are a smoker and asks you to enter your body mass index (BMI). If you aren't sure, it provides another calculator to help you determine that.

Final departure date

With all that information, the calculator predicts your precise date of departure. In the case of your writer, it's July 15, 2041.

Before dying it's a good idea to make out a will. There are a number of online legal sites than can help you prepare a last will and testament. But if you're always on the go, you can even take care of it on your mobile device, using the MyWill app.

The 99-cent app, according to its developers, allows you to quickly make these final arrangements on your iPhone or iPad. It can be used in all states except Louisiana.

We do not, however, recommend do-it-yourself wills if you have assets beyond a few thousand dollars. You should consult an attorney to discuss the variables that affect your estate.

Two things in life are certain, death and taxes. Having just paid your taxes you might want to spend a little time planning for the other certainty. Fortun...
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What cyber warfare means for consumers

Financial data and vital infrastructure could be at risk

Chances are, when you're scanning the news you don't spend a lot of time reading about the latest cyber warfare attack. After all, it's just countries battling one another with computers – doesn't affect consumers, right?

Don't be too sure about that. In late March a massive cyber attack took place, not between warring nations but between an anti-spam group and a hosting service that rents server space to spammers. It resulted in what experts are calling the largest denial-of-service attack in the history of the Internet.

The players were Spamhous, a European group fighting spam, and Cyberbunker, a Dutch company that rents server space to a wide variety of clients, including those that send out spam. When Spamhous added Cyberbunker to its blacklist, war broke out.

It's war!

Swarms of computers suddenly started sending out huge data streams. In this latest attack, cyber warriors exploited the Internet's Domain Naming System (DNS), bombarding Spamhous' servers with data requests. Very soon, the servers couldn't be reached by anyone else.

But the effects didn't stop there. Many Internet users in Europe and North America found the Internet suddenly slowed or ground to a halt. Some found streaming a video on Netflix next to impossible. Others had trouble reaching websites they visit on a daily basis.

According to Chester Wisniewski, a senior security advisor at Sophos Canada, Tier One service providers, who carry the bulk of Internet traffic, were simply overwhelmed by the volume of traffic from this attack. The signals you send from your computer to reach a particular place on the network had to contend with this huge overload of traffic. In this case consumers were collateral damage.

Life and death

But more may be at stake than inconvenience. Some believe that money and lives could be at risk due to the rising levels of cyber warfare. One of these people is former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, who, from his seat in the Pentagon, was getting an up-close view of the threat every day.

Before leaving office Panetta told Time Magazine that Americans tend to wait for a crisis before acting. In this case, he says, that could be dangerous. Sophisticated cyber warriors can turn loose worms, bots and malware that can infect networks all over the Internet, causing major damage.

“It is the kind of capability that can basically take down a power grid, take down a water system, take down a transportation system, take down a financial system,” Panetta told the magazine. “We are now in a world in which countries are developing the capability to engage in the kind of attacks that can virtually paralyze a country.”

That's because consumers – not just businesses – are heavily dependent on the web in a way they were not just a decade ago. Think about it – when was the last time you wrote a check?

Hackers one step ahead

Experts at Georgia Tech -- the Georgia Tech Information Security Center (GTISC) and the Georgia Tech Research Institute (GTRI) -- constantly work to stay one step ahead of the hackers. They say 2013 is posing some steep challenges.

One of their concerns is the increase in cloud-based botnets. For example, attackers can use stolen credit card data to purchase cloud computing resources and create dangerous clusters of temporary virtual attack systems.

Cyber criminals can even manipulate search engine algorithms and other automated mechanisms that control what information you see when you do a search. Moving beyond typical search engine poisoning, researchers believe that manipulating users’ search histories may be a next step in ways that attackers use legitimate resources for illegitimate gains.

Fertile ground

The most fertile ground may be in mobile browser and mobile wallet vulnerabilities. While only a very small number of U.S. mobile devices show signs of infection, the explosive proliferation of smartphones will continue to tempt attackers into exploiting user and technology-based vulnerabilities, particularly with the browser function and digital wallet apps.

The threat could be made worse because employers appear too willing to allow employees to access corporate systems through their personal devices. This, the experts fear, could be a virtual Trojan horse, giving hackers unfettered access to private data and vital infrastructure systems.

To combat this global threat INTERPOL is stepping up its cooperation with companies in the cyber security industry. INTERPOL's Global Complex for Innovation (IGCI) announced earlier this month it will equip international law enforcement with the tools and knowledge needed to better deal with the escalating problem. Eugene Kaspersky, CEO and co-founder of Kaspersky Lab, says his company will help.

“I have been pushing for the creation of what I used to call an ‘Internet-INTERPOL’ for over a decade now, and at last it has finally come to pass,” Kaspersky said. “It should come as no surprise that we wholeheartedly support this initiative.”

The new international policing effort is expected to be operational early next year.

What to do

There's very little consumers can do about a cyber battle that slows the Internet or doesn't allow them to visit a particular site. Of more pressing concern is the security of your personal devices.

Make sure you have up to date anti-virus software installed on all devices, not just desktop PCs. Mobile devices are increasingly vulnerable to attack. Mobile security software packages cost as little as $15.

Chances are, when you're scanning the news you don't spend a lot of time reading about the latest Cyber warfare attack. After all, it's just countries batt...
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Feds update disclosure standards for online ads, including tweets

Ads can be deceptive and unfair no matter how short they are

OK, it's oh so clever to send out a short tweet about a life-changing new shampoo or a really cool new snack bar, but look out. If it's a paid endorsement or advertisement, it has to be labeled as such.

The Federal Trade Commission yesterday released a new document -- guidance for mobile and other online advertisers -- that spells out just how clear those disclosures need to be. Answer: very clear.

How can you do it in a tweet? Simple: put "ad:" in front of the hucksterism you're putting out there. Same goes for endorsements or "likes" on Facebook. It can't look like a personal endorsement or gee-whiz exclamation if someone's paying for it. 

Laws apply equally

The new set of guidelines make it clear that consumer protection laws apply equally to marketers across all mediums, whether delivered on a desktop computer, a mobile device, or more traditional media such as television, radio, or print. 

If a disclosure is needed to prevent an online ad claim from being deceptive or unfair, it must be clear and conspicuous.  Under the new guidance, this means advertisers should ensure that the disclosure is clear and conspicuous on all devices and platforms that consumers may use to view the ad. 

Disclosures must be clear enough that they aren't "misleading a significant minority of reasonable consumers," the FTC said.

The new guidance also explains that if an advertisement without a disclosure would be deceptive or unfair, or would otherwise violate a Commission rule, and the disclosure cannot be made clearly and conspicuously on a device or platform, then that device or platform should not be used.

The 2000 guidance stated that to help ensure clear and conspicuous disclosures,   advertisers should consider the disclosure’s placement and proximity to the relevant ad claim, its prominence, whether audio disclosures are loud enough to be heard, and whether visual disclosures appear for long enough to be noticed. 

Although the 2000 guidelines defined proximity as “near, and when possible, on the same screen,” and stated that advertisers should “draw attention to” disclosures, the new guidance says disclosures should be “as close as possible” to the relevant claim.

Like the original guidance, the updated Dot Com Disclosures calls on advertisers to avoid using hyperlinks for disclosures that involve product cost or certain health and safety issues.  The new guidelines also call for labeling hyperlinks as specifically as possible, and they caution advertisers to consider how their hyperlinks will function on various programs and devices. 

OK, it's oh so clever to send out a short tweet about a life-changing new shampoo or a really cool new snack bar, but look out. If it's a paid endorsement ...
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Want to do a little 3D designing? Now you can

Shapeways.com bridges the gap between 3D printing and the everyday consumer.

Okay, I admit it. I’m kind of the artsy fartsy type and I get extremely excited anytime I get to be creative, which happens to be everyday thanks to my job and probably one of the biggest perks of being an artsy type is belonging to a massive community of creative people that has everyone from painters, actors, poets, photographers, musicians and more.

I have an equal amount of respect and admiration for all creative types and oftentimes I wish it was me that came up with one of their great ideas or concepts, but probably the people that I’m most blown away by are designers who are able to take a mere idea and bring it to three-dimensional life.

It’s safe to assume that many people are like myself in that they might be able to put together a song or they might be able to draw something if they had to, but when it comes to creating beautiful buildings, cool-looking furniture or intricate sculptures, many of us wouldn’t even dare try, not because we don’t possess any good ideas, it’s mainly because we don’t have access to the right kind of technology.

Shapeways.com bills itself as the “world’s leading 3D printing marketplace and community,” and whether that’s true is arguable, but one thing Shapeways has going for itself is that it’s one of the first Internet companies to jump into the 3D printing industry and offer a way for everyday consumers to take advantage of it.

Quite simply, Shapeways is to designers what websites like KitsyLane.com are to jewelry makers, in that people can sell their own designs over the Internet.

Not just design

But instead of being able to sell just a statement necklace or being able to offer a cool-looking bracelet to someone, you can actually put together just about anything your mind can come up with, as long as it’s under a certain size. From there, you can have it printed and shipped to either yourself or someone who’s willing to pay good money for it.

In case you’re unfamiliar with 3D printing, it’s the concept of taking the blueprints of any design from just about any object and duplicating it through the use of a specially made 3D printer. We offered a full story on it last year, when the concept was just starting to hit mainstream consumer realms.

The idea behind Shapeways’ approach is to capture people who may be interested in 3D printing, but don’t have the funds or interest in purchasing their own 3D printer, which can easily go for thousands of dollars.

To get started, one must first create an account and then you can pretty much start designing products after that, but obviously the more challenging part for some people will be to actually create the designs.

If you’re already familiar with 3D printing in terms of what materials to select and how to properly specify the dimensions of an object, you can jump from the signing-in phase to the design phase, and choose to either have your product shipped to you or placed into Shapeways’ store for sale.

The company will determine a price for your object based on design, size, and materials and shipping costs, all included in the price, which will be listed next to your design once it’s available for purchase.

User-friendly

In terms of the general Internet reviews about Shapeways and how easy it is to create stuff, most people have given the site pretty good ratings for being user-friendly for people who know about 3D printing and for those who don’t.

As far as the quality of the objects you’re designing, they seem to be pretty well-made and sturdy according to some who have received products through the mail already.

For those who are not in the know about 3D printing, Shapeways has a bunch of tutorial links that users can click on for help and you can post your questions in the community forum and other users will be able to give you instruction, but if you would rather have another Shapeway user actually create a design for you, you can do that too.

In addition, the site suggests a handful of 3D modeling packages like Rhino, Blender and Maya, which can help walk you through the process of  3D printing from A to Z if need be.

Some of the previous reviewers of the site complained about how long it takes to get finished products shipped, which can be anywhere from 10 to 21 days, depending on the type of material you use for your object.

And although people these days are making a lot of things through 3D printing, users aren’t allowed to print any weaponry or distasteful material  of a sexual nature. Doing so will get your design automatically removed by the company.

Next big thing

A lot of experts are saying that 3D printing is the next big thing that will dramatically shift manufacturing, commerce and trade in the very near future and if you’ve been paying attention during the last couple of years, you’ve probably noticed more and more people talking about this huge shift in technology.

So before 3D printing becomes mainstream and a normal part of our society, which it probably will very soon, using Shapeways is a good way to start tinkering around with the overall concept.

Additionally, the site does a decent job of creating a bridge between the idea of design and the average consumer who normally might not give 3D printing a try.

And the site can be useful for the experienced designer who wants to sell products, but doesn’t have the proper technology to do 3D prints, which is a definite plus for the site.

Whether Shapeways grows into a major destination for consumers remains to be seen, but if it could somehow cut down on some of its delivery times, it would not only help the site, it would probably attract more users too.

It'll be interesting to see where the concept of 3D printing goes from here.

Okay, I admit it. I’m kind of the artsy fartsy type and I get extremely excited anytime I get to be creative, which happens to be every day thanks to...
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Netflix: U.S. leads in broadband speeds

Google Fiber helps put USA over the top, even though few customers have it

You frequently hear complaints that the United States lags in broadband access, and it may well be that rural areas aren't as well served as they might be. But when it comes to speed, the U.S. is doing just fine, thanks.

That's the result of Netflix' most recent Global Speed Index, which aggregates performance results from its 33 million worldwide subscribers, letting consumers see which ISP offers the best Netflix performance in their country.

The U.S. can thank Google Fiber for putting it over the top in February. Although there aren't many Google Fiber customers yet, since the service is only being offered in a portion of Kansas City, those lucky few saw an average Netflix speed of 3.35 Mbps in February.

The Netflix finding lend support to a recent report from the Federal Communications Commission, which found broadband speeds hitting, and even exceeding, their advertised targets much of the time. 

Second in is the U.K., where Virgin customers averaged 2.37 Mbps during the same month. At the bottom of the list is Mexico, where the fastest ISP averaged 2.10 Mbps.

As for which companies are delivering the fastest streaming in the U.S., well, here's the chart:

Netflix unveiled its Global Speed Index website Monday, aggregating performance results from its 33 million worldwide subscribers in one place, a...
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Mailbox: Is this how checking your email should be in 2013?

The creators promise blissful euphoria, which may be going a little far

Remember when being able to send an email seemed futuristic, when the very idea of being able to send an instant message to someone without pulling out a pen and paper seemed George Jettsonish?

It seems the moment that email became available it changed many of us from occasional letter-writers, who only sent letters on special occasions, to full-on correspondents who contacted people for just about any reason, even if it was just to say a quick hello.  

Also, email made it easier for people to keep up with the hard-to-get-in-touch-with types.

But just like any other revolutionary invention, the revolution was short-lived and before you knew it, checking your inbox went from an anticipated daily event, to something you looked forward to about as much as you did to checking your physical mailbox.

And once social media sites swooped down from the digital skies and took over the Internet, email took a back seat while pages like Facebook and Twitter shared the driver’s seat and advanced the vehicle of communication to much greater speeds.

Another shot at steering

Well, a company by the name of Orchestra Inc. wants to give email use another shot at the steering wheel by releasing the very buzzed-about app Mailbox, that’s supposed to make checking your messages way easier by allowing you to quickly swipe them into various categories.

It’s like the creators of the app took the concept of message filtering and added a much-needed 2013 twist to it.

Arguably the best feature of the app is that users don’t have to click on emails the traditional way, since it lets you swipe messages back and forth and allows you to really control how messages are accessed.

And just like you swipe images on your smartphone screen, Mailbox lets you quickly put messages in places like your trash bin or in your archives and it allows you to move emails to virtual folders that can later be opened.

But unlike traditional email folders, users can place messages into very specific destinations, which helps, since most of us tend to read different emails at different times of the day or week.

Users can store messages in specific locations named “later today,” “the weekend,” “next week” or “in a month,” and once you make your selection messages will be resent to you, so you don’t have to manually check those folders in order to read them. You can also select a date as to when the email will arrive in your inbox again.

Take a number

What’s also different about Mailbox is that people have to reserve a slot in order to access it, and the reason for that is twofold.

For one, there’s been a crazy demand for the new app, which recently launced and two, the company is using this reservation system to build even more buzz and anticipation, which so far seems to be working.

For those who downloaded the app prior to its launch, users can simply enter their registration code and begin using it, but for those who are newly interested you have to download it, which puts you on a first-come-first-serve waiting line.

You can also watch your place in the waiting line once you download the app, so you’ll have a basic idea of when you’ll be able to use it. The company also sends you a message that lets you know that your access is available.

The co-creator and CEO of the app, Gentry Underwood, said having the ability to specify where emails go, according to how you want to read them, allows your inbox to become less muddled and lets people manage how they're contacted.

“We want to decide ‘do I need to reply now,’ can I deal with this later,’ or ‘should I get it out of the way and never deal with it again,’” he said in a published interview.

Blissful euphoria

“That creates a very different experience and peace of mind where you know that everything is in its place. All of a sudden you can have the blissful experience without developing the ninja-like discipline and that’s the secret sauce behind this more euphoric experience.”

Honest, he really said that. And maybe it's a good thing because not everyone is feeing blissful or euphoric.

Over at BusinessInsider, columnist Nicholas Carson griped that after waiting two weeks to active Mailbox, he deleted it in just two days.

Why? "Mailbox makes you deal with one email at a time," he grumped. The whole idea is to save time, not create more busywork, he said.

Bonnie Cha at AllThingsD was a bit more pleased: "It has its limitations. Namely, it only works with Gmail accounts, and it doesn’t automatically sync labels. But I found the ability to set aside messages with reminders to respond later to be extremely useful."

Will it work for you? Well, it might. There's only one way to find out.
.


Remember when being able to send an email seemed futuristic?Do you remember when the very idea of being able to send an instant message to someone withou...
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Historic military burial records at your fingertips

Records from historic national cemetery ledgers have entered the digital age

Want to know where your great-great grandfather -- who died in the Battle of Gettysburg -- is buried? That information may soon be just a mouse click away.

The Department of Veterans Affairs  is teaming up with the Internet-based genealogy research firm Ancestry.com to bring burial records from historic national cemetery ledgers into the digital age. The effort will make the collection -- predominantly of Civil War interments -- accessible to researchers and Ancestry.com subscribers doing historical and genealogical research.

“We are excited to be able to share this wealth of primary documentation,” said VA’s Under Secretary for Memorial Affairs Steve L. Muro. “With the help of Ancestry.com, we have opened the doors to thousands of service members’ histories through the information contained in these burial ledgers.”

Gaining access

From the 1860s until the mid-20th century, U.S. Army personnel tracked national cemetery burials in hand-written burial ledgers or “registers.” Due to concern for the fragile documents and a desire to expand public access to the ledger contents, VA’s National Cemetery Administration (NCA) duplicated about 60 hand-written ledgers representing 36 cemeteries using a high-resolution scanning process.

The effort resulted in high quality digital files that reproduced approximately 9,344 pages and 113,097 individual records. NCA then transferred the original ledgers to the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) where they will be preserved. In addition to the NCA’s ledgers, NARA was already the steward of at least 156 military cemetery ledgers transferred from the Army years ago.

In 2011, NCA initiated a partnership with Ancestry.com to index its cemetery ledgers, allowing the data to be searched or browsed in a variety of ways. Ancestry.com spent more than 600 hours indexing NCA’s records at no charge to the government.

Ancestry.com has assembled the digitized and indexed NCA burial ledgers with those at NARA into a new collection, "U.S. Burial Registers, Military Posts and National Cemeteries, 1862-1960." The burial records contain information such as name, rank, company/regiment, date of death, age at death, date of burial and grave number.

No charge

A large number of Civil War soldiers were buried where they fell in battle or in temporary cemeteries, and sometimes that information, along with religious affiliation, can be found in the ledgers.

The collection was posted on the Ancestry.com Website on Veterans Day 2012. The information can be accessed free of charge by VA personnel as well as by employees of the other federal agencies that maintain national cemeteries, the Departments of the Interior and Defense.

Ledger data will also be available for free at all NARA facilities, and at public libraries that subscribe to Ancestry.com. NCA cemetery staff will use the database to answer requests from the public. The general public will have access to the database on their personal devices through Ancestry.com’s regular subscription service.

VA operates 131 national cemeteries in 39 states and Puerto Rico and 33 soldiers' lots and monument sites. Seventy two of VA’s national cemeteries date from the Civil War.

More than 3.7 million Americans, including Veterans of every war and conflict -- from the Revolutionary War to the operations in Iraq and Afghanistan -- are buried in VA’s national cemeteries on approximately 20,000 acres of land.

Want to know where your great-great grandfather -- who died in the Battle of Gettysburg -- is buried? That information may soon be just a mouse click away....
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How to keep yourself from getting cyber-stalked

Each year, more and more people become victims of Internet stalking, bullying and harassment.

Sooner or later, we all get that email that we don’t want, or receive something posted on our social network page that we wish we never got, and whether the message is from a company, an overzealous salesperson or from a personal acquaintance, they can be annoying and even upsetting at times.

But at what point do these unwanted messages go from being just annoying to becoming full-on harassment?

The month of January is Annual Stalking Awareness Month, and according to the Stalking Resource Center of the National Center for Victims of Crime, stalking someone online has a lot to do with repeated attempts of harassment and a certain level of deliberateness, which isn’t always the case with someone occasionally sending you a message that you don’t want.

Michael Kaiser who is the executive director of the National Cyber Security Alliance (NCSA) says cyber-stalking is nothing that consumers should take lightly, and as soon as you notice a pattern or receive just one threatening message, you should contact your local police department as soon as possible.

“In order to effectively combat unwanted contact, it is important to know the signs of stalking and how to deal with such related incidents,” said Kaiser in a statement.

“Aggressive outreach such as persistent emails, harassing posts or text messages are not acceptable forms of online communication and NCSA encourages affected individuals to contact local law enforcement or victim service agencies to report such activities and get help.”

Take action

Experts say if you ever find yourself a victim of cyber-stalking you should immediately suspend your account whether it’s your email or social network page, and consumers should always make sure all of their contact pages have the correct privacy settings, so it’s difficult for cyber-stalkers to locate you in the first place.

Experts also say that Internet stalkers and other online criminals will more than likely pass up the person who makes it more difficult for them to commit their wrongdoings, and even though it can be tempting at times, people should keep the sharing of their personal information to a minimum, like announcing you’ll be out of town for the next two weeks.

Safety experts also stress for people to create usernames that aren’t gender specific, and be sure not to publicize any information that may give a cyber-stalker an idea where you live.

So posting that photo of you standing next to your new car in the driveway, that also happens to show a street sign or a familiar landmark in the background is a great big no-no, say experts.

Go Google yourself

Anupama Srinivasan, who is a program director for a non-profit organization that deals with violence against women, says that people should Google themselves just to get an idea of what personal information is already out there.

And just because you may see your name and address online, doesn’t mean that you have to accept it being there, because obviously the more personal information you’re able to remove from cyber space, the harder it will be for someone to stalk or harass you.

“If you locate personal information like address, phone numbers or pictures or information you don’t want to be out there, speak to the people involved and get it deleted,” said Srinivasan in a published interview.

“Write to the website that lists your phone number without your permission and get it removed. Use your full name and/or the name you go by generally to Google yourself, and be sure to add ‘plus photographs’ in your Google search.”

According to the NCSA one in five people in the U.S. have experienced cyber based crimes that include the stealing of personal information, stealing of identities, bullying and of course cyber-stalking, and over 29 percent of consumers said they know someone who was a victim of an Internet crime.

In all 50 states in the U.S. cyber-stalking is a crime, but some say it doesn’t get the same amount of attention that other Internet crimes do, like identity theft or pilfering money, and for this very reason experts say that consumers need to be even more vigilante when it comes to sharing too much information online and “friending” people they may not know.

The NCSA also says that removing old Internet posts or entries is a smart idea, and just like any other kind of stalker, cyber-stalkers will look under every stone until they can piece together your whereabouts or the necessary information to harass you or even locate where you are.

Be discreet

Also, consumers should not be posting their whereabouts online, as it’s now commonplace for people to let everyone know which restaurant they’re eating at or which movie they're attending, and for someone willing to sit by a computer to learn all of your daily movements, you’ll just be making it that much more easier for them to accomplish whatever bad deed they’re intending to commit.

Experts also say as parents use some of these safety measures in their own Internet use, they should also continually remind their children of what to do in order to diminish the chances of them getting stalked or bullied online.

“Adults are not the only ones at risk when it comes to cyber-stalkers,” said Gary Davis in a statement, who is the vice president of global consumer marketing at the software security company McAfee.

“Parents need to communicate with their children about such Internet dangers and promote Internet safety. Be sure to secure your devices with strong passwords and frequent updates, connect only with people you know, and be careful not to share contact information or your location,” he said.

Sooner or later, we all get that email that we don’t want, or receive something posted onto our social network page that we wish we never g...
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Java marketer goes scot-free while Internet prodigy is hounded to death by feds

Does it sometimes seem that the iron boot of the State falls on the wrong people?

Two current news stories illustrate a seeming imbalance: a brilliant Internet prodigy is hounded to death by federal prosecutors for misdeeds involving scholarly papers. Meanwhile, flaws in a giant corporation's software threaten worldwide economic catastrophe but elicit no federal action except a fix-it-yourself warning to consumers.

The Internet prodigy was Aaron Swartz, who took his life at the age of 26 while facing federal prosecution that could have resulted in a 30-year prison sentence.

The above-it-all corporation is Oracle, which markets Java, the popular program that gives the Internet much of the interactivity prized, frankly, more by advertisers than consumers.

While still a teen-ager, Swartz developed RSS -- the Internet protocol that is distributed free to users that has enabled millions of Web sites to easily syndicate their content to anyone who want to display it elsewhere on the Web. The technology was key to the development of the popular content-sharing site Reddit, which counted Swartz as its co-founder.

Scholarly papers

Swartz ran afoul of the law when he was accused in 2011 of illegally accessing documents on the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Web site, downloading them and making them freely available to others. 

While this may have been a bit more than a prank, it was not a scheme to make money or expose vital defense secrets to enemy nations. It was, apparently, primarily an exercise in unlocking information and making it freely available to everyone.

The government calls it theft, although it is hardly comparable to the act of using a mask and gun to deprive a storeowner of his day's receipts or bankrupting consumers through sleight-of-hand deception. It's not even comparable to copying CDs and DVDs without permission, a "crime" that drives the the entertainment and software industries to reach out frantically to their friends on Capitol Hill, seeking ever tougher penalties for what in most cases are laughably minor infractions.

But maybe it's not so strange. This is, after all, a country where you can without difficulty buy a car that will go 175 miles per hour or a rifle that will shoot hundreds of rounds without reloading but where you face prosecution for buying too many nasal decongestant tablets or using the wrong kind of asthma inhaler.

It's not as though Swartz' actions, even though technically illegal, would actually bring physical harm to anyone. Perhaps one or two tenured faculty members would receive a few dollars less in royalties for a learned article, an outcome that does not seem to warrant a $1 million fine or 30 years in prison for the perpetrator, the penalties that hung over Swartz' head.

Or, as Aaron's family and friends said in a statement: "“Aaron’s death is not simply a personal tragedy. It is the product of a criminal justice system rife with intimidation and prosecutorial overreach. Decisions made by officials in the U.S. Attorney’s office and at MIT contributed to his death.”

Above it all

Then there's Oracle, which sat on its hands for weeks as reports circulated of serious security deficiencies in its Java software. There was, critics warned, a real and present danger that hackers would be able to insert malware into computers running Java that posed a threat both to individual consumers and to businesses and governments.

The threat to consumers involves identity theft. By eavesdropping on individuals' computers, crooks could gain access to bank and credit card accounts, possibly cleaning out consumers' checking and savings accounts and plunging them thousands of dollars into debt.

An even more severe threat involves the ability of thieves and terrorists to take control of computers and turn them into zombies that could be used to carry out gigantic denial-of-service attacks on government and industry, the same types of attacks that have repeatedly disabled major banks' Web sites in recent months.

Security analysts also worry that such attacks could compromise national security, disrupt power distribution and shut down vital transportation networks.

It's a big deal, in other words. Security vulnerabilities in commercial software can result in billions of dollars in economic losses and major loss of life. This is several orders of magnitude more serioues than pilfering someone's Ph.D. thesis.

Taxpayer dollars

So worried was the Department of Homeland Security that last week it issued a nationwide warning to consumers, asking them to disable or uninstall Java on their machines. Of course, most consumers have no idea how to do this, or whether they even have Java on their computer.

Oracle remained silent during all of this, as government agencies spent taxpayer dollars to identify the threat and warn consumers. It finally issued a statement over the weekend saying it was working on an update, which it planned to issue on Tuesday.

Although issuing a terse statement, which it did not bother including in the Pressroom section of its Web site, Oracle had no information for consumers readily available on its corporate site

So that's it, apparently. If you're a youthful enthusiast of the information-should-be-free school, the Justice Department will spend vast quantities of taxpayer funds to prosecute and persecute you for doing what amounts to not much of anything.

But endanger hundreds of millions of consumers by exposing them to the very real potential of critical economic and physical harm? No problem. Have a nice day. We're from Washington and we're here to help you.

Aaron Swartz (Creative Commons photo)Two current news stories illustrate a seeming imbalance: a brilliant Internet prodigy is hounded to death by feder...
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Google plans free Wi-Fi in NYC's Chelsea neighborhood

In Kansas City, Google Fiber has captured a lot of interest

Google said it will provide free Wi-Fi in the Chelsea neighborhood of New York City, where the company maintains its New York offices. It will become the largest contiguous Wi-Fi network in New York.

"This network will not only be a resource for the 2,000-plus residents of the Fulton Houses, it will also serve the 5,000-plus student population of Chelsea as well as the hundreds of workers, retail customers and tourists who visit our neighborhood every day," said Ben Fried, Google's Chief Information Officer.

The network will cover all of the outdoor areas of the Fulton Houses, a property owned and managed by the New York City Housing Authority, as well as several of the local public schools.

“We are excited to partner with Google in creating an important digital amenity in New York City and giving thousands of New Yorkers free Internet access,” said Dan Biederman, President of the Chelsea Improvement Company, which partnered with Google in the effort.

“New York is determined to become the world’s leading digital city, and universal access to high-speed Internet is one of the core building blocks of that vision,” said Mayor Michael Bloomberg. “Thanks to Google, free Wi-Fi across this part of Chelsea takes us another step closer to that goal.”

Fiber trial

Google is also conducting a massive experiment in bringing super-high-speed Internet connections to the home, wiring sections of Kansas City with fiber optic cable.

A recent survey found 30 percent of possible subscribers in the Kansas City metro area footprint, coined "fiberhoods," have paid a $10 pre-registration fee and 60 percent say they are interested in signing up for the service.

"Google Fiber has conducted a remarkable marketing campaign," said Glen Friedman, president of Ideas & Solutions Inc. "Historically, pay TV 'overbuilders' penetrate about one-third of their marketplace over time. This level of interest in the beginning is unprecedented. For Google Fiber, the challenge moving forward is to do an equally good job on the fulfillment."

The Internet giant employed a host of measured marketing tactics in Kansas City beyond the usual advertising and news coverage. Google and Google Fiber used their online advertising juggernaut, together with social media; they also hosted local promotional events planned by neighborhood organizers, opened a Google Fiber store, operated a Google ice cream truck and planted yard signs.         

Google said it will provide free Wi-Fi in the Chelsea neighborhood of New York City, where the company maintains its New York offices. It will become ...
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Ancestry.com: Useful or Stressful?

We looked at what some of our readers had to say, and the news isn't so good

For those interested in learning more about their family history, the Internet has made it much easier to do so.

In the past, one had to do a lot of physical legwork to gather old family information, which usually included hunting down old records, maybe going from town to town, and speaking with a lot of people to secure names, places and family facts.

But today, sites like Geneology.com and FamilySearch.org have provided a bunch of resources for people to use in their family history search, and for a fee, these sites promise to remove a lot of the time and effort that surrounds building a family tree.

Arguably, the most popular of these family search sites is Ancestry.com -- probably for its string of TV commercials that shows people discussing their experiences  and rambling on about how supposedly successful they were at pulling in all of the family information that they were looking for.

The site got its start years ago in Provo, Utah, partly as an outgrowth of the Mormon church's interest in geneology. But it quickly grew into a globe-girdling business and was sold late last year for $1.6 billion to the European private equity firm Permira and other investors.

In 2011, Ancestry.com reported a 33 percent increase in annual income, to nearly $400 million, with net income up 71 percent, to almost $63 million.

Ancestry.com claims to be the world’s largest family history website, with more than 2 million subscribers who have created about 39 million family trees and about 4 billion profiles of people.

That's all fine but to get an idea of what consumers had to say about Ancestry.com, we looked at reviews surrounding the site and tried to determine if things worked as the company promises and if customers found it worthwhile to shell out the amount of money required to get started.

Billing issues

Ancestry.com says it has about 2 million customers and no doubt it does. But how many of them are there willingly? Of the readers we've heard from, many reported they had been unable to cancel the service. Others were steamed about billing problems.

“December 2, 2012 my expired credit card was charged for a six-month subscription renewal,” wrote one consumer from Hawaii.

“I did not update my information because the email I received on December 1, 2012 stated the following: ‘Please update your payment information. We attempted to contact you recently about your Ancestry.com membership. Unless we receive updated payment information, your Ancestry.com membership will be closed in 11 days.’”

“To most people, that would mean you do not have to call, email or go through the website to cancel your membership.  I called Ancestry.com and was told that they gave me a grace period and my subscription expired October 2012. So I asked them if the membership expired and the credit card expired 7/2012, why did they charge the expired card December 2, 2012?”

“She told me I can leave a message after completing the 3-question survey at the end of the call,” our reader reported. Numerous attempts went nowhere.

Rusty, of Monroeville, Penn., had a similar problem.

“They say the trial is free, you think you cancelled, but the bills will keep coming. I did not notice the charges for several months. The first statement after my cancellation was clean, after that the charges started. I used the service for one day and paid over $100. I received no additional billing emails or letters.”

“After catching them, they acted like it was my fault and this is the first time it happened,” added Rusty. “I wished I would have checked this website before logging on.”

Does it work?

Consumers rate Ancestry.com

But beyond the billing issues, does the service actually work?

Doug of Oak Harbor, Wash. says he’s been doing business with Ancestry.com for a long time and although he’s found some of the services helpful, he’s run into a couple of snags that prevented him from gathering the family data that he was looking for.

He explained that although Ancestry.com has improved the amount of online resources it offers, if you happen to be an ardent fact-finder yourself, you most likely would have tapped into these same resources on your own.

Unfortunately, Doug didn’t get the help he was looking for from the site, but he did get the same billing headaches that many of our readers experienced.

Kellie of Virginia said that although Ancestry.com was able to pull up a map of the area that her family is from in Ireland, all of the help stopped there and she was on her own. 

“The county couldn’t find anything and I mean anything,” she wrote.

“So I contacted Ancestry.com and got a very snooty guy who basically told me that they don’t guarantee anything. What?! I tried to get the map to come up again, but never could. So, I was not only out the money I spent at Ancestry.com, but also the Irish research money that was clearly a waste.”

Be wary

So although having a little Internet assistance is nice when doing a family history search, you may have to prepare yourself for a lot of billing issues, which unfortunately is the case with many web-based companies.

You may also have to prepare yourself for not being able to find the information that you're looking for, which probably happens more times than the company is willing to mention.

We asked Ancestry.com for a response to the problems cited by our readers and got this:

"Ancestry.com strives to provide the best service possible for our members. We have recently introduced a comprehensive online customer support portal where customers can find assistance for a variety of topics, listed here."  

"These features include the ability to search a variety of articles, interact with other Ancestry.com members through the 'Ask the Community' feature, and the ability to contact us directly."

"Regarding our subscription terms, Ancestry.com has a customer-orinted refund policy which allows our members to cancel immediately at anytime, either online or by contacting customer support directly at 1-800-Ancestry."

"Customers can receive a refund up to 30 days on a new subcription and up to 7 days for a renewed subscription. Refunds are not given for monthly subscriptions. Ancestry.com Terms and Conditions are listed here." 

"We encourage customers to contact us directly if they have a specific concern they feel has not been resolved to their satisfaction via the methods mentioned above."

For those interested in learning more about their family history, the Internet has made it much easier to do so.In the past, one had to do a lot of physi...
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WaPo & HuffPost's differing takes on streaming video

The Post promises more of the same while HuffPo puts you in the picture

If there's one thing we probably don't need more of, it's endless discussions of politics from Washington reporters. On the other hand, if there's one thing we probably do need more of, it's reasonable and informed discussion between "experts" and the rest of us.

While the general pattern in media -- new and old -- is to figure out what has worked for others and then try to do the same thing more cheaply, more quickly or on a bigger scale. True innovation is rare.

Thus, it's interesting to note the approaches being taken to Internet video by two of the bigger names in the old and new media worlds -- the Washington Post and the Huffington Post.

WaPo, as it's known to many of its online followers, is frequently and fairly pilloried for seeing just about everything through the prism of politics -- interpreting the effects of hurricanes, mass murders and jobless data on the fates of political incumbents and challengers.

It thus comes as little surprise that the Post has announced plans for a new "online video channel" (catchy name, no?) that will provide at least 30 hours of programming each month, beginning this summer.

Video is popular with advertisers, the Post noted hopefully.

Gaffes and banality

The idea landed with a thud on the desk of Patrick B. Pexton, the Post's ombudsman -- the poor soul charged with representing the interests of the Post's readers.

"One of the problems of American journalism broadly is that stories about government have retreated while stories on politics and personality have skyrocketed," Pexton wrote last week. Washington coverage increasingly means just the White House, Congress and all politics all the time: the polls, the gaffes, who’s up, who’s down, who’s raising the most money. This coverage increases the banality of U.S. politics, where issues are never discussed beyond sound bites."

It's not as though there's any shortage of politics on the Web and TV, other critics noted. Sometimes, watching the endless jabbering of political reporters and other pundits on Fox, CNN, MSN, et al, one is left to wonder if anybody is out there doing any actual reporting.

And, as Paxton notes, it's not as though these endless discussions of politics actually do anything to inform American voters about the inner workings of government, which are actually a great deal more interesting and significant than the sorry dog-and-pony spectacles that pass for campaigns.

A little bit different

A fresher approach comes from the Huffington Post, a frequent target of old-school scribes who accuse it of being superficial and unoriginal. These are the same scribes who used to complain about TV news until budget cutbacks in TV news departments led to an increasing need for balding, overweight newspaper reporters to fill time cheaply.

Huffpost's take on video streaming is live.huffingtonpost.com. From 10 a.m. through 10 p.m. Eastern time weekdays, HuffPost Live features lengthy conversations that rotate from visting experts and pundits to viewers sitting in front of their laptops, thus doing as much programming in three days as the Post hopes to do in a month. Viewed on a computer, the screen is divided between the video feed and text comments submitted by viewers. On iPads and other devices, it works a little differently but the idea is the same.

It's really more like a town hall meeting or symposium than the usual shouting match or flash-cards-for-idiots format we've come to expect from broadcast and cable. We have to admit a slight bias here, since ConsumerAffairs got its start 15 years ago thinking that citizen collaboration could be a consumer protection tool almost as powerful as that mounted by government agencies and stodgy non-profits.

Curious about how HuffPost Live came about, we spoke a few weeks ago with HuffPo's founding editor Roy Sekoff, who is now president and co-creator of HuffPost Live, in this lightly-edited interview.

CA: Where did the idea for this originate?

"After we joined AOL, we started thinking about what we could do with that kind of guns, money and steel. I started thinking everything's happening in video, that's where advertisers want to be.

"That was basically the idea behind what we did but as we got into it, we realized that engagement would the differentiation. [On Huffpo[, we just passed our 200 millionth comment, which is insane. We moderate everything, so it's not spamming, trolls, etc.

"As I got deeper, I found out that 70% of all comments on Huffpo are in response to another comment. So I thought, what if we took those conversations and put them front and center on the streaming network. Once we made that decision, all the tumblers clicked into place – to put community front and center, make engagement the differentiator.

CA: Just like that, eh?

"Things have changed a little. We started out with a big screen up top. But when we decided to make engagement the key, that changed everything. At the end of the day, you're not tuning in for the visuals, it's engagement. So we shrunk the video, made room for the social stream and at the same time, we thought – OK, if our users are going to be part of the community, we want them to be as informed as possible. So we created a “resource well” under the video. So if you click on that, it shows you all the things we're using to plan that segment.

"You can come in there and read it, and when you come on the show, you can be as informed as any expert. So then, we said, that's cool. What if you could do that not just for the live segment, but for the one thats coming up. So we created “green rooms” – sort of an interactive program guide. You can scroll through anything for the next day. Click on that and you become immersed in that segment.

"It's really working. People are going there ahead of time, becoming engaged in the topic and getting ahead of the game – put your hand up to be a guest and say, hey, I have something to contribute to this segment.

"So that's how we came to this platform."

CA: Pretty brave, betting on substantive content

"Yes, well, the question is, do people want to do that? Will they want to do this on Huffpost and join us on air? Will they be any good at it? My premise was, I don't think it's that big a leap. Because of where we are with social technology, people are doing many of the things that we were hoping they would do.

"I was a little concerned that we were going to get a lot of bloviating without any depth of opinion. But the thing I find most rewarding is how good the community has been – the articulateness, the insight, the ability to have real conversations instead of just TV talk.

"We let our segments be longer. We wanted to avoid the a-b-a-b. You can sort of see it happening. Even people who are used to being on TV sort of relax when they see they're not going to get rushed out. It feels a little bit more natural and unrushed.

"It's transmedia. Everybody has been talking about the second-screen experience. Now we're doing the two-screen experience on one screen and we've found it really powerful, – people do want to do that. They form a community, they get to know each other. We do 12 hours of live programming and then repeat highlights and even then we get a tremendous amount of comments.

"It took on a new twist during the presidential debates. We got the rights to carry the debates, so we thought why don't we just run them? This is sort of like all the tweets – you're watching and commenting in real time. We ended up creating four different “rooms” – one for political junkies, one for comedy reaction, one for young voters and one for women. It was fun to see how people selected which room they wanted to be in.

"It's sort of created the 24-second news cycle – something fun about the fact that if you're not hip to binders full of women, you're sort of out of the conversation."

CA: Anybody else doing this?

"A lot of people are trying to get into streaming. WSJ Live, The New York Times, Politico TV. They're all kind of trying but for me the differentiator is the engagement and community.

"I kind of have a different view. People have asked me, why do I care about the ordinary person? I sort of have a different definition of expert – if you have skin in the game, then you're an expert. As consumers, we have data coming out of our ears. We don't really need some expert coming on.

"At the end of the day, I'm more interested in narrative, story-telling, putting flesh and blood on the data. Use story-telling and narrative and personal connections to things to put flesh and blood on the data. I think it works even better in some ways when you can actually see the person.

"We had a woman on the other day and it was really powerful. She's homeless but not that long ago had a $100,000 a year job, worked in media and then she got divorced and then got sick. Then she was in the hospital, couldn't work and then had a car accident. Those are the kinds of stories that's what were trying to do.

"Story telling makes for great journalism. Impactful journalism."

If there's one thing we probably don't need more of, it's endless discussions of politics from Washington reporters. On the other hand, if there's one thin...
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FTC concludes 19-month probe of Google without finding evidence of bias in search results

Google agrees to terms affecting patents and online advertising

Saying that the "facts just weren't there" to support charges of biased search results, the Federal Trade Commission today closed its 19-month investigation into Google after wresting the search giant's agreement to change some of its business practices that could stifle competition in the markets for popular devices such as smart phones, tablets and gaming consoles, as well as the market for online search advertising.

Pressed by reporters at a news conference, FTC Chairman Jon Leibowitz said that by a 5-0 vote, the bipartisan commission agreed that it had not found evidence that Google search results were purposely biased to unfairly promote its own products over those of competitors.

Leibowitz said the commission had "examined 9 million pages of documents, interviewed numerous industry participants and took sworn testimony of key Google executives." 

Leibowitz conceded that while "some evidence suggested Google was trying to eliminate competition" through changes in the format of its search results and  frequent tweaking of its search algorithms, the commission had concluded that "Google's primary reason for changing the look and feel was to improve the user experience."

"Tellingly, many of Google's rivals engaged in many of the same design changes," Leibowitz noted.

Critics were quick to pounce.

"The Federal Trade Commission’s settlement with Google fails to end its most anticompetitive practice," the California-based group Consumer Watchdog said today. 

“Google clearly skews search results to favor its own products and services while portraying the results as unbiased. That undermines competition and hurts consumers,” said John M. Simpson, director of the group’s Privacy Project. “The FTC rolled over for Google."

Patents and ads

Under the settlement, Google agreed to meet its prior commitments to allow competitors access – on "fair, reasonable, and non-discriminatory terms" – to patents on critical standardized technologies needed to make popular devices such as smart phones, laptop and tablet computers, and gaming consoles.

Also, in a separate letter of commitment, Google has agreed to give online advertisers more flexibility to simultaneously manage ad campaigns on Google’s AdWords platform and on rival ad platforms.

Google also agreed to refrain from misappropriating online content from so-called “vertical” websites that focus on specific categories such as shopping or travel for use in its own vertical offerings -- a practice referred to as "scraping." He said Google would allow local businesses and sites to opt out of being listed in Google's local and shopping searchers without being penalized in general search results.

FTC Chairman Jon Leibowitz at today's news conrferenceSaying that the "facts just weren't there" to support charges of biased search results, the Feder...
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Feds call news conference to discuss Google antitrust probe

The long-running investigation may finally be coming to an end

UPDATE: The Federal Trade Commission has scheduled a news conference today to make "an announcement concerning the investigation of Google, one of the largest technology companies in the world, for alleged anticompetitive conduct."

For what seems like forever, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has been considering potential antitrust actions against Google. Now that one of five FTC commissioners is about to step down, the pressure is on to complete the probe and reach an agreement with Google.

The Wall Street Journal reports today that a final deal may be announced this week, which presumably would mean today or tomorrow. However, a coalition of competitors and online companies is urging the FTC to move slowly and to wait until European regulators conclude their investigation.

"A key question for the FTC is whether it has all the relevant information in hand when it makes its enforcement decision," the group Fairsearch.org said on its web site.

"FairSearch remains convinced that US consumers and innovators deserve the same protections that the European Commission may adopt in Europe.  Consumers will fail to reap the benefits of a truly competitive online marketplace if Google is allowed to pick and choose where it biases its search results."

The FTC had been expected to wrap things up last month but Google reportedly offered to make several changes to its search practices and to settle concerns about patents it acquired when it bought Motorola, the Journal said.

Google CEO Larry Page met with the FTC in November while Google Chairman Eric Schmidt roamed the halls of Congress, lobbyist in tow.

At that time, the reports were that FTC Chairman Jon Leibowitz was  holding out for a consent decree to settle the agency's investigation while Page was saying he wouldn't submit to a consent decree.

The long-running probe has focused on Google's dominance of web search, trying to determine if the company unfairly promotes its own services over its competitors in the way it presents search results.

Google CEO Larry PageFor what seems like forever, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has been considering potential antitrust actions against Google. N...
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The Year Ahead: Gridlock ends at last, errorism is defeated

All the news you need, before it even happens

With the price of newspapers rising faster than the price of milk and online paywalls replacing the Berlin Wall, Americans face a news gap in 2013.

Of course, if one already knows what will happen, one doesn't need to read the news, so in that spirit, the editors present The Year Ahead, a synopsis of events nearly certain to occur, based on current trends.

January

A new Congress is sworn in at the bottom of the fiscal cliff. It immediately deadlocks over committee assignments.

President Obama is stymied in his effort to move ahead with his promised gun control initiative by the inability of Congress to organize itself.

The Postal Service runs out of stamps and doesn't have the cash or credit to print more.

February

With Congress hopelessly gridlocked over office assignments, Obama issues an executive order outlawing the private sale of ammunition and makes the U.S. Postal Service the nation's official ammunition depot and post office. Anyone wanting to buy bullets can "Go Postal(tm)" at their nearest post office, where stamps will also be available soon. Quantities (both stamps and ammo) will be limited.

This makes the Postal Service solvent and is expected to reduce the incidence of unwarranted firing of weapons by 2050, when the existing suppy of privately-held ammo is gone.

FedEx and UPS immediately file suit, seeking to sell bullets at five times the price charged by the post office, a marketing strategy that served them well in the document and parcel delivery business.

March

After an unfortunate series of post office shootings, the Transportation Security Administration is deputized to screen postal workers as they arrive and leave their work stations.

Amazon buys Walmart, Kmart, Sears, Best Buy, Costco, Macy's and what is left of J.C. Penney, turning their former stores into warehouses. A section of each is set aside as a homeless shelter, to be used by employees unable to afford traditional housing.

The Federal Trade Commission sues Google, seeking a fine of $1 trillion and a court-ordered break-up of the company. Google's stock price hits an all-time high.

April

Google offers to buy the Federal Trade Commission for $1.5 trillion in cash but Congress is unable to act on the offer because House Republicans are still wrangling over the selection of a Majority Leader. Google's stock price breaks $2,000.

Apple buys all the major movie studios and television networks and makes an offer for the Defense Mapping Agency.

Amazon buys Starbucks and assorted other Seattle businesses. CEO Howard Bezos announces that baristas will be trained to troubleshoot problems with Kindle devices. In addition, anyone ordering from Amazon will get a free grande latte from the Starbucks location nearest them.

May

Google offers to buy the federal government for $5 trillion in cash, with each Member of Congress being named a Senior Vice President for Life and receiving a $10 million signing bonus. Congress immediately accepts the offer, over the objection of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.).

The deal closes quickly. Google merges the Federal Trade Commission into its Motorola division and moves it to Dallas.

Apple holds a very cool developers conference in San Francisco and, using the world's biggest LED screen ever, screens a brief memorial to the Federal Trade Commission and announces a new pricing plan for music and movies. iAnything owners will continue to pay 99 cents while for everyone else, the price goes to $99.

Amazon buys The Associated Press, The New York Times and Wall Street Journal and closes them down. "Everything anyone needs to read is already in the Kindle store. This will save consumers from having to shop around for content," Bezos notes.

June

Amazon buys all of the remaining major book publishers for $1, twice its original bid. Bezos asserts it was a "steal at half the price"

July

Google's lawyers issue a statement asserting that all activities, actions, findings, documents, studies, drafts, reports and all appurtenances thereunto of the federal government are now its property and access to all such data, information, material, publications and whatever is henceforth restricted to authorized users.

The newly-named CEO of Google's United States subsidiary, Mitt Romney, legalizes driverless Google cars. 

August

Google issues a beta version of its new Unmanned Google Drone. Unexplained property damage is reported in Seattle.

Apple desperately bids $55 for Mexico. The offer is accepted but auditors later find an unexplained payment of $1.5 trillion in cash to unknown persons.

Amazon and Apple immediately challenge Google's "content land grab" but are unable to find the offices of the Federal Trade Commission. The federal courts have moved behind a firewall and are similarly unapproachable.

September

Mysterious troop movements are reported along the Mexican border.

Texas launches a leveraged buyout of itself but because of an unexplained communications breakdown, the deal is never consummated. Unexplained property damage is reported in Austin.

Google announces its United States subsidiary is launching a War on Errorism.

"We seek only to find and eradicate error," CEO Romney insists. "The faithful and true have nothing to fear."

October

[redacted]

November

[redacted]

December

In a ceremony simultaneously carried by all broadcast, cable and Internet outlets, as well as all computer-equipped eyeglasses, Google announces that all of the world's information has now been organized and all errors and errorists eliminated. 

Anyone seeking more information should register at the nearest post office.

With the price of newspapers rising faster than the price of milk and online paywalls replacing the Berlin Wall, Americans face a news gap in 2013.Of cou...
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Punchfork: A great site for your holiday cooking needs

The recipe website is like Kayak.com for foodies--Just one search and you're done

Most people in the United States consider Thanksgiving the official food holiday, so Christmas doesn’t get the acknowledgement it truly deserves for being a big day for delicious turkeys, colorful side dishes and tasty desserts.

Sure, many of us will use family recipes and call Mom to get last-minute cooking tips, but some of us will be in the dark about what to prepare and just how to prepare it.

Of course you can pull out that dust-riddled cook book that you’ve had since your first apartment, but many times you’ve tried the recipes that you've liked already, while ignoring the ones you didn’t.

Or you can jump on your laptop and search for a particular recipe online and hope you find something that catches your eye and palette, but how do you know if what you’re cooking will actually come out good?

To help in this particular area, the website Punchfork.com gathers the most popular recipes from top cooking sites like Bon Appetit, Simply Recipes and Picky Palate and lets you know which ones are considered the best.

The site is kind of like Indeed.com or Kayak that allows you do a specialized search of a bunch of sites with a single entry.

Social data

Punchfork says it uses social data from sites like Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest to gather which recipes have garnered the most chatter amongst the Internet community, and the company says it creates a ranking system which determines which recipes are not only the most popular, but churn out the highest quality dishes.  

Users of Punchfork can either search the site by a particular dish they’re craving or browse the site and bookmark the recipes that catch their eye. You can even search for recipes according to the ingredients that you have left over in your refrigerator.

You can also do a filter search and look for recipes that follow a particular diet or eating preference like a vegetarian diet, gluten-free or a low-sodium diet and you can also conduct broad searchers like typing in the word “holiday” for example, which brings up multiple pages of dishes and desserts that you can prepare for Christmas, Hanukkah or Kwanza.

And once your search results are available, huge colorful photos of the dish are displayed, just so you know how the finished product is supposed to look once it’s done.

What's trending?

Punchfork also lets you sort recipes by which ones are trending on Twitter or on blogs, and you can search for recipes that have just been added to the site. You can also seperate searches by the most Facebook “likes” a recipe has received.

The company says its search options differ dramatically from other recipe sites that display information with no rhyme or reason, where the user doesn’t know which dishes and recipes are the absolute best and which ones may be worth a try.

You can also put your own recipes on Punchfork, which could be a good test to see if the dishes that you’ve come up with will be liked and admired by others who supposedly know a lot about food.

Also, if you’re a budding chef who wants to make a little name for yourself, throwing out a couple of recipes and getting credit for them can only help you get popularity among the food community.

Like many successful start-up sites these days, Punchfork uses social networking to its maximum benefit, allowing users to share dishes and discuss them back and forth, which makes searching and trying recipes much more fun than thumbing through a cookbook or going to just one website for dish ideas.

Punchfork’s founder Jeff Miller says he got the idea for the site by just thumbing through food publications while shopping.

Foodie magazines

“The inspiration for Punchfork came from the foodie magazines at the grocery checkout line,” said Miller in an interview with Forbes . “There’s something very tantalizing and thrilling about leafing through page after page of delicious-looking pictures of food.”

“The idea for Punchfork was simply to take that experience of browsing amazing food photos, relocate it to the web and blow it up 1,000 times larger with an automated feed in real time from the best food bloggers. The problem is that nobody wants to read a magazine with 50,000 pages. There has to be some form of curation involved,” he said.

Punchfork also has an app for Apple devices that can be downloaded for free in the iTunes store.

Most people in the United States consider Thanksgiving the official food holiday, so Christmas doesn’t get the acknowledgement it truly deserves...
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FTC puts an end to 'history sniffing'

Online advertising network was charged with deceptively gathering data on consumers

An online advertising company has agreed to settle Federal Trade Commission (FTC) charges that it used “history sniffing” to secretly and illegally gather data from millions of consumers about their interest in sensitive medical and financial issues.

Areas of interest ranged from fertility and incontinence to debt relief and personal bankruptcy.

The settlement order bars Epic Marketplace Inc., from continuing to use history sniffing technology, which allows online operators to “sniff” a browser to see what sites consumers have visited in the past. It also bars future misrepresentations by Epic and requires the company to destroy information that it gathered unlawfully.

“Consumers searching the Internet shouldn’t have to worry about whether someone is going to go sniffing through the sensitive, personal details of their browsing history without their knowledge,” said FTC Chairman Jon Leibowitz. “This type of unscrupulous behavior undermines consumers’ confidence, and we won’t tolerate it.”

Huge online presence

Epic Marketplace is a large advertising network that has a presence on 45,000 Websites. Consumers who visited any of the network’s sites received a cookie, which stored information about their online practices including sites they visited and the ads they viewed. The cookies allowed Epic to serve consumers ads targeted to their interests, a practice known as online behavioral advertising.

In its privacy policy, Epic claimed that it would collect information only about consumers’ visits to sites in its network. However, the FTC accuses Epic of employing history-sniffing technology that allowed it to collect data about sites outside its network that consumers had visited, including sites relating to personal health conditions and finances.

According to the FTC complaint, the history sniffing was deceptive and allowed Epic to determine whether a consumer had visited any of more than 54,000 domains, including pages relating to fertility issues, impotence, menopause, incontinence, disability insurance, credit repair, debt relief and personal bankruptcy.

The FTC complaint alleges that depending on which domains a consumer had visited, Epic assigned the consumer an interest segment, including categories such as “Incontinence,” “Arthritis,” “Memory Improvement,” and “Pregnancy-Fertility Getting Pregnant.” Epic used these categories to send consumers targeted ads.

Destruction of data ordered

The consent order bars Epic Marketplace, Inc., and Epic Media Group, LLC from using history sniffing, and requires that they delete and destroy all data collected using it. It also bars misrepresentations about the extent to which they maintain the privacy or confidentiality of data from or about a particular consumer, computer or device, including misrepresenting how that data is collected, used, disclosed or shared.

It further prohibits misrepresentations about the extent to which software code on a Webpage determines whether a user has previously visited a Website.    

An online advertising company has agreed to settle Federal Trade Commission (FTC) charges that it used “history sniffing” to secretly and illegally gather ...
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Google CEO meets FTC, seeking anti-trust truce

The feds reportedly are insisting on a consent decree, which Google opposes

Forget the fiscal cliff for a minute. There's another cliff looming in Washington and Google is right on the edge of it.

For months, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has been investigating Google's dominance of web search and trying to determine if the company unfairly promotes its own services over its competitors in the way it presents search results.

Anti-trust probes are nothing to ignore. Just ask AT&T, Microsoft or any of the other companies that have been broken up or forced to knuckle under to restrictions that, in many cases, remain in place for years after the company has lost its dominant position in the marketplace.

So Google is, at least for now, putting on its serious face. CEO Larry Page was in Washington yesterday to meet with the FTC. And Google Chairman Eric Schmidt was seen around Capitol Hill with the company's chief lobbyist, former Congresswoman Susan Molinari, Bloomberg News reported.

So what was the outcome? Not surprisingly, no one is saying but the buzz is that FTC Chairman Jon Leibowitz is said to be holding out for a consent decree to settle the agency's 19-month investigation of Google.  Page, meanwhile, is saying he won't submit to a consent decree.

Sounding more like the fiscal cliff all the time, isn't it?

Complicating matters a bit more, Google is also taking heat from European Union officials who have apparently been meeting with their counterpart at the FTC.

Google has about 70% of the Internet search market and many of its competitors charge the search giant uses its power to promote its own sites and services, particularly in high-traffic search categories like travel, jobs, health, and real estate. 

Forget the fiscal cliff for a minute. There's another cliff looming in Washington and Google is right on the edge of it.For months, the Federal Trade Com...
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Cyber threats to watch for in 2013

They're getting more sophisticated and harder to avoid

The Internet has become more sophisticated over the years and so have the threats to users. Today, hackers are doing more than sending out infected spam emails -- they're exploiting the system's vulnerabilities to threaten consumers.

Experts at Georgia Tech -- the Georgia Tech Information Security Center (GTISC) and the Georgia Tech Research Institute (GTRI) -- constantly work to stay one step ahead of the hackers. They say the coming year will pose some steep challenges.

Here are some threats they say consumers should be aware of:

Cloud-based botnets

The ability to create vast, virtual computing resources will further persuade cyber criminals to look for ways to co-opt cloud-based infrastructure for their own ends. For example, attackers can use stolen credit card information to purchase cloud computing resources and create dangerous clusters of temporary virtual attack systems.

Search history poisoning

Cyber criminals will continue to manipulate search engine algorithms and other automated mechanisms that control what information you see when you do a search. Moving beyond typical search-engine poisoning, researchers believe that manipulating users’ search histories may be a next step in ways that attackers use legitimate resources for illegitimate gains.

Mobile browser and mobile wallet vulnerabilities

This, unfortunately, may be a fertile growth area for scammers. While only a very small number of U.S. mobile devices show signs of infection, the explosive proliferation of smartphones will continue to tempt attackers in exploiting user and technology-based vulnerabilities, particularly with the browser function and digital wallet apps.

Malware counteroffensive

Unfortunately, your anti-virus software may prove less effective against emerging threats. The developers of malicious software will employ various methods to hinder malware detection, such as hardening their software with techniques similar to those employed in Digital Rights Management (DRM), and exploiting the wealth of new interfaces and novel features on mobile devices.

"Our adversaries, whether motivated by monetary gain, political/social ideology or otherwise, know no boundaries, making cyber security a global issue,” said Bo Rotoloni, director of GTRI’s Cyber Technology and Information Security Laboratory. “Our best defense on the growing cyber warfront is found in cooperative education and awareness, best-of-breed tools and robust policy developed collaboratively by industry, academia and government.”

The bottom line, say the Georgia Tech experts, is users must keep their guard up in the coming year.

The Internet has become more sophisticated over the years and so have the threats to users. Today, hackers are doing more than sending out infected spam em...
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TaskRabbit.com: What Craigslist should have been long ago

Wouldn't it be nice to hire someone for a job and not fear for your life?

Today, it seems that all of us are busy all of the time. We’re either in the middle of a task, preparing to do a task or closing one out.

Whether you’re at work under the pressure of an over-caffeinated supervisor or you’re at home and the family is pulling you in infinite directions, there never seems to be enough time in a given day to do everything you need.

But what if there was a service that could help you with pretty much any task or chore you needed to do?

To be more specific, let’s say you and your spouse were invited to tonight’s football game at the last second because your boss had a couple of tickets he couldn’t use.

You’d really love to go to the game because the seats are perfectly situated, midfield and right in front of the action, your boss says.

There's just one thing though, your in-laws are coming in the morning to spend a few days before Thanksgiving and you haven’t even begun cleaning up the house or straightening up the room they’ll be staying in.

No worries though. You just go to TaskRabbit.com, post some information on what you need done, offer how much you’re willing to pay, and someone will show up at your door with all of the necessary cleaning supplies to trick your in-laws into thinking you're tidy.

The website TaskRabbit.com does this kind of stuff all of the time, as the owners set up a service and website were people can hire others to complete everyday tasks like shoveling your driveway after a storm or caring for your pet if you have to leave town.

Kind of like Craigslist

In a way Task Rabbit is like Craigslist, in that you can post a job for someone to do while offering payment. But instead of hiring just a random person from cyberspace, you employ one of the company’s staff people to complete your task. The company calls these staff people “Task Rabbits.”

Task Rabbits are said to undergo layers of background criminal checks to ensure safety for customers, which is vastly different from anyone you hire through a Craigslist post. And each staff person is listed on the company’s website and has a rating to show how well they were reviewed by previous customers.

So far the company is set up in Boston, San Francisco, Chicago, Portland, San Antonio, Austin, Seattle, L.A, Orange County, Calif. and New York--which allows you to hire a Task Rabbit in a different city from where you live.

Let's say it’s a friend’s birthday tomorrow that happens to live in another part of the country, and you want to buy them a gift.

Post anywhere

You can post your task in one of the company’s associated cities, have a Task Rabbit go to your friend’s favorite clothing store, they'll buy an item and hand deliver that item to your friend the same day.

And you pay for the service and the gift online after the task is completed, so no cash is ever exchanged.

Alos, it’s free to sign up for the site and there’s no membership charge, so you can start posting tasks right away without paying up front.

Once you include how much you’re willing to pay for your task, the lowest bidder among the Task Rabbit employees gets the job, and they head out to complete whatever assignment you created.

Of course what you offer to pay should be in direct proportion to what the job is, especially if the task includes travel and if a purchase is involved--like in the case of your friend’s birthday gift.

The way payment works is, you reimburse the Task Rabbit when the job is complete, which strengthens the chances of customers not being duped.

Kind of creepy

Task Rabbit is clearly what Craigslist should have evolved into years ago when it comes to hiring people for a one time job.

Let’s face it, Craigslist has a creepy factor to it, since there's absolutely no type of background checking system or even the slightest way to monitor just who you’re dealing with.

With the Task Rabbit employees, the company says they’re heavily scrutinized and put through a rigorous interview and training process before they’re finally brought on.

And just who make up these staff people? They’re everyday folks looking for extra work, the company says, so the Task Rabbits could be someone who is currently under-employed, a person that’s retired, a college student, or someone looking for a job with a flexible schedule.

The company also says it’s always looking for staff people to hire, so those looking to make an extra few bucks can become Task Rabbits themselves if they choose.

In short, the website is basically learning from sites like Craigslist, as it’s taking the idea of letting people post jobs and name their own price, but allows them to hire people much more safely by providing background checks and a way you can hold the staffer accountable if a job isn’t done to your satisfaction.

Hopefully the Craigslists of the world will begin to follow suit and make using its job posting services a little less creepy.

Apparently that’s what Task Rabbit did, and so far the company is off to a good start, as more and more users are hiring people through the site, and countless people are trying to become Task Rabbits themselves.

Today, it seems that all of us are busy all of the time. We’re either in the middle of a task, preparing to do a task or closing one out.Whether yo...
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Cyberwill Can Log You Off After You're Gone

Your digital estate needs to be shut down in an orderly manner too

If you're busy dying, the fate of all your Internet accounts might not be a prime concern to you, but it could be very important to your family, friends and colleagues, not to mention your reputation.

But fear not. No need goes unmet for long in the Internet age and, sure enough, several start-ups have sprung to life to make it easier to manage your virtual afterlife. The newest, in Britain, is called Cirrus Legacy and will help you create a “digital will” containing your passwords and log-in details so your digital executor can efficiently tidy up your legacy.

It's estimated the average Briton has 26 Internet accounts covering everything from online banking to social media and shopping sites. The number is thought to be higher for Americans. A Rackspace study recently found that 12% of people store more than 1,000 emails online and 13% store more than 500 photos.

Still perking

Old Facebook postings could be confusing, leading your friends – real and virtual – to think you're not only still online but still alive. The dangers of leaving online bank accounts and other financial information up and running are obvious.

Leaving information about the departed lying around is also a danger to others, as it can be used to pull off identity thefts and other scams. You don't want someone using your identity and email account to bamboozle innocent consumers, now do you?

Just as your real executor ties up the loose ends and closes out your time on earth, so your digital executor would be expected to close your online accounts, delete your old emails and deep-six your social accounts.

Without a digital executor, your survivors can have a hard time closing your accounts. Facebook, for example, won't release your password, even to your next of kin and will only take your page down after being presented with a death certificate, a process that can take months.

Some states already recognize the rights of digital executors but even in those that don't your digital executor should be able to work in unison with your actual executor to get things wrapped up so that your digital remains are put to rest in a dignified manner.

If you think folks just won't be able to get by without you, there are some services out there that will send emails at staggered intervals after your demise, allowing you to nag your survivors. You might call it a dead-letter service.

If you're busy dying, the fate of all your Internet accounts might not be a prime concern to you, but it could be very important to your family, friends an...
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Facebook Now Has a Job-Hunting Feature

First e-commerce and now a service for job seekers. Will the new app catch on?

Is it really that surprising to hear that Facebook is entering yet another facet of everyday life?

Probably not, but the social networking giants are doing just that by including  job hunting capabilities through a number of existing job sites and apps that already link people to job opportunities.

Facebook calls its new service the Social Jobs App and it serves as a search hub that displays jobs from other sites like Us.jobs, Work4Labs, and Jobvite.

The social site has even teamed with Monster.com, which was one of the first job search sites that was widely used by employment seekers before it lost many users to newer sites like Indeed.com

Just like Indeed, the Facebook Social Jobs App will also be a one-and-done type of service, that will allow users to pull up many jobs from different sites.

The app also shows users the number of available jobs at the top of the page, so people can check in periodically to see if new jobs were added since their last search.

Social Jobs Partnership

The new app is part of the Social Jobs Partnership that was established in 2011 between Facebook, the U.S. Department of Labor, and the National Association of Colleges and Employers.

The app will work on both mobile devices and web browsers and pretty much works like other job sites were users can either select a keyword or job category to begin their hunt.

There’s also a box one could check that says “veteran-friendly” that will bring up only those companies that are committed to hiring people who have served in the armed forces.

Of course the job app is a great move for Facebook, as the company is able to tack on another feature that will most likely draw in even more users.

But the other job sites the social site has partnered with—especially Monster.com—will get even more out of the deal, as sites like LinkedIn have robbed some of these companies of being the popular web destinations they used to be.

Even Craigslist, that doesn’t specialize in job searches at all, was able to lure  people away from sites like Monster.com.

Now websites and apps like Us.jobs and Jobvite, along with the other sites included in the partnership, will have easy access to every Facebook user under the sun who is looking for employment.

And the fact that most users are able to share new jobs on the app through Facebook, it will be quite easy for Monster.com and the rest of the job sites to be in everyday Internet discussions among users.

Also, job seekers won’t have to get off Facebook to do their job search, which will only make the new app more popular since sometimes searching for jobs is a chore—especially when you have to get off your favorite social site to do it.

However by including the sometimes annoying task of looking through hundreds of jobs with the enjoyment of social networking, it could bring a fun component to job hunting.  

Some users may worry that prospective employers will automatically view their Facebook pages that may contain personal images and other updates that are unrelated to the job search, but once you click on a position that comes up in your hunt, you’ll only deal with the job site that originated the post.

Based on referrals

Stephane Le Viet, CEO of Work4Labs says that getting new employment is heavily based on referrals, and she feels Facebook is the perfect site to create discussions about jobs, new companies and exactly what opportunities are out there.

“Looking for a job is one of the most social activities you can think about,” said Le Viet in a published interview.

“When we started two years ago, everyone was telling us no way Facebook will be used for professional purposes."

"Now job seekers realize they can use Facebook to research companies, see whom they might know who could get them a job, and can use the direct-messaging system to make contacts. That’s important, since 30 percent of hires in the United States are made through referrals.” he said.

The downside of linking existing job apps and websites with Facebook, is that more people will have knowledge of a particular position, which will obviously make that job more competitive and harder to get.

Some job sites only attract a certain corner of the work population—but with Facebook—every Tom, Dick and Harriet will know about every job that comes up.

But yet, the Social app is a win-win for Facebook and its partners, and as long as users can keep their personal Facebook info separate from their potential employers, the app could be very useful.

Meaning, if people just use the social network to learn where jobs are, and then communicate to employers through a separate email—the app could be very useful.

However, if you’re using your Facebook page as your main point of contact or you’re using the direct messaging feature to communicate with employers, things could get really dicey. So you probably shouldn't do that.

Is it really that surprising to hear that Facebook is entering yet another facet of everyday life?Probably not, but the social networking giants are doin...
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Lumosity: Brain Exercises That Are Supposed to Improve Memory

But researchers say there are other things you can do for mental strength

Do you find it harder and harder to remember a person’s name after first meeting them? Or have you ever read a page from a magazine and forgotten what the writer just conveyed? If so, you’re certainly not alone, as many folks, both young and old, have experienced a memory lapse or two at some point.

The company Lumos Labs has created what it calls Lumosity, which the company says is a web based tool that improves both memory and brain function.

You might have seen the commercials already, as they’ve been airing on TV for the past few months or so, and interestingly enough, the company has started its ad campaign geared towards younger people, which is most likely a technique Lumosity is using to show that all ages could use some memory strengthening, not just seniors.

What’s slightly different about Lumosity from other memory games or techniques is that exercises aren’t just randomly slapped together by software developers or game creators. The company says the mental exercises were put together under its Scientific Advisory Board, which is supposed to be made up of experts and researchers from Stanford, and the University of California, San Francisco.  

Brain exercises

Along with the company’s team of in-house neuroscientists, the creators of Lumosity say it has made a series of brain exercises to improve overall memory and sharpen the mind’s processing speed, and uses about 30 different sessions within the drills that include games, mental exercises, and health tips for the brain.

Lumosity even gives you progress reports on how well your brain and memory are improving with each exercise.

One of the exercises uses a virtual maze filled with various hazards that users must memorize and avoid during the course of the game. This is supposed to sharpen memory, improve attention and help the mind retain things better,  says the company.

Lumosity designed these games to be played on a daily basis, as opposed to just using them when you feel like giving your memory a quick  jolt.

The lead scientist at Lumos Labs, Michael Scanlon, says people should be approaching mental exercises in the same way they do physical exercises, because both should be done daily and both should be taken very seriously.

“Research has shown that making brain fitness part of a healthy lifestyle early will lead to optimal cognitive performance and better long-term brain health,” said Scanlon in a written statement.

“We designed Lumosity to help adults of any age build their cognitive abilities without feeling like they’re doing homework. People have to be motivated to train, and we believe that the results we’re seeing stem in part from the fact that the program is enjoyable and you can see your progress," he said.

Five years

The company says improvements in the areas of mental processing speed, attention and retention will last for five years after doing the exercises, which is a pretty bold guarantee.

The cost of Lumosity differs depending on whether you choose a monthly or yearly subscription, but a press release the company released when introducing the website a few years back, offers the exercises for a little under $80 for one full year of unlimited access.

Researchers at the University Of Utah School Of Medicine have also studied how people can improve memory and apply that progress into their daily lives.

They first say by organizing things we have to remember, it will put less pressure on our brains to memorize information. And the best way to organize information is by first giving it some sort of meaning or easy to remember association, say the researchers.

The research group also suggests grasping entire concepts of things you want to recall before trying to remember the small details.

This really works when you’re trying to understand something new for a test you’re studying for, or when you have to tackle a new project at work. By understanding the main components of new information, it will make it much easier to grasp and remember its details when you have to, say the researchers.

Stop to reflect

The Utah research team also said we should stop to reflect upon the new things we’re learning.

Sometimes we’re so eager to grasp and apply new pieces of information-- like someone’s name or something your boss said in a meeting--that we quickly try to lock it into our minds and thought process.

But if we take just a few moments to reflect or even meditate on what we’ve just learned, it’s more likely the new information will stick, which will make it easier for us to access it whenever we have to.

Whether games like Lumosity will really improve your memory remains to be seen, and it will be interesting to see what readers say after the product and company builds and even bigger reputation for itself.

Until then, people can simply improve their mental functions by challenging their brains, by maybe reading material that forces you to learn new concepts, or pondering ideas you usually wouldn’t ponder.

Experts also say physical activity and exercise can also improve brain function, so fortunately we don’t have to buy a game or product to help us with remembering somebody’s name. There are a lot of things we can do by ourselves. We just have to do them.

Do you find it harder and harder to remember a person’s name after first meeting them? Or have you ever read a page from a magazine and forgot what t...
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Pheed: Part Twitter, Part Facebook, With a Bit of Tumblr Thrown In

Could it be the website that changes social networking as we know it?

If you think about it, most of us have been using social networking sites for over ten years now.

It’s hard to pinpoint which site truly invented social networking, but according to many, Sixdeegrees.com, which started back in 1997, was the first to combine technology and socializing.

But it wasn’t until Friendster came on the scene that the entire concept of social networking caught on with the masses.

Friendster was one of the first sites that allowed users to share personal interests with online friends, and since it started in 2001 the entire world of social networking has grown to enormous heights, and has become as much a part of our everyday lives as our vehicles or home appliances.

In fact, there are so many different ways one can share photos, post music and circulate videos, that many spend hours upon hours each day shifting back and forth between Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter.

But what if there was a website that provided a one-stop shopping experience for all of your social networking needs? And you were able to get paid if people liked what you posted?

Meaning, you could post that video of you playing air-guitar, update your followers on your latest blog entry, and put up that annoyingly cute painting of you and your companion being blissfully in love, and make money from it. 

There’s a website called Pheed that provides just that.

Best of everything

Instead of being a social networking site that focuses on just a handful of features, it grabs the best parts of Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and other sites folks frequently visit.

O.D. Kobo, who is cofounder of Pheed, says that improving upon good ideas is what brought the world so many wonderful and lasting creations.

“The wheel had to come about before the car,” he said in an interview. “There are stages like how Friendster came, then MySpace, then Facebook, each one improving on and adding to the format. There was Twitter and now Pheed, the evolution of a genre.”

Of course one of the main benefits of Pheed is not having to shuffle back and forth between different sites, but the fact that users can charge other people to view their content could provide the site the proper niche it needs to stand out.

There are other sites like YouTube that have a monetization feature, but since Pheed allows you to perform a number of social networking functions at once, users can potentially make money on their songs, videos, writings and other content they post.

Users have the option of charging others a one-time fee for viewing content or they can charge a monthly subscription fee. Both monthly subscriptions and one-time views run between $1.99 and $34.99 depending on what’s being offered.

If Pheed plays its marketing cards smartly it could potentially attract the filmmaker, musician or photographer that wants to make a bit of cash from their art. Historically it’s only been the independent musician that has heavily relied on social sites to advertise and sell their works.  Somehow Pheed will have to prove to its creative portion of users that the site is artist-friendly.

Multitasking lifestyle

O.D. Kobo

Kobo says that although he likes websites like Facebook and Twitter they are extremely limiting in terms of other things you could use them for, and with most people living a multitasking lifestyle these days, visiting one site for all of your social networking updates can be quite convenient.

It seems Pheed is off to a good start too, as the company had a soft launch of the website and allowed celebrities and well-known business honchos to use it and spread the word.

Kobo also wants to separate Pheed from other sites by having users post high-quality content, like short films and live music broadcasts, and hopes the monetization feature will inspire people to post inviting content as opposed to just posting spur of the moment thoughts or photos.

The biggest challenge for the Los Angeles-based social site is to not get swallowed by other sites and maintain its uniqueness. Also it will have to establish itself as a cool place to visit once the newness wears off, which is a huge obstacle for start-ups.

But Pheed has managed to carve out a niche and be noticed which is a great accomplishment in today’s crowded cyber world. If it can separate itself from other websites by making itself the place to see quality postings and where people can also make money, it could turn social networking  upside down. It'll be fun to watch.

If you think about it, most of us have been using social networking sites for over ten years now.It’s hard to pinpoint which site truly invented so...
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Newsweek Scrapping Its Print Edition

An extended adolescence finally comes to an end

Newsweek grew up as a child of privilege, doted on by the Washington Post Co., which treated it as a brilliant and talented but ne'er-do-well offspring. But then, the Post fell on hard times as readers and advertisers fled to the Internet to chat about their Pilates lessons.

As the Post began trying to adjust to its new circumstances, Newsweek was in danger of winding up on the street. But then, along came Sidney Harman, an elderly Washington billionaire who paid $1 -- less than the cover price of a single copy -- and welcomed the shivering newsmagazine, by now nearing 80, into his family.

Harman teamed up with Barry Diller's IAC/Interactive Corp., publisher of The Daily Beast, an online-only site edited by Tina Brown. But just as Newsweek was getting comfortable in its new surroundings, Harman died. 

Harman's widow, Jane, left her seat in Congress and took a job at a think tank, while Uncle Barry and Aunt Tina contemplated the wastrel they had taken in. The Harman family continued sending money, for a little while, but then said enough was enough, it was time for Newsweek to grow up.

A good read

Diller hinted recently that all was not well. Oh, Newsweek was a good read, he said, but the printing and mailing costs were eating him alive. And so it came as no shock when Aunt Tina announced that the Dec. 31 issue of Newsweek will be the last print edition.

What hurt, though, was that she made the announcement on The Daily Beast, under a headline reading "A Turn of the Page for Newsweek." How would you like to read about your own demise somewhere else? 

Trying -- though not too hard -- to put a good face on their eviction of the foundling they had taken in, Brown and Diller assured everyone that Newsweek will continue to dwell up in the clouds and will even get a new, longer name -- Newsweek Global. 

It will be, Brown assures us, "a single, worldwide edition targeted for a highly mobile, opinion-leading audience who want to learn about world events in a sophisticated context." 

Well, Newsweek had a good run. Founded in 1933, it competed fiercely with Time Magazine, summarizing the week's news for millions of readers, each title putting its own spin on the news. Time was conservative, Newsweek liberal.  

Somewhere in the dull middle was U.S. News & World Report, which gave up a few years ago and went online-only, where it now spends most of its time reviewing colleges.

It came in the mail!

Believe it or not, folks used to keep an eager, eagle eye on their mailbox -- their real mailbox, not their Gmail -- awaiting the latest edition. It was regarded as a minor miracle to put out an entire magazine that was reasonably up to date, get it into print and push it through the clogged-up Post Office in time for the weekend.

It's still kind of miraculous if you think about it. A lot of technology goes into publishing newspapers and magazines and it is a much harder and more difficult task than slipping some electrons through the router and off into the Internet's slipstream.

Perhaps fittingly, last week's edition of Newsweek featured "Heaven is Real: A Doctor's Experience With the Afterlife," about a doctor who, well, he goes to heaven and comes back, see? 

You think maybe Newsweek had an intimation that the end was near? 

Newsweek grew up as a child of privilege, doted on by the Washington Post Co., which treated it as a brilliant and talented but ne'er-do-well offspring.&nb...
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Current Caller ID: An Inventive Way To Screen Your Telephone Calls

The ID isn't called "Current" for no reason, as it's tailored for today's busy moblie device user, says its creators

Remember the first time you experienced the benefit of having Caller ID?

Do you recall the first time you saw a person's phone number flash on that big bulky square box that was attached to your home telephone? Do you remember thinking, "this is just what I needed"?

At the time, Caller ID seemed to be a delicious taste of the future for consumers, and today, thinking about not having the ability to screen your  calls seems quite insane.

Also, most people don't just use their home phones to communicate with friends, family and associates, as mobile devices are the common way people choose to stay socially plugged-in. And using the caller ID feature is a big part of that process.

So the folks at White Pages have created what they call Current Caller ID that  not only allows you to see the phone number of the person calling you, but it also gives you other caller information -- including a person’s social media updates.

And according to the Director of Mobile Products at White Pages, Lori Roth, Current Caller ID allows one to better communicate with people, while also giving them other caller information they may find pertinent.

New Android app

“Current is a new Android app that takes Caller ID beyond simply identifying a name,” she said in a statement. “So we set out to marry call and text ID with social status, local news and weather to create a single useful service that makes it easy for people to instantaneously stay up-to-date with the people they communicate with the most.”

“This approach allows us to move well beyond making Caller ID just about a name and a number and provide consumers timely, relevant information to keep on top of things in an information overloaded world,” said Roth.

As most know, phones aren’t used just for phoning nowadays, and checking things like social media updates equals the daily routine of placing a call in terms of repetitive usage.  

In an interview with ConsumerAffairs, Roth says Current Caller ID is the ideal app, as it’s perfectly shaped to handle the way devices are used today and makes it easier for the user to navigate through the digital world, which can  be cumbersome sometimes.

“Between Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter and other social networks, people are increasingly overwhelmed not only with hundreds of connections, but with thousands of updates,” she details. “Current helps you break through the clutter by providing social updates all in one place, when you need it the most — right when you are about to pick up the phone to call someone or as they are calling you. It is also the perfect conversation starter for friends, family and even business acquaintances.”

Different apps for this app

Roth also explains that people have been using Current Caller ID in a number of different ways so far.

And if you think about it, Current makes perfect sense as today’s consumer expects to have that wall of anonymity that's associated with digital exchange lowered -- so users are able to peek over it -- and see just who they’re communicating with.  

 “We have had nearly 1 million downloads since we launched in early August,” says Roth.

“The feedback has been tremendous with people using the app for a wide variety of use cases — everything from ensuring a Craigslist buyer is who they say they are (Caller ID verifies this), to a cheating girlfriend (an incoming call caught in the act!), to proof points that a needy girlfriend is indeed being paid attention to (infographics show time spent texting/calling one another)," she said.

As far as privacy concerns go, Roth says that Current Caller ID doesn’t release any social media information that the contact person doesn’t want viewable, so people still have the power to control what shows on the caller ID.

“We don’t see local information like weather and news as an invasion of privacy, as these things are readily available across any device with Internet access,” Roth affirms.

“As far as social information, we only surface updates for the people that you are connected to on Facebook, Linkedin and Twitter. As a user, you will only be able to see information that the contact has allowed to be available to you or to the Current Caller ID App,” she says.

International use on the app could be next on White Pages creative plate, but first the company wants to nurture it, so it can not only grow in popularity — but provide a consistent level of quality and usefulness, says Roth.

“We are always looking to enhance our products and services, but for now are focused on making sure the existing product provides the best experience for our users,” she notes. “Some features that you could see down the road include optimization for international usage and further integration with additional social networks.”

Current Caller ID can be downloaded for free at Google Play.  

Remember the first time you experienced the benefit of having a caller ID?Do you recall the first time you saw a persons phone number flash on that ...
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FreedomPop Offers 'Free' Broadband Service

As usual, conditions apply. But this could be the start of something big

We all know what premium means, right? It means expensive. So what does "freemium" mean? Well, according to a new company called FreedomPop, it means "free" broadband for your mobile Apple devices -- up to 500 MB of free 4G wireless data each month, in fact.

So what's the catch, or catches?

First of all, the most-portable version, which uses a "sleeve" is only good with the iPod and iPhone at the moment. And second, it's just data -- no phone calls. Of course, with that free bandwidth, you can always use Skype or another Internet phone service to make calls. Third, it's not yet available everywhere.

Fourth, 500 MB (half a gigabyte) isn't all that much data but FreedomPop says it will sell one additional gigabyte for $10 a month, or five gigabytes for $35 a month. It has a pricing plan that's simple as dirt compared to the big guys.

And fifth -- but you already knew this -- it's not really free of course, unless you choose the most basic plan and keep an eye on your usage. Oh, and also, it will cost you $99 for a "sleeve" that wraps around your iPhone or iPod Touch.

If you want to use another device, you can pay a deposit and get a portable wi-fi "hot spot" -- just like the ones available from other carriers -- to put in your home or office, or to carry around with you.

Timing may be right

Consumers rate Verizon Fios

FreedomPop is the latest low-cost wireless plan to hit the U.S. market and it comes at a propitious time -- just as carriers are getting ready to push their monthly bills up another notch or two by offering faster Web browsing. (Faster browsing is great but, ahem, it eats up more of those pricey MBs, as many consumers learn to their sorrow as they slice open the monthly bill).

A single smartphone can already cost more than $100 a month and families with multiple devices are finding ever-increasing slices of their budget being eaten up by wireless bills, although if anybody's concerned about it, it's not showing up in cancellation rates at AT&T and Verizon, which are steadily gaining market share as they continue to roll out their 4G networks.

So how does this work exactly? 

Technically, FreedomPop is a reseller. It contracts with existing 4G networks to sell excess bandwidth. Nothing exotic about that, although how long other carriers will be willing to play ball with FreedomPop and other resellers is an open question.

Sprint, the perennial No. 3, has been leasing space to lots of resellers and is on board with FreedomPop, according to press reports, as is Clearwire, which covers only a portion of the country.

A less-wired world

Consumers rate Sprint PCS

Your average consumer most likely still associates cable TV and home Internet service as originating with a wire that runs into the home but the big telecom carriers, having spent untold billions laying fiber to a relatively small portion of the nation, are increasingly looking towards their 4G wireless networks as the future.

Sure, Verizon's FiOS is blazing fast and generally more reliable than earlier cable services but it's not likely Verizon wants to continue digging up streets to expand it to less profitable neighborhoods.

The development of  4G, which rivals the speed of home cable connections, theoretically allows carriers to expand their market at much lower cost -- and less local regulation -- than laying cable. 

A complex deal completed only recently gives Verizon a huge new cache of bandwidth that it can use to "wire" the country without using wire. How eager it will be to resell any of that capacity is another question. 

Some see Sprint moving increasingly towards becoming a wholesaler, concentrating on building and operating its network and letting resellers handle the marketing. 

Whatever model takes hold, it's likely that history will show that FreedomPop and other nervy start-ups had a good idea, and that maybe they had it at just the right time. We'll see. 

We all know what premium means, right? It means expensive. So what does "freemium" mean? Well, according to a new company called FreedomPop, it means "free...
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What's Up With the Consumerist Being Down?

Popular site is trying to get back online after being attacked

The Consumerist is one of those sites that people either love or hate. Owned by Consumers Union, the not-for-profit publisher of Consumer Reports, the site is a free-wheeling forum where consumers and columnists spin yarns that horrify other consumers and infuriate the companies who are cast as the villains.

But for the last few days, the Consumerist has been absent from the Web and is only now beginning to get itself back together. Consumerist is quite clear about one thing: it's still not quite sure what happened but in a posting this afternoon, Consumerist's executive editor, Meg Marco, said that on Sept. 20, the site began getting reports that some its pages had been altered and were redirecting traffic to spam websites.

"We took the site down as quickly as possible and began investigating," Marco said. While the investigation continues, Marco said a new site was being built at a different hosting provider and would be appearing around the country gradually.

At least for now, the new site will not include comments from readers, Marco cautioned.

"Consumerist feels really strongly about not sharing our user’s personal information with outside organizations who may want to use it for commercial interests. ... While we build something that meets our needs (and yours) Consumerist will temporarily not feature commenting. We are sorry for the inconvenience, and hope to have commenting back soon," she said.

Marco said it's too soon to say whether Consumerist readers' user names and passwords were hacked, but noted that it's always good practice to use a different password on every site.

Marco also said it's not possible to say whether malware was downloaded onto Consumerist readers' sites and recommended that concerned users should check their anti-virus program and go to StopBadware.org for more information on safe browsing.

Readers complain

Consumerist readers have been quick to complain about the handling of the incident and say they were kept in the dark. 

One reader posting on Consumerist's Facebook page said he had emailed the president of Consumers Union, Jim Guest, every day asking for information but had not received a reply.

Noting that Consumerist staffers have not posted or Tweeted, some readers see a conspiracy while others see Consumers Union setting a poor example by leaving its readers -- who must be considered consumers even though they do not pay to view the site -- in the dark about possible threats to their personal information.

"Consumerist.com is truly no better than any other company that they trash on a daily basis. This is an epic fail for the Consumerist and heads should roll over this fiasco," said Jeff Talbert in a Facebook posting earlier today.

Consumerist spokesmen told ConsumerAffairs late today there is no conspiracy of silence and that it has simply been an all-hands effort to identify the problem and pitch in to get at least a skeletal version of the site back online. 

  f you are a regular reader of FoodBeat, you’ve probably noticed that we regularly post stories from the Consumerist. In the last...
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Who's No. 1 In Internet Freedom? Would You Believe -- Estonia?

U.S. is falling farther behind other developed countries in terms of speed, cost and broadband availability

Next time you feel standing up in your seat and chanting, "We're No. 1," it might be a good idea to define your terms just a little. If it's the Internet you're talking about, the United States is actually No. 2. Iran, Cuba, and China were dead last.

That's according to the annual Freedom House transparency and access report, Freedom on the Net, which found that slow and gentrified broadband access and occasional government intrusion stunted the U.S. to the No. 2 spot, with the tiny Eastern European technological powerhouse, Estonia, taking the gold medal.

What does Estonia have that we don't?

Well, online voting for one thing. Free access to online medical records for another. Not to mention the most widespread broadband access in the world.

“Although the United States is one of the most connected countries in the world, it has fallen behind many other developed nations in terms of Internet speed, cost, and broadband availability,” explains the report. The U.S. lags behind Japan, South Korea, Norway and Sweden in access to blistering fast Internet (average peak speeds in Hong Kong — 49 Mbps — are nearly twice that of the U.S. — 28 Mbps).

Repression increases

The U.S. is also falling behind other nations in how well it protects freedom of speech online.

Brutal attacks against bloggers, politically motivated surveillance, proactive manipulation of Web content, and restrictive laws regulating speech online are among the diverse threats to internet freedom emerging over the past two years, according to the Freedom House report.

And it's not just government agencies that are putting the screws to Internet content.

“The findings clearly show that threats to internet freedom are becoming more diverse. As authoritarian rulers see that blocked websites and high-profile arrests draw local and international condemnation, they are turning to murkier—but no less dangerous—methods for controlling online conversations,” said Sanja Kelly, project director for Freedom on the Net at Freedom House.

The battle over internet freedom comes at a time when nearly one third of the world’s population has used the internet. Governments are responding to the increased influence of the new medium by seeking to control online activity, restricting the free flow of information, and otherwise infringing on the rights of users.

The methods of control are becoming more sophisticated, and tactics previously evident in only the most repressive environments — such as governments instigating deliberate connection disruptions or hiring armies of paid commentators to manipulate online discussions — are appearing in a wider set of countries.

Key trends

The report identified these emerging trends:

  • New laws restrict free speech: In 19 of the 47 countries examined, new laws or directives have been passed since January 2011 that either restrict online speech, violate user privacy, or punish individuals who post content deemed objectionable or undesirable.
  • Bloggers and ordinary users increasingly face arrest for political speech on the web:  In 26 of the 47 countries, including several democratic states, at least one blogger or ICT user was arrested for content posted online or sent via text message.
  • Physical attacks against government critics are intensifying: In 19 of the 47 countries assessed, a blogger or internet user was tortured, disappeared, beaten, or brutally assaulted as a result of their online posts. In five countries, an activist or citizen journalist was killed in retribution for posting information that exposed human rights abuses.
  • Paid commentators, hijacking attacks are proliferating: The phenomenon of paid pro-government commentators has spread over the past two years from a small set of countries to 14 of the 47 countries examined. Meanwhile, government critics faced politically motivated cyberattacks in 19 of the countries covered.
  • Surveillance is increasing, with few checks on abuse: In 12 of the 47 countries examined, a new law or directive disproportionately enhanced surveillance or restricted user anonymity. In authoritarian countries, surveillance often targets government critics.
  • Citizen pushback is yielding results: A significant uptick in civic activism related to internet freedom, alongside important court decisions, has produced notable victories in a wide set of countries. Advocacy campaigns, mass demonstrations, website blackouts, and constitutional court decisions have resulted in censorship plans being shelved, harmful legislation being overturned, and jailed activists being released. In 23 of the 47 countries assessed, at least one such victory occurred.
Next time you feel standing up in your seat and chanting, "We're No. 1," it might be a good idea to define your terms just a little. If it's the Internet y...
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New Site Allows You To Permanently Unsubscribe From Unwanted Emails

The founder of Unroll.me talks about his new company and deleting those annoying messages.

According to a study conducted by Microsoft, 82 percent of today’s emails are gray mail, which for most users couldn’t be more annoying when trying to check their messages or when emailing a friend. And just what is gray mail exactly?

“It’s somewhere between spam, which is stuff that you outright don’t want, and your personal or business stuff that you do want,” said Josh Rosenwald, founder of Unroll.me, a company that organizes your inbox and allows you to unsubscribe from companies sending you emails.

“It’s a gray area that we call gray mail -- that’s Groupon emails, things that are subscriptions or newsletters,”

“Once you go to Amazon and you start shopping and you check-out, they sign you up for that newsletter, and that’s gray mail. Daily deals are gray mail, Facebook updates, Twitter updates, those emails are all gray mails. So it’s a gray area that’s not illegal but it’s also not your personal messages that you’re definitely interested in,” he says.

Rosenwald started Unroll.me once he noticed communicating with friends was becoming more of a task due to all of the unwanted messages he received in his inbox on a daily basis.  He and his partners decided to create an easy and effective way to properly gather and organize wanted emails, while making it just as easy to cast out the unwanted ones. 

Take control

“When you log in we scan your inbox for what we would regard as a newsletter or subscription, then right away we give you a list of all the subscription and newsletters you have,” Rosenwald explained. “Then we give you some options. The first option is you can unsubscribe by clicking the minus button next to each subscription, and you’ll be unsubscribed.”

“Once you’re done getting rid of the stuff that you don’t want, all the stuff you don’t need, we’ll put it into a daily digest. So everyday instead of getting 20 or 30 or even 50 different emails, all your Facebook updates, all your box updates, all your Twitter updates, or Groupon newsletter -- instead of getting them throughout the day in your mailbox, you’ll get one email only with all of those emails in it,” he said.

Initial consumer reaction to Unroll.me has been extremely positive, mainly because the site is easy to use, and free says Rosenwald. He also says consumers have been fed-up with gray emails for quite some time and users have found the site to be of great value, since they’re now able to have their inboxes pre-organized and much easier to navigate.

Right now Unroll.me supports Gmail and Google Apps but the company will be working with other email carriers, like Yahoo in the near future Rosenwald says.

Less of a chore

He also explains that his main goal is to not only improve the overall experience of email, but to make it less of a chore-- because there are times when you’re so annoyed after deleting all the subscriptions and updates in your inbox, you don’t even feel like checking your personal messages anymore.

Also by using the site, Rosenwald says, users will never receive another subscription email again once unsubscribed. But if you like, you can always reselect a subscription to be included into the group of the emails you actually want to read. All and all, it's a pretty useful feature to have.

According to a study conducted by Microsoft, 82 percent of today’s emails are gray mail, which for most users couldn’t be more annoying when tr...
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Hacker Not Responsible For Outage, GoDaddy Says

Company says outage did not have 'external' cause

Despite the claims of an anonymous hacker, Monday's six hour outage affecting websites and domains hosted and registered by GoDaddy.com was not caused by "external influences."

When millions of sites and email accounts went dark for a four-hour period Monday someone tweeting as Anonymous Own3r claimed to have been responsible. After an investigation, the company said that is not true.

"The service outage was not caused by external influences," Scott Wagner, GoDaddy CEO, said in a statement. "It was not a 'hack' and it was not a denial of service attack (DDoS). We have determined the service outage was due to a series of internal network events that corrupted router data tables. Once the issues were identified, we took corrective actions to restore services for our customers and GoDaddy.com. We have implemented measures to prevent this from occurring again."

The company reiterated that no customer data was ever at risk, not were any GoDaddy systems compromised.

The outage began Monday at around 10 am PDT and service was fully restored six hours later, the company said.

Despite the claims of an anonymous hacker, Monday's six hour outage affecting websites and domains hosted and registered by GoDaddy.com was not caused by "...
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GoDaddy Websites Go Dark for Four Hours Monday

Thousands, perhaps millions of sites off line for about four hours

If you were trying to access a favorite Website Monday and found you couldn't, you can blame an anonymous hacker. Maybe.

A hacker using the Twitter handle Anonymous Own3r claimed responsibility for taking down the hundreds of thousands of Websites and domains hosted by GoDaddy.com. The sites were unavailable for about four hours, company officials said.

GoDaddy has posted this notice at the top of its main page:

“At 10:25 am PT, GoDaddy.com and associated customer services experienced intermittent outages. Services began to be restored for the bulk of affected customers at 2:43 pm PT. At no time was any sensitive customer information, such as credit card data, passwords or names and addresses, compromised. We will provide an additional update within the next 24 hours. We want to thank our customers for their patience and support.”

Not sure what happened

The technology Website CNET quotes a GoDaddy spokeswoman as saying she could not confirm that a particular hacker was responsible for the outage. She said company officials were working to determine the exact nature of the problem and what caused it.

During the time the system was down, Web users were unable to access sites hosted by the service, most of which are operated by small businesses. Neither could customers access email that is hosted on GoDaddy servers.

GoDaddy is one of the largest hosters of Websites and is the largest domain registrar. Technology experts say Monday's outage likely affected millions of Websites.

The company is known, in part, for its advertising scantily-clad women. It usually airs a commercial during the Super Bowl.

As for Anonymous Own3r? The owner of that handle tweeted that he or she took down GoDaddy because, basically, they wanted to demonstrate how easy it was.

If you were trying to access a favorite website Monday and found you couldn't, you can blame an anonymous hacker. Maybe.A hacker using the Twitter handle...
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McAfee Finds Second Quarter Surge in Malware

Hackers targeting PCs as well as mobile devices

Cyberspace isn't getting any safer. Computer security firm McAfee reports finding the largest increase in malware samples in the last four years during the second quarter of 2012.

That amounts to a 1.5 million increase in malware from the first quarter of the year. The McAfee Threats Report also found some significant changes in the nature of the threats.

"The key things that stood out were the emergence of mobile (Android) 'drive-by downloads' as a new attack vector, the use of Twitter for control of mobile botnets and the appearance of mobile 'ransomware' as the newest way of extracting funds from unsuspecting victims," the report said. "Much of the growth and rebound in malware and threats we saw last quarter has continued strongly."

More threats against PCs

Despite the emergence of new mobile threats, the report found that in the last quarter PC malware had its busiest period in recent history. There was significant growth in established rootkits but a slowdown in others.

Almost all of the families of malware the company said it examined continue to reach new levels, with activity among password-stealing Trojans particularly strong. McAfee's "zoo" of malware sample has accelerated rapidly, to the point where it is now adding nearly 100,000 new samples per day. These variants are quickly spreading around the globe.

“Over the last quarter we have seen prime examples of malware that impacted consumers, businesses, and critical infrastructure facilities,” said Vincent Weafer, senior vice president of McAfee Labs. “Attacks that we've traditionally seen on PCs are now making their way to other devices. For example, in Q2 we saw Flashback, which targeted Macintosh devices and techniques such as ransomware and drive-by downloads targeting mobile. This report highlights the need for protection on all devices that may be used to access the Internet.”

Ransomware

Ransomware may be the most frightening emerging threat. When it contaminates a device it can take control of personal files and not allow the owner free access again until after they have made a payment.

Botnets, a network of infected computers used to generate spam, send out viruses and in some cases can cause Web servers to fail. McAfee says they reached a 12-month high in the second quarter. With the U.S. as the global hub of botnet control servers, new methods for control have also been uncovered, including the use of Twitter for mobile botnet command and control. That allows the attacker to tweet commands with relative anonymity and all infected devices will follow them.

Declining spam

Spam is becoming less of a problem. The report found that only Colombia, Japan, South Korea, and Venezuela showed an increase greater than 10 percent. The U.S., meanwhile, remains the world's biggest host of malicious Web content.

The United States is often the biggest originator and victim of a variety of threats," the authors wrote. "The Web is a dangerous place for the uninformed and unprotected."

Cyberspace isn't getting any safer. Computer security firm McAfee reports finding the largest increase in malware samples in the last four years during the...
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'Police Virus' Was Second Quarter's Top Malware Threat

Trojan takes control of users' computers and demands payment to release them

An increasing number of PC users have had to deal with the frustrating “Police Virus” this year. Security software company PandaLabs says the Trojan was leading malware issue it dealt with in the second quarter of the year.

The Police Virus is a type of virus known as ransomeware. Its objective is to intimidate and blackmail users whose PCs are infected and persuade or force them to pay for having the malware removed or neutralized.

A PC gets infected when the user visits a particular Website. The Trojan then downloads to the victim's computer, inserting a registry entry to make sure that it will be run every time the PC boots up. It then displays a picture and a message that fills the screen and essentially locks up the computer. the only way to unlock it is to pay. Hence the name “ransomware.”

Bogus Microsoft message

At first the messages claimed to be from Microsoft, saying it had detected an illegal version of Windows on the victim's computer. The malware seized various documents on the user's computer and would not release them until payment was made.

Later versions claimed to be messages from law enforcement agencies, customized for individual countries. In the U.S., for example, it would claim to be from the FBI. The message would declare that illegal files, such as child pornography, had been detected on the user's computer and demanded payment.

The PandaLabs report notes that the Police Virus has lately begun to evolve, suggesting the hackers plan to keep it going for a while. According to various technology and security sites, newer variants of the virus have been modified to used highly sophisticated encryption techniques and overwrite key memory functions.

Six million new malware samples

In the second quarter of 2012 PandaLabs counted more than six million new malware samples. The company said that's about the same as the first quarter of the year. But there was some good news.

Despite the proliferation and increased sophistication of malware, the percentage of infected PCs worldwide fell in the second quarter -- from 35 percent to 31.63 percent. Asian countries had the most infected PCs, with South Korea the overall leader, followed by China and Taiwan.

There is no fool-proof way to avoid this virus because the hackers use a wide variety of sites to download their malware. A consumer's best hope is to have a good anti-virus program and keep it up to date.

An increasing number of PC users have had to deal with the frustrating “Police Virus” this year. Security software company PandaLabs says the T...
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Who Needs Ink To Sign a Document?

New services make digitally signing and sending a contract easier

Today's world is a world of specialists.

Whether you need your roof fixed or someone to design a website for you, it’s easy to find people who live and breathe a particular type of specialty.

Some choose to go the big company route and purchase services of, say, a Lawn Doctor for their grass, or Roto-Rooter for their plumbing. But others simply hire workers through the references of friends or co-workers, or choose to use websites that list a bunch of specialists and services.

When hiring a big company to do the work you need, contracts are typically already made up so one just has to plug in their name, address and other pertinent information.

But when hiring an independent worker many people just use an agreement they write themselves -- perhaps in an email -- to finalize the deal, and some people go solely off trust and don't use any formal agreements at all. Some rely on verbal agreements which, though technically binding, are in practice unenforceable.

Although verbal agreements and email exchanges that specify the detail of the task are legally binding in the United States, having a formal contract makes you appear a little more professional, which may set the playing field for how good the worker performs.

Digital signatures

To make the process of securing a signature on written agreements easier, a few companies have created digital contract sites so you don't have to worry about faxing hard copies.

You also don't have to count on that firm handshake you and the worker had, and hope it's enough to finalize the deal.

EchoSign is arguably one of the more popular digital contract sending services and the company has made it fairly fast and easy to send anyone a legal document with the click of a button.

The user would scan and upload the hardcopy before sending it out, then enter the recipient's email and press send. The person you're hiring would simply enter their name and initials and hit the "Click to Sign" button, or they can print and sign the document and send it back to you.

Soon after, all parties receive an email with a PDF of the document so they can keep it for their records. EchoSign also files the form in their system as a backup for you.

In many cases though, convenience costs, and in this case EchoSign's prices can range from the not-too-bad, to the relatively pricey.

It's free to sign up, but the "Pro" version starts at $14.95 a month.

If you send contracts and work with a team who will also need access to the documents, the cost ranges from $40 to $80 a month depending on the amount of people your team has.

Rounding out the price range for EchoSign is $299 for the Enterprise package and $399 for global use.

E-Sign Act

In June of 2000 Congress enacted the Electronic Signatures in Global and National Commerce Act (E-Sign Act), which provides regulation on digital contracts in terms of what is considered valid and what isn't.

The E-Sign Act pretty much says an electronic signature holds the same amount of legal weight that a paper document does.

The federal guidelines also say you must provide the recipient with the option of receiving a hard copy of the document, and also have the right to refuse the use of a digital contract.

In order for the signature to be legal it has to be verifiable and under the control of the person using it, says the law. Also, once a person signs a contract digitally or otherwise, it cannot be altered in any way.

But let’s say you need to sign a contract that's being sent to you, and time precludes you from waiting for a fax or FedEx package to arrive. There's a company that can help you with that too.

HelloSign is a web based service that allows you to receive, sign and send digital contracts that can be signed with just your finger. It's also available on the form of an iPad and iPhone app.

The app is made by the same company that created HelloFax, which allows you to upload or drag a document into the company's website and fax it to someone by just entering their number and pushing a button.

The makers of HelloSign say they're on their way to creating a completely paperless office, and their new app will bring the convenience of sending a digital document to smartphones and other mobile devices.

Users can import a PDF or take a photo of the document, sign it with their finger then email it.

"We have been promised the paperless office for more than 30 years, but the digital signature industry has stagnated with expensive and bloated options priced for the large enterprise," explained founder of HelloSign and HelloFax Joseph Walla.

"HelloSign changes that with its free, easy-to-use solution that works equally well for both consumer and businesses and breaks the costly and time-wasting cycle of signing documents— print, sign, scan— with its free, unlimited and secure digital signatures on the web or with an iPhone and iPad app," he said.

Walla also says the app is ideal for the company-of-one who offers a service, or the big corporation that has several departments and divisions.

There are other websites and apps like HelloSign but most only offer free use for a short trial period, then you have to pay.

HelloSign is free and users can sign and send an unlimited amount of documents at no additional costs, so it’s a pretty good service to keep around just in case you need it.

The app also has a tracking feature so you can keep tabs on exactly when the document is received an opened.

HelloSign is currently available for download at the iTunes app store.

Today's world is a world of specialists.Whether you need your roof fixed or someone to design a website for you, it’s easy to find people who live ...
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Yahoo! Now what?

Sure, a proud past but what's the future hold?

Marissa Mayer isn't losing much time putting her stamp on Yahoo!, which has been trying to organize the world's information even longer than her previous employer.

Among her first actions -- free food in the URLs Cafe at the company's Silicon Valley headquarters. Employees in the other 24 countries, provinces and territories where Yahoo! has offices? They'll have to keep brown-bagging it, at least for now.

As nearly everyone knows, Google also provides free food for its geeks and wonks. Google also has an all-hands-on-deck staff meeting every Friday afternoon and -- surprise -- Yahoo! now has one too. 

So far, none of this has sunk in with the cybersphere. We ran a sentiment analysis on about 11 million consumer comments posted to social Web sites over the last year and found that Yahoo! has actually sunk to its lowest level, a rather wan 28% positive rating, in the last month.

No respect

Yahoo! is sort of the Rodney Dangerfield of the Web. Although it is relatively  successful by most reasonable measures, and certainly not as troubled as lots of media companies we can think of, it has encountered difficulty becoming more than it is, whatever that is.

It's that "whatever" that Mayer will be wrestling with. Officially, Yahoo! says it is "the premier digital media company." This rubs Wall Street and lots of Silicon Valley the wrong way. It just sounds so, well, old world.  

After all, who would want to be a media company? You mean like the Saturday Evening Post? Media company? That sounds like somebody who creates content, which is way too expensive and, besides, it requires old-style artisan types -- you know, writers, editors, camera operators, lighting guys and who knows what else? 

What everybody wants to be today is a software platform -- you know, like Facebook, Twitter and, of course, Google. They don't exactly create anything; they just provide the stage on which information, entertainment and drivel are displayed. This is, of course, not quite as easy as we're making it sound and, in fact, smashing bits of information together can sometimes produce something much greater than the sum of the parts. Sort of like that Higgs boson particle thing. 

Human touch

Yahoo!, rather endearingly, has always prided itself on being a little more than a big black box. "Yahoo! stands out as one of the most visited and most trusted Internet destinations because we uniquely pair innovative technology with a human touch to personalize the digital world," it says on its Overview page.

So why do its users think? We went back to those 11 million social Web commenters to extract what they think is the best and worst of Yahoo!

The answer, as is so often the case, is that the most-liked and most-disliked attributes are pretty much the same, in this case Yahoo's account, messenger, answer and mail products.

Everybody has advice for Ms. Mayer.  Over at CNN Money, Dave McClure thinks Marissa should think pink. "The answer is simple: Focus on WOMEN," he advises. At AllThingsD, Kara Swisher surmises that Mayer will focus on her strength -- building great products.

We found lots of other opinions among those 11 million comments, some perhaps more useful than others:

At Google, Mayer was the supreme product czarina, focusing obsessively on ensuring that every feature and product worked well, looked nice and generally did what it was suppposed to do. Although Yahoo! basically works pretty well, it could certainly use some touching-up here and there, which may play well to its new CEO's strengths.

For the toughest view, of course, one must turn to Wall Street and its environs.  Sure enough, at TheStreet.com, we find Richard Saintvilus recalling fondly how he once trashed Yahoo! as "the best 'has-been' on the market" and, a bit less fondly, "a laughingstock."

But Saintvilus is feeling a bit more saintly today and, slipping into the sports metaphors through which the Street communicates, says, "Mayer can be to Yahoo! what Peyton Manning once was to the Indianapolis Colts -- a franchise savior."

Cutting through all the silly, bit-wasting comments about maternity leaves, pink logos, how many s's there should be in "Marissa" and so forth, Saintvilus nicely states the challenge: Yahoo! needs to finally decide what it wants to be.

"Will it be strictly a media company that focuses on content delivery or will it be a technology company with an innovative strategy? It must choose because it can't expect to do both very well."

Good question. Yahoo! might be at one of those crossroads poets are always metering on about -- you know, two roads diverged in the woods and so forth. In such an instance, as Saintvilus would probably agree, either choice -- left or right, east or west, content or technology -- is better than simply plowing straight ahead into the woods.   

Marissa Mayer isn't losing much time putting her stamp on Yahoo!, which has been trying to organize the world's information even longer than her previous e...
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Crowd Funding: The New Way Ideas Are Getting Off the Ground

Entrepreneurs, inventors and charities find funding "in the cloud"

One of the great things about the United States is its diverse pool of people and talents. 

Historically, the U.S. has always been a place of bold ideas and world-changing creative inventions. Ever hear of the Internet?

And of course it’s not just in the States, but many people around the globe walk around every day with an idea, new business plan, or a solution on how they will fill a gap in the current market place.

In fact there are several websites today that help foster one's dream of starting a new business, creating the next blockbuster movie, or promoting a new  invention.

For example, you may have heard of Kickstarter. It’s a website that helps people gather the necessary funding to begin, finish or promote a creative project.

How it works

If you have a project that you want to get off the ground, you sign up for the site and input the necessary information to tell the online public what your project is about.

Kickstarter and other sites like it were created for serious projects. They discourage those who want to merely dabble in a new venture and those who have yet to map out a definitive business plan, project or desired result.

So if you're creating a new phone app, let’s say, and you've come up with half of the funds to complete it, you can post your project on the Kickstart website and explain how much funding you'll need. You will also communicate what you'll do with the  money.

And what's the catch? 

There really isn't one. The only thing the site requires, is for the person receiving the funds to offer something of value to the pledgers, whether it be a free CD of your completed album, a mention in the credits at the end of the documentary you’re making, or first dibs on that new app.

Kickstarter began in 2008, and has already helped a countless number of people receive funding for their project or invention.

Take Dan Garblik and Lalit Kalani for example. The two Philadelphia residents had an idea to create a series of traditional Indian chutneys to be used as condiments for the general American public.  Similar to what U.S. food brands did with the Chinese-food condiment duck sauce.

Garblik and Kalani joined Kickstarter back in June of this year, and told the public about their newly developed condiment and food company Bandar Foods.

They asked for $5,000 for product development, testing and strategy, and by the end of July the duo had received a whopping donation total of $20,192 from the general public.

Don't need money? You can also browse Kickstarter and donate to projects you find interesting or worthwhile. 

You might find a project like Natahan Wessel's. He created a more attractive and user-friendly transit map in Cincinnati. If you think your city needs some help, you can donate a few dollars to get Wessel's model promoted and hopefully used more widely.

Donation requests on Kickstarter usually begin at $25 a person, and go up to any number the pledgee feels is necessary to complete their project.

Those putting their project on Kickstarter first need to list the total amount of how much they wish to collect, and the time-frame in which they would like to collect it. If that amount isn't generated within the chosen amount of time, the requestor cannot collect the funds.

If the full amount is achieved, Kickstarter gets five percent of the total, and Amazon gets a payment processing fee of three to five percent.

Indiegogo

Other sites like Indiegogo allow requestors to collect money for their project whether the full amount is given or not. Also, Kickstarter is set up for creative projects and doesn't allow fundraising for charities on its site.

Indiegogo is a bit more liberal, as a person can post any type of project or charity need on its website.

One of biggest magnets on the site at the moment is the Anderson Relief Fund, which is raising money for 22-year-old Petra Anderson, critically injured in the Aurora, Colorado, theater shooting.

The fees for Indigogo are four percent of the total amount if you reach your goal and nine percent of the sum if you don't achieve your listed amount.  Both Indiegogo and Kickstarter allow users to post a project for free.

There are also sites that provide niche funding like 33.com that caters more to those socially-minded people or groups that want to create a project to initiate some sort of change.

For example businesses like HalfUnited that creates clothes and gives some of its profits to needy children, or Emergent Energy Group that that deals with renewable energy initiatives, have received huge amounts from 33.com.

Consumers also can scan the site and contribute to causes they're attracted to.

Network for Good is another site that allows consumers to either start or donate to projects that surround a social cause. 

Microloans

Kiva.org works a little bit differently, as the site lets consumers lend money to people around the world in underdeveloped countries. The company allows microfinance companies in various parts of the globe to be a liaison for entrepreneurs who have a desire to create a business and contribute to the area's economic growth.

Unlike Kickstart or Indiegogo, Kiva lends the money to the entrepreneur as opposed to donating it.

A person would use PayPal to make a loan, the money then goes to microfinance institutions, or the "field partners" as Kiva calls them, and the field partners dole the money out to the business that are selected to receive funding.

Then that same process works itself backwards so the lender can receive their money back.

The receiver of the funds pays back the field partner, and the field partner sends the money back to Kiva so the lender can be repaid.

Kiva says they don't charge interest on the loan, but the field partners do and interest rates vary depending on the where in the globe the loan is dealt.

Caution advised

When it comes to using crowd funding sites one should use them with a vigilant eye. Even though most of them genuinely provide a useful service for both pledger and pledgee, there have been a handful of scams related to these types of websites.

Certain projects listed on some of these sites aren't really what they appear to be, and many times the creators exaggerate just how far along the project is in terms of development.

A film student back in 2011 raised over $2,000 for a movie he was suppossedly making. But in fact he simply copied an existing movie kept the money. He's since been caught.

There are also reports of projects receiving money and never being completed, or donors being stiffed on the items or money they were supposed to get back in the exchange.

A good way to know if a project is real is to pay attention to the project's information page. Someone who is serious about their creation will do all they can to show you how it works, what it is, and what it will ultimately do.

Someone who haphazardly throws a project on a site with little detail or proof of development should be ignored. The creator of a project will always provide updates as their endeavor moves closer to completion.

Also do a quick Google search on the person or project to see if there's any Internet history whether good or bad.

And as with anything else, listen to your gut when it comes to deciding whether a project sounds well thought out enough that it will be successful.

There's no use in giving your hard-earned dollars towards something that sounds like it won't work, after all.

One of the great things about the United States is its diverse pool of people and talents. Historically, the U.S. has always been a place of bold id...
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Malware and Spam On the Rise In 2012

And much of it is coming from the U.S.

If it seems your email inbox is getting cluttered with spam again, its not your imagination. A German technology security firm says unwelcome or dangerous e-mails were on the rise again in the first half of 2012.

The company, called Eleven, said it documented a clear jump in the second quarter in particular: the bottom line shows 54.8 percent more spam, 52.4 percent more identified malware, and 90 percent more virus outbreaks.

In contrast, phishing e-mails saw an increase particularly in the first quarter, when their growth rate jumped by 169.6 percent. Measured against total e-mail volume spam had an average share of 70.8 percent in the first six months of 2012. On June 29, the heaviest spam day of the year until now, its share jumped to 89.2 percent.

The second main trend of the first half of 2012 was the rise in spam, phishing, and malware campaigns targeted to a specific country, customers of a regional banking institution or the users of specific services. What set this apart was a clearly limited recipient area, credible content, high language quality, and Websites that are almost perfect copies of the originals. In other words, more sophisticated perpetrators.

In the first six months of 2012, Eleven registered phishing campaigns against customers of Amazon Germany and Deutsche Postbank, as well as PayPal users. Malware campaigns disguised themselves as phony mobile telephone bills, postal notification slips, and tax notifications.

Holidays and special events

Valentines Day and Mother's Day in the U.S. were highpoints of spam activity. Most recently Euro 2012 and the run-up to the Olympic games in London have been marked by phishing campaigns. The most popular trick in both cases: phony ticket lotteries requesting bank account and credit card data.

The spam and malware are back, Eleven says, because spammers are recovering from the law enforcement efforts that shut many of them down in 2011. After the Rustock botnet was shut down in March 2011, the volume of spam coming from Western countries was reduced to a trickle.

For several months, they did not place on the top ten spam senders list at all. But in the second quarter of 2012 in particular, the volume of spam from these countries was clearly on the rise, Eleven says.

And in the first six months of this year, the U.S. was back on the list in sixth place, reaching fith in June alongside Germany in third and the United Kingdom in eighth.

India, meanwhile, remains the number one country for generating email-delivered spam and malware.

If it seems your email inbox is getting cluttered with spam again, its not your imagination. A German technology security firm says unwelcome or dangerous ...
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Newsweek Preparing to Go Online-Only?

Report says the move may be announced as early as September

Like most other publications that have been "saved," Newsweek may be in danger of relapse. Reports today say it will soon end its 79-year run as a printed newsweekly, ascending into the cloud in hopes of living happily ever after.

For most of its life, Newsweek was a doted-upon child of the Washington Post Company. It wasn't very profitable but no one much cared back in the day when newspapers printed money even faster than newsprint.

But a few years ago, as the Post's cookie jar began emptying at an alarming rate, Newsweek was cast off for the humiliating price of $1 to Sidney Harman, a fabulously wealthy stereo magnate, Congressional spouse and, one assumes,  avid reader.

Harman merged Newsweek into the Daily Beast Co., owned by Interactive Media Corp. (IAC).  Harman died not long afterwards, in April 2011, and now the Harman trust says it doesn't intend to keep putting money into Newsweek.

That leaves IAC Chairman Barry Diller at the helm. He didn't get to be a media kingpin by funding losing ventures forever and he reportedly made that clear during a a quarterly earnings call this week, saying the transition to online from print "will take place," according to Advertising Age magazine.

IAC makes most of its revenue from the Match.com and Ask.com websites. "Content" sites like Newsweek and The Daily Beast? Well, like doted-upon children, they're nice to have around but they don't contribute much to paying the rent.

Like most other publications that have been "saved," Newsweek may be in danger of relapse. Reports today say it will soon end its 79-year run as a printed ...
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FCC: Advertised Web Speeds Now More Accurate

Consumers now getting 96 percent of advertised speeds from ISPs

Internet Service Providers (ISP) in the U.S. are doing a better job of providing advertised speeds for their broadband services, according to a new report from the Federal Communications Commission (FCC).

The study involved actual performance tests for thousands of subscribers in over 80 percent of the residential market. The FCC said it found a marked improvement in performance between the first report, completed in August 2011, and this latest one, completed in April 2012.

"First, accurate delivery of advertised performance by ISPs has improved overall," the report said. "Five ISPs now routinely deliver nearly one hundred percent or greater of the speed advertised to the consumer even during time periods when bandwidth demand is at its peak."

Improvement since August

That's a big improvement from the August 2011 report, when only two ISPs met that level of performance. In 2011, the average ISP delivered 87 percent of advertised download speed during peak usage periods.

In 2012, that jumped to 96 percent. In other words, consumers today are experiencing performance more closely aligned with what is advertised than they experienced one year ago.

Consumers posting reviews at ConsumerAffairs still complain about speeds, however, even if complaints about billing and customer service are more numerous. Edward, of Corryton, TN, wrote recently to express is frustration with Comcast.

"I am paying every single month for 12 megabytes per second (Mbps) download and 3Mbps upload," Edward wrote. "Yet, when doing several speed tests for Comcast Xfinity, my download speed ranged from 0.40Mbps to 1.81Mbps download and 0.58Mbps to 0.76Mbps upload. When I called and asked Comcast why it was so slow, the customer service lady said I could pay another $10 a month to upgrade to 12Mbps download and 5Mbps upload. I told her I was not even getting what I was paying for now, so why would I want to pay them more money for something I'm not even getting now?"

An exception?

The FCC report authors suggest when it comes to Comcast customers, Edward may be an exception. The report found that Comcast is now providing 103 percent of its advertised speeds.

The report found that providers delivering service with fiber optics had the best record of hitting advertised download speeds. They were over-performing at a rate of 117 percent.

Room for improvement

But not all ISPs are showing improvement. Frontier and Windstream showed declines since August, with Frontier performing the worst. Clayton, of West Alexandria, Ohio, a Frontier business customer, said he finds the service very uneven.

"First, their high-speed business Internet slows down to a complete halt, and if it doesn't slow down to a halt, it is extremely slow, around.02 mbps," Clayton wrote in a ConsumerAffairs review. "This throws everything off at our business location. We can get a little over 2.5mbps when it works as it should."

The report suggests that ISPs were motivated to improve performance by the first study, when the FCC publicized which providers were hitting their numbers and which were not. And the agency says the improvements appear to be real.

"Our analysis shows that the improvements of ISPs in meeting their advertised speeds were largely driven by improvements in network performance, and not downward adjustments to the speed tiers offered," the authors wrote.

Internet Service Providers (ISP) in the U.S. are doing a better job of providing advertised speeds for their broadband services, according to a new report ...
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Classmates.com: Has It Graduated and Gone Straight?

Consumers remember their Classmates and find similar experiences in Memory Lane

Remember these two? Where are they now?

It can be nice to connect with old classmates. Before social sites like MySpace, and Facebook existed, people had to wait until their 10- or 20-year reunion to connect with old school chums.

Created in 1995, Classmates.com, now called Memory Lane, leapt at the chance to be industry leaders in connecting people to their past. Once the Internet became a household norm by the late 90s the company was already in the perfect place to match technology with the selling of nostalgia.

As widely reported, things did not go well for the social networking site, as it has been inundated with lawsuits, customer complaints and bad press.

Consumers rate Classmates

In our ConsumersAffairs Reviews section, bad experiences with Classmates.com are in the thousands, and finding it difficult to cancel membership is among some of the most popular complaints from our readers.

"They make it difficult and impossible to cancel membership online," said one reader. "When I clicked on multiple links they provided, I was never taken to where I could cancel. They do not list a phone number or email to do this."

In addition, "I found a phone number online but of course they are only open during business hours. I will never, ever become a member again unless they become more transparent in their business practices. I wish I had investigated the complaints online before judging."

And many people wish they did too, as the concept of strolling down the avenue of yesteryear seemed like a great idea, especially for older consumers who never cared for Facebook, and never created a network of friends through the Mark Zuckerberg created website.

Legal troubles

But legal troubles persisted for Classmates.com beginning in 2010, as the site agreed to pay a $9.5 million settlement for providing false advertising to its users, and using deceptive emails to lure in more consumer interest.

Here's how they did it: Classmates sent emails to users indicating old schoolmates were trying to contact them, and a payment would have to be made to see exactly who it was. Once payments were made, users learned that nobody was actually trying to contact them, and it was all just a big sales ploy, the suits alleged.

Classmates.com has also been at the forefront of the automatic renewal schemes that many online companies have adopted in an effort to keep customers around longer. 

Once the novelty of using Classmates wore off, and people let their memberships expire, consumers were continually charged on a monthly basis, even years after not using the site. In a consumer test conducted by PCWorld, Classmates.com received the worst scores for automatically renewing memberships out of the many companies tested.

The site, now known as Memory Lane, has said it will no longer do automatic renewals, and said this in a statement:

"Please be assured that your membership is no longer enrolled in the automatic renewal program, and you will not be charged again. Your Gold membership will expire and revert to free status on March 20, 2011."

But has that been the case? Has Memory Lane improved the ways of its old classmate, Classmates.com?

Merely a few days ago, Jane of Woodstock, Ga. wrote to ConsumerAffairs  that she was still being automatically billed. Mind you, this is one year after Classmates said it would no longer use these kinds of tactics, as it promised to keep members better updated about their accounts.

In June of 2012, Jane checked her bank account and saw a random charge of $39 that forced her checking account to be overdrawn. Since she didn't renew and hasn't used the site in quite some time, Jane decided to take action against the nostalgia site by filing a fraud claim through her bank. 

When the bank employee attempted to contact Classmates for some answers, the customer service number provided seemed to be the wrong contact info.

All of this simply because Jane decided to sign up for free, which is a common baiting tactic to hook members. The word "free" in any business transaction should automatically raise your suspicions.

And the others?

What about other social sites that allow people to revisit their past days of adolescence? Are they any better?

Reunion.com, now called MyLife, also gives consumers the chance to reach out to former school buddies. But users have found the site to be just as bad as Classmates.

"I'm not on the site; they have created relatives for me!" said Whitney of Nashville, in a posting to ConsumerAffairs. "I Googled myself and saw that these criminals have me listed on Reunion.com, and stated that I am related to people with whom I am not related. Now, I am getting collection calls from people in Ohio."

Peggy of California has also been trying to get her personal information pulled off the site with no luck. After sending letter upon letter to the company, Peggy hasn't received any correspondence or help with getting her information removed from the site.

Experts say before signing up for any so-called free site, consumers should get a firm understanding of the company’s renewal policy. Many sites allow you to disable the renewal feature, but often hide the button or link deep within its website pages to throw you off.

Consumers should take the time to learn exactly where these disabling functions are and make note of them. It's a good idea to print out the page and save it.

Also, consumers should try their hardest not to be tempted by free deals, especially from startup companies that are desperate to build their customer base.

Before dealing with any company, it's smart to do a bit of research to see if its owners were ever brought up on any lawsuits. It's also good to know if the company has been accused of committing unfair business practices in the past. Luckily for the consumer, few can hide from the all seeing eye of the Internet.

ConsumerAffairs attempted to contact the corporate office of United Online, the company that owns Classmates, but calls were not returned.

It can be nice to connect with old classmates. Before social sites like MySpace, and Facebook existed, people had to wait until their 10 or 20 year reunion...
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Who's Who Publisher To Make Restitution

Oregon reaches settlement agreement with publisher

Cambridge Who's Who is a vanity publisher that creates a directory of business leaders and professionals. While it provides a free online listing, it also sells enhanced listings and other products like press releases and videos.

Its sales of those additional products are what brought it into conflict with Oregon's very tough telemarketing laws.

Oregon Attorney General John Kroger says the company has agreed to pay approximately $15,000 in restitution to Oregon consumers, and has changed its sales script to comply with Oregon's Unlawful Trade Practices Act (UTPA). In particular, Cambridge Who's Who will comply with Oregon's "30-second rule."

That rule requires the telemarketer to clearly communicate the total cost of goods or services in the first 30 seconds. If the consumer says they aren't interested, the call must be ended immediately.

Cambridge Who's Who advertises a free listing both online and through the mail, then personally follows up with a phone call. Kroger's office got involved after receiving about half a dozen complaints from Oregon consumers.

Company records obtained by the Oregon Department of Justice indicated that Cambridge Who's Who would call consumers who expressed an interest in the free listing and, during those calls, the company would attempt to sell memberships that cost several hundred dollars. Under the terms of the settlement, the company will now remind consumers that a free listing is available to them.

The publisher will also pay more than $15,000 to two Oregon consumers. The company had already issued refunds to a number of consumers prior to the settlement under which the company admitted to no wrongdoing.

The company has also agreed to pay $13,500 to the Oregon Department of Justice consumer protection & education fund. Kroger says the Better Business Bureau of New York gives Cambridge Who's Who a "C" rating, citing 354 consumer complaints nationwide.

Cambridge Who's Who is a vanity publisher that creates a directory of business leaders and professionals. While it provides a free online listing, it also ...
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RealNetworks' Not-So-Free Trials Will Cost It $2.4 Million

"Deceptive pre-checked boxes and fine print" cited by prosecutors

Over the last seven years, more than 500 complaints flowed into the Washington State Attorney General’s Office and the Better Business Bureau regarding Seattle-based digital media provider RealNetworks, Inc.

Consumers spoke of “odd charges” appearing on their credit cards, complaining of bills for monthly subscriptions for premium television, sports or game content that they never ordered.

“Deceptive pre-checked boxes and fine print obligated consumers to not-so-free trials for subscription services they didn’t want in the first place,” said Washington State Attorney General Rob McKenna. “People were charged for months — sometimes years — paying hundreds of dollars for subscriptions they knew nothing about.”

A lawsuit and settlement filed today in King County Superior Court by McKenna’s Consumer Protection Division aims to end practices that are unfair and deceptive under Washington state’s Consumer Protection Act. Those practices include so-called “free-to-pay conversions” in which free trials rapidly result in monthly charges – unless consumers take quick action.

Other problems

Attorney General’s Office attorneys and staff reviewing consumer complaints also found other concerning trends. “Some said they had difficulty getting RealNetworks to stop the charges and others complained that when they called the company to cancel subscriptions, they were pitched even more ‘free trials,’” said Paula Selis, who heads the Attorney General’s High Tech Unit.

Jennifer Horwitz of Seattle was one of those consumers.

“RealNetworks didn’t dispute that I had cancelled their service before the free trial expired but when I asked them for a refund, they refused,” she said today. “I had to fight my way up the chain of command. They continued to stonewall, only agreeing to a partial refund ‘as a courtesy to me.’  I believe this was calculated to make a profit by misleading consumers and taking money they were not entitled to.”

Today, McKenna announced a settlement with RealNetworks that will end the questionable practices and provide restitution for consumers throughout the country. Among numerous requirements, RealNetworks agrees to comply with the federalRestore Online Shoppers Confidence Act, which requires a customer’s express consent before he or she can be charged for a free trial that converts into a paid subscription.

While McKenna’s office brought a previous case regarding unauthorized charges by online merchantIntelius, this is the first time a defendant in a state action was required to comply with the new federal law.

Under the terms of the settlement, RealNetworks is also required to:

·       Stop using pre-checked boxes to obtain consent from consumers to purchase products or services;

·       Stop offering free-to-pay conversions that do not clearly disclose all the terms of the offer, including subscriptions that are automatically charged on customers’ credit cards;

·       Provide an online method of cancelation so that consumers may easily cancel their subscriptions;

·       Send e-mail or other reminders that consumers are enrolled in a free-to-pay conversion, along with instructions for how to cancel the subscription;

·       Cancel subscriptions within two days of a consumer’s request to do so; and,

·       Inform consumers who have called to cancel a subscription of additional subscriptions on their account.

Refund pool 

The settlement also provides for a $2 million claims-based pool to provide full restitution for consumers who were victimized during the three year period prior to December 2009 when the practices detailed in the Attorney General’s complaint were most common.

“The company has voluntarily made numerous changes since December 2009 to curb the practices that are at issue in the lawsuit and this, thankfully, has resulted in fewer recent complaints to our office,” McKenna said.

Consumers who were unknowingly signed up using pre-checked boxes between January 2007 and December 2009 will receive apostcard indicating that they are eligible for a refund. Additionally, consumers may visit realnetworksrestitution.com to submit a claim. RealNetworks also agrees to pay $400,000 in attorney’s fees.

Over the last seven years, more than 500 complaints flowed into the Washington State Attorney General’s Office and the Better Business Bureau regardi...
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Bing Makes Big Changes In its Attempts to Conquer Google

More tracking and integration with social media are in the works

In the ongoing scuffle to be on top of the search engine hill, Microsoft's Bing is trying to compete with Google by making its site more interactive.

"Today we are taking a big step forward as we begin rolling out what is the most significant update to Bing since we launched three years ago," said the company in a prepared statement. "Over the coming weeks, we will be introducing a brand new way to search designed to help you take action and interact with friends and experts without compromising the core search experience.

If you can't beat them join them, right? Which appears to be Bing's mentality as it's borrowing Google's idea of paying attention to your connections and web browsing patters to further personalize your search.

The fact that both Facebook and Google have mastered the ability to allow users to experience things in real time "presents an unprecedented opportunity to rethink how search should work," stated the post. "Suddenly an index of documents that does not embrace these changes is insufficient."

Contrarian view

On the other hand, there are those who would prefer that their search engine give them "just the facts," without coloring the results based on previous searches, location, etc. Enter DuckDuckGo, which is becoming the Little Engine That Could in the search world.

DDG has gone from from about 200,000 searches a day last year at this time to nearly 1.6 million today, according to SearchEngineLand, at least partly because it does not track its users' preferences, habits and location. 

Of course, DDG is merely a speck on Google and Microsoft's radars, as they continue their quest to personalize the search experience and deliver more targeted results to their advertisers.

Big loser

Last year, Microsoft lost a total of $2.6 billion from its online services, further driving its desire to compete with Google for search engine dominance. As reported earlier by Consumer Affairs, Bing launched a Daily Deals section, with 200,000 offers in 14,00 different cities, which further shows the upward trajectory the search company sees itself on.

Here is one of the major changes Bing users will soon notice:

When a user does a search for, let's say, "best mattresses to buy," and they've accessed their Facebook page through Bing, all of their Facebook friends who conducted similar searchers, or had some past Facebook comment on the matteress will appear on the screen. Then, one could either read their friends' opinions on the mattress, or simply reach out to them for advice.

"This is a fundamentally different way to look at search," said Qi Lu, president of Microsoft's online services division, in a interview with the media.

In October of 2010, Microsoft applied for a patent to obtain access to social media sites like Gawker and TMZ, to further determine a user's up-to-date trending patterns based on their views and comments. And Bing has already partnered with Facebook, as the two powerhouses revealed they would be joining forces back in 2010, for what was named "Social Search."

It will be very interesting to see what else Google has in its bag of tricks. Stay tuned, because this feels like the beginning stages of some intense back and fourth.

In the ongoing desire to be on top of the search engine hill, Microsoft's Bing is taking a major step forward in trying to compete with Google by making&nb...
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To Reduce Stress, Take a Vacation From Email

Giving employees permission to ignore email might make them more productive

With the approach of vacation season, here's something to consider: taking a vacation from your email – especially work email – can help you feel more like you're on vacation.

That might seem fairly obvious, but researcher at the U.S. Army and the University of California Irvine (UCI) conducted experiments to actually prove it. They attached heart-rate monitors to computer users in a suburban office setting, while software sensors detected how often they switched windows.

People who read email changed screens twice as often and were in a steady “high alert” state, with more constant heart rates. Those removed from email for five days experienced more natural, variable heart rates.

Less multitasking, less stress

“We found that when you remove email from workers’ lives, they multitask less and experience less stress,” said UCI informatics professor Gloria Mark, who co-authored the study.

Participants in the study were computer-dependent civilian employees at the Army’s Natick Soldier Systems Center outside Boston. Those with no email reported feeling better able to do their jobs and stay on task, with fewer stressful and time-wasting interruptions.

Measurements bore that out, Mark said. People with email switched windows an average of 37 times per hour. Those without changed screens half as often – about 18 times in an hour.

She said the findings could be useful for boosting productivity and suggested that controlling email login times, batching messages or other strategies might be helpful.

“Email vacations on the job may be a good idea,” she noted. “We need to experiment with that.”

Interestingly, Mark said it was hard to recruit volunteers for the study, but once participants began to do without email, they loved it.

“In general, they were much happier to interact in person,” she said.

With the approach of vacation season, here's something to consider: taking a vacation from your email – especially work email – can help you fe...
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Google, Microsoft Hope to Box In Dropbox & Box

File lockers under assault by Internet gargantuas

Build a better mousetrap and ... what? The world beats a pathway to your door? Maybe that was true once but what generally happens today is that Microsoft and Google duplicate your mousetrap, slap their logo on it and leave you wondering where all the mice and cheese went.

Such is the fate of Dropbox, a very clever and useful file hosting service that uses the Internet to enable its users to store and share files and folders across the Internet.

It's not just a storage system, it also provides very sophisticated file synchronization -- so that your laptop, desktop, iPad and other devices all stay up to date as files are changed and deleted. Founded in 2007 by MIT graduates Drew Houston and Arash Ferdowsi, Dropbox now has millions of individual and enterprise customers using free and premium versions. 

It's also extremely popular with its users, with a positive net sentiment of more than 80% over the last year, according to a ConsumerAffairs sentiment analysis of about 950,000 comments on Twitter, Facebook and other social media. 

What does everyone like about Dropbox?  It might be more illustrative to ask what they don't like. The answer is: almost nothing, as this chart illustrates.

No snooping

Among its advantages is that Dropbox is independent and, as the techies say, platform-agnostic. It is not tied to your Google profile, your Microsoft profile or any other profile.  It simple stores your stuff without nosing around to see what ads, offers and promotions might be floated by you. It works with Windows, Mac, Linux and all kinds of smartphone and tablet systems.

Of course, Dropbox could see its popularity erode now that Microsoft and Google are on the Dropbox beat -- Microsoft with its SkyDrive and Google with a new service reportedly known as Google Drive -- although Dropbox is not sitting still. The company announced yesterday that it was offering a new service that enables Dropbox clients to share documents, photos and videos with non-Dropbox clients.

"We're always looking for ways to make life easier and solve the basic problems people face everyday," said Drew Houston, CEO and co-founder of Dropbox. "Sending files has always been a painful process, but now with Dropbox, sharing with friends, family, and colleagues is effortless."

Business presentations, home movies, and even entire folders can be opened and viewed instantly without having to sign in, download anything, or open files separately, Houston said.     

"One-stop shop"

Dragging out the oldest and most anachronistic metaphor it could think of, Microsoft says it's hoping to make SkyDrive a "one-stop shop" (clever, no?) for file syncing and remote file access. On the software side, there are new clients for Windows and Mac OS X to sync files with the cloud, and updated versions of the Windows Phone and iOS clients. Of course, there's nothing for Linux users and at least for now, no Android or Blueberry support.

As for storage, users will get 7 GB of synced storage, with options to buy more space, starting at $10 for 20 GB per year, up to $50 for 100 GB per year.

Google Drive

Details of Google's new offering aren't yet known but it will include both free and for-pay versions, sources say. And of course, it will include search capabilities so you (and Google?) can rummage around in your files. 

Reports say you'll get 5 GB of storage for free with Google Drive, while various versions with incrementally more storage capacity, topping out at about 100 Gigabytes, will be available for monthly fees, the source said.

How does all this compare with Dropbox? Well, you can get up to 18 GB free, although you start out at 2 GB and get 500 MB for each person you refer. Paid plans include 50 GB for $99 per year or 100 GB for $199 annually.

Box not dropping out

Another established service, known simply as Box, established six years ago, provides cloud storage as well as enterprise collaboration tools and says it is relying on its focus on large corporate and institutional customers to survive the new competitive challenges.

"We think the enterprises are going to value platform-agnostic players that are very, very, very focused on security and the enterprise depth that we offer,” said co-founder Aaron Levie in a video provided by the company. "We think that our level of focus is going to be the huge competitive advantage that we have against any player in the space, whether it’s Google, or Microsoft, or Apple or IBM or anyone… they’re going to be competing with one company that is just entirely focused on this proposition.”


Build a better mousetrap and ... what? The world beats a pathway to your door? Maybe that was true once but what happens today is taht Microsoft and Google...
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Beware of In-App Purchases, They Can Add Up Quickly

Free apps can suddenly become very costly

An eight-year-old with an iPad might not seem like a dangerous thing.  After all, who would think a “free” game downloaded from iTunes, or any other reputable site, would not actually be free?

Kristy, of Portland, Mich., reports her eight year-old son downloaded a "free" game on his iPad. The game may have been free but by playing it, he managed to rack up more than $1,140 in charges in charges on iTunes from the in-app purchasing option, playing the game Dragonvale, which is labeled as appropriate for ages four and up.

“On March 30, he made 15 purchases totaling $720 in less than one hour,” Kristi wrote in a ConsumerAffairs post. “On March 31, the charges totaled over $420 in under 20 minutes.”

As she looked into it, Kristy said she discovered these in-app purchases, ranging in price from less than $1 to over $100, were for things like treasure chests of coins, sacks of food, bags of gems, and dragon treats to use in this children's game.

iTunes refunds the charges

After a few phone calls, Kristi said iTunes agreed to refund the charges. But the experience has made her extremely wary about in-app purchases, and whether consumers, particularly young ones, realize the charges that they can quickly incur. Here's what Apple says about in-app purchases:

“With iOS 3.0 or later, you can purchase subscriptions and extra content from within an application using your iPhone, iPad, or iPod touch,” iTunes says on its website. “Some examples of In-App Purchases are bonus game levels/maps, additional experience points, subscriptions, and recurring services.”

But the question could be raised -- if the game is "free" but the consumer is offered expensive add-ons to make it more fun, doesn't it cease to be free?

And when thousands of consumers fail to notice the fine print on "free offers," and find resulting unauthorized charges on their credit cards, is it any wonder that people downloading a free game fail to realize they are spending real money when offered in-app options? And is it any wonder that children, especially, might not notice?

Too easy

“My son was required to use our password one time to download this allegedly free game and did not have to reenter the password to make all of these in-app purchases,” Kristi said. “In his defense, my son thought he was being charged 'game money' and had no concept that these were real-world charges. As a parent, I feel like my son's naivety was preyed upon by this company.”

iTunes is not the only company using in-app purchasing. Amazon and Google also use the practice.

It allows developers to earn revenue on apps they provide consumers for free. But is it also a new, high-tech form of bait and switch? Kristi apparently sees it that way.

“Developers are clearly targeting children and creating victims out of their parents who take ownership for allowing their kids to download these so-called free, paradoxically high-grossing, games,” Kristi wrote. “Something needs to be done regarding the current industry practice with respect to the marketing and delivery of these applications.

Beware of In-App Purchases, They Can Add Up Quickly...
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Be Skeptical About Search Engine Results

Scareware attacks increase around holidays like Easter

Scam artists hawking “scareware” products -- which make you think you have a virus when you don't -- are increasingly use what's called Search Engine Optimization (SEO) poisoning attacks.

They do it by manipulating search engine results to make their links appear higher on the search page than legitimate results.

You see it a lot around holidays like Easter, when scammers know that there will be a lot of computer users searching using terms like “Easter egg,” “chocolate,” and “bunny.” When an unsuspecting user clicks on one of these “poison” links, they get a phony message like those below warning them of a virus and encouraging them to purchase and download supposed security software.

Those who fall for it not only throw away money on a product they don't need and that may not even work.  They also give criminals access to their credit card and download malware onto their computer.

Fraser Howard, an anti-virus specialist at Sophos Security reports an increasing number of the SEO attacks in recent week, as Easter approaches. He notes that most people fall for this scam.

“The reason why SEO attacks are successful, is that all of us tend to trust search engine results,” Howard writes in his blog. “ After searching for something we happily click any of the links high up in the first page of results.”

Howard suggests we all be a little more discriminating and a lot more careful about what we click on. Before clicking, look at the URL. This might not always help, but if the domain name doesn't come anywhere close to the subject you were searching, it should be a red flag.

Many reputable anti-virus products block the viruses distributed through "black hat" SEO but cautious humans are still the best defense. If you see a security "warning" like the ones pictured on this page, don't click on it.  Close your browser immediately and start a new session.

Why You Shouldn't Always Trust Search Engine Results...
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Internet Access Bandit Convicted of Wire Fraud

"Coax Thief" helped consumers steal Internet service from cable companies

A Redmond, Ore., man who marketed a "Coax Thief" program has been convicted of seven counts of wire fraud by a federal jury in Boston.

Ryan Harris, 26, was the owner of TCNiSO, a company that distributed products enabling users to steal Internet service.  From 2003 through 2009, Harris developed and distributed hardware and software tools that allowed his customers to modify their cable modems so that they could disguise themselves as paying subscribers and obtain Internet service without paying. 

The products included a “packet sniffer,” which Harris dubbed “Coax Thief.”  It surreptitiously intercepted (or “sniffed”) Internet traffic so that the user obtained the media access control addresses and configuration files of surrounding modems. 

Despite the conviction, the software was still available for download at http://www.coaxthief.com/ as recently as March 4, 2012, with a note saying it was "presented by (the late) TCNiSO."

TCNISO and Harris also offered ongoing customer support, primarily through forums that it hosted on the TCNISO website, to assist customers in their cable modem hacking activities.

“Mr. Harris tried to hide behind the banner of freedom of access to the Internet, but the evidence established that he built a million dollar business helping customers steal Internet service,” said Assistant Attorney General Lanny A. Breuer.  

The U.S. Attorney for Massachusetts, Carmen M. Ortiz, said, “The Internet is an incredible resource that has transformed the way we conduct business.   Unfortunately, it has also become a breeding ground for criminals.   We will continue to prioritize the prosecution of those who wish to utilize our communication systems to conduct illegal activity and inflict harm on others.” 

Each count carries a maximum prison term of 20 years and a fine of up to $250,000.  Sentencing has been scheduled for May 23, 2012, at 3 p.m. before Chief District Court Judge Mark Wolf, who presided over the trial.

A Redmond, Ore., man who marketed a "Coax Thief" program has been convicted of seven counts of wire fraud by a federal jury in Boston.Ryan Harris, 26, ...
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What's On Your Mind? AOL, Budget Rent-A-Car, Skype

Our daily look at consumer reviews

Some services are notoriously hard to cancel. AOL is one, according to the many complaints received by ConsumerAffairs.com.

“I found out in December of 2011 that AOL was taking funds from my account,”Craig, of Pasadena, Md., told ConsumerAffairs.com. “I cancelled my service over eight years ago. So I called many times to tell them this was cancelled but I got nowhere. I just received a bill for December and January because I had my bank block them. What can I do!

Craig should write a letter to AOL at this address: AOL, P.O. Box 65100, Sterling, VA 20165-8800

Specify that you're cancelling, give your full name, phone number, address and signature, and either the primary billing contact's AOL screenname or the last four digits of the current payment method. It's a good idea to send it registered or certified, and retain a copy for your file.

Keep a copy of the letter and, when you get the delivery receipt, keep that together with the letter. If that doesn't do the trick, you can sue the company in small claims court, complain to your state's attorney general and to the Federal Trade Commission.

Always check the paperwork

At the rental counter, a clerk may ask you a series of questions and then fill in the form with your answers. Or at least, you hope they are your answers.

“I was careful to verbally decline the LDW coverage at the Budget Rent-A-Car counter when renting a car for one day in in Las Vegas recently. I was also careful to return the car within the 26 hour timeframe that the paperwork clearly stated was allowed, including a 26 hour grace period,” said Mark, of Madison, Wisc. “However, when I returned the car the next day, I was unpleasantly surprised to notice that not only had they deceptively charged me for the declined LDW coverage, they actually charged me for TWO days of coverage. Apparently somewhere in the fine print it notes there is no grace period for LDW coverage. When I raised the issue, they pointed out that I had initialed a box indicating acceptance of LDW coverage. Shame on me for not reading the paperwork carefully enough - I guess I trusted the woman at the counter to fill in the form based on my verbal responses to her questions.”

Most of us don't both to read the rental car agreement, but with the increased possibility of extra charges these days, it's wise to make the time.

Unwelcome calls

In late January, Randy, of Mississauga, Ontario said he received two strange calls on his Skype app., both from women in Ghana, Africa.

“The first female was begging me for money, told me her parents were dead and she had no job,” Randy said. “The second call was also a female who told me she needed a husband and could I help her with money problems. She also asked for my Skype password, and when I refused she was upset and changed her attitude toward me!”

Randy is wondering if his account has been hacked. He says he's changed his credit cards and his passwords. Anyone else having this experience?

Here's what's on consumers' minds today...
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Can You Trust A Favorable Review?

Businesses increasingly try to game the review system

Most of us are happy to read a glowing movie review. It's probably a movie we'd like to see anyway, and we're grateful someone in authority – a reviewer – has blessed it and told us we'll like it.

Does the same hold true for products? Retailers and manufacturers are betting it does, and they too are happy to believe that. Instead of spending millions on a TV commercial to run during the Super Bowl, they use a fraction of their ad budget and offer incentives for consumers to post positive reviews on e-tailer sites like Amazon.com.

Bing Liu, a computer science professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago, calls it “opinion spam.”

Opinion spam

“Opinion spamming refers to illegal activities that try to deliberately mislead readers or automated opinion mining and sentiment analysis systems by giving undeserving positive opinions to some target entities in order to promote the entities,” Liu said.

While a casual reader might not be able to easily spot a bought-and-paid-for review, Liu is working on software that will detect them. On his website, Liu shares some of the signals he looks for.

Spotting a phony review

For example, pay close attention to the review content. Can you detect content and style similarity among different reviewers. Companies paying reviewers often have a list of “review points” they want their reviewers to emphasize in a positive way.

Also, note the screen name used by the reviewer and note if they are active on a lot of sites. Once you have isolated an individual, look for inconsistencies. Do they refer to their husband in one review and their wife in another, for example?

 “We believe that as opinions on the Web are increasingly used in practice by consumers, organizations, and businesses for their decision making, opinion spam will get worse and also more sophisticated,” Liu said. “Detecting spam reviews or opinions will become more and more critical. The situation is already quite bad.”

Researchers at Cornell are also working on software that acts as a "lie detector for the Internet." They said the software, after scanning 800 Chicago hotel reviews, was able to highlight 90 percent of the bogus write-ups.

Regulators take notice of trend

The Federal Trade Commision (FTC), which has taken a few companies to task for rewarding consumers for hyping their products, says the practice of paying a consumer to write a positive review isn't illegal, but not disclosing it is.

Last March a company selling a popular series of guitar-lesson DVDs agreed to pay $250,000 to settle FTC charges that it deceptively advertised its products through online affiliate marketers who falsely posed as ordinary consumers or independent reviewers.

The FTC said the complaint against Nashville, Tennessee-based Legacy Learning Systems Inc. and its owner, Lester Gabriel Smith, is part of an effort to make sure that advertising to American consumers is truthful and not deceptive, whether the advertisements appear in traditional or newer forms of media.

Businesses are paying consumers to write phony reviews...
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Big Firms Launch Offensive Against Spam, Phishing Emails

Companies outline plans for enhanced email authentication

Email used to be a useful utility but it has been rendered nearly useless by the massive growth of spam, phishing and other deceptive techniques.  Fifteen large tech and financial firms are hoping to change that.

Google, Yahoo, PayPal and AOL are among the firms behind DMARC.org, a technical working group that has been developing standards for reducing the threat of deceptive emails.

"Email phishing defrauds millions of people and companies every year, resulting in a loss of consumer confidence in email and the Internet as a whole," said Brett McDowell, Chair of DMARC.org and Senior Manager of Customer Security Initiatives at PayPal. "Industry cooperation -- combined with technology and consumer education -- is crucial to fight phishing."

DMARC.org's founders say it draws upon a history of private industry collaboration with 18 months of dedicated work, to outline an enhanced vision for email authentication that can scale up to today's Internet needs. The group's work includes a draft specification that helps create a feedback loop between legitimate email senders and receivers to make impersonation more difficult for phishers trying to send fraudulent email.

Authentication lacking

The DMARC specification addresses concerns that have traditionally hindered widespread deployment of an authenticated, trusted email ecosystem. Today, email receivers lack a reliable way to know the extent to which an email sender uses standards like SPF and DKIM for authenticating their messages.

As a result, providers must rely on complex and imperfect measurements to separate legitimate unauthenticated messages sent by the domain owner from fraudulent phishing messages sent by a scammer.

By introducing a standards-based framework, DMARC has defined a more comprehensive and integrated way for email senders to introduce email authentication technologies into their infrastructure.

For example, a sender could set policies to easily request a provider to discard unauthenticated email in order to block phishing attacks. The specification also creates a mechanism for email providers to send detailed reports back to email senders to help catch any gaps in the authentication system. This feedback loop raises the trust level within the email ecosystem and makes it easier to detect and stop phishing attempts.

"[The working group] has been committed to defining and improving email authentication standards and practices to meet the financial services industry's needs. DMARC's evolutionary approach is critical in assuring these needs are met for years to come," said Paul Smocer, President of BITS, the technology policy division of The Financial Services Roundtable.

DMARC.org (Domain-based Message Authentication, Reporting and Conformance) is an unincorporated working group made up of many of the world's leading email providers (AOL, Gmail, Hotmail, Yahoo! Mail), financial institutions and service providers (Bank of America, Fidelity Investments, PayPal), social media properties (American Greetings, Facebook, LinkedIn) and email security solutions providers (Agari, Cloudmark, eCert, Return Path, Trusted Domain Project). The group is dedicated to developing Internet standards to reduce the threat of email phishing and to improve coordination between email providers and mail sender domain owners.

Email used to be a useful utility but it has been rendered nearly useless by the massive growth of spam, phishing and other deceptive techniques.  Fif...
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Feds May Relax Media Cross-Ownership Rules

As the Internet steadily erodes other media, FCC may relax "duopoly" rules

Here's an issue that used to be a real hot button but which no longer seems to excite much public interest: media ownership.  For decades, consumer activists complained that there was too little diversity in the ownership of television, newspapers and radio.

You don't hear much of that anymore, what with the Internet and cable providing all the shouting matches anyone can tolerate.   

Perhaps mirroring that thinking, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is planning to eliminate the decades-old rules limiting cross-ownership of TV and radio stations in local media markets. The FCC also says it will "revisit" its rules regulating common ownership of same-market broadcast and newspaper properties. But the question remains whether regulatory changes will lead to marketplace changes.

Whether any of this will make much difference is an open question. There's not much public outcry about "the media" anymore, except when John King asks Newt Gingrich the question that's on everyone's lips. We tried to conduct a computerized sentiment analysis of what consumers think about the issue  but our search of Twitter, Facebook and so forth turned up exactly zero comments about the phrase "media crossownership" over the last 12 months.

Compare that to 29 million comments about Google over the last year and we get an idea of where the public's head is at, so to speak.

Business interests aren't exactly falling all over each other to snatch up local properties either. The market value of local media properties has been badly eroded by the rise of Internet media.  It's not that Web content is necessarily all that great, but sites likes Craigslist have decimated the local advertising that was once the mainstay of local papers and broadcasters.

Giant sucking sound

With Google and its competitors sucking billions of dollars out of local and national advertising budgets, it makes it a little harder to think that anyone other than Rupert Murdoch will be eagerly snapping up multiple properties in a market.  But stranger things have happened, and at least a few groups are taking up the no-crossownership cudgel.

Most prominent is the American Civil Liberties Union, which opined in a blog this week that the FCC's proposal "would weaken important existing protections that ensure our free access to media of all varieties."

"Recognizing the importance of a diversity of opinions in media coverage, the FCC established media ownership rules in the 1970s to promote competition and diversity in our media by protecting local markets from being controlled by a small handful of media companies," said Sandra Fulton of the ACLU's Washington office.

"The ACLU believes that in order to best serve the people and our democracy, the FCC should hold on to rules that encourage diversity and media ownership by women and minority communities," Fulton said.

"Diversity of perspectives"

Sharing that view is the Writer's Guild of America, East, which said consolidation "undermines the quality of broadcast news and reduces the diversity of perspectives on TV."

"The Writers Guild of America, East takes issue with the assertion made by various media companies that consolidation of ownership frees up resources to improve news coverage, the union said in a statement. "Simply permitting television, radio, internet, or newspaper outlets to combine will inevitably result in less substance, in the absence of clearly defined requirements that specific levels of resources be devoted to journalism."

What do broadcasters and publishers think about this?  There hasn't been much reaction so far, partly because the advantages of cross-ownership -- owning both a TV station and newspaper in the same community, for example -- aren't what they used to be, with cable and Internet properties flooding the pipeline.

Also, as The Daily Deal, an industry publication, noted recently, "the TV, radio and newspaper industries have become increasingly distinct, making the FCC's proposal far less deregulatory in practice than it may appear in print."

Of greater concern the broadcasters is a little-noticed suggestion that the FCC insert itself more deeply into the relationship between stations and networks.  

"The potential for the FCC to further regulate who can become an affiliate of a top-rated network would interpose the FCC in what has been historically a free-standing commercial and content-based decision between networks and station operators," the paper said. 

Here's an issue that used to be a real hot button but which no longer seems to excite much public interest: media ownership.  For decades, consumer ac...
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Study Finds Behavioral Tracking Widespread on Children's Sites

FTC asked to upgrade online privacy safeguards

In comments filed with the Federal Trade Commission, the Center for Digital Democracy (CDD), along with 16 consumer, health, privacy, and child advocacy groups, endorsed the Commission’s proposals to update the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) rules.  

The groups supported the agency’s recommendations for critical changes in its regulations aimed at addressing contemporary data collection and marketing practices. 

CDD also released an analysis of tracking and targeting techniques employed by the leading child-targeted websites, which found that the great majority of the sites (81%) engage in some form of tracking through the use of such “persistent identifiers” as flash cookies, web bugs, and other online data collection tools. 

“The online data collection practices we originally identified in the 1990s have been eclipsed by a new generation of tracking and targeting techniques, as online data collection in this era of Big Data,” commented Kathryn Montgomery, Professor of Communication at American University, who, along with CDD Executive Director, Jeff Chester, spearheaded the campaign to pass COPPA in 1998. “It is imperative that the rules be changed if they are going to continue protecting children’s privacy in the growing digital marketplace.” 

Nearly half of the sites (48%) appear to be using behavioral targeting technologies. 

Behavioral targeting is becoming a pervasive practice across the web. The practice is based on building profiles of individual users by tracking behaviors on one or more websites and combining that data with information from a variety of other sources (e.g., IP addresses, search history, registration, etc.) in order to deliver marketing or advertising to an individual online.

“Given children’s limited cognitive abilities and the sophisticated nature of contemporary digital marketing and data collection, strong arguments can be made that behavioral targeting is an inappropriate, unfair, and deceptive practice when used to influence children under 13,” the groups explained in their comments.  “At the very least, marketers should be constrained from engaging in such practices without obtaining meaningful, prior consent from parents.”

A separate analysis of the privacy policies on the top children’s websites, commissioned by CDD, found that many of the websites fail to provide accurate, clear, and complete information that parents need to make informed decisions.  The study found that most of the policies do not adhere to COPPA requirements for user-friendly explanations, but instead couch their practices in obscure, difficult to understand legalese. 

Parents, therefore, have no way of knowing or understanding the nature and extent of data collection and use on these sites.

“These findings demonstrate that children’s privacy is not being taken seriously by many of the leading U.S. online content providers targeted at young people,” Chester said.

In comments filed with the Federal Trade Commission, the Center for Digital Democracy (CDD), along with 16 consumer, health, privacy, and child advocacy gr...
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Iran, U.S. Newspapers Mount Web Crackdown

New layers of surveillance, intimidation seek to limit free expression

In Iran, the government is imposing new levels of surveillance and intimidation on Internet cafes, giving them 15 days to install security cameras and collect detailed personal information on their customers.

The goal is to choke back the free flow of ideas that are seen as a threat to the government's stability.

In the United States, The Associated Press (AP) and a handful of daily newspapers have launched NewsRight, a surveillance and "licensing" organization that will monitor Web sites and attempt to intimidate them into paying stiff fees for reporting news that the newspapers think they own.

The goal is to choke back the free flow of ideas that are seen as a threat to the newspaper industry's stability.

Libya, China and Cuba also practice aggressive surveillance and intimidation of Web users and publishers and, in some cases, block outside content from reaching readers in their countries.

Aggregators targeted

NewsRight and its ink-stained masters hope to require Web sites that "aggregate" news content to pay for the right to publish news and information of public interest, a right that is generally regarded as protected by the First Amendment.

"Newspapers don't own the news.  They own the presses, the rolls of paper and the rights to their trademarked and copyrighted material but not to the public information that they slice and dice into the day's news menu," said the editor of one well-known Web site which reaches millions of readers each month and maintains its own reporting staff.

Newspapers and the AP -- regarded around the world as the "semi-official American news agency" -- often control the primary news venues that they cover, shutting out reporters from smaller print, broadcast and Web publications.

In Washington, for example, the Senate Press Gallery is controlled by a five-member board of directors that this year includes representatives of AP, Bloomberg News, Congressional Quarterly, the Omaha Herald and the Salt Lake City Tribune.  They decide who gets admission to the Senate and House press galleries as well as to numerous other public venues, including the upcoming national political conventions. 

While granting their employers hundreds of credentials, the board routinely votes to exclude independent reporters and small organizations.

"If the American news cabal is going to control and lock down the major news venues, most of them owned by the American people, they cannot also claim to have the exclusive right to report the people business that is transacted in those venues," said one longtime Washington, D.C., journalist who asked not to be identified because it would result in his being black-listed.

The AP makes no secret of its goal.

“We hope to alter behavior in the marketplace,” said David Westin, CEO of NewsRight, an attorney and former executive at ABC News, which routinely under his tenure sought and won exclusive rights to events such as the Olympics. 

The real question, Westin said in an interview with the trade industry publication Poynter.org, is: “How much value can we generate and return to the producers?”

In Iran, the government is imposing new levels of surveillance and intimidation on Internet cafes, giving them 15 days to install security cameras and coll...
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File Sharing Is Now a Religion in Sweden

Copying and pasting described as 'sacred'

Copyright laws protect information in the digital universe, though content owners continue to fight against what they see as ongoing and persistent piracy. They are getting no help from the Swedish government.

The government of Sweden has now formally recognized copying content and file-sharing as a religion. The Church of Kopimism reports it received religious status late last month. That culminated a year-long effort that included three applications to the government.

“For the Church of Kopimism, information is holy and copying is a sacrament,” the church said in a statement. “Information holds a value, in itself and in what it contains, and the value multiplies through copying. Therefore, copying is central for the organisation and its members.”

According to the group's website, the Church of Kopimism is a religious organization with roots from 2010. Unlike most churches, the community of kopimi requires no formal membership. You just have to feel a calling to copy and paste. In fact, the keyboard shortcuts for copy and paste – Ctrl-C and Ctrl-V – are sacred symbols in the new religion.

Remember Napster?

Members say an example of the file-sharing religion is the Napster phenomenon of more than a decade ago. Napster was formed as a peer-to-peer file sharing site where consumers could upload and download mp3 audio files of songs. Millions of songs were downloaded for free before a horrified recording industry went to court to stop it. Napster has since morphed into a site where consumers may purchase music.

"Being recognized by the state of Sweden is a large step for all of kopimi,” said Isak Gerson, who is described as the spiritual leader of the Church of Kopimism. “Hopefully, this is one step towards the day when we can live out our faith without fear of persecution.”

Legal analysts say that's not very likely. In court, they say copyright laws are apt to prove more binding than religious freedom to copy and paste.

The Church of Kopimism, a copying centen and file-sharing religion, reports it received religious status late last month by the Swedish government. ...
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Yahoo Could Wind Up in Chinese Hands

Alibaba pursuing a Yahoo purchase, reports say

OK, so the U.S. has lost its leadership in the manufacturing category, but it still reigns supreme as the world leader in software and entertainment products.  But maybe not for much longer.

Alibaba Group Holding Ltd. has hired the Washington, D.C. lobbying firm headed by former White House official Kenneth Duberstein as it explores a possible Yahoo takover. The hiring was disclosed in a December 23 filing.

Yahoo now owns 40% of Alibaba but Alibaba founder Jack Ma has previously said he is interested in acquiring all of Yahoo.

Although Alibaba is an independent business, the U.S. reaction to a Chinese firm taking over an American media company would be likely to arouse considerable opposition in Washington.  Hence the Duberstein hiring.

Duberstein, who was chief of staff during the Reagan Administration, would be expected to do that voodoo that lobbyists do so well, smoothing ruffled Congressional feathers and calming hyperactive regulators.

Yahoo, which recently ousted its CEO, Carol Bartz, has been in an earnings slump for years Google and Facebook cut into its audience and earnings, and its board is exploring various options to make the company profitable or unload all or part of it.

OK, so the U.S. has lost its leadership in the manufacturing category, but it still reigns supreme as the world leader in software and entertainment produc...
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Feds Seize Website Names Linked to Scams

Agencies celebrate Cyber Monday by shutting down 150 sites

The FBI and other federal agencies marked the kick-off the holiday shopping season by seizing 150 Website domain names allegedly used to sell counterfeit merchandise.  

"For most, the holidays represent a season of good will and giving, but for these criminals, it's the season to lure in unsuspecting holiday shoppers," said Immigration and Customers Enforcement (ICE) Director John Morton. "More and more Americans are doing their holiday shopping online, and they may not realize that purchasing counterfeit goods results in American jobs lost, American business profits stolen and American consumers receiving substandard products."

Money gained through the scams is often used to finance other criminal activities, Morton said.

"Through this operation we are aggressively targeting those who are selling counterfeit goods for their own personal gain while costing our economy much-needed revenue and jobs," said Attorney General Eric Holder. "Intellectual property crimes harm businesses and consumers, alike, threatening economic opportunity and financial stability, and today we have sent a clear message that the Department will remain ever vigilant in protecting the public's economic welfare and public safety through robust intellectual property enforcement."

The 150 domain name seizures represent a more than 80 percent increase over the 82 websites that were seized during last year's Cyber Monday-related operation.

The 150 seized domains are in the custody of the federal government. Visitors to these websites will now find a seizure banner that notifies them that the domain name has been seized by federal authorities and warns them that willful copyright infringement is a federal crime.

During the operation, federal law enforcement agents made undercover purchases of a host of products, including professional sports jerseys, golf equipment, DVD sets, footwear, handbags and sunglasses, representing a variety of trademarks from online retailers who were suspected of selling counterfeit products.

In most cases, the goods were shipped directly into the United States from suppliers in other countries. If the trademark holders confirmed that the purchased products were counterfeit or otherwise illegal, seizure orders for the domain names of the websites that sold the goods were obtained from federal magistrate judges.

Since the operation's June 2010 launch, officials have seized a total of 350 domain names, and the seizure banner has received more than 77 million individual views.

Of the 350 domain names seized, 116 have now been forfeited to the U.S. government. The federal forfeiture process affords individuals who have an interest in the seized domain names a period of time after the "Notice of Seizure" to file a petition with a federal court and additional time after the "Notice of Forfeiture" to contest the forfeiture. If no petitions or claims are filed, the domain names become property of the U.S. government.

Additionally, a public service announcement (PSA), launched in April 2011, appears on each of the 114 forfeited domain names. This video educates the public about the economic impact of trademark counterfeiting and copyright infringement.

Previous website seizures include:

The FBI and other federal agencies marked the kick-off the holiday shopping season by seizing 150 Website domain names allegedly used to sell counterfeit m...
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Newspaper Finally Abandons Effort to Block Publishing of Excerpts

Las Vegas paper tried to keep its readers from quoting its articles online

It's a good thing the Las Vegas Review-Journal is a newspaper and not a popular singer or it would probably have tried to block its fans from whistling its most popular songs.

For months the newspaper has been running up legal bills trying to block the online political forum Democratic Underground from publishing short excerpts of its stories.

The newspaper's publisher, Stephens Media, has finally thrown in the towel, filing court papers conceding that quoting a new article is not copyright infringement.

The case began when the online political forum Democratic Underground -- represented by the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), Fenwick & West LLP, and attorney Chad Bowers -- was sued by Righthaven, an apparent advocacy group of some sort, for a five-sentence excerpt of a Review-Journal news story that a user posted on the forum with a link back to the newspaper's website.

Democratic Underground countersued, asking the court to rule that the excerpt did not infringe copyright and is a fair use of the material, and brought Righthaven-backer Stephens Media into the case.

Dismissed

The court dismissed Righthaven's infringement case because it did not own the article, but Democratic Underground's counterclaim against Stephens Media continued. After initially attempting to defend the bogus assertion of copyright infringement, Stephens Media has now conceded it was incorrect.

"I knew the lawsuit was wrong from the start, and any self-respecting news publisher should have, too," said Democratic Underground founder David Allen. "I'm glad that they have finally admitted it."

"This concession comes after more than a year of needless litigation," said EFF Senior Staff Attorney Kurt Opsahl. "Stephens Media never should have authorized Righthaven to file this suit in the first place, and should never have wasted our client's and the court's time with its attempts to keep Righthaven's frivolous claim alive for the last year."

No standing

The original lawsuit against Democratic Underground was dismissed earlier this year, when Judge Hunt found that Righthaven did not have the legal authorization to bring a copyright lawsuit because it had never owned the copyright in the first place.

Righthaven claimed that Stephens Media had transferred copyright to Righthaven before it filed the suit, but a document unearthed in this litigation -- the Strategic Alliance Agreement between Righthaven and Stephens Media -- showed that the copyright assignment was a sham, and that Righthaven was merely agreeing to undertake the newspaper's case at its own expense in exchange for a cut of the recovery.

In addition to dismissing Righthaven's claim, Judge Hunt sanctioned Righthaven with fines and obligations to report to other judges its actual relationship with Stevens Media.

Righthaven has filed hundreds of copyright cases based on its  copyright ownership claims. Despite several attempts by Righthaven and Stephens Media to re-write their Strategic Alliance Agreement, half a dozen judges have ruled against the scheme to turn copyright litigation into a business.

"This is a hard fought and important victory for free speech rights on the Internet," said Laurence Pulgram, the partner who led the team at Fenwick & West, LLP in San Francisco. "Unless we respond to such efforts to intimidate, we'll end up with an Internet that is far less fertile for the cultivation and discussion of the important issues that affect us all."

It's a good thing the Las Vegas Review-Journal is a newspaper and not a popular singer or it would probably have tried to block its fans from whistling i...
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USDA Funding Broadband Deployment in 15 States

Program is meant to bring high-speed Internet to rural areas

You normally think of the U.S. Agriculture Department (USDA) as paying subsidies to corn farmers or inspecting chickens.  But the department is funding something many consider even more basic -- broadband access for rural areas.

USDA is releasing funding for telephone utilities to build, expand and improve broadband in their rural service territories across 15 states. The announcement was made by USDA Rural Utilities Service Deputy Administrator Jessica Zufolo during an address at the annual meeting of the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners in St. Louis.

"Today's funding will provide residents of these rural communities with high speed internet connections to improve healthcare and educational opportunities and connect to global markets," Vilsack said. "In addition to providing much needed services to rural businesses and residents, these investments will increase jobs, not just in the near term, but through expanded opportunities in rural areas."

For example, in Minnesota, Rural Development Broadband Loan Program funds will be used to extend Paul Bunyan Rural Telephone Cooperative's existing Fiber-To-The-Home (FTTH) network to serve rural communities in North Central Minnesota.

This project will offer advanced telecommunications services to over 45,710 households and businesses. Paul Bunyan has been operating since 1952 and has been a telecommunications borrower with the Rural Utilities Service since 1953.

In North Dakota, Rural Development funds will be used to expand Polar Communications Mutual Aid Corporation's Fiber-to-the-Premises (FTTP) broadband system throughout eighteen exchanges. The upgraded system will help meet current and future requirements for delivery of voice, video and high speed data to subscribers. 

In Indiana, Perry-Spencer Rural Telephone Cooperative Inc., (PSC) provides telecommunications services to 5,711 subscribers over approximately 1,148 square miles. This loan will enable PSC to start the process of designing and building FTTP broadband services across its service area. 

The following list of awardees will receive $410.7 million in funding, contingent upon the recipient meeting the terms of the agreement with USDA.

Colorado

  • Eastern Slope Rural Telephone Association, Inc.--$18,725,000 will be used to upgrade the existing fiber-to-the-node (FTTN) network, capable of providing modern broadband services to subscribers in 10 exchanges.

Idaho and Utah

  • Albion Telephone Company--$17,075,000 in loan funds will be used to install 453 miles of buried fiber optic cables throughout the proposed FTTP system, providing nearly 60 percent of subscribers with FTTP.

Illinois

  • McNabb Telephone Company--$3,700,000 in loan funds will be used to make system improvements, including constructing new FTTP facilities. A total of 115 miles of buried fiber optic cable will be deployed to improve service to subscribers.
  • Shawnee Telephone Company--$30,286,000 in loan funds will be used to construct FTTP facilities, allowing Shawnee to provide voice and data services at speeds of up to 100 Mbps to both residences and businesses.
  • McDonough Telephone Cooperative, Inc.--$15,728,000 in funds will be used to upgrade the rural areas with FTTH technology. Approximately 766 miles of buried fiber cable will be deployed to provide over half of the subscribers with access to improved broadband service. McDonough has been serving its rural subscribers for over 60 years.

Indiana

  • Perry-Spencer Rural Telephone Cooperative, Inc.--$29,139,000 in loan funds have been awarded to Perry-Spencer Rural Telephone Cooperative Inc., (PSC) which provides telecommunications services to nearly 6,000 subscribers over approximately 1,150 square miles in southern Indiana. This loan will enable PSC to start the process of designing and building FTTP to enhance broadband services across the service area.

Iowa

  • Mediapolis Telephone Company--$13,401,000 in loan funds will be used to make system upgrades to the transport system and the network architecture from the existing copper Digital Subscriber Lines (DSL) to FTTP broadband systems.
  • Griswold Cooperative Telephone Company--$12,747,000 in loan funds will be used to complete a system-wide FTTP network, enhancing broadband service to all subscribers.
  • La Porte City Telephone Company--$9,867,000 in loan funds will be used to make system improvements, including installation of a FTTP broadband network that will serve all of the borrower's subscribers. A total of 297 miles of buried fiber optic cable will be deployed, enabling downstream data rates of up to 20 Mbps.

Kansas

  • The S & T Telephone Cooperative Association--$29,814,000 will be used to implement a full FTTH design to allow the migration to 10-20 Mbps broadband speeds to all subscribers and to provide IPTV in the near future.

Minnesota

  • Paul Bunyan Rural Telephone Cooperative--$19,749,000 in Rural Development Broadband Loan Program funds will be used to extend Paul Bunyan's existing FTTH network to serve the exchanges of Park Rapids Rural and Trout Lake in North Central Minnesota. With this extension of their network, Paul Bunyan will be able to provide advanced telecommunications services to over 45,710 establishments (households and businesses) across all service areas. Paul Bunyan has been operating since 1952 and has been a telecommunications borrower with the Rural Utilities Service since 1953.

New Mexico

  • Roosevelt County Telephone Cooperative, Inc.--$12,358,000 will be used to deploy new equipment and install FTTP equipment to enhance the broadband network.

North Dakota

  • BEK Communications Cooperative--$26,746,000 in loan funds will be used to expand a FTTH broadband system. Upon completion of this RUS-funded project, 100 percent of BEK's subscribers will be served by fiber.
  • SRT Communications, Inc.--$24,832,000 in loan funds will be used to install 2,143 miles of buried fiber optic cable and related equipment throughout the proposed FTTP system. The FTTP system will be constructed in areas outside of towns in twelve of the borrower's twenty-six exchanges. The service areas in the towns will continue to be offered DSL at speeds of at least 55 Mbps with its relatively new copper plant.
  • Polar Communications Mutual Aid Corporation--$32,939,000 in loan funds will be used to expand the Borrower's FTTP broadband system throughout the borrower's eighteen exchanges. The upgraded system will help meet current and future requirements for delivery of voice, video and high speed data to subscribers. Upon completion of this RUS-funded project, 100 percent of Polar's subscribers will be served with broadband via various technologies.

Oklahoma

  • Terral Telephone Company--$4,855,000 in loan funds will be used to convert the existing copper network to a FTTH system, and connect new subscribers. The proposed FTTH deployment includes construction of over 62 miles of fiber plant in and around Terral, and the replacement of the existing softswitch and power plant. This FTTH deployment will create nine jobs and save seven jobs.

South Carolina

  • Sandhill Telephone Cooperative, Inc.--$5,930,000 will be used to provide for system improvements, including purchase of a new switch.

Tennessee

  • North Central Telephone Cooperative Corporation--$27,069,000 will be used to upgrade portions of North Central's outside plant and network infrastructure by deploying a FTTP network.

Washington

  • Inland Telephone Company--$24,823,000 in loan funds will be used to expand Inland's FTTP broadband system and connect new subscribers.
  • The Toledo Telephone Co., Inc.--$18,091,000 in loan funds will be used to install 292 miles of buried fiber optic cables and related equipment throughout the proposed FTTP system, offering enhanced service to all Toledo subscribers.

Wisconsin

  • Union Telephone Company--$13,308,000 in loan funds will enable Union to deploy approximately 336 miles of fiber, which will provide approximately 60 percent of Union's subscribers with access to improved broadband services.
  • Marquette-Adams Telephone Cooperative, Inc.--$19,781,000 Marquette-Adams will use loan funds to complete a system-wide FTTP network, including over 370 miles of new or modified buried fiber, providing enhanced broadband service to all subscribers.
You normally think of the U.S. Agriculture Department (USDA) as paying subsidies to corn farmers or inspecting chickens.  But the department is fundin...
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Survey Finds Widespread Online Bullying

88% of teens report witnessing bullying

Teenagers live in two worlds these days. There's the real world that includes school, family and activities, and then there's the virtual world made up of Facebook and other social networking sites.

It turns out that bullies populate both worlds, according to a new study by the Pew Internet and American Life Project.

The study says 69 percent of the teenagers who use social networking sites say their peers are mostly kind to one another on such sites. Still, 88 percent of these teens say they have witnessed people being mean and cruel to another person on the sites, and 15 percent report that they have been the target of mean or cruel behavior on social network sites.

Adults less likely to report bullying

Adult social network users are less likely to say they witness or experience this type of behavior, but they still report that it is prevalent: 69 percent of the adults who use social networking sites say they have seen people be mean and cruel to others on those sites.

Occasionally cases of social network abuse make the headlines, such as the time a teen committed suicide after being bullied online. ConsumerAffairs.com routinely hears from readers who run into everything from slurs to outright threats.

“For two years I've been sent awful messages calling me fat cow amd other names from Kelly **,” Sunniwest, of Sechelt, British Columbia told ConsumerAffairs.com. “She uses lots of phony names, but I can tell it's her by her language. She also sent me 25 same kind of messages on my msn. She's upsetting my whole family by this and I'd like her thrown off Facebook for good and blocked from me, because I know she will make another account.”

Kerry, of Pittsburgh, says she has been the target of harassment on Facebook by several people using girl's names.

“I have copies of a Facebook group they created about me titled 'You know you got haters when?'” Kerry said. “I have 55 pages of slander and threats of bodily harm and harassment. They have posted pictures of me and my real name. They have reported my account repeatedly and despite my reports to Facebook and my friends' reports to Facebook, nothing was done.”

Who can you complain to?

Numerous consumers like Kerry express frustration that there doesn't seem to be a human being at Facebook who can respond to their problems. Part of that may have to do with the size of the site. With more than 750 million members, any company would be hard pressed to keep up with everyone.

The problems on Facebook and other sites may seem to be growing because so many people use them. The Pew study found that 95 percent of all teens ages 12-17 are now online and 80 percent of online teens are users of social media sites. Teens of all ages and backgrounds are witnessing these mean behaviors online and are reacting in a variety of ways:

  • 90 percent of teen social media users say they have ignored the mean behavior they have witnessed on a social network site.
  • 80 percent say they have personally defended a victim of meanness and cruelty.
  • 79 percent say they have told someone to stop their mean behavior on a social network site.
  • However, 21 percent of social media-using teens say they have personally joined in on the harassment of others on a social network site.

“Social networking sites have created new spaces for teens to interact and they witness a mixture of altruism and cruelty on those sites,” said Amanda Lenhart, lead author of the study. “For most teens, these are exciting and rewarding spaces. But the majority have also seen a darker side. And for a subset of teens, the world of social media isn’t a pretty place because it presents a climate of drama and mean behavior.”

Pew Internet and Family Life survey on bullying...
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FTC: Kids' Site Collected Personal Information Without Parents' Permission

Skid-e-kids made deceptive claims in its privacy policy, agency alleges

The operator of www.skidekids.com, a website that advertises itself as the “Facebook and Myspace for Kids,” has agreed to settle Federal Trade Commission charges that he collected personal information from approximately 5,600 children without obtaining prior parental consent, in violation of the Commission’s Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (“COPPA”) Rule.

The FTC’s complaint also charges the operator, Jones O. Godwin, with making deceptive claims in Skid-e-kids’ privacy policy about the site’s information collection practices. The proposed settlement will bar future violations of COPPA and misrepresentations about the collection, use and disclosure of children’s information.

COPPA Rule

The FTC’s COPPA Rule requires that website operators notify parents and obtain their consent before they collect, use or disclose personal information from children under 13. The Rule also requires that website operators post a privacy policy that is clear, understandable and complete. 

According to the FTC, Skid-e-kids is a social networking site targeted at children ages 7-14 that allows them to register, create and update profile information, create public posts, upload pictures and videos, and “friend” and send messages to other Skid-e-kids members. 

The FTC alleges that the Skid-e-kids’ online privacy policy claimed that the site “requires child users to provide a parent’s valid email address in order to register on the website. We use this information to send the parent a message that can be used to activate the Skid-e-kids account, to notify the parent about our privacy practices, to send the parent communications either about the parent’s and child’s Skid-e-kids accounts or about features of our Web site . . .” 

But the complaint alleges that the defendant registered children on the website without collecting a parent’s email address or obtaining permission for their children to participate.

Children who registered were able to provide personal information, including their date of birth, email address, first and last name, and city. In addition to violating the COPPA Rule by collecting kids’ personal information without parental permission, the FTC alleged that the Skid-e-kids’ false privacy policy claims violated the FTC Act.

In addition to barring future violations of COPPA and misrepresentations about the collection and use of children’s information, the settlement order also requires Godwin to destroy information he collected from children in violation of the Rule, and, for a period of time, link to online educational material and retain an online privacy professional or join a Commission-approved safe harbor program to oversee any COPPA-covered website he may run. 

The operator of www.skidekids.com, a website that advertises itself as the “Facebook and Myspace for Kids,” has agreed to settle Federal Trade ...
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'Privacy' Bill Threatens to Censor Huge Swaths of the Internet

"End of the Internet as we know it," says Congressional critic

Rep. Smith

A bill slithering through Congress gives companies new power to shut down Internet sites that offend them, all in the name of curtailing "piracy" of copyrighted material.  

But critics like CNET's Larry Downes call it "Hollywood's latest effort to turn back time."

The Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) would require Internet intermediaries -- meaning your ISP, Facebook and sites like this one -- to censor any posting that supposedly violated intellectual property laws.

Critics like Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-CA) say SOPA “would mean the end of the Internet as we know it."  Canadian pop star Justiin Bieber went even further in a radio interview last week, suggesting that any member of Congress who votes for the bill "needs to be locked up — put away in cuffs."

'Rogue' sites

The bill, sponsored by Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX) and others, would authorize the Justice Department to seek injunctions against "rogue" websites dedicated to providing access to pirated goods or content. It would also allow the government and rights holders to demand that third parties, including payment processors and online ad networks, cut ties with such sites.

Ironically, Smith, who chairs the House Judiciary Committee, claims to be a foe of "unnecessary regulations," and frequently touts his committee's passage of a bill that would supposedly "reform the federal regulatory process and reduce unnecessary burdens on job creators."

Smith and his follow SOPA sponsors say the measure is necessary to stop Americans from sharing music, movies and other copyrighted material with each other. But technology groups say the bill would be a "nightmare" for Web and social media firms.

"[T]his is not a bill that targets 'rogue foreign sites.' Rather, it allows movie studios, foreign luxury goods manufacturers, patents and copyright trolls, and any holder of an intellectual property right to target lawful U.S. websites and technology companies," the Consumer Electronics Association and the Computer and Communications Industry Association said in a letter to members of Congress.

Stifle innovation

The Electronic Freedom Frontier (EFF) says the measure would stifle innovation and creativity and destroy jobs, while making the Internet  duller and drabber while making it easy for just about anyone with a grievance to shut down entire sites. 

"This bill could also have a huge impact on the work of human rights advocates and whistleblowers who depend on online tools to protect their anonymity and speak out against injustice," said EFF's Travor Timm. "Platforms created to provide anonymity software to human rights activists across the world, as well as next generation WikiLeaks-style whistleblower sites, could be major casualties of this bill — all in the name of increasing Hollywood’s bottom line."

Under SOPA, private companies would be able to force payment processors to shut down payments to websites by merely claiming the site “engages in, enables or facilitates” infringement.  This broad provision could target websites behind important Internet projects such as Tor, the anonymity network that has been vital for protecting activists from government surveillance in Tunisia and Egypt, Timm said.

"Corporations concerned about users illegally downloading music could use SOPA to force Visa and Mastercard to cut off donations to Torproject.org — despite Tor’s aim to facilitate human rights activism, not piracy," he said.

Whistleblower sites could also find themselves in trouble if they post any documents related to corporate corruption or law breaking, if those documents contain trade secrets or are copyrightable.

A bill slithering through Congress gives companies new power to shut down Internet sites that offend them, all in the name of curtailing "piracy"...
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FTC Sues to Stop Phony 'Free Trial,' 'Risk-Free' Offers

Consumers lost $450 million at the rate of $79.95 per month in negative option deals

A federal court, acting on a complaint filed by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has halted an online conspiracy that allegedly took in more than $450 million from consumers in the United States and several other countries, and froze the alleged ringleader’s assets, pending trial.

The scheme allegedly lured consumers into “free” or “risk-free” offers for weight-loss pills and tooth whiteners, and then billed them for things they did not want or agree to purchase, providing false or misleading information to merchant banks in order to acquire credit and debit card processing services.

Companies allegedly involved in the scheme include:

  • 1021018 Alberta Ltd.
  • Just Think Media
  • Credit Report America
  • eDirect Software
  • WULongsource and Wuyi Source
  • Terra Marketing Group
  • SwipeBids.com
  • SwipeAuctions.com
  • Selloffauctions.com
  • Coastwest Holdings Ltd.
  • Farend Services Ltd.
  • JDW Media, LLC
  • Net Soft Media, LLC
  • True Net, LLC

The court order granting a preliminary injunction against Jesse Willms and 10 companies he controls stems from the FTC’s ongoing crackdown on online fraud. Pending trial, it bans the defendants from selling products or services that feature a “negative option,” in which the seller interprets consumers’ silence or inaction as permission to charge them, or “continuity plan” in which consumers are sent regular shipments of merchandise until they cancel.

The preliminary injunction also prohibits the defendants from offering any products as a “free trial” or “bonus”; misrepresenting costs of a product or any cancellation policy; failing to disclose the amount and timing of fees and the terms and conditions of any refunds; making misrepresentations about the benefits or safety of products; misrepresenting any product endorsement or testimonial; and charging consumers without their express consent.

Teeth whiteners

According to the FTC’s complaint, filed in May, Willms and his companies deceived consumers with offers of “free trials” for various products online, including acai berry weight-loss pills, teeth whiteners, and health supplements containing resveratrol (the supposedly healthful ingredient in red wine), as well as for a work-at-home scheme, access to government grants, free credit reports, and penny auctions.

Consumers were often charged for the “free” trial plus a monthly recurring fee, typically $79.95. Consumers were also charged monthly recurring fees for the so-called bonus offers.

The court found that the FTC showed enough evidence in the case to justify freezing the assets of Willms and his companies. It stated, “Not only has [the FTC] shown a likelihood that Defendants have engaged in misleading marketing practices, but it has also shown that Defendants have moved substantial funds to offshore companies and bank accounts. . .”

Specifically, the court stated that Willms admitted to establishing several holding companies in Cyprus to facilitate international merchant banking, and that email exchanges show that funds were likely transferred from Willms’ accounts to Cyprus and possibly for the purpose of hiding assets.

The FTC recently filed an amended complaint adding two defendants to the action, Elizabeth Graver and Mobile Web Media LLC, a company Graver allegedly established to help Willms acquire credit and debit card processing services.

A federal court, acting on a complaint filed by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has halted an online conspiracy that allegedly took in more than $450 mi...
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What's On Your Mind? Wildblue, Philips, Ethan Allen, Trilegiant

Our daily look at consumer reviews

S, of Edgewood, Texas, says he's a little surprised at all the negative reviews from consumers unhappy with the service from Wildblue, a satellite Internet provider. He thinks a lot of people take the service not understanding what it is. It's all a matter of being realistic, he says.

“No, you cannot download movies, it IS NOT DSL, but it is a million times faster than dial up,” S told ConsumerAffairs.com. “Two years ago we had a rebound child come home. He exceeded our usage and we were cut back to a slower speed. He was used to DSL and didn't know the rules of using our service. We upgraded to a higher package and our usage was restored. If you want to be treated with kindness and respect you have to treat people that way. Sorry so many have issues, but we love our wildblue and are looking forward to the bigger, faster satellite.”

For consumers in rural areas, sometimes satellite is the only alternative to dial-up, even if it doesn't provide the full capacity of full broadband. As long as satellite Internet providers don't make unrealistic claims in their marketing, S makes a valid point.

Smoking TV

Here's another report of a flat-screen TV that overheats to the point that it starts smoking. Rafal, of Virginia Beach, Va., reports the problem occurred in his 47 inch Philips LCD set.

“The problem is with the power board and from what I am reading on here many people have the same problem,” Rafal said. “This power board - or similar - is used in many models of Philips TVs and it should be recalled as soon as possible. This TV is dangerous!”

Rafal says he's reported the incident to Philips. We suggest he also report it to the Consumer Product Safety Commission.

Can you handle the truth?

We increasingly hear from consumers who say a company representative gave them information, upon which they based their buying decision, which turned out not to be true. Roy, of Columbia, Md., says he wished personnel at Ethan Allen had just told him the truth.

“After an order was written up for a sofa and chair, the saleslady was asked if our old sofa and chair could be picked up at the time of delivery,” Roy told ConsumerAffairs.com. “She assured us that they could. When delivery was made, we were told they did not do that. We were left with a living room full of furniture to the point that we cannot walk in our living room now. I am 75 and unable to move the furniture on my own. We would not have made this purchase without a means to remove the old furniture. Basically, the saleslady lied in order to make a sale.”

It happens all the time, it seems.

When no means yes

Many consumers who get signed up for recurring membership charges in a negative option pitch are outraged because they say they were never aware they were agreeing to have their credit cards charged each month. Charles, of Raleigh, N.C., is outraged because he was aware of the pitch but was signed up, even though he insists he clearly told them no.

“I was sent a membership card from Auto Vantage through Trilegiant Corporation,” Chareles said. “I am charged a fee of $16.99 on this month's statement. I did not agree to their service when asked. I declined immediately. I am cancelling that membership today. I am including the fee for this month. I would like to get a refund or apply the fee to next month's payment which is $222.87.”

Charles needs to contact his credit card company and tell them to dispute the charge. The credit card company should demand a proof of purchase. If Charles is correct, Trilegiant won't be able to provide one.

Here is what's on consumer's minds today: Wildblue, Philips, Ethan Allen, Trilegiant, Smoking TV, When no means yes and Can you handle the truth?...
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Consumer Complaint Email Scam Targets Small Businesses

Email claims to be from the Federal Trade Commission

Well-run, conscientious businesses usually react with concern when they get a consumer complaint. Scammers, it seems, are using that quality trait against them.

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) says it has become aware of a scam in which the fraudster uses the agency's name in a spam email. According to the FTC, the email gets its victims' attention with the following subject line:

URGENT: Pending Consumer Complaint

The body of the email says that a complaint has been filed against the company with the FTC. It provides a link to follow to find out the details of the complaint. If you were a business person who is concerned about how you are perceived by your customers, you might be tempted to click on the link.

Nasty surprise

But instead of getting information about an unhappy customer, you would download malware onto your computer.

The FTC says anyone getting such an email should delete it.

Malware, short for "malicious software," includes viruses and spyware to steal personal information, send spam, and commit fraud. Criminals create appealing websites, desirable downloads, and compelling stories to lure you to links that will download malware – especially on computers that don't use adequate security software.

But you can minimize the havoc that malware can wreak and reclaim your computer and electronic information.

If you suspect malware is on your computer, stop shopping, banking, and other online activities that involve user names, passwords, or other sensitive information.

Confirm that your security software is active and current. At a minimum, your computer should have anti-virus and anti-spyware software, and a firewall.Once your security software is up-to-date, run it to scan your computer for viruses and spyware, deleting anything the program identifies as a problem.

Well-run, conscientious businesses usually react with concern when they get a consumer complaint. Scammers, it seems, are using that quality trait against ...
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What's On Your Mind? Sports Authority, Classmates.com, T-Mobile

Our daily look at consumer reviews

We all love to feel we got a great deal. Mike, of Clearwater, Fla., said he found an Adidas tennis racquet at Sports Authority, marked down from $100 to $67. Thinking it was a great deal, he bought it.

“Later I saw that the average price for this racquet is about $65-$68,” Mike said. “I felt I was cheated. I complained on the website and got no response. I wrote to the company president and also got no response. I can only conclude from this lack of response that such misrepresentations are not uncommon. If I ever go back, I will check third parties before making a purchase.”

Sports Authority may have tried to sell the racquet at a premium price and found that it couldn't, so it may have indeed been “on sale.” Mike ended up paying the average price, so he shouldn't feel too bad. However, he is absolutely correct in his observation that he should do research on a product before buying it.

Hard to quit

Consumers often get angry when they find that a service they have subscribed to – perhaps only to receive a gift or discount – has auto-renewed their membership and charged their credit card again.

Classmates.com posted a charge to my Visa,” Maureen, of Chesterton, Ind., told ConsumerAffairs.com. “The bank set up a conference call between the bank, them and myself. Scott said it was an automatic renewal. I had emailed them months ago to cancel. Scott said he saw the email but not the follow-up. Said they respond to emails with a 'how to cancel.' I never got this email. Of course, I can't prove it. They won't refund my $39.00. Nice to do to a almost 79 year old.”

Consumers need to understand that simply sending an email almost never cancels a subscription. Usually, one must wade through the website to find instructions. Apparently, in the case of Classmates, you must request the instructions to be emailed to you.

No guarantees

Just because you can't get a cell signal at your house doesn't mean T-Mobile, or any other mobile provider, is going to let you out of your contract.

"I had cell service with T-Mobile for about a year and then I could no longer get a signal,” Annissa, of Point Arena, Calif., told ConsumerAffairs.com. “I spent a week with them trying to get them to figure out why and they could not. So finally one of the representatives told me either I keep my account and have no signal for four to six months until they merge with AT&T or turn it off. Well I told him I didn't want to pay for phone service I could not use. The representative told me that all I would have to do is mail in proof of residence and they would wave the fee. I did that and now they are saying that customer relations department denied me and that I would have to pay it because once I signed up with them they don't have to guarantee service.”

It's also another reminder not to take the word of a customer service representative. You have to read the service agreement.

Another scam victim

Bob, of Menomonee Falls, Wisc., was targeted by the fake payday loan scam, and unfortunately, bit on it.

“Someone called me saying I owed a $517 and if I didn't pay I was going to be charged with bouncing checks,” Bob said. “I paid $388.13. I was suppose to pay the rest today or I was going to be 'charged.' I tried to call the number and pay the rest and the number was disconnected. I feel really stupid and $388, is a lot of money for me.”

This scam shows no sign of going away, having spawned a number of copycats. Keep in mind if a “debt collector” starts threatening you with jail, or threatening your job, it's one of these scams.

Here is what's on consumer's minds today: Sports Authority, Classmates.com, T-Mobile, Hard to quit, No guarantees and Another scam victim....
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Using Social Media In A Natural Disaster

Facebook, Twitter, can be effective communication tools

Irene's position Friday morning (NOAA map)

Last week’s earthquake on the East Coast may have been a preview of what to expect when Hurricane Irene roars up the East Coast this weekend.

When the ground unexpectedly started shaking from Virginia to Boston, panicked people overloaded cell phone circuits, and even some landlines couldn't handle the crush of calls. As a result, many people turned to Facebook and Twitter to communicate with friends and loved ones.

Jennifer Regina, a Rowan University adjunct professor of marketing and CEO of The Marketing of Everything, Washington Township, N.J., says social media can be an effective tool in a natural disaster.

“The best thing to do is also have an action plan in place for communicating with your loved ones during a natural disaster,” Regina said.

She suggests:

  • Have an agreed-upon plan of communicating. Make sure your family knows if you are going to be tweeting your condition or will be communicating via texting or Facebook.
  • Make sure you have your communication devices fully charged. Charge your laptop and cell phone to their full capacity every night. Even consider purchasing an extended or backup battery for your devices.
  • Pay attention to government and news agencies’ social media posts. Subscribe to their posts so they will be sent directly to your phone via text. Many state and local agencies are aggressively using their social media profiles to communicate quickly about disasters. Already hurricane evacuation information is spreading quickly through Twitter.
  • Establish agreed-upon times for your loved ones to post updates. For example, every hour update your health or the status of your location. Social networks also can be used to warn others of impending disasters. Many in New York City saw tweets from their friends in Washington, D.C. about an earthquake and seconds later felt it themselves. Many people stay glued to social networks to see how others are handling storms that are approaching and gleaning valuable tips.

“This weekend’s hurricane will be another example of how social media networks will help families communicate and governments issue warnings and updates,” Regina said.

Social media can play a big role in communication after a natural disaster...
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Playing the Hits: Music Videos Finding a Home on the Web

40% of YouTube's audience watched music videos in July, comScore finds

What's new is sometimes old. Remember back in the day, when MTV was a video jukebox, playing lip-synched music videos 24/7?

That might sound pretty ancient to today's YouTube-surfing video crowd, but guess what – more than 40% of YouTube's audience watched music videos in July, according to audience measurement company comScore, which starts publishing data on YouTube channel usage tomorrow.

ComScore found that Vevo accounted for 38% of YouTube's monthly viewers, making easily the most-watched channel. Warner Music was second with 20%.

“Consumers clearly view video as one of the most accessible, interesting and entertaining sources of content on the Web,” said Jack Flanagan, executive vice president of comScore Media Metrix. “The trends we’re witnessing indicate that online video is emerging from its infancy and entering the mainstream. Many publishers and advertisers are responding to this trend, which means advertising dollars will continue to migrate online where consumers can be targeted with efficiency.”

Youtube.com broke into the comScore Media Metrix Top 50 for the first time in July, debuting at number 40 with 16 million visitors, a 20-percent increase versus June.

Video mania also drove a two-fold increase in traffic to MySpace Videos, which had 20 million visitors, trailing only Yahoo! Video with 21.1 million visitors (up 28-percent from June).

ComScore's measurement is expected to help YouTube attract serious advertising dollars so it can compete more vigorously with network and cable broadcasters.

Some of the other top channels on YouTube include:

  • Demand Media, which publishes how-to information, 15.2 million viewers in July;

  • Associated Press, news and sports, 6.6 million;

  • Hearst Television, local TV news, 3.1 million; and

  • BBC Worldwide, TV news, 2 million.

Political matters

Meanwhile, back at the staid old Wide World Web in July, comScore Media Metrix noted a marked increase in traffic to political Web sites ahead of primary season, as well as the effectiveness of summer sweepstakes from McDonalds, Pepsi, Oprah and Publishers Clearing House that drove online traffic.

The25-percent increase in traffic to political Web sites, the largest-gaining category in July, was particularly noteworthy given the recent major upsets in political primaries in Connecticut, Georgia and Michigan.

CapitolAdvantage.com, a site dedicated to connecting organizations to national and state elected officials, rated among the top sites in the category with 927,000 visitors, a 4-percent increase from June. Political news sites also drove category increases, including independent news site Worldnetdaily.com, which increased 22 percent to 500,000 visitors; Voice of America News (voanews.com), which jumped 50 percent to 368,000 visitors; and NationalReview.com, which rose 11 percent to 350,000 visitors.

“The Internet is becoming an important political forum in this country, especially as video and blogging become more prevalent,” said Flanagan. “Politicians recognize the inherent ability of the Internet to connect people and ideas, and it will be interesting to observe activity at political sites as the November elections approach.”

What's new is sometimes old. Remember back in the day, when MTV was a video jukebox, playing lip-synched music videos 24/7? That might sound pretty ancien...
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Airbnb Rental Horror Story Keeps Getting Worse

Another victim tells a tale of bizarre apartment vandalism

A typical Airbnb listing

Would you use the Internet to make a blind date? To buy a car sight unseen? Send a money order for a few thousand dollars to collect millions of dollars in a sweepstakes you didn't enter?

OK fine, but would you use the Internet to rent your apartment to a perfect stranger?

Believe it or not, people do this every day using Airbnb.com, a site that takes the Web sharing concept to new heights. Basically, Airbnb lets you rent your house or apartment to someone you've never met and whose identity you are not given.

Of course, Airbnb has never met this person either but, taking a page from the dating site playbook, claims it thoroughly checks the references of would-be renters.

It didn't work out so well for a San Francisco blogger known as "EJ." She rented her apartment last month while she was out of town on a business trip. When she returned, the place had been trashed and EJ hastened to the keyboard to describe the damage in chilling detail.

EJ's renters not only trashed the apartment and stole numerous valuables. They also took the time to thoroughly investigate her personal documents, thus gaining access to account numbers and other data useful for future identity theft adventures.

Sincerest regrets

Airbnb dutifully expressed its regrets and vowed to tighten up its procedures going forward and police said they had a suspect in custody.

Now a second Bay Area Airbnb member, Troy Dayton, is telling a similar story, claiming his Oakland apartment was rented three months ago by a drug addict who trashed the place and left it littered with meth pipes, Techcrunch reports.

The latest account calls into question Airbnb's initial claims that EJ's experience was the first it knew of – "our first major incident in over 2 million nights" as the company put it.

Perhaps none of this would be worth the buzz it has generated except that Airbnb is one of the current hot items in the online business. The company raised $112 million recently on an estimated valuation of $1.3 billion – not bad for what amounts to a classified-ad site.

Hoping to rescue its reputation, and valuation, Airbnb now says it will provide $50,000 worth of protection to Airbnb hosts. The company also says it will beef up its user verification profile process and integrate profiles with social sites, allowing hosts to view potential guests prior to agreeing to rent to them.

A typical Airbnb listing Would you use the Internet to make a date with a perfect stranger? To buy a car sight unseen? Send a money order for a fe...
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With Broadband, Is Speed All That Matters?

Researchers say consumers need additional information about ISPs

The Federal Communications Commission is out with its report on broadband speeds, finding that Internet Service Providers (ISP) in the U.S. largely deliver on their promises, a contention some consumers might argue.

But is speed the only way to judge an ISP's performance? Researchers at the Georgia Tech College of Computing argue that in addition to measuring speed, regulators should require a broadband “nutrition label”—easy-to-understand information about service-limiting factors—and users need better ways of measuring the performance their ISPs are delivering,

Out of some 2 billion Internet users worldwide, about 500 million are residential broadband users, and recent figures show that two-thirds of U.S. households are hooked up to high-speed Internet. Generally speaking, these customers’ throughput—the “width” of their Internet pipeline—lives up to speeds advertised by their ISPs, says the FCC report, “Measuring Broadband America.”

How does it handle multi-tasking?

But many home Internet users simultaneously run multiple applications that each use network resources, and the behavior of one application can affect the performance another application receives, according to Nick Feamster, associate professor in the School of Computer Science at Georgia Tech.

“People should care about more than just throughput,” Feamster said. “Optimal network performance depends on several other factors, but measuring these important metrics and explaining them to consumers is challenging. It goes back to transparency—we want to give users the information that will help them make the best decisions about which service plan to purchase, and to give them ways to verify that they’re getting the level of service that they’re paying for.”

Feamster and his Ph.D. student, Srikanth Sundaresan, consulted with the FCC on its study data, which was gathered from about 10,000 homes across the United States and involved many different ISPs. Their recommendations incorporated data from both the FCC study and from an independent study, Project BISMark, a new open-source router platform that allows users to continuously monitor the performance that they are getting from their ISP.

Doesn't tell the full story

“We found that performance of U.S. ISPs more consistently matches their advertised promises than the ISPs in other countries—they do a pretty good job,” Feamster said. “But at the same time, those advertisements are based on performance metrics that don’t tell the full story about how users’ applications will actually perform. Throughput might have been the dominant metric when the debate was dial-up versus broadband, but it no longer gives the complete picture about application performance.”

Feamster sees the issue of broadband performance this way: while your connection to a webpage might be lightning fast, and use only a fraction of your bandwidth, how does it perform when you are running several functions at once? And do some functions work better than others?

For example, a user might be streaming a high-definition movie while making a video call over Skype—or when many other users are simultaneously on the network, that’s when performance can suffer.

Sometimes the network gives preference to activities or users with the biggest bandwidth appetites and leaves the rest foraging for scraps.

Latency

One key factor, says Feamster, is “latency,” a general term that refers to several kinds of delays incurred in the processing of network data. For instance, in the “last mile” of connectivity to a household—the final leg of connectivity from the ISP to the home—data errors and packet loss often crop up at a disproportionate rate, and these can significantly impair activities like streaming video or voice over IP services. To minimize this problem, ISPs often perform error correction in the last mile, which comes at the cost of some additional delay.

“They’re basically introducing a time lapse that, if you scaled it out to the appropriate physical distance, would equate to half the width of the country,” Feamster said. “So, if you’re a gamer and you chose your service plan based solely on throughput speed, you might not receive the level of service you expected.”

That could explain why many consumers feel they are not getting the performance from their ISP that they expect. The connection may be fast, but isn't up to the demands of that particular consumer's use of it.

Feamster and Sundaresan also found that certain cable and DSL modems can introduce excessive latency, depending on the activities and applications that users are performing in their homes.

Bufferbloat

“Any user who has noticed that certain activities like uploading photos can render the network unusable has been a victim of excessive buffering, or ‘bufferbloat,’” Feamster said.

In addition to proposing an Internet “nutrition label” that would detail network performance in terms of throughput, latency and other measurements, Feamster and Sundaresan have included mechanisms in the BISMark router to give priority to latency-sensitive applications like Skype so that they might function normally while their hungrier counterparts eat up the remaining bandwidth.

If throughput can be thought of as the number of lanes on the Information superhighway, the new technique in the BISMark router provides an “HOV lane” for voice and video traffic, so that the real-time traffic doesn’t get stuck waiting for your photos to finish uploading.

“Consumers need better tools for understanding whether their home network is performing as well as it should. A major part of making this possible is giving users an easy way to monitor their home network activity and performance over time, which is our vision for the BISMark router,” Feamster said.  

Researchers propose "nutrition label" for broadband service...
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Survey: Internet Explorer Users Less Intelligent

Explorer users don't take kindly to the study

An IE user?

In a survey that has set off heated conversations in the blogosphere, a Canadian research firm has concluded that consumers who use the Internet Explorer web browser have, on average, lower IQs than those who use Firefox, Chrome or other browsers.

AptiQuant Psychometric Consulting Co conducted free online IQ tests last month, with more than 100,000 people taking part. The company then recorded the scores and matched them up with the web browsers they used.

“A significant number of individuals with a low score on the cognitive test were found to be using Microsoft Internet Explorer (IE) versions 6.0 to 9.0,” the company said. “There was no significant difference in the IQ scores between individuals using Google Chrome, Mozilla Firefox and Apple’s Safari; however, it was on an average higher than IE users.”

Smart people's browers?

Individuals using Opera, Camino and IE with Chrome Frame scored even higher.

“These data support the hypothesis that the IQ score and the choice of web browser are related,” the company said.

AptiQuant said its findings have “important implications and identify reasons behind the continuous use of outdated browsers, that has been bugging the web developers and IT companies since the last decade.”

Fighting words?

In other words, the firm seems to be suggesting, IE users aren't exactly the sharpest crayons in the box.

Those who are partial to Microsoft's web browser aren't taking this lying down. Within 24 hours of the survey's release, an IE users group has threated AptiQuant with a lawsuit. AptiQuant CEO Leonard However said his email inbox is jammed with hate mail.

Blogger Leo Sigh called the AptiQuant “an idiotic company” and that most studies of this nature “are a waste of money.”

In its press release, AptiQuant appeared to express some IT frustration with Microsoft's browser.

“Any IT company involved in web development will acknowledge the fact that millions of man hours are wasted each year to make otherwise perfectly functional websites work in Internet Explorer, because of its lack of compatibility with web standards,” the company said. “The continuous use of older versions of IE by millions of people around the world has often haunted web developers. This trend not only makes their job tougher, but has also pulled back innovation by at least a decade.”

A Canadian company has caused controversy by suggesting Internet Explorer users aren't as smart...
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New Software Can Help Spot Phony Reviews

A lie detector for the Internet?

It's called “opinion spam.” Someone wanting to convince consumers that their product is good – or not a scam when it really is – will put up a website, or submit content to an existing site, that contains favorable reviews.

How do you tell opinion spam from sincere reviews? Researchers at Cornell University say they are developing computer software that’s pretty good at it.

In 800 Chicago hotel reviews, their software was able to pick out 90 percent of deceptive reviews. In the process, the researchers uncovered some key features to help determine if a review was spam, and even evidence of a correspondence between the linguistic structure of deceptive reviews and fiction writing.

Help spot the fraudsters

“While this is the first study of its kind, and there's a lot more to be done, I think our approach will eventually help review sites identify and eliminate these fraudulent reviews,” said Myle Ott, Cornell doctoral candidate in computer science.

The researchers asked 400 people to deliberately write false positive reviews of 20 Chicago hotels. These were compared with an equal number of randomly chosen truthful reviews.

As a baseline, the researchers submitted a subset of reviews to three human judges – volunteer Cornell undergraduates – who scored no better than chance in identifying deception. The three did not even agree on which reviews were deceptive, reinforcing the conclusion that they did no better than chance.

Humans suffer from 'truth bias'

This may not be surprising, since humans don't appear very skilled at  figuring out when someone is blowing smoke. Historically, Ott notes, humans suffer from a “truth bias,” assuming that what they are reading is true until they find evidence to the contrary.

When people are trained at detecting deception they become overly skeptical and report deception too often, generally still scoring at chance levels.

The researchers then applied statistical machine learning algorithms to uncover the subtle cues to deception. Deceptive hotel reviews, for example, are more likely to contain language that sets the scene, like “vacation,” “business” or “my husband.”

Truth-tellers use more concrete words relating to the hotel, like “bathroom,” “check-in” and “price.” Truth-tellers and deceivers also differ in their use of certain keywords, punctuation, and even how much they talk about themselves. In agreement with previous studies of imaginative vs. informative writing, deceivers also use more verbs and truth-tellers use more nouns.

Not foolproof

Ott cautions that the work so far is only validated for hotel reviews, and for that matter, only reviews of hotels in Chicago. The next step, he said, is to see if the techniques can be extended to other categories, starting perhaps with restaurants and eventually moving to consumer products. He also wants to look at negative reviews.

“Ultimately, cutting down on deception helps everyone,” Ott said. “Customers need to be able to trust the reviews they read, and sellers need feedback on how best to improve their services.”

Researchers at Cornell develop software that can spot phony Internet reviews...
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Google Now Issuing Infected PC Warnings

Search can detect when computer is compromised

You enter a search term on Google and hit the search button. Up pops a warning message that reads: "Your computer appears to be infected. It appears that your computer is infected with software that intercepts your connection to Google and other sites. Learn how to fix this."

Graham Cluley, senior technology consultant at Sophos Security, said the first time he heard about this he suspected it was one of those clever, fake anti-virus come-ons.

It's not. After doing some checking, Cluley said he learned Google is trying to give consumers a heads-up when it detects their computers aren't fully under their control.

Diverting Google traffic

Damian Menscher, a security engineer at Google, has posted details on his blog, explaining how he discovered that infected computers were sending search traffic through proxies to the search engine.

The intention is purely profit-driven. They hackers that have infected your computer want to modify your search results to highlight money-making pay-per-click sites instead of the sites Google would normally serve up.

In all, Google estimates that a couple of million Windows PCs may be affected around the world by this particular strain of malware. Google says it has already been able to warn hundreds of thousands of computer users their devices are infected.

“Fortunately, although Google does not scan your hard drive when you search for things via google.com, it can detect the unique traffic signature from visiting infected PCs and make a pretty informed guess about your computer's health in regard to this malware strain,” Cluley said in his blog.

Providing security function

Cluley says Google wants the warning message to encourage users to update their anti-virus software, scan their computers and become more conscious of security issues.

“I think what Google is doing should be applauded - anything which warns computer users about genuine malware threats has to be a good thing,” Cluley said.

There is a danger, however, that scammers will quickly mimic the Google warning and offer a cure, which of course, will be more malware. Google, meanwhile, urges consumers to conduct searches for security software for their computers.

In the video below, Cluley notes that, in itself, can be rather dangerous.

The hackers that have infected your computer want to modify your search results to highlight money-making pay-per-click sites instead of the sites Google w...
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Today's Facebook Scam: Bogus Google+ Invitation

Guess what? You and 50 friends can receive even more spam and scammy offers

Google Plus – the search giant's new social network – is a hot item, so far available only to a limited number of invitation-only testers.

Naturally, as with anything that's hard to get, everybody wants it, even people who aren't quite sure what it is. This leads to, you guessed it, the latest Facebook scam.

Like other Facebook scams, this one presents a post in your newsfeed for a Google Plus "unofficial fan page" that will not only get you invited to join G+ but also let you invite 50 of your friends.

If you fall for it and use the Facebook "suggest a friend" interface, you will have just opened up 50 of your friends to access by whoever's behind this latest bit of bamboozlement. This means your friends will soon be receiving spam, scams and fraudulent flim-flammery of all kinds.

They may not be your friend for much longer if that happens.

How to avoid falling into this trap? It's pretty simple. Don't click on links that you're not positive are what they claim to be. If you're not sure about a particular link, just ignore it.

Quick remedy

Even if you do fall for one (or more) of these everyday scams, it's not too late to clean up your Facebook account. In this short video, Graham Cluley of Sophos Security guides you through the process.

Google Plus – the search giant's new social network – is a hot item, so far available only to a limited number of invitation-only testers. Naturally, as w...
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