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Trump team considering nationwide 5G network

The move would be designed to help protect the nation’s wireless system from cyber threats

National security officials working in President Donald Trump’s administration are reportedly considering building an ultrafast, nationwide 5G network within the next three years. Officials say the move would protect the country’s wireless systems from Chinese spying and economic threats.

Details of the plans were unveiled in a memo and PowerPoint presentation created by a senior National Security Council official and reported by Axios. The documents obtained by Axios argue that a centralized 5G system would be easier to protect from cyber threats.

“China has achieved a dominant position in the manufacture and operation of network infrastructure,” the PowerPoint presentation -- titled ‘Secure 5G: The Eisenhower National Highway System for the Information Age’-- states. “China is the dominant malicious actor in the Information Domain.”

Unprecedented

The memo called the nationalization of 5G the “first great leap” into the information age.

“It is a change more like the invention of the Gutenberg Press than the move from 3G to 4G,” the memo said. “5G will transform industries by ushering in exponentially expanded system capacity, higher data rates, lower latency, higher reliability, and lower power consumption.”

The documents suggest two options for how a centralized nationwide 5G network would be built and paid for.

The first (and quickest) way for the plan to be adopted in the U.S. would be to have the government pay for and build a network itself. The second (which could take longer and cost more, the memo argues) would be to have wireless providers build their own 5G networks that compete with one another.

Government control of 5G infrastructure would be unprecedented, since the industry is historically controlled by private operators. Axios noted that AT&T and Verizon have both announced plans to deploy 5G networks to customers. AT&T began rolling out 5G service at the start of the year.

Although the plan calls for 5G networks to be rolled out within a three-year timeframe, experts told Axios that it will likely take as long as a decade to be fully implemented.

FCC opposes

Earlier today, FCC chair Ajit Pai opposed the Trump Administration’s plan to allow the government to control the nation’s 5G network.

“I oppose any proposal for the federal government to build and operate a nationwide 5G network. The main lesson to draw from the wireless sector's development over the past three decades — including American leadership in 4G — is that the market, not government, is best positioned to drive innovation and investment,” he said in a statement.

“What government can and should do is to push spectrum into the commercial marketplace and set rules that encourage the private sector to develop and deploy next-generation infrastructure,” Pai continued. “Any federal effort to construct a nationalized 5G network would be a costly and counterproductive distraction from the policies we need to help the United States win the 5G future.”

National security officials working in President Donald Trump’s administration are reportedly considering building an ultrafast, nationwide 5G network with...

CES displays new IoT security solutions

Companies introduce products to make your smart devices more secure

The Consumer Electronics Show, now referred to simply as CES, is an annual display of the latest gadgets technology companies have to offer.

In many cases, the products on display are simply concepts and won't be available as consumer products for months, or even years. This year, artificial intelligence (AI) and autonomous vehicles are taking center stage.

But some companies are also lifting the wraps off new products ready to hit the market and designed to address current problems, such as the security of the growing number of smart devices found in the average U.S. home.

These devices, from printers to garage door openers, all connect to the internet with unique IP addresses and can be vulnerable to hackers. At least three new products being introduced this week in Las Vegas are designed to address those risks.

Protecting internet-connected devices

Bitdefender, a cybersecurity firm, is using CES to demonstrate its latest smart home security solutions. The product is Bitdefender BOX 2, which the company says adds another layer of security to internet-connected devices.

Bitdefender BOX 2 plugs into a home's router and protects all the things connected to it from online threats.

D-Link and McAfee have teamed up to produce the D-Link AC2600 Wi-Fi Router, described as an “all-in-one solution that automatically increases security for devices on the home network."

The companies say it addresses the increased need for online security when so many things in the home connect to the internet and can be exploited by hackers for a number of uses. In 2016, hackers planted malware on millions of poorly-protected smart devices to launch massive denial of service attacks against major websites.

The new product combines D-Link's dual-band 802.11ac router with MU-MIMO technology, McAfee’s Secure Home Platform that automatically protects all devices connected to the network, and Intel's Home Wi-Fi Chipset WAV500 Series, providing Wi-Fi connectivity to connected devices at the same time.

"As the number of connected devices in homes increases, consumers are increasingly concerned about online security threats," Anny Wei, D-Link CEO said in an interview. "We've teamed up with McAfee and Intel to address these concerns with a powerful, easy to manage, all-in-one solution."

Wei cites a report from research firm Gartner, which estimates there will be 20 billion connected IoT devices by 2020 -- devices that require protection.

New generation of sensors

Vayyar Imaging, meanwhile, has introduced a new generation of sensors for the connected home. The technology combines multiple capabilities to cover an entire apartment in all lighting conditions, emphasizing the preservation of privacy.

The company produced this video to explain how it works:

 

The company says there are no cameras, no need to wear any kind of device, or to interact with the product in any way.

Because of that, it says the product protects privacy while determining if a person has fallen by measuring activity levels and monitoring the perimeter of the house to provide intruder alerts.

The Consumer Electronics Show, now referred to simply as CES, is an annual display of the latest gadgets technology...

There may be an answer to those autoplay videos

New Chrome feature may let you permanently mute a website

Auto-play videos can be pretty annoying. You're trying to read an article when suddenly, somewhere on the page, a video starts to play.

Even if you aren't looking at the video, the sound can be distracting. Now, Google developers may have come up with a way to end the nuisance once and for all.

Developer Francois Beaufort has posted the news that the Chrome team is engaged in an experiment of sorts, creating a setting that will allow users to turn a website's sound off and on within the browser. When you visit that particular site in the future, the video may automatically roll, but you won't hear it.

"This will give you more control about which website is allowed to throw sound at you automatically," he writes.

True, you can already mute the sound on your video player, but that requires you to turn the sound back on when there is something you want to hear. The Chrome feature would disable the sound only on individual sites.

An ongoing battle

This has been an ongoing battle between consumers and some web publishers. When browsers started adding tools to allow consumers to turn off Flash videos from autoplaying, PC World reports they simply switched to a new platform, HTML5, requiring browsers to play "whack a mole," coming up with new tools to defeat autoplay in the new format.

But in an note of irony, the PC World web page containing this interesting information about autoplay videos, alas, has an autoplay video.

So why do publishers do it? Tech site TheNextWeb.com says it's all about money. Websites think they have a better chance of capturing your attention for a sponsor if they make you watch a video, instead of letting you decide if you want to watch -- or hear it.

Auto-play videos can be pretty annoying. You're trying to read an article when suddenly, somewhere on the page, a video starts to play. Even if you aren...

Microsoft launching major rural broadband initiative

Plans to harness TV 'white spaces' to connect the last mile

Microsoft has announced a plan to speed up the process of bringing high-speed internet to rural areas of America, connecting some of the hardest-to-reach regions.

Microsoft President Brad Smith says the Rural Airband Initiative aims to use "white spaces," a wireless technology that harnesses the space between television channels, to provide service for two million consumers over the next five years.

Microsoft will reportedly focus its efforts on 12 states and provide money to local telecommunications companies to offer the service to consumers in their area. The software giant made clear that it has no intention of becoming an internet service provider (ISP), it is only trying to address a public policy need, and will do so through local partnerships.

Microsoft has launched a pilot project in a rural area of Virginia and produced the video below to explain the results.

'Very ambitious goal'

Technology publisher ReCode suggests Microsoft has set a very ambitious goal. It notes that "white spaces" are not available everywhere and would require the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to set aside more spectrum for that use.

"Nor are 'white spaces' some panacea for the country’s broadband ills: Even Microsoft acknowledges in its announcement that other technologies, like internet delivered by satellite, are necessary to improve connectivity in the country’s most remote regions," ReCode points out. "At the moment, Microsoft has not announced any specific investments in that technology."

In a blog posting, Smith says the time is right to set "a clear and ambitious but achievable goal," bringing wide areas of rural America into the broadband world by 2022.

Smith calls it a strategic approach combining private sector capital investments with public sector support.

Microsoft has announced a plan to speed up the process of bringing high-speed internet to rural areas of America, connecting some of the hardest-to-reach r...

Wireless providers hit with widespread outages

Problems appeared to peak around midday Monday

Some wireless customers found it was difficult to get any bars Monday, as outages were reported among several carriers and major websites.

According to the monitoring website, downdetector.com, the problems appeared to peak around midday Monday and have mostly abated at this point.

In one of its latest postings, the website reported that Spectrum was having issues early Tuesday morning, with 69% of the issues internet-related and 23% involving a total blackout.

It reported significant Netflix problems overnight, with 50% of the problems having to do with no connection and 45% reporting streaming difficulties.

Fiber line cut

CBS News reports many of the problems were based in the Southeast, where a backbone fiber line in Wilmington, N.C. was cut. Sprint customers also reported problems, which were apparently caused by problems with a local exchange provider.

Verizon told WNCN-TV in Wilmington that the connectivity issue consumers experienced Monday was mostly felt in Jacksonville, Wilmington, and New Bern.

A consumer posting on downdetector.com's Verizon outage page reported intermittent service interruptions mid morning to late afternoon Monday in the Washington, DC area.

Downdetector said it collects status reports from a series of sources, analyzing them in realtime. It says its system detects outages when the number of reports shows a significant jump relative to the baseline.

Some wireless customers found it was difficult to get any bars Monday, as outages were reported among several carriers and major websites.According to...

Google plans to filter out annoying ads

The Chrome browser will have a built-in ad filter next year

Google is the biggest supplier of advertising to the online industry, so it may be surprising that it is planning to build an ad-blocker into its popular Chrome web browser.

Actually, Google prefers to call it a filter, something that filters out offensive or intrusive ads -- apparently meaning pop-ups, ads that block out the entire screen, and video ads that blast audio at the unsuspecting user.

Why would Google want to block its own ads, as well as those placed by others? It has said that it wants to improve the overall experience for consumers and, thereby, increase the effectiveness of ads that meet quality standards.

"It’s far too common that people encounter annoying, intrusive ads on the web--like the kind that blare music unexpectedly, or force you to wait 10 seconds before you can see the content on the page," said Sridhar Ramaswamy, Google's senior vice president for ads and commerce, in a blog posting. "These frustrating experiences can lead some people to block all ads--taking a big toll on the content creators, journalists, web developers, and videographers who depend on ads to fund their content creation."

Industry effort

It won't be Google's judgment alone that determines which ads make it through, but rather the standards being establsihed by an industry group called the Coalition for Better Ads. 

Publishers are wary of the idea, fearing that it will cut into their revenue, but Google says it will not start deploying the filter until early 2018 and will give publishers plenty of guidance on what's acceptable and what's not.

Besides what is being portrayed as a long-term, public-spirited effort to upgrade the advertising consumers experience, it could also be seen as a defensive action in response to the growing use of ad blockers that shut out all ads. Ad blockers have been growing in popularity in response to the increasing proliferation of big and noisy ads and it's thought that more than 20 percent of consumers have installed ad blockers. 

Google is the biggest supplier of advertising to the online industry, so it may be surprising that it is planning to build an ad-blocker into its popular C...

Are you ready for a ransomware attack? Most consumers aren't

There are steps you can take to be more secure

Last week's massive ransomware attack that seized an estimated 200,000 computer systems in 150 countries demonstrated one thing very clearly -- most of us aren't prepared for something like this.

Ransomware, which appeared on the scene a few years ago, is a very different animal than the typical malware that is spread through phishing scams. It's simple extortion.

If the hacker is able to persuade you or someone on your network to click on a link in an email or pop-up, every file on your computer or network is encrypted. 

Encryption is a security measure designed to make information more secure, but in this case it's being turned completely upside down. Only the hacker has the key to undo the encryption. To unlock your files, you must pay a ransom in untraceable Bitcoin.

Targeting institutions

So far, this scheme has mostly targeted large institutions with computer networks. In this latest attack, hospitals were a major target.

First, they have the money to pay the ransom. Second, they are served by computer networks with many users. All it takes is for one user to click on a link in a phishing email to launch the attack on all connected devices.

An international survey funded in part by the Internet Society finds people are largely unprepared to deal with a ransomware attack. Twenty-four percent had no idea what to do if their computer were taken hostage. Many said they would probably pay up.

“Ransomware attackers have discovered that they don't have to steal or destroy your data to enrich themselves, they just have to hold it hostage," said Fen Osler Hampson, director of global security at CIGI, a think tank. "Our survey data shows that many people are willing to pay to get their data back, which makes such attacks highly profitable."

One organization not willing to pay is Disney. Deadline.com reports hackers used ransomware to seize control of the final cut of the upcoming "Pirates of the Caribbean" movie. The report says Disney has refused to pay the demanded ransom and is working with the FBI.

Getting prepared

While most of the attacks are carried out against large organizations, individual computer users can also fall victim. While you should make sure your operating system has all the latest security updates, there are other steps you can take to prepare for a ransomware attack.

First, don't click on links in an email without checking it out first. The phishing emails are disguised to look like they are from legitimate organizations, such as a bank. Call the bank's fraud detection service and ask them if the email is legitimate.

Second, back up your important files -- the stuff you really don't want to lose -- to the cloud. A flash drive or external hard drive would also work, but you would need to disconnect the drive between back-ups. If a drive is connected to your computer during a ransomware attack, all the files on it will be encrypted.

The survey, conducted by research company Ipsos before last week's attack, found 6% of internet uses around the world had personally experienced a ransomware attack. Those numbers are expected to climb, so organizations -- as well as individual consumers -- had better get prepared now.

Last week's massive ransomware attack that seized an estimated 200,000 computer systems in 150 countries demonstrated one thing very clearly -- most of us...

FCC head spells out plan to roll back net neutrality

Ajit Pai wants to give broadband jurisdiction back to the Federal Trade Commission

Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Chairman Ajit Pai today unveiled his plans for scrapping net neutrality rules enacted by the Obama-era FCC.

Pai has made no secret of his distaste for regulations in general and, specifically, for rules enshrining net neutrality, the principle that all users of the internet should have equal access to it. What that means in practice is that big companies can't build high-speed channels for themselves while everyone else is jammed up in the slow lane.

The Obama FCC enacted the current set of rules in 2015 over the objections of big telecom and cable companies who said the government was overstepping its authority and legislating to fix a problem that did not exist.

Today during a speech at the Newseum in Washington, Pai said the simplest way to get rid of the existing rule is simply to hand regulatory jurisdiction of broadband providers back to the Federal Trade Commission.

Pai said he favors net neutrality principles but thinks industry can regulate itself to avoid major problems. 

“That’s like saying you value math, but you don’t value numbers. We can’t keep the promise of net neutrality without the rules,” said Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.), prior to Pai's speech.

Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Chairman Ajit Pai today unveiled his plans for scrapping net neutrality rules enacted by the Obama-era FCC.Pai...

Advertisers are the latest to embrace ad blocking

Even -- or perhaps especially -- advertisers worry about ads cluttering up the web

Believe it or not, the advertising industry is now talking up the idea of ad blockers.

Concerned that annoying and intrusive ads are driving away web users, leading ad agencies and marketing gurus are expressing support for technology that would block autoplay video ads with sound, ads that feature flashing lights and colors, and perhaps pop-up ads that take over the whole screen.

Keep in mind, though, it's advertisers talking. They don't want to block all ads -- only the ones they deem annoying, meaning the other guy's ads. They've set up something called the Coalition for Better Ads. 

"The end game here is to remove these types of ads which are undercutting the consumer internet experience," said Stu Ingis, counsel to the coalition and attorney at Venable LLP, Advertising Age reported. "Truthfully, those ads can potentially and seriously undercut the broader internet ecosystem."

The coalition is said to include Google, Microsoft, Procter & Gamble, Unilever, WPP's ad-buying giant GroupM, Facebook, Thomson Reuters, The Washington Post, the Interactive Advertising Bureau, and the Association of National Advertisers.

How annoying?

It goes without saying that annoying ads are, well, annoying -- but advertisers are nothing if not research gurus, so the coalition conducted a study of 25,000 consumers in the U.S. and Europe to rate 104 different ads on desktop and mobile. Sure enough, the survey found that consumers don't like autoplay video ads with sound, pop-ups, and ads that flash or change colors rapidly.

Ingis said an independent monitoring group will be needed if the coalition decides to press ahead with using technology to block the offensive ads. 

"Oversight is needed to make sure the tech is doing what it is supposed to. Oversight is needed so no one company is by themselves in setting or making determinations," he said in the AdAge report.

Googlopoly

What one company could Ingis be talking about? A few days before word of the Better Ad Coalition leaked out, there were reports that Google was considering adding a default ad blocker to its Chrome browser.

The blocker would, of course, block ads deemed by Google to be offensive. Other people's ads, in other words. The notion did not go over well.

“A monopoly which is already not affected by ad blocking in general because of paid whitelisting having more power is scary,” said Meagan Lopez, global digital business director for The New York Times, according to Digiday. “Owning every aspect of the advertising world from tech to search to exchanges to measurement to servers to ad blocking within the browser just means less control again for everyone else.”

Or as Digiday put it: "Don’t expect a half page of ads at the top of a search results page to get dinged, no matter the third-party Google officially christens as the standard bearer."

The coalition stresses that it has not yet firmed up its plans, but Ingis says advertisers and consumers are on the same page when it comes to improving the internet experience.

"The ad industry has a self-interest to make sure the ad supported internet that consumers love continues," he said. "The incentives of the ad industry, from my view, are exactly right. And they are perfectly aligned with what consumer interest would want."

Believe it or not, the advertising industry is now talking up the idea of ad blockers.Concerned that annoying and intrusive ads are driving away web us...

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...

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...

Apple goes along with censors -- blocks New York Times app in China

Fake news is fine but real news -- well, only if the government approves

There's been a lot of hand-wringing about the problem of "fake news" and the role of online sites in promoting it. But the other side of the coin is the role of online sites in suppressing real news. Case in point: Apple has removed the New York Times app from its China store.

Why would Apple, an American company, want to help an authoritarian regime censor America's premier daily newspaper? The answer is simple: because the Chinese government asked it to.

The Times' websites have been blocked in China since 2012, when the paper published a report that detailed the wealth of China's ruling families. Apple's willing removal of the app was in response to a statement by China's government that the app "violated local regulations."

Just what those regulations might be wasn't specified and Apple isn't saying. All it offers is a promise to reconsider "when the situation changes."

Real news fights back

The Times has asked Apple to reconsider its decision, company spokeswoman Eileen Murphy said. “The request by the Chinese authorities to remove our apps is part of their wider attempt to prevent readers in China from accessing independent news coverage by the New York Times of that country—coverage which is no different from the journalism we do about every other country in the world, including the United States.”

The Time is not the only target of China's wrath. Many Western news organizations have faced various difficulties in China, as they do in other dictatorships and authoritarian countries. 

The difference between real news organizations and fake ones -- those that simply repurpose the work of others -- is that real news organizations fight back. 

 

 

There's been a lot of hand-wringing about the problem of "fake news" and the role of online sites in promoting it. But the other side of the coin is the ro...

Online market research firm agrees to clean up its tracking practices

Turn Inc., continued tracking consumers who had opted out, FTC charged

A company that tracks consumers on the internet has settled Federal Trade Commission (FTC) charges that it deceived consumers by tracking them online and through their mobile applications, even after consumers took steps to opt out of such tracking.

Turn Inc., of Redwood City, California, a company that enables sellers to target digital advertisements to consumers, said it "agreed to the order to avoid a lengthy and costly litigation process and to continue our single-minded focus on serving our global brand and agency customers."

According to the FTC’s complaint, Turn’s privacy policy represented that consumers could block targeted advertising by using their web browser’s settings to block or limit cookies. In fact, the complaint alleges that Turn used unique identifiers to track millions of Verizon Wireless customers, even after they blocked or deleted cookies from websites.  

In addition, the agency charged that Turn’s opt-out mechanism only applied to mobile browsers and did not block tailored ads on mobile applications as the company claimed.

Tracked millions

“Turn tracked millions of consumers online and through mobile apps even if they had taken steps to block or limit tracking,” said Jessica Rich, Director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection. “The FTC’s order will ensure the company honors consumers’ privacy choices.”

The proposed FTC consent order bars Turn from misrepresenting the extent of its online tracking or the ability of users to limit or control the company’s use of their data. It also requires Turn to provide an effective opt-out for consumers who do not want their information used for targeted advertising and place a prominent hyperlink on its home page that takes consumers to a disclosure explaining what information the company collects and uses for targeted advertising.

Turn said in a statement on its website that it had ended the disputed practices in 2015 and grumped about the trouble and expense of responding to the FTC complaint.

"After a nearly two-year process and extended negotiations, we look forward to avoiding further distraction and expense so that we can continue to serve our customers. The settlement validates the steps we took early in 2015, when Turn terminated the partnership and ceased using the Verizon Wireless identifier," the company said.

A company that tracks consumers on the internet has settled Federal Trade Commission (FTC) charges that it deceived consumers by tracking them online and t...

Why parents' use of media devices is just as bad as their children's

Researchers found that parents spend an exorbitant amount of time looking at screens

The use of media devices is higher than it has ever been before, and one of the groups commonly associated with all that screen time is children and teenagers. It often falls to parents to try and limit the amount of screen exposure and set a good example, but a new study shows that their media use may be just as bad.

Researchers at the Common Sense Census conducted surveys on over 1,700 parents with children between the ages of 8 and 18. They found that parents spent roughly 9 hours and 22 minutes on some sort of media device. The vast majority of that time wasn’t work-related either; the researchers said that only 18%, or 1 hour and 22 minutes, of that time was work-related screen time. The rest was used on “personal screen media” – activities like watching TV, playing games, or surfing the web.

Perhaps ironically, over half of participating parents said that they were worried that their children would become addicted to technology or that it would affect their quality of sleep. Seventy-eight percent also said that they thought they were good role models when it came to media use.

“These findings are fascinating because parents are using media for entertainment just as much as their kids, yet they express concerns about their kids’ media use while also believing that they are good role models for their kids,” said James P. Steyer, CEO of Common Sense Census.

Parental concerns

Social media and internet use stood out as big concerns for parents in the study. Around half of the respondents said that they thought too much time on social media negatively affected physical activity, and a smaller faction said that it hurt children’s ability to focus (35%), impeded face-to-face communication (34%), and worsened behavior (24%), school performance (22%), emotional well-being (20%), and relationships with friends (20%). However, 44% of parents thought social media made friendships stronger.

Parents who were concerned about general internet use said they were “moderately” or “extremely” worried about four major things: spending too much time online (43%), over-sharing personal details (38%), accessing online pornography (36%), and exposure to violent content (36%).

Other concerns connected to media use primarily focused on addiction and health. Fifty-six percent of parents said they were worried that their children could become addicted to technology, while 34% said they were specifically worried about their children not getting enough sleep because of media devices.

Double standard?

While parents have all these concerns about their children’s media use, they tend to have a much more cavalier stance when it comes to their own consumption. The study found that, on average, parents spent 3 hours and 17 minutes watching TV, DVDs, or video on a daily basis. Video gaming came in at the next highest use (1:30), followed by social networking (1:06), browsing websites (0:51), and other activities on computers, smartphones, and tablets (0:44).

The researchers found that level of education and income were factors that affected media use. Parents that had a BA degree or more spent 1 hour and 33 minutes less on personal screen media than parents with a high school diploma or less. Parents who made under $35,000 per year had the most logged personal screen time with 9 hours and 15 minutes, compared to parents making between $35,000 and $100,000 (7:42) and those making over $100,000 (6:41).

While talking to parents about their media use, the researchers found that some participants were often surprised by how much time they spent on certain activities.

“I like to play Words with Friends, and sometimes I’ll find that after a while I’ll be like, oh my God, I’ve been on this for an hour, and you have to say, OK, I have to put this away. I can see how children can get hooked on playing video games or using media the entire weekend,” said one mother of a 15-year-old.

While the surveys found that many parents mediate their child’s use of technology or screen time, the findings suggest that taking the time to examine their own consumption habits could be beneficial. The full study can be found here.

The use of media devices is higher than it has ever been before, and one of the groups commonly associated with all that screen time is children and teenag...

Facebook Internet drone had a rough landing

The test flight of Aquila was hailed as a success despite 'substantial' damage

Facebook and the Wright Brothers have a lot in common: their initial flights didn't end too well.

"A sudden dart when out about 100 feet from the end of the tracks ended the flight. Time about 12 seconds (not known exactly as watch was not promptly stopped). The lever for throwing off the engine was broken, and the skid under the rudder cracked," Orville Wright wrote of his first flight at Kitty Hawk, N.C.

Facebook's first flight of its gaint drone, called Aquila, that's intended to bring internet access to underdeveloped areas, was hailed as a success by the company, but it now turns out the drone was "substantially damaged" when it experienced a "structural failure" while approaching Yuma, Ariz., during its June 28 test flight, according to the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB).

"This first functional check was a low-altitude flight, and it was so successful that we ended up flying Aquila for more than 90 minutes — three times longer than originally planned," Facebook's Jay Parikh said in a blog posting a few days after the flight. "In our next tests, we will fly Aquila faster, higher and longer, eventually taking it above 60,000 feet. Each test will help us learn and move faster toward our goal."

But those next tests won't happen until the NTSB finishes its investigation, sometime in the next few months, according to a Wall Street Journal report.

Not the first

It's not the first accident to afflict the ambitious effort. In September, a Facebook satellite was destroyed on its launchpad when a Falcon 9 rocket that was supposed to carry it into space blew up. 

Facebook insists the project will eventually bring free broadband access to many of the four billion people who now do without it.

"New technologies like Aquila have the potential to bring access, voice and opportunity to billions of people around the world, and do so faster and more cost-effectively than has ever been possible before," said Parikh, Facebook's head of engineering and infrastructure.

"When complete, Aquila will be able to circle a region up to 60 miles in diameter, beaming connectivity down from an altitude of more than 60,000 feet using laser communications and millimeter wave systems," Parikh wrote. "Aquila is designed to be hyper efficient, so it can fly for up to three months at a time. The aircraft has the wingspan of an airliner, but at cruising speed it will consume only 5,000 watts — the same amount as three hair dryers, or a high-end microwave."

Facebook and the Wright Brothers have a lot in common: their initial flights didn't end too well."A sudden dart when out about 100 feet from the end of...

SpaceX looks to provide high-speed internet to the global community

The company submitted an application to launch over 4,000 satellites

There are over 1,400 functioning satellites currently orbiting the Earth, but that number could grow exponentially if Elon Musk has his way. The entrepreneur, through his company SpaceX, has submitted an application to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to launch 4,425 satellites. The goal? To provide high-speed internet coverage to the whole planet.

Business Insider reports that the satellites are intended to orbit the Earth at altitudes ranging from 715 to 790 miles, effectively providing 1,300 miles of coverage each. SpaceX says their proposal will provide the global community with high-speed service of 1 Gbps; currently, users average about 5.1 Mbps, which is 200 times slower.

“The system is designed to provide a wide range of broadband and communications services for residential, commercial, institutional, governmental and professional users worldwide,” the company wrote in its application.

Proposed roll-out

In its application, the company detailed a two-phase launch plan; the first phase would launch approximately 1,600 satellites at one altitude and the second phase would introduce another 2,825 satellites placed in four shells at different altitudes.

While the full number of satellites will provide worldwide coverage from North Pole to South Pole, SpaceX says the first 800 satellites to launch will provide service to much of the world.

“With deployment of the first 800 satellites, SpaceX will be able to provide widespread U.S. and international coverage for broadband services. Once fully optimized through the Final Deployment, the system will be able to provide high bandwidth (up to 1 Gbps per user), low latency broadband services for consumers and businesses in the U.S. and globally,” the company said.

Getting more people online

SpaceX points out that its plan will go a long way towards providing all countries with usable broadband service, citing a July report by UNESCO’s Broadband Commission for Sustainable Development that “4.2 billion people (or 57% of the world’s population) is offline for a wide range of reasons, but often also because the necessary connectivity is not present or affordable.”

The company states that being cost-effective and reliable are main focuses for the project – all the way from production to the prices that subscribers will pay for the service. Each satellite is estimated to last between five and seven years before it begins to decay. However, the company says that it will be looking to periodically improve the satellites over the deployment period.

SpaceX has stated that it will begin launching prototype satellites as early as next year, though the launch of the actual constellation of satellites will not be realized until the end of the decade, according to a BBC report.

There are over 1,400 functioning satellites currently orbiting the Earth, but that number could grow exponentially if Elon Musk has his way. The entreprene...

Consumers making heavy use of new iOS unsubscribe feature

The latest Apple upgrade makes it easier than ever to unsubscribe from pesky email lists

Build it and they will come. Make it easy to leave and they will. That seems to be the takeaway behind the news that email "unsubscribes" have jumped 75% among those using the latest edition of Apple's iOS.

Apple's latest release of its operating system includes an "easy unsubscribe" feature. It inserts a banner reading "this message is from a mailing list" at the top of suspect emails and includes an unsubscribe link.

While consumers may love it, email marketers aren't so thrilled. 

“The overall trend of increasing iOS unsubscribes is consistent across industries but the level of iOS 10 adoption and the size of the unsubscribe increase can significantly vary by industry,” said Kyle Hendrick, director of client services at Yesmail, a marketing company, in a blog posting.

“All in all, unsubscribes increased as a result of the ‘easy unsubscribe’ functionality introduced in the release of iOS 10 but marketers shouldn’t freak out. There are long-term upsides that could benefit brands.”

And just what might those "long-term upsides" be? Hendrick says innovations like easy unsubscribe "can significantly reduce friction and make customers feel in control" and he adds: "Since these enhancements are brand-agnostic, the marketers who succeed in delivering relevant and timely content will always come out ahead of their competition."

Of course, they may still delete your email.

Build it and they will come. Make it easy to leave and they will. That seems to be the takeaway behind the news that email "unsubscribes" have jumped 75% a...

How many web pages are there? Google estimates 130 trillion

To avoid being swallowed up, sites are developing more personalized advertising

There used to be an awful lot of fish in the sea. There aren't so many anymore but, if it's any comfort, there are about 130 trillion web pages, according to Google's latest estimate.

That's up from about 30 trillion in March 2013 and, while the acquatic environment may not be what it used to be, the virtual environment is doing just fine, assuming you're not trying to draw attention to your website.

Google and the other search engines do a pretty amazing job of finding pages that match consumers' search requests, but the companies, organizations, and individuals who are trying to attract eyeballs to their pages have a task that grows ever more difficult.

It's not unusual these days for new sites -- professionally produced, packed with useful or entertaining information, and organized for maximum search engine exposure -- to get literally no viewers without resorting to increasingly expensive paid advertising.

There are just about as many theories on how to improve websites' performance as there are stars in the sky, and finding a successful strategy is like looking for that always elusive needle in the haystack.

Not getting easier

But don't delay. It won't be getting easier. Cisco Systems recently estimated that global internet traffic in 2020 will be 95 times the volume of the entire global internet in 2005. It's Moore's Law on steroids. 

What's all this mean for consumers? Hard to say, but it's likely to mean more advertising as sites struggle to get your attention. Fortunately, marketers are working to tailor their ads to individual preferences, meaning that in theory you should see only ads about goods and services that you use regularly or may soon need or want.

Several recent studies have found that consumers don't mind ads so much when they're seen as relevant, so perhaps the internet will manage to get not just bigger but better.

There used to be an awful lot of fish in the sea. There aren't so many anymore but, if it's any comfort, there are about 130 trillion web pages, according...

Consumers increasingly vulnerable to the Internet of Things

But 43% may not have changed the default password on their home router

Sometime over the last five years or so, things in our everyday lives began connecting to the internet. Suddenly we had smart thermostats, smart refrigerators, and smart watches, among other things.

While all this connectivity was supposed to make life easier, it has raised definite security concerns. Those concerns were realized in full last Friday when hackers were able to infect tens of millions of smart devices with malware and launch denial of service (DOS) attacks on major websites.

In a survey conducted before that incident, but released just afterward, consumers expressed concerns about the security of this growing Internet of Things (IoT) but were mostly in the dark about what to do. It showed more than half of consumers have three or more devices, besides computers and smartphones, that connect to the internet through their home routers.

Haven't changed password

But consumers only now appear to be coming to grips with the security implications. A survey commissioned by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) found 43% of consumers either haven't changed the default password on their home router or aren't sure if they have or not.

"The Internet of Things presents tremendous opportunities for managing our health, homes and businesses, but we need to have our eyes wide open about the risks as well," said Michael Kaiser, executive director of National Cyber Security Awareness Month.

Kaiser says consumers need to think of the IoT as the “internet of me.” Consumers, he says, need to be proactive about learning what information your devices collect, where it's stored, and how it's used.

“Additionally, it's especially important to pay attention to the security of your mobile device if you are using it to control IoT devices – as well as your router, if you're connecting devices to it," he said.

Easy to download malware

Last weeks attack on the internet was not that difficult since many devices that make up the IoT have little or no security protection – at least a lot less than a computer or smartphone operating system. That made it relatively simple for hackers to download malware.

The problem, unfortunately, may get worse before it gets better. Almost a year ago, Gartner projected that there would be 6.4 billion devices connected to the internet in 2016, up 15% over 2015. Consumer devices, by far, make up the largest portion of devices.

In the wake of last Friday's attack, NBC News reports security professionals have drawn attention to IoT. It quoted one expert as saying the security framework for many devices making up the IoT is “self-evidently terrible.”

Unfortunately, consumers are dependent on appliance and smart device manufacturers making their products more secure. In the meantime, a consumer's best defense is using a strong password for network routers.  

Sometime over the last five years or so, things in our everyday lives began connecting to the internet. Suddenly we had smart thermostats, smart refrigerat...

AT&T: most cyber attacks use old weapons

Report says businesses need to do better job of using existing cyber defenses

The denial of service attack that last week briefly blocked access to major web sites was amazingly simple. Hackers used malware to infect millions of internet-connected devices, then ordered them all to access Amazon and other sites at the same time.

A new report from AT&T suggests that attack may have been typical of the kinds of threats businesses are facing. Most of today's cyber-attacks, the report claims, are “known threats.” In other words, protections and protocols should be in place to mitigate them. In many cases, however, they aren't.

Because these attacks are not that complicated, the report warns that anyone from a nation state to a student is capable of bringing down an organization's network, or as we saw last Friday, of tying up a big chunk of the internet.

The AT&T study shows that 90% of companies reported a malware attack in the last year, where infected software infiltrated their network. Also, in the last year, 73% of companies reported at least one distributed denial of service (DDoS) attack.

Perhaps of greatest concern was that there was a 700% increase in ransomware attacks, where a hacker encrypted a company or organization's files and would not release them until a ransom was paid.

Even when an organization has adequate security procedures, an employee who makes a mistake – clicking on a bad link, for example -- can cause a dangerous breach.

The enemy we know

"The daunting depiction of newly discovered security threats often gets attention from media and business leaders alike. But in fact, most attackers are targeting businesses using forms of attacks we already know about and can help defend against," said Mo Katibeh, senior vice president of Advanced Solutions, AT&T.

That makes it important, he says, for businesses to remain on guard and constantly improve and update core security protections.

Instead of being focused on what new threats might be emerging, the AT&T report suggests organizations should build their security around the threats that are known, since those are the ones they are most likely to encounter.

In addition to keeping systems updated, the authors stress the importance of the human factor. They say employees should receive extensive training in how to avoid security breaches as part of a security culture within an organization.

The denial of service attack that last week briefly blocked access to major web sites was amazingly simple. Hackers used malware to infect millions of inte...

Here's what happened to the internet on Friday

And why it could happen again and again

On Friday, millions of consumers found they couldn't reach Netflix, Amazon, Twitter, and a handful of other major web destinations.

The reason, we are told, is that hackers unleashed a massive denial-of-service (DoS) attack against these sites that overwhelmed their common DNS provider, Dyn. We now know how they did it, and it should serve as a warning of more cyber chaos to come.

According to a statement from Dyn, released over the weekend, the sites were simultaneously hit with requests for access by tens of millions of IP addresses. But how could hackers in some remote location do that?

Simple: they infected tens of millions of electronic devices – things like printers, thermostats, and other ordinary devices that now connect to the internet – the so-called Internet of Things (IoT). Each of these devices has its own IP address, just like a computer.

A simple botnet coordinated the attack

Dyn says its preliminary investigation has shown that many of the devices had been infected with a malware called Mirai, a botnet.

“We observed tens of millions of discrete IP addresses associated with the Mirai botnet that were part of the attack,” Dyn said in its statement.

As for the timeline, Dyn said the first attack was launched around 7:00 a.m. ET. Dyn’s Network Operations Center (NOC) was able to overcome the attack after about two hours and restore service. The first attack impacted mostly the East Coast.

A second attack occurred around Noon ET and affected the entire country. This time it took about an hour to restore service.

Third attack failed

Dyn says there was a third attack, but because its personnel were ready for it, they were able to mitigate it without a disruption of service.

So what's the big take away from Friday's confusion? As Fortune observes, the devices that allowed the attack to happen are still out there, still connected to the internet, and as far as anyone knows, not repaired or patched. There's nothing to say hackers couldn't do it again if they wanted to.

Fortune quotes security researcher Brian Krebs as saying the companies that make IoT devices are mostly to blame for the vulnerability, charging that printers, cameras, and routers are not protected by adequate security.

On Friday, millions of consumers found they couldn't reach Netflix, Amazon, Twitter, and a handful of other major web destinations.The reason, we are t...

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....

Yahoo Mail turns its forwarding function back on

The company says the shutdown was part of a 'platform upgrade'

Yahoo Mail's forwarding feature is working once again, according to Yahoo. It was disabled earlier this week with no explanation, leading many to think the action was related to the data breach that compromised more than 500 million accounts.

But no. According to Yahoo, the shutdown was simply part of a "platform upgrade," not a heavy-handed attempt to keep users from fleeing Yahoo Mail.

Usually, when consumers set up a new email account, they set the old one to forward incoming email from the old account to the new one. Without the forwarding function, there's no way to do this, leaving some Yahoo users feeling they were being held hostage.

Hoping to put the best spin on the situation, Michael Albers, VP of Product Management for Yahoo Mail, took to Tumblr to deny there was any attempt to detain fleeing customers.

"Over the past year, Yahoo Mail has been upgrading its platform. This has allowed us to bring a better search experience to Yahoo Mail, add multiple account support, and improve performance as we quickly scale this new system globally. The feature was temporarily disabled as part of this process," Abers wrote.

Yahoo Mail's forwarding feature is working once again, according to Yahoo. It was disabled earlier this week with no explanation, leading many to think the...

Yahoo disables email forwarding amidst privacy controversies

It claims the service is only being disabled temporarily

Privacy concerns have plagued Yahoo for weeks now. Towards the end of September, the company confirmed details of a massive data breach that compromised over 500 million accounts, including information on users’ names, email addresses, passwords, phone numbers, dates of birth, and security answers.

Even more recently, the company conceded that it had scanned emails for a U.S. intelligence agency, sparking a new wave of privacy concerns and leading some users to consider moving to a more secure email service.

Unfortunately, Yahoo Mail users may find it hard to make the switch. At the beginning of the month, the company disabled mail forwarding, saying that the tool is now “under development.” While the move doesn’t affect users who were already forwarding their mail to another account, it will prevent those who want to send emails to a new forwarding address.

Locked in

Mail forwarding is a common tool used by users who have decided to make the switch from one email account or service to another; it allows them to send any mail received by an old account to another account automatically.

In the wake of the privacy scandals, many Yahoo Mail users may have hoped to do just that, but disabling the feature has essentially locked them in. Although Yahoo has every right to disable its tool, users can’t help but be suspicious that the company would make it harder to leave just as its controversies were revealed to the public. After all, email forwarding is a pretty universal tool provided by most email services, and Yahoo has been using it for years.

However, Yahoo has stated that disabling the feature had been previously planned and that it would be working to restore it as soon as possible.

“We’re working to get auto-forward back up and running as soon as possible because we know how useful it can be to our users. The feature was temporary disabled as part of previously planned maintenance to improve its functionality between a user’s various accounts,” said a Yahoo spokeswoman in a statement.

Privacy concerns have plagued Yahoo for weeks now. Towards the end of September, the company confirmed details of a massive data breach that compromised ov...

Gmail outage hits parts of U.S. and UK

The origin and scope of the problem are not known

Widespread problems hit Google's popular Gmail service late this morning, Eastern Time. Users flooded social media with complaints and Google said it was trying to resolve the problem, which seemingly affected business accounts.

"We're investigating reports of an issue with Gmail. We will provide more information shortly.
Based on reports, it affects only Google for Work Gmail users. The users are redirected to a page with 'Service not available, contact your administrator', Google said in an 11:16 a.m. ET advisory on its Google Apps page.

That was followed at 11:58 a.m. advisory that said the "root cause" had been identified.

"Our team is continuing to investigate this issue. We will provide an update by 9/14/16, 12:40 PM with more information about this problem. Thank you for your patience. We have identified the root cause of the issue and a potential fix is being implemented," that advisory said. 

At 12:40 p.m., Google said the problem had been resolved for most users: "Gmail service has already been restored for some users, and we expect a resolution for all users in the near future. Please note this time frame is an estimate and may change." 

User complaints

The website DownDetector.uk, which monitors "when services go down or have outages", reported a spike in the number of people complaining about outages for Gmail.

"911 my work gmail is down and I actually have stuff I need to get done ASAP," one Twitter user posted.

Another tweeted: "Chaos = when @gmail is down," the Express of London reported.

Widespread problems hit Google's popular Gmail service late this morning, Eastern Time. There was no immediate explanation from Google, but users flooded s...

Google nixes big ads that obscure mobile content

Sites that use 'interstitial' ads may feel the sting, but most approve of Google's move

In web jargon, an "interstitial" ad is one that blocks all or most of the content you're trying to look at. They're extremely annoying and are among the most hated type of advertising -- especially when they're on wireless sites.

It's not just consumers who are annoyed. Google is giving publishers until Jan. 10 to get rid of interstiatials or suffer the consequences, which presumably would mean reduced search rankings.

"Google's goal has always been to take their users from A to B as quickly as possible, in a way that best satisfies a user's search intent – basically, 'here is your answer,'" said Mike Dobbs, VP of SEO at the trade conference 360i, according to a report in AdAge.

Dobbs said such ads are "intrusive" and can "create a poor user experience."

Some exceptions 

In a blog post, Google said there are exceptions, including interstitials to verify people's ages, dialogues to sign into a paywall, and banners that use "a reasonable amount of screen space."

Advertising executives and marketers are generally on board with the change, especially given the growing use of ad-blockers, which strike fear and loathing into the hearts of ad execs.

However, not everyone thinks Google should be the web's standard-setter.

"Many publishers and marketers using interstitials already feel Google meddles with their consumer relationships and of course, don't like that Google is in a position to be judge, jury and executioner," said Kevin Lee, executive chairman and co-founder of Didit, a full-service digital agency that specializes in search, AdAge reported.

Others noted that Google itself serves full-page interstitial ads on its AdMob mobile app advertising network, though perhaps it won't be doing so by next January.

Google provided these examplesIn web jargon, an "interstitial" ad is one that blocks all or most of the content you're trying to look at. They're ext...

Why ransomware is about to get more dangerous

Attackers are franchising their malware

Hackers may be forgiven if they think they have hit the jackpot. Their ransomware attacks, which began a few years ago, have proven to be money in the bank.

Victims who are unfortunate enough to click on a link in an email download a program that encrypts every file on their computer or network. They can access nothing until they pay a Bitcoin ransom – usually a few hundred dollars, and receive a key to unlock their files.

Besides individual consumers, attackers also target corporations and organizations that might not have the most sophisticated protocols in place. It's a scam that pays off just about every time.

New and dangerous wrinkle

Now, there's a new and dangerous wrinkle that has law enforcement officials even more worried. Symantec reports some clever ransomware developers have created a Trojan called Shark. The software is being provided to hackers who want to get into the ransomware game.

It's a turnkey product, meaning the novice hacker doesn't have to possess a lot of special skills to launch the attacks. The developers of Shark get 20% of any ransoms collected.

In other words, the ransomware enterprise appears to be evolving into a franchise. Shark is essentially the McDonald's of ransomware.

Exploding threat

That means this growing cyber threat could explode in the coming months. To try and counter it, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) is convening a technology seminar September 7 to explore ways to deal with the growing threat.

In the meantime, the FTC says businesses and consumers need to exercise extreme caution with email, even messages that appear to be from familiar sources. Clicking on links in these messages can lead to paying a ransom to free the files.

Beyond using care in handling emails, the FTC says a good defense against ransomware is backing up everything on a system. However, if you back up to an external hard drive, disconnect it from your system when you aren't in the process of backing up files. That's because ransomware encrypts every file in your system, including those on other connected drives.

Hackers may be forgiven if they think they have hit the jackpot. Their ransomware attacks, which began a few years ago, have proven to be money in the bank...

Google may be looking at a low-Fiber diet

Digging trenches is expensive and slow, the advertising powerhouse is learning

A high-fiber diet is good for you, but it can also cause indigestion, as Google and its parent company, Alphabet, are learning. For years, Google has been talking about how it is just about to lay fiber to deliver high-speed broadband in cities across America.

But like so many others before it, the advertising giant may be discovering that digging up streets and climbing poles isn't as much fun, or as profitable, as many of the alternatives. The telecom business is about 150 years old and, while transmission technologies have advanced, the basic tools of the trade are still the backhoe and a good set of spikes for scampering up poles. It's what's called capital intensive. 

While no one denies that fiber is the fastest terrestrial delivery system for broadband communications, the key word may be terrestrial. Verizon, which sort of wrote the book on broadband fiber, quit somewhere around Chapter 3. 

Verizon's FiOS is popular in the cities where it's available, just as Google Fiber is popular in Kansas City, Kans., Austin, Texas, and a few other places. But Verizon now has its eye on 5G -- wireless delivery that some of its boosters say will be as fast or even faster than fiber and a lot cheaper to deploy and operate. Other carriers have similar strategies.

Although the always secretive Alphabet isn't saying so, it's generally thought that its initial roll-outs took a lot longer and cost a lot more than it expected. Whether Alphabet has the appetite to digest an entire menu of fiber-starved cities is the question of the day. The Wall Street Journal reports today that Alphabet has told local officials in several cities that it is slowing its fiber deployment. 

Last-mile expense

All of the major telecom and cable firms have for years used various strategies to avoid the expense of running fiber to every single customer -- the dread "last-mile" expense that far exceeds the costs of building the network "backbone."

Many have adopted what is generally called "fiber-to-the-curb" strategies that run fiber into a neighborhood, then use coax or other lower-speed cable to reach individual subscribers.   

Was Google naive in thinking it could dig trenches more cheaply than AT&T? Maybe, but there are those who think its strategic goal in launching Google Fiber was to spur established players to get the lead (or copper) out and put more fiber into their networks. That strategy has actually played out in several of the cities where Google Fiber is now operating or promised, thus presenting the company with the opportunity to declare victory and withdraw. 

It's equally likely that Alphabet, which was created to bring some business discipline to the rather free-wheeling Google culture, is simply looking at options that would achieve its ultimate goal -- widely deployed high-speed broadband that delivers Google ads flawlessly -- in a more cost-effective way.

It's not the only adjustment underway in Mountain View. Like a player preparing for a new hand of Scrabble, Alphabet has been shuffling its players and priorities the last few months. Several key executives have left, including those who headed up the automated car and Nest thermostat projects. It's not surprising there would be adjustments in Fiber, thought to be its most costly new-business gamble.  

A high-fiber diet is good for you, but it can also cause indigestion, as Google and its parent company, Alphabet, are learning. For years, Google has been ...

Facebook will let you block specific ads but will be blocking ad blockers

It sounds confusing, but Facebook says it's trying to empower consumers

Facebook is coming down on both sides of consumer protection with its latest update. It's making it easier for consumers to control what ads they see while at the same time making it harder for them to use ad blockers.

"We’ve all experienced a lot of bad ads: ads that obscure the content we’re trying to read, ads that slow down load times or ads that try to sell us things we have no interest in buying. Bad ads are disruptive and a waste of our time," said Facebook VP Andrew Bosworth in a blog posting

To help with the bad-ad issue, Facebook is introducing new ad preference controls that let consumers block ads from specific companies. The controls will show you the advertisers that have you on their email lists and give you the option to block ads from those companies. 

You can also block entire categories of ads -- for exaxmple, ads based on interests such as cars or, let's say, cats.

Blocking the blockers

Bosworth says the change are intended, at least in part, to remove one of the primary motivations for using ad blockers.

"We’ve designed our ad formats, ad performance and controls to address the underlying reasons people have turned to ad blocking software. When we asked people about why they used ad blocking software, the primary reason we heard was to stop annoying, disruptive ads," Bosworth said. "As we offer people more powerful controls, we’ll also begin showing ads on Facebook desktop for people who currently use ad blocking software."

Bosworth said ad blockers are among the factors that are causing financial hardship for struggling websites said their growth "reduces the funding needed to support the journalism and other free services that we enjoy on the web."

You might not think of Facebook as journalism, but Bosworth says it is "one of those free services, and ads support our mission of giving people the power to share and making the world more open and connected."

It's estimated that at least a quarter of desktop users are running ad blockers, a practice most publishers regard as theft. 

Facebook is coming down on both sides of consumer protection with its latest update. It's making it easier for consumers to control what ads it sees while ...

Feds push for stronger paid content disclosures

Some paid content isn't adequately labeled and some aren't even true

On the heels of Facebook's crackdown on “clickbait” in its news feeds, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) is reportedly eying paid celebrity posts on social media that aren't disclosed as advertisements.

Bloomberg News reports that the FTC plans to lean on advertisers to make it plainly clear when a celebrity is being paid to endorse a product.

It's most likely a reaction to a trend in which the internet has become more commercial, more gimmicky, and more annoying. It's hard to open a news story these days without an ad popping up or a video beginning to play automatically.

Michael Ostheimer, an FTC offical, told Bloomberg that the agency has long been interested in deceptive endorsements and that social media, and its strong influence and impact, just magnifies the problem. The agency, he says, wants to make sure that when a celebrity takes to Twitter to sing the praises of a product, it's genuine or clearly marked as an ad.

Warner Bros. settlement

A case in point is Warner Bros. Home Entertainment's campaign video game Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor. The company ended up settling with the FTC after the agency charged it failed to let consumers know that it paid a number of online “influencers” to post positive gameplay videos on YouTube and social media. The FTC found that these sponsored videos were viewed more than 5.5 million times.

Under the settlement, Warner Bros. agreed to always make product endorsement disclosures in the future. Further, it cannot misrepresent content that it has paid to produce as genuine or organic.

“Consumers have the right to know if reviewers are providing their own opinions or paid sales pitches,” Jessica Rich, director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection, said as she announced the settlement last month. “Companies like Warner Bros. need to be straight with consumers in their online ad campaigns.”

Not even close to being true

It turns out some paid content, adequately labeled or not, isn't even true. Internet readers no doubt have seen the headline “Tragedy In Hollywood: Melissa McCarthy gone too soon.”

First, the headline makes it seem that the actress has died. She hasn't. Those who click on the headline are told that CBS cancelled McCarthy's sitcom, “Mike and Molly,” because she lost so much weight taking a diet pill.

Snopes.com, the renowned debunker of internet myths, says the story is not true.

“Although this article is presented as a news story, it's nothing more than a scammy ad for a weight loss pill called Garcinia Complex,” the website declares. The actress has not endorsed this pill, used this pill to lose weight, nor offered positive feedback about it.

The way it was

This was less of an issue in the old media world. Newspapers had a longstanding tradition of separating editorial content from advertising. Television infomercials were clearly described as such. In the early 1960s, the government cracked down on radio “payola,” the practice of record companies rewarding radio stations to play certain records, in an effort to boost sales.

But as consumers have abandoned old media and gravitated to the online world, advertising dollars have followed, in search of ways to make inroads. In the absence of clear boundaries, these dollars appear to be pushing the envelope of what's acceptable, or even legal. Sponsored content is everywhere, often causing confusion among consumers who aren't always clear on what's real and what's Madison Avenue.

While some sponsored content is clearly marked, it appears the FTC will look harder for content that isn't.

On the heels of Facebook's crackdown on “clickbait” in its news feeds, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) is reportedly eying paid celebrity posts on socia...

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 ...

Why would Mark Zuckerberg tape over his web camera?

Maybe because the inter-connected world is full of threats

Mark Zuckerberg made news this week when he posted a picture of himself at his desk. The news was supposed to be Instagram's announcement of 500 million active users.

But what made news was the laptop computer in the background, presumably Zuckerberg's, that appeared to show a piece of tape over the built-in camera. Why would Zuckerberg do that, if indeed he did?

Perhaps because of the pervasive and growing presence of malware threats, some of which are capable of taking over a device's camera and microphone. If Zuckerberg taped over his camera, he's not alone. Plenty of high-profile people do – and for good reason.

High-profile targets

Hackers are more sophisticated and actively target high profile people. Also this week, Bloomberg News reported that Russian hackers appeared to have targeted the Clinton Foundation computer network, as well as systems operated by the Democratic National Committee.

The news agency says the data breach was first discovered last week. It reported the Clinton Foundation had not been officially notified and had no comment.

The headlines from a single week serve to underscore vulnerabilities of an inter-connected world, from major institutions to a single consumer checking email at home.

Ransomware

These days, computer users large and small fear the threat of ransomware. When a hacker tricks someone into opening an attachment or clicking on a link, this software can take over a computer or network and lock it down.

The only way for the victim to regain use of his or her files is to pay a ransom to the hackers. In recent months, ransomware hackers have targeted hospitals, with some measure of success.

“The threat of ransomware is very real and IT professionals are increasingly realizing traditional solutions are failing,” said Stu Sjouwerman, CEO of KnowBe4. “IT pros agree that end-user security awareness training is one of the most effective security practices to combat these ransomware threats.”

KnowBe4 has just released a study covering two years, measuring awareness and concern of the ransomware threat. It found that 79% of organizations it surveyed are “extremely concerned” about ransomware threats.

What was more eye-opening, the survey found that 38% of the organizations in the survey had already been hit by ransomware.

Older threats still around

Meanwhile, Sophos, a security software firm, says older malware threats are still prevalent and might even been more dangerous than ransomware. Writing in its Naked Security blog, the company notes that when you're hit with ransomware, you know it right away.

But if a hacker tricks you into downloading a keylogger, it might be weeks before you discovered it. Since a keylogger records keystrokes on a computer, a hacker can then get access to log-ins and passwords to bank accounts and other sensitive information.

McAfee, another security software company, reports a rise in a nasty little thing called Pinkslopbot, a backdoor trojan with worm-like abilities that also targets passwords. The company said it believed the malware was defeated in 2013, but that it has returned with a vengeance.

The best defense against these threats might ultimately be some healthy paranoia – the type Zuckerberg may have displayed this week. Be extremely careful about handling attachments – even from known sources.

It's also never a good idea to click on links in emails. If you want to visit a site, it's much safer to navigate to it yourself, either by typing in a url or by using a search engine.

Mark Zuckerberg made news this week when he posted a picture of himself at his desk. The news was supposed to be Instagram's announcement of 500 million ac...

How secure is the Internet of Things?

Experian says consumers should be concerned about the proliferation of connected products

No longer do we just have the internet, a way to connect computers, tablets, and smartphones.

Now, all manner of devices – cars, home appliances, even heart monitors – are connected, in an environment that has come to be called the Internet of Things (IoT).

Security firms have a hard enough time keeping your PC secure, so the question may arise, just how secure is your thermostat, and all the other products that work in the IoT universe?

Not very, says Experian. The company notes too many of these connected products are vulnerable because of weak security and controls. That, it says, can create points of weakness in users' critical private networks, systems, and data that are ripe for exploitation.

Strong as the weakest link

"The Internet of Things is only as strong as its weakest link, and it is important to fully understand what an interconnected environment means," said Adam Fingersh, senior vice president and general manager of Experian's fraud and identity business.

Weak security controls on connected products dramatically increase the chances for cybercriminals to hack inside your connected products and gain entry into your broader systems.

"As more and more products are connected, a casual mindset about the security risks inherent in IoT can create significant risk,” Fingersh said.

What to do

Experian has developed some proactive steps for both consumers and businesses. The company first suggests that consumers only buy products that operate in the IoT environment from reputable sources. An unvetted source could sell you a product with malware preloaded.

As you research a product that connects to the internet, make sure you understand the company's privacy policy and how they intend to use any data they collect from you. Data from any IoT device could end up with a third party and might be used for a variety of purposes.

Ask how access to these systems are controlled and guarded. If devices are enabled for downloading apps, exercise the same caution you would on your smartphone – download only from reputable providers.

Fingersh says the bar may be set higher for businesses. He says businesses tend to be bigger targets, and therefore should look at any IoT product it deploys within its system as a potential threat.

No longer do we just have the internet, a way to connect computers, tablets, and smartphones.Now, all manner of devices – cars, home appliances, even h...

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 ...

Adblock hits 100 million users; advertisers call it extortion

The company's "whitelist" lets some ads -- those that pay -- squeak through

Adblock Plus says it has passed 100 million users and presents this as a feat that has restored sanity and calm to the web. The head of an advertising trade group says it's "an extortion-based business and hurts publishers.” 

Who's right? Maybe both.

Adblock head of operations Ben Williams argues that there is nothing cast in stone that says publishing needs to be supported by a torrent of ads.

"The pioneers of the world wide web envisioned it as a public service, and it existed as such for a couple of years," Williams says on the company's blog. "Then came the ads, and with them the false notion that journalism and other content on this very public medium must be reliant on ads."

Try telling that to Interactive Advertising Bureau CEO Randall Rothenberg.

Noting that most publishers still earn the majority of their revenue from online ads, Rothenberg grumbled that AdBlock Plus is in the business of taking the revenue that these publishers should earn in order to “divert it into their own pockets.”

Some ads squeak through

He's talking about Adblocker's "whitelist" -- a program that lets some ads squeak through the company's ad roadblocks. These are supposedly ads that users don't find offensive. Translation: Adblocker gets a percentage of the payment that goes to the publisher. Hence Rothenberg's "extortion" comment.

Rothenberg is actually somewhat more conciliatory than he sounds. At a recent ad conference, he admitted that some ads are intrusive and others slow down page-loading and said his group is working with advertisers to correct that. He also said that, its 100-million-user claim notwithstanding, Adblocker and similar companies are not having a huge effect on websites, except those in the tech and gaming sector.

The 100 million figure, by the way, doesn't necessarily translate to 100 million people. Williams says his company's "stupid smart data scientists" count each download to a device as a user. Thus, a person who runs Adblock Plus on a laptop, smartphone and tablet would count as three users.

Adblock Plus says it has passed 100 million users and presents this as a feat that has restored sanity and calm to the web. The head of an advertising trad...

Comcast announces plan to increase its monthly data caps

Critics say that it falls far short of what consumers really want, though

Comcast is raising the data cap for broadband customers on its “unlimited” plans to 1 terabyte per month from the current 300 gigabytes, saying the change will provide more headroom as streaming video and other bandwidth-hungry applications take off, but critics say the plan falls short.

“Today, more than 99 percent of our customers do not come close to using a terabyte. Our typical customer uses only 60 gigabytes of data in a month,” the company said.

Unfortunately, going over their data limits is something that Comcast customers have been doing much more of in recent years. In 2013, the company estimated that 2% of its customers went over their data cap. With the growth of streaming, that number had quadrupled to 8% by the end of 2015. With a $10 charge incurred for every 50 GB a customer goes over on the data limit, those fees can start to add up.

Missing the point?

Although Comcast may like to bill this plan change as progressive, critics argue that it falls far short of what consumers actually want – namely, no data cap at all. While it may be difficult for customers to go over the data limit with existing streaming or internet systems, it may not be that way for long, with all the technologies that are around the corner.

A report from Gizmodo points out that the emergence of “ultra-high-def” 4k content and innovations in virtual reality could make the new data ceiling completely inadequate. If that does eventually become the case, then customers will have to swallow the increased prices on unlimited data that are also being rolled out with the data plan change; instead of paying an extra $30 to $35 per month, consumers who want the unlimited option will now be paying an extra $50 per month.

Consumers rate Comcast Internet Service

Additionally, changes to the data cap fail to address issues that consumers have reported with the company’s billing, service, and customer support. Brandeeyes in Oakridge, Tenn., details her problems with the service in a ConsumerAffairs review.

“Always freezing up and the customer service is unreliable to say the least. Was told I’d be moved to unlimited data free of charge and 2 months later a charge of 55 was on my account raising my bill to 240 a month,” she said.

Still in testing

According to a report by Ars Technica, the new cap limits will not be rolled out immediately. Instead, Comcast plans to test them in select markets starting June 1 before rolling them out nationwide.

The areas that will be tested include various cities in Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Central Kentucky, Louisiana, Maine, Mississippi, Tennessee, South Carolina, and Virginia.

Comcast is raising the data cap for broadband customers on its “unlimited” plans to 1 terabyte per month from the current 300 gigabytes, saying the change ...

New broadband labels intended to make buying decisions simpler

Customers will know the price, data limits and speed of the service they're buying

If you buy a pound of ground beef at the supermarket, you don't expect to weigh it later and find it weighs only half a pound. That's the principle two federal agencies are trying to apply to broadband internet service.

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) today announced new "labels" for broadband service that will give consumers information about price, data allowances, and speed.

“These labels provide consumers clarity about the broadband service they are purchasing, not only helping them to make more informed choices but also preventing surprises when the first bill arrives,” said FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler. “Customers deserve to know the price they will actually pay for a service and to be fully aware of other components such as data limits and performance factors before they sign up for service.”

The labels will include:

  • Price: Price points, including various charges that seem confusing to consumers like overage, equipment, early termination, and administrative fees.
  • Data Allowances: This is the carrier-defined plan limit after which consumers will face some consequence, such as additional charges or slowed data speeds.
  • Performance: Broadband speed and other performance metrics.  

Everyday life

“Consumers deserve to know before they owe, with clear, upfront information about the prices, risks, and terms of the deal,” said CFPB Director Cordray. “Broadband is quickly becoming a necessary part of everyday life for millions of consumers. [These labels] will help people understand what they are getting before they sign up.”

The FCC said it receives more than 2,000 complaints annually about surprise fees associated with consumers’ internet service bills. The actual prices paid for broadband-related services can be as much as 40% greater than what is advertised after taxes and fees are added to a bill, according to consumer complaints. 

With the average monthly cost of broadband service ranging between $60 and $70, consumers deserve to know what they are going to get for their money, Wheeler said.

If you buy a pound of ground beef at the supermarket, you don't expect to weigh it later and find it weighs only half a pound. That's the principle two fed...

FCC setting privacy rules for Internet services

The agency also approved a monthly broadband subsidy for low-income consumers

Broadband carriers aren't happy about it but the Federal Communications Commission has voted to craft new privacy rules on how Internet service providers can use customer data.

Websites and other services that use the Internet are already required by the Federal Trade Commission to safeguard consumer identities. The FCC rule would apply to carriers like Comcast, Verizon and AT&T.

The new rules would require Internet service providers to gain customer permission before using or sharing their data. "It's the consumers' information," said FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler, "and the consumer should have the right to determine how it's used."

The service providers don't see it that way. USTelecom, a trade group, took to Twitter to denounce the rules as a "naked power grab."

But Meredith Rose, staff attorney at Public Knowledge, said the proposed rules would be "a step forward to protecting consumers’ economic and dignitary rights in their own data."

Rose said that without such rules, "consumers face a very real threat of having personal data exposed, sold to third parties without their knowledge, or misused in other fashions." 

Lifeline subsidy

The commission also voted to extend a monthly $9.25 subsidy to low-income Americans to help them afford broadband service. It's an effort to close the "digital divide."

"There remains a digital divide that keeps a significant number of Americans from participating" in the many benefits of the Internet, Wheeler, a Democrat, said.

The Lifeline program previously was used to subsidize telephone service for people who can't afford it. Consumers will now be able to apply the subsidy to wired or wireless broadband service, including bundled voice-and-data packages.

It's expected to be available by Dec. 1.

Netflix throttle

The commission also took note of the recent controversy involving Netflix, which has been throttling its own video feeds on mobile networks such as Verizon and AT&T.

Wheeler said the action does not violate net neutrality. "It is outside of open Internet. We do not regulate edge providers," Wheeler said. 

There is nothing new about Netflix' action. It has long said that it adjusts the download speed of its streaming video feeds to suit the capability of the end user's network. It's intended to help wireless users avoid blowing through their monthly data caps. 

Slowing the feed can also smooth out bumps for users on slow or congested networks whose feeds would otherwise be interrupted for buffering.

Broadband carriers aren't happy about it but the Federal Communications Commission has voted to craft new privacy rules on how Internet service providers c...

Microsoft will build ad blocker into Edge browser

Consumers' impatience with obtrusive ads gets harder to ignore

The war against obtrusive Internet advertising is going from a guerrilla conflict to shock and awe, with no less a titan than Microsoft announcing that it will build an ad-blocker into the next edition of its Edge browser, which is included with Windows 10. 

The change could be effective as early as next month.

Smaller browsers like Opera and Brave already come with ad-blocking built in and it's easy to add to Mozilla's Firefox and Google's Chrome. Apple allows a third-party ad blocker on its Safari mobile browser.

But no one of the stature of Microsoft has previously offered ad-blocking as a standard feature. It's not only a sign of the impatience of consumers who are fed up with slow-loading pages and intrusive pop-ups but also of the growing awareness of safety risks.

Highly respectable sites including The New York Times and AOL have accidentally distributed ads infected with malware, CNET noted in its report of Microsoft's plans, as revealed at a conference in San Francisco Wednesday.

Many consumers who are sympathetic to publications' need to support themselves through advertising are nevertheless driven to use ad blockers.

"I'm perfectly willing to look at ads when I'm on FiOS or some other fast connection but when I'm stuck with Time Warner in Southern California, all bets are off," a ConsumerAffairs colleague said. "My very expensive connection is so slow it literally takes me twice as long to get my work done." 

Message to advertisers: put some pressure on broadband carriers to deliver on their promised speeds.

The war against obtrusive Internet advertising is going from a guerrilla conflict to shock and awe, with no less a titan than Microsoft announcing that it ...

Broadband Internet subsidy proposed for low-income consumers

FCC will consider expanding the current Lifeline program

Federal Communication Commission (FCC) Chairman Tom Wheeler has proposed an expansion of the FCC's Lifeline program to include help in paying for broadband Internet service.

The full commission will consider the proposal at a March 31 meeting.

The Lifeline program began in 1985, making subsidies available to low-income consumers to offset the cost of telephone service. The idea being that in the 1980s everyone needed access to telephone service.

The communication landscape has changed a bit since then and Wheeler says the program needs to be modernized to meet 21st century communication needs.

The program was updated in 2005, when Lifeline discounts were made available to qualifying low-income consumers on pre-paid wireless service plans, in addition to traditional landline service. The money comes from the Universal Service Fund, a small fee every telephone customer pays.

Affordability issue

The plan proposed by Wheeler and Commissioner Mignon Clyburn addresses the affordability issue, expanding Lifeline to enable low-income consumers to apply the $9.25 per month support to stand-alone broadband service as well as bundled voice and data service packages.

Wheeler says the change would free up the Lifeline marketplace to encourage wide participation in the program by broadband providers, giving consumers competitive service options. Under the plan, Internet providers would have to meet minimum service standards in the service they provide to Lifeline participants.

If participants were offered a measured broadband service, the minimum monthly fixed broadband usage allowance would be 150 GB.

The Lifeline program is available to eligible low-income consumers in every state, territory, commonwealth, and on Tribal lands. Consumers with proper proof of eligibility may be qualified to enroll.

To participate, consumers must either have an income that is at or below 135% of the federal poverty guidelines or participate in a public assistance program.

For more information about eligibility for the Lifeline program, click here.

Federal Communication Commission (FCC) Chairman Tom Wheeler has proposed an expansion of the FCC's Lifeline program to include help in paying for broadband...

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...

Expansion of Lifeline telephone subsidy to include broadband moves forward

Coalition of public interest groups and broadband providers add their support to FCC efforts

For nearly as long as there have been telephones, there have been attempts to achieve the goal of "universal service" -- making telephone service available to everyone. There's growing agreement that it's time to expand that effort to broadband Internet service. 

In the latest move, a coalition of 17 public interest groups and six broadband providers have announced their support of the Federal Communications Commission’s goal of bringing the Lifeline phone subsidy program into the modern era by extending the subsidy to broadband service.

Lifeline is a Reagan-era government benefit program that provides a discount on monthly telephone service for eligible low-income subscribers to help ensure they can connect to the nation's communications networks. It is supported by the federal Universal Service Fund (USF).

"There is near unanimous agreement among broadband providers, public interest advocates, and public officials from all levels of government that the FCC should modernize the Lifeline program to make broadband Internet access more affordable for low-income Americans struggling to get online," said Phillip Berenbroick, Counsel for Government Affairs at the non-profit group Public Knowledge.

"Government reports demonstrate that cost is a significant factor preventing Americans from going online to access education, employment, job training, and health care resources," Berenbroick said.

In a letter to the FCC, the groups say “it is time that Lifeline eligible consumers have the opportunity to use their benefit to reduce the cost of subscribing to broadband Internet access service.”

"No good reason"

FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler said last month that the commission was close to finalizing an overhaul of the Reagan-era subsidy program, saying there was “no good reason” that updates to the Lifeline program shouldn’t go forward.

Proposed updates to Lifeline are a key part of the FCC’s plans to address the “digital divide” and should receive a final vote soon, Wheeler said in a speech at think tank New America.

For nearly as long as there have been telephones, there have been attempts to achieve the goal of "universal service" -- making telephone service available...

Google Fiber burrowing into San Francisco

That brings to 10 the number of cities on Google's gigabit path

The race to upgrade broadband delivery is heating up with today's announcement by Google that it is accelerating its move into San Francisco by using existing fiber to drop service into selected apartment and condo buildings and some public housing complexes in the city.

It announced a similar plan in Huntsville, Alabama, earlier this week, saying it would offer service via a municipal fiber network now being built there.

Google first used the "drop-in" service method in Atlanta, where AT&T has been rolling out its GigaPower service and Comcast is offering its 2-gigabit Gigabit Pro service. 

Google Fiber has set up a website where consumers can check on whether -- and when -- the high-speed service may be available on their block. 

After a decade or so in which telecom and cable companies have pretty much divided the country to suit themselves, Google and other upstarts are bringing competition to the broadband delivery business, coming in on top of existing carriers.

With the addition of San Francisco, Google Fiber says it has now committed to build out its high-speed gigabit services to ten metro areas.  It is also exploring expansions in Chicago; Portland, OR.; Los Angeles, San Jose, Irvine and San Diego, CA.; Phoenix; Oklahoma City; Louisville, KY.; and Jacksonville and Tampa, FL.

The race to upgrade broadband delivery is heating up with today's announcement by Google that it is accelerating its move into San Francisco by using exist...

Social networks take 'unsubscribe me' honors

Coupon sites Groupon and LivingSocial send the most emails per user

We've all done it -- hit the little button that signs us up for "occasional" email updates, only to discover that we have voluntarily stepped in front of a fire hose. 

The deluge begins almost immediately, as we're flooded with emails about what others are saying, what our supposed friends are doing, and what obscure changes have been made to an app or site we've long since forgotten about.

The worst offenders? Social networks, according to Unroll.me, an online service that helps consumers unsubscribe from email lists they regret joining. 

StumbleUpon leads this year's Unroll.me report of the most-unsubscribed, with 43% of consumers opting out of receiving future email updates. Live Nation and Good Reads were close behind with 38% and 35%.

Foursquare, Twitter, and Classmates.com were runners-up.

Big senders

Unroll.me also tabulates the overachievers in the big sender category, with Groupon taking top honors this year, sending an average of 388 emails per person last year. Arch competitor LivingSocial was close behind with 363, followed by Facebook at 310.

Unroll.me claims to have stopped 4.6 billion emails through its service, and unsubscribed people from 423,234,234 email subscriptions over the past three years.

We've all done it -- hit the little button that signs us up for "occasional" email updates, only to discover that we have voluntarily stepped in front of a...

Google renames its Ideas think tank Jigsaw

The new name "acknowledges the world is a complex puzzle"

Google continues to sort out the pieces after reshuffling its corporate structure and naming its parent corporation Alphabet. Among the latest piece of the puzzle is a relabeling for Google Ideas, the search giant's think tank. It will henceforth be known as Jigsaw.

Alphabet executive chairman Eric Schmidt says Jigsaw will address some of humanity's most intractable problems, from countering violent extremism to online censorship,  to "expand access to information for the world’s most vulnerable populations and to defend against the world’s most challenging security threats," 

Some of Jigsaw's current initiatives include Project Shield, which harnesses Google’s computing infrastructure to protect independent voices from DDoS attacks; contributions to open-source efforts like uProxy, which lets people share access to the free and open internet; and Password Alert, which helps protect against phishing.
 
Some of the team’s other initiatives aim to counter money laundering, organized crime, police brutality, human trafficking, and terrorism.

But why call it Jigsaw?

"For one thing, the new name acknowledges that the world is a complex puzzle of physical and digital challenges. For another, it reflects our belief that collaborative problem-solving yields the best solutions," Schmidt said.

 “Staying true to its think tank roots," Schmidt wrote, “the team has also explored global challenges using data visualizations, such as the Digital Attack Map, which displays the top digital attacks in the world in real time, and the global arms visualization, which illuminates the global arms trade. Currently some of the team’s research is exploring hate and harassment online with the goal of substantially reducing it.”

Google continues to sort out the pieces after reshuffling its corporate structure and naming its parent corporation Alphabet. Among the latest piece of the...

AT&T announces its 5G roll out plans

Will join Verizon in field testing its technology later this year

Get ready for faster Internet speeds. AT&T says its customers can expect speeds 10 to 100 times faster than today’s average 4G LTE connections when it begins rolling out its 5G service.

The company said it will begin running field trials for the new service in Austin, Tex., later this year.

AT&T said 5G will change the way Internet speed is described. Instead of measuring it in megabytes per second (MPS) it will be measured in gigabytes per second (GPS). For reference, at one gigabit per second, the company says you will be able to download a TV show in less than three seconds.

“New experiences like virtual reality, self-driving cars, robotics, smart cities and more are about to test networks like never before,” John Donovan, Chief Strategy Officer and Group President of AT&T Technology and Operations, said in a release.

Traffic up 150,000%

Already, AT&T says it's existing networks have been put to the test. It says data traffic on its wireless network grew more than 150,000% from 2007 through 2015, driven largely by video.

Last year, it said more than 60% of the data traffic on its total network was video. That traffic is only going to grow.

“4K video, virtual reality, and IoT will drive the next wave of traffic growth,” the company said in a press release. “5G is ideal for those bandwidth-hungry applications because it will support multiple radio interfaces, enable more spectrum efficiency, and take advantage of SDN and network function virtualization (NFV).”

Verizon laid out its 5G plans last September. At the time, it said it's field trials would also begin this year.

At the time, it said it anticipates speeding up the expected 2020 launch date, when most industry sources predict 5G's U.S. launch.  

Get ready for faster Internet speeds. AT&T says its customers can expect speeds 10 to 100 times faster than today’s average 4G LTE connections when it begi...

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 ...

Video ads will now top your Twitter feed

"First View" video ads will be at the top of the queue when users first sign into Twitter each day

Twitter has been pretty much a text-based service since its inception, with the usual ads and photos interspersed here and there.

But that's about to change. Twitter is introducing a new ad product that will blast a video ad your way the first time you open Twitter each day.

It's called First View, and it is being promoted as the kind of premium ad Twitter has been lacking until now -- "premium" in this sense meaning expensive. 

"Now, marketers can tell a powerful visual story across the Twitter audience," Twitter tweeted in a prepared statement. "Today we’re introducing First View: an engaging and highly visible way to share your brand story with compelling video creative across Twitter’s massive audience."

Critics have been tweeting dire warnings of Twitter's demise lately and the company is obviously hoping First View helps turn that perception around.

For Twitter fans, it simply means that once each day, the first time you open Twitter, there will be a video ad sitting atop your feed. 

First View will be video-only initially, but Twitter says it may allow other types of ads in the future.

Twitter has been pretty much a text-based service since its inception, with the usual ads and photos interspersed here and there.But that's about to ch...

Wired blocks ad-blocking readers

"Pay up or else," the popular techie site tells free-loaders

The ad-blocking epidemic is an annoyance for larger website publishers, like newspapers and TV networks, but it's threatening to choke off smaller and more specialized websites, even some of the most popular ones. 

Wired is fighting back. After calculating that more than one in five of its readers are using ad-blocking software, Wired is challenging those readers to either pay up or go away.

Wired says it will charge $3.99 for four weeks of ad-free access to its site -- less than $1 a week -- when the change becomes effective sometime in the next few weeks.

In places where ads now appear, those who pay the $3.99 will see more articles and information, said Mark McClusky, the site's head of product and business development. 

The site's editors explain it this way in a note to readers:

"At WIRED, we believe that change is good. Over the past 23 years, we’ve pushed the boundaries of media, from our print magazine to launching the first publishing website. We even invented the banner ad. We’re going to continue to experiment to find new ways to bring you the stories you love and to build a healthy business that supports the storytelling. We hope you’ll join us on this journey. We’d really appreciate it."

Wired executives don't know whether the subscription fee will work -- and even if it does, they're not sure it will replace the advertising revenue that's being lost to ad blockers.

The move is seen as bold but overdue by many in the business. Ad-blocking, after all, is basically the same as stealing a newspaper from the rack or downloading a pirated song or movie. 

More publishers had been expected to block ad-blockers after Apple began allowing blockers in its app store, but one estimate says fewer than four percent of sites have done so.

The ad-blocking epidemic is an annoyance for larger website publishers, like newspapers and TV networks, but it's threatening to choke off smaller and more...

Comcast's gigabit Internet service headed to five more cities

More carriers are shooting for the gigabit mark as broadband demand grows

Comcast is the latest carrier to announce big plans for 1-gigabit Internet service, saying it will bring the service to Atlanta, Nashville, Chicago, Detroit, and Miami this year.

Google and AT&T; are expanding their lists of gigabit cities and there are several start-ups and newcomers claiming to have solved the problem of deploying super-speedy broadband service quickly and relatively cheaply.

Comcast's service, dubbed DOCSIS 3.1, gets more bandwidth out of existing circuitry, meaning that if it works as advertised, Comcast can deploy it without having to string new cable, an expensive and time-consuming process.

Last month, Comcast announced it had successfully installed its first DOCSIS 3.1 modem in Philadelphia, and one was installed in Atlanta a few days later.

"DOCSIS 3.1 represents a tremendous step forward in our commitment to keeping customers at the technology forefront," said Comcast Central Division President, Bill Connors. "Combined with all the upgrades we have already put into our advanced fiber optic-coax network, this technology will not only provide more gigabit speed choices for customers, it will also eventually make these ultra-fast speeds available to the most homes in our service areas."

Pricing for DOCSIS 3.1 hasn't been announced. 

Starry-eyed

Among the more widely noted start-ups is Starry, which announced its launch in Boston last week. Starry uses wireless technology that relies on extreme high-frequency signals to transmit data over a short distance. It essentially plans to use customer antennas as repeaters to spread its service throughout dense urban areas like New York and Boston.

Skeptics are, well, skeptical. Experts say it is difficult to string together networks in the manner Starry anticipates, but Starry CEO Chet Kanojia says he's confident his idea will work.

Kanojia is best known as the former CEO of Aereo, a streaming video service that used an innovative -- or, if you prefer, unusual -- technology to relay over-the-air TV signals to consumers via the Internet. Aereo crashed and burned after legal tussles over copyright issues.

Comcast is the latest carrier to announce big plans for 1-gigabit Internet service, saying it will bring the service to Atlanta, Nashville, Chicago, Detroi...

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...

Twitter unveils new feature to turn consumer tweets into advertisements

Advertisers will be able to look through a gallery of brand-related tweets, but can only use them at the author's discretion

Consumers are becoming increasingly more reliant on social media when it comes to their shopping habits. If a friend writes a negative review of a product or service, many people would be more likely to avoid taking advantage of it. Conversely, if someone you know writes something very positive about a product or service (and you can reasonably trust their reliability), then you might be more likely to give it a try for yourself.

It is this latter case that Twitter will undoubtedly be looking to take advantage of. According to a Digiday report, the social media giant will soon be collecting user tweets about products and using them in their advertising campaigns. Companies who will be looking to take advantage of the feature were reportedly able to check it out at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) this past week.

Twitter is building the feature around its “brand enthusiast gallery”, a source of brand-related tweets from users that advertisers can search through and use. Privacy hounds take ease, though – Twitter promises to directly message the author of a post for permission before allowing it to be used in an advertisement.

When applied, this feature will be able to change the old paradigm that has been used for product advertising. For a long time, commercials and other ads used popular figures like celebrities to endorse their products and gain consumer trust. Switching the onus to be on the consumer will allow shoppers to see what people in their area think of a product, which could be potentially more valuable, according to the Digiday report.

The release date for the product is not yet known, but Twitter fanatics should be on the lookout. Those direct messages from pleading companies and advertisers could come at any time. 

Consumers are becoming increasingly more reliant on social media when it comes to their shopping habits. If a friend writes a negative review of a product ...

Old, slow telephone lines may soon be a lot faster

New technology brings super-fast upload and download speeds to copper lines

For ultra-fast Internet, you need fiber, right? Wrong, say promoters of a technology called G.Fast, which is creating quite a bit of buzz at the Consumer Electronics Show this year.

G.Fast produces Google Fiber-like speeds over plain old copper telephone lines. Think of it as DSL on steroids. It's actually been around awhile but has not been widely deployed, a situation that appears to be about to change.

Among those displaying G.Fast applications at the CES is Israeli chipmaker Sckipio, which staged a demonstration showing download speeds of nearly 750 megabits per second on a standard phone line using one of its modems. Chances are that's about 50 times faster than the broadband you have coming into your home via fiber or coax.

One big advantage of G.Fast is that its upload and download speeds are roughly equivalent.

“Most DSL and cable broadband technologies are unable to provide a higher ratio of upload to download speeds — making it very challenging to deliver next generation consumer services,” said David Baum, CEO of Sckipio Technologies. “Since user-generated content has increasingly become important, having fast upload is critical and this is a big advantage of G.fast.”

Flight time

In a press release, Baum said that at today’s upload speeds, it’d take the average broadband subscriber over five hours to upload a 30-second full-resolution, GoPro 4K video to YouTube — the same amount of time it would take to fly from Los Angeles to New York City. With the G.fast solution from Sckipio, consumers could upload the same video in 2.5 minutes — less time than it would take to brew a cup of coffee, he said.

Besides the faster upload speeds, G.Fast could offer an alternative to your broadband company. It could offer faster speeds than cable, FiOS, or AT&T Uverse.

The question, of course, is whether telephone companies will want to deploy the technology and compete not only with cable companies but also with themselves.

Sckipio says they will, if only to enable consumers to upgrade their service so as to take full advantage of all the new technologies being displayed at CES this year. 

Baum says he expects G.Fast to begin showing up in the U.S. later this year. 

For ultra-fast Internet, you need fiber, right? Wrong, say promoters of a technology called G.Fast, which is creating quite a bit of buzz at the Consumer E...

Have you made a digital resolution?

Here are three that may keep you more secure while online

Most New Years resolutions are quickly broken. Like that resolution to drop 10 pounds or watch less TV in the coming year.

But Michael Kaiser, Executive Director of the National Cyber Security Alliance (NCSA), says consumers should think about making – and keeping – some digital resolutions in 2016, to stay safer and more secure online.

"We live in a global, always-connected digital age, and everyone needs to adopt good habits to lead a safer, more secure online life," he said.

Kaiser says his organization has identified three reliable practices – or resolutions – that will keep people safer while they're connected.

Two-step authentication

The first is to turn on two-step authentication – also known as two-step verification or multi-factor authentication - to make their online accounts more secure.

Kaiser says many of the Internet's most popular email services, social networks, and financial institutions offer this key security step free of charge, but you must opt in to turn it on. Click here to learn more and view a list of the websites that offer two-step authentication.

Limit use of free WiFi

The second step is to limit use of free WiFi. Yes, it's convenient, but it is also not secure. Airports and coffee shops attract cyber-criminals who might look like they are casually browsing the web, but are actually trying to break into your computer to see what you're doing.

Kaiser would like consumers to limit what they do on public WiFi, and avoid logging in to key accounts like email and financial services.

Improve home security

The third step is to beef up home security. Just as you would protect it against burglars, Kaiser says you should take precautions to keep cyber-criminals out.

He says all households should take responsibility to keep their connected families safe by incorporating ongoing digital maintenance into household routines. Tips for parents can be found here.

In addition, keeping device software up to date and beefing up account passwords will make it easier to stay safe in 2016 and keep those digital resolutions.

Most New Years resolutions are quickly broken. Like that resolution to drop 10 pounds or watch less TV in the coming year.But Michael Kaiser, Executive...

Flooded with email? Just wait til next year

Marketers sent more email than ever this year but with meager results

Next to the constantly ringing landline, little is more irritating than the flood of promotional email, which reaches tidal surge levels during the holiday season.

And yet, consider this: despite a 68% increase in travel emails and a 36% increase in emails from retailers this year, the number of opens, clicks, transactions, and sales have been pretty much flat. 

"When we look at the holiday data, we clearly have a long way to go,” said Spencer Kollas, VP of global deliverability services at Experian Marketing Services, in a trade journal report

How bad is it? During the third quarter, marketing email volume was up nearly 25% over the previous year, while "engagement" rates were about the same.

The one bright spot Experian found for marketers was flash sales. In the third quarter, flash sales recorded 59% higher transaction rates than other retail campaigns.

Age of enlightenment

Despite the rather flat numbers this year, however, 2016 is likely to be the biggest year yet as email marketers develop new tools that let them more precisely target consumers, which could mean fewer but more appealing emails. You can thank social media for revealing all your likes and dislikes to marketers.

"We're starting to see the age of enlightenment in email,” said G.B. Heidarsson, CEO of eDataSource, a market research firm, in a Direct Marketing News report. “Brands are learning more about customers on social media and are connecting that data to the email stream.

Email experts say, in fact, that 2015 may have seen the crest of what are charmingly called "batcher-and-blaster emailers," those who indiscriminantly send emails for, let's say, snow shovels to people living in the desert. 

Scatter-shot emailing is giving way to "segmentation strategies" -- sending air-conditioner ads to desert dwellers, snow-shovel ads to Michiganders, and so forth. 

Heidarsson's firm says the number of "discrete promotional campaigns" was up 45% this year and is expected to continue rising next year.

Next to the constantly ringing landline, little is more irritating than the flood of promotional email, which reaches tidal surge levels during the holiday...

Verizon says 5G rollout will start in 2017

The network will reportedly be as fast as Google Fiber

Verizon Communications keeps dropping teases about its forthcoming 5G network, said to be capable of speeds 200 times faster than the network's current 5Mbps average.

That's about as fast as Google Fiber's 1Gbps and could spell trouble for Google as it tries to expand into the nation's biggest markets after successful roll-outs in smaller cities like Kansas City and Austin. AT&T; is also stepping up deployment of its 1Gbps network and says it will outbuild Google.   

Verizon CEO Lowell McAdam said at a recent Business Insider conference that the company will begin tests of 5G at its headquarters next month, planning for a slow commercial rollout in 2017.

Verizon said in September that the network would be arriving sooner than you might think, but McAdam's recent statements have lent a little more specificity to that promise. 

Assuming tests at its headquarters are successful, further testing will be done in Boston, San Francisco, and New York City before the network is made available commercially. 

Verizon Communications keeps dropping teases about its forthcoming 5G network, said to be capable of speeds 200 times faster than the network's current 5Mb...

Google Fiber, AT&T target major markets for fiber build-outs

Google has a list of conditions cities must agree to upfront, however

Google Fiber may be bringing its super fast one-gigabit Internet service to Los Angeles and Chicago, the nation's second- and third-largest cities. But first, the cities will have to agree to Google's list of conditions. AT&T, meanwhile, is taking a more proactive approach in a larger number of cities.

If Google's approach sounds a bit backwards, it's because it is. Normally, when a cable or Internet provider wants to wire a city, it has to apply and then meet a number of requirements. Most significantly, applicants usually have to agree to serve all of their service areas, not just the wealthy parts.

Google is having none of this, though. Its attitude is more along the lines that L.A. and Chicago will have to prove themselves worthy of becoming Google Fiber cities.

Google wants the cities to agree to an "efficient and predictable" permitting process. It also wants access to city property for network hubs and it wants a single person named to deal with the company in each city.

This might sound like Google is the only game in town. That was true initially when the company set up its first fiber network in Kansas City and, later, in other medium-sized cities around the country.

AT&T one-ups Google

But just as Google was putting together its very rudimentary announcement, AT&T was announcing that it would be rolling out its one-gigabit fiber network -- called AT&T GigaPower -- in parts of Los Angeles and 37 other cities. 

In fact, AT&T said GigaPower became available in parts of Los Angeles and West Palm Beach, Fla., today. AT&T says GigaPower is now available in 20 of the nation's largest metros. Google Fiber is operating in nine cities, according to a map on Google's official blog.

Obviously, there is the potential for conflict. Google's demands for preferred access are not likely to be well-received by AT&T, which practically wrote the book on the care and feeding of telecom regulators.

There is already a notable difference in tone. 

Google's very brief announcement puts the onus for successful completion on the cities.

"While we can’t guarantee that we’ll be able to bring Fiber to Chicago and L.A., this is a big step for these cities and their leaders. Planning for a project of this size is a huge undertaking, but we’ll be sure to keep residents updated along the way," said Jill Szuchmacher, director of Google Fiber Expansion.

"Vision only matters if it’s followed by execution," sniffed AT&T's Brad Bentley, executive vice president of Internet services. "We’re able to expand the 100% fiber network quickly through our relationships with local officials. They help us execute our build plans and process permitting. Then, fiber providers cut cables to specific lengths aligned to a map of our network ahead of construction."

While both carriers make it clear they want expedited issuance of the thousands of permits that go into a major network build-out, the difference in tone is somewhat striking. 

“In the past, municipalities would ask for significant concessions like 100% coverage or building connections to schools. It was really hard to get into a new area,” said Jan Dawson, chief analyst at Jackdaw Research, the Los Angeles Times reported. “What Google has done is turn the model on its head by saying, ‘If you want us to build fiber, what are you going to do for us?'”

100% coverage

It's the 100% coverage that's likely to become an issue in both Chicago and Los Angeles. While smaller cities were willing to roll over and play nicely, local politics is a tougher game in the nation's megacities, which tend to have a broader range of socioeconomic groups than smaller communities.

Leaving entire sections of the South Side of Chicago dark or ignoring L.A.'s South Central are not likely to play well. 

In some of its other cities, Google Fiber charges $70 a month for gigabit service or a onetime construction fee of $300 for a much slower but free service. In an election year when rising inequality is a major campaign issue, providing a service that only affluent consumers can afford may prove problematic. 

Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti has sought to boost the city's tech industry and has said L.A. should be "American's most connected city." But in a statement yesterday, Garcetti didn't sound ready to abandon poorer sections of the city. 

“Expanding, improving and strengthening Internet access throughout Los Angeles is vital to further accelerating L.A.'s economic growth — and affordable service is essential to erasing a digital divide that leaves too many people without the tools to maximize potential in the 21st century,” Garcetti said.

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel said only that Google Fiber service would be "a key ingredient for job growth."  

Google Fiber may be bringing its super fast one-gigabit Internet service to Los Angeles and Chicago, the nation's second- and third-lar...

Court keeps Sprint's WiMax network alive, for now

Proposed shut-down would have ended Internet service for under-served subscribers

A Massachusetts Superior Court judge has granted a preliminary injunction that has effectively stopped Sprint from turning off an aging WiMax network providing Internet service to some 300,000 consumers.

The consumers largely make up the underserved community – low income, elderly, students, and the disabled. Sprint wants to phase out the older technology, eventually moving all customers to its newer LTE system.

It was opposed by organizations addressing the “digital divide” in the U.S., working to extend connectivity to those who might otherwise not have access.

“Today, the courts preserved a lifeline for the communities and families we serve,” said Katherine Messier, managing director of Mobile Beacon, one of the successful plaintiffs. “We hope Sprint will now work with us to ensure the elderly, disabled, students and other vulnerable populations who rely on our service can transition to LTE quickly and avoid any disruption in service.”

WiMax is a wireless technology that was deployed early in the century to provide “last mile” Internet connectivity, often in rural and sparsely populated areas.

90 day reprieve

The injunction orders Sprint to maintain the WiMax network in certain areas for 90 days to allow Mobile Beacon and Mobile Citizen time to migrate their users to Sprint’s LTE network.

“The injunction compels Sprint to honor its professed commitment to closing the digital divide,” said John Schwartz, the founder and president of Mobile Citizen. “It’s unfortunate it took a court order to stop Sprint from shutting off 300,000 children, families, teachers and community members from access to the American dream. But we look forward to moving ahead positively with Sprint and ensuring that everyone in our community can keep the service they rely on to connect to the larger world around them.”

Mobile Beacon and Mobile Citizen are providers of unlimited broadband service, at a cost of $10 a month, to 429 schools, 61 libraries, and 1,820 nonprofit organizations across the country on Sprint’s WiMax network.

The groups say many of these organizations then provide service to students, the elderly, the disabled, and other segments of the population often not able to afford commercial Internet service.

A Massachusetts Superior Court judge has granted a preliminary injunction that has effectively stopped Sprint from turning off an aging WiMax network provi...

FCC slams Hilton, Baltimore Convention Center for blocking consumers' Wi-Fi hotspots

The commission's message: it's illegal to block personal Wi-Fi communications

The Federal Communications Commission is serving notice that it's serious about not allowing hotels and convention centers to block personal Wi-Fi hotspots. The commission is planning a $718,000 fine against a contractor at the Baltimore Convention Center and a $25,000 fine against Hilton Worldwide for allegedly obstructing an investigation into whether it blocked guests' Wi-Fi.

The Baltimore case involves M.C. Dean, Inc., an electrical contracting company that allegedly blocked personal mobile hotspots of convention visitors and exhibitors who tried to use their own data plans to connect to the Internet rather than paying M.C. Dean substantial fees.

“Consumers are tired of being taken advantage of by hotels and convention centers that block their personal Wi-Fi connections,” said Travis LeBlanc, Chief of the FCC’s Enforcement Bureau. “This disturbing practice must come to an end. It is patently unlawful for any company to maliciously block FCC-approved Wi-Fi connections.”  

As the exclusive provider of Wi-Fi access at the Baltimore Convention Center, M.C. Dean charges exhibitors and visitors as much as $1,095 per event for Wi-Fi access. The FCC said that after receiving complaints, it sent field agents to the convention center "on multiple occasions and confirmed that Wi-Fi blocking activity was taking place."

M.C. Dean’s Wi-Fi blocking activity also appears to have blocked Wi-Fi hotspots located outside of the venue, including passing vehicles, the FCC said. The Commission charged M.C. Dean with violating Section 333 of the Communications Act by maliciously interfering with or causing interference to lawful Wi-Fi hotspots.   

Hilton obstruction

In the Hilton case, the FCC has proposed a $25,000 fine against Hilton Worldwide Holdings, Inc. for its apparent obstruction of an investigation into whether Hilton engaged in the blocking of consumers’ Wi-Fi devices.

In today's order, the Bureau directs Hilton to immediately provide essential information and documents about its Wi-Fi management practices and warns the company that it may face a significantly higher fine for any continued obstruction or delay.

"Hotel guests deserve to have their Wi-Fi blocking complaints investigated by the Commission," the FCC's LeBlanc said. "To permit any company to unilaterally redefine the scope of our investigation would undermine the independent search for the truth and the due administration of the law."

The investigation grew out of an August 2014 complaint, in which a consumer alleged that the Hilton in Anaheim, California blocked visitors' Wi-Fi hot spots unless those consumers paid a $500 fee. The Commission has also received Wi-Fi blocking complaints involving other Hilton properties.

Last January, ConsumerAffairs reported on an attempt to use a Wi-Fi hotspot at the Hilton Doubletree in Jersey City, N.J. Our AT&T/Blackberry hotspot worked perfectly throughout the New York City area ... except in our room at the Doubletree. 

In November 2014, the Bureau issued Hilton a letter of inquiry seeking information concerning basic information but said that after nearly one year, Hilton has failed to provide the requested information for the vast majority of its properties. Hilton operates several brands, including Hilton, Conrad, DoubleTree, Embassy Suites, and Waldorf Astoria properties.

The Hilton action is the FCC's fourth major enforcement action regarding Wi-Fi blocking. In October 2014, the FCC fined Marriott International, Inc. and Marriott Hotel Services, Inc. $600,000 for similar Wi-Fi blocking activities at the Gaylord Opryland Hotel and Convention Center in Nashville, Tennessee. In August 2015, the FCC fined Smart City Holdings, LLC $750,000 for similar Wi-Fi blocking at multiple convention centers across the country.  

The Federal Communications Commission is serving notice that it's serious about not allowing hotels and convention centers to block personal Wi-Fi hotspots...

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...

Your email has been hacked! Now what?

The Federal Trade Commission offers steps for getting things back to normal

There's an odd email in your in-box. You know it's spam because of the weird message it contains, but the name in the sender's line seems so ordinary - just a regular person and not at all a sleazy spammer.

That's because in nearly every case it is a regular person, an unsuspecting soul whose email account has been hacked and now all her family and friends, not to mention millions of total strangers, are receiving emails from her hawking all manner of products to enhance body parts, or to suggest a romantic hook-up.

How embarrassing for that person, you think. But what if that person were you?

Hack attack

Spammers hack users' email accounts so they can send out their messages anonymously. Sometimes they simply “spoof” an email address – disguising their message without actually breaking in and taking control of the account. Either way, however, it's bad news.

You may not realize your account has been hacked or spoofed until you start hearing from family and friends wanting to know why you're trying to sell them Viagra. At that point, you need to spring into action.

Get better malware protection

Amy Hebert, Consumer Education Specialist at the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), says the first thing to do is update your system and delete any malware. If your computer has malware protection, it might need better malware protection.

Next, she says you should change your passwords, not just on your email account but for all accounts. You may need to check with your email provider about steps in restoring your account.

Finally, notify your friends and contacts about the hack and warn them not to click on any links in emails they may have gotten from you.

Of course, it's best to take action before one of your accounts is compromised, especially one dealing with money. The FTC advises the best safeguard is making sure all accounts use unique passwords.

Strong passwords

That way, if a hacker figures out one of your passwords, he or she doesn't suddenly have access to all your important accounts. The stronger the passwords, the harder they are to crack. But strong passwords are sometimes hard to remember.

That's why using a password manager such as LastPass might be a good alternative. It locks all your passwords in a vault and encrypts them when you type them into your browser. All you have to remember is a single master password to get into your vault.

Whenever you are asked to enter credentials like usernames and passwords, make sure you are dealing with a legitimate site. Never provide them in response to an email.

If the email or text seems to be from your bank, for example, visit the bank website directly rather than clicking on any links or calling any numbers in the message. Scammers are known to impersonate well-known businesses, and even government agencies, to trick people into giving out personal information.

There's an odd email in your in-box. You know it's spam because of the weird message it contains, but the name in the sender's line seems so ordinary - jus...

Smart City fined $750,000 for illegally blocking personal Wi-Fi at meeting halls and convention centers

Company to pay $750K in government fines; $0 in customer refunds

Today the Federal Communications Commission levied a $750,000 fine against Smart City Holdings, LLC (also known as Smart City Networks), for blocking people's personal mobile Wi-Fi hotspots, thus forcing them to pay “substantial fees to use the company's Wi-Fi service,” as the FCC said in a statement.

Smart City provides Wi-Fi for “convention centers and meeting facilities,” according to its website. The fees for individual meeting attendees or convention-goers wishing to use a Smart City connection ran as high as $80 per person per day, according to the FCC.

Otherwise, “Smart City would automatically block users from accessing the Internet when they instead attempted to use their personal cellular data plans to establish mobile Wi-Fi networks – or 'hotspots' – to connect their Wi-Fi-enabled devices to the Internet.”

Furthermore, the FCC says, “No evidence exists that the Wi-Fi blocking occurred in response to a specific security threat to Smart City’s network or the users of its network.”

In addition to paying the fine, Smart City also agreed to stop blocking mobile hotspots.

In a statement, Smart City said -- in effect -- it didn't see that speed limit sign back there.

“We have always acted in good faith, and we had no prior notice that the FCC considered the use of this standardized, ‘available-out-of-the-box’ technology to be a violation of its rules. But when we were contacted by the FCC in October 2014, we ceased using the technology in question," said Smart City President Mark Haley.

Wi-fi blocking

This is the second fine the FCC has levied against companies blocking personal mobile hotspots in order to sell access to their own. Last October, Marriott had to pay $600,000 for disabling personal Wi-Fi at the Gaylord Opryland Hotel and Convention Center in Nashville, Tennessee. Despite the fines, neither company has been required to pay refunds to any customers who actually lost money in unnecessary Wi-Fi fees.

Smart City's fine is bigger, possibly because the company committed violations in more than one spot. The FCC said affected locations included convention centers in Ohio, Indiana, Florida and Arizona.

Both companies' actions violated the Communications Act of 1934, section 333 of which says “No person shall willfully or maliciously interfere with or cause interference to” authorized radio communications.

Various hotel and convention companies, including Marriott and Hilton, have tried or are trying to persuade the FCC to amend its rules, so that hotels, convention centers, and similar businesses would be allowed to block all personal Wi-Fi or broadband connections as they pleased, and make it impossible for visitors or guests to connect with the outside world unless they pay the hotel or convention center's hefty Wi-Fi fees.

Won't fight charges

In a statement to the media, Smart City president Mark Haley said that the company had no idea it was doing anything wrong, only ever used Wi-Fi blockers for legitimate security reasons. 

It stopped using Wi-Fi blockers last October after the FCC demanded it, blocked less than 1 percent of anyone's devices anyway, and is only paying the fine because fighting it would be an expensive distraction.

Today the Federal Communications Commission levied a $750,000 fine against Smart City Holdings, LLC (also known as Smart City Networks), for blocking peopl...

Domain name dealer reined in by feds

Network Solutions didn't follow through on 30-day guarantee promise

Network Solutions is one of those companies most people have never heard of although they interact with it constantly. It’s the largest of the domain name registrars -- the backroom operations that assign and administer website names, or URLs as they’re known in the business.

This is a pretty simple business that manages to get fairly complex when you delve into the details but for most people, it amounts to paying a few bucks and getting a name -- CowtownUSA.com or whatever -- for a period of one or more years.

As more and more people build websites, the business has gotten somewhat competitive, so Network Solutions began offering a “30 Day Money Back Guarantee” for customers who for whatever reason wanted to back out of their purchase.

30% fee

The only problem, the Federal Trade Commission charged, is that the company didn’t disclose that it would withhold up to 30% of the purchase price from any refund. In previous cases, the FTC has made it clear that a company must describe money-back offers clearly and deliver on its promises.

Although it was not slapped with a fine, Network Solutions did agree not to do it again and also to be totally upfront with any other promise it makes to customers. The FTC approved the final consent order and it is now in effect.

Network Solutions is one of those companies most people have never heard of although they interact with it constantly. It’s the largest of the domain name ...

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...

Geo-inference attacks: how the websites you visit can tell hackers where you are

There's no perfect protection against this, but clearing your browser history helps

Researchers at the National University of Singapore have discovered a serious new threat to personal privacy in the Internet era: “geo-location inference,” which allows almost anyone with a website to determine the precise location of that site's visitors (from country and city right down to street address), and “geo-inference attacks,” which makes this information available to hackers who can make hyper-precise measurements of the timing of browsers' cache queries.

The full research study, downloadable as a .pdf here, is titled I Know Where You've Been: Geo-Inference Attacks via the Browser Cache. The problem is particularly widespread in the U.S., U.K., Australia, Japan and Singapore, and among users of Chrome, Firefox, Internet Explorer, Opera and Safari browsers.

Head researcher Yaoqi Jia told the Daily Dot that geo-inference attacking is a “new attack” with a “big impact,” and that “It’s the first to utilize timing channels in browsers to infer a user’s geo-location. No existing defenses are efficient to defeat such attacks.” Even the anonymizing network Tor cannot provide perfect protection against it.

What is it?

But what exactly is this problem? Many popular websites are “location-oriented,” which means that different visitors from different locations see different things.

Craigslist lets users narrow their searches by geographical area. Google uses different pages in different countries: Google.com in the United States becomes Google.ca in Canada. And of course, anyone using Google Maps types in all sorts of specific addresses and locations, and Google Maps remembers them all. So does your browser, unless and until you clear your browser history.

You've surely noticed on your own computer or mobile device that, all else being equal, the websites you visit on a regular basis tend to load much faster than some new-to-you website you're visiting for the first time. That's because when you visit your regular sites, your browser saves time by relying partly on its memory cache: the files you see every time you visit a particular website get saved onto your computer or device, so you don't have to re-download them on every subsequent visit.

But this process is not secure, and it does take time. Exactly how much time varies based on many different factors, including your actual physical distance from the website's server.

Suppose that you, and your friend who lives 10 miles away, are both frequent visitors of a website based on the opposite side of the country. (For the sake of this hypothetical, let's also pretend that your computer or mobile device, and your friend's, are alike in every possible way: same connection speeds, same browsing history and memory space, same everything except your geographic locations, which are 10 miles apart.)

Time lag

As far as your merely human senses can tell, it takes the same amount of time to visit that website from your home computer as it does your friend's. But with a computer's super-human senses, you can see there's actually a time lag – a very noticeable one, if you're measuring in something like fractions of nanoseconds.

That, in a nutshell, is geo-location inference. And when hackers break in and steal this information, that's a “geo-inference attack.” And who exactly is vulnerable to such attacks? According to the researchers, all mainstream-browser users and most popular-website visitors:

all five mainstream browsers (Chrome, Firefox, Safari, Opera and IE) on both desktop and mobile platforms as well as TorBrowser are vulnerable to geo-inference attacks. Meanwhile, 62% of Alexa Top 100 websites are susceptible to geo-inference attacks

So what can you do to protect yourself? Delete your browser cache on a regular basis — and Yaoqi also recommends you “Never give additional permissions to unfamiliar sites or open it for a long time” and “clear [your] cache after visiting a site with your credentials, e.g. online banking sites.” This still leaves users vulnerable while they're actually visiting a website, though: even if you clear your cache immediately after finishing an online session, the cache remains full during the session.

Researchers in Singapore have discovered a serious new threat to personal privacy...

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 ...

Federal Trade Commission seeks public comment about “cross-device tracking"

Cookies only track your online activities on one device.

The Federal Trade Commission announced today that it will hosting a workshop this November to examine the privacy issues surrounding the practice of “cross-device tracking," which the FTC describes as “the tracking of consumers' activities across their different devices for advertising and marketing purposes.”

Prior to this workshop, the FTC will be collecting public comments on the matter through mid-October.

Pretty much everyone with any type of Internet connection knows about tracking cookies and has seen them in use, too: they're the reason anybody who searches for or reads information about Niftywidgets will start seeing Niftywidget ads on every subsequent website they visit.

But cookies are device-specific: the cookies on your laptop won't put Niftywidget ads on your smartphone and tablet, or vice versa.

Integrated activities

Of course, various tech companies and advertisers would like to change that. Last September, for example, Facebook announced its introduction of a new advertising program called Atlas, which marketers and advertisers liked for its ability to “integrate” your online activity across multiple devices: if you use your smartphone to look at items on Niftywidgets.com, then the next time you visit Facebook on your laptop or other non-smartphone device, you'll see Niftywidget ads in your feed.

This is the sort of cross-device tracking the FTC intends to discuss at its Nov. 16 workshop. As the FTC's statement explains:

The use of multiple devices creates a challenge for companies that want to reach these consumers with relevant advertising.  The traditional method of using cookies to track consumers’ online activities are proving to be less effective. A cookie may not provide  a complete picture of a consumer who uses different web browsers at home, at work and on their mobile device, for example.

Industry has adopted different approaches to address this issue [including] … methods that rely on various characteristics about a user to match their behavior from one device to another – often without the consumers’ awareness or control.

The FTC’s workshop seeks to address a number of questions about the potential benefits to consumers of effective cross-device tracking, as well as to examine the potential privacy and security risks.

The FTC will also be seeking comment from members of the public until Oct. 16. Comments can be submitted online here.

Be succinct; each comment is limited to 4,000 characters.

The Federal Trade Commission announced today that it will hosting a workshop this November to examine the privacy issues surrounding the practice of “cross...

FCC releases new net neutrality rules

In 300+ pages, the rules prohibit broadband providers from favoring one content provider over another

The Federal Communications Commission has released its new net neutrality rules, which prohibit broadband providers from favoring one content provider over another.

The rules run to 313 pages and are largely impenetrable to the lay reader, but even after all that verbiage, they largely leave it up to the commission to decide most issues on a case-by-case basis.

FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler said the four million emails and letters the commission got from citizens shows how important the Internet is to individuals, businesses and government.

"Broadband networks are the most powerful and pervasive connectivity in history. Broadband is reshaping our economy and recasting the patterns of our lives," Wheeler said in a prepared statement. "Every day, we rely on high-speed connectivity to do our jobs, access entertainment, keep up with the news, express our views, and stay in touch with friends and family."

Wheeler said the new rules, which reclassify high-speed Internet as a telecommunications rather than information service, will protect the open nature of the Internet while ensuring that all users are treated fairly and will not be burdensome to businesses and individual users. 

3 keys

"There are three simple keys to our broadband future. Broadband networks must be fast. Broadband networks must be fair. Broadband networks must be open," Wheeler said. He said the new rules will:

  • Ban Paid Prioritization: “Fast lanes” will not divide the Internet into “haves” and “have-nots.”

  • Ban Blocking: Consumers must get what they pay for – unfettered access to any lawful content on the Internet.

  • Ban Throttling: Degrading access to legal content and services can have the same effect as blocking and will not be permitted.

"These enforceable, bright-line rules assure the rights of Internet users to go where they want, when they want, and the rights of innovators to introduce new products without asking anyone’s permission," Wheeler said.

Critics chatter

Critics say the rules are unnecessary and go too far in defining what may and may not be done by broadband providers.

"As a member of Congress and a businessman for over 30 years, I strongly oppose FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler’s unprecedented plan to reclassify the Internet as a public utility," said Rep. Vern Buchanan (R-Fla.) in a recent Fox News commentary.

"A massive layer of government regulation — 332 pages to be exact — not only threatens the online freedoms enjoyed by Americans across the country but stifles the innovation and entrepreneurship that is the lifeblood of the digital economy," Buchanan said.

Not so, said Kit Walsh of the Electronic Freedom Foundation.

"Everyone in the net neutrality debate applauds the diversity of the Internet and low barriers to entry for Internet services. Net neutrality is about preventing the companies that connect you to the Internet from acting as gatekeepers and threatening that diversity and opportunity for innovation," Walsh said in on the EFF's website.

"The FCC's net neutrality regulations will help make sure that ISPs don't unfairly favor (or disfavor) some applications and services, just as its common carrier obligations helped ensure that phone carriers couldn't strangle the Internet in its infancy, back in the days of dial-up modems."

Walsh said telecommunications companies have been "working hard to seed fear, uncertainty, and doubt" about the new rules. 

Walsh also noted that while the full order implementing the rules runs to more than 300 pages, the actual rules themselves are only eight pages. See for yourself -- read the full text here.

  

The Federal Communications Commission has released its new net neutrality rules, which prohibit broadband providers from favoring one content provider over...

Google to censor adult content; remains unclear on meaning of word “censor”

All adult blogs set to go “private” next month

Today, Google announced a sudden and unexpected change to its blogging policy: As of March 23, it will be impossible to publicly share pornography and “adult” content on Blogger platforms (those websites with “blogspot” or “blogger” in their URLs).

At best, such content will be made “private,” meaning that it will only be visible to the blog's owner, and those individuals whom the owner personally chooses to share the blog with. At worst, Google might delete the content, or disable access to the author's Google and/or Blogger accounts.

Paradoxically, Google's online Blogger Content Policy still starts off with a paragraph condemning censorship, followed by several paragraphs explaining that Google will henceforth engage in censorship of sexual content:

Blogger is a free service for communication, self-expression and freedom of speech. We believe Blogger increases the availability of information, encourages healthy debate, and makes possible new connections between people. It is our belief that censoring this content is contrary to a service that bases itself on freedom of expression.

However, in order to uphold these values …. [several paragraphs negating that previously stated belief about censoring deleted.]

Google announced the upcoming policy change in a post on its support forum:

Starting March 23, 2015, you won't be able to publicly share images and video that are sexually explicit or show graphic nudity on Blogger.

Note: We’ll still allow nudity if the content offers a substantial public benefit, for example in artistic, educational, documentary, or scientific contexts.

Say what?

Problem is, Google's idea of what exactly constitutes “artistic, educational, documentary or scientific contexts” might be difficult, if not impossible, for ordinary Google users to fathom.

As Emma Wollacott noted in Forbes, “Many of the blogs currently labelled “adult” have had that tag slapped on them by Google itself – and the blog owners don’t necessarily agree. Affected blogs have included those covering LGBT issues and sex education, for example.”

For those who'd rather migrate to a blog on a different platform with more liberal policies (such as WordPress or Tumblr), Google provided a link to a page providing instructions on how to archive or export your posts and other content.

That will likely prove a necessity for most blogs with adult, or potentially adult, content. As Jason Scott of the Internet Archive Tweeted:

It is entirely possible Google will censor/disconnect websites over a decade old because of an arbitrary policy change. Guess we're grabbing [content.]

On the Blogger user forum, Derren Grathy from the Impregnation Erotica blog complained: “Set to private and by ‘invitation only’, our websites will be all but destroyed. The fact that you haven’t deleted our content is of grim consolation when you kill off our entire userbase!”

Vague descriptions

Other users pointed out that Google's vague descriptions of what exactly constitutes objectionable adult material (as opposed to adult material with educational, scientific or other redeeming value), combined with its policy of allowing individual users to report blogs which they claim are in violation of those vague descriptons, might result in bloggers being censored for adult content without even producing any. Fantasy and romance [not pornography] writer Cynthianna Matthews, for example, posted this complaint:


What is the definition of "porn"? I received this Blogger email, but it doesn't tell me WHICH ONE OF MY BLOGS IS PORNOGRAPHIC. Are all of them suspect now? One small posting that someone made in the comment section? What is exactly are they objecting to? If they can't give me a specific answer, how am I to fix the "problem"[?]

The thing is, I don't think there is a "problem"--I think there's just blatant censorship happening here. Someone is jealous of my lovely romance cover artwork and they're wanting to excise it off of Google so they can promote their own work ….You can see where how abusive this policy can be in the hands of jealous or narrow-minded individuals. Unless Google can give specific examples of "porn", then really they're just bullying people indiscriminately.

To prove how "pornographic" my romance book covers are, I'll attach my soon-to-be-release[d] title cover art … for your perusual. I hope you are suitably "shocked" at its "pornography". If not, then I don't think your policy has a leg to stand upon. (If you're a Doctor Who fan--enjoy!)

The attached picture showed a TARDIS (the magic, closet-like “police box” which Doctor Who uses to travel throughout time and space in his TV show). Through the TARDIS' open door is visible a deserted tropical beach. The picture is thoroughly non-sexual, and doesn't even show any living beings who might, theoretically, have sex together at some future point.

So, to reiterate: if you're a blogger on Blogspot or Blogger.com, and your blog contains any sexually explicit content, you should probably export everything to a non-Google platform as soon as possible. And if you're a blogger whose blog does not contain sexually explicit content, you might still want to go ahead and export everything to a non-Google platform as soon as possible, just in case.

If you disagree with Google's new policy change, take heart in the uplifting commentary Google posted about “Content Boundaries” on its Blogger Content Policy page: “Our content policies play an important role in maintaining a positive experience for you, the users.”

More examples of users discussing the alleged positivity of their experiences with Google's new content policy can be found here at the Blogger user forums.

Today, Google announced a sudden and unexpected change to its blogging policy: As of March 23, it will be impossible to publicly share pornography and “adu...

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 ...

FTC urges caution as Internet of Things expands

Interconnected devices are fine but the humans need watching

The Internet of Things -- interconnected devices like appliances and security alarms -- are fine but it's important to protect them against errant humans, a report from the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) cautions.

Consumers are rushing to install Internet-enabled thermostats, smoke alarms, security systems, health and fitness monitors and cars, a trend that promises improved security, economy and efficiency but that also raises privacy and security concerns.

“The only way for the Internet of Things to reach its full potential for innovation is with the trust of American consumers,” said FTC Chairwoman Edith Ramirez. “We believe that by adopting the best practices we’ve laid out, businesses will be better able to provide consumers the protections they want and allow the benefits of the Internet of Things to be fully realized.”

There are already more than 25 billion connected devices in use worldwide, with that number set to rise significantly as consumer goods companies, auto manufacturers, healthcare providers, and other businesses continue to invest in connected devices, according to data cited in the report.

The report is partly based on input from leading technologists and academics, industry representatives, consumer advocates and others who participated in the FTC’s Internet of Things workshop held in Washington D.C. on Nov. 19, 2013, as well as those who submitted public comments.

Security was one of the main topics addressed at the workshop and in the comments, particularly due to the highly networked nature of the devices. The report includes the following recommendations for companies developing Internet of Things devices:

  • build security into devices at the outset, rather than as an afterthought in the design process;
  • train employees about the importance of security, and ensure that security is managed at an appropriate level in the organization;
  • ensure that when outside service providers are hired, that those providers are capable of maintaining reasonable security, and provide reasonable oversight of the providers;
  • when a security risk is identified, consider a “defense-in-depth” strategy whereby multiple layers of security may be used to defend against a particular risk;
  • consider measures to keep unauthorized users from accessing a consumer’s device, data, or personal information stored on the network;
  • monitor connected devices throughout their expected life cycle, and where feasible, provide security patches to cover known risks.

Commission staff also recommend that companies consider data minimization – that is, limiting the collection of consumer data, and retaining that information only for a set period of time, and not indefinitely.

The report notes that data minimization addresses two key privacy risks: first, the risk that a company with a large store of consumer data will become a more enticing target for data thieves or hackers, and second, that consumer data will be used in ways contrary to consumers’ expectations.

The Internet of Things -- interconnected devices like appliances and security alarms -- are fine but it's important to protect them against errant humans, ...

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...

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...

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 ...

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?...

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...

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....

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 ...

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....

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 ...

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...

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....

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 ...

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...

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...

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....

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...

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...

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,”...

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...

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...

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...

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...

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...

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 ...

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...

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...

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...

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...

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...

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 ...

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...

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...

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...

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...

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...

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...

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...

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...

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 ...

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...

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...

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...

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....

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...

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...

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 ...

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...

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...

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...

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...

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...

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...

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 ...

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...

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...

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...

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...

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...

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...

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...

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...

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 ...

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...

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...

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...

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 "...

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...

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...

'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...

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 ...

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...

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