On the future of this blog and many other blogs and websites like it

I realize this is somewhat US-centric, but since a lot of internet traffic passes through the US, it does have global implications.

For those of you who missed it, today many sites, like this one and my other blog, SKQ Record Quest are participating in a protest and awareness effort regarding net neutrality. A lot of people don’t realize what net neutrality is, so I will try to explain. To say the least, there is a reason I titled this post the way I did.

Net neutrality is the idea that all sites on the internet, all types of internet traffic, and all types of content are treated equally. If your small blog is on a 10 megabits per second connection, it gets the same treatment that a 10 megabit per second connection to NBC, CBS, The Houston Chronicle, USA Today, Netflix, Microsoft, Apple, or Google. It is not throttled just because you don’t have the deep pockets of a large corporation. It also means protocols like Freenet, BitTorrent, and XMPP are not throttled or restricted in favor of proprietary alternatives. It also means software like Tor and I2P is not arbitrarily blocked or censored, and that those unhappy with the likes of Twitter can join something like Mastodon or even start their own node. For that matter, Twitter itself may not have come into being without net neutrality.

(Outside of the US, particularly in countries like China and North Korea where the rights to free speech and expression are not recognized, the government does attempt to censor many of these protocols and networks, with varying degrees of success and failure. This only serves to underscore how important net neutrality is for the rest of us: while some creative citizens have been able to bypass the government’s censorship, they really should not have to,)

Simply put, if the FCC gets rid of the rules protecting net neutrality, there would be nothing stopping Comcast, Time Warner, AT&T, Verizon, and other ISPs from putting “the rest of the internet” in a separate “box” and either slowing them down to almost nothing, or perhaps even charging extra on top of the “normal” internet access that gives you all the sites you could want to visit that are owned by or have cut deals with your ISP’s parent company. In short, it would take away most of the good things about the internet, and drop everything bad about TV and other mass media in its place.

The last thing I want is for the next generation of bloggers to hear “don’t bother starting a new blog on your own, the only way to get an audience is to land a spot at <insert names of mass media companies here>.” Or for someone trying to read my blog and having to wait forever for it to load, because they are connected to the internet through Time Warner, and Time Warner would rather have my readers reading CNN’s bloggers or even just watching CNN.

If you are in the US, you can (and should) take a minute to make a public comment to the FCC through battleforthenet.com. The comment period is open for a couple of days, and the more public outrage the FCC gets over this issue, the better.

Killing the landline: a dubious idea

A recent Lockergnome post details AT&T’s surprising request to the FCC: setting a date for the sunset of analog landline service.

And my take on this may surprise many, but I think this is a mistake. I have noticed a steady decline in the quality of telephone communications ever since the rise of the wireless phone. Prior to 1990 sudden disconnects were relatively rare. They did happen, but not how they happen now. During frequent marathon phone conversations with a friend of mine about a year or so ago, we used the phrase “kitchen phone” or “bathroom phone” every time a call got dropped when I was in those rooms of the house. It was crazy. This never happened with a cordless phone plugged into a landline.

I will admit I have only occasionally used VOIP lines (similar to a landline, except the call is routed over the Internet) and I don’t use Skype. (I had a Gizmo account some years ago but never really used it.) I have called a Skype number and there have been a couple of times where the line quality became unusable (the last 5-6 seconds of the call would just start repeating like a broken record and/or skipping and glitching like a scratched CD).

Plus there is the issue of emergencies. Text messaging (and I’ve posted before on the outrageous markup on text messages) is sometimes the only usable application on a wireless network after a disaster. During a power outage it is very likely that VOIP service will be completely unusable. Analog landlines have been built to function after some disasters; they aren’t disaster-proof by any means, but they are the most likely type of telephone to be usable after, say, a hurricane or tropical storm hits.

Pay phones have been a traditional backup to mobile phones, and would also potentially be affected by the sunset of analog landlines. This is especially true for areas where cell tower coverage is spotty, although having a phone croak (low battery, or sudden failure) can happen to anyone, anytime, anywhere. I’m not expecting the huge wall of payphones inside of shopping malls like we would have seen up until the early 1990s, but it’s reassuring to know the option is there. I dread explaining to my future kids that yes, that thing the guy in the movie put a quarter in is a telephone.

At minimum, work-alike alternatives to analog landlines need to be deployed that are equally reliable. That is, in fact, the one thing I miss about landline phone calls: reliability. It’s enough to make the likes of Alexander Graham Bell roll over in his grave.

Apple’s squabble over Google’s user interface

The Blade has a recent entry on the Google Voice application for the iPhone. The FCC inquired about the rejection to all three companies involved: Apple, Google, and AT&T (which has an exclusivity arrangement with Apple for the iPhone in the US market). The interesting part here is the reaction from each company.

AT&T denies any involvement in the rejection of the application.

Apple claims they have not actually rejected the application, and is “still pondering at this time.” What is surprising–or not, if you read this blog on a regular basis–is the following quote from the letter:

The application has not been approved because, as submitted for review, it appears to alter the iPhone’s distinctive user experience by replacing the iPhone’s core mobile telephone functionality and Apple user interface with its own user interface for telephone calls, text messaging and voicemail.

I gather that that’s almost the entire point of the Google Voice application. What I take away from this: If Apple can do this to Google, they can damn sure do it to any other iPhone developer–and in fact, in a couple of cases, they pretty much already have.

Ron Schenone (author of The Blade) certainly signs off with a telling question
or three:

When I first read this I wondered why the FCC even cared? Why did the FCC even ask the companies to comment? Doesn’t Apple have the right to accept or reject any application that runs on their iPhone?

In an ideal world, Apple would let anyone write any application they wanted to run on the iPhone without having to play a high-stakes game of “Mother, May I.” It’s entirely backwards to take hundreds of dollars from a customer, and then still claim some kind of ownership on the item being sold to that customer. If Apple still considers the iPhone theirs after it leaves the factory, there needs to be a warning label to that effect on each box.

I’d like to think that would do some good. In the end those warning labels may be scarcely more effective than the ones on cigarette cartons. But that is a whole ‘nother rant for a different day.

FCC takes aim at Apple and AT&T re: Google Voice app rejection

Fred von Lohmann, writing for the EFF Deeplinks blog, reports on the FCC’s investigation regarding the highly dubious and potentially anti-competitive rejection of a Google Voice app for the iPhone.

And my not-so-humble opinion, of course, can be summed up thusly: About damn time. Hopefully, a decision on this will be at least useful as some kind of precedent so that Apple’s out-of-control rejections of iPhone apps are at least reined in a bit.

One of the more interesting quotes from the blog entry:

When a dominant hardware platform vendor teams up with a dominant network services provider, and then selectively blocks or hobbles software applications on the platform, consumers should smell an anticompetitive rat. After all, if Microsoft had a veto right over every app that ran under Windows, and used that power to selectively ban competitors who “duplicate” functionality offered by Microsoft’s own apps, we’d expect competition regulators to be up in arms.

Indeed, even Microsoft knows they would never be able to get away with locking down Windows to the extent Apple has locked down the iPhone platform. Of course, it’s much easier and nowhere near as risky (legally and otherwise) to install an alternative operating system on a PC compared to jailbreaking an iPhone.

Hopefully, the FCC will see Apple’s for what they are: anticompetitive, unfair, and unacceptable.