Tag Archives: internet

Net Neutrality, Privacy and Hypocrisy

One of the big technology debates in the US goes by the thrilling title of “Net Neutrality.” In the UK we seem to have skipped this part of the debate and moved on to the next, all without many consumers even knowing that anything has changed. As we’ll see, this does not work out well for many end-users and exposes hypocrisy and dishonesty on the part of the Internet Service Providers (ISPs).

The first question you might be asking is, What is Net Neutrality?

To cut a long story short, this is all about ISPs wanting to prioritise some types of Internet traffic to the detriment of others. At first glance this makes some sense. The ISPs have a finite amount of capacity with which to connect all their users to to the wider Internet. By design, all traffic on the Internet is traditionally considered to be equal. That’s to say that my movie download from iTunes gets the same priority as your video chat and my neighbours web surfing.

Is that fair? You’ll get delays and jitters in your webchat if the performance of your Internet connection isn’t good enough. My neighbour doesn’t have quite the same requirements as you. She doesn’t want to be waiting too long for that page to download, but the odd outlier isn’t going to cause any significant issue. And me, well, my movie is going to take a while to download anyway and I’m not planning on watching it immediately.

Right, so it makes sense for you to get full speed and my connection should be throttled back?

Let’s not be too hasty.

As I understand it, there are two main arguments given against traffic shaping (as it’s called), one technical, the other political. The technical reason is fairly simple: the Internet was designed with the assumption that all traffic was equal and we don’t really know what effect large scale traffic shaping would have. It could be the butterfly flapping its wings in Japan that causes a tornado in Florida.

The political reason is probably why the ISPs really want an end to Net Neutrality: they are not entirely impartial when it comes to deciding which traffic gets priority. These same companies want to sell music and movies and voice over Internet services, so what’s to say that they wouldn’t give their own voice traffic priority over Vonage or Skype?1

This debate never really happened here in the UK. While the big print in the adverts usually says “Unlimited Downloads!”2 the small print typically hints at traffic shaping. I suspect this already affects many people without them knowing about it; they just blame their PC or Bill Gates without realising that the problem is actually further downstream.

But as I hinted back in the first paragraph, in the UK three of the major ISPs are taking one further step: they are planning on selling our surfing habits to a third-party so that they can send us context-sensitive adverts.

It can’t be just me that thinks that this is creepy.

Advertisers love the idea as they can see exactly the sites that everyone3 is visiting and not just those that, for instance, have DoubleClick or Google banners.

In return, consumers get some nebulous “security” protection, details of all their web surfing sent to a third party without their consent and even more adverts4.

Where does the hypocrisy come in? Well, recently the UK government suggested that ISPs should police the Internet for copyright infringement. Three offences and your connection is shut-down. These offences, incidentally, seem not to require any legal process or evidence — it’s pretty much the suspicion that seals your fate.

In response to this, the ISPs say:

“ISPs cannot ‘monitor or record’ the nature of the data flowing over their network, argues [the ISPA]. UK data protection laws make deep packet inspection illegal … and even if it wasn’t, complete monitoring is impossible. ‘ISPs are no more able to inspect and filter every single packet passing across their network than the Post Office is able to open every envelope,’ says the ISPA.”

Hang on!

When they can make money selling those records it’s just fine. And when this transaction hinders their own users experience by flashing up adverts without their permission, that’s also dandy. But when it comes to scanning the traffic for law enforcement purposes then it’s both illegal and impossible?

Being an Internet Service Provider has gone from being an almost glamorous, high margin business in the mid-nineties to one barely above commodity level today. It is, perhaps, no wonder that they are trying every last trick to eke out every last penny, but is selling out their own customers really the best strategy?

  1. My parents ISP chose to throttle all P2P software, which may not be a bad choice per se. Unfortunately they also included Skype in this category. I’m not sure whether this was purely an accident or because they are mainly a phone company who are providing “free” broadband and are trying to push people away from VoIP. []
  2. Are people really so gullible as to believe that they can reasonably get unlimited anything? ISPs clearly think so as I am only aware of a few that have bandwidth quotas. []
  3. They are three of the biggest ISPs in the UK. So while this isn’t actually everyone, they cover around two-thirds of British broadband subscribers. []
  4. One of the most creepy parts is that if you opt-out then there is still the possibility that you’re still going to be tracked anyway. []

My del.icio.us bookmarks for February 6th through February 11th

My del.icio.us bookmarks for January 8th through January 11th

  • Behind bars – Looks like another fascinating documentary by Louis Theroux.
  • Music lessons – Why the music industry as it’s currently structured is dying.
  • “You Don’t Understand Our Audience” – The whole spiel by Justin Long in Die Hard 4.0 about the media cynically manipulating audiences is much closer to the truth than most people would like to admit…

Netscape Communicator 4.04

Introduction

This may all seem like a pointless exercise. I mean, everyone has used Netscape, right? It is the most used browser for a reason. Or is it? This review is here for two reasons:

  1. Because everyone has used it. As one of the first reviews, you can see what I’m aiming for.
  2. Because many people don’t look past the hype. Microsoft bad; Netscape good. Reality is not as clear cut as this.

The main problem I have reviewing Netscape, is that browsing the web is supposed to be simple. A browser should be simple to use, and display any page you might point it at. With a few caveats, Netscape can do this and much more, but it does leave precious little to write about. Except the bad bits. What I’m trying to say is that, although this may look like a very negative review, there are lots of good things about Netscape. For example, this page has been put together using Netscape Composer, not as part of the review but because I think that it’s a good tool for the job.

How well does it display pages?

Since Netscape practically invented the web as we know it, it is hardly surprising that many pages are either designed for or work flawlessly with Navigator. Navigators hold on the browser market is such the many other browsers have actually implemented some of Netscape’s bugs so that their display pages much better!

I suspect that this state of affairs is unlikely to continue. Navigators implementation of many newer standards falls short in either completeness or implementation. The version of Java that Netscape provide with Navigator is significantly slower than that provided by Microsoft, although in its defense it is slightly more ‘pure.’ Cascading Style Sheets and DHTML is poor, and many plug-ins seem to cause it to core dump — not very user-friendly! (This last flaw is supposed to be fixed in 4.05, but I’ve not seen an RPM of this yet.)

It’s difficult to blame Netscape for X’s failings, but it does affect its page rendering. I find that X is nowhere near as good as the Macintosh or Windows at rendering fonts. Perhaps its the configuration of my X server, but I don’t think so.

Stability

Communicator has a very large memory foot-print. Just loading Navigator and loading a fairly simple page can take up to 20 Mb of memory, which although not unusual, does seem somewhat excessive.

One can partially understand the memory requirements when looking at the installation — just one executable. Composer, Navigator and the mail programs are all in one, huge executable. This is bound to stress the OS (Linux can handle it!), but does mean that Communicator dies when one component dies. I’ve lost work in Composer on a number of occasions while jumping across to Navigator to look at some web site.

Although it’s difficult to quantify this kind of thing, I feel as though I’ve had more stability problems with Netscape than Internet Explorer. Navigator also seems much more stable under Windows than Linux. This does seem contrary to most people’s experience, though.

Other Parts

Almost all of the review so far has concentrated on Navigator, since this is the part of the product that people actually download it for. The other bits are at least passable, though.

I suspect that Composer is the best WYSIWYG HTML editor available for Linux (not much competition!). It’s rendering of most pages is very impressive, although it can get very slow when there are lots of elements on the page — tables really start to bog it down — and it has no concept of frames. Probably a good thing!

The Mail and News client is very good provided that you have a permanent network connection. It doesn’t have off-line news reading like much of the competition, which is going to rack up your phone bill (if you have to pay for local calls) unless you can get another program to do this (there are many available, mostly for free).

Conference and Netcaster, two modules available in Windows, are not supplied with the Linux version. (I doubt that many people use them anyway.)

I installed Communicator using the RPM available from RedHat’s web-site (netscape-communicator-4.04-3) and experienced no problems at all. I think I’d have preferred it to have been installed in /usr/local/bin rather than /usr/bin, but if I wanted to be picky I could have downloaded the application from the Netscape web site.

Overall

My impression of Communicator 4 is that Netscape are starting to run out of ideas and inspiration. Navigator 3 came with many new and important features, but 4 just seems bloated. Why when I download a browser do I have to get a mail and news client and a HTML editor? Why do many of the features seem half finished? Why is the stability of the product only becoming acceptable after nearly a year? Why, when the competition are pumping out a significant release every six months, is Communicator over a year old?

But let’s not let this get out of hand. Netscape may not be the leading force it once was, but it is still a top class browser. It’s performance and features keep at the top of the pile for Linux (and near the top for Windows), and its re-launch as a free product can only help its popularity.