Posts in the opinion category are just that: our opinion! Though we probably think we’re right, take posts in the Opinion category with a pinch of salt.

In the Wake of #DeleteFacebook, It’s Time to Rethink The Free Internet Economy

In the wake of what the media has misrepresented as the “Facebook data breach” by the British Firm Cambridge Analytica, Facebook has lost users, lost high-profile company pages, and most importantly to them, lost value.

The #DeleteFacebook hash tag’s popularity has hockey-sticked as have Google queries for the search term delete facebook. The torches and pitchforks are out. The townsfolk are angry. And they should be.

We Have a Right to be Angry

But our anger shouldn’t be entirely aimed at the dorky billionaire possibly cloistered away at his private Hawaiian beach. If you need to blame someone for violating your privacy, you should start by blaming yourself.

I have no love for Facebook.  Or social media in general. I encourage you to delete your Facebook simply to regain control of your schedule and mental well-being.  But it won’t solve this problem because Facebook is a symptom, not a cause.

I’m aware my opinion isn’t popular. So let me explain.

What Did the Trump Campaign Do?

During the 2016 presidential election, the Trump campaign hired a British firm called Cambridge Analytica to manage their online campaigning. The campaign tasked the firm with building a useful voter database and using it to change hearts and minds. This strategy is not the stuff of scandal. For better or worse, this is the life-blood of modern American political campaigns.

Do you remember the movie Inception? It’s like that. But instead of implanting thoughts in our heads with futuristic dream travel technology, they do it with ads so targeted to our headspace that we think their idea and the resulting change in our behavior were ours all along.

Summary: The Trump campaign collected detailed profile data on voters that most believed was private. They leveraged this data to develop microtargeted campaign messaging that was often untruthful, with the goal of playing to the voters’ owns hopes and fears to swing their vote. This is common. But this is not OK.

What Did Cambridge Analytica Do?

Cambridge Analytica developed a Facebook personality test app that tens of thousands of users installed and shared.  When the app was installed it requested permissions to read information about the user’s connections (“friends”) and their demographic data. Facebook essentially allowed users to permit apps to read their friend’s profiles.

On its surface, the app did what it claimed to do.  But behind the scenes, the app was used to data mine demographic information on millions of Americans.

Cambridge Analytica claims that by using data mining and microtargeting, they can zero in on the needs of specific voting blocs and deliver ads that can change voting behavior. A former employee leaked their blueprint for winning the presidency.  Spoiler Alert: he won. They helped.

Summary: Cambridge Analytica developed a Facebook platform application that did one innocuous thing on its surface, but behind the scenes gave Cambridge Analytica access to detailed profile information for both the users and the user’s Facebook friends.  The app took advantage of the fact that very few people paid attention to app permissions and did what so many free online services do: offer something useful in exchange for data. It’s common. But it’s not OK. (More on this later.)

What Did Facebook Do?

Not much.

I don’t mean that Facebook didn’t play a pivotal role in this fiasco.  Inaction was their choice, and inaction turned this from a design flaw into a scandal.

Facebook required users to authorize permissions when they installed the app manually.  But once a user gave Facebook apps permissions, they didn’t concern themselves with how they used it. Former employees have claimed that it was Facebook’s internal policy to not look at how the data was used because then they’d be responsible for what they found.

Summary: Facebook developed a social platform and allowed third-party programmers to build apps on it. Facebook’s platform required apps to ask for permissions.  But the permissions were far too broad and could be used to read profile data on users other than the one using the app. In Facebook’s business model user data is the product they sell. Looking too closely into how that data gets used would jeopardize their business. Their business model does not incentivize privacy.  This is how the Internet’s “Free Economy” works. There is nothing OK about it.

What Did Do?

“What did I do to cause this?” is the question nobody is asking.  But it’s the most important.

The Trump campaign hired Cambridge Analytica to mine private data and use it to change behavior. Cambridge Analytica built an app to harvest data by taking advantage of Facebook’s overly permissive app platform, and the psychological fact that users are terrible at reading and understanding terms and permissions. Facebook built a platform that’s free to use but sells our data and sells moments of our lives (“engagement”) to advertisers.

But there’s one thing that’s required for all their plans to come together: they need you to play along.

You signed up for Facebook.

You installed the app.

You neglected to read the fine print.

You gave the app permission to harvest your data.

You gave the app permission to harvest your friends’ data.

You neglected to read Facebook’s terms and signed up anyway.

You agreed to let Facebook sell moments of your life by way of engagement with targeted ads the moment you signed up.

You agreed with the message of the ads because they confirmed your existing beliefs rather than challenge them.

You didn’t fact-check the message because that takes time and could challenge your existing beliefs.

You helped the message spread because it confirmed your existing beliefs.

You decided, explicitly or not, that all this was better than paying for whatever value you think you’re getting from Facebook.

It’s Time to Rethink the Internet Economy

The behavior of the Trump Campaign, Cambridge Analytica, and Facebook is the rule. It is not the exception.

If it weren’t Donald Trump, it would be his opponent. Cambridge Analytica’s programmer is hardly the first coder to build disingenuous software. Except for the open source movement, that’s the free software model. Facebook isn’t doing anything with its data that other social networks wouldn’t do as well, or have done in the past.

And it’s all because we expect the Internet to be free.

Ideas mature. They get reconciled with reality.  They get old. They sell out. My punk-rock high school friends work at banks now. Rock & roll lost its edge and became a commodity. And the Internet isn’t pirated games, and it isn’t Napster anymore.

But it’s built by folks who cut their teeth on it. And now they have kids to feed.

You, me, and billions of others decided we like free so much that we’re willing to sell out our friends, our privacy, our democracy, and even our thought processes in exchange for free service.  We barely consider what those services are, and if they make our lives better.

We need to have a conversation about the real price of free service, and whether it’s worth the social cost.

 

GoDaddy Managed Backup: This is Why We Can't have Nice Things

GoDaddy Managed Backups: Are They Worth It?

So here’s today’s website WTF. GoDaddy Managed Backups. What are they, and can you trust them with your data?

A client has a VPS (Virtual Private Server) through GoDaddy on which we host a variety of websites. He pays an extra fee for GoDaddy Managed Backups which, well… who the hell knows what it does.

In this article we’re going to explore GoDaddy Managed Backups and try to make an informed decision on whether they’re worth the price.

What are GoDaddy Managed Backups

GoDaddy Managed Backups is an add-on service for GoDaddy Dedicated and Virtual Private Server hosting. We know that much. We think. And it’s not cheap, so we can only assume that it’s doing something productive. (Because nobody in the history of the Internet has ever charged money for something utterly useless.)

According to GoDaddy,

A Managed Backup account allows us to backup content from your VPS or Dedicated Server to an off-site location. What are Managed Backups, GoDaddy Support

Great! So as a GoDaddy Virtual Private Server or Dedicated Hosting customer, all I have to do to protect my investment is purchase GoDaddy Managed Backups and my entire server will back up off-site, and I can restore it any time I want!

Nope.

You are not able to access these backups to recover your data; however, you may ask us to restore your data at any time. What are Managed Backups, GoDaddy Support

Okay, so I can’t restore my server myself, but GoDaddy will restore it from Managed Backup as soon as they get around to it, right? 

Nope.

No, we will not overwrite your current data. We will restore the requested content to an empty folder you can access. It will be your responsibility to move the content and overwrite any data. What are Managed Backups, GoDaddy Support

Okay, GoDaddy won’t restore my files. They’ll put the backup in a folder, and from there I can cherry-pick what I need.  So even though it’s going to take hours to move the files, the backup does have everything I need to totally restore my server, right?

Nope!

Our Managed Backups create a copy of all non-system data which is not in use on your server. If a file is in use during the time of our backup, it will not be processed. What are Managed Backups, GoDaddy Support

Goodness.  Well… it backs up all the important stuff, right?

Yeah… about that…

By default, your MS SQL/MySQL databases are not backed up. This is because they are typically in use while we back up your server. What are Managed Backups, GoDaddy Support

So the databases that hold all my data for WordPress, Drupal, Magento, and other programs… they’re gone?

Yeah, you’re pretty much boned. Reich Web Consulting

At this point I decided it was time to have a nice chit-chat with tech support about what my client actually pays for.

Hello Diego at GoDaddy Tech Support. Is Managed Backup sufficient to rebuild my server completely if we experience a catastrophic failure?

… if your server crashes and you see yourself rebuilding it  you can use these backups to get all your files back. But this is not an image of the server, so it wouldn’t work to build the entire server. You would need to configure everything back again. Diego, GoDaddy Support

So in the unlikely event that my entire VPS gets hosed, not only will Managed Backup not contain all the files and databases I need to rebuild my sites, but it won’t contain any of the hours of configuration changes I’ve made to CentOS or Windows to support the services it ran.

Well that’s not good. Hardware fails. Servers get hacked. Virtual environments exist to mitigate these disasters. So if I have a catastrophic failure and Managed Backup doesn’t provide what I need to restore my server, GoDaddy can still roll back to an earlier snapshot, right?

Chances of this happening are close to none but we don’t guarantee that your server will be restore back to a previous date if something like hardware failure occurs. You are responsible for your backups however in this case the Managed Backup plan your client pays for is external and stored with redundancy protocols in place. I wouldn’t worry if I were you. Diego, GoDaddy Support

Diego’s final answer attempted to both cover GoDaddy’s behind, and to reassure me that our sites were totally safe. You can’t have both, Diego. If you actually unpack his reassuring platitudes, he’s saying,

In this case the Managed Backup plan your client pays for–you know, the one that doesn’t actually include everything you need to restore your service–is external and stored with redundancy protocols in place.  I wouldn’t worry if I were you.

You can store my backup on 1,000 disks across 100 different countries, but if that backup doesn’t actually provide what I need to restore my server, it’s still just as useless.

The only possible conclusion I could reach is that GoDaddy Managed Backup is neither well-managed nor a full backup. It offers nowhere near the protection you’d expect out of a serious hosting service, and with so many better options (Azure, anyone?) I wouldn’t make the choice to host with GoDaddy again unless this situation improved.

Unfortunately, this particular GoDaddy Virtual Private server hosts a lot of websites for a lot of clients, and porting them somewhere else on the client’s dime isn’t a realistic option.  So in my next article I’ll talk about some options to make GoDaddy Virtual Private Servers and GoDaddy Managed Hosting a safer long-term hosting solution.

Net Neutrality Explained (And Why You Should Care)

(I apologize ahead of time for the video. I figured out how to fix the sync issue after the fact.)

Introduction

Hi, I’m Brian Reich.  I’m an IT guy at a local tech school, part-time IT consultant.  I’m not famous in my field, I’m not a community leader, and I’m not very good at speaking up.  But helping people that don’t understand technology come to terms with it is a big part of my job, so I feel duty-bound to help everyone understand Net Neutrality and why they should be mad as Hell about it.

What’s Net Neutrality

Net Neutrality is the principle that Internet Service Providers like Verizon, AT&T, Comcast, or Windstream have to treat all data the same no regardless of that data’s purpose, where it came from, or where it’s going.  Basically if I pay Verizon for a 1 meg Internet connection, under normal circumstance I should be able to use the Internet at that speed whether I’m doing work or watching Netflix.

For the last few years Internet Service Providers here in the United States have been operating under an FCC ruling stating that they can’t block lawful content or unreasonably discriminate against lawful network traffic. Can they throttle your bandwidth for downloading bootleg movies, block The Pirate Bay, or terminate your account for illegal activity? You betcha.

But can they do the same while you’re watching Netflix, or visiting a competitor’s website? Nope!

What’s Changed?

So why am I all riled up?

Let me put it this way.  Let’s say you bought a book online and you chose premium shipping.  A day later UPS calls you up and says, since that book didn’t make the UPS Book Club’s Top Ten List, they’re going to have to charge you another 5 bucks to get your package to you on time.  That wouldn’t really seem fair, would it?

Last Tuesday the DC Circuit Court determined that the FCC has no authority to enforce Net Neutrality because ISP’s aren’t considered “common carriers” like telephone and cable companies. Let’s unpack some of the legal mumbo jumbo:

A “common carrier” is just a private company that’s been given authority transports goods (goods in this case being “data”) by the government, and in return for that they need to follow the rules the government gives them. A few examples are oil and gas pipelines, telephone, and cable services.

Now for any of this to make any sense you have to be either willfully ignorant or Amish, because anyone that gets a phone bill knows that most of the companies that offer one of these services, offer all three, often on a single wire. But while their phone and cable business fall under FCC jurisdiction, they just slapped the FCC’s patties and said “hands off our Internet!”

So basically the Verizons and the Comcasts have stepped up to “Big Government” and said “hands off our Internet!”  That’s good, right?

Well, I suppose that depends on which side of the ISP’s monthly invoice you’re on, because this debate isn’t so much about keeping the Internet “free,” as it is about whose brand name is on the shackles.

Internet Providers argue that bringing the Internet under the FCC’s jurisdiction would hurt the technology by slowing growth and raising costs. And if we were talking about full regulatory powers, they might have a point.

The problem is that’s not what’s being discussed.

Up until last week the FCC was imposing a single rule on Internet Providers: you can’t block or discriminate against lawful content.  That’s leaves a lot of room to run your company the way you see fit, and by their own argument American Internet access should have been both cheap and cutting edge. Unfortunately that’s nowhere near the case.

The Truth

The truth is that most Internet Service Providers are terrible stewards of the power they’ve been given.

Have you ever heard the phrase “the myth of American exceptionalism?”  If ever that phrase were true it’s in describing our country’s communications infrastructure.  Last I checked we’re 8th in the world in terms of broadband access, lagging behind such economic titans as Latvia and the Czech Republic. (http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-2480850/Worldwide-broadband-speed-report-puts-UK-9TH-place.html) 8th place isn’t bad, but when you consider we’re getting a lot less and paying a lot more, you might get a little bit upset.

Where I live there are still families who have to connect with dial-up.  The Internet just isn’t made to work at those speeds anymore.  Checking your email is a chore, and doing research for school is impossible. I’m not going to sit here and pretend families are starving to death because they can’t get high-speed Internet, but their educations suffer and, in turn, their employment possibilities and earning potential as well.  Other countries see the writing on the wall.

At this point if you still think you need to rush to the aid of such mom-and-pop establishments as Verizon, AT&T, and Comcast, consider this:

Every byte that travels across the Internet has been paid for. Twice. We consumers pay for our Internet connections.  We pay a specific monthly rate for a certain amount of bandwidth (how much data you can transmit in a certain amount of time).  Websites and Internet services do the same, and it’s usually rolled into something called hosting fees.  Larger web services like YouTube or Netflix usually lease massive Internet connections, but one way or another they pay for it.

In fact the video you’re watching right now was paid for coming and going. What makes any ISP entitled to more money?

Some people here in the United States say “profit shouldn’t be a dirty word!” Well, it shouldn’t be the only word either.

Look at the amazing things that have grown on an open Internet.  Wikipedia. Kahn Academy. YouTube.  There is more human knowledge stored in those three free services than in all of the great libraries in human history combined. And under a more restrictive Internet those ideas would have died on the vine.

Finally, consider competition for a second.  Now I’m not even talking about Internet piracy, I’m talking about stuff like Netflix.  The fact that the same companies that have lobbied to have net neutrality overturned, the same companies that are the gatekeepers to the Internet also happen to offer cable television doesn’t seem a bit suspicious?

Folks like Verizon will tell you that Netflix should have to pay a premium for the massive amount of data they’re pushing out.  But again, Netflix isn’t on the Internet for free.  And you’re not able to access their site for free either.  That data has been bought and paid for twice and there’s no reason other than profiteering or stifling competition that I can see for changing a working system.

This might still all seek pretty trite, but it’s not.  The outcome of this debate affects everybody.  As far as I’m concerned, until mankind wraps its head around space travel and clean energy, the Internet is mankind’s crowning achievement.  The Internet contains the best and worst of what we are as a species.  It documents some of the vilest human beings are capable of.  But it’s also eliminated leveled the playing field and made knowledge and information accessible to everyone.

We’ve already allowed ISP’s to have us over a barrel in terms of cost and quality of service, and if we allow them to fundamentally change the way the Internet works not just here but throughout the world, we’ll be shooting our country and our species in the foot.

Impressions of the Amazon Mechanical Turk

As an alternative to playing hours of pointless Facebook games, I started exploring a service from Amazon called the Mechanical Turk, which it bills as artificial artificial intelligence. The mechanical turk brings people who need tedious tasks performed for pennies together with the folks who are willing to do them.  Naturally, the curiosity of this cheapskate was piqued.

I spent several hours last night and another hour this evening exploring the service and performing a variety of tasks.  My advice? Don’t waste your time.

The tasks that pay the most will end up costing you in the end.  These HITS (MT slang for the task you’re paid to do) will ask you to perform a seemingly innocent task like “testing a submission form on a website” which requires you to enter your cell phone number.  You may make the $20-plus dollars from the HIT , but you’ll be upside down on that profit when your cell phone bill arrives and you’ve been charged for the service you were paid to sign up for.

The most popular sort of task on the Mechanical Turk asks you to do something a little bit unethical.  Become a fan of a particular Facebook page by clicking Like.  Post a comment to a blog with a back-link to a specific website.  These jobs are posted to hyper-inflate the popularity and search ranking of websites, and I presume they’re posted by Search Engine Optimization services who don’t know how to increase your ranking the right way.

Kill It With Fire! How Facebook is Assimilating and Destroying the Internet

It began as a trickle.  An email from Windows Live on behalf of my friend Tricia.  An hour later three more arrive from something called Flixter on behalf of three other friends who signed up for whatever it is the site has to offer. As more websites adapt the new Facebook for Website’s interface in a grab for a slice of their 300 million users, Facebook will quickly become the glue that holds the Web together.  And that’s not a good thing.

The Thing About Glue Is…

Dan Yoder at rocket.ly already outlined 10 Reasons You Should Stop Using Facebook, but let me break it down for you. Facebook is not a responsible steward of your private information and online relationships. As I said, Facebook aims to be the glue that holds the Web together.  But glue–like many building materials–contains formaldehyde, a known respiratory irritant and carcinogen.  In other words it rots your guts from the inside out. Facebook seems to be doing the same to the Web.

If you stay logged into Facebook, any website that implements the new Facebook for Websites API can communicate back to Facebook and perform various actions on your behalf including but not limited to: posting to your wall, and emailing your friends on your behalf. That’s email, not Facebook messages which is an important distinction, especially considering the stringent email archiving requirements of today’s businesses and corporations.  In other words, Facebook and other websites are now sending me emails I have absolutely no control over, and because I work at a school those emails are becoming part of public record.

The Repercussions

I’ve long accepted that anything I do on a social network is public knowledge.  If you don’t want it to be public, then don’t post it online.  This is the law of the land when it comes to Facebook, but do you accept those same conditions for every other website that you visit?

Do you want your coworkers to see a stream of wall posts on your behalf throughout the workday?

Do I want everyone knowing what I rented from Netflix?

For the sake of argument, lets say you’re a closeted atheist/democrat/homosexual/whatever your parents hate.  A stream of your Internet activity would almost certainly out you, were the sites you visit and the news you read to be posted to Facebook.  How would you feel if Facebook came out of the closet for you?  Perhaps angry, perhaps liberated, perhaps thirsty for a lawsuit.

The Internet was never supposed to work like this.  Cookies, the technology that websites use to store data about you as you surf, are “sandboxed” for a reason.  That is, a website can only read cookies that that website has created.  It’s both a safety precaution and a barrier to innovation.  Facebook has breached that barrier and in the process torn that safety net wide open.

What to Do?

Perhaps I’m alone in my reasonable expectation of privacy.  Perhaps not.  But unless something changes, I will be deleting my Facebook account and I won’t be looking back. If you are concerned with privacy and how Facebook uses what used to be personal information about you and your personal relationships, I urge you to do the same.