Some Cord Cutting Options

One of the things that many people still pay for is traditional cable. Cable initially began with only a few channels but as appetites for more entertainment grew, more channels were added. Today, you can get upwards of 200 channels or more. The increase in channels has slowly also increased the price. The biggest issue for those with cable is that it is pricey. There are bundles, and these certainly reduce the cost, but these bundles often include items that consumers may not want. One way to reduce the cost of cable, is to cut the cord and go with other solutions. Cable is still dominate but is seeing a slow decline. By the end of 2016, almost 22% of all households did not have cable. This is certainly only going to increase as time goes on.

One of the issues with cord cutting is that while it can certainly be cheaper, subscribing to a lot of services can quickly become even more expensive than traditional cable. One aspect that has held many people back is the need for live sports. This has certainly begun changing with some services offering sports packages.

There are a wide variety of different options. These range from only using an antenna for local channels and just going with a streaming service like Netflix or Amazon Prime or to a complete cable replacement. You can also use another streaming service. I looked into some of the alternatives to cable. This is by no means an extensive list, and is for the U.S. options may be different for other countries.

Some of these services offer additional packages, including sports, but these are not included in the table. These are only for the standard packages for each.

Here is what I have found:

Service Package Name Base Cost Streams Channels Cost Per Channel Cost Per Stream
Playstation Vue Access $39.99 5 46 $0.87 $8.00
Playstation Vue Core $44.99 5 61 $0.74 $9.00
YouTube TV   $35.00 3 47 $0.74 $11.67
SlingTV Orange + Blue $45.00 4 46 $0.98 $11.25
SlingTV Orange $20.00 1 26 $0.77 $20.00
SlingTV Bue $25.00 3 41 $0.61 $8.33
DirectTV Now Live A Little $35.00 2 64 $0.55 $17.50
DirectTV Now Just Right $50.00 2 87 $0.57 $25.00

As you can see, these services vary widely in what they offer versus cost. The most cost effective, overall, is the Playstation Vue service. Whether you choose the “Access” or “Core” service, the are amongst the lowest per stream, since they offer the highest number of streams at five streams. Conversely, DirectTV Now has the lowest per-channel price, but also is the most expensive “per stream” since it only provides at most two simultaneous streams.

If you are looking to reduce your monthly cost, but still want a fair number of channels, Playstation Vue may be a service to consider.

There is a whole spreadsheet that includes the channels that each service offers, available on Google Sheets. If you would like me to include a service not shown, let me know.

Vizio Fined by Federal Trade Commission

I normally do not report on technology stories outside of Apple, but the recent story of Vizio being fined by the Federal Trace Commission (FTC) is one that I determined warranted some coverage.

Backstory

The FTC has fined Vizio $2.2 Million for their behaviors. The backstory is that in 2014 Vizio began tracking what viewers were watching. This was done by capturing a set of pixels on the screen, sending this information, along with other information, to their servers. Through the use of machine learning, Vizio was able to match those pixels to a vast catalog of shows. This gathering occurred on a second-by-second basis. The information gathered was then aggregated and sold to third-party advertisers. This information that was obtained included demographics, location, and viewing habits. If it was merely a mechanism for gathering what was watched, it may not be considered too bad, but it was more. Despite how bad this was, it was not just TVs that were made after 2014, but that Vizio went back and proactively enabled this on TVs as far back as 2011. The primary complaint was that Vizio did not get a viewer’s consent before performing this action.

Problems with this

The biggest issue that I have with this, besides the fact that this was being done without the knowledge of users, is that Vizio has been the only one who has been caught doing this. Does this mean that they are the only company that is performing in this behavior? I highly doubt it. It is very likely that many other manufacturers are also performing this action.

Bandwidth Usage

One aspect that is not always readily recognized in today’s technology-laden world is the amount of bandwidth being used. While the information may have been sent in batches, it still uses some bandwidth of every user. Depending on how much the TV was used, this could easily add up. Take this with consideration that many users now fall into data caps and this uses up that bandwidth.

Mitigations that can be done now

There are a few ways to not have this occur. The first is disconnect the TV from your network. If the TV is connected via a physical ethernet cable (which is unlikely for most users), you can simply unplug it. However, if it is connected via Wireless, you will need to disconnect it from the Wireless, and if possible, set the TV to completely “forget” the network, so it cannot reconnect on its own.

The downside to do this though, is that since it is a “Smart TV”, if you use any of the built-in services, like Netflix, you may not be able to use them. This could likely include not being able to watch Netflix in 4K.

Streaming Boxes

Another possible solution is to use an external 3rd party box, like Apple TV, Amazon Fire TV, Amazon Fire TV Stick, or even an Roku, in conjunction with disconnecting the TV from the network. While some of these devices may also be tracking what you watch, it is more likely that it is for their own purposes and not to sell to third-parties. However, you will want to read the agreements before saying anything definitive.

Long-term Fixes

There is no simple fix that can be made for this. The fix has to come either through governmental regulation or through industry regulations. The other option, which is not likely, is for people to tell the industry with their dollar. This is likely due to the limited availability for “dumb” TVs on the market. There is a small contingent of people who would be willing to pay a bit more for a TV that did not have any “smart” capabilities. I know I would be one of those people.

Final Thoughts

The solution for this problem is not an easy one to determine. It may take some pushback from consumers to demand that privacy regulations be created so that the consumer is in charge of how their information is used. This must come with regulation. The fine of Vizio is designed to let all manufacturers know that they must now get explicit, not implicit, permission from users before gathering the information. The damage, from the existing gathering and selling of information, is already done. Being required to get permissions from users will undoubtedly ultimately hurt the bottom line of the television manufacturers, since fewer users will agree to the collection, thus, they will not be able to sell as much information to advertisers.

It would behove the government to begin lobbying even larger fines for any company that performs in the same manner as Vizio. If the government is truly intent on curbing this type of abuse, as well as others, making it hurt financially may be an effective way of doing just that.

Washington Post

Thoughts on 2016

I have been trying to determine how to sum up 2016. I think the most accurate term would be “shit show”. Regardless of how you feel as though 2016 turned out, it was undeniably a surprising year. There were many unexpected aspects to 2016. The most surprising, to many, was the election of Donald Trump as President of the United States; followed closely by the exiting of Britain from the European Union, often called “Brexit” for short.

Whether it be from being able to sail across and ocean, to flying across the same ocean, or even taking a train across a vast country, there is one thing that the march of progress has done, it has made the world a smaller place. This is even more abundantly true with the rise of the internet, and most particularly social media sites. Social media is a double-edged sword. This has occurred by allowing us to communicate with those anywhere on the planet. This allows us to be exposed to ideas and people would never have another instance to engage in. One of the ways that people learn about news that they may not normally hear, is through Social Media.

There have been many people who will say “Good Riddance to 2016”. Even though they are consciously aware of the fact that a year cannot cause problems, they do look towards something as a scape goat. Sometimes this is due to the death of celebrities and those known by a significant number of people around the world.

As with any year, a plethora of household names have passed away during 2016. Some of these include Alan Rickman, Alan Thicke, Anton Scalia, Anton Yelchin, Arnold Palmer, Carrie Fisher, David Bowie, Debbie Reynolds, Elie Wiesel, Fidel Castro, Florence Henderson, Gary Shandling, Gene Wilder, George Michael, Harper Lee, Janet Reno, John Glenn, Kenny Baker, Leonard Cohen, Merle Haggard, Muhammed Ali, Nancy Reagan, Pat Conroy, Prince, Umberto Eco, William Christopher and many many more; in fact too many to list. This includes those that are not as well known, but none-the-less have impacted people across the world.

Technology’s ability to expose people to more than they could have in the past, does mean that more people have the capability of becoming more well known. This social ability of Social Media also means that collectively we can grieve for those that have died. Even with the coming together that Social Media allows, it can also cause some to be very derisive. Compounding this downside to is that some individuals do not always recognize that there are actual human beings on the other side of the wire. This means that when people interact with others, they say and do things that they would not say or do if they were in physical proximity of others.

This cognitive dissidence has lead to some of the most contentious stories of the year. Besides the aforementioned election of Donald Trump as the 46th President of the United States and the British exit of the European Union, there have been many other stories that have caused some rancor. The biggest has been the issues with race between minorities and various Police Departments. These stories do not just minorities being shot by Police, although a majority of them are just this type of story. Some of the cities that have had these stories are Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge and Philando Castile in Falcon Heights, Minnesota.

One of the biggest stories has been the leaking of emails between some Democratic National Committee members. While the emails themselves were mostly innocuous, the leak itself was, and still is, the more worrisome part. It has been determined that Russia is behind the hack. Whilst the hack itself is definitely problematic, the influence of the hack on the United States election is the bigger of the issues.

As I write this, we are entering the waning hours of 2016. With 2017, we are entering a contentious time with nuclear powers threatening each other. A defector from North Korea, now in South Korea, has indicated that North Korea may have full nuclear capabilities by the end of 2017. With the Russian hacking of the United States Election, and the unknown ties between Russia’s Vladimir Putin and President Elect Donald Trump, we are entering a very unstable time. The progress that has been made within the United States is possibly in peril due to the incoming Congress of the United States and the aims of President Elect Trump.

Despite how bad 2016 has been, it is my hope that 2017 will be better; not just for race relations, but for everything that is happening throughout the world. We, as humans, are the only ones who are capable of being kinder to one another, and we are the only ones who are able to come together and come to some consensus and compromise and learn to live with each other. Here is to hoping that 2017 is better than we all expect and some of the regression that has been experienced in 2016 is reversed and we all get back into making progress.

Apple v. FBI: Apple’s Response

Apple has filed its motion to dismiss the court order that would compel Apple to write custom software to allow the FBI to bypass the security mechanisms on an iPhone 5c that possibly contains data from one of the perpetrators of the December 2015 shootings in San Bernadino, California.

As a note, I am not a lawyer (nor do I pretend to play one on the Internet). So these are strictly my own thoughts about the motion and the case in general. This case is very complex and has many aspects to it. I will not try to ascertain every issue surrounding the case, but will try to point out the ones that I think are relevant.

The Facts

Below are the facts, as far as I can ascertain, about the case. If there are some that are relevant that I have omitted, or if some of these are not correct, please let me know.

  • The Courts have ordered Apple to comply with an order that compels Apple, under the All Writs Act of 1789, to assist the Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) with defeating the security on the iPhone 5c in question in order to obtain the information on the device.
  • The assistance being asked includes writing software that has never been written, nor would Apple willingly write.
  • The iPhone 5c in question is owned by the San Bernadino County Public Health Department (SBCPHD).
  • The iCloud password was changed by the SBCPHD at the request of the FBI.
  • Apple suggested to the FBI to bring the iPhone to a known network (as in the SBCPHD wireless or the suspect’s home network), to allow the iPhone to perform an iCloud Backup.
  • Apple wanted to work with the FBI and asked the FBI to keep the request under seal. The FBI refused and made it public; thereby forcing the issue into the open.

Some of the FBI and Department of Justice (DOJ) Arguments

  • This is a one-off case.
  • This falls under the All Writs Act of 1789.
  • Complying does not require much effort on Apple’s part.

Some of Apple’s Arguments

  • This is not a one-off case.
  • Would be an undue burden.
  • Violates the First and Fifth Amendments of the Constitution.

The Motion to Vacate the Order

I read through the 65 page motion and a few passages really stuck out to me.

In addition, compelling Apple to create software in this case will set a dangerous precedent for conscripting Apple and other technology companies to develop technology to do the government’s bidding in untold future criminal investigations. If the government can invoke the All Writs Act to compel Apple to create a special operating system that undermines important security measures on the iPhone, it could argue in future cases that the courts should compel Apple to create a version to track the location of suspects, or secretly use the iPhone’s microphone and camera to record sound and video.

Having just finished re-listening to George Orwell’s book, and the movie based on the book, 1984, if Apple is compelled to comply, we will very soon be entering into 1984 territory.


“As Apple has explained, the technical assistance sought here requires vastly more than simply pressing a “few buttons.”

This is referencing the previous instances where Apple was asked to comply with bypassing the passcode for older iPhones running older versions of iOS. With these versions of iOS, the passcode on these devices could more easily be bypassed without much effort from Apple. What would equate to “pressing a few buttons”.


But compelling minimal assistance to surveil or apprehend a criminal (as in most of the cases the government cites), or demanding testimony or production of things that already exist (akin to exercising subpoena power), is vastly different, and significantly less intrusive, than conscripting a private company to create something entirely new and dangerous. There is simply no parallel or precedent for it.

What the FBI is asking for is something that has never been done, nor has any company ever been compelled to do previously.


Under well-settled law, computer code is treated as speech within the meaning of the First Amendment…The Supreme Court has made clear that where, as here, the government seeks to compel speech, such action triggers First Amendment protections.

Apple is arguing, as far as I understand it, that since computer code is considered free speech, Apple cannot be compelled to create computer code, which is their first amendment right not to do.


Lastly, it will have to be signed with Apple’s cryptographic key verifying that it is Apple-authorized software. Absent Apple’s proper cryptographic signature, this device will not load GovtOS…Apple would not agree to sign GovtOS voluntarily because it is not software that Apple wants created, deployed or released.

This is similar to the one above. The only way for iPhones to be able to load software onto an iPhone is with Apple’s cryptographic key used to sign software. Without this signature the software will not load onto an iPhone.


The virtual world is not like the physical world. When you destroy something in the physical world, the effort to recreate it is roughly equivalent to the effort required to create it in the first place. When you create something in the virtual world, the process of creating an exact and perfect copy is as easy as a computer key stroke because the underlying code is persistent.

This argument is one of Apple’s primary concerns. If this was a “one off” creation, as the FBI states, Apple could destroy the software. Unfortunately, it’s not that easy. Apple would likely be required to retain the code, along with all of the accompanying documentation to be able to indicate in a court how it went about creating the software. This would require them to have documentation about this as well, meaning that Apple could not simply “destroy” the software after its use.


The All Writs Act, first enacted in 1789 and on which the government bases its entire case, “does not give the district court a roving commission” to conscript and commandeer Apple in this manner…In fact, no court has ever authorized what the government now seeks, no law supports such unlimited and sweeping use of the judicial process, and the Constitution forbids it.

Apple is arguing that the use of the All Writs Act does not apply in this case because it would give the FBI and other law enforcement agencies the ability to do whatever they want, whenever they want.


In addressing the twin needs of law enforcement and privacy, Congress, through the Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act (CALEA), specified when a company has an obligation to assist the government with decryption of communications, and made clear that a company has no obligation to do so where, as here, the company does not retain a copy of the decryption key. 47 U.S.C. § 1002(b)(3). Congress, keenly aware of and focusing on the specific area of dispute here, thus opted not to provide authority to compel companies like Apple to assist law enforcement with respect to data stored on a smartphone they designed and manufactured.

Since Apple does not retain the decryption key, it is not able to meet the requirements. The decryption key is derived from a Unique Identifier (UID) that is created during the fabrication process, and the user’s passcode. Apple never knows the UID, and without this, it is nearly impossible to break the encryption without the passcode.


The last one, is just a funny one.

Indeed, as the Supreme Court has recognized, “[t]he term ‘cell phone’ is itself misleading shorthand;…these devices are in fact minicomputers” that “could just as easily be called cameras, video players, rolodexes, calendars, tape recorders, libraries, diaries, albums, televisions, maps, or newspapers.” Riley v. California, 134 S. Ct. 2473, 2488–89 (2014) (observing that equating the “data stored on a cell phone” to “physical items” “is like saying a ride on horseback is materially indistinguishable from a flight to the moon”).

It is a good analogy. A “Cell Phone” these days are being used as a phone less and less. The functions are well beyond this these days. The comparison is quite accurate.


My Thoughts

Before I read Apple’s arguments, I decided that I was on the side of privacy and security. After reading Apple’s arguments I stand by this opinion even more. I think Apple makes a compelling case against having to follow this order. What the FBI is asking Apple to do, Apple does not want to do. It goes against their core principles of privacy and security for their customers. Furthermore, it goes against what the Supreme Court has already ruled is permissible under the All Writs Act of 1789.

As Apple has argued, it is not up to the federal government agencies to be given carte blanche to use any method that they want to gain access. Congress has already written the laws to restrict what law enforcement agencies are able to do.

This fight is long from over and will not be settled anytime soon. It is entirely possible that it will make its way to the Supreme Court. We shall see. It is likely that there will be future posts regarding this case in the future.

Update February 29th, 2016

I wrote a majority of this story last week when Apple responded, but had not been able to post it until now. Today has brought an interesting change. In a similar case to the one in San Bernadino, there has been a ruling by Magistrate Judge James Orenstein. The case involved the government used the argument of the All Writs Act of 1789 to compel Apple to bypass the passcode on an Apple iPhone. This one was for a case involving drugs.

Judge Ornstein has denied the government’s motion. His introduction states:

The government seeks an order requiring Apple, Inc. (“Apple”) to bypass the passcode
security on an Apple device. It asserts that such an order will assist in the execution of a search warrant previously issued by this court, and that the All Writs Act, 28 U.S.C. § 1651(a) (the “AWA”), empowers the court to grant such relief. Docket Entry (“DE”) 1 (Application). For the reasons set forth below, I conclude that under the circumstances of this case, the government has failed to establish either that the AWA permits the relief it seeks or that, even if such an order is authorized, the discretionary factors I must consider weigh in favor of granting the motion. More specifically, the established rules for interpreting a statute’s text constrain me to reject the government’s interpretation that the AWA empowers a court to grant any relief not outright prohibited by law. Under a more appropriate understanding of the AWA’s function as a source of residual authority to issue orders that are “agreeable to the usages and principles of law,” 28 U.S.C. § 1651(a), the relief the government seeks is unavailable because Congress has considered legislation that would achieve the same result but has not adopted it. In addition, applicable case law requires me to consider three factors in deciding whether to issue an order under the AWA: the closeness of Apple’s relationship to the underlying criminal conduct and government investigation; the burden the requested order would impose on Apple; and the necessity of imposing such a burden on Apple. As explained below, after reviewing the facts in the record and the parties’ arguments, I conclude that none of those factors justifies imposing on Apple the obligation to assist the government’s investigation against its will. I therefore deny the motion.

This ruling likely means that the case will be appealed, Even so, this ruling will likely bolster Apple’s case in San Bernadino.

There is also this footnote from the Judge:

In considering the burden the requested relief would impose on Apple, it is entirely appropriate to take into account the extent to which the compromise of privacy and data security that Apple promises its customers affects not only its financial bottom line, but also its decisions about the kind of corporation it aspires to be. The fact that the government or a judge might disapprove Apple’s preference to safeguard data security and customer privacy over the stated needs of a law enforcement agency is of no moment: in the absence of any other legal constraint, that choice is Apple’s to make, and I must take into account the fact that an order compelling Apple to abandon that choice would impose a cognizable burden on the corporation that is wholly distinct from any direct or indirect financial cost of compliance.

The judge is absolutely correct in this. This is the type of Judge that we need not just on the lower courts, but also on the Supreme Court.

To read the full ruling, you can go here. It is a full 50 pages for the response.

Apple’s Answers on Security

Last week Apple’s CEO Time Cook published a letter regarding Apple’s stance on refusing to follow a judge’s order. This created uproar within the technology community; and rightfully so given the ramifications that this case will have on future generations.

This morning Apple has published a Frequently Asked Questions page regarding their letter.

I recommend that everybody go and read it. It embodies why I signed the Petition that asks the White House to stop attempting to compel companies to create backdoors in their products.

Streaming Companies: How to Improve the Customer Experience

It is the season to watch halloween-based or scary movies. Now I have my list of halloween/scary movie that I watch every year. The list is at the end of this article. Weirdly, I had watched all of the movies that I normally see so I went looking for more.

I subscribe to Netflix and have an Amazon Prime account. While looking for movies it occurred to me that neither of these two services has a list of halloween/scary movies. Sure, they both have the capability to search based on genre, as well as suggestions for similar titles, but they do not have a list of available halloween-based movies. The closest that either service comes, is when Netflix suggests “Titles related to”. This at least shows similar movies.

I find it quite strange that neither of these services provides this functionality. I know it would take some on-going man power to accomplish, but in the end it would provide some good will with their customers.

It may be too late to do a list for Halloween movies, but they could easily do ones for Thanksgiving and definitely Christmas.

 

Halloween/Scary Movies
Title Amazon Apple
28 Days Later Amazon Apple
28 Weeks Later Amazon Apple
Attack the Block Amazon Apple
Battle: Los Angeles Amazon Apple
Cloverfield Amazon Apple
Cockney’s VS. Zombies Amazon Apple
Contagion Amazon Apple
The Crazies Amazon Apple
Dawn of the Dead Amazon Apple
The Happening Amazon Apple
Hocus Pocus Amazon Apple
Hot Fuzz Amazon Apple
It’s the Great Pumpkin Charlie Brown Amazon Apple
Knowing Amazon Apple
Outbreak Amazon Apple
Scary Movie Amazon Apple
Scary Movie 2 Amazon Apple
Scary Movie 3 Amazon Apple
Scream Amazon Apple
Scream 2 Amazon Apple
Scream 3 Amazon Apple
Scream 4 Amazon Apple
Shaun of the Dead Amazon Apple
Super 8 Amazon Apple
The Village Amazon Apple
World War Z Amazon Apple
Zombeavers (Just added this year, Not for kids) Amazon Apple
Zombieland Amazon Apple

Missing aspect to fully Autonomous Cars

One of the improvements that many people have been thinking about is autonomous cars. We know that Google is working on autonomous cars. it has been speculated that Apple is also working on autonomous cars.

Earlier this week I was listening to episode 171 of the 99 Percent Invisible podcast titled “Johnnycab (Automation Paradox, pt. 2)“.In that episode they discuss how within 10 to 20 years. As the episode title suggests, they indicate that eventually we will not be manually driving cars and everything will be automated.

One of the ways that this will occur is through small incremental changes. While it is entirely possible that this will occur, I do not think as though this will occur. There are many reasons as to why. This includes people who will prefer to be in full control of their cars. Along with this, I think that one aspect that people overlook. That aspect is how often people buy new cars.

People are very willing to replace their personal technology, like cell phones, computers, and tablets, every two to three years. When they do replace these items, typically these items are not significantly different from the item they are replacing. With phones, computers and tablets, these are generally the same shape and size. The only different aspects may be the speed of the device, storage, as well as some of the capabilities. Users generally understand how these newer devices operate, without much apprehension.

Conversely, one of the things that people do not replace often is their cars. Usually people hold onto cars for many year longer than their personal electronics. According to Kelly Blue Book[footnote]Average length of U.S. vehicle ownership hit an all-time high[/footnote], the average length of ownership of a car is about 57 months, or four year and nine months. Similarly, the average length of ownership of a truck is 129.6 months, or 10.8 years.

When people do buy new vehicles, these are often significant jumps in terms functionality. For instance, in my car, from 2006, there is no bluetooth connectivity, no auxiliary jack, no navigation system, or even remote assistance. Once I buy a new a car, it is very likely that any future car I purchase will have these items. Honestly, all my next car needs is an auxiliary jack and a small spot for a clock.

Now imagine going from a Model-T to a fully loaded 2015 car. One that includes all of the latest technology. For some, this is exactly what the transition from a car that you drive yourself to a fully autonomous car.

It is my opinion that people will eventually warm up to the idea of fully autonomous cars. However, I do think as though it will take longer than 10 to 20 years that was postulated. I think it will likely be closer to 50 years before this occurs. It will likely take the replacement of an entire generation in order to have fully autonomous

While we never truly know what the future holds, it is not likely that everybody will be willing to have fully autonomous cars. There are many reasons. As mentioned above, one of them is that some people will always prefer driving, but even this, as life has always shown, the old way of doing things will always eventually go away. The second is that some will think that autonomous cars should never exist and eschew them entirely.

There are many other aspects that need to be determined before autonomous cars become a reality. One of these aspects is who is liable if an autonomous car gets into an accident and severely injures someone. If autonomous cars are to be a thing, all of these aspects will be figured out, most likely by lawyers.

I do have one last thought, will they the industry call autonomous cars, Autos Squared or Square Autos, or maybe even abbreviate it as Autos2?

Changing Analytics

Since the announcement of content blockers in iOS 9, many have speculated what impact it would have on ads on the web as well as the tracking of users that has been present on the web for the last decade and a half.

Most content blocker on iOS will block a significant portion of third-party content. This could be a javascript library like jQuery, web fonts, social sharing plugins, or even images. Third-party content is any content that is not natively hosted by the site that a user is visiting.

One of the primary functions for loading third-party content are analytic, and tracking, sites. These analytics engines, while performing analytics for the site, also gather information about the users. The information gathered by these analytics firms include things that users would expect, like the HTTP request, the user’s IP Address, and web browser. However, what analytic firms also collect include screen resolution and many other items. This is done via a tracking cookie.

The issue with this setup is that if many sites use the same centrally-hosted analytics engine, that analytics site can correlate, through the tracking cookie, all of the information about that individual and create a full picture of the user. This could be more than just which sites are visited, but what links are clicked on, which ads have been seen and any number of other measurements. Many of these analytics site are ones that provide free services. When this occurs, the visitors of the sites that have opted to use the analytics engine become the product.

One of the problems on the web is that if people have resigned themselves that ads are inevitable, they do so in hopes of being served relevant ads. Yet, in order to get the relevant ads users must be tracked. The problem, for many, is not that users are being tracked but the fact that information that is tracked is being sold to advertisers. An additional problem is that it only takes a small amount of information to truly be able to uniquely identify someone. If it were only the websites doing the tracking, many individuals would not have a problem with this arrangement.

The reason that most would not have a problem with this arrangement is that when you visit a website, and do not pay for the content on that website, it is understandable that a website would want to know who is visiting the site, as well as keeping some basic information about the individuals who visit the site.

One of the things that I have been pondering, particularly since the iOS 9 content blocker fiasco is what alternatives to Google Analytics there are. I did some searching, tried a couple of different free and open source packages, and ultimately I have decided on trying out Open Web Analytics.

Open Web Analytics will work as a standalone product or as a plugin for WordPress. With Open Analytics, none of the information leaves the site where the product is installed. It is not sent off to third-party aggregation sites where it will be analyzed. Since Sunday morning I have been running both Open Web Analytics and Google Analytics. I am running both in tandem to be able to to see how close the two are in relation to number of visitors, and individual page counts. It will likely not be long before I decide to turn off Google Analytics entirely.

There area a myriad of reasons behind this change. The first is that I cannot, in good conscience, allow readers of my site to be unwillingly forced to use Google Analytics and be subjected to unnecessary third-party tracking and aggregation. While yes, the content is free, it still does not feel right to have visitors be tracked in this manner.

The second is the speed of the site. With any third-party loading of content, inevitably the site is slowed, even if it is just milliseconds, it is slowness. I would like to have a responsive website, in both styling as well as load times. The best way to do this is to eliminate as much of the third-party items that load on a site.

It may be that I am an idealist, but I would like to think that more independent websites would choose to run their own analytics. I know it is not possible for all sites to do so, but it would be nice to see this change occur on those that can.

I would think that if enough sites opted out of using Google and other analytics aggregators, that maybe these companies would start realizing that users are not satisfied with the current state of tracking and change their practices. Particularly in Google’s case, if ad revenue starts to take a major hit due to content blockers, it may open their eyes a bit. Sadly, I am not optimistic that this will help in any meaningful way.

Web Advertising Issues

Back in December of 2013, I wrote on The Tech Scoop about a debacle I had with Google Adsense. To summarize the issue, a couple family members clicked on a few ads, and Google thought this was fraud and thus violated Google’s terms of service. So, they blocked my account.

After filling out their appeal form indicating what happened, and being completely truthful, Google decided that I did not do enough to “mitigate the issue” and permanently banned my account from the Google Adsense program. Being banned from Google Adsense has some other ramifications. One of those is that since that account was disabled, I cannot monetize any of my YouTube Videos. I only found out this latter fact yesterday when I was uploading a video and looked into possibly adding ads to them.

Similarly, with all of the talk about iOS content blockers and the state of advertising on the web, I have been thinking about the issues with web advertising. Besides the increase in the number of ads, ads that take over an entire page, and even interstitial ads, and the horrible tracking. There is another issue that I have been thinking about, and one that has not been mentioned in what I have read. That issue is the lack of alternatives to the big players Google Adsense.

There are a number of other companies that may be available, but these are usually invite only. For sites like mine that do not get a lot of traffic, there really are no other viable alternatives. I looked into Microsoft’s Advertising and applied, but they rejected my applications. There are some companies, like The Deck that do not use advertising to track users across the web.

Instead, they pay up-front for the number of impressions. One this is exhausted, that is it. They only thing they track is the number of impressions. They do not have any personally identifiable information about the users who view the sites on which the ads are shown.

There is a certain segment of the population that is completely against ads. The current wisdom is that approximately 15 percent of web users employ an ad or tracking blocker. However, I do think as though a vast majority of internet users are not opposed to ads, but are opposed to the insidious tracking that has occurred and continues to occur. I, like many, understand that advertising is a necessary fact of the Internet, and society in general.

One of the things that I have not seen is a real alternative to the existing advertising model. What I would like to see is a service that caters to smaller sites. One that does not track its users, and models itself on sites like The Deck, although maybe not necessarily technology focused.

If advertisers are willing to make meaningful changes, something will have to be done in order to allow users to trust advertising companies again. It will be a tough and long road to get advertising aggregators back in the good graces of web users.

Pluto

Above is the latest photo that we have of Pluto. Below is how we saw Pluto in 1996. This is a big day for humanity.

Pluto.1996

As a note, here are some interesting facts about the New Horizons space craft:

  • Launched on January 19th, 2006
  • Has a 12Mhz processor
  • Traveling at 16.26 kilometers per second, or 36,373 mph
  • Used Gravity assist from Jupiter on February 28th, 2007
  • Has a 1kbps connection while out at Pluto
  • Latency is 4.5 hours for one-way communication