Six things that need to change

Although I'm generally able to see both sides of an argument, there exists a short list of issues that I just can't comprehend. These are those issues. 1) The RIAA's war on its customers This one has been going on so long as to almost be accepted. Of course, that's their plan. The vast amount of money being poured into lawyers, lobbyists, and scare tactics by the RIAA would have been more than enough to rework t

Although I'm generally able to see both sides of an argument, there exists a short list of issues that I just can't comprehend. These are those issues.

1) The RIAA's war on its customers

This one has been going on so long as to almost be accepted. Of course, that's their plan. The vast amount of money being poured into lawyers, lobbyists, and scare tactics by the RIAA would have been more than enough to rework their long-deceased business model into something for the next generation. For an industry that was built upon pushing the envelope, they certainly can't seem to think outside the CD case. The heavy lobbying in Florida that has resulted in the used CD market there receiving stricter controls than the gun market is just one tiny example.

The RIAA is certainly under attack from every angle -- piracy, slowing CD sales, a massive increase in self-produced music, and flagging interest in marquee acts -- but nearly all of that is their own fault. Instead of embracing the new market, they've been trying to kill it by shipping CDs with rootkits masquerading as DRM schemes, producing lawsuits by the bushel, apparently destroying Internet radio, and projecting an overall public persona that falls somewhere between Al Capone and Stalin. It's just ludicrous.

But then, this is the industry best described in a misquote to Hunter S Thompson: "The music business is a cruel and shallow money trench, a long plastic hallway where thieves and pimps run free, and good men die like dogs. There's also a negative side." His original words were actually describing TV broadcasting, but the sentiment prevails.

2) Broadband Bandits (Update: More on this topic can be found here)

Comcast is the easy target on this one, but there are many perpetrators of this travesty. You know who you are. More importantly, your customers know who you are, and will jump ship in an instant if given the chance. With most of the competition buried in the backyard, and a weakened FCC sitting idly by, Comcast, Verizon, and many other providers are ramping up prices and dropping service levels. They're also applying voodoo AUP interpretations to cut off paying customers that go over some amorphous limit. Many of these companies come from a delivery-only background, where they deliver the signal, and the customer passively accepts it, such as cable TV. Back in the day, this was largely true of the Internet -- Web servers existed in datacenters, ISPs, and universities, and most content was text and the occasional picture. With Flickr, YouTube, MySpace, and the advent of simple videoconferencing, end users are much more apt to be sending nearly as much as they receive, yet most broadband connections are still ridiculously asynchronous. I just ordered Verizon DSL to provide a backup circuit. $30/mo for a 3Mb/768k circuit. This means that uploading a few 5 megapixel photos will take me roughly 3 minutes, and completely obliterate that 3Mb/s download rate due to upstream congestion, even though I'm not downloading anything.

There are a few reasons that most of these wildly unbalanced plans exist. Contracts with peering partners generally dictate up/down ratios to be maintained (eg, saving the ISP money). They also prevent customers from using videoconferencing and VoIP technologies to their full potential, resulting in poor performance. This forces the customer to only use approved methods of communication (eg, paying the carrier more per month). And lastly, they've always been that way, right?

As a sideline to all this nonsense, many carriers go so far as to block well known ports, such as Web, IPSec, and SMTP ports to residential lines. True, most people aren't running Web servers from their house, but lots of them are just trying to connect to the corporate VPN. To do that, you need a business-level contract for way more money per month and usually lower bandwidth. What a bargain.

Certainly, not all carriers act this way. Comcast and Verizon DSL are famous for it, but Time Warner's RoadRunner seems to be above this chicanery, at least so far. If AT&T wasn't dismantled nearly 25 years ago, we'd still be renting our phones from Ma Bell for $20 a month, and our telecommunications infrastructure would be the best the third-world had to offer. At least Verizon is offering FIOS in some areas, yet I know of entire communities that have no broadband whatsoever. Wasn't there a Universal Service initiative started over a decade ago? Note as you read that page, you see "The Federal-State Joint Board on Universal Service recommended that the Federal Communications Commission take immediate action to rein in explosive growth in high-cost universal service support disbursements. The Joint Board is also seeking comment on proposals for long-term, comprehensive reform of the high-cost program. 5/1/07." This is because we've gotten nothing for a whole lot of something.

Just ask a South Korean how much they spend on the 100Mbit Internet circuit in their house. CNet was talking about 20Mbit links, universal video-on-demand on the cheap back in 2004. Not much has changed in three years, except their average bandwidth has increased fivefold. Heck, just ask them about the Internet service to their mobile phones -- it beats anything in the US by far. This brings me to number three.

3) The US is a mobile communications wasteland

Crazy, indecipherable "plans", "anytime minutes", $0.10 per text message, $0.003 per KB (read that any way you want), and current phones that were cutting edge in Europe when John Paul II was still wandering around the Vatican. That's the state of mobile connectivity in the US today. I've heard more than a few foreigners describe a trip to a T-Mobile store as "like visiting a cellphone museum". Given what they're used to in Europe and Asia, I have little doubt this is true. Wireless carriers in the US have been raking in money hand over fist for the past five years, riding the cellphone boom as high as it will go. During all this, they've been slowly doling out features to their users like cake to the starving, while the rest of the world runs circles around us.

The pending release of Apple's iPhone may spark something here, just as the iPod blew the portable MP3 player market apart. Hey, has Steve Jobs ever made a mistake?

4) Airport Wifi

This one's personal. I understand that fleecing business travelers for $10 or so during a flight delay is part of the business model, but even crack dealers give away the first few tastes. Can't we get 30 minutes free, and a reasonable hourly rate thereafter? I can't believe that any airport Wifi installation hasn't already paid for itself a hundred times over. I'll continue to hold Manchester Airport up as a shining example -- wide coverage, free service, no splash page. It's just beautiful.

5) Spam and the Windows Protection Racket

This one will never disappear, but it can be marginalized. If thousands and thousands of compromised Windows systems were to be patched, replaced, or burned in effigy, the volume of spam worldwide would be drastically reduced. Couple this to viruses, adware, malware, and so on, and there's very little that your PC can't do -- your taxes, spreadsheets, Web surfing, and spamming the bejeezus out of thousands of people. I think we may be near the top of a Bell curve on that one. Vista is more secure than XP (which isn't saying much) but the sheer numbers of wide-open Windows systems on the Internet will necessarily begin to decline due to hardware failure, if nothing else. If the replacements are tougher to compromise, then the spam levels will abate somewhat, as will other nefarious afflictions of the digital age, and we'll all be a little safer and saner.

Of course, if Windows were suddenly secure, it would directly affect the revenue of hundreds of smaller software vendors hawking Windows protection applications, but I can't feel too bad for Symantec or McAfee -- they'll survive.

6) Oops! I lost your ID. My bad.

Every week or so, we hear about the theft of another million identities from a laptop or network intrusion. Sometimes it's a corporation, sometimes a university, or sometimes the federal government. Sometimes it's your ID, sometimes it's mine. Pretty soon, it'll be nearly everyone that's ever had a credit card, applied for a loan, opened a bank account, or was simply assigned a social security number.

There are no formal penalties for this invasive personal intrusion, and some companies simply don't tell anyone that the event occurred. If a company doesn't have adequate security and lets a few hundred thousand database records flap in the wind, the victim will at best spend days straightening out a credit mess and changing all their accounts to new numbers. At worst, they'll lose money, their credit rating, and maybe even their job through no fault of their own. If a department store chains' physical security was so lax as to have their customers violently mugged en masse simply for being in one of their stores, you can bet they wouldn't be in business any more. What would be worse would be the poor people that got mugged because they were in a different store, but that store told the muggers they were there. Identity theft isn't much different -- since your ID is bought and sold to whomever, without your approval.

We need accountability for data security lapses of this magnitude, plain and simple. We only get one identity, and when it has been dragged through the mud it can take years to recover, and sometimes it's impossible. Unfortunately, it will take new laws and stiff penalties to see any change here, since it's apparently more cost effective to throw your customers under the bus (see number one, above).

It's obvious that the US is going through a period of massive change, largely related to the presence of the Internet and the forces that can exert some influence on it. Some of these issues may be just growing pains, but some of them may be cancer. Thus, it's very important that we not shortchange our technological future for short-term economic and bureaucratic issues. We've sold our society to the electron, and we'll be beholden to anyone who wields it better than we do.

Copyright © 2007 IDG Communications, Inc.

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