The ISPs are not the Internet

I have written in several locations explaining my objection to the FCC reversal of net neutrality. I have received pushback from some pro-business defenders so I have been trying to find a way to explain my position. This represents another attempt.The Internet and ISPs are different things.

Key points in my position

  • The ISPs should not be understood by consumers as “the Internet”
  • The Internet is already and should continue as a utility. The Internet is content and source neutral.
  • ISPs offer access to the Internet. The issue of neutrality that concerns me and others applies to ISPs. ISPs can have business interests other than selling access to the Internet. These multiple business interests can be in conflict. For example, a phone company allowing voice over the Internet (VOIP) or a cable company selling movies and allowing users to access Netflix. Issues such as net neutrality concern opportunities ISPs can and could use to their financial advantage (e.g., slow video from some providers to favor video they sell or companies paying for privileged access)
  • The logic for keeping government out of business matters is typically that competition will assure consumers get a good deal. This is the position commonly taken by politicians who object to government regulations. However, the reality is that a large proportion of those who want to access the Internet have one and perhaps two choices. Meaningful competition is seldom available. Options that would allow greater competition such as community wifi are fought by ISPs typically by contributions to politicians. Small interests are unable to compete for the support of decision makers.

I have been struggling to think of an analogy that would explain this situation to those not that interested in the infrastructure they use when going online. What I have come up with is not perfect, but may be helpful.

Think of it this way. What if everyone was free to use the interstate highway system, but there was only one gas station available where they lived. If this station sold gas for $10 would they complain to and about the department of transportation or the gas station.

All of this is separate from the issue of whether or not your ISP should be able to sell data related to your online activity. It is true that some locations you visit when online do this, but these sites can be avoided if you object, the sites typically do not charge you for your use and the presentation of ads and data collected is how they find themselves, and you can avoid the sites if you want. In many situations, there is no way to avoid the ISP you use. This is another reason regulation makes sense.

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You don’t bet your career on institutions you cannot trust

I am going on three years being out of North Dakota and the University of North Dakota. This is probably a good thing. I find what is happening now very discouraging. The present decline in funding for higher education has done damage that will likely take decades to undo. The cutting of programs and faculty and the precipitous decline in funding has eliminated productive programs and led to a decline in faculty morale. This may not be a matter of concern for many citizens so let me put it a different way. Why would high-quality students from Minnesota and high-quality young faculty members from anywhere want to risk careers on institutions that are obviously in decline? You think the Minnesota students don’t matter? These students make up about the same percentage of UND and NDSU student bodies as students from ND. The infrastructure of these institutions requires a critical mass of students to run efficiently and take advantage of the faculty. Size does matter. These are not elite private schools can have the resources to operate with 7-8000 students.

A very similar argument can be made regarding quality faculty. Quality can mean many different things and there are stereotypes that quality in some areas (say research) is related to lower quality in others (say teaching). BTW – this stereotype is not generally accurate – just because you had a professor you did not like who was highly regarded as a researcher does not mean this is the most common connection between research and teaching proficiency. The correlation between research productivity and student evaluations is not negative. Anyway, if I was a young faculty member with a solid research program capable of generating external funding (outside of a couple of areas) and/or likely to lead to significant innovations in a field, I would avoid North Dakota like the plague.

ND has long had higher ed challenges. With 11 or so institutions written into the state constitution, here are too many independent institutions for the size of the state. Think 11 institutions in Omaha for a comparison. There is this notion that somehow the institutions are to work together. I have never understood how this would actually work. For most areas, there is an economy of scale related to issues such as the dependence of instruction and research across departments. Everyone needs to learn to write and needs some exposure to languages, psychology and history. Engineers need advanced math and pre-meds, pre-nurses, pre-PTs and OTs need more than basic biology and chemistry. The better the supporting coursework, the better the odds of competing for limited access to professional training in North Dakota and elsewhere.

Most institutions train educators and this might seem an opportunity to share. Possibly, but note the same requirements for supporting training in fields such as psychology and the importance of quality experiences in the domain students intend to teach I have already mentioned. Then, there is the issue of advanced training – administration, advanced degrees for teachers, counseling, etc. What does it take to provide this training efficiently and does it make sense to have a focus on graduate training and address undergraduate training at different institutions?

The present economic crisis is largely politically made. The higher ed issues I describe have been in place for decades. As a nearly 40-year faculty member, I went through several economic downturns and only one boom period. The 20% cuts and possibly more is unique and caused mostly by political decisions to rely too heavily on oil revenue. If you want to claim credit for the boom as the republicans did when the oil was flowing, you need to own the overcommitment to the easy money in the downturn. The republicans have mismanaged the economy of North Dakota. Institutions such as higher education need to have a funding model that prevents large yearly fluctuations. Sure, downturns can result in no or small raises, but this is very different from cutting productive programs. Whatever the possibilities politicians in North Dakota think are possible, universities operate on other than a state level and must compete with peer institutions able to make long term plans. You don’t bet your career on institutions you can’t trust.

See a related oped from InForum.

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Digital technology romantic

I have decided that I am a digital technology romantic. Maybe idealist is more accurate. These perspectives cause me some stress in present times and require that I promote what might be lost causes. I came to these perspectives and stresses because I am a mature user of digital technology. You can translate this as old if you wish, but I am proud to say I was there before the Internet was really available. I was there when you called up BBSs using your acoustic modem. I was there in the days of telnet and gopher and before Mosaic. I ran my own server that sat next to my desk (working at a university with a direct Internet connection made this possible) and crafted rudimentary web pages by hand so there was something there to see.

These experiences offered me a vision of what the Internet might become. I saw digital technology as an equalizer – a way for more individuals to be influencers and to become better informed. It looked good for a while, but now what once seemed possible is being corrupted by big companies and the powers that be in the government. Maybe you don’t see this happening. Maybe you are satisfied with the filtered information you consume through Facebook. Maybe it is fine with you that your access provider (ISP) can collect data on your online behavior as an additional profit opportunity for that company. Maybe you don’t care that your provider can prioritize the speed with which you receive content of a type they can determine.

We went the wrong way with digital technology. The interstate highway system, an early way to think about the Internet, would have made a better model. Now, we are stuck with a system in which big money controls and shapes user experiences often without users understanding how these controls even work. You work for these companies. You provide the content and they distribute. You provide the attention and they sell the ads.

I blame the republicans for some of this. Allowing ISPs to sell data associated with user behavior and rolling back net neutrality were actions taken by the republicans now in office. At some level, I suppose this is consistent with the “get government out of as much as possible” mantra republicans push. However, allowing this logic works far better when those who provide services must compete. So, how many Internet providers can you access? With minimal and often no competition, the republican logic just does not work. Big money to play and few options for consumers means what was once possible has been lost. This is what happens when the common good is no longer the responsibility of government. This is what is called an oligarchy rather than a democracy.

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Facebook and fake news

Much has been made of Facebook and fake news. As I understand the concern, the problem is a combination of two factors: a) some individuals rely on Facebook as their major source of news and b) Facebook is going to prioritize “news” shared by those you follow. The result of these two factors can be that you view fake news likely to feed your personal biases.

Facebook has made efforts to address this criticism. Recently, the company has added methods for contesting posts for various reasons. To make use of these methods, you begin by using the drop-down menu associated with a post you find objectionable.

The “report post” option will take you through a hierarchical series of options for stating your concern.

When considering what seems a “crowd sourcing” approach to identifying fake news I wondered how the credibility of claims would be established. I imagined the type of situation faced by Wikipedia when groups with differing opinions change a post back and forth to communicate their positions.

This is what Facebook says about their approach:

You may see that certain news stories are marked as disputed on Facebook. News stories that are reported as fake by people on Facebook may be reviewed by independent third-party fact-checkers. These fact-checkers will be signatories of the non-partisan Poynter Code of Principles. A story may be marked as disputed if these fact-checkers find the story to be fake.

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Republicans have eliminated your online privacy

Political news is dominating our attention and the significance of the issues at stake warrant this priority. However, hidden by concerns for the legitimacy of the last election are decisions that I think should have generated a very negative reaction.

Voting along party lines, both the Senate and the House, have voted to allow your Internet Service Provider (ISP) to sell data based on how you use the Internet. The Republicans argue that this opportunity opens up new economic opportunities. While this may be the case, the ISPs already charge you for access to the Internet and it now seems likely barring a Trump veto that they will also be allowed to sell information derived from your online behavior. This and the FCC rollback of net neutrality have clearly prioritized business interests over the rights of users.

So, just to be clear, the telecommunications industry which is already very profitable can now make more money off users without improving the quality of service (quality that is below what is available in many countries).

In my opinion, the logic politicians advance to support these changes is flawed. The “free market” logic that companies should be able to do what they want and customers will move to different companies if the customers do not feel their needs are being met has been used to justify health care and online opportunities. Reality is that few customers really have the opportunity to choose among options. There is also the issue of whether or not essential services should be the focus of business. Does a profit motivation assure quality service and fair treatment?

Senator Al Franken who has been active in other addressing other important Internet issues has promised to address this problem. I wish he would have brought attention to this issue several weeks ago, but I suppose the shaky state of the country demanded that other issues receive attention.

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Net neutrality – here and then gone

Most of my recent posts have a political focus. These posts are not humorous and they are not intended to be. I am focused for the time being on serious topics without much levity because I have serious concerns.

This post addresses the topic of net neutrality. Most may have no idea what this means or why anyone would think the topic was important. Net neutrality is a simple idea. Basically, it would require that your Internet Service Provider (ISP) would not be allowed to prioritize content from one source over another. This was originally an issue because major ISPs had side interests that might make this a problem. For example, a cable provider provides both Internet and video programming (e.g., television and video). It would be a conflict should the cable company slow Netflix video in preference to the “on demand” movies it might want to sell you. The idea was that the provider should offer access and have nothing to do with how the user selected content to take advantage of the access.

Under the Obama administration, net neutrality was the position of FCC chair Tom Wheeler. Net neutrality expectations are being rolled back under new FCC chair Ajit Pai. In keeping with Republican priorities, Pai proposes that net neutrality limits business opportunities and the free market should limit abuse. I translate this as the assumption that if users are fed up with the service they receive, they will seek a different provider.

I disagree on several levels. Like certain essential services (e.g., transportation, health care), I regard reasonable online access as a right of citizenship and hence the responsibility of government and not private businesses with financial priorities. Second, I do not buy-in to the logic of free market in this area. The reality is that too few individuals have the opportunity to take advantage of the most basic definition of competition (i.e., a second option), most individuals have at best two financially reasonable options (probably one cable and one DSL), and the wealthy ISPs are politically active to limit open competition through options such as community wifi. This last issue is interesting – politicians in one case arguing for the free market and in more local situations politicans acting against a competitive option.

Some basic facts:

Access to high speed Internet and access to alternate ISPs

FCC study found that 58 percent of rural Census blocks did not have a “fixed” broadband service provider offering broadband speeds at speeds of 25 megabits per second download

The FCC reports that 36 percent of urban census blocks had two or more providers at 25 megabytes or better, but that percentage dropped to only 6 percent in rural America

Does competition work

FCC looked at the use of municipal broadband (in an order that has since been reversed by an appellate court on legal grounds), it set out evidence showing that the presence of an additional broadband provider pushes down the prices and increases the quality of both new and incumbent providers. In other words, such competition is “win-win.” It benefits those consumers who switch and even those that do not but who gain from faster download speeds resulting from the incumbent’s response to competitive pressures.

Are ISPs open to competition?

Because of the evidence that competition can be helpful, the FCC defended efforts to encourage community wifi as an option. This legal action sought to prevent communities from blocking those who wanted to develop such alternatives. This position was struck down in a court decision.

Wheeler further said that the judges’ ruling “appears to halt the promise of jobs, investment and opportunity that community broadband has provided in Tennessee and North Carolina.” Communities that want better broadband, he said, “should not be thwarted by the political power of those who, by protecting their monopoly, have failed to deliver acceptable service at an acceptable price.”

See a similar position from Forbes

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Improving Facebook

Zuck,

I read part of your manifesto and I know you want to help people from everywhere communicate more effectively. I am with you. However, as a heavy Facebook user for the past several months, it seems to me that the most common patterns of interaction are probably not what you have in mind. People who know each other face to face probably interact as you intend. What I think is missing in your grand vision is a way to generate more meaningful interaction among those who do not already know each other.

I would describe the most common form of interaction within the general Facebook using public as throwing news stories at each other. By this I mean, with those you do not actually know face to face, you do not take the time to write a personal position on something, you pretty much just forward content created by someone else. This is a kind of “what that person says” form of communication. And, Zuck, if I understand the way your algorithms work, this content would be most likely to appear in the feed of those who already agree with the sentiments expressed. These individuals might attach a short comment of agreement or maybe reshare the post. Nothing much gets accomplished, challenged or changed by this pattern. Facebook needs to encourage something deeper.

I understand this to be a problem with both Facebook producers and consumers and in one important way the combination of the two. As long as users Friend those who think like them, I see little hope for your Facebook goals. I wonder if there is a way to suggest friends. The ideal friend would be someone with a different perspective on common issues and who interacts with others when discussing such issues in an evidence-based and nonpersonalized manner. Any algorithm to make such suggestions would need to identify individuals who take the effort to respond to the posts of others AND would have to identify the style of this interaction. The first characteristic should be easy to assess. The second would be more challenging.

I have more concrete suggestions for the problem of the frequent “what that person says” posts. I would like to be able to set filters to block the appearance of these posts in my news feed.

Filter 1 – I would like to be able to eliminate posts that contain content with no personal message. I would suggest the option of ignoring any post not containing more than 140 characters of personal commentary. Suggestions for my attention with less than 140 characters of personal content would be better submitted to Twitter.

Filter 2 – I would like the option to ignore suggested online content that has not been personally annotated. Many folks are probably unfamiliar with the annotation (highlighting, comments) of online content, but I have been exploring this opportunity for a couple of years now as an educational opportunity. Some of the same core ideas apply to the general public – what specifically about this resource do you suggest is important, in what way to do you agree or disagree with this important issue. These embedded comments are more useful than comments attached at the end of suggested resources in that the embedded comments are more specific to isolated statements or claims. Adding such components should be easy for your programmers. For a model, I would suggest the examination of hypothes.is.

Keep up the good work. The popularity of your social service comes with great responsibility.

Mark

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Academic retirement

I worked for 37 years at the University of North Dakota and a couple of years in upstate New York before that. I have been “retired” now for nearly three years. This makes me an expert on serving a single institution for most of a career and retirement.

UND (my school) is going through some extremely difficult times. The bottom falling out of the oil industry in a Republican, rural state that had assumed oil revenue would be the solution to taxing citizens created a mess. There was no escape from the need to cut programs and people. You don’t do this without long-term costs to the reputation of the institution, but I guess if you get yourself in the situation, this is what you have to do. Among the strategies to address the financial problems has been the effort to get folks to leave with what to me seems a pretty weak one-year buy-out (no fringes or medical).

The local paper carried stories of some who decided to take the money and go. One such story described a couple of people I know and the sentiment was that this is not the way they wanted to end their careers. Poor fellows. I had a somewhat different reaction to some of the details. One of the individuals, a decorated historian, was nearly 90. My reaction? This individual has taken nearly half a career away from a young academic. I don’t care how exceptional you are – others deserve a chance to work.

I think there are two problems here related to the reality that academic work for most is a life-style and not a job. I won’t take the time to explain and while this is not true for some, folks who value scholarship don’t think in terms of money or hours of work. The job is their life. This is what annoys me about some folks being proud of working 50 or 60 hours a week. There was a time when I would have asked – what is it you do with the rest of the time you were awake? I know individuals who lived that way until it was time to turn out the lights.

My two inter-related (this connection is important) proposals related to this issue:

  1. Faculty members should stop drawing a salary at a reasonable age (65).
  2. Non-salaried faculty members who are interested in continuing an affiliation with their institution should be provided opportunities suitable to the academic life – an office in proximity to their home department, the opportunity to work with students (if students are interested), the opportunity to teach (again, without compensation), respect for their contributions to the institution.

I think institutions think they are providing #2 but there is never enough space or a real commitment to involve non-salaried contributors.

I left UND to move to the big city. I must say – I have fundamental issues with North Dakota and Minnesota is better suited to my personal values. The academic work I do I can do more successfully outside of the department for which I worked. The way you get attached to a specific college and department in many institutions may not suit your evolving interests. My lack of fit had nothing to do with the individuals I worked with and who supported me as their administrator for many years. My colleagues had respect for me and I great respect for them. I now do some teaching for a program that would be my more natural home (as a lecturer which is pretty much the same as uncompensated) and I have written a second book not having to worry whether my interests in technology were appropriate for a psychologist. So, what I propose here is not about me. However, I do think what I propose would create a more positive environment for those individuals who have a deep commitment to a given institution, but really should retire for the good of all.

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Some thoughts on Facebook

So, in the run-up to the election, I decided to become more active on Facebook. My engagement with Facebook differs from nearly all of my “friends” (I hope that is the correct term. I sometimes get one social media site mixed up with another.). I did not come to Facebook to post pictures of my kids or the places I have been lucky enough to visit. I did not come to Facebook to relay news stories or pithy expressions. I did not come to Facebook to thumbs up thumbs down, happy face, angry face or whatever. I can to Facebook to interact.

Some may have been surprised by how I interact. My kids probably know that while I am immensely proud of them, I am not that good with praise. For some reason, I assume praise and acceptance are assumed. S0, just for the record – all of my kids are very cool. If I commented on Facebook, it was often to argue and to say I disagree. I was an academic and this is what we do. I suppose this style may come across as personal and perhaps sometimes it gets that way. This is not the goal. The idea of challenging each other is to work toward a better and hopefully more accurate understanding of the important issues and truths in life. I admit I do not object to having a good time and a beer or two along the way. This is what I hope is the “academic’s way”.

I also came to Facebook to express my views. The emphasis here is on MY. This goal is best approached by making the effort to use my words and not to rely on sharing the words of others. This takes some work and invites criticism. I would rather think of the effort as inviting engagement. I try to be clear and to offer what evidence I can. If others are willing to do the same, I see the process as potentially constructive.

I do have concerns with Facebook. I am a technologist by trade and I worry about algorithms that select what any one of us will see. I am a psychologist by trade and I know a little about the problems of group think and the many proven biases of personal thinking. The filter bubble only feeds these human frailties. If anything, our technologies should be working against the foolish things we are known to do on our own.

I am also concerned that we commit to any given experience rather than open ourselves up to a greater number of experiences. I think Zuckerberg has some very good ideas about human communication and the needs of humans to interact. Zuckerberg is also a businessperson. The downside of the commitment to a common source, not matter how well-intended that source might be, is quite great. I think the problems are obvious – filtered and simplified information content mixed with feel-good content about kids and friends. If 40% of adults get their news from Facebook, this is terrifying. Read a book or a dozen. Read a major newspaper – you can usually scan them for free and pick out a few stories before they expect to be paid. Why not even pay for some depth once in a while?

The type of material I have posted here may surprise some. Perhaps the kind of material I post is not what is intended for this outlet. I have no real insight into what Facebook is supposed to be about. I tend to think it became what it is without much guidance.

I began blogging in 2003 and I have written thousands of little essays like this since then. I have just decided to put some of it on Facebook recently.  I suppose some cannot imagine taking the time to write even one such comment let alone one a week or one a day. I wonder how many individuals even bother reading to the end when something like this post is encountered. I can truthfully say I care if you read what I write, but I would write what I write whether you care or not. I write what I write because it helps me put ideas together for myself. If you don’t believe this I am guessing you don’t write. This is not an ego thing (or at least not totally). I think life challenges us with serious questions – you can ignore them or you can confront them. These questions follow me around – I cannot ignore them. The reality of a blank screen has a way of smacking you in the face – what exactly do you think about a given issue, can you put it down so you and everyone else can see?

Mark Grabe really writes at http://learningaloud.com. This Facebook thing is just an experiment. I hope you will join me. Facebook does not have a character limit (like Twitter). What do you have to say about important matters?

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Digging a deeper hole is the wrong approach

Now Main Street’s whitewashed windows and vacant stores
Seems like there ain’t nobody wants to come down here no more
They’re closing down the textile mill across the railroad tracks
Foreman says these jobs are going boys and they ain’t coming back
To your hometown

Bruce Springsteen | MetroLyrics

Voters, maybe any of us – you can be misled if you are told something you want to believe. You are especially vulnerable when you are told something you want to believe combined with someone else to blame.

Climate change is a real problem and you are doing your children and grandchildren a tremendous disservice if you deny to make things easier for yourself. The world of work is changing and many who work in certain manufacturing jobs are simply not needed (see Manufacturing jobs delusion). This has nothing to do with Mexico or illegal immigrants. In this case, the culprit is technology and efficiency. Nearly any type of work including teaching is likely vulnerable. We all would like to believe new approaches that make use of technology are not as good. Educators are not unique in this regard. If the comparison was between a tutor and existing educational technology, i would agree. However, this is not reality – even now. You must use group-based instruction because there is one of you. Some kids are always ignored no matter how hard you try. The level of content you present is always too difficult or already mastered by some students. You are not functioning as a tutor. Like most jobs – all existing employees will not be gone. There will end up being fewer people and more technology. Many fields including education will move toward effectiveness and efficiency. Those who remain will be the more capable and will be paid significantly more. The numbers of this group will simply be smaller.

I have included educators here so my argument will not be assumed to be focused on those who work with their hands rather than their heads. You can ignore me if you wish, but I think the trend is obvious and inevitable. If the U.S. does not adapt, it will be left behind. Complain about iPads and iPhones being manufactured by Foxconn in China all you want. The skilled labor there was less expensive and the skilled labor there is being replaced by robots. Expensive, inexperienced American line workers against Chinese robots and supply chain advantages, not even close. Remember John Henry the steel driving man was really just wishful thinking.

Time to invest more in education and to accept that any one of us will ever finish school. The employable individual is already a moving target. I fear it is far more than this and this will really scare you. I doubt we really have meaningful work for all possible workers. We have tried to increase consumption of stuff we really don’t need, but this approach has really reached a limit and is also extremely wasteful of resources and damaging to the environment. We very likely need far earlier retirement and acceptance of a different view of a meaningful life. Significant attention to equity will be necessary in this reality and I see no way to create the necessary conditions without a greater role for government.

Less government, blame the other, tell people what they want to hear worked for now. However, these strategies have worked because of selfishness and they have only made the underlying conditions more damaging. The hole is getting deeper.

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