Net neutrality rules stalled, for now

If the Internet is the information superhighway, imagine a special lane for certain kinds of cars and trucks, or a series of toll roads installed over what was once just a freeway. That picture is now, slowly but surely, becoming a reality.

On April 11, less than two weeks ago, the U.S. House of Representatives voted down on party lines FCC chairman Julius Genachowski’s public stand in favor of net neutrality. Short for network neutrality, this is the principle which says Internet users are entitled to a level playing field online and that content providers cannot create their own lanes on the superhighway. In New York City, the dominant carrier is Time Warner, and Manhattanites get their cable service from them exclusively. Slackening the rules may further consolidate Internet control by the carriers, according to digital rights advocates.

Take, for instance, the streaming video service Netflix. Net neutrality rules would dictate that the big telecoms cannot try to destroy it by introducing their own video-on-demand services and convince customers that the extra $10 per month for Netflix does not make sense when their Internet service comes with streaming video as a standard feature.

Tommy “Mack” McEldowney, formerly with the Defense Information School and a graduate of SUNY-Albany, is a business consultant who draws a clear line in the sand. “There’s two issues here,” he said in a telephone interview from California. “One is what is said on the Net, written or downloaded for that matter, video, audio, any of it. And the other thing is the medium itself.”

“Think of it like a pipe, and all the communication that goes through the pipe,” he added. “Net neutrality says that whoever owns the pipe can’t decide that they wanna have a new pipe inside of it, for which they can charge money.”

“More money,” he added. “You’re already paying for the pipe to deliver the Net to your home, to the faucet of your computer—if you continue with that metaphor.” He said that the hazard there is “that could be discriminatory toward people who can’t afford the extra money for content.”

“By the way,” McEldowney said, “new ISPs come along all the time, which is why the Telecommunications Act of 1996 was passed.” Yet the focus now is on the broadband providers, for the reason that broadband was not covered in that legislation. The FCC rules “were drafted over a year ago, and at the time the FCC chairman, Julius Genachowski, said that the FCC had no intention at all of regulating the Internet” but “made the distinction that regulation of ISPs is another issue entirely.”

Art Brodsky, communications director of Public Knowledge, a Washington D.C.-based lobbying group that works toward digital rights, said the issue of fair play is paramount. “Every content provider, every consumer, has the right to access the content provider of his or her choice based on what the consumer wants to do and not through a decision made by the network provider,” he said over the phone from his D.C. office.

Harriet Novet, Regional Vice President of Public Affairs at Time Warner Cable, based on the 7th floor of 120 E 23rd Street, could not be reached for comment.

“What they’re trying to do is shape the rules,” Brodsky said, referring to carriers like Time Warner. “They already tried to do it through the FCC, trying to do it through Congress, do it in the courts, anyway they can, to take away the openness that until five years ago had been guaranteed through law which was lifted during the Bush administration.

“So what they’re trying to do is make sure it doesn’t come back, so they can pretty much do what they want.” And what they want to do, he says, is “carve out their own little managed service from the regular Internet and offer it to the companies which can afford to pay it, leaving other companies at a disadvantage.”

When asked about the argument made by those opposed to net neutrality, namely that putting stringent federal rules in place may hinder growth and development, Brodsky cited an old satirical joke.

“That’s really interesting coming from the carriers. I mean, what that brings to mind to me is this old—I think it was the first edition, or second edition, of National Lampoon’s magazine, where they had a picture on the cover and it said ‘Buy this magazine or we’ll shoot this dog.’”

The issue of network neutrality “has morphed in its politics over the last couple of years,” Brodsky said. Congress first took notice in 2006, when representatives “who were shall we say friendly to the phone companies and took in their largesse to a great degree.” He continued on by saying that such a “toll road” already exists. “This is sort of a commuter lane—the ‘HOV lane’ is what we call it down here,” he said. As for the virtual cars on the information highway, the traffic signs in the distance may be beginning to read, slow: congestion ahead.

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Nights of science in Gowanus

Margaret Mittelbach will gladly call herself a nerd, but refrain from calling her a geek. She stood in the corner of a large performance hall with her arms folded, leaning against the wall with a smile etched on her face, and watched as a boisterous crowd drank in game theory and evolutionary biology as if they were all gathered there to see a favorite stand-up comic. Mittelbach brought on local artist Jen Rondeau to play the haunting, operatic notes of a theremin, an early electronic instrument that appears to magically produce notes without it being touched, as if Rondeau were playing it with an invisible string. But after the applause subsided, it was time for the main event. The crowd quieted as the lights dimmed.

Since 2006, the stripped-down iron and brick streets deep in Gowanus greet an an overflow audience that gathers every month or biweekly to watch a lecture by a scientist chosen by a trio of amateur knowledge hunters called the Secret Science Club who select a speaker from a wide range of scientific fields to give a demonstration to a packed ballroom at a bar called the Bell House, a bar located on 7th Street and 2nd Ave in what used to be a warehouse. On Sunday, April 3, Paul Glimcher, director of the Center for Neuroeconomics at New York University and author of “Foundations of Neuroeconomic Analysis” and “Neuroeconomics: Decision Making and the Brain,” explained to a rapt crowd there that when it comes to making decisions, our vanity aside, we are really no better than chimps. Glimcher is the latest of many scientists who have electrified audiences here every month, popularizing sometimes arcane areas of research over beer and good cheer.

Glimcher even got a warm-up act. “Good evening, secret science scenesters!” gleefully shouted Rich Kelly, there to represent the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, one of the financial backers of Mittelbach and her friends. After Kelly handed out free tickets for museums and plays, Glimcher strode onto the stage as a slide behind him read, “From Economics to the ‘Standard Model.’” No matter: the crowd was pumped.

Glimcher’s talk was heavy with numbers and charts, exploring the basic dilemma faced by neuroscientists: how do people make decisions? What parts of the brain “light up” when we make choices? Before the show, Glimcher sat as patrons ordered drinks, rubbing his eyes with his thumb and index finger. Wearing slacks and a sports jacket, he seemed tired but, when he appeared on stage, he suddenly lit up as he went into the finer points of the theory he and his research team created.

The theory says the human brain is actually reasonable and that certain cortices actually decide what different things are worth and how to evaluate them before making a decision. “Much of neuroscience over the last 10 years has been a struggle to parse out what we value to make choices,” he said. It turns out that the midline orbital frontal cortex, the middle section of the cerebrum above the eyes, is the “final common step for making choices between ‘subjective values,’” for example, the choice between eating an apple or eating an orange. “Don’t let anyone tell you that we know nothing about the brain,” Glimcher declared.

The public reaction is no surprise to Mittelbach, who has known the other curator of the Secret Science Club, radio producer Dorian Devins, for the past seven years. The third organizer, Michael Crewdson, was working on a project in Australia. As dozens and dozens of people milled out chatting, Devins held a large donation bin that began to get rapidly filled. Their finances, in part, come from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation and the Richard Dawkins Foundation.

“This has become standard,” Mittelbach said, standing aside in the noisy atrium as dozens of people milled out and chatted. “A lot of people come to try something new.” Devins was too busy handling donations to comment.

Nick Russell was one of the attendees, sitting on a lounge chair toward the entrance door an hour before the show began dressed in jeans and green-sided glasses, reading “The Limits of Safety” by Scott Sagan, a book about nuclear accidents. Bearing a resemblance to John Hodgman, Russell said he moved to New York two and a half years ago from Washington, DC, and is now a photographer of high-energy particle colliders. “I’ve known about the club for at least a year and a half,” he said. “I saw Neil deGrasse Tyson speak,” Russell added, referring to the famous astrophysicist and director of the Hayden Planetarium. “It was really cool.”

Mittelbach and friends have hosted Tyson twice, the first time in March 2007 and again in March 2009, that time for a $3 cover charge, according to their website. Among the speakers Mittelbach helped host, Tyson belongs in the roster of rockstar scientists, like NASA climatologist James Hansen, who performed in December 2009. The most common field from which Mittelbach and her friends have drawn is anything related to the brain, and so Glimcher was no exception. Other fields have included molecular biology, genomics, computer science, anthropology, mathematics and even “smellology.”

Byron Roberts, a Cornell alum who now lives in Astoria, Queens, stood in line as people were beginning to gather to file into several rows of metal fold-out chairs in the ballroom. “I’m a general science nerd,” he said, and added that the field of neuroscience involves a lot of computational modeling, a theme that Glimcher often returned to as the method by which his lab can decode the mysteries of the brain.

A public science show for an eager audience in Brooklyn that has been going on for more than four years is no longer such a secret, but the name harkens back to older times. “There’s an element of secrecy in that we often don’t announce our events months and months in advance,” Mittelbach said while Devins collected money. “But really the idea is when you were in high school in a science club, kinda nerdy right? Maybe you want to keep it a secret.”

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HBGary CEO steps down in wake of discrediting scandal

Little West 12th Street is a quaint and narrow cobblestone path in the old Meatpacking District. Toward the end of the road is building no. 15, made mostly of glass panes and steel bars, empty on a weekday afternoon sometime in late February. The structure is home to the New York offices of Palantir, a small computer security firm based in Palo Alto, California, which was involved since last December until a few weeks ago in a plot with a larger fish named HBGary, an Alexandria-based firm working in the same field.

Their stated purpose was hunting hackers. Yet their ulterior motives came to light after Aaron Barr, the just-resigned CEO of HBGary, began to investigate WikiLeaks supporters like Salon.com reporter Glenn Greenwald and a blogger/activist named Brad Friedman. In doing so, Barr opened himself up to a barrage by the hacktivist group called Anonymous, which promptly posted his home address, social security number and email account for the world to see. Before navigating HBGary, Barr had been doing work for leading military contractor Northrop Grumman as a “cybersecurity” specialist, according to an email dated June 29, 2010.

That email attached an interview by one Camille Tuutti for a webzine named thenewnewinternet.com, in which Tuutti asked Barr, “What is your advice for up-and-coming cyber professionals?” Barr replied, “Roll your sleeves up and get your hands dirty.”

This episode throws into sharp relief how powerful interests, such as Bank of America (BofA), the largest bank in the United States and a powerful business lobby, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, are reacting to the era of transparency we all now live in, and how small and secretive computer security firms collaborated with those interests in order to sabotage, embarrass or discredit political enemies, specifically Glenn Greenwald and his associate Brad Friedman.

Barr, the head of HBGary, has recently stepped down amid a blizzard of criticism for the affair.

No one was there to answer the buzzer at Palantir that bright and brisk afternoon, and the owner of the property was unavailable. Palantir, named after the crystal ball in the “Lord of the Rings” saga, had already fired a key employee named Matthew Steckman on Feb. 15 for his role in a venture to discredit political targets of HBGary’s clients. New York Times reporters Eric Lipton and Charlie Savage had originally broken the story three days earlier. In the wake of this, Palantir publicly distanced themselves and severed all connections to HBGary. Lipton and Savage also had quoted denials from BofA and the Chamber that they themselves had done any work with the firm.

Steckman could not be reached for comment by this reporter, since his number had changed from the one shown repeatedly in a slew of hacked email accounts of top HBGary executives by Anonymous. “The number you have dialed has been changed, disconnected, or is no longer in service,” said the message. Another employee linked to the affair named James Wootton was also unavailable. Calls made to HBGary and another involved security firm named Berico Technologies were not returned.

Friedman, the activist whose work criticizing the Chamber got him and his family caught in the crosshairs, thinks the entire episode is emblematic of a larger problem. “Obviously, this highlights the insidious nexus of big government power and big corporate power,” he said, “being turned against the citizens of this country.” Friedman added that these interests “had no concern at all about the rule of law,” and pointed to law firm Hunton & Williams as the “mastermind” of the plot. Hunton could not be reached for comment.

“They will not talk,” Friedman said. He also identified the responses given by the firms directly implicated — HGBary, Berico Technologies and Palantir — as “complete and utter bullshit. They attempted to throw each other under the bus, deflect blame to the other guy,” he added. Friedman also referenced a lawsuit that his group, VelvetRevolution.us, has filed against the Chamber.

The hacked emails show that in early February as Barr drafted his public response to the cyberattacks by Anonymous, in retaliation for his company’s work in targeting WikiLeaks supporters, company founder Greg Hoglund got irritated about the measured language Barr was using in order to sound diplomatic. “Jesus man,” Hoglund wrote, “these people are not your friends, they are three steps away from being terrorists. Just blow the balls off of it.” When Barr replied that he would bring all the material he had on them to the FBI, Hoglund wrote back: “you are such a bad ass, i hate to see the mamby pamby.”

Lisa Gordon, an official at Palantir, wrote in an email dated Feb. 16 concerning an event at the High Line co-sponsored by JP Morgan Chase, “We apologize but we can’t open the event to any press — it is at the request of our customers.” Another attempt to reach her in order to see who at Palantir would speak was also made. “I’ll give you a call,” Gordon said, but as of press time there has been no further response.

“Silly gov,” wrote senior executive Mark Trynor to Chief Operating Officer Ted Vera and Barr in an email dated Jan. 27, 2011, in reference to the spread of groups like Anonymous. “When will they learn you can’t stop shit on the internet.”

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Foursquare CEO invites you to join in the hive mind

When AOL and the Huffington Post “checked in” at Mergerville, the first person to learn that may well have been a man named Dennis Crowley.

Crowley, who goes by the handle @dens on the Twitter feed, is now worth is at least $80 million, according to a valuation last April in Forbes. Although he may seem to be an overnight success, Crowley, 34, ginned up what has now become the famous self-broadcasting tool exactly one decade ago at New York University.

Venture investors have made a handsome profit from his creation, Foursquare. This was his second try at an idea that was already taking root, a way to connect friends from all places at all times.

The mother of invention took the form of the deep canyons of Gotham that made GPS very spotty. Crowley wanted to set up a system of synaptic signals that took the virtual world and mapped it onto the real world, the offline world. The first attempt at mapping the hive mind was dubbed Dodgeball, the game of fast reflexes and a sure throw.

His thesis adviser, Clay Shirky, said that their discussions about the GPS problem as far back as 2001 proved the spark for his pupil’s idea. “We were talking about … the idea that the grid of Manhattan was like a grid in a game scenario,” Shirky said, as quoted by Tim Adams in the Guardian.

Crowley thinks that his idea, that anyone can broadcast their own location at any time to whomever, “has made people more efficient. If you think about information overload,” Crowley said, “a lot of things is trying to, you know, take all the information overload and put it into these filters that enable people to go out and have more interesting experiences.”

The power of suggestion is the keystone of the social media architecture involved here, structured into an algorithm that he intimated was proprietary (the “secret sauce”).

In essence, Foursquare synthesizes what the hive is doing, based on all of the aggregated data from its 6.5 million users worldwide — 40 percent of which is from traffic outside the United States — and suggests to itself where all of its nodes ought to be and what they ought to be doing, or as he formulated it, “Netflix suggests movies, Amazon suggests books and Foursquare suggests experiences.”

With 50 employees paid by two rounds of funding totaling $21.3 million, the entire project hinges on a sociological phenomenon called crowdsourcing, a newfangled term used to refer to collective projects like Wikipedia or HitRecord or anything else that pulls from a cloud of voices in order to manufacture a symphony composed of both the dominant notes and discordant currents.

At the end of the day, it is all about the collective consciousness of what people are doing, he said. “We recycle their data and spit it back to people.”

Crowley scoffed at the idea that things like Foursquare are corroding real social bonds, as Sharon Steel posited in a recent Time Out New York piece, substituting a collective self-absorbed loneliness for actual connection.

“You could look at anything the same way,” Crowley said. “TV makes me people sit at home and watch TV,” he added in a mock tsk-tsk tone. His tone shifted to sincerity. “But TV also gives people a shared cultural literacy.”

The whole thing begins to sound like someone out there paraphrased a Yaakov Smirnoff routine: You don’t read the Web, the Web reads you.

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