Net neutrality could be on the line in Washington court battle

Campout at the FCC

The FCC’s net neutrality rules go on trial Friday as oral arguments begin in 10 lawsuits that could dramatically change the way Internet service providers are regulated.

In February, the Federal Communications Commission voted to ban service providers from giving some content preferential treatment. It also reclassified broadband as a communications service, similar to old-fashioned telecommunications except with exemptions from pricing and other regulations.

The rules went into effect in April but soon faced a barrage of lawsuits by carriers and industry groups that want to see them gutted. The suits were combined into one proceeding in the federal appeals court in Washington, where opening arguments will start Friday.

If the court agrees with opponents of the rules, the long-contended question of how service providers can treat different types of traffic could be opened up all over again. If the FCC prevails, complaints and enforcement actions that may have been held backpending the legal challenges might start to emerge.

Net neutrality advocates had argued for years that Internet providers shouldn’t be allowed to discriminate against websites or content companies or sell them a faster path to subscribers’ homes. The strongest medicine activists prescribed was to classify broadband under Title II of the Telecommunications Act, changing it from an information service to something closer to the traditional phone service.

The FCC had rules in place to prevent discrimination, but the Washington appeals courtshot those down early last year. The agency had to start over again and last year asked for public comment on how to do it. In February, after nearly a year and more than 3 million comments, it voted to ban blocking or throttling of services and to impose Title II regulation, with some exceptions. For one thing, the FCC said broadband won’t be subject to utility-style price regulations.

Opponents of the new rules say they’ll hurt consumers’ Internet service in the long run by discouraging investment in new and better networks. Those taking the issue to court include AT&T, a regional carrier in Texas called Alamo Broadband, and several major trade groups, including the wireless body CTIA, the U.S. Telecom Association and the National Cable and Telecommunications Association.

The legal arguments behind the various lawsuits cite both procedural and constitutional issues.

One argument opponents make is that the FCC didn’t follow the Administrative Procedure Act, a 1946 law defining how federal agencies can make new regulations. The agency didn’t build up enough of a record to support the decision to reclassify broadband under Title II, and it didn’t provide enough advance notice that it would do so, some of the arguments say. The FCC has countered that it raised the Title II issue in its call for comments and issued a 400-page order when it passed the regulations in February.

The plaintiffs are also expected to argue that the rules violate service providers’ First Amendment rights to free expression by forcing them to carry other parties’ content with the same performance they give their own. And they may say the agency violated the Fifth Amendment by taking their property for public use without “just compensation.”

In addition to the FCC, net neutrality backers will be in court Friday to argue in favor of the rules. Consumer group Free Press said Thursday it would represent nearly two dozen advocacy groups and tech industry leaders there. It cited the First Amendment as a reason to keep the new rules in place.

“These providers want you to think that the First Amendment gives them the freedom to act like the Internet’s editors, with the right to censor all content that crosses their wires,” Free Press Policy Director Matt Wood said in a statement. That’s a dangerous misreading of the constitution, he said, because carriers are supposed to enable connections without editing what goes over them.

Let’s Encrypt free digital certificate project opens doors for public beta

HTTPS

Let’s Encrypt, the project offering free digital certificates for websites, is now issuing them more broadly with the launch of a public beta on Thursday.

The beta label will eventually be dropped as the software they’ve developed is refined, wrote Josh Aas, executive director of the Internet Security Research Group (ISRG), which runs Let’s Encrypt.

“Automation is a cornerstone of our strategy, and we need to make sure that the client works smoothly and reliably on a wide range of platforms,” he wrote.

Digital certificates use the SSL/TLS (Secure Sockets Layer/Transport Layer Security) protocols to encrypt traffic exchanged between a user and a service, adding a higher level of privacy and security.

Obtaining and installing digital certificates can be expensive and difficult, which is why they are still not uniformly used across websites.

Let’s Encrypt has tried to make the installation process free and less painful. It has developed an extensible client that fetches fresh certificates from the Let’s Encrypt Certification Authority (CA) and configures web servers to use them.

So far, the client will only run on Unix-like OSes that have Python 2.6 or 2.7, according torelease notes on GitHub. Eventually, support for Python 3.0 will be added.

The project also plans to refine other aspects of dealing with certificates, such as automatic renewals when certs expire, and support more servers such as Nginx.

Let’s Encrypt has the potential to help a lot of organizations running websites that don’t use SSL/TLS. Digital certificates can be quite expensive: It’s not unusual for a single, average EV (extended validation) SSL certificate to cost between US$600 and $800.

Critics have long contended that the cost of digital certificates has been too high. Also, security problems at several CAs have undermined confidence, since a security breach at one of these can have immediate, wide-ranging effects on large numbers of Internet users.

In 2011, a hacker breached the Dutch CA DigiNotar and issued hundreds of unauthorized certificates, including one for google.com. That rogue certificate appeared to have been used in an attack targeting Iranian users.

Despite the occasional breaches and mistakes by CAs, it’s generally recommended that websites use encryption because it can stop more common attacks, such as snooping on someone’s unencrypted traffic flowing through a public Wi-Fi access point.

It’s also a defense against government surveillance programs, like the vast data collection operations by Western intelligence agencies that former NSA contractor Edward Snowden exposed.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation, one of Let’s Encrypt’s backers, wrote that the public beta marks progress toward a more fully encrypted Web.

“A huge percentage of the world’s daily Internet usage currently takes place over unecrypted HTTP, exposing people to illegal surveillance and injection of unwanted ads, malware, and tracking headers into the websites they visit,” wrote Jacob Hoffman-Andrews, the EFF’s senior staff technologist.

How to clear clutter and save ink when you print a webpage

Google started working on a great new print option for Chrome early in November called “simplify page.” This feature will strip out all the superfluous items on a page that you really don’t need to print, like ads, logos, and menu options. The result is not only easier to read, but also saves on costly printer ink.

Sadly, simplify page isn’t ready for prime time yet and is only available in Chrome beta right now.

But you don’t have to wait a few months or weeks for the feature to show up in Chrome to stop wasting printer ink. Here’s how to print a simplified page on Chrome, Firefox, and Microsoft Edge.

Chrome

With Chrome cooking up its own print option, the best option right now is to use an extension such as Evernote Clearly. This extension creates a simplified reading page, which you can then print out.

The downside is that Clearly requires an Evernote account. If you don’t already use Evernote, you can choose other extensions such as Print Friendly & PDF.

Firefox and Edge

edge

Both of these browsers already have a built-in feature that allows you to view a simplified webpage before printing. Look up at the address bar of either browser and on the far right you’ll see a book icon.

Firefox calls this Reader View while Edge calls it Reading View. Whichever one you use, simply click the book icon, wait for the page to simplify, and then print it out.

That’s all there is to saving on ink while still getting a physical copy of the information you need.

Widespread exploit kit, ransomware program, and password stealer mixed into dangerous malware cocktail

New attack campaign combines some of the most successful malware programs

An ongoing attack campaign combines a very effective password stealer, the most widespread exploit kit, called Angler, and the latest version of the infamous CryptoWall file-encrypting ransomware program.

The attackers first use the Pony computer Trojan to pilfer passwords from compromised computers, including FTP and SSH credentials that webmasters use to administer websites, according to researchers from Heimdal Security.

The stolen credentials are then used to inject malicious code into legitimate websites with the goal of redirecting their visitors to an installation of the Angler exploit kit. This is a Web-based attack tool that includes exploits for various vulnerabilities in Windows and browser plug-ins, such as Flash Player and Java.

Computers whose software is not up to date are specifically exposed to Angler attacks, which are known as drive-by downloads. If any of the exploits is successful, CryptoWall 4 is deployed on the computer.

CryptoWall is one of the most widespread and successful ransomware programs to date, having earned its creators millions of dollars in ransom payments. The application encrypts files using a strong cryptographic algorithm and then asks victims to pay for the encryption key.

In the absence of offline backups, many victims, including companies and government organizations, have been forced to pay in order to recover critical documents and other irreplaceable data.

This attack campaign is extensive and originates from a bulletproof hosting environment located in Ukraine, the Heimdal security researchers said in a blog post. “Because of the mechanisms involved and the attackers’ objectives, the campaign is prone to achieve large distribution and affect a big number of PCs and their users.”

Google Play Store publishes lists of the best apps and best games of 2015

best of google play

Let the year-end roundups begin. Google is fully on board with this phenomenon, back again with the annual list of the best apps and games for the Play Store.

The ”Best Apps” list is a mashup of well-known titles and newcomers. Usual suspects like Twitter, SwiftKey, Instacart, and Trulia are included along with Robinhood, a free stock-trading app that quickly became popular. But Google also sought out to show some love to indie apps like Nova Launcher, Action Launcher 3, and My Very Hungry Caterpillar.

And even though Google offers Google Docs, credit went to Microsoft Word and Office Lens. Twitch was another honoree, which competes with Google’s new YouTube Gaming.

best games of 2015
The best games list categorizes the selections for easier discovery.

On the games front Google lauded a mixture of titles, with the popular Alphabear,Hearthstone Heroes of Warcraft, and Fallout Shelter joining newcomer titles like Pruneand Crossy Road.

This year’s Play Store awards also calls attention to the larger amount of entertainment content available, with collections of the top-selling music, movies, books, and TV shows.

Along with highlighting the top sellers, Google called out its favorite selections from theGoogle Play Newsstand and Play Books offerings.

We don’t know how these lists were generated, exactly, but it appears to be a programmatic approach based on the apps rating and downloads, rather than human-curated. Supposedly, the lists offer a few different options based on the region you’re accessing it from, too.

The impact on you: This list is a good way to discover a new game to play over the weekend or find a neat app that you might have otherwise missed. Even with all of Google’s efforts to increase app discovery, it can still be a challenge to find the good stuff that’s hidden amongst all the clutter.

3 email apps that will help you get to inbox zero

email pile stock image

We’ve previously looked at services to help manage the email epidemic. Those work well on a desktop client, but well over half of all email first gets opened on a mobile device. Fortunately, there a few mobile apps that can help you clean out the clutter morass of messages and reach the hallowed inbox zero. They don’t all use productivity methods to get there, but your inbox will be empty by the end of the day.

Mailbox

mailbox
Mailbox’s scheduling options move messages out of your inbox until you’re ready to deal with them.

Knowing most of us work out of our inboxes anyway, Mailbox provides the tools to do it more efficiently.

The app, which supports Gmail and iCloud accounts, uses swiping gestures to archive, trash, schedule, and categorize email. For example, you swipe left on a message to defer it to a later time. A preset menu lets you schedule it for anywhere from “later today” to “someday.” The message is then placed in a “later” folder and returned to your inbox at the designated time.

You can also turn email messages into tasks. Long swiping left allows you to assigning a message to a list you create such as “to read” or “to respond.” These messages are moved out of your inbox to a “list” folder that functions as a de facto to-do manager.

Mailbox’s best trick is learning from your behavior so that automatically performs common actions, like auto-archiving all messages from certain senders or moving newsletters to your to-read list. And if your email count goes over 100, a Help Me Get To Zero button will appear at the top of your inbox. Press it to purge unimportant messages.

Free for iOS and Android.

Zero

zero
Zero summarizes each email message in a card layout and automatically archives it when you’re done with it.

Zero uses an unconventional layout to help you speed through your inbox. Each message is presented as a card-style summary, so that you can only focus on one message as a time. When you swipe through to the next message, the previous one is automatically archived (to keep it in your inbox, just tap the star at the bottom of the message). The experience is not unlike scrolling through your Facebook timeline or Twitter feed.

You can view your email in the typical list style by switching to Inbox view. Here, swiping left on a message will bring up the edit menu, with options to flag, move, or delete it. No matter how you prefer to view your messages, you can sort them by time or priority by tapping the appropriate button at the top of the screen.

Zero works with Gmail, Yahoo, iCloud and Outlook.

Free for iOS.

Triage

triage
Triage simplifies email processing with two options: archive and keep.

If fussing with labels, lists, and sorting options just adds to your sense of email overload, Triage is the app for you. Trumpeted as “email first aid,” this app has two cures for what ails your inbox: archive and keep.

Like Zero, Triage presents email messages one at a time in a card format. After you’ve read or replied to an email, you just swipe up to archive it or down to mark it unread and keep it in your inbox. Once you’ve chosen a card’s fate, you won’t see it in Triage again. To revisit these processed messages, you need to access them through a full-featured email client.

Admittedly, Triage’s no-nonsense approach isn’t for everyone, and even if it is you shouldn’t rely on it as your only email app. But when you just need to weed out your inbox as fast as possible while you’re on the go, you can’t ask for a better tool.

Triage supports Gmail, Yahoo, iCloud, and most IMAP email accounts.

Why finding a better ISP is harder than it should be

The United States doesn’t have the world’s worst Internet access by a long shot. But the country that invented the Internet has fallen well behind other wealthy democracies in online access. According to one report, a resident of Washington D.C. will get only 26.42Mbps of download speed for $50 a month. In London, that same price brings 78.70Mbps. In Hong Kong, 302.61.

So what’s our problem? According to Susan P. Crawford, author of Captive Audience: The Telecom Industry and Monopoly Power in the New Gilded Age, it’s unregulated monopolies. DSL has become too slow for modern uses (such as streaming video). In most neighborhoods, the only other option is your local cable provider, who has to compete with no one. “The monopoly power of local cable incumbents over wired access is striking. The big cable players, Time Warner Cable and Comcast, never enter each other’s territories,” she told the New York Times in a 2013 interview.

ITU offers an interactive chart that graphically shows how the US fell behind in penetration. In 1999, we pretty much led the world in what little broadband there was. But South Korea leaped ahead of us the next year. By 2013 (the last year on the graph), France, Germany, Canada and several others had passed us by. We continued to gain subscriptions, but other countries gained faster.

1214 ict

So what can you do about it (aside from moving overseas or complaining to Congress)? You can check to see whether you actually do have multiple options. Go toBroadbandnow and enter your zip code. You’ll find the ISPs serving your area, with their cheapest and slowest options displayed, plus other information available with a few clicks.

But check the fine print, even on Broadbandnow. The displayed price may be good only for a limited time.

Net neutrality fans and broadband backers clash in court

FCC building in Washington

Both sides in the fight over net neutrality said they’re confident they’ll win over a federal appeals court that’s hearing legal challenges to the FCC’s actions on the hotly contested issue.

Lawyers gave oral arguments in the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington on Friday and faced questions from judges in a case that could reshape the way the government treats both the wired and mobile broadband industries. Broadband service providers such as AT&T are suing to stop the Federal Communications Commission from classifying Internet companies as utilities and banning paid prioritization of specific services.

The judges aren’t expected to rule for at least few months, so representatives from each side relied on the judge’s questions to gauge which way they might be leaning.

Most of the questions involved technical issues about how the FCC went about setting its new rules, rather than about the rules themselves, said Matt Wood, policy director for pro-neutrality group Free Press.

Some opponents of the rules interpreted those questions differently. They see the FCC headed for a tough fight about the basics of what it’s trying to do. The judges may not leave it to the FCC to know what’s best, according to Doug Brake, a policy analyst at the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, which has argued against the new rules.

“The sharp questions from Judges [David] Tatel and [Stephen] Williams make clear the FCC’s classification of broadband Internet access as a common carrier likely pushes beyond the boundaries of the agency’s deference,” Brake said in a statement. Congress should decide what to do about net neutrality, he said.

The three judges challenged the FCC on how it could regulate Internet services based on the Telecommunications Act of 1934, why it banned paid prioritization of traffic outright, and other issues, said Daniel Berninger, a plaintiff who’s suing because he’s starting a company that needs paid prioritization and would be banned under the new rules. He doesn’t expect the agency’s rules to stand.

Some of the most skeptical questions on Friday concerned so-called interconnection issues, like Comcast versus Netflix, and how the FCC went about extending the net neutrality rules to mobile services, said Kevin Russell, a partner at Goldstein & Russell who argued in court for net neutrality advocates.

On interconnection, as on other issues, Russell said the judges understood the FCC’s argument and he’s hopeful they will defer to the agency’s judgement.

On mobile, the judges didn’t question the FCC’s view that services should be regulated the same way on both wired and wireless networks, Russell said. But they probed the agency over whether it had given enough notice that it was looking to expand net neutrality rules to mobile, where they had not applied earlier. There were also questions about whether the regulations the FCC wants to use are too outdated to cover mobile data services, he said.

At this point, the net neutrality backers think the new rules will probably survive. Even if the court issues a split decision that leaves mobile out, the FCC could probably get those services back under the regulations, Russell said. It probably wouldn’t even have to ask for public comments again, he said.

But with an issue as complex as net neutrality, where the FCC has been challenged and lost in court before, the outcome and its eventual impact on consumers is far from certain.

Five to Try: Google’s Santa Tracker delivers cheer, and Cardboard Camera turns photos into VR

fivetotry dec4 lead

December is here, and that means two things are more or less omnipresent: Santa Claus and Star Wars. And both are represented in this week’s roundup of new and updated Android apps. Google’s Santa Tracker returns, and while its best feature is still to come, you can dig into holiday games for now. Meanwhile, the updated Star Wars app brings the franchise into VR with a tie-in to The Force Awakens.

Sticking on that VR note, Google’s Cardboard Camera app is a neat new tool that lets you transform a panoramic photo into a virtual reality flashback. Free-to-play platform-action sequel Rayman Adventures and Adobe’s new Premiere Clip tool round out the week’s offerings, so if it’s new apps and games you seek, look no further.

Google Santa Tracker

fivetotry dec4 googlesanta
Santa Tracker takes its ultimate form on Christmas Eve, but it offers fun diversions ‘til then.

One of Google’s most delightful traditions continues with the return of Santa Tracker. As the name suggests, its centerpiece is the Maps-based tracker tool, which goes live on December 24 and shows Santa’s trajectory as he delivers gifts all around the world. Luckily, you don’t have to wait ‘til then to have some fun with the app.

It’s loaded with simple mini-games for kids, including a memory-matching game, a tilt-to-roll gumball puzzler, and a game in which you snag lost presents as an elf on a rocket-powered sleigh. One snowball-tossing game optionally uses Cardboard VR, as well, plus there are animated videos—including this charming trailer—and Android Wear watch faces to enjoy. Savor the Christmas spirit on all your Android devices.

Cardboard Camera

fivetotry dec4 cardboardcameraMost VR content today is simply meant to be consumed—but here’s something you can actually create. Cardboard Camera is Google’s own app for generating 3D photos that you can view in virtual reality with your phone and a Cardboard viewer. Simply take a panoramic photo of your surroundings, as you’re guided, and then pop on the headset and marvel at the results.

It’s impressive, albeit limited: you’re not creating a full photosphere, so there’s no top or bottom to the frame. Still, for about a minute’s work, the depth and immersive nature of the photos are impressive, and you can add a quick bit of sound or narration for atmosphere. Cardboard Camera could be a perfect way to store past memories of events and places: grab a photo and then experience it again later in VR.

Star Wars

fivetotry dec4 starwarsThe official Star Wars app launched back in July, but there’s a big update out this week: Jakku Spy is an episodic Cardboard VR video series that ties into The Force Awakens, which hits theaters on December 18. Nine total episodes are listed, all set to release a couple days apart until the movie’s out, and the first entry already brings fan-favorites like the Millennium Falcon and the new BB-8 droid into virtual reality.

And then, about a minute later, it’s over. Surprise! It’s a short one: after the iconic text crawl, there’s just a glimpse of those iconic sights before the clip ends. But it’s a tantalizing start to what will hopefully be one of the more memorable VR experiences on Android, and if you don’t have a Cardboard viewer, you can just watch it in full-screen on your phone.

Rayman Adventures

fivetotry dec4 raymanadventures
A well-timed swipe will punch these shielded goons right out of the way.

Rayman Fiesta Run is one of the most delightful platform-action games on Android, and now the side-scrolling hero is back—and free-to-play. Like its predecessor (and Jungle Run before that), Rayman Adventures distills a console-like 2D action experience into a series of taps and swipes. As your hero or heroine runs, you’ll jump, punch, swing, leap between walls, and more. Precise timing and careful input selection is needed as the levels get trickier along the way.

Adventures looks even better than before, with gorgeous hand-drawn artwork throughout, although the new freemium approach isn’t for the better. It clutters up the experience with little creatures you need to collect, feed, and hatch (with timers!), although the core play seems largely unaffected. In other words, you’re trading a price tag for some extra annoyances, but much of the fun remains intact.

Adobe Premiere Clip

fivetotry dec4 adobepremiereclip

Want to condense a long video into a quick clip? Let Premiere Clip do an auto-edit set to music.

Adobe has tailored more of its apps for mobile of late, and Premiere Clip is another fresh option that maintains the essence of the desktop video program without the complexity. Once you have footage, you can use the included tools to trim down and tweak the clip as desired, or simply have Premiere Clip automate the process. Choose a song and the app will auto-edit a short clip based on the beat, making social media-ready footage in seconds.

Premiere Clip has value to anyone, but it’s especially useful for those already entrenched in Adobe’s Creative Cloud. For example, you can pull in custom looks designed in the Capture CC app, or transfer your project to Premiere Pro CC on PC or Mac for more advanced tinkering.

If you return a tech gift this Christmas, make sure you erase all your data first

returned tablet notifications

The first tip that something wasn’t quite right about the open-box tablet I had purchased from Fry’s Electronics was that fact that Marvel Contest of Champions appeared on the home screen.

I had sought out the most run-down, crappiest tablet I could buy for our buying guide on productivity tablets, as an example of what not to buy during the holiday season. The Visual Land tablet I found for about $70 was two years old, with visible pixels and a loose power connector. I powered it up, just to ensure that it would work… and discovered that it was still keyed to someone else.

Almost as soon as the tablet connected to my local Wi-Fi, a notification popped up: “Account Action Required” for the user’s account, and that there was a corresponding sign-in error as well. The user had obviously changed his or her password after sending back the tablet, meaning that anyone who had purchased it (me) couldn’t access any critical personal information. Nor did I want to; I factory reset it, sending whatever personal information was stored on the tablet into oblivion.

Why this matters: Every digital device you own is a potential portal that someone can use to peer into your personal life: providing access to your email, social media, cloud storage, and other accounts. Yes, most of us have internalized some security practices: antivirus software is now a way of life, we advise friends and relatives not to click on suspicious email, and we usually know what to do if we lose a phone. But with all the rushing around we do these days, sometimes something as small as erasing a tablet falls through the cracks. And once you’ve returned a device to a store, it’s out of your hands.

Lessons to learn

The lesson to take away from all this, however, is not to do what the person who owned and then returned this tablet did. Yes, changing your password after you’ve returned a phone, tablet, or computer may lock out other prying eyes from accessing your account and other personal information. But if you downloaded email, photos, apps, or other data, any information stored locally will remain for anyone who wants to pore through your personal life.

So how do you ensure that your device is wiped clean of all data? Follow these steps. Just be sure that anything stored on the device is backed up to the cloud or elsewhere. Once the reset is performed, all the data on the device is gone forever.

returned tablet factory reset
Always make sure that you reset the device before returning or disposing of it.

Android:

Access the Settings menu, either by swiping down from the top of the screen and clicking the “gear” icon, or tapping the Settings icon directly. Scroll down to the “Backup and reset” option, and click. Play it safe and ensure the process completes before boxing up your return.

Note that this process should work for both phones and tablets alike.

iOS:

To reset an iPhone, iPad, or iPod touch, access the Settings menu, then select General > Reset > Erase All Content and Settings. If you were using the Find My iPhone option, the device will ask your for your iCloud password to turn it off.

Apple OS X:

Macworld has an excellent in-depth primer on how to go about securely erasing your drive.

Windows 8 or 8.1:

Swipe in from the right edge of the screen, tap Settings, and then tap Change PC settings. (If you’re using a mouse, point to the upper-right corner of the screen, move the mouse pointer down, click Settings, and then click Change PC settings.) Then select Update and Recovery, then Recovery. Then click Remove Everything and Reinstall Windows. You’ll also have an option to either quickly or thoroughly clean your data; if you’re the paranoid type, select “Thoroughly.”

Windows 10: 

Go to the Settings menu, then Update & Security > Recovery > Reset This PC. Make sure you select the option to remove everything, including your personal files. (You probably don’t need to apply the “scorched earth” policy of overwriting the data on the drives, although if you’re actually going to dispose of the PC, it’s not a bad idea.)

Windows Phones:

Swipe to access the Settings Menu, then click “About.” You’ll see an option to reset your phone.

Some devices also provide the option of remotely wiping them, or erasing their data, either using the native OS or a third-party app. But it’s far more reassuring to perform the reset yourself, with the device in front of you.