By Michael Rau
November 5, 2007
Ah The smell of democracy is in the air (although lately, it resembles the aroma of a barnyard thanks to all the toxic political ads polluting my TV).
This is, of course, election week here in Virginia and North Carolina, and in the spirit of that great American institution, it seemed to me to be an appropriate time to examine some political and policy issues in the news which impact technology.
Just as a disclaimer, I guess I should point out that Tuesdays elections will have little impact on these issues, but what the heck I love a cheap excuse.
This first item is for everyone who hates taxes. Last week, the House of Representatives passed a bill to extend the ban on Net access taxes until 2014.
A little background: The first version was passed in 1998, and has been renewed once since. It basically forbids state and local governments (with the exception of nine states that were grandfathered in) from levying taxes on Internet access services offered by providers such as cable companies, DSL providers, dial-up services and wireless access providers.
There are exceptions, mainly fee-based Internet services such as Video-On-Demand through the Web and Internet-based telephone services. But at least your cost to get Internet access wont go up because of taxes anytime soon.
The next nugget applies to those of you who get your television signal through a system provided by your apartment or condo complex management. The FCC has made a policy change stating that television service providers can no longer reach deals for exclusive access to residential developments.
This means that, if you can get a better deal through another provider, such as your local cable company, alternate terrestrial providers such as Verizon, or satellite providers such as DirectTV, you have the right to turn down the service offered by the development and choose your own provider.
Its just fair competition and levels the playing field for all providers.
Another little tidbit from last week: ICANN the organization charged with maintaining the database of Websites and their registered agents has been debating whether or not to continue making public some of the contact information for the people (such as myself) who register Web URLs.
Currently, names, addresses, phone numbers, etc. are all listed in a public database. The argument is that making this information public represents a breach of privacy, and that this information should be somehow shielded from public view.
Im on the fence on this one. On the one hand, Im a huge advocate of protecting personal information. On the other, Ive used the WHOIS database, as its known, to track down and report spammers whove violated my space.
Until the Federal Government gets serious about protecting consumers from purveyors of malware, its the only way the public has a chance of tracking these sub-humans down. And its not like my address and phone number are hard to track down through other methods.
Id be interested in hearing what my friends with the Spamhaus Project have to say about this. In the meantime, ICANN has deferred a decision pending further study.
Item #4: A coalition of consumer advocacy groups, including the Consumer Federation of America and the World Privacy Forum, has begun lobbying Congress to create what theyre calling a Do-not-track list.
This goes directly to an issue that Ive been complaining about for years specifically the practice employed by some Websites of using tracking cookies and Web beacons to collect information about your Web surfing habits, your shopping patterns, and your download preferences. These entities then use this information to target specific advertising towards you.
Companies like AOL and Yahoo argue that by targeting advertising to you when you visit their sites, it enhances your online experience.
What a load of manure
Since when did accessing and evaluating my private habits without my permission become acceptable behavior?
Look If I go to your Website and you choose to tell me BEFORE I enter and surf that doing so gives you de facto permission to gather information about my private habits, then it gives me the option of trusting you or not. But if you simply gather that information from my browser history without asking me first, youre invading my privacy, and thats something to which Ill never acquiesce.
Finally, I just want to mention that the issue of Net Neutrality is rearing its ugly head again.
Congress had decided to lay off this matter because it seemed that the company policies that Net Neutrality laws were designed to protect us from werent becoming an issue, so required no immediate specific action.
Now weve learned that some Internet providers have been controlling traffic and content, including engaging in selective censorship.
This is exactly why we need protection through Net Neutrality legislation. Private companies should never be able to arbitrarily control what we post or how fast it moves.
So there you have it. Go vote, and when you do, remember that your choices affect the technology that you rely on every day.
Michael Rau is a mass-communications consultant in Virginia Beach. To send feedback or view past columns, go to http://dailypress.asoundidea.com.
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