About robpegoraro

Freelance journalist who covers (and is often vexed by) computers, gadgets and other things that beep.

Weekly output: streaming-video viewers, Facebook vs. Australia, ShowStoppers TV, password managers, Vint Cerf on 6G

In addition to the stories below, my tweet about the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority’s board-meeting news of an American Express Centurion Lounge coming to National Airport in 2022 got picked up at Gary Leff’s View From The Wing travel blog. As a longtime reader of Gary’s, I had to smile about that.

2/16/2021: OTT providers acknowledge the challenge of holding onto viewers, FierceVideo

I wrote up this online panel about the issues involved in retaining viewers as we emerge from this pandemic. The panel itself suffered its own retention problems, in the form of the moderator dropping offline multiple times.

2/17/2021: Facebook Will Give You Less Koala Content, Among Other Problems With Its Australian News Ban, Forbes

The koala-content angle came to me early on as I wrote this post, so I had to find some file art of a koala to go with the piece.

2/18/2021: ShowStoppers TV, ShowStoppers

I emceed this round of gadget demos, introducing and quizzing the presenters:  Godonut’s smartphone/tablet mount, HoverCam’s eGlass remote-teaching system, and Wacom’s Chromebook-connected drawing tablet.

Screenshot of USA Today column as seen in the paper's iPad app2/18/2021: LastPass to limit its free password manager. Here are other options, including Apple, Google, USA Today

All the research I did about password-manager services at the end of last year for the U.S. News guide that ran in January made this an easier column to write. That work also helped me write a longer post about the relative merits of LastPass, 1Password, Bitwarden and Dashlane for Patreon readers.

2/19/2021: 6G internet? Internet pioneer Vint Cerf isn’t buying the hype, Fast Company

I wrote up an online event hosted by Mitre Corp. on Feb. 11 that featured this interview of Internet pioneer Vint Cerf (whom I previously wrote about for Fast Company when he spoke at a conference in Alexandria in late 2019). Much as Cerf had voiced some sensible skepticism about 5G broadband one winter ago, he declined to get too excited over 6G and instead pointed to the connectivity potential of low-Earth-orbit satellites and ever-cheaper undersea fiber-optic cables.

Where I’m coming from in the Australia-versus-digital-platforms fight

The one thing you can say about any tech-policy dispute involving Facebook is that the ensuing discussion will take a while. Witness this week’s blowup in Australia, where the imminent passage of a bill (“News Media and Digital Platforms Mandatory Bargaining Code”) mandating a scheme of payments from the largest digital platforms to government-registered news publishers led Facebook to respond Wednesday with a news blackout. Now Australians can’t read or share news links on Facebook, Australian publishers can’t share their stories there, and Facebook users in every other country can’t share Australian news links either.

Photo of an inflatable globe, showing Australia

After writing about that fracas at Forbes on Wednesday, I spent too much time over the next day and a half in what may be my longest-ever tech-policy Twitter discussion. That left me feeling worn out–but also wishing I had taken a little more time to make my views clear. So for future reference, here are several things I think about this entire debate over what, if anything, tech platforms owe news sites.

Link taxes don’t make moral or economic sense. Not only does nobody need permission to link on the Web, a pointer to a news site–whether it’s a Google search result, a Facebook post or the blue text here–does not take from that site in any meaningful way. Well, not unless the nut of the story comes across in the headline and lead image, in which case the same story would likely go unread if seen on a newspaper’s home page. I’ve said this in various ways over more than a decade: the Washington Post in 2009, the Disruptive Competition Project in 2012, at Yahoo Finance in 2018, and at Glitch’s blog Glimmer last spring. (DisCo is a project of the Computer & Communications Industry Association, a trade group that counts Google as a member; as you can see, my judgment didn’t change before or after my one year contributing to its policy blog.)

We don’t need new forms of intellectual property. Trying to solve an economic or societal problem by expanding the reach of intellectual-property rights is almost always a bad idea, whether it’s allowing far more forms of human output to become eligible for patent protection, retroactively extending copyright terms by decades, or criminalizing certain categories of software because they could be used to infringe copyright. Every time, we wind up rewarding the biggest incumbents and giving more work for lawyers while doing much less to promote the progress of science and useful arts–as in, the reason the Constitution gives for Congress to grant these limited rights.

The vast reach of Facebook and Google is a legitimate cause for nervousness. I think both companies exercise more influence over our online lives than is healthy and have written multiple how-to stories (see, for instance, these stories from 2017, 2018, and 2020) to get people to spend less time at each. And I’ve practiced what I preach, including the defaults in my own browsers and the setup of this blog. Yet people keep sticking with Google, even though it’s trivial to change your search site. My WordPress stats show that of the 291,315 search-engine referrals to this blog since its April 2011 launch, 277,850 came from Google. Y’all couldn’t try making DuckDuckGo or Bing the default in even one browser on one device?

Antitrust laws exist for a reason. In retrospect, letting Facebook buy Instagram seems foolish, and waving through Google’s acquisition of a series of ad-tech firms looks like another missed opportunity. But if the underlying problem here is that these two companies have grown too big and too powerful, we already possess the tools to do something about that. Trustbusting may be the preferred remedy of Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D.-Mass.), but it was also a key plank of Theodore Roosevelt’s Republican administration. And it’s a group of Republican state attorneys general that have made the most serious charges of anticompetitive behavior by Facebook and Google.

Facebook’s political choices invite particular skepticism about its motives. Over the last five years, we’ve seen Facebook set aside its own rules about misinformation, wave aside obviously inauthentic behavior and reward right-wing outlets like Breitbart to placate the Trump wing of the Republican Party. Now it’s chosen to expel legitimate news for an entire continent, leaving News Feeds there wide open for memes at best, misinformation at worst. Does anybody think much of Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s sense of civic obligation after all this?

Online advertising is a big part of the news industry’s problem. The more I look at the machinery behind the online ads that supposedly prop up news sites–meaning the display ads programmatically inserted to match a reader’s perceived interests–the more I hate it. We’ve built a system that requires extensive tracking of people across the Web, somehow involves the work of a large set of intermediaries yet still winds up dominated at multiple levels by Google, struggles to keep out bad actors, and winds up delivering too little money to publishers. You know what doesn’t even touch this problem? Demands for link taxes.

If digital platforms can build new businesses with publishers, that’s not wrong even if it happens under political duress. Google has responded to demands like those in Australia and in Europe with something called the News Showcase, an enhanced news-search site that takes readers direct to stories and pays publishers. It’s ugly and sad that Google is doing this to pay off publishers who would otherwise try to break the open Web, but if it gets money to newsrooms more reliably than digital ads, I’ll take it.

News publishers can be their own worst enemy. Neither Facebook nor Google forced news sites to harangue visitors with solicitations to sign up for browser alerts or newsletters. The tech giants didn’t forbid paywalled newspapers from giving occasional or out-of-town readers some middle ground between opening a subscription and opening a private-browsing window. And they certainly didn’t force newspaper owners to sell out to such civic cancers as the newspaper-strangling hedge fund Alden Global Capital, new owners of the Chicago Tribune and the Tribune Publishing family of papers.

It’s fair to judge a political act by its ability to persuade. All of the above might suggest that I should be cheering on Facebook for defending the open Web against Australia’s intellectual-property land grab. But Facebook chose to respond in the most oafish manner possible short of deleting the accounts of individual Aussie news execs. Facebook didn’t try to target its response to publishers seeking to cash in on this law, subjected users in the rest of the world to an outburst of control-freakery, and can’t be bothered to make a real case to users who post an Australian news link and get an error message. The open Web no more needs this help than the argument over regulating “Big Tech” is helped by the grandstanding of Missouri’s sedition-abetting junior senator. So now I worry that Facebook’s arrogant, clumsy response will only goad legislators in Canberra into pushing this law through, just to show they won’t be bossed around by Zuckerberg.

Updated 2/21/2021 to note that the Australian bill would have the government determine which publishers qualified for these payments, a deeply problematic provision in its own right, clean up some tangled syntax, and to add a paragraph about antitrust that should have been in this post yesterday.

Weekly output: the App Store’s fake-reviews problem

Valentine’s Day is one event that hasn’t changed because of the pandemic. I love to cook, but I’m not so fond of seeing a restaurant at its worst because of Feb. 14 crowds. So this has always been my day to put together a fancy dinner at home.

Screenshot of this post as seen on an iPad mini. 2/12/2021: Lesson Of A Ripoff Roku Remote App: Beware App Store Ratings, Forbes

I started following Kosta Eleftheriou on Twitter a couple of weeks ago after seeing one of his threads unpacking an outrageous level of obvious fraud at Apple’s App Store. His Friday-morning thread about a third-party remote-control app for Roku media players conning people into signing up for $4.99/week subscriptions struck me as a convenient intersection of my longtime interest in app-store governance and my Forbes gig covering the intersection of tech and media.

The ignominious pandemic anniversaries pile up

A year ago today, the novel-coronavirus pandemic got a little more real for me and yet remained nowhere real enough. That’s when I had to cancel my travel plans for MWC in Barcelona after the organizers of that wireless-industry trade show succumbed to a wave of withdrawals by their bigger exhibitors.

The blog post I wrote then about MWC’s scrubbing betrays a stunning refusal to consider what I might not know about the emerging pandemic and the possible inadequacy of our own response to it. So do the e-mails I sent to friends and family that week, in which I blithely talked about plans for work and family trips in March, April and beyond as if the disease would somehow soon go away.

Now the Earth has gone a full orbit around the Sun since those early and excruciatingly bad takes, and the pandemic anniversaries are starting to stack up. Last Friday marked a year since my last time speaking at a conference out of town, last Saturday a year since my last attendance at a sports event. The coming weeks will bring the anniversaries of my last in-person panel, conference reception and indoor dinner at a restaurant.

Since then, we have learned many things the hard way, while almost half a million Americans aren’t around to benefit from those lessons. Tens of thousands more get sick every day; this week’s numbers included an old friend who only today had his temperature drop below 100 degrees after a few tense and agonizing days wracked by this virus.

But as of tonight, just over 50 million Americans have now received at least one dose of the vaccine–my in-laws among them, my mom scheduled next week.

I believe that we have already reached the farthest point of our own orbit away from the Before Times. But after having been wrong so many times in my pandemic predictions, I will not now forecast when this trajectory might land us back on something like the Earth we knew.

Weekly output: Starlink beta testers, Wikipedia code of conduct, Verizon’s 5G play at the Super Bowl

A year ago today, I was in New York to moderate a panel at what turned out to be my last out-of-town conference. I miss leading discussions with people in the same room instead of on the same screen. And I miss NYC–especially now that I could get off the train and exit into Moynihan Train Hall instead of Penn Station’s subterranean squalor.

Screenshot of the story as seen in Safari on an iPad2/1/2021: What Starlink beta testers really think about Elon Musk’s satellite internet, Fast Company

Reddit once again proved to be a good place to find early adopters of a new broadband technology, although I also found one Starlink beta tester on NASASpaceFlight.com’s forums.

2/3/2021: Wikipedia’s New Code Of Conduct Gets One Thing Right; Another Will Be A Struggle, Forbes

This post gave me an excuse to reconnect with two experts on social-media behavior I hadn’t talked to in way too long, Alex Howard and Caroline Sinders.

2/6/2021: Verizon Is Talking A Big Game About 5G At The Super Bowl, Forbes

Out of all of the overhyped use cases for 5G, crowded sports stadiums would actually let the extra capacity of millimeter-wave 5G shine. But with in-person attendance at Raymond James Stadium capped at a third of the venue’s capacity, Verizon is left with an empty demo.

Farewell to a well-traveled passport

The passport I’ve carried for almost 10 years is officially retired now that I’ve put it in the mail with my renewal form, a check, and a photo of me showing a lot more gray hair than the January 2011 shot in my about-to-expire travel document.

The stamps in that worn passport tell an incomplete story of travel on an unprecedented scale for me–something I had no idea would become part of my life when I had no idea that my travel-light job at the Washington Post was in its closing months. Flipping through that passport over the last 11, mostly-grounded months has been one of my ways to remember what Conference Life was like in the Before Times and to think about what it can be like once again as novel-coronavirus vaccination marches on.

Photo of old passport held open to show stamps, with a United Airlines route map in the background

Those stamps show my most frequent arrival and departure airports were Frankfurt and Shanghai (six each), followed by Brussels (five) and Berlin, Munich, and Lisbon (four each), with others from Barcelona, Dublin, Fukuoka, London, Narita, Paris, San Jose del Cabo, Shenzhen, and Zurich.

But those stamps (and the array of security-sticker travel barnacles on the back) only reveal part of my travel timeline because Hong Kong and Israel stamp separate pieces of paper, while Canada no longer stamps U.S. passports at entry ports with electronic kiosks. There are also no stamps from anywhere in Europe since early 2017, when I began using my Irish passport for EU travel; that’s gotten processed electronically every time instead of collecting a little ink.

This collection of travel souvenirs still doesn’t touch what I can see in one of my dad’s passports from the 1960s and 1970s (or those of some of my avgeek friends), but it still represents an enormous leap for me. One of several hundred thousand miles.

Now I get to wait for my new passport to arrive in the mail with strangely-pristine pages–along with the expired passport that I may not be able to consign permanently to a drawer. The Chinese visa in it runs through 2026, so if any future travel will have me going to the People’s Republic, that document will once again come along for the ride.

Weekly output: Coors Super Bowl dreaming, streaming-TV rate hikes

We finally got a legitimate snowfall for the first time in almost two years, allowing me to dust off my cross-country skis for the first time since early 2019. It’s good to know that I will not repeat last year’s disgrace of a no-skiing winter.

1/27/2021: Coors Didn’t Buy A Super Bowl Ad. It Wants Into Your Dreams Instead., Forbes

I got an advance on this goofball social-media stunt by Coors. which gave me time to read up on some fascinating work in dream science from MIT’s Media Lab.

Screenshot of my USA Today column, as seen in USAT's iPad app1/31/2021: Streaming video services like Netflix, Hulu and YouTube TV may raise their rates, but you can still save money, USA Today

A rate hike from Sling TV gave me a chance to revisit a point I’ve made before: Even as streaming-video services charge a little more each year, their absence of add-on fees and long-term contracts continues to make them the better deal. I didn’t have room to mention another advantage for streaming services that I’d explained in a Forbes post last week, all the cash-back deals you can find for them at many credit cards. So instead, I wrote a cheat-sheet about these deals and similar offers on online services for Patreon readers.

Reload for hope: my vaccination-data diet

Too many mornings over the last 11 months have started with me checking the Johns Hopkins University’s dashboard that began measuring the onslaught of the novel-coronavirus pandemic just over a year ago.

That page’s dismal totals remain stuck in my morning reading, but the past month has brought some relief: daily data about the advance of the vaccines that can strangle this virus.

Screenshot of the VDH vaccine-tracker page, showing statewide totals, its map of distribution in counties and cities, and charts reporting doses by vaccination site and per day.

The first one to land on my reading list was the vaccine-tracker page that Bloomberg set up in December. The news it’s delivered about vaccinations across the U.S. and around the world has gotten better every week–especially here in Virginia, no longer a laggard among the states. So has the design, as Bloomberg’s data-visualization wonks keep finding new ways to layer in more detail. They update this page (fortunately outside Bloomberg’s paywall) once or twice a day, most often starting at around 6 p.m., and I am now stuck in the habit of reloading it in idle moments.

About a week later, the Virginia Department of Health added a vaccination summary to its existing COVID-19 dashboard. That, too, has grown more info-dense, adding a doses-per-day chart that has steadily ascended over the last few weeks and, more recently, demographic data about distribution by age, race and gender. It also provides a map breaking down vaccination by cities and counties, plus a tab listing vaccine dose distributions across the commonwealth.

VDH has testing numbers posted by 10 a.m.–they have finally started nose-diving in the last couple of weeks–and now posts vaccination data no later than noon. This provides a nice bit of punctuation for the middle of the day.

The last week has put a third site on my reading list, the Centers for Disease Control’s vaccinations data tracker. The numbers here don’t tell me much that I won’t get at the other two sites. But since Jan. 20, seeing this page get updates every day, not just every few days and not on weekends, speaks to a welcome return of professionalism.

The time I spend reloading these pages and others–the Washington Post and the New York Times have also done good work here–won’t advance my own date with a needle. (I’m more focused on the timetable for my mom and my in-laws to get fully vaccinated, which fortunately now seems a matter of weeks instead of months.) But when every day can look like the one before, seeing these numbers climb proves otherwise. Each data point of progress cracks open the door out of this darkness a little wider.

Weekly output: discounts on streaming-video services

It seems safe to say that I had a much easier and simpler work week than many other journalists around D.C.

1/22/2021: How Your Credit Card Can Get You Streaming Services For Less, Forbes

This is a how-to post about saving money doubling as a look at marketing strategies for all the new streaming-video services vying for a spot in your entertainment budget. So two of the people I quoted aren’t among my traditional sources for coverage of the TV business and instead speak to the time I spend trying to optimize my own credit-card spend: William Charles, founder of the Doctor of Credit deal-news site, and my friend Benét Wilson, senior credit-cards editor at my occasional client The Points Guy.

Surfacing after surviving the worst president

Spending all of Thursday without once worrying about the president of the United States making yet another horrifyingly stupid announcement or appointment felt like a sort of luxury citizenship after four years of incessant Trump-induced anxiety.

A photo of the White House and the Old Executive Office Building late in the day, with the Rosslyn skyline in the background.

Yet my own experience of President Trump’s reign of error may itself rank as luxurious compared to that of many other Americans. He did not bar my overseas cousins from entering the U.S., insult my religion or ancestry, send troops to my street, or put my child in a cage. The liar-in-chief did regularly denounce the news media as “the enemy of the people,” but my interactions with unhinged Trump supporters never left the online world. And I have to admit that the tax changes Trump pushed through appear to have saved us a decent amount of money.

But it still infuriated me to see my tax dollars spent to inflict those cruelties and more on other people, amplify Trump’s encouragements of racist wingnuts and conspiracy-theory kooks, and pay the salaries of the incompetent, bigoted and corrupt hangers-on who infested Trump’s White House. And then Trump’s willful denial of science helped turn a pandemic that was bound to be dreadful into a disaster whose death toll now exceeds America’s World War II’s combat casualties.

It’s usually a mistake to judge a president’s work too quickly. I now struggle to remember just what made George H.W. Bush seem so much worse than Bill Clinton when I voted for the first time in 1992, while my opinion of Barack Obama has slipped as I’ve realized what a mess he left in Syria. Amidst Trump’s American carnage, people who took their jobs seriously did some good work, even outside headline events like completing the return of human spaceflight to American soil; we may learn about more such quiet efforts.

But well before 2020, Trump’s toxic combination of narcissism, intolerance, ignorance and greed looked set to place him among America’s lesser commanders in chief. Now that Trump has further befouled himself by being the first president in American history to attempt to overturn a legitimate election result up to the point of inciting a deadly riot at the Capitol, I can’t imagine how most historians won’t rate him the lowest of the low, below even those craven sympathizers of slavery and secession James Buchanan and Andrew Johnson.

Joe Biden and Kamala Harris aren’t perfect (neither led my choices up to Virginia’s primary last March), but they are decent human beings willing to seek out experts and admit contrary evidence. In their administration, the White House should not be a house of lies or a stage for political extremists. And should they lose their next election, they’ll accept that outcome. Even if you once saw promise in Trump to become a disruptive outsider, I hope you can recognize that last bit as an upgrade.