Weekly output: ISP guidance, Florida social-media law meets court setback, digital-platform antitrust bill updated, WiFi hotspots guide, Mark Vena podcast

I returned Monday from one work trip and have (ulp) four more coming up before the end of June. But at least they’re all separated by at least two days!

5/23/2022: Internet Service Providers, U.S. News & World Report

My contribution to this update of U.S. News’ guide consisted of three comparisons (Fios vs. XfinitySpectrum vs. AT&T, Xfinity vs. AT&T), advice about cheaper ISPs, and a DSL explainer that I hope you don’t need.

Screenshot of PCMag story, illustrated with a photo of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaking in front of an "Awake Not Woke" banner5/24/2022: US Appeals Court Tosses Most Provisions of Florida Social-Media Law, PCMag

The ruling from a three-judge panel at the 11th Circuit overturning a Florida law essentially banning content moderation of posts from or about officially-filed political candidates is uncommonly clear in explaining why those judges found this statute to be unconstitutional garbage.

5/26/2022: Senators Update Antitrust Bill to Focus More Narrowly on Big Tech Firms, PCMag

PCMag had somehow not previously covered this bill from Sens. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) and Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), so I used an incremental update to the bill’s text to get readers up to speed.

5/26/2022: The Best Wi-Fi Hotspot, Wirecutter

This is an incremental update to the hotspot guide I’ve been maintaining since early 2015–because while speeds and rates have changed, I haven’t yet had a chance to try a new set of 5G hotspots now available from AT&T and Verizon.

5/27/2022: S02 E22 – SmartTechCheck Podcast, Mark Vena

I joined the usual podcast crew to talk about electric cars, the dumb Texas social-media law that somehow survived a different federal circuit court’s scrutiny, and a few other topics; as usual, the podcast is also available on YouTube.

Saying there’s nothing we can do is not a serious answer

Two Sundays ago, I walked out of the airport terminal in Boise and stopped to gawk at the sticker on an entrance door. Illustrated with a picture of an anxious cartoon handgun, it warned travelers of the mininum $3,920 fine waiting if they tried to take a firearm through security. Then I saw a second sign with the same message on the doors leading from a parking garage to the terminal.

But on that afternoon, the apparent need for such a reminder represented one of the smallest parts of America’s gun problem.

Two Sundays ago, it had only been a day since a deranged 18-year-old excuse for a man had shot and killed 10 people at a grocery store in Buffalo. I spent the next seven days driving through the Pacific Northwest as part of PCMag’s Fastest Mobile Networks drive testing, then flew home Monday. A day later, a deranged 18-year-old excuse for a man shot and killed 19 grade-school children and two teachers in Uvalde, Tex.

This sickening repeat led to a predictably sickening response by elected officials, most but not all Republican, that amounted to this: Whatever we do can’t touch our peculiar institution of massively distributed gun ownership.

It’s fair to point to the conduct of the local police in Uvalde–their inaction left children only a little younger than my own dying in their hour of need. But this spasm of whataboutism has also led to politicians endorsing things like rebuilding schools along the lines of prisons (presumably, the rest of us remain free to get shot elsewhere) and improving mental-health care (which would be more persuasive were it not coming from politicians who spent years trying to kill the Affordable Care Act without serious plans to replace it), and anything else but the public-health issues of what guns are on the market, how they are sold and transferred, and who winds up carrying them.

The Second Amendment’s two-part phrasing allows multiple readings, but the last time the Supreme Court pondered it and perceived an individual right to gun ownership, it still saw no absolutes.

“It is not a right to keep and carry any weapon whatsoever in any manner whatsoever and for whatever purpose,” Justice Antonin Scalia wrote in District of Columbia v. Heller in 2008. “The Court’s opinion should not be taken to cast doubt on longstanding prohibitions on the possession of firearms by felons and the mentally ill, or laws forbidding the carrying of firearms in sensitive places such as schools and government buildings, or laws imposing conditions and qualifications on the commercial sale of arms.” 

Which brings me back to my first setting. Flying from D.C. to Boise via Chicago treated me to the safest way to travel–made so because the culture of safety in commercial aviation doesn’t accept excuses like “the risk is somebody else’s fault” or “this is how we’ve always done it” or “individual passengers can make their own decisions.” Many other parts of American life could use something like that culture of safety, but none more than the manufacture and distribution of devices expressly made to kill people.

Weekly output: Google lets people keep legacy Google Apps accounts for personal use, broadband gains and pay-TV losses, Bing autosuggest hid some Chinese names

SANTA ROSA, Calif.–My road trip through the Pacific Northwest that started in Boise last Sunday ends Monday morning when I fly home. Doing wireless-carrier drive testing for this year’s version of PCMag’s Fastest Mobile Networks project has taken me to some beautiful places, but I will be delighted to see the same old D.C.-area scenery tomorrow.

PCMag post on Google relenting on legacy G Suite5/17/2022: Google Clicks ‘Undo’ on Plan to Force Legacy Free Google Apps Users to Pay Up, PCMag

Google had spent months telling people (like me) who had long ago opened free Google Apps accounts to use e-mail under personal domain names that they’d have to pay for a business account or relocate their mail service elsewhere. Then the company said, in effect, “never mind.” I’m feeling confused but relieved, as the alternatives all seemed ugly in their own ways.

5/18/2022: TV Subscription Losses Almost Double Broadband-Subscription Gains in Q1, PCMag

I wrote up two reports from the consultancy Leichtman Research Group showing continued growth in broadband subscriptions and continued losses in pay-TV subscriptions. The detail that jumped out at me: how much fixed-wireless broadband service from T-Mobile and Verizon has grown in the last year.

5/20/2022: Bing Hid Auto-Suggestions for Politically Sensitive Chinese Names, Even in the US, PCMag

A new report from Citizen Lab found Microsoft’s Bing search site didn’t autosuggest search terms for certain names that would be considered politically delicate in China. Note my comment in this post about how this University of Toronto-based group found another form of autosuggest filtering that can’t be blamed on anything but the difficulty of automated content screening.

Road-trip reminder: The scenery gets bigger out west

PORTLAND

Growing up on one the flatter parts of the East Coast, I got used to a certain scale of roadside scenery: no snowcapped mountains, no wide-open prairies, no long distances without seeing a city or at least a city’s post-industrial outskirts. I didn’t see the other roadside side of America until my first cross-country drive in 1992, when I spent much of the trip with my mouth agape at the scenery towering overhead and looming in front.

The view from a highway viewpoint off I-84 in Oregon spans hundreds if not thousands of square miles of prairie.

This week’s itinerary–courtesy of my second year in a row of doing drive testing for PCMag’s Fastest Mobile Networks project–has reminded me of what I’ve missed.

After landing in Boise Sunday and doing my share of the network testing there, I drove from there to Pasco, Wash., Monday. This roughly 270-mile haul took me up and over the Blue Mountains on Interstate 84 and then treated me to the view at right (from the colorfully-named Deadman’s Pass rest area) of what must be thousands of square miles of plain. After that, a shortcut on local roads past endless stretches of farmland took me to a last stretch alongside the Columbia River. Tuesday’s 220-mile drive from Pasco to Seattle started in flatlands, above which the first mountain peak came into view like some sort of trapezoidal moon. Then I-90 aligned me closer and closer to the Cascades up, through and down the Snoqualmie Pass… and I don’t know how people can stay focused on the road with those alpine views.

(If only I’d had a co-pilot to split the driving and let me take photos out the passenger side!)

Unlike that drive 30 years ago, I had the advantage of a vastly more modern car. PCMag rented a Tesla Model 3 for this trip–part of their agenda is assessing the charging infrastructure available–so gas prices aren’t a concern and neither is getting up to speed on a highway on-ramp. This battery-electric rocket is also a vastly more comfortable ride than the 1977 Toyota Corolla that figured in that summer trip.

The other thing that’s changed from 1992 is all the wind power in sight. And not just in the form of rows of wind turbines gently turning on ridgelines but on the highways, which have treated me to the spectacle of tractor-trailers towing wind-turbine blades. The scale of those is larger than life too, with each gently curved airfoil–longer than a 747’s wing, going by recent averages–stretching far past the back wheels of an already-oversize trailer.

Not all of the American West is blessed with epic scenery, though. Thursday, an already-slow drive from Seattle to Portland on I-5 that offered no exceptional views came to an unsettling halt when every car and truck in front lit up its brake lights–a sudden hailstorm had led to a series of crashes that, I learned later, killed one motorcyclist. As I crept past these wrecks and emergency responders caring for their drivers and passengers, I spotted at least four more vehicles that had skidded off the highway and down the wide, grassy trough splitting the northbound and southbound lanes.

I could only think about the random chance that had brought me to this scene then and not 10 minutes earlier–and about how much I will appreciate being home, smaller sights and all, Monday.

Weekly output: inflight WiFi (x2), cheaper broadband, Google I/O, Texas social-media law, DEA data-portal hack, Twitter mourns Shireen Abu Akleh, SpaceX recap

BOISE–For the second year in a row, I’m on the road for PCMag’s Fastest Mobile Networks project. And this time the work has taken me much farther from home: After completing the network drive testing I started here after arriving Sunday afternoon, I’m heading to Seattle, Portland and then the Bay Area before flying home.

5/9/2022: Wi-Fi on the plane: Here’s how in-flight connectivity is changing (and costing), USA Today

I know everybody loves to complain about the unreliable state of inflight WiFi, but I see two positive trends worth a little applause: flat-rate pricing and free use of messaging apps.

5/9/2022: White House Lines Up 20 ISPs to Offer Free 100Mbps Broadband to Qualifying Households, PCMag

I wrote up the Biden administration’s announcement of a partnership with 20 Internet providers that will lower service costs to zero for households eligible for the Federal Communications Commission’s Affordable Connectivity Program–and noted how this deal’s ban on data caps make some of these companies’ existing broadband plans look even worse.

5/10/2022: Wi-Fi on the plane: Here’s how in-flight connectivity is changing (and costing), This Morning with Gordon Deal

The business-news radio show had me on talk about recent developments in using the Internet from a chair in the sky.

Screenshot of story as seen in Safari on an iPad mini 55/12/2022: Here are the 4 most surprising takeaways from the first day of Google’s I/O conference, Fast Company

Part of the keynote that opened Google’s I/O conference reminded me of today’s Apple, while another part evoked a previous decade’s Microsoft.

5/12/2022: US Appeals Court Rules Social Media Content Moderation Should Be Restricted, PCMag

I wrote about an unexplained and inexplicable ruling by a panel of federal judges that allowed a blatantly unconstitutional Texas law to take effect. My post had its own inexplicable error: I linked to the wrong one-page ruling and therefore named the wrong judges. No readers yelled at me about the mistake before I realized it on my own, but I feel stupid about it anyway.

5/12/2022: Hackers Reportedly Gain Access to Drug Enforcement Administration Data Portal, PCMag

My old Washington Post pal Brian Krebs had a scoop about what seems to be a massive data breach made possible by poor security practices, which I wrote up while adding some context about the White House’s recent moves to improve federal infosec.

5/12/2022: Twitter reactions to Shireen Abu Akleh’s death, Al Jazeera

The Arabic-language news channel had me on Thursday night to discuss how Twitter reacted to the horrible news of their correspondent being shot and killed, apparently by Israeli soldiers, while reporting in the West Bank.

5/13/2022: Here’s How Close We Came to Relying on the Russians for ISS Trips, PCMag

I spent Thursday afternoon in D.C. at Ars Technica’s Ars Frontiers conference, and an insightful interview of former NASA deputy administrator by that estimable news site’s space reporter Eric Berger yielded this recap.

The multitasking interface in iPadOS 15 is not aging well for me

It didn’t take too long after I installed iPadOS on my iPad mini 5 for me to restore order to my app-icon grid–even if I’m still tweaking that arrangement and dreading the moment when the next iPad system update sends it higgledy piggledy. But another part of Apple’s tablet operating system continues to grind my gears: its multitasking options.

I can’t fault Apple for trying to make this UI more discoverable. In the previous release, I had to look up how to run one app on a third of the screen and leave the other two-thirds to another app every time I wanted to have the clock app and my notes visible side by side for a virtual panel. But in iPadOS 15, I have the opposite problem–the system keeps thinking I’m trying to split the screen between two apps when I have no such intention.

The most common scenario involves me wanting to go to a different site in Safari, when tapping the browser’s address bar routinely invokes the three-dot multitasking button that Apple added to iPadOS 15. That bit of chrome may stay out of the way more often on a larger-screen iPad, but on the 7.9-in. display of my iPad mini, it’s a different story. There, only a few millimeters of screen real estate–either from the top of the screen to the address bar, or between the center of the address bar and address-bar controls like the text-size/display/privacy button and 1Password’s button–seem to separate me from successfully entering a Web address or having the multitasking button thwart that attempt.

The other involves a situation almost as common: iPadOS flashes a notification, and I swipe down to see what it was. From the home screen, this continues to work as it did before–but in an app, iPadOS keeps acting as if I’d meant to invoke the Split View multitasking display by tapping that dreaded three-dot button. Eventually, I will reprogram my muscle memory to swipe slightly off-center to avoid running my finger across that ellipsis icon, except the home-screen behavior keeps telling me I don’t have to change.

So here I am, more than six months after installing this update, and I’m still thumb-wrestling my way around one of its core features. And I’m not alone in feeling this irritated, to judge from my mom’s review of this wayward user experience: “the most distracting thing in the world.” She’s right, and Apple’s wrong.

Weekly output: Rocket Lab booster catch, passwordless logins, Mark Vena podcast, Chris Krebs cybersecurity-policy assessment, Facebook to end background location tracking

Friday marked two years since we adopted our cat. Abel still ignores us when we tell him not to jump on the dining-room table but is a sweetie in most other ways. And every time I expand the online world’s inventory of cat photos by posting one of him, I feel like I am being a good citizen of the Internet.

Screenshot of the PCMag post in Safari for iPadOS, showing the screengrab I took of Rocket Lab's stream showing the Electron booster and its parachute at right, with the helicopter's cable at left.5/3/2022: Watch a Helicopter Catch an Electron Booster Rocket, PCMag

I watched a helicopter catch and briefly hold a spent first stage of a rocket as it descended under a parachute, a first-time experience for me, and then tuned into Rocket Lab’s press conference hours later to get some quotes from Rocket Lab CEO Peter Beck for this story.

5/5/2022: Google lines up with Apple and Microsoft to nix passwords in favor of nearby-device authentication, Fast Company

I got an advance on this three-company news announcement from Google, so all the quotes in this post are from two Googlers. If you’d like to read more about this initiative, please turn your attention to Dan Goodin’s writeup at Ars Technica.

5/5/2022: S02 E19 – SmartTechCheck Podcast, Mark Vena

I rejoined this podcast after missing it last week due to travel.

5/6/2022: Ex-CISA Chief: Biden Cybersecurity EO ‘Raises the Standard’ on IT Vendors, PCMag

I wrote up the closing session at the Hack the Capitol event in D.C., in which former Cybersecurity & Infrastructure Security Administration director Chris Krebs shared his insights about the state of information-security policy.

5/6/2022: Facebook Unfollows ‘Nearby Friends,’ Other Background Location Features

Facebook bulk-erasing everybody’s location history will be its biggest data-minimization move since scrapping its facial-recognition database. And yet the company’s sole announcement of this move Friday was in-app prompts and e-mails for some users.

A long wait for an app notification

Twenty-one months ago, I installed the Virginia Department of Health’s COVIDWISE app on my smartphone and urged everybody reading that post in Virginia to go and do likewise. Back in August of 2020, I expected that this app developed with the Apple-Google COVID-19 exposure notifications framework would soon be warning me that I’d been near somebody else who had tested positive and had then used this app or another built on that foundation to send a thoroughly anonymized warning.

But the notifications of possible exposures didn’t appear, even as the U.S. suffered repeated waves of novel-coronavirus variants and the positive-test rate in Northern Virginia shot up above 30 percent at the start of this year. And as I got my first vaccination, second vaccination and booster shot, the continued silence of this app bothered me less and less–to the point that I briefly forgot to activate it after moving from my Pixel 3a to my Pixel 5a.

That silence ended Thursday morning, when my smartphone greeted me with a notification of a probable exposure. “You have likely been exposed to someone who has tested positive for COVID-19,” the app told me. “COVIDWISE estimates that you were last exposed 5 days ago.”

The app further informed me that “Most people who are fully vaccinated and free of COVID-like symptoms do not need to quarantine or be tested after an exposure.” Fortunately, I had already self-tested negative on an antigen at-home kit Wednesday morning to verify my health before heading to the Hack the Capitol security conference.

Because this app and others built on the Apple/Google code don’t store location data, I can only wonder when this possible exposure happened. And since five days ago was Saturday, when I flew home from Latvia via Munich and then Boston, I’m looking at thousands of miles of possibility. A second notification from COVIDWISE referencing North Carolina’s SlowCOVIDNC app suggests that my possible exposure source lives there, but the privacy-preserving design of this system ensures I’ll never know for sure.

A five-day turnaround, however, now seems quick after seeing three people reply to my tweet about this notification to report that they didn’t get their own heads-up from one of these exposure-notification apps until 10 days after the possible exposure–a uselessly long lag. My conclusion from those data points: Get vaccinated and boosted, because that will do more than anything else you could possibly undertake to ensure that receiving one of these exposure alerts remains a drama-free experience.

Weekly output: Elon Musk buying Twitter, chief impact officers, U.S.-led Internet declaration, airBaltic’s NFT ambitions

Work took me on a short trip to the Baltics this week–one made a little longer on the way home by a date-validation glitch in a COVID-testing app. Have I mentioned how much I hate the CDC testing rule for returning international flights that has no counterpart for domestic flights?

This week’s bonus for Patreon readers: a post unpacking a curious case of a telecom company’s publicists going out of their way to avoid telling the press about a welcome development in their product lineup.

4/25/2018: Elon Musk buying Twitter, Al Jazeera

Somehow, my only paid-for opining about the Tesla and SpaceX billionaire’s bid to buy Twitter came in this appearance on the Arabic-language news channel. Please note that I didn’t write “somehow” as a synonym for “regretfully.”

Photo of the TechChill logo as seen on a display in front of the stage in Riga, Latvia4/28/2022: What do Chief Impact Officers Really Do?, TechChill

I led a discussion about this new c-suite slot with two recently-hired chief impact officers: Contentsquare’s Kat Borlongan, who appeared via video, and Maanch’s Sianne Haldane, who joined me onstage.

4/29/2022: US Gets 60 Countries to Sign ‘Declaration for the Future of the Internet’, PCMag

I contrasted this White House-led declaration of open-Internet principles with a list of countries that indulged in Internet shutoffs most often in 2021–meaning India and then everybody else.

4/29/2022: AirBaltic CEO Touts Cryptocurrency Experiments, Predicts NFT Airline Tickets. PCMag

A TechChill panel featured airBaltic CEO Martin Gauss holding forth on the airline’s ambitions to rebuild such core functions as ticketing on NFT foundations. I get that these announcements win the carrier some extra publicity (as seen in this post), but the real reason to fly airBaltic (should their routes match your travel patterns) is their flying the Airbus A220, one of the finest regional jets ever made.

Twitter really isn’t the digital town square, but it might as well be the newsroom coffee counter

A blue pin handed out at the 2012 Online News Association conference, photographed on a piece of lined paper, reads "Keep Calm and Tweet #ONA12"

When Twitter’s management accepted Elon Musk’s offer to buy the company for about $44 billion–a sentence that still makes me pause and think “wait, really?”–the Tesla and SpaceX billionaire called his upcoming property “the digital town square where matters vital to the future of humanity are debated.”

That two-word phrase comes up in a lot in discussions of this compressed-prose, collective-angst platform that a dozen years ago I had to define for readers as a “San Francisco-based microblogging service.”

Twitter’s own management has liked to call the service a town square of own sort or another. Obsessive coverage of the Twitter habits of certain boldface names (case in point: @elonmusk) suggests as much. And many complaints over Twitter exercising its right and business obligation to moderate content assumes that you have the same right to tweet something–meaning have Twitter spend its computing, network and human resources to “use, copy, reproduce, process, adapt, modify, publish, transmit, display and distribute” your output–as you would in a physical town square in the U.S.

But the Pew Research Center’s surveys of social-media habits have consistently revealed a more humble reality: Just 23 percent of American adults use Twitter, far below the 81 percent on YouTube, the 69 percent on Facebook or even the 31 percent on Pinterest and the 28 percent on LinkedIn. And Twitter’s share has essentially stayed flat in that Washington-based non-profit’s surveys, with the service’s high point being an almighty 24 percent in 2018.

It is entirely possible to live a rich, meaningful online social life without being on Twitter. It’s also possible to exercise considerable political power without being on Twitter–Donald Trump’s expulsion from that and every other mainstream social platform after his January 6, 2021 self-coup attempt has not stopped the Republican Party from wrapping itself around its own axle over the guy.

Journalists, however, may be another matter. Many of us flocked to the site early on because of its utility as a public notebook and for communication with readers and sources (it took longer for some us, meaning me, to realize how Twitter could also empower distributed abuse), its self-promotional possibilities (which can turn self-destructive when editors fall for bad-faith campaigns to attack journalists who fail to perform like story-sharing automatons on Twitter), and for the way its brevity allows us the chance to pretend we’re headline writers for New York tabloid newspapers. And, especially over the last two years, it’s become a valuable online substitute for the work chit-chat that once took place at a newsroom coffee counter–or, after work, at a nearby bar.

Twitter’s own outreach to journalists, as seen in that souvenir from the 2012 Online News Association conference and in such favors as the service verifying me in 2014 basically because I asked nicely enough times, has also played a role in that popularity.

I’d miss those things if Musk runs Twitter into the ground, as seems a real possibility given how often he’s suggested that Twitter’s real problem is not keeping up everything that’s not actually banned by U.S. law. A logical outcome of that would be making such First Amendment-protected trash like Holocaust denial and ISIS propaganda safe on Twitter, although I am keeping my mind open to more optimistic possibilities.

But I’ve also been online for almost three decades and I’ve seen much bigger allegedly essential online platforms fade into irrelevance. Should Twitter come to that, I imagine I and other journalists will do what we usually do when we meet some occupational obstacle: swear a lot and then figure out some other way to do the job.