Posts tagged Verizon

Verizon Wireless to Enable Opt-Out of Mobile “Supercookies”

The wireless service will allow users to completely opt out of being targeted with the unique mobile identifiers called “supercookies.”

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Verizon Won’t Stop Tracking Users, But At Least You Can Opt Out Now

The saga of last year’s privacy controversy over Verizon’s user-tracking behavior continues on. The latest chapter involves the wireless carrier magnanimously deciding Friday to let subscribers opt out of the program, the New York Times reported. 

Not that the idea came purely from the goodness of its heart. As the NYT noted, the decision came less than a day after the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation wrote to Verizon’s chief executive, Lowell C. McAdam, to question his company’s behavior.

Next thing you know, Verizon agreed to let people jump off the good ship “Privacy Fail.”

Shhhh! We’re Tracking You

The fiasco started last year, when a tweet by the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s Jacob Hoffman-Andrews pointed out Verizon’s user-tracking tactics—primarily because few, if any, people realized what the wireless operator was doing.

Hoffman-Andrews cited an Ad Age article about Verizon’s advertising business that mentioned the company’s use of PrecisionID, a tool developed by Verizon’s data marketer, Precision Market Insights. Its website describes PrecisionID as “a deterministic identifier matched to devices on Verizon’s wireless network powering data-driven marketing and addressable advertising solutions…”

The system works by tacking on snippets of code—sometimes called “perma-cookies” or “supercookies”—to mobile traffic headers moving through Verizon’s cellular network. This “UIDH” identifier allows the carrier to track its subscribers’ mobile browsing activity for advertising purposes. Ad Age’s Mark Bergen wrote, “Precision packages the request as a hashed, aggregated and anonymous unique identifier, and turns it into a lucrative chunk of data for advertisers.”

See also: Why Verizon Is Tracking All Your Mobile Web Traffic

In a Google AdSense world, user-tracking may not seem that outrageous. The difference: Google makes no secret of its ad-targeting behavior, and people knowingly accept those terms in order to use the search giant’s free services. Verizon Wireless subscribers pay (sometimes hefty) subscription fees, but they apparently didn’t know they were being tracked.

Instead, they became unwitting participants in a program whose security remains in question. As the NYT points out, Verizon must secure those unique identifiers or supercookies, to ensure external attackers can’t get their hands on them.

Verizon “Takes Privacy Seriously” (Kinda) 

Even if people knew about the program, they would have had no way out until now. The company offered no mechanism to decline participation, like it does with other advertising initiatives. It makes sense, in some ways. If no one knows they’re being tracked, where’s the need? Another possibility: Putting something out there might trigger unwanted attention, and Verizon only puts it out there because it’s forced to now.

That is, of course, not the way the carrier positions its decision to let people opt out. According to its latest press statement:

Verizon takes customer privacy seriously and it is a central consideration as we develop new products and services. As the mobile advertising ecosystem evolves, and our advertising business grows, delivering solutions with best-in-class privacy protections remains our focus. 

We listen to our customers and provide them the ability to opt out of our advertising programs. We have begun working to expand the opt-out to include the identifier referred to as the UIDH, and expect that to be available soon. As a reminder, Verizon never shares customer information with third parties as part of our advertising programs.

The announcement looks like a concession, and a minor one at that. Because if it was serious about privacy, then Verizon would have made user-tracking opt-in, i.e. turned off by default and only activated with consent. Instead, the program is opt-out, indicating it may be turned on by default.

Earlier in January, the Electronic Frontier Foundation began a petition against Verizon and Turn, a partner that makes digital marketing software. The digital rights group seeks demanding punitive federal action for the lack of consumer disclosures over their tracking activity. The petition received more than 2,000 signatures as of Friday. 

Lead photo by Kangrex

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Verizon Reportedly Talking To AOL About Partnership Or Buyout

Telecom giant Verizon has reached out to AOL about a potential acquisition or joint venture, Bloomberg reports, citing anonymous sources.

See also: Why Verizon Is Tracking All Your Mobile Web Traffic

These individuals, who asked not to be named because the talks are supposed to be kept private, said that Big Red has yet to make a formal proposal to the shrunken media outfit. Spokespeople for Verizon and AOL declined to comment.

The sources noted that Verizon is primarily interested in AOL’s programmatic advertising technology, which automatically buys and sells ads online. Verizon could potentially pair that product with a future online video service, according to Bloomberg.

Photo by Daniel Oines

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Why Verizon Is Tracking All Your Mobile Web Traffic

When Verizon mobile customers visit any website, the telecom company inserts a unique code into the headers of their Web traffic in order to track their behavior and interests across the Internet. Of course, this is for the benefit of advertisers. And it’s almost impossible to opt-out of the tracking.

So-called “perma-cookies” give advertisers a solution to the problem of the largely cookie-free mobile Web—the data that’s tracked when people browse websites. Verizon calls the anonymous number used by advertisers to identify you a Unique Identifier Header or UIDH.

As Ars Technica describes it:

The service allows websites to request advertisements along with the UIDH from a participating on-demand advertising network. The network can then request market-segment and geolocation information from Verizon to deliver the most appropriate advertisement.

Verizon’s partnerships for ad-tracking technologies were first revealed in May, but largely stayed under the radar until Electronic Frontier Foundation technologist Jacob Hoffman-Andrews tweeted about them last week.

“This is even at a more serious level than throttling traffic because ISPs are going in and modifying traffic in transit and that’s something that they should not be doing,” Hoffman-Andrews told Ars Technica. “They are paid by their customers to be trusted conduit for data, and they should be sending that data through faithfully rather than trying to insert or remove things.”

Opting out of the tracking is difficult, if not impossible. Verizon customers can opt-out of the Relevant Mobile Advertising program, but all that means is that Verizon won’t use the ID number to create targeted ads. But the tracking code in all your webpage requests (and those made by many of your apps) doesn’t go away. Advertisers can still use those anonymous digits to create a profile of your mobile activity.

See also: Building A Raspberry Pi VPN Part One: How And Why To Build A Server

The only way to block the tracking code completely is to not use cellular data, instead relying on WiFi or a personal VPN.

Ad companies are already using UIDH numbers to target users. Kim Glaser, product manager at Run, said in an interview with AdExchanger that tracking users with a carrier identification provides more comprehensive data.

What we’re excited about is the carrier level ID, a higher-level recognition point that lets us track with certainty when a user, who is connected to a given carrier, moves from an app to a mobile Web landing page through an ad request and when they ultimately convert. We have access to an anonymous ID that allows us to track without any statistical model the ROI and the direct response that is occurring as a result of mobile investment.

Companies including Brightroll, BlueKai, Turn and Twitter’s MoPub ad exchange service use the carrier IDs as well. 

Lead photo by Sage_Solar

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Verizon Won’t Hobble Heavy 4G LTE Data Customers After All

Say goodbye to the prospect of data throttling, 4G Verizon subscribers.

October may be the month for goblins and ghouls, but there’s now one thing that will no longer haunt Verizon Wireless 4G LTE subscribers with unlimited plans: the prospect of data throttling. 

The wireless operator’s plan—which would have to tamped down 4G LTE speeds for the heaviest unlimited data users—was set to launch today. But the company decided to pull the plug on the policy in a late-breaking decision Wednesday afternoon (emphasis added): 

We’ve greatly valued the ongoing dialogue over the past several months concerning network optimization and we’ve decided not to move forward with the planned implementation of network optimization for 4G LTE customers on unlimited plans. Exceptional network service will always be our priority and we remain committed to working closely with industry stakeholders to manage broadband issues so that American consumers get the world-class mobile service they expect and value.

The “ongoing dialogue” referenced here goes back to letters between Federal Communications Commission Chairman Tom Wheeler and Verizon. Wheeler questioned Verizon’s motivation, essentially casting the tactic as a money-grubbing way of milking more cash out of subscribers. (Utterly shocking, I know.) 

See also: How All The Major U.S. Carriers Throttle Your Mobile Data

Verizon’s defense: All the other major U.S. carriers are doing it too. In this implementation, the so-called “network optimization” would only be invoked when there’s network congestion—i.e., Verizon’s network is overly taxed with a lot of data traffic. However, the company claimed, this is not data throttling. There’s a difference, as its online FAQ pointedly emphasizes. 

Is this the same as throttling?

No, this is not throttling.

How is this different than throttling?

The difference between our Network Optimization practices and throttling is network intelligence. With throttling, your wireless data speed is reduced for your entire cycle, 100% of the time, no matter where you are. Network Optimization is based on the theory that all customers should have the best network possible, and if you’re not causing congestion for others, even if you are using a high amount of data, your connection speed should be as good as possible. So, if you’re in the top 5% of data users, your speed is reduced only when you are connected to a cell site experiencing high demand. Once you are no longer connected to a site experiencing high demand, your speed will return to normal. This could mean a matter of seconds or hours, depending on your location and time of day.

To be honest, that pretty much looks like data throttling to us. But whatever you call it, Verizon does have a point: It’s not the only carrier that has such a policy. And it’s nothing new. Verizon’s own 3G subscribers have long been subject to it, and that doesn’t appear to be changing now. 

See also: Thanks, Verizon! Now The FCC Is Asking All Carriers About Data Throttling

However, if you’re a Verizon Wireless account holder with a 4G LTE unlimited plan, at least now you can breathe a sigh of relief. Now we’ll see if Wheeler continues his crusade to preserve the meaning of “unlimited data” by taking aim at the other major wireless networks.

Verizon did not immediately respond to a request for comment. 

Feature photo by Jim Accordino

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Thanks, Verizon! Now The FCC Is Asking All Carriers About Data Throttling

Verizon is going to have some ’splaining to do at the next U.S. mobile carrier potluck social.

When the FCC questioned America’s largest wireless operator earlier this week about its habit of “throttling” data speeds for heavy users, Verizon’s response basically amounted to, “We’re just doing what everyone else is doing.” That seems to have ticked off FCC chairman Tom Wheeler, who’s now pursuing the throttling issue at other carriers, too.

Verizon isn’t wrong: AT&T and T-Mobile both have been intentionally slowing subscribers’ data connectivity to discourage and curb excessive use (or so they say). Sprint joined the throttling ranks this spring.

See also: How All The Major U.S. Carriers Throttle Your Mobile Data

Somehow, Sprint’s move didn’t trigger governmental interest in the matter. But Verizon’s announcement last month did. The latter revealed it would be extending its throttling policy, which previously only covered 3G devices, to its 4G LTE gadgets now too—but only those belonging to its heaviest data users with unlimited plans. Starting October 1, they’ll start seeing speeds drop.

Verizon calls it “network optimization.” Wheeler calls it BS. And he’s not having it.

Addressing reporters today, he said:

“All the kids do it” was never something that worked for me when I was growing up. My concern in this instance—and it’s not just with Verizon, by the way, we’ve written to all the carriers—is that it is moving from a technology and engineering issue to the business issues.

Last week, Wheeler penned the original FCC letter that called Verizon’s new policy “deeply troubling.” The letter mostly took aim at the company singling out people with grandfathered unlimited plans. Now, his scope seems to be increasing to include the practices of all the major U.S. carriers.

This isn’t the first time Verizon and the FCC chairman have locked horns. Their infamous broadband skirmish set off the recent net-neutrality battle. That fight seems to be hopping the fence into other territories now—and taking all the other cellular carriers with it.

That may be great news for subscribers wondering if service providers really are trying to protect their networks—or just bleeding them dry every chance they get. 

Lead photo courtesy of Shutterstock

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Netflix Calls Out Verizon For Charging For Crappy Streaming, Part Deux

Netflix knows sure knows how to get a rise out of Internet service providers: Since mid-May, the streaming video service has been posting an error notice to Verizon subscribers blaming the network for slow delivery of its online videos. Verizon issued a cease-and-desist order and demanded lists of Netflix customers who might have seen this message.

The streaming provider’s response? Don’t blame us for your crappy network.

The letter from Netflix General Counsel David Hyman (.PDF) starts out cordially enough:

Your interpretation mischaracterizes our messaging. The message you cite to in your letter merely lets our consumers know that the Verizon network is crowded.… The message is part of our ongoing transparency efforts.

Basically, Netflix said that the error message was merely part of a transparency test, which is set to end June 16. Whether that was always the plan or merely a last-minute decision to (somewhat) appease the ISP isn’t clear, though it’s very likely the latter.

Still, Netflix couldn’t resist throwing in a few barbs:

In fact, it is my understanding that Verizon actually upsells customers to higher speed packages based on improved access to video services, including Netflix…. To ensure that these customers get the level of service they pay you for, it is your responsibility to make sure your network, including your interconnection points, have sufficient capacity to accommodate the data requests made by those customers.

Translation: You’re charging people for service you aren’t providing, and somehow calling Netflix on that? That’s just not cool.

Then things took a turn for the hilarious.

To try to shift blame to us for performance issues arising from interconnection congestion is like blaming drivers on a bridge for traffic jams when you’re the one who decided to leave three lanes closed during rush hour.

In addition, the streaming company criticized Verizon’s refusal to join Open Connect, the peering and caching program Netflix established to allow ISPs to connect right to the service directly instead of going through third-party content delivery networks. Participants include Frontier, British Telecom, TDC, Clearwire, Telus, Bell Canada, Virgin, Cablevision, Google Fiber and others. Notably Verizon and Comcast are both missing from the list. 

You have chosen not to participate in the Open Connect Program, but instead have allowed your network connection to Netflix to degrade until we agreed to pay for augmented interconnection. We brought the data right to your doorstep…all you had to do was open your door. 

Meanwhile, Netflix flatly ignored Verizon’s demand for the subscriber list. No word yet on the broadband provider’s next course of action, but we’re getting the popcorn ready for the next act in this little play. Because it’s quite likely that Verizon’s rebuttal will be swift and fierce. Unfortunately, as the drama continues on, viewers are the ones who are losing.

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Net Neutrality: What Happens Now That Verizon Has Vanquished The FCC

Verizon challenged the FCC over net neutrality—and won. So what changes now?

To figure that out, it helps to start with a quick primer on net neutrality and what it means for the Internet.

In its simplest form, net neutrality is about protecting the Internet as an “end-to-end” network in which end users have the freedom to send anything to anyone else without undue restriction. In practice, it prohibits Internet providers like the cable or cellular companies from filtering, slowing or otherwise limiting the data traffic that flows over their network—for instance, by blocking services they don’t like, or by charging exorbitant traffic fees to rival services. Such fees, of course, would be in addition to the payments ISPs already receive from end users via, say, your cable or DSL bill.

(One tangential note: The FCC’s net neutrality plan basically applied only to wired Internet access, essentially exempting the mobile Internet from regulation.)

There are a bunch of players involved, of which four main groups are the most significant for our purposes:

  1. End Users: People like you and me who log on to the Internet to work or play. 
  2. Backbone Networks: The companies, organizations and entities that operate big fiber networks that crisscross the world.
  3. Broadband Providers: Companies that provide data services to homes, businesses and individuals, such as Verizon or Comcast.
  4. Edge Providers: Providers of Internet services that include, well, just about every website and app maker on the planet. Google’s YouTube, Amazon, and Apple’s iTunes are all large edge providers.

These categories aren’t mutually exclusive. Broadband providers often also run backbone networks, and individuals also often act as edge providers—say, by hosting a blog on a home server. A company like Google actually spans all these categories—its Google Fiber service is a backbone network and broadband provider, but the company is also a huge edge provider and end user.

When it comes to net neutrality, the battle is really between the broadband providers and the edge providers. The broadband providers want to be able to regulate the type of traffic that passes through their pipes to the individual, while the edge providers want a free and open Internet.

The classic flashpoint example is Netflix, which now accounts for something like a third of peak U.S. Internet traffic. That irks some broadband providers, who’d like to be able to throttle that firehose of data—ostensibly to keep it from overwhelming their networks, although potentially also to favor competing services (some of them provided by the ISPs themselves).

The principal of net neutrality as defined through the FCC’s Open Internet Order—which Verizon explicitly challenged—says that the broadband providers cannot fundamentally restrict or inhibit this traffic in any way. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia sums it up nicely in its ruling on Verizon vs. FCC:

They fear that broadband providers might prevent their end-user subscribers from accessing certain edge providers altogether, or might degrade the quality of their end-user subscribers’ access to certain edge providers, either as a means of favoring their own competing content or services or to enable them to collect fees from certain edge providers. Thus, for example, a broadband provider like Comcast might limit its end-user subscribers’ ability to access the New York Times website if it wanted to spike traffic to its own news website, or it might degrade the quality of the connection to a search website like Bing if a competitor like Google paid for prioritized access.

Verizon Beat The FCC—But Not Net Neutrality

The FCC issued its Open Internet Order in December 2010, and it immediately became a hot topic among technologists and policy wonks. Net neutrality is a term that inflames hearts and inspires mobs with pitchforks to assail cable and cellular companies. Those companies then fight back and gather their own mobs and rattle their sabers at the edge providers like Google, Amazon and Netflix. Much vitriol is expended and nobody really accomplishes anything.

Surprisingly, though, the specifics of the Open Internet Order are actually tangential to the court case Verizon just won. The appellate court issued no ruling on the policy itself; it just determined that the FCC had improperly assumed the authority to implement it.

That has to have been disappointing to Verizon, which had attacked the Open Internet Order as a violation of its Fifth Amendment property rights and its First Amendment rights to control the “speech” its pipes carried. Of course, Verizon also challenged the FCC’s authority to make rules governing broadband in the first place, which was the only point it actually carried before the court.

The appeals court ruled that, based on its reading of the 1996 Telecommunications Act 1996 (itself an extension of the Telecommunications Act of 1934 and the 1980 Compute II regime policy), the FCC exceeded its legal authority when it issued the Open Internet Order. Basically, the court argued that the FCC had previously classified ISPs as information services under the law, but then tried to regulate them as “common carriers,” a designation typically applied to old-style local telephone service that had to connect anyone for the same price. The court then called foul.

The ruling leaves open the possibility that the FCC could reclassify ISPs as common carriers and retain its net-neutrality rules, although current FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler hasn’t sounded very enthusiastic about that strategy. The FCC could also face blowback from Congress should it take that path. Of course, Congress could also grant the FCC new statutory authority, but given the high degree of partisan gridlock in Washington, no one should hold their breath for that.

Wheeler issued a prepared statement following the court ruling:

The D.C. Circuit has correctly held that ‘Section 706 . . . vests [the Commission] with affirmative authority to enact measures encouraging the deployment of broadband infrastructure’ and therefore may ‘promulgate rules governing broadband providers’ treatment of Internet traffic.’ I am committed to maintaining our networks as engines for economic growth, test beds for innovative services and products, and channels for all forms of speech protected by the First Amendment. We will consider all available options, including those for appeal, to ensure that these networks on which the Internet depends continue to provide a free and open platform for innovation and expression, and operate in the interest of all Americans.

Content Providers and Consumers Could Be Big Losers

Without some type of net neutrality policy in place, critics fear that cable and phone networks will begin policing Internet traffic over their pipes. For instance, a company like Twitter could theoretically end up having to pay more to send its traffic across the world through network pipes. Ultimately, carrier behavior could Balkanize the Internet—or so goes the worst-case scenario.

The carriers’ retort has been—and probably always will be—along the lines of, “We own the pipes and we should be able to control the traffic that flows through them!” This is a long running concern of the Internet’s pipe owners, summed up perfectly by former SBC chief Ed Whitacre in a 2005 interview with BusinessWeek:

How do you think they’re going to get to customers? Through a broadband pipe. Cable companies have them. We have them. Now what they would like to do is use my pipes free, but I ain’t going to let them do that because we have spent this capital and we have to have a return on it. So there’s going to have to be some mechanism for these people who use these pipes to pay for the portion they’re using. Why should they be allowed to use my pipes?

The Internet can’t be free in that sense, because we and the cable companies have made an investment and for a Google or Yahoo! or Vonage or anybody to expect to use these pipes [for] free is nuts!

Again, recall that SBC (now AT&T) already gets paid by users of its pipes. What Whitacre and his descendants want is the freedom to levy additional fees on service providers—in essence, so they can get paid twice for transmitting the same data. Economists call this “rent seeking,” and it’s basically the antithesis of competitive, customer-focused behavior.

Views like these have driven companies like Google, Amazon, Facebook and Microsoft to quietly go to war with cellular and cable operators for control of the Internet’s backbone. Google and Microsoft have been doing a lot of research into “white spaces” (unused wireless spectrum bands that fall between used spectrum bands) and buying dark fiber (fiber optics cables that have not been activated but have been built). Yet if a company like Google or Microsoft controlled the pipes, the concept of net neutrality would still have to apply.

Essentially, companies like Verizon, Comcast and their kindred want to claim a certain amount of ownership over the Internet and what happens on it. That’s contrary to what the Internet has been and should be: a decentralized global system that no one company, government or organization can control.

Lead image via Shutterstock

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