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Net neutrality got kicked in the nuts, here’s what’s next

(TECH NEWS) FCC’s latest vote puts net neutrality on death row, leading to an uncertain future for the internet.

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Welp, that thing we were hoping wouldn’t happen happened. Remember when the internet was considered a resource equally available? On December 14, the FCC voted on the Restoring Internet Freedom Order to repeal net neutrality regulations.

Some Republican Congress members’ last-minute requests for delay were ignored, and the vote went on as scheduled since those opposed were outnumbered by other Republican supporters.

As expected, the vote was split 3-2. Republican members Aji Pai, Michael O’Reilley, and Brendan Carr voted for repeal, while Democratic Commissioners Mignon Clyburn and Jessica Rosenworcel voted to protect net neutrality.

If left unchallenged, Title II protection for net neutrality will be repealed. Title II is part of the Communications Act, put in place in 1934. In 2015, the FCC passed the Open Internet Rule, which reclassified Internet Service Providers (ISPs) as telecommunications companies.

Basically, the internet is classified as a utility, and is subject to the same regulations as other utilities like gas and water. Internet-specific regulations include prohibiting ISPs from blocking or impairing access to legal content and from playing favorites with internet traffic.

However, if this is overturned, ISPs will no longer fall under regulatory procedures of the Communications Act.

Supporters insist that removing regulations will help increase investments in the broadband industry.

Instead of seeing the internet as a public resource, it’s viewed as a product in the free market system. Except oops, since ISP competition was driven down years ago by consolidating broadband infrastructure, there is no free and open market for the internet.

Major corporations own most of the ISPs, and local competition was effectively shut out with the consolidations. Around 50 million households only have one choice of a high-speed ISP in their area.

Now those companies can really have fun playing monopoly.

Without regulation, ISPs can control how quickly you get webpages, download speed, data limits, and even access to sites.

Theoretically, they can block you from accessing competitor information, and essentially censor news by blocking certain topics and content.

They can even redirect you to sites when you’re trying to do something else, like that awful Yahoo malware that redirects whenever you’re trying to Google something.

Deregulation will likely lead to internet “fast lanes,” where companies must pay higher amounts to give their users faster access to websites and services.

While supporters of the repeal can pretend this won’t lead to an internet hierarchy that will disproportionately put minorities, women, and rural communities at a disadvantage, we’ve already seen it happen. In the days before net neutrality, ISPs implemented a cornucopia of fees, data-capping, censorship, and blocking that pretty much ruined everything for everyone.

Problems with unregulated ISPs is why a majority of Americans and Congress support keeping net neutrality in place.

So how did this vote make it on the floor in spite of overwhelming protest?

Evil stepsisters Verizon, Comcast, and AT&T have been lobbying the FCC for the last nine years, collectively spending half a billion dollars to end regulatory oversight. Hey, remember that one time we were worried about FCC Chariman Ajit Pai being a patsy for Verizon so they could push their own interests on the country?

Over 70 percent of Americans lack high-speed internet access, or can only get it from one provider. Deregulation won’t lead to a flourishing, competitive marketplace. It just means companies like Verizon can charge users more for access to certain sites, throttle internet speed, and restrict access to streaming sites.

Net neutrality is so contentious that during the vote, the room was evacuated for about ten minutes due to security threats. But the fight isn’t over. There’s a small chance the U.S. Court of Appeals could overturn the repeal.

Plus, tech companies and activists will likely throw down lawsuits, and there’s already a multi-state appealing of the rule. Even Congress is getting in on fighting back.

However, depending on how the appeals go, the repeal may remain place, or only partially overturned.

It’s unclear how this will all play out or when it will take effect, but if net neutrality is killed for good, we’re taking another step closer to living in a technology dystopia.

Lindsay is an editor for The American Genius with a Communication Studies degree and English minor from Southwestern University. Lindsay is interested in social interactions across and through various media, particularly television, and will gladly hyper-analyze cartoons and comics with anyone, cats included.

Tech News

Tired of transcribing screenshots? Put this Chrome extension to work

(TECH NEWS) This new Chrome extension takes out the tedium of transcribing all your necessary screenshots into your writing and does it for you.

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Logo for Docsumo, a transcribing Google Chrome extension

My favorite part of being a writer is getting to interview people from various walks of life. My least favorite part of being a writer is transcribing those interviews.

Slightly easier, but still annoying, is transcribing information from a screenshot, photo file or PDF. Sometimes you have to get this information in a rush and retyping all of it slows you down.

Docsumo is making that process into a breeze. The tool allows for users to grab text from a screenshot for easy copy and paste.

So how does it work? First, it has to be downloaded as a Google Chrome extension. Once it’s part of the browser’s extension, it can be put to work.

A video on Docsumo’s website demonstrates the easy transcribing process. The developer does a Google image search for a shipping label as they need to quickly copy and paste an address. When the necessary label pops up, they click the Docsumo tool that allows them to drag and select the part of the label they want to transcribe (the movement of the mouse is similar to taking a screenshot on a Mac computer).

Then, the text that they’ve highlighted is transcribed into a box where it can be copied and pasted. Simple!

In addition to copy and paste, users can extract, edit, and share data. After that, all of the related information is removed from Docsumo’s server. Examples of when this tool is useful include: Invoices, bank statements, insurance documents, bills, and tax forms.

The tool is made possible through Optimal Character Recognition (OCR) which, according to Ducsumo’s developers, is something that comes in handy in many situations.

“Organizations often receive crucial information and data in image form of documents. These images can be a photo of a document, scanned document, a scene-photo, or subtitle text superimposed on an image. The real challenge for the operation team is to be able to extract information and data from these photos. It can take hours to manually pull out this data and assemble it in a structured way for record-keeping and processing. This process is hugely error-prone too.

OCR technology comes to rescue in this situation.

Optical character recognition or optical character reader (OCR) is the electronic or mechanical conversion of images of typed, handwritten or printed text into machine-encoded text. This technology is suitable for photos of text-heavy documents and printed paper data records such as passports, invoices, bank statements, receipts, business cards, and identity verification documents. OCR technology is the way of digitizing printed texts so that they can be electronically edited, searched, and stored more compactly.”

In a world where pen-to-paper has slowly been fading away, Docsumo is here to give it another push further away.

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Tech News

Scoring productivity: Is this Microsoft tool creepy or helpful?

(TECH NEWS) Microsoft launched a new tool that helps monitor user data, but it’s not a work monitoring tool – it’s trying to judge productivity.

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Black and white data screens monitoring productivity.

Just recently into the work from home movement, Microsoft launched their new tool, “Productivity Score”. According to Microsoft, this tool helps organizations understand how well they are functioning, how technology affects their productivity, and how they can get the most out of their Microsoft 365 purchase.

But to do all of this, the tool will keep track of how each employee is using Microsoft products. For instance, the tool will monitor how often video or screen sharing is enabled during meetings by employees.

It will keep a metric of how employees are communicating. It will show if employees are sending out emails through Outlook, sending out messages through Teams, or posting on Yammer. It will also keep track of which Microsoft tools are being used more and on which platforms.

So, Microsoft’s new tool is a scary work surveillance tool, right? According to Microsoft, it isn’t. In a blog post, Microsoft 365’s corporate Vice President Jared Spataro said, “Productivity Score is not a work monitoring tool. Productivity Score is about discovering new ways of working, providing your people with great collaboration, and technology experiences.”

Spataro says the tool “focuses on actionable insights” so people and teams can use Office 365 tools to be more productive, collaborative, and help make work improvements. And, while this all sounds good, privacy advocates aren’t too thrilled about this.

Microsoft says it is “committed to privacy as a fundamental element of Productivity Score.” To maintain privacy and trust, the tool does aggregate user data over a 28-day period. And, there are controls to anonymize user information, or completely remove it. However, by default individual-level monitoring is always on, and only admins can make any of these changes. Employees can’t do anything about securing their privacy.

So, user data privacy is still a large issue on the table, but privacy advocates can breathe a sigh of relief. Yesterday, they got a response from Microsoft they can smile about. In another blog post, Spataro responded to the controversy. “No one in the organization will be able to use Productivity Score to access data about how an individual user is using apps and services in Microsoft 365,” he said.

Although Productivity Score will still aggregate data over a 28-day period, it will not do so from an individual employee level. It will do it from an organizational one as a whole. Also, the company is making it clearer that the tool is a “measure of organizational adoption of technology—and not individual user behavior.”

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Don’t want FB getting access to your texts? Try out Signal instead

(TECH NEWS) Elon Musk tells Twitter followers to “Use Signal” after WhatsApp announces new Facebook data-sharing policy.

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Signal app product display on two mockup phones, set on a blue background.

With just a two-word tweet, Elon Musk popularized messaging app, Signal at the beginning of this year. “Use Signal,” the tech mogul tweeted on January 7. Musk urged his followers to start using Signal because of WhatsApp’s updated privacy policy announcement, which raised concerns among people.

On January 6, WhatsApp users received an in-app alert informing them about the company’s updated data-sharing policy. The message asked users to accept the new terms and conditions where they gave WhatsApp consent to share their information with Facebook. The updated policy would be effective starting on February 8, and users who didn’t agree to the changes would no longer be able to use the app.

WhatsApp’s new privacy policy reads, “As part of the Facebook family of companies, WhatsApp receives information from, and shares information with, this family of companies. We may use the information we receive from them, and they may use the information we share with them, to help operate, provide, improve, understand, customize, support, and market our Services and their offerings.”

The policy verbiage is concerning, but this isn’t the first time WhatsApp has shared some sort of data with Facebook. The company has been sharing data with Facebook since 2016. Back then, the companies announced sharing data would help “improve your Facebook ads and products experiences.”

But, Facebook’s data privacy practices are ones that have been controversial over the years and don’t garner much trust. Musk is recommending people to start using Signal because it offers two key things.

The app offers end-to-end encryption on ALL messages. It protects all text, video, audio, and photo messages, which can only be read by the sender and recipient. If a message is intercepted by anyone else, all they will get is gibberish.

Also, other than your phone number, the free app does not store or collect any other user data. The company is a nonprofit and relies on grants and donations to support development. It isn’t owned by any tech companies and doesn’t have any ads.

“The smallest of events helped trigger the largest of outcomes,” the app’s Executive chairman Brian Acton said in an interview with TechCrunch. “We’re also excited that we are having conversations about online privacy and digital safety and people are turning to Signal as the answer to those questions.”

In a Tweet, the company posted screenshots of app installs jumping from 10 million to 50 million. With Musk’s tweet skyrocketing Signal’s downloads, Acton does have a very good reason to be “excited”.

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