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Gigabits

© Joe Casad, Editor in Chief

© Joe Casad, Editor in Chief

Article from Issue 173/2015

Gigabit fiber technology is all the rage in the IT space. Power users around the world are salivating over the possibilities for online gaming and high-res video streaming. In my town, a group of geeks went down to the city hall and demanded our own gigabit services, because we are selling ourselves short or selling our children short by not investing in really super-duper fast Internet.

Gigabits

Dear Linux Pro Reader,

Gigabit fiber technology is all the rage in the IT space. Power users around the world are salivating over the possibilities for online gaming and high-res video streaming. In my town, a group of geeks went down to the city hall and demanded our own gigabit services, because we are selling ourselves short or selling our children short by not investing in really super-duper fast Internet.

Down the road in Kansas City, AT&T is rolling out gigabit fiber service right now. Google Fiber has already settled into the area, and together, the two super-fast services have done much to uphold the confidence of cowboy Will Parker in the musical Oklahoma!, who tells us that "Everything's up to date in Kansas City."

Interestingly, AT&T does not just sell you an Internet line; instead, they provide a two-tiered payment structure and let the customer choose where to fit in. Paying $70 per month buys you gigabit service and automatically enrolls you in AT&T's new "Internet Preferences" program. For $29 more, you can get Internet service without the Internet Preferences program.

"That's odd," I thought when I first read the story. This Internet Preferences program is not just free but actually saves the user $29? I soon discovered that Internet Preferences is not something AT&T does for you but something you do for AT&T: when you sign up for the service, you give the company permission to track your Internet activities.

After my initial shock, or, more accurately, impatience, since I'm used to this kind of "privacy policy" fine print, I grew intrigued momentarily: I have long believed that users should have the option of paying for their Internet service directly rather than paying indirectly by offering up their private lives as data bait. Could this higher rate offer some protection from tracking and commercial surf surveillance? I was soon dismayed to discover that the company says it "may collect and use web browsing information for other purposes, as described in our Privacy Policy, even if you do not participate in the Internet Preferences program." So whether you pay extra or not, you get tracked. It's just that, if you pay the higher $99 rate, you get tracked the old-fashioned way, through cookies and browser behavior, and if you pay the lower rate…

They don't specify exactly what they are doing, but AT&T and Verizon – and perhaps others – appear to be dabbling in a whole new type of tracking identifier called a supercookie that is not just managed through the browser but is actually embedded in the protocol system. Your very presence on the Internet itself is stamped with having originated from an AT&T network, and your identifier travels with you regardless of whatever you do within your meager user interface. A big log, on a server somewhere, if watching everything you do, and significantly, this tracking is not tied to a particular service or website (like Google or Facebook) but is actually built into the very fabric of your Internet presence.

Ironically, this development is independent of the much-debated "Net Neutrality" concept; it neither throttles nor preferences a particular website and appears "neutral" in every way. It is unsettling to consider that, if the "net neutrality" advocates someday declare victory, this might be the Internet we inherit.

But then, what is the Internet? We have created a whole Internet economy and an Internet revolution, for an Internet generation, and no one really knows exactly what the Internet is. That's why we have so many debates about it. In today's market, the answer is, the Internet is exactly what whoever sells you Internet service says it is.

In the case of AT&T's "Internet Preferences," gigabit Internet means gigabits of tracking data available to whatever third party might be interested in owning information on your behavior.

But take heart: You also get gigabits of color, gigabits of high-resolution adventure, gigabits of spine-tingling flight simulation, and gigabits of shooter-game excitement. Or, as Will Parker would say, "For 50 cents you can see a dandy show."

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