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Facebook is now collecting a log of all your travels

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April 19, 2014

Using the new 'Nearby Friends' on Facebook, your location history is private to you and only you-- until the social network decides otherwise. Surprised? Don't be, after all, and in case you have forgotten, Facebook *is* in the advertising business...

With that new feature, Facebook is collecting a log of all your travels so that it can one day pass that data along to advertisers, we can now confirm.

Facebook launched the 'Nearby Friends' feature on April 17. The optional feature, currently rolling out to users in the U.S. of the native Facebook application for iPhone and Android, lets people turn on location-tracking to receive notifications when friends are also using the feature or are close by.

To be sure, the Nearby Friends feature is outwardly intended to facilitate offline get-togethers, as that is meant to improve the average person's experience with Facebook.

The social network will, at some future date, enable advertisers to target based on location histories, improving their experience as well and likely bolstering Facebook's business in the process.

"At this time it's not being used for advertising or marketing, but in the future it will be," a Facebook spokesperson said. We confirmed with Facebook that it may use the data for advertising or marketing at some future point in time.

When asked ahead of the release, a Facebook spokesperson said the company wasn't using data from Nearby Friends to target ads which is technically true, but for who knows how long...

"The launch of this service doesn't impact the way advertisers can target people based on location," the spokesperson said at the time.

Though the news may be unnerving, it shouldn't come as a surprise that the social network would want to keep tabs on where you are.

Facebook is in the business of selling advertising and the more data it can provide to ad buyers, a group that contributed $2.34 billion in revenue to the company in the fourth quarter, the better.

If an advertiser had access to members' location history they could, for instance, target their ads to people they knew visited a competitor's store.

In Facebook's defense, the company has made the Nearby Friends feature optional and does allow those who have opted-in to delete their location history from their activity log.

In other technology news

According to some rumors in the blogosphere, Apple could be planning a radical redesign of its MacBook soon. The rumor has not been denied nor confirmed by Apple.

A critical aspect of the redesign plan would be the elimination of the fan assembly which describes the post as coming from a reliable leaker of future Apple hardware.

Overall, a fanless design almost always implies an ultra-thin and light laptop. For example, the iPad Air is a fanless design as are Android and most Windows tablets.

Even some of the newest and thinnest Windows 2-in-1s, such as the Intel Haswell processor-based HP Spectre 13 tablet that can double as a laptop, are fanless.

The forum post also mentions that the new MacBook would have a trackpad without a mechanical button. Even Microsoft's Type Cover ultra-thin keyboard that goes with Surface Pro 2 and Surface 2 features that kind of trackpad.

This latest rumor follows an NPD DisplaySearch report in October 2013 that forecasts a twelve inch MacBook with a Retina-class display. That report said simply that it was due sometime in 2014, but without giving any clue as to an approximate date.

Up until today, the MacBook Air has come in two sizes-- 11.6 and 13.3-inch, both with relatively low-resolution displays, however.

But whatever Apple ultimately decides, it seems certain that the ultra portable laptop will eventually get a physical makeover, sooner rather than later.

In fact, the MacBook Air hasn't seen any physical redesign or display change since late 2010, when Apple introduced a new chassis and debuted the 11.6-inch MacBook Air, so there could be some fire here and not just the proverbial smoke. We'll keep you posted.

In other high tech news

A proposed new draft put forward to the Internet Engineering Task Force has drawn the criticism of prominent privacy activist Lauren Weinstein as one of the most alarming Internet proposals he's ever seen so far.

The document that's upset Weinstein is out of the HTTPBis Working Group and was posted as an Internet Draft on February 14.

The document, entitled 'Explicit Trusted Proxy in HTTP/2.0' proposes a new mechanism by which an upstream provider (say an ISP) could get permission to decrypt user traffic for the purposes of caching.

But using proxies to cache traffic in the service provider's network is standard procedure with about 80 percent of today's ISPs, and it's been a normal practice for a very long time.

The end user benefit is better performance. The service provider benefit is a reduction in traffic over their upstream transit network links.

From that point of view, encryption is a pain in the neck: the ISP can't see into the encrypted traffic, which reduces the effectiveness of its caching strategy.

The new Internet Draft proposal has this to reveal-- “To distinguish between an HTTP2 connection meant to transport "https" URIs resources and an HTTP2 connection meant to transport "http" URIs resource, the draft proposes to register a new value in the Application Layer Protocol Negotiation (ALPN) Protocol IDs registry specific to signal the usage of HTTP2 to transport "http" URIs resources: h2clr.”

In essence, to try and protect their ability to cache, the authors of the new standard propose that providers seek their customers' permission to decrypt their traffic.

Weinstein finds this proposal outrageous-- “The new proposal expects Internet users to provide 'informed consent' that they 'trust' intermediate sites (e.g. Verizon, AT&T, etc.) to decode their encrypted data, process it in some manner for 'presumably' innocent purposes, re-encrypt it, then pass the re-encrypted data along to its original destination,” he writes.

We can certainly understand Weinstein's frustration. After all, if the traffic is encrypted, there has to be a valid explanation for that in the first place.

“The basic assumption that users can even be expected to make truly informed decisions about this seems highly problematic,” he writes, concluding that “The concept of "trusted proxies" as proposed is inherently untrustworthy, especially in this post-Snowden era.”

We tend to agree with him, though. Nor is he impressed with the authors' plea that a trusted proxy is better than having service providers get their proxying to work by a transparent man-in-the-middle attack-- "Fundamentally, this is like arguing that execution by lethal injection is less cruel than by electric chair. This may be strictly true, but the target of the procedure ends up dead either way," Weinstein said.

But in all honestry, it probably won't surprise you to know that the proposal is sponsored by AT&T. We will keep you informed on this and other developments as they happen.

In other tech news

To most people, this week's Net neutrality ruling made for some complex and elaborate reading, but it also left millions of Netflix users with one single worry-- will they need to pay more to stream the service in the near future?

But of course, and like most elements of the court's decision to more or less nix Internet openness rules set by the Federal Communications Commission in 2010, how exactly it affects Netflix and its customers is a lot more complicated than what you would initially believe.

The short answer is that your Netflix bill won't go up this month. It probably won't go up next month either. It might go up eventually, but in all likelihood, Net neutrality rules won't be the reason, or at least not the primary reason, anyway.

Netflix's basic $7.99 per month price will have to rise eventually, but content costs, expansion plans, and add-on features are more likely to be the culprits than this week's legal decision. At least that's what some observers say.

On January 14, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia called into question a key tenet of the FCC's authority over broadband internet providers and how they manage web traffic on their networks, even as it upheld the FCC's jurisdiction to regulate broadband access.

If this all sounds like a mess, it's because it is. The 2-to-1 decision paved the way for changes in Internet service business models. One such change could result in ISPs charging internet content companies, like Netflix, Amazon, YouTube, and Hulu, fees to access their networks.

Or they could charge fees for priority status as well, so that your Netflix stream doesn't buffer when you sit down to watch at peak viewing times.

To be sure, wireless providers like AT&T and Verizon Wireless have proposed an initial plan in which mobile app developers and Internet services could themselves pay for the data that consumers use to access their services, on the consumers' behalf.

It's somewhat akin to Amazon offering built-in wireless service for its Kindle e-reader, first with Sprint and then with AT&T-- the ongoing cost of the access is handled by Amazon on your behalf, or rather, Amazon passes along the cost by bundling it into the purchase price of the Kindle. Ha!

That's what some customers fear will happen with Netflix-- that network providers will simply come knocking on Netflix's door with their hands outstretched, and the company will pass along additional costs by ratcheting up your Netflix bill.

And Netflix should be their main target, simply because the streaming-video service is responsible for an eye-popping amount of peak Internet traffic. It accounts for almost 32.6 percent of all North American downstream traffic during the peak part of the day, the most of any company, according to Sandvine, which runs fixed and mobile data networks worldwide and reports on what is taking place on them.

Together with Google's YouTube, the two sites represent about 56.7 percent of all downstream traffic. If Internet service providers decide to charge content companies a specific fee per gigabyte of data transmitted or a fee to ensure content is delivered smoothly, Netflix would be the company suffering the most.

Netflix declined to comment on the Net neutrality ruling, other than to refer to the Internet Association's statement. ISPs would be venturing into territory their subscribers would decry. Netflix is likely to resist setting any precedent of paying for access to network providers.

When an ISP gives Netflix the option of paying up or dealing with slower speeds, and Netflix refuses, the ISP will be penalizing its own customers with poorer service for the very thing that got so many of them to sign up for broadband in the first place.

BTIG analyst Rich Greenfield noted that because the court didn't throw out disclosure requirements in the FCC's 2010 rules, ISPs would need to be transparent about which sites and services are getting throttled. That's a perfect recipe for discouraging customers from signing up for higher-price tiers of broadband service and, ultimately, driving them into the arms of competitors that don't discriminate against Netflix.

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The whole thing is just a big mess, and since Net neutrality has been a subject discussed at lenght since 2008, some observers aren't that surprised that it's come this this.

Additionally, the ruling may be seen as a loss for the FCC, but it also afforded the regulator more power, and nobody really knows how the agency is going to exert that power yet.

But FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler has said repeatedly that his agency is committed to protecting the development of innovative services and products, ensuring that the Internet preserves free speech. He also said the FCC will consider all options, including an appeal, to ensure that networks remain free and open. And *that* also includes Netflix.

While some of the 2010 rules may be gone for now, more rules are sure to come-- be they from the FCC, Congress or the Federal Trade Commission. Internet service providers may try to take advantage of their newfound freedom in the meantime, but they would be reckless to go after the one service that more people in America hinge their broadband choices upon than any other.

"A plea from the likes of Internet companies (among the most beloved companies in America) to restrain the big bad cable and telephone companies (among the most reviled), in the process demonizing them as monopolists, would likely find a receptive audience," said Moffett Nathanson analyst Craig Moffett in a note.

But the option of offering content providers preferential service guarantees for a price isn't even feasible. That goes also for Netflix. "It would be easy to make it bad. It's hard to guarantee it being good," said Don Bowman, the chief technology officer of Sandvine.

Network cost relies on peak bandwidth, and the issue with Netflix is it's primetime popularity. There's no low-cost technical way to provide a quality guarantee, he said, which means the options that networks are able to offer boil down to-- would you like your service to be poor or would you like to pay me to make your service less poor?

Perhaps one of the surest reasons Netflix won't be raising your bill outright anytime soon is that the fiasco of its last attempt to hike prices is still fresh in its customers' memory. And that was a very bad decision on the part of Netflix.

In 2011, Netflix said it would cleave its DVD-by-mail service from its streaming one. The DVD spinoff would be call Qwikster, and rather than a combined $9.99 bill for both, customers would pay $7.99 for each, thus pumping up the price by 60 percent.

The decision deeply enraged almost all of Netflix customers. The company subsequently aborted the spinoff idea, but Netflix lost 800,000 subscribers and its stock price dropped 77 percent in four months as a result of its decision.

Last summer, Netflix CEO Reed Hastings reassured members and investors that the $7.99 price is here to stay, at least for the next year (meaning 2014). "Once you've picked a price, there's an incredible value in consumer stability," he said.

But Netflix can tap its prices higher in roundabout ways, and it will need to do so eventually. But certainly not now, the timing couldn't come at a worse time for the company.

Netflix is investing deeply to grow abroad, adopting the strategy of essentially taking all its profits from the U.S. and pouring them into international expansion.

Such heavy investments come as the price to acquire content is set to rise, as online competitors put more investment into vying for the same shows and movies as Netflix is.

Source: Facebook.

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