Sunday, March 11, 2012

Web giants' consumer privacy strategy faces hard sell

The Federal Trade Commission has drawn up a new set of Internet privacy bill of rights as part of a recent proposal. NBC's Chris Clackum reports.

updated 3/10/2012 11:21:59 PM ET
Emboldened by their victory in quashing online piracy legislation, Internet companies are gearing up for a battle over whether consumers should be able to restrict efforts to gather personal data.
Google, Facebook, Apple and other tech companies have lobbied against congressional and federal agency proposals that would let Internet users press "do not track" buttons on their browsers to block targeted advertising. Consumers could also edit personal information that has been stored about them.
With the privacy issue, the multibillion-dollar Internet industry faces a challenge larger than potentially harmful legislation or regulations that could limit their advertising and corporate growth. Their efforts to self-regulate continue to suffer setbacks amidst accusations of privacy violations and last year's Federal Trade Commission findings that Facebook and Google engaged in deceptive privacy practices.
The FTC is expected to issue new privacy recommendations in the coming days, and companies are watching several legislative proposals on Capitol Hill.
Privacy advocates are pushing to give consumers greater control over data collection. The companies must convince consumers that they benefit by allowing personal data to be collected and shared.
Their pitch — in efforts such as Google's current "Good to Know" advertising campaign — argues that data collection lets companies offer faster, smarter products, like better search results and customized mapping.

Lessons from the piracy debate Internet companies successfully fought legislation to limit Internet piracy. Medley Global Advisors analyst Jeffrey Silva said Web companies may feel confident that they can tackle other government intervention. "I think the lesson they've learned is if they don't like a certain bill, they can organize and create a lot of static and pushback," Silva said.
Internet data collection allows advertisers to target users in a demographic who are more likely to buy their product. These ads often subsidize Web content.
Google, for example, has come under fire for a new policy that took effect March 1 that treats information from most of its products, including Gmail, YouTube and Google+, as a single trove of data for advertisers.
Google contends the change will benefit customers. The company would be able to spot a signed-on user looking for recipes and seamlessly direct them to YouTube cooking videos.
"When we talk about how the Internet will improve and grow for consumers, that's coming from online behavioral advertising," said Daniel Castro, senior analyst at the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation.

Privacy rules vs. ad revenue Strict privacy rules could lead to substantial cuts in online advertising dollars and an even larger hit to growth over the next five to 10 years, Castro said.
A 2010 study by University of Toronto professor Avi Goldfarb and MIT professor Catherine Tucker revealed a 65 percent decrease in ad effectiveness after European countries implemented data collection rules for targeted advertising. Around 96 percent of Google's $37.9 billion revenue comes from advertising, financial statements showed. Filings ahead of Facebook's much-discussed initial public offering revealed that 85 percent of its $3.71 billion in revenue last year came from advertising.
Nearly two-thirds of Apple's fiscal year 2011 net sales came from its iPhone, iPad and related products and services that rely on tracking a user's exact location.
New government data collection policies could have huge implications. "If Google got 65 percent less revenue than it got last year, that would be a big upset to a company like that," Castro said.
The industry got a break last month when the White House released a blueprint "privacy bill of rights" giving consumers more data control, but relying heavily on voluntary compliance by Internet companies. The FTC's expected recommendations are causing more anxiety. Analysts and privacy advocates predict that the FTC report will have more teeth, in part because FTC Chairman Jon Leibowitz recently described Google's new privacy policy as a "somewhat brutal choice" for consumers.
The FTC report may call for strict enforcement to ensure firms adhere to their privacy policies, according to sources familiar with the agency's thinking. It may also try to accelerate firms' adoption of the "do not track" technology, which could work like the "do not call" registry that caused telemarketing industry havoc.
Silva said the FTC recommendations come from "people that live and breathe privacy policy and have a greater knowledge of the law, companies' practices and an institutional knowledge of what's happened before. They probably have a better feel for the degree to which self-regulation works or doesn't."

Privacy bills in play As for legislation, numerous privacy bills are winding their way through Congress.
A notable one is a bipartisan privacy framework from Sens. John Kerry, D-Mass., and John McCain, R-Ariz. It would require companies to reassess their privacy practices for both personally identifiable information and online behavioral advertising profiles.
Critics say it could force more companies to start charging for services such as email, social networks and other content currently subsidized by advertising.
"I'm talking about American companies having rules that control their own destiny, before Europe or other trading partners impose their policies on all our companies," Kerry said. "Hell, establishing minimum privacy protections in law can help build consumer trust in the marketplace and in turn increase economic activity."
Tech companies have argued that government regulations could cut their revenues, reduce job growth and hurt the broader economy.
Lawmakers are looking for the "sweet spot" between too much regulation and none at all, U.S. Rep. Mary Bono Mack, chairman of the House Commerce subcommittee on commerce, manufacturing and trade, said. "Any knee-jerk reactions could have a chilling impact on innovation and e-commerce in the United States and threaten our economic recovery," she said.

Prepared to push back Internet companies are well-positioned in Washington to push back against regulatory proposals.
With the piracy debate, they came together to argue that bills designed to shut down access to overseas websites trafficking in stolen content or counterfeit goods were too broad. They argued that they could undermine innovation and free speech and compromise the Internet's functioning.
What followed was an unprecedented online protest that saw Wikipedia and other sites go dark while bigger players like Google and Facebook displayed censorship bars and arguments against the bills on their sites. The effort was supported with 3.9 million tweets, 2,000 people a second trying to call their elected representatives and more than 5,000 people a minute signing petitions opposing the legislation.
Privacy regulations are a harder sell, said privacy expert Amy Mushahwar, an attorney with Reed Smith.
"Consumers might not be able to immediately recognize that increased privacy obligations could lead to a lesser amount of content on the Web, which is really what the advertising industry is concerned about," said Mushahwar, a registered lobbyist for the Association of National Advertisers.
Internet companies have tried to get ahead of mandatory reforms by adopting their own policies. The Digital Advertising Alliance rolled out new data collection principles that take effect this year. They explicitly prohibit collection and use of a person's Internet surfing data for determining their eligibility for employment, credit, insurance and medical treatment

Old-school lobbying The industry is also using old-school lobbying tactics. It has ramped up its political activities dramatically, spending $1.2 billion between 1998 and 2011. Google spent $9.68 million and Microsoft spent $7.34 million on federal lobbying in 2011, according to lobbying disclosure reports. (Microsoft and NBC Universal are partners in the joint venture.)
Facebook, a latecomer to Washington, has beefed up its lobbying team, adding Joel Kaplan, former deputy chief of staff to President George W. Bush, and Myriah Jordan, also a Bush aide and former general counsel to Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C. Facebook's lobbying expenditures skyrocketed from $351,000 in 2010 to $1.35 million in 2011, reports show.
Winning lawmaker support is only part of the battle. The sector also may benefit from the views of average people, said Linda Woolley, executive vice president of government affairs at the Direct Marketing Association. Despite recent controversies over Google's privacy policies, "you didn't hear of people cancelling their Gmail accounts."
"From where I sit, I do not see hordes of Americans running to Capitol Hill saying we need to do something about this," she said.
Additional reporting contributed by David Ingram.

Wicked Weather from around the globe

Chicago, Obama Headquarters

View from HQ: A beautiful evening in Chicago.
By Mary Hough on

Vice President Joe Biden shared a light moment with supporters in St. Petersburg yesterday during Women’s History Month.

VI GOP 2012 Caucus Results (Unofficial)

Territory Wide Totals:
April Newland                                   41 (27 STX, 14 STT)  Romney
Gwendolyn Brady                            37 (34 STX, 3 STT) Uncommitted
Warren Bruce Cole                          31 (28 STX, 3 STT) Uncommitted (Pledged to Romney after the vote totals)
John A. Clendenin                           31 (25 STX, 6 STT) Romney
Robert Max Schanfarber              29 (11 STX, 18 STT) Paul
Luis R. Martinez                                29 (26 STX, 3 STT) Romney
Joshua A. Schanfarber                   21 (5 STX, 16 STT) Paul
Humberto O’Neal                            19 (19 STX, 1 STT) Uncommitted
Geoffrey Wolfe                                                18 (5 STX, 13 STT) Paul
George Blackhall                              16 (8, STX, 8 STT) Uncommitted
Dwain E. Ford                                    15 (12 SSTX, 3 STT) Gingrich
Vince Danet                                       15 (10 STX, 5 STT)  Santorum
Roseann Wells                                  15 (2 STX, 13 STT) Paul
Michael Wilson                                 15 (2 STX, 13 STT) Paul
Eddie Jane Simmons                       14 (1 STX, 13 STT) Paul
Kimberly Lynn Jones                      11 (10 STX, 1 STT) Uncommitted
DeWayne Bridges                            8 (3 STX, 5 STT) Santorum
James Bland                                       4 (4 STX, 0 STT) Uncommitted
Dennis Best                                        4 (1 STX, 3 STT) Uncommitted
Patrick Witcher                                 4  (0 STX, 4 STT)Uncommitted
Steve Mitchum                                 4 (0 STX, 4 STT) Uncommitted
Steven Hardy                                     3 (0 STX, 3 STT) Gingrich

384 total cast
112 to Paul (29%)  Won one delegate
101 to Romney (26%) Won three delegates plus three RNC  member pledge.  (Pick up a uncommitted delegate after the balloting for a total of seven.)
23 to Santorm (6%) No delegates
18 to Gingrich (5%) No delegates
130 Uncommitted (34%) Two delegates but one changed to Romney after the vote totals were announced

March Madness 101: An introduction to the NCAA basketball tournament

 Not into Basketball, but thought this interesting.

The NCAA Division 1 Men's Basketball Tournament, more commonly known as 'March Madness', begins next Tuesday in Dayton, Ohio, with the championship game taking place in New Orleans on April 2nd.

By Christopher Hartman, Contributor / March 10, 2012
Connecticut players celebrate with the trophy after the men's NCAA Final Four college basketball championship game against Butler April 4, 2011, in Houston. Connecticut won 53-41.
Mark Humphrey/AP

The month of March, beside its reputation as the gateway to spring, is also known for madness – “March” madness, that is. Beginning next Thursday, sixty-four men’s college basketball teams from the NCAA’s Division 1 will compete in this annual ritual that will have both devoted and novice college basketball fans scurrying to fill in their “brackets” to try and determine the winner of college basketball’s national title when the championship game is played in New Orleans on April 2. CBS will broadcast the tournament live throughout - both over the air and on
The bracket of teams is set with Sunday night’s selection show, and that promises to be infused with considerable emotion: from the height of elation for those borderline or “bubble” teams making the field, to the depths of disappointment of those having been “snubbed” or otherwise overlooked in the selection process. That process is handled by the NCAA Div. 1 men's basketball committee, made up of university athletic directors and conference commissioners. These so-called “at large” bids, thirty-seven in all, are based primarily on a team’s Ratings Percentage Index; in other words, the strength of its schedule and overall performance against that schedule.
Websites like compute these statistics, which are integral to compiling the teams’ overall rankings.  Typically, the lower a team’s RPI, the stronger its chances of receiving an at-large bid. Though RPI has been the generally accepted means of selecting teams for three decades, it is not infallible. Controversies can erupt when partisans of overlooked teams argue that their school’s statistics outweigh those of teams that were accepted. And with so much money and prestige at stake in making the tournament, the perceived subjectivity of the selection committee’s decisions can produce bitter and acrimonious debates.
However, RPI rankings are not the only means by which a team can enter the field. Thirty of the thirty-one remaining slots will be filled with conference champions. These come from both “major” conferences such as the Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC), Big East, Big Ten, etc., and “mid-major” conferences, or those that fall outside the traditional major or “power” conferences. Harvard University, in the tournament for the first time since 1946, is the only exception, as its conference, the Ivy League, does not have a championship tournament.
On the Tuesday and Wednesday immediately preceding the start of the round of 64, there will be a “First Four” playoff in Dayton, Ohio where eight teams (the lowest seeded at-large bids and the lowest seeded automatic bids) will play an elimination round. These games will be broadcast on truTV, beginning at 6:30 p.m. ET.

The four victorious teams then join the other sixty teams in the main tournament, which is divided into four geographic regions, East, West, Midwest and South – each consisting of sixteen seeded teams. The first seed always plays the sixteenth, the second the fifteenth, and so-on. Since the tournament went to sixty-four teams in 1984, a sixteen-seed has never beaten a first – though in 2001, fifteenth-seeded Hampton University defeated second-seed Iowa State. This is part of the appeal of the tournament – trying to correctly spot the “upsets” while simultaneously preserving your “Final Four” teams through to the championship round.
Additionally, it’s a great deal of fun to watch and check in on so many games in the first rounds – thirty-two games broadcast over the first Thursday and Friday that are frenetic, fast-paced and fraught with heartbreak and happiness. There are blowouts and “buzzer-beaters”, the drama of the occasional David-defeats-Goliath contest, tears of joy and sadness, the “pig piles” and court rushings – all concluding with one team’s jubilation in cutting down the nets following the championship game.
For nearly three weeks, this emotional roller coaster will keep college basketball fans riveted to the cathode-ray glow of our national campfire.

Solar flare: Biggest in six years hits the Earth (+video)

Solar flare: The Sun is in an 11-year cycle of solar flare activity, with a peak next year.  Solar flares can disrupt power grids, satellites, oil pipelines and high-accuracy GPS systems

By Deborah Zabarenko, Reuters / March 8, 2012
Tthe National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's (NOAA) Space Weather Prediction Center said the sun erupted Tuesday evening, creating a solar flare that is the biggest in six years.
(AP Photo/NASA)


A strong geomagnetic storm is racing from the Sun toward Earth, and its arrival on Thursday could affect power grids, airplane routes and space-based satellite navigation systems, U.S. space weather experts said.

The storm, a big cloud of charged particles flung from the Sun at about 4.5 million miles per hour (7.2 million km per hour), was spawned by a pair of solar flares, scientists said.

This is probably the strongest such event in nearly six years, and is likely more intense than a similar storm in late January, said Joseph Kunches, a space weather specialist at the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

At midnight UT the active solar region 1429 unleashed a powerful X5.4-class flare. X-class solar flares are the strongest of the flares. They are major events that can trigger planet-wide radio blackouts and long-lasting radiation storms.

It appears that right after the large X5.4 flare another slightly lower, X1 flare (5 times smaller) occurred. You can clearly see a wave going across the Sun.

NASA says that they are still gathering data and that the Space Weather Forecast Lab will have updates available soon.

Such stormy space weather is unusual in recent history, according to Harlan Spence, an astrophysicist at the University of New Hampshire who is principal investigator on the Cosmic Ray Telescope for the Effects of Radiation (CRaTER) aboard NASA's Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter.

"These relatively large (solar) events, which we've had maybe a couple of handfuls total in the course of a decade, we've now had two or three of them, more or less right on top of each other," Spence said by telephone.

The Sun is on the ascendant phase of its 11-year cycle of solar activity, with the peak expected next year, scientists said.

"It's a clear harbinger that the Sun is waking up," Spence said. "We're trying to put this in context not only ... of what has the Sun done in the past, but what is the biggest thing the Sun is capable of and what should we be planning for in terms of extreme sorts of events in the future.

This solar disturbance is a three-stage affair, or as Kunches said in a telephone interview from Boulder, Colorado: "We hit the trifecta."

These are the stages he described, with the first two already affecting Earth:

* First, two solar flares moving at nearly the speed of light reached Earth late on Tuesday. Such flares can cause radio blackouts.

* Then, solar radiation hit Earth's magnetic field on Wednesday, with possible impact on air traffic, especially near the poles, satellites and any astronauts taking space walks. This phase could last for days.

* Finally, the plasma cloud sent by the coronal mass ejection, which is basically a big chunk of the Sun's atmosphere, is expected to arrive at Earth early on Thursday.

This phase can disrupt power grids, satellites, oil pipelines and high-accuracy GPS systems used by oil drillers, surveyors and some agricultural operations, scientists said.

GPS systems used for less-refined functions, such as the turn-by-turn navigation found in many cars, should not be affected, according to NOAA's Doug Biesiecker.

Kunches said the geomagnetic component of the storm may arrive a bit ahead of schedule because it follows a previous storm that left the Sun on Sunday and is currently buffeting the Earth's magnetosphere.

"When you've already had one coronal mass ejection storm, sometimes the next coronal mass ejection storm is faster to get here," Kunches said.

These storms could produce some vivid auroras, according to experts. In the Northern Hemisphere, the aurora borealis could be visible at mid-latitudes, which in the United States could include New York, Illinois and Iowa.
( Editing by Will Dunham)
IN PICTURES: Solar flares and Northern Lights

Thousands Give Up Carbon for Lent

In the season of reflection, Christians around the world are focusing on being better stewards of creation.

For many Christians, the 40-day period of fasting and reflection before Easter known as Lent is a chance to get in mental and spiritual shape.

People give up chocolate; quit drinking or smoking; avoid meat; start reading the Bible regularly; or even give up social media – “fasts” intended to discipline and re-direct one’s mind to the divine. For Catholics, liturgical Protestants, and, increasingly, non-denominational Christians around the country, Lent fasts can often feel like New Year’s Resolutions 2.0: a second attempt at giving up small indulgences for personal betterment.

But this year, thousands of Christians worldwide are making a bigger statement: giving up carbon to help save the planet. (Of course, it’s nearly impossible to “give up” all carbon. But devoted Christians are doing their best to reduce their carbon footprints during this time.)
 “We are charged to ‘do no harm’ and climate change is a part of that.”
Faith groups leading the charge have dubbed this practice a “Carbon Fast.” From taking on daily ecological-minded actions like walking to work, to engaging in national advocacy and carbon-reduction campaigns, these groups are determined to bring awareness of human involvement in climate change and promote stewardship of the earth throughout the 40 days of Lent.

First started by a bishop in Liverpool in 2007, Carbon Fast has been developed and promoted among individuals, Bible study groups, and churches by the UK-based Christian development organization Tearfund since 2008. Its simple message of carbon reduction as a path to environmental and spiritual renewal has taken hold, and this year communities in Canada, the Netherlands, India, Hong Kong, Australia, and Brazil are observing Carbon Fast as well.

“We have found it to be a great resource for introducing Christians to the issue of climate change and how we can respond,” says Tom Baker at Tearfund UK. “[It] provides people with ideas about how they can respond to the injustice of climate change. … It’s a great way for people to start.”

In the United States, several faith-based groups have created their own Carbon Fast materials. Interfaith Power & Light circulated a calendar of daily actions and alterations, ranging from the straightforward (“Turn down your thermostat by one degree”; “Remember to bring reusable bags to the store”) to the deeply symbolic (“Remember your baptism today, and the power of water. Try to conserve: Leave a bucket in the shower or kitchen sink, and collect ‘grey water’ to water the plants.”)

The Catholic Archdiocese of Washington’s Environmental Outreach Committee produced a similar calendar. And the United Church of Christ’s Ecumenical Carbon Fast, in which over 6,000 people took part in 2011, mails daily suggestions to reduce carbon and pairs it with a weekly focus for the church.
 The Fast is geared toward community impact and campaigning action to demonstrate public support for climate change.
A major focus of the fast is on poverty and the environmental injustice of climate change, a concept that is appearing more frequently in concerns from both secular and religious green groups. The Evangelical Environmental Network (EEN), a Carbon Fast partner with Tearfund, has designed weekly devotionals around the idea of relationships and putting things to right, from God and others to Creation.

“We are charged to ‘do no harm’ and climate change is a part of that,” says Alexei Laushkin at EEN. “We have to reconnect with our context. Changes in our consumption points to changes in policies that lead to cleaner sources of energy. This effort personalizes it and makes it real.”

Indeed, though the daily actions are limited to personal or family habit, the fast is geared toward community impact and campaigning action to demonstrate public support for climate change.

“We’re keen to emphasize that personal lifestyle actions alone won’t be the solution to global warming,” says Mr. Baker. “We need international action.” And though the fast’s full influence is difficult to measure, Tearfund UK estimates that the actions, if taken throughout an entire year, would save over 7 tons of CO2.
It would be easy to dismiss climate awareness actions like the Carbon Fast as “silly religion stuff,” says Mr. Laushkin. “But spirituality at large is increasingly grappling with this. A large spectrum of folks are grappling with this question. For Christians, this relates to our faith. We develop a keen awareness for how [climate stewardship and faithfulness], that are separate in our mind, are connected in God’s mind.”

Catherine Woodiwiss is a special assistant with the Faith and Progressive Policy Initiative at the Center for American Progress.