FCC mulls net-neutrality rules

In a move with significant implications for how easily researchers, educators, students, and others can transfer large files online, federal regulators on Feb. 25 said they are ready to discipline internet service providers who secretly favor certain types of data traffic, such as web surfing, over others, such as file sharing.

At a hearing over allegations of internet traffic discrimination by Comcast Corp., the Federal Communications Commission chairman said the complaints underscore the need to enforce the FCC’s current broad principles intended to promote so-called “net neutrality.”

“The commission is ready, willing, and able to step in if necessary to correct any practices that are ongoing today,” FCC Chairman Kevin Martin said in opening statements of the hearing, held at Harvard Law School’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society.

Martin said service providers should be allowed to take reasonable steps to make efficient use of their networks at a time when consumers’ growing appetite for web video threatens to bump up against networks’ capacity limits. But he said such management policies must be disclosed.

“Consumers need to know if and how network management practices distinguish between different applications, so they can configure their own applications and systems properly,” Martin said.

Consumer groups and a provider of online video have filed complaints alleging that Comcast hampered traffic between users without notice, violating the internet’s tradition of equal treatment of traffic. Two of the groups also asked the FCC to fine Comcast.

The issue got broad attention after an Associated Press story in October documented Comcast’s practices. Comcast later acknowledged that it sometimes delays file-sharing traffic for subscribers as a way to keep web traffic flowing for everyone.

File-sharing applications, exemplified by BitTorrent and the original Napster, have been a tool for piracy of copyrighted content, but they increasingly are used as cheap route for researchers, educators, universities, and companies to distribute large files, such as data sets or videos.

Commissioner Michael Copps, a champion of so-called open-internet policies, called for “clear rules of the road for those who operate on the edge of the networks—consumers and entrepreneurs—and those who operate the network.”

Copps said the five-member panel “should establish a systematic, expeditious case-by-case approach for adjudicating claims of discrimination” against internet service providers.

The FCC heard testimony from open-internet advocates, law professors, and representatives of Comcast and rival Verizon Communications Inc. to learn more about the implications of the Comcast case as they seek to write regulations. Meanwhile, Congress is considering legislation to address how much freedom internet service providers should have to block or delay content on their networks.

At the Feb. 25 hearing, David L. Cohen, an executive vice president at Comcast, said his firm interrupts file-sharing traffic in a neighborhood when it’s so heavy that it would slow other kinds of traffic in the area.

Cohen said the practice creates a largely imperceptible delay when a certain type of traffic—say, an upload of video—is rerouted elsewhere on the network, but is not blocked.

“We have chosen the least intrusive method to help the vast majority of our customers avoid service degradation,” Cohen said.

“There is nothing wrong with network management—every broadband network is managed,” he said. “Our customers want us to fight spam and viruses, and they want us to fight congestion.”

Tom Tauke, executive vice president at Verizon, said his company does not handle bottlenecks in the same way because its network architecture is configured differently than Comcast’s, making such management steps unnecessary.

Critics said Comcast’s network management policy amounts to blocking, rather than simply delaying traffic.

“Whatever we think reasonable network management is, it should not include blocking lawful applications,” said Timothy Wu, a Columbia University law professor credited with coining the term net neutrality. “It should not include discrimination against applications, and blocking of lawful applications.”

Wu said the issue of disclosure of network practices is crucial for internet firms—many of them startups—that must rely on venture capital funding for survival. If investors learn that major broadband providers will delay or block a particular firm’s internet transmissions, they’ll take their money elsewhere, he said.

Another speaker at the hearing, Rep. Edward Markey, D-Mass., has sponsored legislation that would make net neutrality the law. While acknowledging the need to manage networks, Markey warned that a failure to rein in internet service providers could turn the internet into a tool for powerful interests, rather than a means of free-flowing communication.

“The beauty of the internet is that it’s got a wonderfully chaotic, evolving nature,” Markey said.

Markey chairs the House Energy and Commerce Committee’s subcommittee on telecommunications and the internet.


Federal Communications Commission

Berkman Center for Internet and Society

Comcast Corp.

House Committee on Energy and Commerce


ePals models new style of capitalism

In the summer of 2005, Miles Gilburne and Nina Zolt had long talks over dinner in their Washington home about what to do next. For more than six years, Mr. Gilburne, a former AOL executive, and his wife, Ms. Zolt, a former lawyer, had supported a philanthropy that used books and online tools to enhance skills of inner-city students.

The program, which Ms. Zolt directed, had been moderately successful. Students liked writing online about books and sharing their ideas with Internet pen pals, including adult mentors. Many teachers embraced the project, called In2Books, and participating students outscored their peers in standardized tests.

Still, the costly venture grew only gradually, classroom by classroom. The couple had put $10 million into the charity, a “meaningful portion” of the family wealth, Mr. Gilburne says. “It was enough money that I did lie awake at night thinking about the size of the checks,” he recalls.

As philanthropy, the couple’s efforts, however worthwhile, weren’t sustainable. But their vision of using the Internet for communication and collaboration to improve education has taken on a new life — as a business.

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Adobe blurs line between PC and web

Adobe Systems is releasing software, called AIR, that will power potentially tens of thousands of applications that merge the internet and the PC, as well as blur the distinctions between PCs and new computing devices such as smart phones, the New York Times reports. Adobe sees AIR as a major advance that builds on its Flash multimedia software. Applications will look and run the same whether the user is at his desk or his portable computer, and soon when using a mobile device or at an internet kiosk, the company says. Applications increasingly will be built with routine access to all the web’s information, and a user’s files will be accessible whether at home or traveling. AIR is intended to help software developers create applications that exist in part on a user’s PC or smart phone and in part on servers reachable through the internet. To computer users, the applications will look like any others on their device, represented by an icon. The AIR applications can mimic the functions of a web browser but do not require a browser to run…

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FCC to hold hearing on net neutrality

The high-profile squabble over Comcast’s slowdown of BitTorrent file-sharing traffic–and broader questions of network handling by internet service providers–are set for public scrutiny at a Feb. 25 hearing, CNET reports. The hearing, to be held in a Harvard Law School courtroom by the Federal Communications Commission, is an outgrowth of the agency’s recently launched inquiry into what constitutes "reasonable" network management practices by internet service providers. "What we’re going to see on Monday is a trial of the internet," said Columbia Law School Professor Tim Wu, who has written extensively in favor of net neutrality regulations and is slated to speak on the panel. "Comcast is in the docket, accused of crimes against the public interest, and we’ll see how well they are able to defend themselves."

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Gates to students: Consider IT careers

A widespread shortage of information technology (IT) graduates across North America is forcing Microsoft Corp. and other software companies to look to developing countries such as China to meet their needs, Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates says.

“When we want to hire lots of software engineers, there is a shortage in North America—a pretty significant shortage,” Gates said in an interview with The Associated Press.

“We have this tough problem: If you can’t get the engineers, then you have to have those other jobs be [relocated to] where the engineers are.”

Gates was at the University of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada, which historically has been a favorite hiring ground for Microsoft, on Feb. 21 to deliver a speech to students about the state of developing technology.

But Gates also told the students that IT jobs are in high demand.

“It’s partly that the enrolment in the field is going down,” he said afterwards.

Enrolment in the computer sciences program at the University of Waterloo tumbled 5.1 percent last year, compared with 2006. Overall, the school saw 408 freshmen students join the program, down from 430 a year earlier.

University representatives said the enrolment numbers still are higher than similar programs at other North American universities.

The shortage of talent “is one of the reasons why we opened an office in Vancouver,” Gates said.

Microsoft has a strategy of tapping into a global market for technical talent by setting up development centers in multiple locations.

The Vancouver location, about 120 miles north of Microsoft’s headquarters in Redmond, Wash., has the advantage of being close to the company’s main development area, but outside the United States.

“The Canadian government makes it easier to bring in smart people from various countries and create a group that’s … Canadians, Asians, Europeans, working together on software,” Gates said.

Industry watchers have pegged the period after the 2000 through 2002 technology downturn as the time when students began to move away from computer-oriented jobs in fear that the sector would be bogged down with layoffs.

But the opposite happened, said Amy Parlous, executive director of the mathematics department at the University of Waterloo.

“IT is just so pervasive in every sector now, it’s certainly not in one pocket. It’s in public policy, it’s in education, it’s in health, it’s everywhere—so there are more jobs,” Parlous said.

Turning the shortage of high-tech workers around could be a problem, especially because statistics suggest that the hole left by retiring IT workers is only speeding up the shortage.

During his speech, Gates showed his lighter side by screening a documentary-style short film in which he pokes fun at his impending retirement alongside celebrities like rapper Jay-Z and U2’s Bono.

He also fielded questions from students and recalled when he went to college in “the Dark Ages” and learned about computers on his own time.

“Fortunately for all of you, you’re in a generation where all of these courses are going to be online and basically free. I’m taking solid state physics from MIT, though MIT doesn’t know it,” he said, alluding to MIT’s pioneering OpenCourseWare project, which makes courseware available online free of charge.

“You are far more empowered in terms of your ongoing education than any other generation has ever been.”

Gates also criticized the United States government for its strict adherence to the H-1B visa, which allows American companies to bring in skilled workers from other countries temporarily, as long as they fall under a list of “specialty occupations.”

Gates called the visa the “worst disaster.”

The rules are strict and apply only to highly specialized workers.

“If I could just change one law in the U.S., it would be this,” he said.

“There should be a free flow of talent from the U.S. to Canada and Canada to the U.S. If there’s a bright person who wants a job, it shouldn’t be hard to go across the border and do that. We should make it as seamless as possible.”

Gates’ visit to the University of Waterloo came during a farewell tour he was taking before he withdraws from Microsoft’s daily operations. Gates plans to retire as Microsoft’s chief software architect in July and focus on philanthropy.

Gates visited five other universities as part of the tour: the University of Chicago, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the University of Texas, Stanford University, and Carnegie Mellon University.

At Carnegie Mellon, Gates predicted people will increasingly interact with computers through such means as speech and touch screens rather than by using a keyboard.

In five years, Microsoft expects more internet searches to be done through speech than by typing on a keyboard, Gates told about 1,200 students and faculty members at Carnegie Mellon.

“It’s one of the big bets we’re making,” he said during the final stop of his farewell tour.

Gates said software is proliferating into various branches of science, including biology and astronomy.

Researchers are “dealing with so much information that … the need for machine learning to figure out what’s going on with that data is absolutely essential,” he said.

Microsoft is trying to establish ties not only with university computer science departments but also with researchers in other scientific areas “to help us understand where new inventions are necessary,” Gates said.


Microsoft Corp.

University of Waterloo

Carnegie Mellon University


21st century skills in focus at CoSN’s annual conference

Helping students achieve the skills they need to succeed in the global economy; assessing skills such as critical thinking, creativity, and collaboration; and the role of technology to support a new learning environment are among the key topics to be considered at this year’s Consortium for School Networking (CoSN) national technology leadership conference, which begins March 9.

CoSN’s annual school networking conference and exposition opens Sunday, March 9, at the Hyatt Regency Crystal City in Crystal City, Va., just outside of Washington, D.C., with the pre-conference symposium, “Bringing Web 2.0 Innovation to Our Schools: Leadership and Policy Challenges,” beginning at 8:00 a.m.

Now in its 13th year, CoSN’s annual conference draws more than 1,100 district, state, and national ed-tech leaders from around the country to learn from others as they work to define the future of the internet and technology in the nation’s schools.

On March 9 from 6:00 to 8:00 p.m., the conference will kick off with an opening welcome reception in the exhibit hall. The exhibit hall will be open exclusively on Monday, March 10, from 9:45 to 11:00 a.m. and 2:00 to 3:00 p.m., and on Tuesday, March 11, from 10:15 to 11:30 a.m. And as a value-added opportunity, 15-minute vendor demonstrations of new ed-tech solutions will be held during exhibit hall hours on both March 10 and 11.

On March 10, from 8:00 to 9:45 a.m., a leading large-scale global assessment expert and a U.S. educational researcher and practitioner will explore the issue of “21st Century Learning: Embedding New Skills and Assessments,” at the Welcome/State of CoSN Address. Chris Dede, the Timothy E. Wirth Professor of Learning Technologies at the Graduate School of Education at Harvard University, will moderate the discussion.

Breakout sessions will continue throughout March 10 and 11, led by a wide range of conference presenters and moderators, all focused on seven key “strands”: (1) Leadership for Transformation: Exploring the critical role of leadership; (2) Accountability and Assessment: Using data to personalize instruction; (3) Innovative Use of Emerging Technologies: Identifying cutting-edge technologies and innovative applications in K-12 education; (4) Content and Integration: Leveraging technology to advance student learning; (5) Professional Development for Technology Leaders: Building your professional capacity; (6) Supporting Research for Technology Implementation: Examining what the research tells us about how technology can improve student achievement; and (7) Business and Operations: Using technology to improve operational effectiveness and efficiency.

On the evening of March 10, from 5:30 to 8:00 p.m., CoSN will hold its 4th Annual Auction for Advocacy, a reception and silent auction in support of advocacy efforts to raise awareness of the necessity for ed-tech funding in the nation’s schools.

And on Tuesday, March 11, from 3:30 to 5:00 p.m., best-selling author and innovation expert Daniel Pink will close the conference with a keynote titled “New Skills for the Whole New Mind.” In Daniel Pink’s best-selling book “A Whole New Mind,” he argues that the future belongs to a very different kind of person with a very different kind of mind. In this closing address, Mr. Pink will reveal the six essential aptitudes on which professional success and personal fulfillment now depend. He will explore what these mean for education and how his vision parallels or differs from the Framework for 21st Century Skills developed by the Partnership for 21st Century Skills.

In conjunction with the conference, on March 11 and 12, CoSN, the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE), and the State Educational Technology Directors Association (SETDA) will sponsor the 2nd Annual Washington Education Technology Policy Summit.

Beginning at 1:30 p.m. on Tuesday, March 11, participants will hear from key leaders and policy makers about the latest ed-tech policy issues–including federal funding, the eRate, and reauthorization of No Child Left Behind–and network with colleagues from all over the country. On Wednesday, March 12, participants will hear from a congressional leader, receive pointers and preparation for congressional meetings, and meet directly with congressional staff from their state to share their experiences about the importance of technology in the classroom. Summit organizers will arrange for participant meetings and will prepare participants with appropriate talking points.

For complete coverage of CoSN’s conference, keep watching the Conference Information Center at eSchool News Online all week.


Web sites grade neighborhood schools

Education — an issue that affects everyone in some way or another — is an ideal candidate for discussions on the Web. There, parents, students and teachers can ask questions under the cloak of Internet anonymity, which enables conversations about personal topics such as learning disabilities and teacher conflicts.

But the vastness of the Internet can leave many people wondering where to begin, especially when asking sensitive questions about education. And, even in a sea of discussions and forums on education, parents are often hungry for one piece of information above all else: data that helps them select a school for their children.

So this week I tried three education-related Web sites that dedicate some or all of their resources toward providing free school comparisons, including demographics, test results, teacher-to-student ratios, and percentages of students eating free and reduced-price lunches.

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Princeton researchers discover data-theft method

A group led by a Princeton University computer security researcher has developed a simple method to steal encrypted information stored on computer hard disks.

The technique, which could undermine security software protecting critical data on computers, is as easy as chilling a computer memory chip with a blast of frigid air from a can of dust remover. Encryption software is widely used by companies and government agencies, notably in portable computers that are especially susceptible to theft.

The development, which was described on the group’s Web site Thursday, could also have implications for the protection of encrypted personal data from prosecutors.

The move, which cannot be carried out remotely, exploits a little-known vulnerability of the dynamic random access, or DRAM, chip. Those chips temporarily hold data, including the keys to modern data-scrambling algorithms. When the computer’s electrical power is shut off, the data, including the keys, is supposed to disappear.

In a technical paper that was published Thursday on the Web site of Princeton’s Center for Information Technology Policy, the group demonstrated that standard memory chips actually retain their data for seconds or even minutes after power is cut off.

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Apostrophes in names stir lot o’ trouble

It can stop you from voting, destroy your dental appointments, make it difficult to rent a car or book a flight, even interfere with your college exams.

More than 50 years into the Information Age, computers are still getting confused by the apostrophe. It’s a problem familiar to O’Connors, D’Angelos, N’Dours and D’Artagnans across America.

When Niall O’Dowd tried to book a flight to Atlanta earlier this year, the computer system refused to recognize his name. The editor of the Irish Voice newspaper could book the flight only by giving up his national identity.

“I dropped the apostrophe and ran my name as `ODowd,'” he said.

It’s not just the bad luck o’ the Irish. French, Italian and African names with apostrophes can befuddle computer systems, too. So can Arab names with hyphens, and Dutch surnames with “van” and a space in them.

Michael Rais, director of software development at Permission Data, an online marketing company in New York, said the problem is sloppy programming.

“It’s standard shortsightedness,” he said. “Most programs set a rule for first name and last name. They don’t think of foreign-sounding names.”

The trouble can happen in two ways, according to Rais.

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