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"VentureBeat" - 10 new articles

  1. Author Steven Levy tells young hackers about their religion
  2. Groupon may be shady but its growing strong: 115M subscribers
  3. How to Nooter your ISP: Neutral routers could trump politics in net neutrality debate
  4. Groupon to amend its IPO filing to remove unusual accounting metric
  5. Will tech stocks — and Zynga’s IPO — survive this week’s market bloodbath?
  6. Zugara licenses Webcam Social Shopper to Banana Flame
  7. HTC buys Dashwire for $18.5M, gets cloud phone backup and patents
  8. Why ISPs are hijacking your search traffic & how they profit from it
  9. Google self-driving Prius gets into first accident, thanks to human error
  10. New Gmail feature ditches message snipits for a preview pane
  11. Search VentureBeat
  12. Prior Mailing Archive

Author Steven Levy tells young hackers about their religion

Steven Levy wrote his first book, Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution, in 1984. At the Defcon hacker conference in Las Vegas today, he talked about the word “hacker” and its origins amid a crowd of young practitioners of the craft who weren’t born when he published that book.

Levy said that over the years, the word “hacker” became corrupted to mean people with pimples who were getting into trouble with the law because of the crimes they committed with their computers. But Levy’s talk was entitled, “We owe it all to the Hackers.”

Levy was a writer for Rolling Stone magazine and was assigned to write a story about hackers, who had been painted as sick computer addicts, pimply faced kids, and miscreants in early reports. But Levy found a vibrant community growing up in Silicon Valley, Seattle, and Cambridge, Mass. Companies like Apple, Microsoft, and the early computing community at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology all shared a common set of views about hacking that Levy called The Hacker Ethic in his book. They were a bunch of wizards trying to something clever and impossible.

“They were like adventurers, thrilled with the computer,” Levy said.

All of these people were inspired by the personal computer. Levy interviewed Steve Wozniak, co-founder of Apple, about why he enjoyed tinkering with computers during the early days of the Homebrew Computer Club in Silicon Valley. Levy got into a heated discussion about the meaning of the word “antitrust” with Bill Gates, who became so angry that he threw a pencil at Levy. But the common view of hacking was that, at its core, was a belief that “information should be free,” Levy said. Stewart Brand, a computing pioneer, created his own hacker conference and hacked that idea, saying, “information wants to be free.”

At MIT, Levy said there was more of a prankster nature to the hackers, who had a love for explosives. One administrator made peace with the hackers, who were constantly stealing things from the university. He told them to stop destroying things and start creating an “illusion of security.”

“That’s what companies do today, create an illusion of security,” Levy said.

That spirit is still alive. Here at Defcon today, some prankster got into the wireless lighting system and was pulsing the lights on and off at the conference. Earlier in the week, someone pulled a fire alarm during the keynote speech at the sister conference, Black Hat, which is more academic and corporate than Defcon, which is free-spirited and a cash-only affair, as hackers don’t always like to give away their identities via credit cards. At Defcon, attendees are a more diverse group — with a lot of hipster clothing and multi-colored hair (yes, those are stereotypes as most people are dressed in jeans and T-shirts).

Levy said he interviewed a young guy who was virtually living at MIT. Richard Stahlman eventually became the founder of the “free software” movement that led to things like Linux. As Levy spoke, lots of young people nodded their heads and appeared to smile as if they were hearing someone describe the roots of their religion.

Levy said he was somewhat wary about what the outcome would be for hackers so many years later. He thought that commercialism would water down the hacker ethic and further corrupt its authenticity. But he said he was glad to see that he was wrong about that and that the computer revolution spread the ethics of hacking like a virus around the world, leading to things like the Macintosh, the free internet, open source software such as Linux, and companies such as Facebook and Google. Levy said that, on the 25th anniversary of the publication of the book, he interviewed Mark Zuckerberg, another famous hacker, who said that he wanted Facebook to be a “great hacker company.” That was like returning to the old meaning of the word.

Jeff Moss, the founder of Defcon (which is 19 years old now), told me that he invited Levy to speak to impart some wisdom about the ethics of hacking and the perspective of decades of experience. Moss said it was good for young people to learn. In fact, for the first time, Defcon features a section, dubbed Defcon Kids, for children ages 8 to 16, for the very first time. Defcon is a place where the meaning of hacker is understood, in the expansive and curious and hopeful sense. It is a place where the dark stereotype just isn’t big enough to capture everything that it’s about.

Levy said he is often asked why he never wrote a sequel to Hackers. But he said almost every book he has written has touched on the same topics, whether it’s a book about cryptography or his latest book, In the Plex, about Google.

Ironically, Levy said he had never been to a Defcon conference before. Just after he spoke, the conference started playing the movie “Hackers,” which little to do with Levy’s book and stars Angelina Jolie. Levy joked that the impression people had of hackers was less of someone like the glamorous actress and more like the kind of luck-less people that she should adopt. Moss watched the film with the group and made comments about it, while the audience giggled at the archaic tech scenes.

Filed under: dev, DevBeat, offBeat, VentureBeat


Groupon may be shady but its growing strong: 115M subscribers

Groupon LogoSubscribers of group coupon buying service Groupon Inc have more than doubled to 115 million to date, reports Reuters.

Groupon had 50.6 million e-mail subscribers at the end of 2010 and the company reported 83 million subscribers after the first quarter 2011. But, that number has increased by 38 percent, according to an unnamed source in contact with Reuters.

The source also indicated that very little of that the subscriber growth is attributed to the acquisition of other services.

Groupon lets users purchase steeply discounted deals from local merchants. Discounts range anywhere from 30 to 80 percent off the regular sale price on food, trips, drinks at a local bar, etc. Groupon takes half of the money from every deal sold, which is a pretty easy way to bring in a lot of money without having to get creative.

The Chicago-headquartered company is still running at a loss despite the astonishing revenue growth, which went from $94,000 in 2008 to $713 million in 2010. More recently, it lost $146.5 million in the first quarter of 2011.

Those kinds of financial numbers, along with the company’s screwy ACSOI metric used to show income, has caused Groupon to amend its initial public offering, as we reported earlier today. Groupon first filed for a $750 million IPO in June.

Groupon was unavailable for comment about the total number of subscribers at the time of publication.

Filed under: Business and Technology, News, social, Social Media, VentureBeat


How to Nooter your ISP: Neutral routers could trump politics in net neutrality debate

Dan Kaminsky is in charge of making the internet safer and less vulnerable to hacking attacks, thanks to his knowledge about computer security and past talks at security events. Now the security researcher is coding some interesting technology that could propel him into the center of the Net Neutrality debate.

His invention is Nooter (named after the phrase Neutral Router). It basically is a lie-detector test for internet service providers (ISPs). Those companies say that they don’t block traffic which is politically undesirable, such as file-sharing web sites. Nooter, which is still in the works, will be able to send traffic along different paths and determine whether or not your ISP is deliberately slowing your internet traffic down.

Kaminsky (pictured with his 88-year-old grandmother, who bakes cookies for the people who attend Kaminsky’s talks) said in two separate talks at the Black Hat and Defcon security conferences in Las Vegas that he has figured out how to make the hidden traffic policies of ISPs more transparent to everyday internet users. ISPs say they don’t slow down certain traffic because that would make them run afoul of the principle of Net Neutrality, where the companies that are the backbone of the internet adopt a neutral position on content. Like the old common carrier telephone companies, these ISPs aren’t liable for the content traveling through their broadband networks if they treat it all equally.

Yet the motivations of ISPs are complex. If law enforcers say that child pornographers are shipping illegal pictures through their networks, the ISPs are obliged to shut them down. And some ISPs, such as cable companies that own movie content (i.e. Comcast) are motivated to slow traffic related to torrent sites that let users download pirated movies. They’re routinely accused of secretly setting policies that slow down the delivery of content that they don’t like, while keeping other content moving fast.

This is where Nooter comes in. Kaminsky says that he will be able to release a tool that lets users know if their traffic is being slowed down or not. He will do so by testing the speed of the delivery when the web destination is clearly visible to the ISP and the speed of the delivery of the same content when the web destination is hidden from the ISP.

“What happens if my ISP is messing with me?” Kaminsky said. “I can tunnel around it. What if it is subtle? We will always be able to know if an ISP is changing your traffic.”

This kind of technology is what Kaminsky is known for. In 2008, he found a flaw in the DNS (domain name system which is the internet’s address book) that threatened the integrity of the whole internet. Last year, he was part of a team that was so trusted that he got a key to reboot the internet if a catastrophic failure shuts it down.

As an example, he said, you will be able to find out if your ISP cares whether you use Microsoft’s Xbox Live online gaming service or Sony’s PlayStation Network. Nooter would be able to discover whether an ISP is slowing down traffic to either site for any reason, Kaminsky said. Nooter could be available in a couple of weeks or so.

Kaminsky admitted he was making big claims but he tried to explain how Nooter works, using both software and some hardware that he pulled together. He warned that any ISPs who have set policies to throttle traffic to web sites should stop doing so now, unless they want to be discovered and “be on the front page of a newspaper.”

Normally, internet traffic requests go from the user’s machine through a network router to the internet service provider, which then fetches the requested web site from the rest of the internet.Kaminsky says everyone fears “a magic box” exists within the ISP that contains policies such as, “if the user goes to a torrent site, then slow the transfer of bits to a crawl until the user decides not to do that.”

“Policies can be anything,” Kaminsky said. “They can alter content and you won’t know. If Bing is 50 milliseconds slower than Google at searching, you won’t know why. Maybe it is because Google uses better hosting or routers or servers.”

Since many things can affect the speed of internet traffic, it’s hard to pinpoint an ISP’s role in slowing it down. That gives ISPs “plausible deniability” when they are accused of violating Net Neutrality principles.

But if Nooter determines that traffic to one particular web site is faster one way than another, based on whether the ISP knows about the destination site or not, then “you found a biased network,” Kaminsky said.

The use of encryption is where the Nooter device can essentially see inside what is going on with an ISP. If you send encrypted requests for a web site, the ISP can’t where it’s going and it just passes it through as fast as possible. If the speed of unencrypted requests are slower, then you have to wonder why. When Kaminsky told that to the crowd in the huge Penn & Teller theater at the Rio Hotel in Las Vegas at Defcon, he got a roar of applause. Kaminsky said he can even identify which leg, or hop, of an internet request is the part where the policy is put into effect and the traffic is slowed down.

“Either way, Nooter wins,” he said. “Biased policies might as well be transparent because I am going to find them. That is the end game.”

Filed under: security


Groupon to amend its IPO filing to remove unusual accounting metric

Groupon AccountingDeals site Groupon will be updating its S-1 filing yet again to remove an unusual accounting measurement, according to an article by AllThingsD.

ACSOI, or adjusted consolidated segment operating income, is a metric Groupon used to show income while excluding certain expenses such as marketing. The unusual measurement raised eyebrows, since it is not a standard measurement utilized by most public companies’ accountants. The practice was a faint echo of novel metrics used during the height of the dot-com craze, such as “eyeballs” instead of revenue.

According to AllThingsD’s unnamed sources, Groupon could amend its filing as early as Monday.

Currently the filing reads, “We believe Adjusted CSOI is an important measure for management to evaluate the performance of our business as it excludes certain non-cash expenses and discretionary online marketing expenses that are incurred primarily to acquire new subscribers.”

Groupon was recently under fire for comments by executive chairman Eric Lefkofsky, resulting in a change to the filing.

Groupon also recently acquired a relatively mysterious company, Zappedy, for $10.3 million.

VentureBeat called for comment from Groupon. We will update the post when we hear back.

Filed under: deals


Will tech stocks — and Zynga’s IPO — survive this week’s market bloodbath?

Stock market investors are in a bloodbath. But technology stocks in the past few months have been relatively protected. There was even talk of a “bubble.” Now, recent market activity has sent investors running from equities into safer investments like treasuries.

So what does this mean for upcoming big IPOs like Zynga and Groupon or even Yelp, which is expected to file for an IPO sometime later this year?

A broad sell-off

Concerns about rapidly rising debt in Europe and the United States sent markets into a tailspin, with the tech-heavy Nasdaq Composite Index falling more than 9 percent this week.

The Nasdaq fell through a key level of “support,” a measure that traders use when designing algorithmic trades. Once the index value falls below that level of support, it sends a signal to many algorithms to sell off stocks and prevent the loss of additional money invested in equities. The same is true for levels of “resistance,” which send signals to algorithms to stop buying stocks due to risk.

“A technical break on the Nasdaq would suggest further downside than upside,” Janco Partners analyst Mike Hickey told VentureBeat. “The fear is that we’re approaching a recessionary environment. The consumer is less optimistic on the future. That can hurt discretionary items like games.”

That’s the “technical” side. Then there’s the more human side, where investors may shun algorithms altogether and seek to invest in cash or safer areas with less risk than technology stocks. More on that in a sec.

The Nasdaq previously held support at around 2,620, while the market found levels of resistance at around 2,880. Yesterday’s massive sell-off broke the technical level of support on the Nasdaq. That sent tech stocks into a tailspin, with the Nasdaq closing down 1 percent today at 2,532 and reaching as low as 2,465 at one point. Another major index watched by investors, the Standard & Poor’s 500 Index, held steady.

The Standard & Poor’s 500 Index fell 4 percent on Thursday, and the week’s sell-off wiped out about $3.5 trillion of market value by the end of trading on Friday. The broad sell-off ignited further fears of a double-dip recession as investors fled equities and scrambled to lock in definitive returns on investments — sending options activity to record levels for the year.

Recent IPOs

With investors bailing out of equities, the market could be more skittish toward impending high-profile initial public offerings. Both Groupon and Zynga have filed to go public to raise enormous amounts of money, and are set to make their debut in the near future. But concerns about a slowdown in the economy, thanks to roundabout debt talks, might lighten the appetite for those IPOs.

LinkedIn’s trading debut in June went extremely well, but the company that once had a market cap of more than $10 billion has seen more than $1 billion in value wiped out in two days. The company is now trading at around $91 and has a market cap of $8.6 billion. That’s still well above the valuation of $4 billion it claimed when it priced the shares of its initial public offering between $42 and $45.

Cloud music provider Pandora might provide another clue to LinkedIn’s woes: That company had a relatively mellow debut in public trading, but it ended the week at a higher position than what it held before Thursday’s broad sell-off. The company opened trading at $13.19 a share on Thursday, and ended that day at $13.56. It ended trading Friday at $13.48. That company is listed on the New York Stock Exchange, where trading was a little more steady.

Priceline — one of the broad market’s largest gainers — was up nearly 10 percent after its quarterly profit exceeded Wall Street expectations. Market analytics provider ComScore’s shares were also up nearly 10 percent. Shares of domain provider, which announced it would acquire Network Solutions, were also up 15 percent.

Bellwether consumer hardware providers fell for the most part, with iPhone manufacturer Apple down around 1 percent. Microsoft, which manufactures the Xbox 360 alongside its Windows software, fell 1 percent. Chip-maker Intel edged down slightly with a 0.3 percent decline. Dell, a provider of hardware for enterprises, edged up 0.4 percent when trading ended Friday.

What about Zynga?

Zynga has become a Facebook distribution powerhouse like no other game company. The company has delivered hit after hit to Facebook. It filed to go public, hoping to raise up to $1 billion at an expected valuation between $10 billion and $20 billion, in July and it made around $90 million in 2010 and $11.8 million in the first quarter this year.

The company was hoping to ride a wave of positive sentiment led by LinkedIn and Pandora after those companies picked up multi-billion dollar valuations when they went public.

But game stocks were down at least 1 percent across the board. Saints Row developer THQ Interactive was the worst performer after falling nearly 6 percent, while publishing supergiant Electronic Arts fell by about one percent. Those companies revolve around delivering cinematic triple-A titles like Activision’s Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3. Those games still carry large price tags, which would give social and online gaming companies the edge.

“The casual market of social networking and mobile, that sort of potential is still strong,” Hickey said. “In a down market, social is gonna do really well.”

Blizzard Entertainment, owned by holding company Activision-Blizzard, also has one of the largest online games in the world and generates an enormous amount of revenue from its digital distribution. Those games are typically resistant to recessions because they use subscriber models and the company regularly releases new content and it doesn’t require players to pay an upfront $60 for a game.

“Amid a friggin’ global meltdown, World of Warcraft actually grew its subscriber base,” Hickey said. “It’s incredibly resilient to weak economic periods.”

Games like World of Warcraft also have value-added services that Blizzard Entertainment can charge for, like switching servers and buying additional cosmetic items for a character. That helps the company generate additional revenue from its games, along with digitally distributing its games at a price lower than typical brick-and-mortar game store prices, Wedbush Securities analyst Michael Pachter told VentureBeat.

But the strong performance of World of Warcraft wasn’t enough to keep the company’s share price afloat this week. Activision-Blizzard fell 1 percent in trading on Friday and ended the week down around 5 percent despite posting strong results on Wednesday.

Filed under: deals


Zugara licenses Webcam Social Shopper to Banana Flame

Webcam Social ShopperThis article is part of a series of posts about DEMO alumni and news of their progress. Zugara launched at DEMO in Spring 2011. Check out more at DEMO.

Something is fundamentally wrong with online shopping, according to Zugara.  The augmented-reality company is one step closer to fixing the problem with the first licensing of its “Webcam Social Shopper” to Banana Flame, a UK-based retail website.

For many, online shopping is just a means to an end. You click, compare, checkout and you’re done. The technology is cut and dry, with the goal of quick comparison shopping ending in an educated sale. But for Zugara, the e-commerce experience is lacking.

“For us, we see online shopping as a process,” Jack Benoff, Zugara’s vice president of product and marketing told VentureBeat. “We wanted to make online shopping an experience for people.”

Augmented reality was Zugara’s answer.

The company used augmented reality to create the Webcam Social Shopper (WSS), which Banana Flame recently branded on its site. Shoppers can “try on” clothing and share photos socially to get the “does this dress make my butt look fat?” question answered from home.

In order to bring the fitting room into your living room, you need to have a webcam and a bit of space. Once roughly four to five feet away from the screen, the software detects your body and lays the garment over it.

The experience is reminiscent of the Xbox Kinect. Zugara detects when you wave your hand and automatically increases or decreases the size of the product. After the fitting is complete, you can click the camera button and share away.

But aside from cool factor, why use augmented reality in retail? According to Matt Szymczyk, chief executive of Zugara, it’s a bigger picture problem.

“Augmented reality has been concept videos, people trying to push beyond usability,” he explained. “We are trying to

Banana Flame

Webcam Social Shopper on Banana Flame

address pain points.”

In essence, Zugara feels today’s augmented reality offerings are “pushing boundaries,” but not in a user-friendly way. Instead, the company wants to solve existing problems, as opposed to creating new uses.

Total Immersion, another augmented reality company, recently released crowdsourced music video experience, “My Flipbook,” an  example of innovating for the future, as opposed to problem solving.

Aside from e-commerce, another problem Zugara is tackling is augmented-reality installation.

“What we offer can be integrated in less than a day,” said Szymczyk. “Most augmented reality takes two to four months to integrate.”

The “plug and play” software lives on the site, and is controlled by the site’s owner and not Zugara. This allows the client to brand, customize and, most importantly, trouble shoot on their own. Zugara does offer support, however.

Banana Flame is the first licensed WSS for Zugara. The UK retailer plugged the software in by request, according to Szymczyk, who says the company has seen a lot of inbound inquiries since demo-ing WSS at the DEMO conference in Spring 2011.

“As a business, you don’t come across too many times when you have such a demand for your product,” Szymczyk said. “It’s awesome. It’s overwhelming.”

Szymczyk noted that a lot of Zugara’s traction comes from Europe. Europe tends to be ahead when it comes to e-commerce and is more willing to experiment, he said.

The company, founded by Sony Playstation in 2001, spun off and introduced its augmented reality product in 2009. Since then, the product has also been used by the National Guard to give recruits a preview of their look in uniform.

Zugara currently has nine employees based in Los Angeles, Calif. According to Szymczyk, the company is “beyond bootstrapped” with no current investors.

DEMOCome to DEMO in Silicon Valley Sept. 12-14 to see new product launches from a worldwide selection of disruptive companies. Register Today and take advantage of our special VentureBeat Partner rate of $995.00.

Filed under: DEMO, social


HTC buys Dashwire for $18.5M, gets cloud phone backup and patents

Slowly but surely, HTC is building up its software expertise. The smartphone maker announced this morning that it has acquired Seattle-based Dashwire, creator of a mobile backup and synchronization service for smartphones, for $18.5 million.

Dashwire’s technology will make its way to the company’s cloud service. But the purchase will also equip HTC with patents that could help it to avoid future squabbles like its current patent battle with Apple.

“As more people are buying smartphones and tablets, there is a huge need to help them to easily setup and personalize their devices, and once they are up and running, to seamlessly gain access to their content across multiple screens and services,” Dashwire founder Ford Davidson, a former Microsoft employee, wrote to Geekwire in an email today. “That’s what Dashwire has been focused on creating, and we will be helping HTC bring new innovation and experiences to its connected services offerings.”

We’re still awaiting a response from Dashwire on further questions about the acquisition.

Dashwire in April also became a customer of Intellectual Ventures, a company that has gained a notorious reputation as a “patent troll” since it only serves to hold and sell patents. Dashwire is paying Intellectual Ventures for access to patents that it can use to defend itself from further patent litigation. By purchasing Dashwire, HTC will also have access to IV’s patent portfolio.

In other good news for HTC, the company announced today that sales in July reached $1.56 billion, up 83.3 percent from last year.

Filed under: Business and Technology, deals, Mergers and Acquisitions, mobile, VentureBeat


Why ISPs are hijacking your search traffic & how they profit from it

A handful of Internet service providers (ISPs) in the U.S. are redirecting search traffic around specific keywords to brands’ websites, presumably for affiliate marketing revenue.

A study released today by a UC Berkeley research group revealed that for some Internet users on some ISPs, using a search engine and typing in a word such as “apple” or “bloomingdales” would redirect the user to websites for Apple or Bloomingdale’s rather than to a page or search results about the keyword in question.

The Berkeley project, called Netalyzr, was created to measure DNS behavior. However, over the past few months, the Netalyzr team noticed some unexplained and unexpected redirections across at least 12 ISPs in the United States.

In a blog post on the findings, the team wrote, “The affected ISPs use services provided by a company called Paxfire to monetize certain web search requests. Paxfire’s main line of business is DNS-error traffic monetization, i.e., the practice of presenting advertisements and search results to users who mistyped a website’s address in their browser.

“In addition, some ISPs employ an optional, unadvertised Paxfire feature that redirects the entire stream of affected customers’ web search requests to Bing, Google and Yahoo via HTTP proxies operated by Paxfire.”

Following the money

The Electronic Frontier Foundation helped the Netalyzr team investigate the matter. As EFF senior staff technologist Peter Eckersley told VentureBeat, “They knew the general category of false DNS responses might be possible and worth checking for, while the details that emerged about Paxfire and what it was actually up to were a bit more surprising.”

The research team found that around 170 specific, brand-related keywords would trigger interference by the HTTP proxies, causing users to be redirected to affiliate marketing landing pages. “In the process, the ISPs and Paxfire presumably earn commission payments for the redirected flows,” the researchers wrote.

Some of the ISPs involved are, according to data presented by multiple organizations involved in the investigation, Cavalier, Cincinnati Bell, Cogent, DirecPC, Frontier, Fuse, Hughes, IBBS, Insight Broadband, Megapath, Paetec, RCN, Wide Open West and XO Communication. Charter and Iowa Telecom claim to have recently stopped doing DNS redirects.

While it’s likely that ISPs had at least some knowledge of at least some of the DNS redirection, if not search traffic redirection, it’s less likely that the brands themselves were involved in the scheme. “There is probably a chain of several intermediaries in these affiliate marketing programs between the brand itself and Paxfire,” said Eckersley.

In other words, it’s difficult to say at the outset where the buck stops in this scheme and whose hands are in the cookie jar. What we do know is that many of the ISPs involved are claiming a lack of knowledge about the search redirects and pointing to third-party vendors as the real villains in the scenario.

A Charter representative told VentureBeat today that when search traffic redirects were occurring across that ISP, “We were not aware of it. It was a third party, and in a sit-down with the vendor, we said, ‘You need to be more careful about putting us into this mix… Charter doesn’t think this practice is acceptable.”

Steven Crosby of Frontier Communications Corportation told VentureBeat, “In terms of Frontier’s practices, we do not hijack any search traffic. We have clear business rules in our legal agreement with Paxfire that allows them to monetize URL address bar errors (e.g., ‘’ instead of ‘’ or typing an actual word like ‘PC’ into the address bar). Paxfire is not allowed to touch any search traffic that originates directly from toolbars or search bars.”

While the Charter rep was not able to name the exact vendor involved, Paxfire is just one of many Internet marketing companies that are using technical architectures for commercial and marketing purposes. These firms, which include companies like Barefruit and Golog, engage in murky practices such as search redirects, practices that violate our expectations of how the web should work and that rob us of any trust we might have in our ISPs.

If you use one of the affected ISPs, the EFF recommends running a Netalyzr test and installing a browser plugin such as HTTPS Everywhere to use HTTPS for all your web browsing “With HTTPS, attempts by the ISP or a company like Paxfire to alter the results would cause a certificate warning,” said Eckersley.

Google has also recommended using Google Public DNS and is beta-testing encrypted web search for users who want to better protect their search traffic.

The problem with Paxfire

“I’m not an expert on affiliate marketing programs, so I can’t comment on whether anything that Paxfire is doing might be a violation of the rules or norms of that business sector,” said Eckersley. But he did say that the marketing company “has no business” granting itself access to the keywords people are using to navigate the Internet.

“If my search engine is untrustworthy or not returning the results I was actually looking for, I can go and pick a different search engine. But if Paxfire has snuck out onto the network and secretly replaced all my choices of search engine with itself, I no longer get to go elsewhere for my searches.”

And when Paxfire’s proxies malfunction, any search attempts return an error message. “Users will often blame the search engine for that, when in fact it’s the fault of the company that’s secretly hijacking them,” said Eckersley.

In the end, said the EFF spokesman, it all comes back to net neutrality and how the lack of neutrality fundamentally degrades the reliability of the Internet. “Programmers assume that when they send data from A to B over the network it will arrive as it was sent. But if in fact the data is transformed by a series of companies that are trying to find ways to make a quick buck, things become more complicated, unpredictable, and fragile.”

The Frontier fiasco

In the ongoing quest to put a stop to deceptive Internet marketing practices, it’s hard to tell exactly where to lay the blame for search redirection and the responsibility for ending it. But Google took the issue upon itself when users were complaining about redirects.

Google’s security teams had been aware of DNS-based traffic interference from ISPs for months, at the very least. Google security engineer Damian Menscher wrote in response to user issues with Frontier back in March, “At Google, we are following this very closely, and trying to get Frontier to fix the issue. The root of the problem is that Frontier is intercepting some traffic, so when you try to use Google your search actually goes through a Frontier server first.”

At that time, entrepreneur and investor Andrew Payne noticed the redirection happening in his own searches. He wrote, “ISPs have redirected DNS queries for a while, but have mostly focused on typos and misspellings. I’ve never seen an example of an ISP actually hijacking a user’s Google search and inserting their own results, and that seems pretty egregious to me.” Menscher recommends users contact Frontier directly about the practice.

With folks like Payne making waves online, Frontier responded directly. Maggie Wilderotter, the ISP’s CEO, told Payne a story similar to the one we heard from Charter today: “that this had been done by one of their vendors in violation of Frontier’s business rules and it’s been shut down,” as Payne wrote. Around May 2011, Payne said Frontier had stopped redirecting Google search traffic, as far as he could tell.

According to the EFF, Google has repeatedly put pressure on ISPs to stop DNS-based redirects and has been at least somewhat successful. However, the EFF notes that Yahoo and Bing search engines are still particularly susceptible to redirects.

“This is why the ISPs that were proxying Google stopped in the past couple of months,” wrote Berkeley researcher Nicholas Weaver in a Slashdot thread today. “Google’s abuse-detection threw up a CAPTCHA on the queries, and then Google posted about it.”

Evidently, the combined noise from the web and pressure from the search engine were enough to put a stop to search redirection in some cases. A Google spokesperson confirmed, “We aren’t aware of any DNS providers that are currently doing this hijacking for searches intended for Google.”

Hopefully, continued pressure and the watchful eyes of the media, Berkeley researchers and advocacy groups like the EFF will help to end the practice of search redirects.

Image courtesy of Magic Glasses.

Filed under: Legal, security


Google self-driving Prius gets into first accident, thanks to human error

google car crashFor the first time, one of Google’s much-hyped self-driving cars has been in a car accident, according to auto blog Jalopnik. But it’s actually a mere human’s fault.

Google said the accident, in which a Google-owned Toyota Prius rear-ended another Prius, happened when a driver — rather than the car’s computer — was in control. The accident, which happened earlier this week, occurred not far from Google’s Mountain View, Calif., headquarters.

“Safety is our top priority,” a Google spokesperson told VentureBeat. “One of our goals is to prevent fender-benders like this one, which occurred while a person was manually driving the car.”

The accident itself was thankfully just a fender bender, as seen in the photo above.

Last October, Google engineer Sebastian Thrun nonchalantly announced on the company’s blog that it had developed the technology to let cars drive themselves. Google also told us its self-driving cars have now traveled “160,000 miles autonomously without incident.”

If it can be confirmed by a third party that Google’s self-driving Prius was in fact wrecked by a human, maybe Google should just let the computer drive in the future.

A video of a Google self-driving car can be found below:

Photo via Jalopnik.

Filed under: VentureBeat


New Gmail feature ditches message snipits for a preview pane

Gmail preview paneGoogle added a new preview pane feature to its popular email service Gmail today. The feature is visually similar to the interface that’s displayed when browsing from a tablet computer.

Gmail preview pane toggleUsers can enable the preview pane from the Gmail Labs settings page,. It doesn’t force you to adopt the new preview pane all the time. The team has added an option button to the Gmail toolbar that allows users to toggle the preview mode off and on. It also has the option of choosing between a vertical or horizontal preview panel screen.

After checking mail over the last 20 minutes or so, I’ve noticed that the new visual feature is just as quick as desktop e-mail clients. The only pause is with a 3-second delay in marking a conversation as read after viewing it in the preview pane. However, if it annoys you, there is a setting to remove the delay entirely from the general setting page.

In addition to regular Gmail users, the preview pane feature is available for Google Apps account customers. This small visual addition gives Gmail solid footing as a primary email client tool against the likes of Microsoft Outlook and Apple’s .mail app — the two most common email solutions for enterprise customers.

Filed under: Business and Technology, News, social, Social Media, VentureBeat


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