PTJ 78 News: Whacks and Hacks

The year’s not even three weeks old and plenty of change is in the air. Earlier this week, the US Court of Appeals bounced the net neutrality’s rules put forth by the Federal Communications Commission. This gave Verizon Communications a legal victory over potential restrictions that would have made the company treat all traffic over its broadband lines equally. The court ruled that the FCC was trying to regulate Verizon and other broadband service providers used a statute that doesn’t apply in this situation. Proponents of net neutrality, including the American Library Association, have expressed concern; the ruling did state that although Verizon can block certain sites or services from its network, it had to tell its subscribers it was doing so. Industry watchers have speculated that the FCC will try to craft a new set of restrictions based on laws that were written to regulate monopoly telephone service back in the 20th century. Kevin Werbach, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, says that the court didn’t actually kill net neutrality and has now given the FCC a “a roadmap to reconstitute and even improve on its original decision.” Here’s hoping the FCC can read a roadmap.

Hackers marked the one-year anniversary of the death of programmer and digital-rights activist Aaron Swartz. The Anonymous collective did a protest hack on MIT’s Web site last weekend and the Syrian Electronic Army claimed responsibility for hijacking two of Microsoft’s Twitter accounts and a company blog to promote the view that Microsoft sold information to governments. Swartz committed suicide last year in the midst of a federal case against him for hacking. (And while some thought Dropbox was getting hacked last weekend and Anonymous claimed credit, that service outage was due to server upgrade gone wrong and Dropbox denied that hacking was the cause.)

January can often be a good month for finding bargains and several companies went on a shopping spree this week. Google plunked down $3.2 billion in cast to acquire Nest, a company that makes Internet-connected smoke alarms and thermostats. The move gives Google an instant ticket into the energy-management and Internet of Things home appliance areas.

llamaRemember WinAmp and SHOUTCast, those early 1990s pioneers in MP3 and streaming radio? AOL bought them both as part of its acquisition of Nullsoft back in 1999 and announced it was shutting them down last year, but has now sold both services to the Belgian company Radionomy.

Facebook is also in acquisitions mode, buying the link-sharing social startup Branch Media for about $15 million. The Branch staff will stay on to help develop Facebook’s new Conversations group, a segment of the company dedicated to helping people make social connections based on their interests. The new Re/code site is reporting that Facebook could be launching its Flipboard-like mobile news reader in the next few weeks.

Twitter is rolling out a new design for its website to make it look and feel more like interface seen in its mobile apps. Speaking of mobile apps, a company called Flurry Analytics released a report this week saying mobile app use was up 115% in 2013. Although apps in most categories saw increased use, messaging apps like Snapchat, led the way.

A lot of people are using Snapchat, including spammers who have been flooding the service with porn and weight-loss ads. Snapchat posted an apology to its users on its blog, suggested a settings change and says “as far as it knows, the jump in junkmail had nothing to do with that security breach last month that exposed the phone numbers of many users.

YouTube revamped the commenting system used by video creators and uploaders and has moved the old alerts-style approach to a new comments management page for moderating posts all in one place. On the new Comments page, users can nuke trolls, flag spam, approve or reply to comments made on the videos they’ve posted to their accounts.

Some privacy advocates are concerned over a new feature that lets Google+ users use their Gmail accounts to send messages to other people in their Google+ circles — without having to know the person’s email address. The new feature is not mandatory, and you can opt out of it or limit whom can contact you by manually changing your Gmail account settings, but some feel the setting should have been opt-in.

Bells are starting to toll for Windows 8, at least on the rumor blogs who claim that Microsoft is gearing up to get Windows 9 out by April 2015. (Paul Thurott’s SuperSite for Windows has an overview.) Windows is losing market share and now an analyst at the firm Asymco is predicting that sales of Apple devices with equal those of Windows PCs this year. The chart shows that this is not a sudden trend, as the shift began before the iPhones debut in 2007. Theories for the move include the arrival of the iPod in and general consumer interest in the Mac platform as a Windows alternative.

The Hollywood Reporter has some tidbits about the script for the upcoming Star Wars VII movie and the departure of the original screenwriter. Sources claim the original VII script focused on the children of Luke, Han and Leia, while director J.J. Abrams is said to have wanted the original actors, Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford and Carrie Fisher, to have more prominent roles in the film. (Disney, which owns the Lucasfilm empire now, is also said to be cleaning up the canon on the expanded Star Wars universe. Goodbye, weird one-shot characters that have no screen time or action figures.)

And finally, the Wired website has a pair of fascinating articles this week. One story takes a look at the computer code depicted onscreen in movies and television shows and started a Tumblr blog called Source Code in TV and Films. Wired also has an essay on the user interface design shown in movie Her, in which a sensitive young man falls in love with an operating system voiced by Scarlett Johansson. The article even predicts that the UI design shown in the film will have more of an effect on real-life design than did Minority Report. Time, and tech, will tell.

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