Two weeks ago a rare thing happened in Washington: the popular will beat corporate money. With a vote of 3 to 2 on February 26, 2015, the FCC reclassified Internet service as a public utility. That administrative vote ensures that the Net will remain a free and open platform — at least for now.
After nearly a decade of advocating for this (see The End of the Commons from 2006), I had lost hope. It just seemed that with our pay-to-play government, there was little chance that popular movement based on free-market and free-speech ideals could prevail. Yet it did.
I can only guess as to why this happened. It may have been the weight of a second-term President looking to salvage his reputation that swayed the vote. It could be that FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler, a former telecom lobbyist, had his own fit of conscience. Nearing retirement, Mr. Wheeler may have been looking at his legacy and how he would be remembered. It could be that the 4 million Americans who wrote to the FCC in support of net neutrality tipped the scales. Or maybe it was the growing realization that a handful of cable companies – AT&T, Comcast, Cox, Verizon, Time Warner – which had achieved a de facto monopoly of broadband Internet access, were about to choke off innovation and commerce for tens of thousands of smaller businesses.
The move to reclassify Internet services as a utility reaffirms the purpose of the commission. The FCC was established by an act of Congress in 1934 to regulate the radio spectrum. It has since come to oversee television and telecommunications because these are public utilities that serve the common good. The Internet — which has incorporated telephone transmission and most broadcast content — has become a utility by any definition of the word. Mr. Wheeler’s speech prior to the vote underlined that reality. “The action that we take today is an irrefutable reflection of the principle that no one, whether government or corporate, should control free and open access to the Internet,” Wheeler said.
The day after the vote, reaction among the grassroots groups who had worked to uphold network neutrality was jubilant. Democracy Now’s interview with Tim Wu sums up the mood.
It’s worth remembering, however, that it took the banking lobby 65 years to erase the financial rules put in place by the New Deal. They were patient and well funded. There’s still a lot of money to be made by owning the Internet; it would be surprising if the telecom companies gave up that chance without a fight. Just last week, in fact, US Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-TN) introduced “The Internet Freedom Act” to overturn the FCC’s new rule. As Ars Technica reported, Representative Blackburn took $80,000 from telecom PACs in the latest election cycle.
You can do something too. Ask your representative in Congress not to support Blackburn’s bill. And don’t take open Internet access for granted, because as a popular bumper sticker says, “Freedom Isn’t Free.”
This is probably the clearest explanation of Net Neutrality and what’s at stake that I’ve ever seen. John Oliver from his new show Last Week Tonight:
Oliver’s plea to maintain the common carriage rules nearly throttled the FCC website.
Heading into a major site redesign, with a product team split among several divergent and firmly held opinions, I decided it was time to break out a card sort.
Card sorting is an old, and often overlooked, UX method for organizing information. In its simplest form, you hand a test subject a stack of index cards representing the site’s content and ask her to sort them into piles and name each pile. This is what’s known as an “open card sort” — the naming of the piles is left up to the test subject. This is a great way to discover mental models of an information space, natural groupings of content, and labeling. Once you have derived a set of generally accepted categories and labels, you can move on to a closed card sort. In a closed card sort, you will provide a set of category names and ask test subjects to place the content cards into the categories where they seem to fit best. This is a good way to test your nascent navigation scheme.
These tests are pretty straightforward. The difficulty comes when you go to collate the data. Measuring the results of a card sort comes down to similarity scores. Similarity scores measure the number of times different test subjects place the same card in the same pile. If all your test subjects sorted two cards into the same pile, then the two items represented by the cards would have 100 percent similarity. If half the users placed two cards together and half placed them in separate piles, those two items would have a 50 percent similarity score. Multiply that by 40 or 50 cards and a dozen or so test subjects, and you’re looking at a long, costly process of collation and counting.
That’s why I was very happy to find Optimal Sort, an online card sorting tool with great analysis components. Part of the Wellington-based Optimal Workshop, Optimal Sort allows you to create cards representing your content and then invite test subjects to sort and categorize the content by following a link to your survey. The real value comes with the analysis tools. Optimal Sort provides a clutch of analysis tools, the most useful of which are the Similarity Matrix (shown below) and the Dendograms. Both quickly highlight the obvious content clusters and suggest generally understood labeling. For me, those two features were worth the $110 monthly fee.
So far, we’ve had over 100 responses to our survey and some very clear patterns are emerging. It seems that when the humble old card sort is merged with some smart data analysis and presentation, we’ve got a great new UX tool.
An elegant new visualization of internet languages, tools and traffic was recently released by the Chrome team, Hyperakt and Vizzuality. It shows the converging streams of languages and viewers from 1990 to the present in The Evolution of the Web. Equally impressive is the growth of traffic from one petabyte a month in late 1995, to over 27 petabytes in 2011.
Netflix’s recent move to shift subscribers from DVDs by mail to streaming over the net holds some valuable lessons for the newspaper business, argues Ken Doctor, the author of Newsonomics. By making streaming roughly half the cost of DVDs by mail, Netflix is moving their customers to where the company needs them to be, Doctor writes in The Newsonomics of Netflix and the Digital Shift.
“Imagine 2020,” Doctor writes, “and the always-out-there-question: Will we still have print newspapers? Well, maybe, but imagine how much they’ll cost — $3 for a local daily? — and consumers will compare that to the ‘cheap’ tablet pricing, and decide, just as they doing now are with Netflix, which product to take and which to let go.”
Of course, Netflix doesn’t have to contend with the huge revenue gap between print advertising and digital advertising as newspapers do. All that is still TBD, Doctor writes, but Netflix may point the way.