Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Does the Internet Have an "Off" Switch?

The Internet used to be a quaint thing that only academics and geeks used to know about. Now, it is, for all intents and purposes, a utility, much like electricity and gas. Everyone uses it, whether they realize it or not.

Of course, children just assume it's always been there. Adults have come to accept it as part of their lives. Businesses now rely on it as a way business is conducted.

Many years ago, computer systems were centralized in large data centers and if a data center went offline, that was bad. In fact, it could put our national security at risk.

The Internet was designed to be resilient to attacks by making servers be able to work in multiple places simultaneously and the data communications path to a specific computer be flexible in case the circuit was cut or otherwise unavailable. As a result, the Internet is up essentially all the time.

But is there an Internet "off" switch?

We've seen recently in Egypt that the government was able to shut down the Internet when there were uprisings. Part of the public's ability to mobilize themselves was that they had the communication abilities of the Internet. News reports reached the world because everyone with a cell phone was able to make video and still photo reports and send them — unfiltered — to the world.

Yet the Egyptian government controlled the telecommunications for the country and so was able to turn off the Internet.

China's government similarly controls all Internet traffic, especially what it allows its residents to see outside of China.

I don't know whether there is similar control of the Internet here in the United States, but I do know that the services that we've come to rely on would be severely hampered if the Internet were to be turned off.

Here are some examples of things we now rely on: Telephone service, television service, news and information, weather reports, online business transactions, travel information, medical information. The list goes on.

In another vein, the GPS navigation satellite system that we all rely on is owned and operated by the United States government. It's used globally by motorists, airlines, delivery companies, emergency responders and many other businesses. And, yes, the United States government has said in a time of emergency it would disable the GPS satellites.

This is one of the reasons why the European Union has put together its Galileo project, which is an alternative to the American GPS satellites.

Both the Internet and GPS are now essential parts of the global lives. Let's hope we never have to know if there's really an "off" switch.

Update: Here is an article from the Wall Street Journal about a bill in the United States senate titled "Cybersecurity and Internet Freedom Act of 2011" to provide an official "kill switch" to the Internet: http://blogs.wsj.com/digits/2011/02/18/new-cyber-security-bill-kills-the-kill-switch/?blog_id=100&post_id=21955.

Mark Mathias, a 30-plus year veteran of information technology and a resident of Westport, Connecticut, was named by Computerworld magazine to their inaugural list of “Premier 100 IT Leaders.” This column was originally published in the Westport News on Wednesday 23 February 2011.
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Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Coupons in the Digital Age

Using coupons has been something we've all done at one time or another. Everyone likes to save money or spend a little less on something.

Most of us use coupons occasionally, while others are so good at it that they can spend pennies on the dollar for items being promoted.

Two services that do very well for consumers are www.groupon.com and www.livingsocial.com. Each delivers a deal, typically on a daily basis, that offers about 50 percent off on a product or service through a local vendor.

Some of the local deals I've been offered include restaurants, car washes and outdoor events. Not all of them are something I want, but when they've clicked for me, they've been great. To use the coupon, sign up for the deal, pay the stated amount and you are e-mailed a file to print and use.

In every case when I've used these coupons, the merchants have known of them and there have been no problems.

Another service I use is www.restaurant.com. Their typical offer is a $25 coupon for $10. It's not unusual to see discounts as high as 90 percent. Again, you buy a coupon for a certain amount, then receive a file that you print and take to the merchant.

One service that I've used for years is called www.idine.com. For a few years, they were called Rewards Network. For $50 per year, you register any number of credit cards. Then, whenever you use one of your credit cards at a participating vendor, you receive anywhere from 6 to 50 percent as a rebate on the total cost of your charge — food, beverage, tax and tip. Typical rebates are 10 percent.

What's nice about iDine is that there's no coupon to buy, print or present to the merchant. The rebate used to be issued as a credit to your credit card, but iDine has started sending out rebate cards in the form of cash cards, which I find less appealing.

If you're looking more for traditional coupons, try www.redplum.com for a broad variety of coupons that you can clip.

There are plenty of other coupon sites on the Internet, often appealing to niche interests. Google your favorite subject and include the word "coupon" and you'll be amazed at what comes up.

For me, these discounts — especially at the 50 percent level — get my attention. And I'm pleased with the number of area merchants participating. It's been great to meet and experience some new places — and make doing things with my family more affordable.

Mark Mathias, a 30-plus year veteran of information technology and a resident of Westport, Connecticut, was named by Computerworld magazine to their inaugural list of “Premier 100 IT Leaders.” This column was originally published in the Westport News on Wednesday 9 February 2011.
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