Sunday, June 13, 2010

Bill C-32

The Conservatives are taking another kick at the Copyright can. This time, they've come up with Bill C-32. Here is my letter to the Minister of Industry, Tony Clement. Please get informed and speak out!

Dear Mr. Clement,

I am writing to express my concerns with the recently introduced copyright bill, Bill C-32. Professionally, I am a software developer and a published author, so I am dependent upon copyright to make my living. I am also an enthusiastic consumer of copyrighted works, particularly music and software, so I view the issue from both sides.

The bill represents a significant step forward from your government's previous attempt at copyright reform. In all areas but one, it appears to take a balanced approach. Unfortunately, the one exception, the digital lock provisions, destroy that balance by giving producers of content a final technological veto over any and all rights that would otherwise fall to consumers. Thus, in its current form, Bill C-32 is critically flawed.

The inclusion of such strict protections for digital locks is surprising, to say the least. They appear to have survived, virtually unchanged, from the failed Bill C-61, in spite of the outpouring of opposition during last summer's Copyright Consultation. Indeed, the most commonly heard opinion throughout the Consultation was opposition to C-61-style anti-circumvention provisions (expressed in 6641 of 8306 submissions). One cannot help but wonder what purpose the Consultation was meant to serve when its strongest message has been ignored, no doubt in deference to the wills of a powerful American corporate lobby. As one Canadian who made the effort to have my voice heard, I am deeply upset by this result.

The DMCA-style hard line that has again been offered in Bill C-32 is clearly not supported by Canadians, and it is not necessary for Canada to meet our obligations under the WIPO Internet treaties, which require only “adequate legal protection and effective legal remedies” for digital locks. In other countries, including India and New Zealand, WIPO implementation has been achieved with more balanced approaches to digital locks.

A copyright balance requires that consumers' rights be protected in all cases, not left to the whims of the dominant media corporations. Circumvention of technological measures can be necessary to exercise those rights, so it is simply unacceptable to criminalize such circumvention for non-infringing purposes. I strongly urge you to amend Bill C-32 to make the anti-circumvention provisions applicable only to circumvention for the purpose of copyright infringement.

Wednesday, June 09, 2010

Android Data Diet (Postscript)

Last week, I blogged about how, after accidentally burning through my monthly data allowance in one day, I configured my Nexus One to use minimal data, and how I started using a couple of apps to measure and limit that usage. Yesterday was the beginning of a new billing cycle, so I was able to see the damage from my excesses and gauge how successful the ensuing diet was.

My extra data charges for this month: $5.60. Phew, not too bad!

At 5 cents/MB, that means I used 112 megs beyond my 500 meg limit. But 87.6 megs of that was on the day I exceeded my limit and the day after, before I realized what had happened. Once I put my phone on the diet, it only used 24.4 megs over 20 days (1.22 MB/day on average), costing me just $1.22.

I'd say the diet was a resounding success! I managed to keep my data usage very low while still staying relatively well connected. I was manually syncing my mail and contacts, but at least I could check them when I wanted to and look up things on the Web. I did miss having my Twitter and Facebook feeds kept up to date, though.

Now that I have a full month's data available again, I have happily re-enabled all my data-hungry settings, like auto-sync and Twitter notifications. I did leave the unfortunate Wi-Fi sleep policy disabled, and I'm continuing to use 3G Watchdog to monitor my data usage. I have increased my daily quota to 30 megs, which should give me lots of room to do whatever I want, but prevent any more runaway data use in the future.

On an unrelated Android note, Google has rolled out free turn-by-turn navigation to Canada, along with 10 other countries. This is a killer feature of Android, and it's great to have it available here. It also gives us something new to play with while we're waiting for the FroYo update.

Thursday, June 03, 2010

Android Data Diet (Part 2)

Yesterday, I described how I curbed my Nexus One's appetite for tasty (but pricey) mobile data. But what's a diet without a scale? I still needed a way to monitor just how much data I was using and warn me or, better yet, stop me if I used too much.

Cue the apps.

As I mentioned yesterday, Android doesn't do this out of the box, but fortunately there are at least a couple of great, free monitoring apps available. I tried NetCounter and 3G Watchdog. I think NetCounter has a really nice UI, and it provides the ability to monitor both mobile data and Wi-Fi, but I ended up choosing 3G Watchdog for its excellent quota features.

You can use it to set a daily, weekly, or monthly quota, and then have it warn you when you exceed a given percentage of that quota. Moreover, you can have it shut the mobile data right off if you exceed another given percentage.

I have set an extremely low daily quota of 2 MB, with a warning at 50% and auto-disable at 99%. I'll keep this setting until the end of the billing cycle -- recall from yesterday that I've already exceeded my data limit for the month and am now paying for each meg I use. The idea is to try to keep below 1 meg a day (which only costs me five cents), and cut myself off at 2 megs. That should keep my extra data fees for the remainder of the month under a couple of dollars.

So far, this approach is working: With the changes to my settings that I described yesterday, I'm finding it easy to stay well below 1 meg most days, and on the couple of occasions where I have exceeded 2 megs, auto-disable has worked like a champ.

Once my monthly data usage resets, I'll re-enable auto-sync and my Facebook and Twitter updates, and I'll increase my daily quota to something like 40 MB. That should give me plenty of room to stay connected and use lots of data when I want to, but will prevent any further disastrous 450 meg days.

By default, 3G Watchdog permanently adds a notification indicating the current state of your data usage relative to your quota. I find that quite intrusive, but fortunately it has an option to disable the notification. I did, and added its attractive little widget to my home screen instead. Even that may not stick around once my data diet month is over.

You can install 3G Watchdog by scanning the following QR code with an Android device (or just by touching it if you're reading this on one):

Finally, I should point out that to use 3G Watchdog's auto-disable feature, you'll also need to install another app: APNdroid. It's a handy little app that simply disables mobile data by appending a suffix to your active APN. It also has a widget that can be placed on the home screen for easy access.

Here is the QR code for APNdroid:

Thanks to Richard Fruet and Martin Adamek, the creators of these great apps. They're life savers...or at least money savers!

Wednesday, June 02, 2010

Android Data Diet

A couple of months ago, I got myself a smartphone. No, not that one; something better. I got a Nexus One, Google's flagship Android phone. Though younger, Android is already significantly more capable than iPhone OS. It's also open source, Linux-based, and uses Java as its primary development language. Throw in the top-notch development tools based on Eclipse, and it was a total no-brainer for me.

Oh, and did I mention it's dead sexy?

I actually got my Nexus One while I was in California for EclipseCon at the end of March. Google sells the phone directly online (though they recently announced they're ending that experiment and pursuing more traditional sales channels), but I saved myself the costs of international shipping and customs duties by having it delivered to my hotel in Santa Clara and bringing it back with me after seven days in the US.

Since then, I've been absolutely delighted with it, but for one most unfortunate incident: A couple of weeks ago, my phone allegedly decided to eat through my entire month's data allowance in one day. My Telus bill shows over 450 megs of data on one Sunday, and I have no idea how that could have happened. Telus was, of course, completely unhelpful, refusing to share any information about which specific hosts or domains my phone was supposed to have accessed. That information could have helped me determine if and how that kind of data usage actually occurred, but Telus wouldn't even confirm whether or not they actually keep such information (even though Canadian privacy law requires them to, on request, inform an individual of the existence of all personal information and give him or her access to that information). Unfortunately, Android doesn't report data usage out of the box, and I hadn't even thought of installing an app to do that.

So, it's impossible for me to go back and find out what happened that fateful day, but it was immediately clear that I couldn't let it happen again. I was only about a week into my monthly billing cycle and was suddenly being charged 5 cents per megabyte of data. So, the first priority was to severely restrict my data use for the rest of the month. Beyond that, I'll need to put in place a strategy to prevent me from getting into this situation again.

The first thing I discovered was alarming, and it's my only real complaint about Android so far: by default, Android is configured to put Wi-Fi to sleep whenever the phone's screen shuts off, in order to save battery. So, while the phone is sitting at home, unused, it falls back to mobile data, instead. But just because the screen is off, that doesn't mean the phone's not doing anything. I had it configured to automatically sync my Gmail, calendar, and contacts, and to constantly refresh my Facebook and Twitter feeds. Though I wouldn't ever expect this kind of activity to result in 450 megs of traffic in a day, megabytes or even tens of megabytes are certainly quite possible.

So, the first thing to do was to disable this Wi-Fi sleeping behaviour, but for some reason, the setting is very well hidden. From the home screen, you'll need to navigate to Settings > Wireless & networks > Wi-Fi settings to find it. Then, you'll need to hit the menu button, and finally select Advanced. Only then can you switch the Wi-Fi sleep policy to Never. I would highly recommend every Android user do this, as unintentional data use can cost you money. I haven't experienced any noticeable effect on battery life, either: I'm still easily able to get through a day on a single charge. I really think Google selected a poor default, and I've told them as much in this bug. Hopefully, it will be remedied in the future.

Since I'm not always in a location where Wi-Fi is available, my next step was to try to disable all background data usage. All account synchronization can be turned off in one place, which is most convenient: Settings > Accounts & Sync > Background data. Once this is done, you'll need to synchronize manually, such as by selecting the Refresh menu item in the Gmail app. Also, this setting must be re-enabled temporarily in order to use the Android Market. I currently do both of these things only when I'm on Wi-Fi.

Finally, I went through all of my apps and looked for any settings related to background data use or notifications. For example, Seesmic has a notifications feature that relies on polling the Twitter server to update the feed. I disabled all such features, and now my data use has slowed to a trickle.

Still, there was something missing: I needed a way to track my data and be notified if it gets too high. Fortunately, there are at least a couple of great, free apps for data usage monitoring available on the Android Market. I'll talk about those tomorrow...