January 10, 2011

Quick Tip: Improve your SATA disk performance by converting from IDE to AHCI

Most modern computers take advantage of the Serial Advanced Technology Attachment (SATA) hard drive interface. There are plenty of reasons why this is so, and most administrators know that IDE is no longer considered a standard for hard drives. What many administrators do not know, however, is that for maximum compatibility, most PCs are set up to use the older IDE interface. Because of this, when you install Microsoft Windows on a machine it may recognize only the BIOS IDE setting and enable IDE-only at the registry level. This can, in some cases, decrease the performance of the PC.

Fortunately, there is a way around this that isn’t all that difficult, and it will not require you to reinstall Windows.

This blog post is also available in PDF format in a TechRepublic download.

First I want to make the usual disclaimer: You will be editing your registry and possibly changing your BIOS’s settings. As there is always a risk when making changes to either of these, please make sure you know what you are doing before you attempt this and make sure you have a solid backup of your system (just in case). With that said, let’s dig in.

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Edit the registry

Open up the Registry Editor by clicking Start | Run in Windows XP or by typing “regedit” in the Desktop search box in Windows Vista and 7, and then type or click regedit to open up the registry editor. When the registry editor is open, navigate to this key:


Once there (Figure A), you will see the Start key, which is the key you need to edit.

Figure A

Before you start modifying your registry, you might want to make a backup copy of that registry — just in case.

Right-click the Start key and select Modify. When you do this, another new window will open (Figure B). This new window contains all the data for the Start key. What you want to edit is the Value Data. Most likely your Value will be set to “3.” You want to change that to “0″ (no quotes).

Figure B

Make sure you change nothing but the Value Data.

Once you have made that change, click OK. You can now close the Registry Editor.

Reboot and BIOS

The next step is to reboot your machine and then enter into the BIOS. Since every BIOS is different, all I will say is that you need to enable the AHCI setting in your BIOS. When this is complete, allow your machine to reboot and hopefully you will enjoy a boost in performance. I say “hopefully” because not every machine will see a marked improvement.

What about RAID?

If your machine happens to use RAID, you need to repeat the same steps with only minor changes. During the Registry Editor phase, you want to look for either:


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Once you have located either of the above, make the same change you did for the Start key and reboot your machine. You will still need to make the change in the BIOS as well, before the change will actually work.

Final thoughts

Hopefully you will find this gives your machine a performance boost. If the gains are minimal (or nonexistent), then no harm no foul. If you are unsure if any gains were made, put your machine through a test that pushes disk I/O to the limits and see if the performance has improved.

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10 PowerShell commands every Windows admin should know

Over the last few years, Microsoft has been trying to make PowerShell the management tool of choice. Almost all the newer Microsoft server products require PowerShell, and there are lots of management tasks that can’t be accomplished without delving into the command line. As a Windows administrator, you need to be familiar with the basics of using PowerShell. Here are 10 commands to get you started.

Note: This article is also available as a PDF download.

1: Get-Help

The first PowerShell cmdlet every administrator should learn is Get-Help. You can use this command to get help with any other command. For example, if you want to know how the Get-Process command works, you can type:

Get-Help -Name Get-Process

and Windows will display the full command syntax.

You can also use Get-Help with individual nouns and verbs. For example, to find out all the commands you can use with the Get verb, type:

Get-Help -Name Get-*

2: Set-ExecutionPolicy

Although you can create and execute PowerShell scripts, Microsoft has disabled scripting by default in an effort to prevent malicious code from executing in a PowerShell environment. You can use the Set-ExecutionPolicy command to control the level of security surrounding PowerShell scripts. Four levels of security are available to you:

  • Restricted — Restricted is the default execution policy and locks PowerShell down so that commands can be entered only interactively. PowerShell scripts are not allowed to run.
  • All Signed — If the execution policy is set to All Signed then scripts will be allowed to run, but only if they are signed by a trusted publisher.
  • Remote Signed — If the execution policy is set to Remote Signed, any PowerShell scripts that have been locally created will be allowed to run. Scripts created remotely are allowed to run only if they are signed by a trusted publisher.
  • Unrestricted — As the name implies, Unrestricted removes all restrictions from the execution policy.

You can set an execution policy by entering the Set-ExecutionPolicy command followed by the name of the policy. For example, if you wanted to allow scripts to run in an unrestricted manner you could type:

Set-ExecutionPolicy Unrestricted

3: Get-ExecutionPolicy

If you’re working on an unfamiliar server, you’ll need to know what execution policy is in use before you attempt to run a script. You can find out by using the Get-ExecutionPolicy command.

4: Get-Service

The Get-Service command provides a list of all of the services that are installed on the system. If you are interested in a specific service you can append the -Name switch and the name of the service (wildcards are permitted) When you do, Windows will show you the service’s state.

5: ConvertTo-HTML

PowerShell can provide a wealth of information about the system, but sometimes you need to do more than just view the information onscreen. Sometimes, it’s helpful to create a report you can send to someone. One way of accomplishing this is by using the ConvertTo-HTML command.

To use this command, simply pipe the output from another command into the ConvertTo-HTML command. You will have to use the -Property switch to control which output properties are included in the HTML file and you will have to provide a filename.

To see how this command might be used, think back to the previous section, where we typed Get-Service to create a list of every service that’s installed on the system. Now imagine that you want to create an HTML report that lists the name of each service along with its status (regardless of whether the service is running). To do so, you could use the following command:

Get-Service | ConvertTo-HTML -Property Name, Status > C:\services.htm

6: Export-CSV

Just as you can create an HTML report based on PowerShell data, you can also export data from PowerShell into a CSV file that you can open using Microsoft Excel. The syntax is similar to that of converting a command’s output to HTML. At a minimum, you must provide an output filename. For example, to export the list of system services to a CSV file, you could use the following command:

Get-Service | Export-CSV c:\service.csv

7: Select-Object

If you tried using the command above, you know that there were numerous properties included in the CSV file. It’s often helpful to narrow things down by including only the properties you are really interested in. This is where the Select-Object command comes into play. The Select-Object command allows you to specify specific properties for inclusion. For example, to create a CSV file containing the name of each system service and its status, you could use the following command:

Get-Service | Select-Object Name, Status | Export-CSV c:\service.csv

8: Get-EventLog

You can actually use PowerShell to parse your computer’s event logs. There are several parameters available, but you can try out the command by simply providing the -Log switch followed by the name of the log file. For example, to see the Application log, you could use the following command:

Get-EventLog -Log "Application"

Of course, you would rarely use this command in the real world. You’re more likely to use other commands to filter the output and dump it to a CSV or an HTML file.

9: Get-Process

Just as you can use the Get-Service command to display a list of all of the system services, you can use the Get-Process command to display a list of all of the processes that are currently running on the system.

10: Stop-Process

Sometimes, a process will freeze up. When this happens, you can use the Get-Process command to get the name or the process ID for the process that has stopped responding. You can then terminate the process by using the Stop-Process command. You can terminate a process based on its name or on its process ID. For example, you could terminate Notepad by using one of the following commands:

Stop-Process -Name notepad

Stop-Process -ID 2668

Keep in mind that the process ID may change from session to session.

Additional PowerShell resources

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10 ways to keep hard drives from failing

Hardware prices have dropped considerably over the last decade, but it’s irresponsible not to care for the hardware installed on machines. This is especially true for hard drives. Hard drives are precious commodities that hold the data employees use to do their jobs, so they should be given the best of care. Inevitably, those drives will die. But you can take steps to prevent a premature hard disk death. Let’s examine 10 such steps to care for the health of your drives.

Note: This article is also available as a PDF download.

1: Run chkdsk

Hard disks are eventually going to contain errors. These errors can come in the shape of physical problems, software issues, partition table issues, and more. The Windows chkdsk program will attempt to handle any problems, such as bad sectors, lost clusters, cross-linked files, and/or directory errors. These errors can quickly lead to an unbootable drive, which will lead to downtime for the end user. The best way I have found to take advantage of chkdsk is to have it run at next boot with the command chkdsk X: /f where X is the drive you want to check. This command will inform you the disk is locked and will ask you if you want to run chkdsk the next time the system restarts. Select Y to allow this action.

2: Add a monitor

Plenty of applications out there will monitor the health of your drives. These monitors offer a host of features that run the gamut. In my opinion, one of the best choices is the Acronis Drive Monitor, a free tool that will monitor everything from hard drive temperature to percentage of free space (and everything in between). ADM can be set up to send out email alerts if something is amiss on the drive being monitored. Getting these alerts is a simple way to remain proactive in the fight against drive failure.

3: Separate OS install from user data

With the Linux operating system, I almost always separate the user’s home directories (~/) from the OS installation onto different drives. Doing this ensures the drive the OS is installed upon will enjoy less reading/writing because so much of the I/O will happen on the user’s home drive. Doing this will easily extend the life of the drive the OS is installed on, as well as allow you to transfer the user data easily should an OS drive fail.

4: Be careful about the surrounding environment

Although this seems like it should go without saying, it often doesn’t. On a daily basis, I see PCs stuck in tiny cabinets with zero circulation. Obviously, those machines always run hot, thus shortening the lifespan of the internal components. Instead of shoving those machines into tight, unventilated spaces, give them plenty of breathing room. If you must cram a machine into a tight space, at least give it ventilation and even add a fan to pull out that stale, warm air generated by the PC. There’s a reason why so much time and money have gone into PC cooling and why we have things like liquid cooling and powerful cooling systems for data centers.

5: Watch out for static

Here’s another issue that should go without saying. Static electricity is the enemy of computer components. When you handle them, make sure you ground yourself first. This is especially true in the winter months or in areas of drier air. If you seem to get shocked every time you touch something, that’s a good sign that you must use extra caution when handling those drives. This also goes for where you set those drives down. I have actually witnessed users placing drives on stereo speakers, TVs, and other appliances/devices that can give off an electromagnetic wave. Granted, most of these appliances have magnets that are not strong enough to erase a drive. But it’s a chance no one should take.

6: Defragment that drive

A fragmented drive is a drive being pushed to work harder than it should. All hard drives should be used in their most efficient states to avoid excess wear and tear. This includes defragmenting. To be on the safe side, set your PC(s) to automatically defrag on a weekly basis. This works to extend the life of your drive by keeping the file structure more compact, so the read heads are not moving as much or as often.

7: Go with a solid state drive

viagra hearing loss class=”entry” align=”justify”>Solid state drives are, for all intents and purposes, just large flash drives, so they have no moving parts. Without moving parts, the life of the drive (as a whole) is naturally going to be longer than it would if the drive included read heads, platters, and bearings. Although these drives will cost more up front, they will save you money in the long run by offering a longer lifespan. That means less likelihood of drive failure, which will cause downtime as data is recovered and transferred.

8: Take advantage of power save

On nearly every OS, you can configure your hard drive to spin down after a given time. In some older iterations of operating systems, drives would spin 24/7 — which would drastically reduce the lifespan of a drive. By default, Windows 7 uses the Balanced Power Savings plan, which will turn off the hard drive after 20 minutes of inactivity. Even if you change that by a few minutes, you are adding life to your hard drive. Just make sure you don’t shrink that number to the point where your drive is going to sleep frequently throughout the day. If you are prone to take five- to 10-minute breaks often, consider lowering that time to no less than 15 minutes. When the drive goes to sleep, the drive is not spinning. When the drive is not spinning, entropy is not working on that drive as quickly.

9: Tighten those screws

Loose mounting screws (which secure the hard drive to the PC chassis) can cause excessive vibrations. Those vibrations can damage to the platters of a standard hard disk. If you hear vibrations coming from within your PC, open it and make sure the screws securing the drive to the mounting platform are tight. If they aren’t, tighten them. Keeping your hardware nice and tight will help extend the life of that hardware.

10: Back up

Eventually, that drive will fail. No matter how careful you are, no matter how many steps you take to prevent failure, the drive will, in the end, die a painful death. If you have solid backups, at least the transition from one drive to another will be painless. And by using a backup solution such as Acronis Universal Restore, you can transfer a machine image from one piece of hardware to another piece of hardware with very little issue.

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Resolved: How to Keep Your Computer Safe, Clean, and Backed Up in 2011

viagra headache color="#000000">Resolved: How to Keep Your Computer Safe, Clean, and Backed Up in 2011 color="#000000">Resolved: How to Keep Your Computer Safe, Clean, and Backed Up in 2011Those important computer tasks—like securing, cleaning, and backing up—are like any other resolution: we all say we're going to do them but rarely keep up with them all year. Here's our simple guide to staying on track in 2011.

Keeping your computer in good shape gets to be tedious and annoying when you have to try to fit it in to your busy schedule. Rather than letting things slip through the cracks and watch your computer slow to a crawl, fall victim to a nasty virus, or crash and burn with no backups, we've put together everything you need to tackle to stay on top of all your computer maintenance tasks. Here are the four things we're going to look at (feel free to click to skip to any of the sections):

Back Up Automatically

Resolved: How to Keep Your Computer Safe, Clean, and Backed Up in 2011
Backing up our data is something we all know is important but many of us do not do. In the past you might've been able to get away with the excuse of inconvenience, but nowadays it's so effortless that if you're not backing up, you should make it your first order of business for the new year.

A good backup system will duplicate your important data in three places. One of them can be your computer, another can be an external hard drive that you keep in your house, but one of those three places should exist outside of your home. Local backups (like backing up to an external USB drive) protect you if a hard drive dies, but not if your house is robbed, catches fire, or you fall victim to any other incredibly fun disaster you can imagine. While these are rare circumstances, the effects are devastating. Since backup is so easy, there's really no sense in taking the risk. First we'll take a look at backing up to the cloud, which requires essentially no effort at all, and then we'll consider your options for each specific operating system so you can have a local copy on an external drive as well.

Backing Up to the Cloud

Resolved: How to Keep Your Computer Safe, Clean, and Backed Up in 2011As long as your work doesn't consist of serious data creation, I'm of the opinion that you can use Dropbox for all your backup needs, especially now that it includes selective sync. I used Dropbox toorganize my home folder and sync my iTunes library to multiple computers and it works great. While Dropbox can take care of just about everything I want backed up and synced, it can't handle your applications and system files without causing problems. Also, for reasons I don't entirely understand (aside from the cost), not everyone wants to keep the majority of their stuff in their Dropbox. So, for those of you who aren't sold on Dropbox being the golden egg of cloud backup, your other best bet for off-site backup is Mozy.

Resolved: How to Keep Your Computer Safe, Clean, and Backed Up in 2011Mozy has become a Lifehacker favorite, especially with the speed boosts and its ability to also back up to external drives. In fact, its external drive backup options make it a cross-platform tool that can pretty much handle every one of your backup needs (cloud + local drive). While I wasn't in love with Mozy when it first came about, it's now considerably faster than it was in its early days and can handle everything from one application. That's pretty tough to beat. For a full walkthrough, check out our guide to setting up a foolproof and fireproof automatic backup plan with Mozy.

Backing Up to a Local Drive

NOTE: While we're not going to get picky about the brand of drive you use, make sure you get one that's a bit bigger than your computer's drive if you want to save multiple backups.

While Mozy can back up to an external drive nicely, you may prefer a backup tool with a larger feature-set that's more tailored to your operating system. Fortunately, there is no shortage of backup software available for every operating system. We've narrowed down the pool and have a few options for Windows, Mac OS X, and Linux, that should cover all your local backup needs.


Resolved: How to Keep Your Computer Safe, Clean, and Backed Up in 2011Built into Windows 7 is the Backup and Restore Center, which Microsoft debuted in Windows Vista and has since improved in Windows 7. While it'll take more than a few clicks to set up, you're given a good number of options to control how your data is backed up. You can choose what you want to backup, where you want to back it up (including network locations), and how often you want the backup to occur. While it may not be the perfect solution for all users, it's built into Windows and pretty easy to set up.

Alternatively, you have the classic SyncBack. The SE version is free but you can pay for additional features. Nearly five years ago, Gina used SyncBack SE to set up an automatic backup plan that still works today. If Windows Backup Center doesn't quite cut it for you, SyncBack SE is a great alternative.

Mac OS X

Resolved: How to Keep Your Computer Safe, Clean, and Backed Up in 2011One nice feature of Mac OS X 10.5 and 10.6 is Time Machine, which lets you plug in a drive and just back up with no effort at all. Once it has a full copy of all your data, it will only backup the files that have changed since that original copy was made. If you want a file you lost, you can activate Time Machine and go back in time to retrieve an earlier copy of that file. Your Time Machine backup drive can also be used to restore lost data and set up a brand new Mac with all your files.

Time Machine pretty much does what it wants to do and that's that, so if you're looking for more control I'd suggest picking up Carbon Copy Cloner. It's a free backup utility that makes a bootable copy of your drive (which Time Machine does not). I use it all the time and love it. It can be as simple as selecting the drive you want to copy, but you can also selectively copy certain files. Carbon Copy Cloner is very straightforward backup software, so you're not going to find the bells and whistles you might with paid software, but if you want something simple that also offers quite a bit of control over your backup, it's an ideal choice.


For easy backups on Linux machines, Back In Time is a good solution. You can get your backup plan set up pretty quickly, and it backs up using space-saving snapshots (much like Apple's Time Machine). As far as Linux backup apps go, it's pretty easy to understand and runs great on GNOME and KDE-based Linux systems.

Secure Your Computer and Your Life Online

Resolved: How to Keep Your Computer Safe, Clean, and Backed Up in 2011
There are a number of ways your computer can get into trouble. Whether you're dealing with viruses, online threats, or physical theft, here are some great tools to help keep you safe.

Antivirus Software

Resolved: How to Keep Your Computer Safe, Clean, and Backed Up in 2011
For Windows, however, you don't have to look much further than Microsoft Security Essentials. There once was a day when relying on third-party antivirus software was necessary, but Microsoft put those days behind us. MSE is great at ferreting out malware, performs very well, and is free. Mac OS X and Linux users generally don't have to worry too much about viruses, so you get a pass on antivirus software. But you don't get a pass on the next category.

Online Security

Resolved: How to Keep Your Computer Safe, Clean, and Backed Up in 2011
We've take a pretty extensive look at how to stay secure online, so read through that and you should be in pretty good shape. Additionally, you'll want to take a look at how to combat spam email, learn how to prevent someone from breaking into your Mac or Windows PC, and invade your own privacy to make sure your private information is secure.

Preventing (and Preparing for) Computer Theft

Resolved: How to Keep Your Computer Safe, Clean, and Backed Up in 2011Prey is a wonderful, free, open-source tool that can help you track down and (potentially) recover your stolen Mac, Windows PC, or smartphone. If you're like me and you've had your laptop stolen before, you know how devastating it can be. When you lose technology with personal data, the thief doesn't only have access to your expensive hardware but a lot of information about you as well. Coming to this realization is not fun, so be smart and take the necessary steps to protect yourself from a potential theft.

For those of you with iPhones (or other iOS devices), you're lucky enough to have free access to find my iPhone. Set it up and use it! If you're don't have a recent iOS device, we've got you covered. Here's how to set up Find My iPhone on older iOS devices.

Run Regular Maintenance

Resolved: How to Keep Your Computer Safe, Clean, and Backed Up in 2011With your data backed up and protected, you're going to want a computer that runs smoothly. Performing regular maintenance can play a big role in keeping your machine in tip-top shape. Mac OS X and Windows 7/Vista will take care of defragmenting your drive for you—so no need to take care of it yourself—but if you're running earlier versions of Windows you should check out our guides on setting up a self-repairing hard drive and setting up scheduled tasks to run your favorite cleaning tasks in the background. If you're a fan of CCleaner (the all-in-one crap cleaner for Windows), check out this guide to automating your CCleaner sessions.

For Mac users, maintenance tasks are regularly scheduled by OS X and so, technically, you don't have to do anything yourself. Nonetheless, it's in your best interest to play a hand in your system's upkeep. If you want a look at every possible option you have, definitely check out our guide on cleaning up and reviving your bloated, sluggish Mac. Alternatively, if you want to do a bit less, you can just schedule maintenance tasks in the Terminal and repair disk permissions. If you're not familiar with repairing your disk permissions, all you have to do is go into your Applications —> Utilities folder and open up Disk Utility. Inside of Disk Utility, choose the First Aid tab and then click the Repair Disk Permissions button. It'll take a few minutes and slow down the system a bit, but running this operation will help prevent little errors here and there. Running this once a month (and after any major software installation) will keep your Mac a bit happier and less prone to preventable issues.

Last, if you have a bad habit of letting your Downloads folder or Desktop get out of control, check out our guide to automatically cleaning and organizing your folders with Belvedere (or with Hazel if you're on a Mac).

Create a Tidy, Attractive Desktop

Resolved: How to Keep Your Computer Safe, Clean, and Backed Up in 2011
Once your computer is backed up, safe, clean, and running smoothly, you ought to finish up with a little fun. Your machine is, ultimately, going to be more fun to use if it's easy to navigate and looks just the way you want it to look. We've taken an extensive look at customizing your desktop, so be sure to check out those options to take on some serious customizations. Need inspiration? Check out our most popular featured desktops from 2010. If you're just looking for some simple customizations, however, you can find some excellent, distraction-free wallpaper over at Simple Desktops and great free icons at the Iconfactory.

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An Introduction to Net Neutrality: What It Is, What It Means for You, and What You Can Do About It

An Introduction to Net Neutrality: What It Is, What It Means for You, and What You Can Do About It

We've dropped the net neutrality term around here a few times, but you may not entirely understand what it's all about. Here's a primer on what net neutrality is, how it might affect you, and what you can do about it.

An Introduction to Net Neutrality: What It Is, What It Means for You, and What You Can Do About It Photo remixed from an original by The Local People Photo Archive

What is Net Neutrality?

As its name indicates, net neutrality is about creating a neutral internet. The basic principle driving net neutrality is that the internet should be a free and open platform, almost like any other utility we use in our home (like electricity). Users should be able to use their bandwidth however they want (as long as it's legal), and internet service providers should not be able to provide priority service to any corner of the internet. Every web site (whether it's Google, Netflix, Amazon, or UnknownStartup.com) should all be treated the same when it comes to giving users the bandwidth to reach the internet-connected services they prefer. Your electric company has no say over how you use your electricity—they only get to charge you for providing the electricity. Net neutrality aims to do something similar with your internet pipes.

Those against net neutrality—commonly including internet service providers (ISPs), like Comcast or AT&T—believe that, as providers of internet access, they should be able to distribute bandwidth differently depending on the service. They'd prefer, for example, to create tiers of internet service that's more about paying for priority access than for bandwidth speeds. As such, in theory, they could charge high-bandwidth services—like Netflix, for example—extra money, since their service costs more for Comcast to provide to its customers—or they could charge users, like you and me, extra to access Netflix. They can also provide certain services to you at different speeds. For example, perhaps your ISP might give preferential treatment to Hulu, so it streams Hulu videos quickly and for free, while Netflix is stuck running slowly (or we have to pay extra to access it).

What are the Arguments For Net Neutrality?

Proponents of net neutrality don't want to give the ISPs too much power because it could easily be abused. Imagine that Verizon or AT&T don't like the idea of Google Voice, because it allows you to send text messages for free using your data connection. Your cellphone carrier could block access to Google Voice from your smartphone so you're forced to pay for a texting plan from them. Or, they see that a lot of people are using Facebook on their smartphone, so even if they have the bandwidth to carry that traffic, they decide to charge you extra to access Facebook, just because they know it's in high demand and that they can make a profit.

An Introduction to Net Neutrality: What It Is, What It Means for You, and What You Can Do About It

Image via Reddit. Hit the link for the full image.

Similarly, Comcast recently got in a tiff with Netflix over its streaming video offerings, essentially telling Netflix's partners that they'd need to pay if they wanted their content delivered on their network. Comcast argued that streaming Netflix is a huge traffic burden, and if they're going to provide that service they'll need to update their infrastructure. Netflix's argument was that Comcast provides the internet, and it's Comcasts users that have requested that extra bandwidth for the services they want.

Another way to look at it: Comcast also has their own On Demand service which directly competes with Netflix—and if Comcast is allowed to divide up their service as they please, the option to give preferential treatment to their own service isn't exactly fair just because they're the internet provider. And, with Comcast and NBC looking to merge, the waters can get even murkier. The resulting superpower could give preference to all of NBC's content too, thus leaving other content providers out in the cold.

An Introduction to Net Neutrality: What It Is, What It Means for You, and What You Can Do About It

Another problem here is that while big services like Netflix could, in theory, afford to pay Comcast for using extra bandwidth, the small, lesser-known services—that could be big one day but aren't yet—can't. Really great web sites or internet services might never gain popularity merely because ISPs would have control over what kind of access users like you and me have to that service. That could greatly stifle viagra for women information innovation, and we'd likely miss out on a lot of cool new services.

What are the Arguments Against Net Neutrality?

Anti-net neutrality activists argue that internet service providers have a right to distribute their network differently among services, and that in fact, it's the ISPs that are innovating. They argue that giving preferential treatment to different services isn't a bad thing; in fact, sometimes it's necessary. In the recent Comcast/Netflix debate, they point out that if Netflix is sucking up all their bandwidth, they should be the ones to pay for the necessary updates that Comcast's systems will require because of it.

Many free market proponents are also against the idea of net neutrality, noting that Comcast and AT&T are companies like any other that should be able to compete freely, without government regulation. They themselves aren't "the internet"—they're merely a gateway the internet, and if they're each allowed to manage their networks differently, you're more likely to have competition between service providers which ultimately, they claim, is better for the users. If you don't like the fact that Netflix is slower on Comcast than it is on AT&T, you can switch to AT&T.

The problem, however, is still that ISPs could always favor their own services over others, leaving services with no connection to the ISP out in the cold. Furthermore, most people don't have much choice in who their ISP is, since in any given location there may be only one or two ISPs providing internet.

An Introduction to Net Neutrality: What It Is, What It Means for You, and What You Can Do About It

What are the Current Laws?

The Federal Communications Comission (FCC) released a new set of net neutrality rules on December 21, 2010 for internet service providers. Here's the state of net neutrality regulation as of right now:


An Introduction to Net Neutrality: What It Is, What It Means for You, and What You Can Do About It

First and foremost, the FCC requires that ISPs publicly disclose all their network management practices, so that users can make informed decisions when purchasing internet service. That means they'd have to say what speeds it offers, what types of applications would work over that speed, how it inspects traffic, and so on. It does not necessarily mean that those disclosures will be understandable by non-tech savvy individuals—in fact, we've already seen how ISPs try to spin their "what you'll get" charts to you purchase the most expensive internet (see the misleading image above)—so this rule doesn't necessarily mean a lot to the average consumer.

No Blocking or Unreasonable Discrimination for Wired Internet

An Introduction to Net Neutrality: What It Is, What It Means for You, and What You Can Do About ItWired ISPs—that is, providers of the internet in your home—are not allowed to outright block any legal web content, applications, or services. The FCC also notes that they aren't allowed to slow down traffic either, as this often renders a service unusable and thus is no different from outright blocking. For example, Comcast has always throttled BitTorrent downloads, but it didn't block them completely—it just slowed them down to a crawl. Under these new rules, that wouldn't be allowed either. Photo by Kelly Teague.

The new rules also do not allow wired ISPs to discriminate against legal network traffic. This means that Comcast cannot, in fact, discriminate against competitive services like Netflix or stifle free speech (by, say, discriminating against political outlets that have views different from the ISP or its parent company).

Your Smartphone Doesn't Count

Mobile ISPs, on the other hand, are not subject to the same rules. The FCC believes mobile broadband—that is, the data plan you have on your cellphone—is still young enough that it may need heavier network management than wired broadband. As such, they haven't made any broad net neutrality rules as of yet. Mobile ISPs are still prohibited from blocking services on the web that compete directly with their own, but they can continue to discriminate—which means that at any given point, you could find an internet service blocked or deliberately slowed down when accessing it from your smartphone. Furthermore, if the ISPs so choose, they could charge you extra to access certain services, like Facebook or Netflix. App stores are exempt from these rules, so the App Store and Android Market can be as closed as they want to be. So, if Apple decided that they no longer wanted Google Voice to be available in the App Store, they could remove it—even though it's a service that directly competes with AT&T.

An Introduction to Net Neutrality: What It Is, What It Means for You, and What You Can Do About It

Photo by David Fulmer.

The other group exempt from the rules are managed services—services that companies pay extra for, and thus require a higher level of service. A good example is AT&T's IPTV service—they provide television and on demand services through the internet instead of over cable or radio frequencies, and they dedicate a certain amount of their bandwidth for just those services, leaving less bandwidth for everything else. Again, this isn't intrinsically bad, but giving ISPs unlimited power to do this can lead to dangerous territory.

So Why the Fuss?

The rules as I've laid them out above offer a pretty condensed summary of the main points in the FCC's latest release, and while they seem like a big step forward (namely the neutrality rules in place for wired connections), a lot of net neutrality proponents are still unhappy. The exception for mobile broadband is a pretty big complaint, as are the exceptions for managed services. A lot of folks also argue that loopholes abound in the new rules, like the fact that all the rules are subject to "reasonable network management", which isn't very well defined. To be fair, neither side is happy with the current rules—which is to be expected in such a heavily debated issue. Proponents think the rules aren't strict enough and that the ISPs have gotten "exactly what they wanted", while the anti-net neutrality camp think that the internet companies are being too heavily regulated.

In the end, it's all about the control you, as a user, have over how you use the internet. While net neutrality's opponents argue that tiered service creates more control for the user, most of us don't see it that way—we'd like to be able to access all internet services equally, instead of having certain services given preferential treatment. After the passing of these rules, the wired internet in our homes is a bit safer, but the internet we access from our smartphones isn't. ISPs could still block, discriminate against, or charge extra for web sites and services we get on-the-go, taking control out of your hands.

If you really want to argue about the finer points, you'll want to dig into the actual FCC release, as this or any other summary isn't going to provide the nuances and specifics nearly well enough. But in general, this should give you a good idea of where we are now.

What Can I Do to Get Involved?

An Introduction to Net Neutrality: What It Is, What It Means for You, and What You Can Do About It

If you're reading this and foaming at the mouth in anger, there are a few things you can do. The FCC has a complaint system set up for citizens to voice their issues on communications-related topics.

Submit an Informal Complaint

Submitting an informal complaint is easy, as it's all done online, and anyone can do it. Right now, the form isn't exactly friendly—there don't seem to be any specific sections about the new net neutrality rules—but the FCC says they'll be making resources available for net neutrality-specific complaints. For now, Ars Technica recommends hitting "Internet Service and VoIP", then heading to "Billing, Service, Availability" and going to the online form from there.

Submit a Formal Complaint

End users can't submit formal complaints, but if you're a company or public interest group that's very concerned about the new rules (and you've got $200 to spend on the filing fee), you can file a formal complaint, which is often like a court hearing. You'll probably need a lawyer, and for most of us, the informal route is the best bet. But Ars has more information on formal complaints if you're interested.

Spread the Word

Net neutrality's a complicated issue, and a lot of people still aren't informed about what's going on. Explain the issue to your friends and family—the more people know about it, the more people that might be affected and might speak out. You can also check out each side's respective organization, SavetheInternet.com for pro-net neutrality voices and HandsOff.org for anti-net neutrality voices. They've each got a ton of links to other ways you can talk to your congresspeople, write letters and sign petitions to make your voice heard.

We here at Lifehacker are open supporters of net neutrality, but we know it's a very hot-button issue, and many of you probably have your own opinions on the subject—whether you agree with us or not. So let's get some discussion started in the comments below.

Send an email to Whitson Gordon, the author of this post, at whitson@lifehacker.com

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