Porn VPN Searches Soar In Utah Amid Age Verification Bill

Internet users are turning to VPN services as a means to circumvent Utah’s new law requiring porn sites to verify users’ ages. The spike in VPN searches appears to be directly related to Pornhub’s decision on Tuesday to completely disable its websites for people living in the state. TechRadar reports: Google searches for virtual private networks (VPNs) have been skyrocketing since, with a peak registered on May 3, the day the new law came into force. By downloading a VPN service, pornography fans will be able to keep accessing Pornhub and similar sites with ease. That’s because a virtual private network is security software able to spoof users’ IP address (digital location and device identifier). Hence a surge of interest in VPNs across Utah as people will simply need to connect to a server located in a US state or foreign country where the restriction isn’t yet enforced.

“Utah’s age-verification law shows a worrying trend to further restrict digital freedoms and disregard data privacy across the US,” said a spokesperson of secure VPN provider Private Internet Access (PIA). “Private Internet Access is a long-time advocate of greater digital privacy, and we urge lawmakers to consider other ways of protecting children online, including education, guidance from parents, and open conversations about safe internet usage, rather than relying on increasingly intrusive digital regulations which disregard people’s privacy and online freedom.” You can see the spike in “virtual private network” searches via Google Trends.

“Search queries for VPN were at peak popularity in Utah just before 4 a.m. EST Tuesday, according to the trends data,” notes Newsweek. “Other related queries in the past week include searches for VPN extensions like Hola and Fox Speed.”

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The New US-China Proxy War Over Undersea Internet Cables

400 undersea cables carry 95% of the world’s international internet traffic, reports Reuters (citing figures from Washington-based telecommunications research firm TeleGeography).

But now there’s “a growing proxy war between the United States and China over technologies that could determine who achieves economic and military dominance for decades to come.”

In February, American subsea cable company SubCom LLC began laying a $600-million cable to transport data from Asia to Europe, via Africa and the Middle East, at super-fast speeds over 12,000 miles of fiber running along the seafloor. That cable is known as South East Asia-Middle East-Western Europe 6, or SeaMeWe-6 for short. It will connect a dozen countries as it snakes its way from Singapore to France, crossing three seas and the Indian Ocean on the way. It is slated to be finished in 2025.

It was a project that slipped through China’s fingers….

The Singapore-to-France cable would have been HMN Tech’s biggest such project to date, cementing it as the world’s fastest-rising subsea cable builder, and extending the global reach of the three Chinese telecom firms that had intended to invest in it. But the U.S. government, concerned about the potential for Chinese spying on these sensitive communications cables, ran a successful campaign to flip the contract to SubCom through incentives and pressure on consortium members…. It’s one of at least six private undersea cable deals in the Asia-Pacific region over the past four years where the U.S. government either intervened to keep HMN Tech from winning that business, or forced the rerouting or abandonment of cables that would have directly linked U.S. and Chinese territories….

Justin Sherman, a fellow at the Cyber Statecraft Initiative of the Atlantic Council, a Washington-based think tank, told Reuters that undersea cables were “a surveillance gold mine” for the world’s intelligence agencies. “When we talk about U.S.-China tech competition, when we talk about espionage and the capture of data, submarine cables are involved in every aspect of those rising geopolitical tensions,” Sherman said.

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Belkin’s Smart Home Brand Wemo Is Backing Away From Matter

Wemo, Belkin’s smart home company, has paused development of Matter smart home devices. The Verge reports: In an email exchange, Jen Wei, Vice President of Global Communications and Corporate Development at Belkin, confirmed that, while the company remains convinced that “Matter will have a significantly positive impact on the smart home industry,” it has decided to “take a big step back, regroup, and rethink” its approach to the smart home. Wei went on to write that Wemo will bring new Matter products to market when it can find a way to differentiate them. It seems like Wemo might be concerned its smart home gear is becoming commoditized.

During CES 2022, Wemo announced it would bring Thread-compatible, Matter-compliant products to market when that new standard officially arrived. At the time, it was expected that the new connectivity standard, which promised to once and for all tear down the walls that have sequestered ecosystems away from one another, would launch in the middle of 2022 after two years of frustrating delays — but Matter was again pushed back. As the year wore on, Wemo indeed updated a product to use Thread, the primary wireless protocol beneath the Matter standard that enables Wi-Fi-free local control of smart devices, and released a new Thread-compatible smart dimmer. Curiously, none of the new products — a light switch, dimmer switch, plug, and a stick-on-the-wall three-button scene controller — are slated for future Matter support. With the news, Wemo is tapping the brakes on Matter. And we probably won’t get those updated versions it announced last year, either.

While the existing Thread devices from Wemo come with many of the important benefits of Matter — exclusively local control with no direct access to your home network, fast operation, and easy setup that cuts out your Wi-Fi router as the middleman — they lack the most crucial feature, the central problem Matter is to solve: near-universal smart home platform compatibility. These Thread devices only work with Apple HomeKit. But it’s pretty hard for companies like Wemo to stand out in a field full of cheap IoT junk that costs half the price to do the same thing, as far as most normal people are concerned. Sure, maybe they’re less secure, but many people willingly put an internet-connected microphone in their home, too. They probably don’t care about the possible security issues with their light switch.

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ADHD Startups Are Exploding, and Now There’s Even a Dedicated Browser

Mike Butcher writes via TechCrunch: SidekickWas it the pandemic? Did everyone follow too many ADHD TikTokers? Have smartphones fried our brains? Whatever the case, there is a boom in ADHD tech solutions, from online drug deliveries to web sites and apps. […] Now there is a Sidekick, who’s pitch is that it’s a “productivity browser.” Today it’s launching a host of features geared to ADHD sufferers and the attention distracted more generally. The company claims users with ADHD noticed a “significant improvement” after using the browser. The Chromium-based browser was founded by Dmitry Pushkarev (a Stanford PhD in Molecular Biology, ex-Amazon exec and ADHDer).

So how does it work? To nullify distractions, the browser incorporates AdBlock 2.0; a Focus Mode Timer disables all sounds, badges and notifications for a selected time or indefinitely; a Task Manager organizes your day; and there’s a built-in Pomodoro timer; it also claims to run 3x faster than Chrome, which, apparently, is important for ADHD sufferers. Suffice it to say, it has a number of other distraction-killing features; however, I’m not going to list them all here.

CEO and founder Dmitry Pushkarev said, in a statement, “Modern browsers are not designed for work, but for consuming web pages. This gap really hurts hundreds of millions of users. We are convinced that lowering web distraction reduces anxiety and increases the quality of people’s work and the quality of their lives.” He says the startup plans to make money via corporate subscribers, who will pay to get their ADHD-afflicted workers into a more productive mode.

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Sued by Meta, Freenom Halts Domain Registrations

The domain name registrar Freenom, whose free domain names have long been a draw for spammers and phishers, has stopped allowing new domain name registrations. KrebsOnSecurity reports: Freenom is the domain name registry service provider for five so-called “country code top level domains” (ccTLDs), including .cf for the Central African Republic; .ga for Gabon; .gq for Equatorial Guinea; .ml for Mali; and .tk for Tokelau. Freenom has always waived the registration fees for domains in these country-code domains, presumably as a way to encourage users to pay for related services, such as registering a .com or .net domain, for which Freenom does charge a fee. On March 3, 2023, social media giant Meta sued Freenom in a Northern California court, alleging cybersquatting violations and trademark infringement. The lawsuit also seeks information about the identities of 20 different “John Does” — Freenom customers that Meta says have been particularly active in phishing attacks against Facebook, Instagram, and WhatsApp users. The lawsuit points to a 2021 study (PDF) on the abuse of domains conducted for the European Commission, which discovered that those ccTLDs operated by Freenom made up five of the Top Ten TLDs most abused by phishers.

“The five ccTLDs to which Freenom provides its services are the TLDs of choice for cybercriminals because Freenom provides free domain name registration services and shields its customers’ identity, even after being presented with evidence that the domain names are being used for illegal purposes,” the complaint charges. “Even after receiving notices of infringement or phishing by its customers, Freenom continues to license new infringing domain names to those same customers.” Freenom has not yet responded to requests for comment. But attempts to register a domain through the company’s website as of publication time generated an error message that reads: “Because of technical issues the Freenom application for new registrations is temporarily out-of-order. Please accept our apologies for the inconvenience. We are working on a solution and hope to resume operations shortly. Thank you for your understanding.” Although Freenom is based in The Netherlands, some of its other sister companies named as defendants in the lawsuit names are incorporated in the United States.

It remains unclear why Freenom has stopped allowing domain registration, but it could be that the company was recently the subject of some kind of disciplinary action by the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), the nonprofit entity which oversees the domain registrars. In June 2015, ICANN suspended Freenom’s ability to create new domain names or initiate inbound transfers of domain names for 90 days. According to Meta, the suspension was premised on ICANN’s determination that Freenom “has engaged in a pattern and practice of trafficking in or use of domain names identical or confusingly similar to a trademark or service mark of a third party in which the Registered Name Holder has no rights or legitimate interest.”

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Kaspersky To Kill Its VPN Service In Russia Next Week

Kaspersky is stopping the operation and sales of its VPN product, Kaspersky Secure Connection, in the Russian Federation, with the free version to be suspended as early as November 15, 2022. BleepingComputer reports: As the Moscow-based company informed on its Russian blog earlier this week, the shutdown of the VPN service will be staged, so that impact on customers remains minimal. Purchases of the paid version of Kaspersky Secure Connection will remain available on both the official website and mobile app stores until December 2022. Customers with active subscriptions will continue to enjoy the product’s VPN service until the end of the paid period, which cannot go beyond the end of 2023 (one-year subscription).
Russian-based users of the free version of Kaspersky Secure Connection will not be able to continue using the product after November 15, 2022, so they will have to seek alternatives. BleepingComputer emailed Kaspersky questions regarding its decision to stop offering VPN products in Russia, but a spokesperson has declined to provide more information. Russia’s telecommunications watchdog, Roskomnadzor, announced VPN bans in June 2021 and then again in December 2021. “The reason for banning 15 VPNs in the country was because their vendors refused to connect their services to the FGIS database, which would apply government-imposed censorship in VPN connections, and would also make user traffic and identity subject to state scrutiny,” reports BleepingComputer.

“Ever-increasing controls are strangling VPN usage in Russia. On Tuesday, the Ministry of Digital Transformation requested all state-owned companies to declare what VPN products they use, for what purposes, and in what locations.”

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Comcast’s New Higher Upload Speeds Require $25-Per-Month xFi Complete Add-On

The availability of Comcast’s promised internet speed boosts has a catch: users need to purchase a $25-per-month xFi Complete add-on. Ars Technica reports: “As markets launch, Xfinity Internet customers who subscribe to xFi Complete will have their upload speeds increased between 5 and 10 times faster,” an announcement last week said. “xFi Complete includes an xFi gateway, advanced cybersecurity protection at home and on the go, tech auto-upgrades for a new gateway after three years, and wall-to-wall Wi-Fi coverage with an xFi Pod [Wi-Fi extender] included if recommended. Now, another benefit of xFi Complete is faster upload speeds.”

Comcast is deploying the speed upgrade in the Northeast US over the next couple of months. Plans with 10Mbps upload speeds will get up to 100Mbps upload speeds once the new tiers roll out in your region — if you pay for xFi Complete. Comcast told Ars that faster upload speeds will come to customer-owned modems “later next year” but did not provide a more specific timeline. There is a cheaper way to get the same xFi Gateway with Wi-Fi 6E, as Comcast offers the option to rent that piece of hardware for $14 a month. But Comcast is only making the upload boost available to those who subscribe to the pricier xFi Complete service. While the standard monthly rate for xFi Complete is $25, new customers who sign up by December 31 can get it for $20 monthly during the first year of service.

We asked Comcast today if there’s any technical reason it can’t deliver the higher upload speeds on customer-owned equipment. A company spokesperson responded that Comcast is working on bringing faster uploads to non-Comcast modems. “We intend to extend the experience to customer-owned modems later next year and are working through the technical requirements as we learn,” Comcast said. “We started offering it with our own equipment first and now are working through how to extend to customer-owned equipment.” Comcast also said that giving the upload boost to xFi Complete customers first follows its “typical validate, test, and certification process for a new network innovation.” But if the reasons for limiting the upload boost to Comcast hardware initially are purely technical instead of revenue-based, it’s not clear why people who rent the gateway for $14 a month shouldn’t get the same benefit.

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Two-Year Internet Outage In Ethiopia Continues

Zecharias Zelalem writes via Reuters: Few have been spared the effects of a nearly two-year internet and phone shutdown in Ethiopia’s northern Tigray region, which has been cut off since fighting erupted between Tigrayan rebels and government forces in November 2020. The conflict resumed last month after a months-long humanitarian truce, dashing hopes for communications to be restored. Even the head of the World Health Organization (WHO) Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, who hails from Tigray, said he had been unable to reach his relatives back home, or send them money. “I don’t know even who is dead or who is alive,” Tedros told a recent news conference in London.

As fighting continues in Tigray and elsewhere in Ethiopia, the government of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed says shutdowns are needed to curb violence, but critics accuse authorities of using the internet as a weapon of war. “Access to communications and other basic services, and most importantly humanitarian assistance, is explicitly used as a bargaining chip by the Ethiopian government,” said Goitom Gebreluel, a political analyst specialising in Horn of Africa affairs. “It is used as leverage against both Tigray and the international community.” In Ethiopia, sporadic internet and phone blackouts have been used as “a weapon to control and censor information,” the group said, making it difficult for journalists and activists to document alleged rights crimes, and for aid to be delivered.

In Tigray’s regional capital, Mekelle, emergency workarounds such as satellite phones have become a vital tool for aid agency operations. The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) also maintains a satellite phone service for local residents — giving them a way to get a message to loved ones. So far this year, the ICRC has facilitated some 116,000 phone calls and oral messages “between family members separated by conflict and violence,” said spokesperson Alyona Synenko. With almost half of the region’s six million people in severe need of food, the shutdown as well as road blockades have hampered humanitarian aid deliveries, according to the U.N. World Food Program. The lack of mobile phone networks has also “crippled both the emergency and regular health monitoring systems,” a WHO spokesperson said in emailed remarks. The only way to communicate is “via paper reports that need to be delivered by hand. All meetings have to be held in person.”

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