A reporter just asked me what I thought of the — to put it mildly — controversial new terms of service at Instagram. Here’s what I said:

First, this is a Facebook issue, since Facebook owns Instagram. The coverage of this has tended to ignore or downplay that fact.

Second, Facebook has a long record of treating users’ rights and privacy in unfortunate ways. It doesn’t surprise me that they’re doing it again. I would expect, in the next few days, to see Facebook/Instagram follow the standard FB playbook: Take one step back, having taken three steps forward, and call it “listening to our users”.

Third, a user of the Instagram app should not have to make a choice of either accepting such sweeping terms or quitting the service altogether. (I use neither Facebook nor Instagram at this point.)

Fourth, this is a clear example of why we should be willing to pay for some software and services. I want to be a customer, not a product, and I’m willing to pay for that — but increasingly I’m not given that opportunity.

Finally, this is a great opportunity for Flickr or other photo services to create a more user-friendly ToS, and lure people away from the sites that don’t.

The Mac I’m using today — without question the best computer I’ve ever owned — is almost certainly my last Mac.

This machine is a Macbook Air, a 13-inch model that came out last year. It is a stunningly fine combination of size, style and power. And Mac OS X 10.6 “Snow Leopard” is a terrific operating system. I’ve customized it for my needs, and have truly enjoyed using it.

Because so much of my work depends on having a reliable and up-to-date computer, I buy a new one each year, using the older one as a backup in case of trouble with the newer machine. In recent years, that has meant owning two roughly equivalent Macs.

The latest Macbook Air went on sale this week. As is always the case with technology, it’s even more powerful than the one I have. I crave it. I won’t buy it.

Here’s the key issue: Not only does the new model come with OS X Lion installed, it will not run Snow Leopard at all. 

Lion is far too new for me to trust as my primary OS. And it is a radical departure — so radical in key ways that I can’t imagine _ever_ trusting it.

The hardware issue is entirely Apple’s choice. On these new Macbook Airs, using Parallels or VMWare Fusion, I could install any version of Windows or Linux on the new Air, and they’d run, provided there was support for the hardware. The only gotcha, for the moment, would be the Thunderbolt port. I assume Windows and popular Linux distributions, even older versions, will add support (if they haven’t already). But Apple’s policy is to make it impossible to run earlier Mac OS versions on its new machines, period. If there turns out to be a way to install Snow Lion in a partition, that might help, but I see no sign of that in the research I’ve done.

This wouldn’t be a big issue if I liked Lion more. Some of the changes look terrific, based on reviews. Others are more questionable, even though they’re designed to create a more modern structure — in itself a worthy objective but not when forced on users who have become accustomed to perfectly workable earlier methods.

Still other changes, however, are plainly designed to push Mac users into a more iPad/iPhone-like ecosystem, where Apple gives you permission to use the computers you buy in only the ways Apple considers appropriate. The writing has been on Apple’s wall for some time. It’s aiming for absolute authority over the ecosystem in which all its devices operate. Given the well-chronicled consequences of the company’s control-freakery in the iOS ecosystem, which is being merged with the Mac, that’s unacceptable — to me, at any rate, even if it’s just fine with everyone else.

For the past year, I’d been slowly working to move my desktop/laptop computing over to Linux in any case. It’s slow going for a lot of reasons, not least of which is my inability to replace several must-have tools, notably sparse disk image bundles and several superb applications I use for my blogging and other media creation.

In most ways, Ubuntu runs nicely on the new ThinkPad 220, a computer that is probably the best in its class. Yet I often feel about the experience the way I used to feel about the Windows-Mac comparison that’s held true for so many years: It tends to get in your way, while the Mac tends to get out of your way.

By rejecting its past so thoroughly — a proud history of creating devices that we users could modify for our own purposes with no one’s permission but our own — Apple is forcing me to move on.

The drumbeat of privacy debacles gets louder every week. But how can we fight back? It’s not easy, but the one bit of leverage we do have is our willingness to do business with the violators.

Sony is responsible for the worst recent database incursion, with its PlayStation network severely compromised. The company now admits, after a bizarre delay, that all kinds of sensitive user data, possibly including credit-card numbers and, most likely, even answers to security questions, is in the hands of criminals.

Meanwhile, Apple took its time even acknowledging what security experts had found to be problematic storage of users’ location data on the phones and the desktop computers to which they must be tethered for updates and backups. Steve Jobs’ current statements don’t fully square with what the company has said before, the Wall Street Journal reports, and Apple’s insistence that software “bugs” were responsible for much of the situation fails the smell test. As Gizmodo noted in its typically way, Apple’s PR-driven Q&A says, essentially, “We’re not tracking your location, we’re just tracking your location!”

I’m no longer a customer of either Sony or any Apple iOS products — largely because I disapprove of those companies’ control-freak tendencies — so I have no power to influence them by taking my dollars elsewhere. I hope their customers will consider making this kind of decision, and explain why if they do.

I did have that power with one of the companies caught up in yet another notable data breach in the last few weeks. Chase Bank issued one of my credit cards, and I have a small checking account there. In an April 6 email, Chase wrote:

Chase is letting our customers know that we have been informed by Epsilon, a vendor we use to send e-mails, that an unauthorized person outside Epsilon accessed files that included e-mail addresses of some Chase customers.  We have a team at Epsilon investigating and we are confident that the information that was retrieved included some Chase customer e-mail addresses, but did not include any customer account or financial information.  Based on everything we know, your accounts and confidential information remain secure.  As always, we are advising our customers of everything we know as we know it, and will keep you informed on what impact, if any, this will have on you.

We apologize if this causes you any inconvenience.  We want to remind you that Chase will never ask for your personal information or login credentials in an e-mail.  As always, be cautious if you receive e-mails 
asking for your personal information and be on the lookout for unwanted spam.  It is not Chase’s practice to request personal information by e-mail.

Such bland assurances are absurd. This is more than an inconvenience; for many customers it will be a big problem. When the bad guys have your email address and know what companies you do business with, they are eager to go phishing — that is, to pretend to be that company and lure you into a trap.

I’m not Epsilon’s customer. Chase is the customer, and that gave me limited leverage. But I had this much:

Using the messaging system on Chase’s customer-accounts website, I asked the bank’s customer support the following question:

My question is this: Does Chase plan to continue using Epsilon for these services? If so, I will be canceling my Chase accounts and moving them to institutions that take their customers privacy more seriously.

Chase initially responded with boilerplate informing me that it takes privacy “very seriously” — standard language that means nothing. I wrote back, saying that the reply was non-responsive and that I did want an answer.

Some days later, a Chase employee called. I asked again, did the bank intend to keep doing business with Epsilon? The employee said that Chase had “suspended” its use of Epsilon services while it investigated the hacking.

Even the suspension is suspect. I also asked how I would know if Chase was using this email provider again. I’d have to call back, she said. In other words, the onus is on me to find out if Chase resumes business with a vendor that has demonstrated its inability to protect Chase’s customers.

I’ve decided this isn’t good enough.

Chase had a chance to re-earn my trust, to make a statement to the public that this kind of casual treatment of customers’ information by its vendors is not acceptable and would not be tolerated. The only way I can imagine for this to be taken seriously is for Chase to announce that it’s terminating its relationship with Epsilon, period.

Since this isn’t happening, I’m looking for a new bank. If you’re a Chase customer, consider doing the same.

On May 14 we attended a dinner in San Francisco. There was a valet parking stand, and when we arrived the valets were fairly backed up. We got behind several other cars and waited.

A few minutes later one of the city’s parking police came up behind the line. I asked one of the valets what was up, and he said they were out of parking spaces, though one might come open again if someone left. But, he said, the city was starting to ticket cars waiting in line.

We waited a minute, hoping someone might leave, and then pulled out and found our own parking.

A few weeks later I received a notice from the city, saying we owed money for illegal parking that evening. I filled out the protest form, noting that no one had handed us any ticket or put one on our windshield, and, moreover, that we’d moved the car. To repeat: The parking cop never handed us this phantom ticket, nor did he/she put on the windshield — and we were sitting right there.

Months went by, with two more letters saying the city was looking into the situation. Then, a couple of weeks ago, we got another letter saying the city parking department had decided we did owe for illegal parking. In other words, whatever its own employee — remember, the one who never actually handed us any paper — told them was considered true. Or maybe they just figured they could get away with going ahead with this bogus ticket.

Well, they did. As the city knows from the vehicle registration, I’m living a majority of the time in Arizona and can’t possibly take the time or justify the expense of challenging this ticket. So I’m sending the $100. I’m tempted to send a pissed-off letter to the mayor, but realize what an empty exercise that would be.

Instead, for the next few months, when we’re at our Bay Area place and thinking about going out to dinner or a movie, or going shopping, we’ll head somewhere other than San Francisco. At some point we’ll figure we’ve avoided paying enough city parking and other taxes/fees, etc. (including the local version of the multiplier effect — spending causing more economic activity), to have denied the San Francisco treasury somewhere in the vicinity of the $100 its parking police docked us. I regret that this means some restaurants and stores in the city won’t be getting our business during this stretch, but they’ve chosen to be where they are.

I assume this kind of thing happens all the time. Parking tickets are a fabulous source of revenue for a city like San Francisco. I also wonder if the people who govern the city realize how annoyed they make people with such tactics. I assume they don’t care. In the long run that’s poor policy.

I received a notice recently that one of my credit cards had been compromised in an online transaction in which Verisign provided the alleged security/verification for the merchant. Terribly sorry, said Verisign, which did offer (I accepted) to pay for a year of credit watching via one of the three major credit bureaus.

Since then, however, I’ve had several of purchases rejected by the card issuer. At least twice now, I’ve had to call the credit-card company and verify that, yes, I was the person making the purchase. Then the issuer unfroze the card, and I could try again to make the purchase.

When this happened earlier this week, I asked the person at the other end of line to simply cancel that card and issue me a new one with a different number. She refused, on the ground that since there was no actual fraud, there was no harm being done and therefore no need for the time and expense — to the company — of issuing the new card.

What about my time and expense? These calls to the card company are taking up time that is worth something to me. That, of course, is irrelevant to the card issuer.

Just one more hidden cost of credit in today’s world.


From the Wall Street Journal, here’s another reason I’m planning to cancel my current credit cards (which I pay every month in any event) and do business with institutions that choose not to screw their customers:

The committee overseeing federal banking-bailout programs is investigating the lending practices of institutions that received public funds, following a rash of complaints about increases in interest rates and fees.

Bailed-Out Banks Face Probe Over Fee Hikes

So United Airlines baggage information page informs us that unless you’re a frequent or upgraded passenger, you’ll pay $15 for the first bag you check. This follows American Airlines’ lead.

Lemmings are smarter than this.

The policy is guaranteed — absolutely guaranteed — to lead to on-plane fighting for overhead space. It will turn an already lousy experience into the kind of chaotic crappiness that will leave everyone in a terrible mood. People in Group 4 will board, or attempt to board, with the earlier boarders — and dare the gate agents to do something about it.

Everyone knows that fares have to rise, at least everyone with a shred of common sense. The airline industry is trapped in fuel-price hell, and through no fault of its own can’t cover the cost of flying the planes.

You can make an argument that people with luggage are carrying extra weight and should pay more. But by that logic, obese and simply large people should pay more than children and petite women. (Obese people who take half of someone else’s seat should have to buy two seats, but that’s a different issue.)

The airline industry is caught in a vortex. It isn’t evil, but policies like this show it’s damned stupid.

I bought an iPod touch in November, and figured I’d leave the system software alone for a while — that is, not using third-party software that unlocks the capabilities of a machine that is, in fact, a small personal computer in its inherent power. Apple’s fall announcement that it would be more open with third-party developers was one reason I held off on hacking the device.

Apple’s view is that while customers own the hardware, any upgrading to the software, including third-party applications, will be at Apple’s discretion. Now we’re seeing the result of this philosophy: a $20 cost to get software that ships with all new models and is given to owners of the IPhone.

This is a flat-out ripoff. And it’s leading me to do what I really don’t want to do — find the appropriate hacks that will let me use the iPod the way I want, not solely the way Apple decides.

I didn’t imagine it was possible, but Apple’s arrogance is growing.