Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Frustrating but ultimately successful fix for Internet connectivity

I have had a frustrating couple of days. But I am now connected!!

When I moved to a new apartment a few months ago, I decided to save some money by NOT getting a hard-wired internet connection through cable or phone and instead signed up with Verizon Wireless for their mobile hotspot through my Droid4. While this costs an extra $30 per month, after testing it, I found it to be fairly reliable and having enough speed for basic internet use, including occasional use of Netflix.  I figure it was cheaper than getting cable or internet-via-phone hookup.

Anyway, having a wireless hotspot as my primary home internet is fine for my laptop, my ipad, my son's smartphone, and his tablet, but it didn't work too well with my desktop. I had previously used PDANet on my desktop (allowing me to use my phone as a modem via USB tether), and while I was still able to do that, I wanted to use the legal (that is, "paid for") hotspot, so I discovered that when connected via USB to my computer, and going through the phone's system settings to Tethering and Mobile Hotspot (i.e., not the Mobile Hotspot app), I could enable USB tether and use the hotspot with the desktop. This was my primary mode of connecting my desktop to the Internet for several months.

This worked fairly well until a month or so ago, when I started running into problems with the USB tether AND the PDANet.  I had issues with the version of the PDANet not matching on the phone and desktop, and eventually solved the problem by rolling back both versions to 3.5 and using the "legacy driver." However, this stopped working a week or so ago (I didn't know why...but see below!) and at about the same time, the Mobile Hotspot USB tether also stopped working.

What was odd was that when I was tethered via USB, my university's VPN could connect, and Outlook, and Google Drive, and Dropbox, but I couldn't browse the Internet using Firefox or IE.  I couldn't get ANY web sites to come to my browser. I figured this was a DNS issue, but I confirmed that the settings for IPv.4 matched those of my laptop, which was able to surf just fine.

Because I really need to use my desktop in the next few weeks, I decided to devote some time to solving this problem. I decided that maybe I shouldn't rely on the USB tether (either through PDANet or through the Verizon Hotspot), and since I wasn't having any problems connecting wirelessly to the hotspot via my laptop or iPad, perhaps I should connect my desktop wirelessly. So yesterday, I went to Office Depot and bought a Linksys N300 (otherwise known as model AE1200) wireless USB adapter, and came home to set it up.

The damn thing would NOT install correctly.  I couldn't get the setup software to recognize the adapter during the regular installation process. However, when I plugged the adapter in, the drivers automatically installed. However, the adapter was "grayed out" in the Network and Sharing Center, saying Disabled. When I right-clicked and chose "Enable," after a few seconds I got an "Enabled" message, but the adapter was still grayed out and showing as disabled. And it wasn't functional.

The odd thing is that the adapter showed as Enabled in the Device Manager. But Disabled in the Network and Sharing Center. Odd.

No matter how many times I tried unplugging it, plugging it back in, and uninstalling it and reinstalling it, the same conditions applied. I worked at trying to fix it for a couple of hours, and then decided to cut my loses, and took the thing back to Office Depot.  I intended to buy another brand, but the store only had the Linksys. Fortunately, the local Radio Shack had the equivalent Netgear adapter (N300, otherwise known as model WNA3100), so I bought that.

My experience with the Netgear adapter was exactly the same as the Linksys:  The setup software wouldn't recognize the adapter (although when I unplugged it, the software complained), and although it would auto-install drivers if I plugged it in without the software, it was grayed out in the Networking and Sharing Center, and would not Enable there. (The Netgear adapter, like the Linksys before it, was showing as enabled in the Device Manager. But not functional at all.)

I spent an awful lot of time poking around the web looking for solutions to this problem. I figured there was some kind of problem with the driver.  So, I downloaded a new version of the driver software from Netgear. (They don't let you download just the drivers...you need to install setup files that either install the driver for you or install something called the Genie with the drivers).  Because the installation software wouldn't recognize the adapter, these were fairly useless. They wouldn't complete the installation process since they didn't recognize the device.

(At this point, I decided that maybe my problem was a PHYSICAL problem with the USB system in my computer. I had had some odd unreliability since trying to install a USB 3.0 card in my system a year or so ago.  So I opened up the case and futzed around with the internal USB connections.... During this futzing, I accidentally disconnected a bunch of connectors having to do with the front LEDs and power/reset switches... So I had to find the manual to the MSI motherboard (on my laptop since my desktop still wasn't connecting) and fix those....In any case, the futzing with the USB connectors didn't solve anything.)

Here are a few of the other places I visited while trying to figure out a solution to the problem:
None of these solutions worked.

Finally, I started poking around in the Network and Sharing Center, seeing what all the menu choices do.

In the "Change Adapter Settings" dialog, under Advanced, I found the option to "Bridge Connections."  I really didn't have any idea what this does (although I did look it up later, here), but on a whim, I decided to try to bridge the LAN and WiFi connections, to see what would happen.

When I did so, all of a sudden the WiFi icon showed in color, and the Enable and Disable menu choices actually worked! I enabled it!  Wow!

However, I still couldn't connect to wifi, but I was making progress.

I decided that the bridge itself was probably the obstacle now. So I disabled the bridge... VOILA!  The wireless adapter was now enabled, and I could use the Connect menu choice, and see my Droid4 Hotspot SSID... so I connected!

So now I was connected to the wireless via the Netgear adapter! 

But now I was back to the situation before I bought the wireless adapter... I was able to connect via vpn, Outlook, Google Drive, Dropbox...but not the browser... no web sites....nothing.

So I did a search for "browser not able to connect to internet" and came across this page: http://en.kioskea.net/forum/affich-26302-browsers-can-t-connect-to-websites. There are a lot of different approaches listed there.

I tried several of the command-line and restart options, having to do with ipconfig and flushdns and netsh ...nothing. However, one good thing did happen; when I restarted after one of the command line interventions, I got this message:

(Good to know that the Netgear install software was persistent!)

Finally, on the same web site, I found http://en.kioskea.net/forum/affich-19117-internet-connected-but-can-t-browse.

The central focus of that thread seemed to be that Norton Antivirus (of some flavor) was somehow interfering with browsing, either through a setting, or a bug, or even parental controls.  I went to look at my computer... and see what Norton was up to. Oddly, it wasn't showing up in the system tray. Hmmm....  So I found the Norton 360 folder under the Start menu, and ran the program.

Upon loading Norton showed that I needed to run disk defragmentation and do a bunch of other tune-ups... but there was no obvious setting that would be blocking internet use. The "block all network traffic" option was OFF.  Out of curiosity, I clicked  the little question mark icon next to the option to get some help...and it went to a help page on the Symantec web site!!! WHAT?  I could now surf?!?!

I opened another tab and tried to go to Google...Voila! everything was working again.

It seems that all I had to do was RUN Norton 360 to get the browsing to work.

After everything started working again, I clicked on the system tray and saw that the Norton 360 icon was there, showing a green check mark for protected. I remembered it had not been there while doing all of this other troubleshooting. Was Norton somehow disabled, and it was disabling my internet use?

I don't know the answer. I think Norton had somehow crashed and in crashing, it disabled web browsing. (This does seem to be a problem...see here and here.) Why this happened I do now know.  I do know that I am now able to surf again. 

The key findings that made this possible were:
  1. the brainstorm of bridging the wireless and wired connections (and then unbridging them), which enabled the wireless adapter...
  2. and running Norton360, which somehow had gotten "stuck" in a non-responsive mode that was blocking browser traffic.

Both of these findings are worth putting out there for others who may have similar problems with their computers. 

Thursday, February 28, 2013

Internet Censorship: Some Basics

A student at a school in Canada was doing research for a paper on Internet censorship, and came across my name in connection with some work I had done in the area of Internet filtering in schools (see here and here), so he emailed me and asked if I would be willing to answer some questions.   I said "sure!" and so he sent me the four following questions. I thought my answers were sufficiently erudite (this is something I've done a lot of thinking about) that I'd post them here on my blog so that others could see them.
1) How would you explain what internet censorship is to someone unfamilliar with it?
Censorship is when a governmental or other authority blocks access to certain texts, images, information, music, or other medium for the purpose of controlling or limiting thought.  Internet censorship involves blocking the free flow of ideas and information over the Internet. Generally, censorship is done without the consent of those whose access is blocked (although there is such a thing as "self-censorship").
2) Does internet censorship take away from Amendment One of the US Constitution?
The US Supreme Court has defined what it refers to as "protected speech." Not all speech is protected speech; for example, US citizens do not have the right to shout "fire" in a crowded theater, and certain types of pornography (such as that involving minors) are deemed illegal in the US and are not protected (as agreed by the Supreme Court). Censorship of protected speech on the Internet would be a violation of the First Amendment (so-called "freedom of speech").

However, it is important to remember that some speech that is protected for adults (so-called "soft porn," for example) may be legally censored in schools.  In fact, the US Childhood Internet Protection Act (CIPA) requires all schools and libraries in the US that accept certain federal money to block obscene or harmful materials (such as those advocating violence against children). Is this censorship? Not according to the US courts. CIPA has been held to be constitutional because the PURPOSE of the restriction is deemed to override the limited free speech rights of children, and also because the method of blocking (and the extent of blocking) is not set forth in the law (except minimally), so local communities can set their own specific standards.

Another class of information that can legally be blocked in the US is the transmission of illegal copies of copyrighted materials (under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act).  Some US citizens have been prosecuted or sued for downloading or uploading materials they do not own. US Courts have also said that Internet Service Providers (ISPs) can limit the access of individuals with overly-heavy bandwidth usage, in order to supposedly protect the access of other customers of the ISP.  There is currently an attempt to pass a law in the US that would give ISPs broad latitude over what they could block, and also allow copyright owners to require ISPs to block the copyrighted content.  As always, advocates of blocking the materials do not view them as "protected speech," while those arguing against this law claim that it will inevitably violate the First Amendment.  Needless to say, because there is a ton of money at stake, the battle over this proposed law is pretty nasty.

3) In the past year, Canada has been tightening its grip on internet censorship, and is now taking aggressive measures. Can you see America taking similar actions?
I believe there will be a law in the US that will allow holders of copyright to force ISPs to block the illegal copying and transmission of those materials. Is law will address the fact that many illegal copies of materials originate from outside the US, and so it will include an international component. Certainly this blocking will be against the wishes of those who want to download/upload them. It certainly limits their freedom. A deeper issue is whether copyrights (or patents for that matter) are a good way of protecting intellectual products. The doctrine of "Fair Use" suggests that some copyrighted materials are legitimately copied (for purposes of education or satire, for example), and the rise of the "mash-up" culture also seriously pushes the limits of copyright.

Will the US become a nation in which freedom of speech is increasingly restricted (with that restriction being justified in all kinds of ways by those doing the restricting)?  Probably, although I believe the US population will not allow the First Amendment to be done away with for frivolous reasons. However, if Americans feel threatened (from outside the borders or within), there is no limit to what freedoms they might be willing to give up.

4) What would the world be like without censorship of the internet?
The answer to this question (which is an excellent one to think about, by the way) depends on what you think about basic human nature.  Are we at our core selfish and greedy: tribal animals programmed to kill anything that keeps us from reproducing (or that might help us reproduce if we do kill it).  Or are we essentially moral angels, spirits in a material world, with a deep and abiding commitment to protecting the entire world from harm?  If the first, then a lack of censorship would lead to a nasty and brutish world in which only the richest can survive in the long run. If the latter, a lack of censorship might bring about a lasting peace, as greater communication and familiarity allows more and more of us to express our peaceful nature.

Personally?  I believe that capitalism requires censorship of some kind, and so as long as we live in a world dominated by the flow of money to produce more money, there will be no end to censorship. Is there a workable alternative to capitalism as the engine of worldwide social and economic order?  Perhaps democracy, although the distance from where the world is today and where democracy might really come alive is very long. 

Note: for a video of a talk I recently gave on "Internet Filtering in Schools: What's at Stake" at a teacher workshop at the Art Institute of Chicago, see here.