Juno Online Services Inc. is working on a revolutionary approach to monetize its free subscribers by tapping the processing power of their computers, but the method may raise alarms for privacy watchdogs.
“We’re going to be announcing the establishment of the Juno Virtual Supercomputer Network,” Juno Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Charles Ardai told InternetNews Thursday. But the network, which would harness the processor power of subscribers’ computers, also necessitated changes in Juno’s service agreement.
Juno posted a new service agreement on Jan. 18 — prior to making the Virtual Supercomputer Network project public — with language that would require subscribers to allow it to download “computational software” to their computers, and which could even require subscribers to leave their computers on at all times.
“In connection with downloading and running the Computational Software, Juno may require you to leave your computer turned on at all times, and may replace the “screen saver” software that runs on your computer while the computer is turned on but you are not using it,” section 2.5 of the service agreement says. “The screen saver software installed by Juno, which may display advertisements or images chosen by Juno, is an integral part of the Computational Software and you agree not to take any action to disable or interfere with the operation of either the screen saver software or any other component of the Computational Software.”
Additionally, the policy puts the onus on subscribers for dealing with costs associated with those requirements.
“You agree that, as between you and Juno, you shall have sole responsibility for any maintenance or technical issues that might result from such continuous operation,” the policy says. Furthermore, the policy gives Juno the right to have subscribers’ computers initiate contact with Juno. “If your usage of the Service is infrequent, Juno’s ability to obtain the results of completed computations may be impaired. Consequently, you expressly permit and authorize Juno to initiate a telephone connection from your computer to Juno’s central computers using a dial-in telephone number you have previously selected for accessing the Service; Juno agrees that it shall exercise such right only to the extent necessary, as determined in Juno’s sole discretion, to upload the results of completed computations to Juno in a timely fashion; and you agree that, as between you and Juno, you shall be responsible for any costs and expenses (including without limitation any applicable telephone charges) resulting from the foregoing.”
Charles Ardai, chairman and chief executive officer of Juno, told InternetNews Thursday that the program is intended to follow through on the company’s responsibility to its shareholders by further monetizing its free subscriber base.
“There is an emerging area in the Internet space that’s very exciting, we think it’s an interesting opportunity,” Ardai said.
There is, however, a possibility that the language of the service agreement could extend further than just giving Juno the option of developing new features.
“One can also construct a lot of really invasive things that they might want to do that are covered by this language,” Christopher W. Savage, head of the telecommunications and Internet practice at the Washington D.C. law firm Cole Raywid & Braverman, told InternetNews Radio Thursday, before Juno unveiled its virtual supercomputer plans. “As I read it, if I were to agree to this contract, then I can’t turn off my computer when I want and they have a seemingly unlimited right to make computations with whatever the computational software does. And it’s not really terribly clear, from reading 2.5, what it’s computing — you know — what it’s doing. My concern is that they’re trying to have it both ways. They don’t want to discourage any of their cus
tomers so they’re not really saying what they’re doing.”
On the other hand, Ardai said that Juno will not involve subscribers in the program without their consent.
“No one is going to be required to do anything without their consent,” he said. “Everyone will be able to have free information with what’s going on. We have always had an open and forthright relationship with our customers.”
Ardai said if and when the new program is implemented subscribers will have a choice of participating in the program, upgrading to the billable subscriber tier, or choosing another ISP.
This new program, we still are in the process of deciding exactly how to roll it out,” he said. “Everyone will have a very clear choice. We may require some or all or our free subscribers to participate.”
However, he was careful to note that not all free subscribers will necessarily be affected. The new service agreement currently applies only to new subscribers, not existing free subscribers. But, he said, that does not mean that the program will not be extended to existing subscribers at a later date. Also, he said Juno may decide to make participation in the project mandatory for heavy users of the free service — who use up a lot of the company’s resources — and optional for occasional free users or paying users.
The idea behind the Juno Virtual Supercomputer Network is similar to the [email protected] project, managed by a group of researchers at the Space Sciences Laboratory of the University of California, Berkeley. That project utilizes volunteers’ computers to analyze radio signals — picked up at the National Astronomy and Ionospheric Center’s 305-meter radio telescope in Arecibo, Puerto Rico — for evidence of extraterrestrial intelligence. Volunteers download a screen saver from [email protected] which then accepts small chunks of data from the project when volunteers are online. The computer analyzes the data when the screen saver is active, and sends it back to the project when it has finished its computation and the volunteer goes back online.
While traditional supercomputers consist of one massive machine, the fastest supercomputers today consist of multiple parallel processors. [email protected] said that the world’s fastest supercomputer, IBM’s ASCI White, is rated at 12 TeraFLOPS and costs about $110 million while it gets about 15 TeraFLOPS and has cost in the neighborhood of $500,000 to date. [email protected] has about 3 million volunteers. Juno has a registered subscriber base of about 14.2 million. Ardai said that engineers within his company have told him that conceivably, if all Juno’s subscribers’ computers were working on the same project at the same time, the Juno Virtual Supercomputer Network would break the petahertz barrier with a hypothetical effective processor speed in the order of a billion megahertz.
“You’re not going to have every computer working on the same problem at the same time, but if you did that’s potentially very powerful,” Ardai said.
Juno’s ad banner technology — which would form the foundation of the Virtual Supercomputer Network technology — works in a similar way to [email protected]’s screen saver — downloading ads, computing requests and uploading the information to the company’s computers.
“When we send an ad to a customer it looks like an ad but it’s actually a small piece of software,” Ardai said.
Ardai said Juno would initially attempt to sell supercomputer time to pharmaceutical companies and medical research facilities which do a lot of compute-intensive work, though he said other companies and organizations that need supercomputer resources would also be targeted.
The company has brought in Yuri Rozenman, formerly of Applied Biosystems and with 13 years of experience in the bioinformatics field, to head up the project as vice president in charge of the Virtual Supercomputer Network. Ardai said Rozenman’s background and co
ntacts will be invaluable in signing up customers for the service.
“If this really could help speed up — by a year or even a month — an important drug, that’s really exciting,” Ardai said.