Federal Communications Commission Chairman Tom Wheeler proposed Wednesday new FCC rules that would protect and preserve the Internet’s Net Neutrality.
The proposals, coming after years of debate and an intense campaign of grass-roots community organizing and activist pressure on the FCC, would treat Internet communications as a Title II service — the same FCC Title used to govern telephone communications. That change was at the center of activist movement demands since Title II services are automatically neutral under FCC rules.
(An important clarification: this does not mean you can get high-speed service for the same price as regular modem service. It means that access to data and content speed to your device must be the same. If you have a slower connection, all content would flow at that speed. Faster connection, all content flows at that faster rate.)
FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler: Finally!
It is a stunning victory for the Internet-freedom movement which includes scores of organizations nationwide and that movement celebrated the announcement immediately.
The questions now are whether the FCC will approve the Chairman’s proposals, what the reaction might be from corporations (like Comcast) who vigorously oppose this change and what, if those corporations unleash their lobbyists, might Congress do.
At this point the answers seem to be: yes, scream and not all that much but in Washington you never know.
For the past three months, I and other leaders of the organization May First/People Link have been under a federal subpoena to provide information we don’t have. During that time, we have also been forbidden by a federal court “gag order” to tell anyone about that subpoena, although we had already announced it and commented on it before the order was sent. Finally, we were forbidden from telling anyone about the gag order itself.
It all sounds comical but any laughter would end if we violated that “gag order,” because that would be a felony and we could face prison sentences and huge fines.
We were silenced by our own government in a case we had nothing to do with and over information we didn’t have…and we couldn’t tell anyone about any of it.
The flag they should be flying!
The court order has now expired as of December 18 and I am now free to talk about it.
The week before last, our President made a pronouncement on Net Neutrality that pleasantly surprised activists and won him favorable coverage in the newspapers: both rare outcomes these days.
In both timing and content, the short speech (aptly broadcast over the Internet) was stunning. The President hit all the major points of contention and controversy in what has become a searing debate over the Internet’s future and his talking points mirrored all the arguments progressive Internet activists have been making. It was among Obama’s most forward-looking speeches.
Obama Speaks on the Internet over the Internet
Not only did he land on the right side of issues like assuring full and equal access and speed for all users and content providers but he came out in favor of the demand that has now emerged as the focal point for the Net Neutrality campaign: applying Title II to all Internet providers. In layperson’s language, that means treating all Internet companies like FCC-governed utilities. That’s what they did with phone companies and that’s why phone service is, today, “service neutral” and the change would lay the groundwork for Net Neutrality’s protection.
While calling it a victory for the Net Neutrality movement, however, activists salted their celebrations with a bit of skepticism. This is the man, after all, who has turned the Internet into the largest surveillance network in history while forging one of the most aggressive interventionist and homicidal foreign policies in the country’s history. The speech was great but will it make a difference? And does the President really care? The President is, above all, a master politician and so the question arises: was this speech less policy than politics?
A couple of weeks ago, the mere mortals who lead the voracious giants of technology — Google and Apple — announced that they were striking a blow for protection against NSA spying by making “encryption” the default on Google cell phone software (which is used on most cell phones) and THEY software used on Apple mobile devices.
This affects equipment like the ubiquitous cell phone, although it is also relevant to some handheld computers and similar portable equipment.
The idea would be that your data on these devices would always be encypted — appearing as unintelligble nonsense to anyone looking at it without a key to “decrypt” it. You use a password and, bingo!, you can read what you stored. Without the password, it looks like a bunch of bizarre symbols. This would now be the “default”. While you could encrypt if you chose to up to now, you will now have to consciously choose not to; encryption will be automatic unless you turn it off.
They are still connected!
The point of all this is that, since these companies would not be able to read your encrypted data, they can’t turn over legible data when the government orders them to. Since the government orders them to turn over data constantly, that’s a pretty big change.
But how real is it? Such concern for user data seems to conflict with the history of both behemoths. For exampple, the National Security Agency has long taken advantage of Google’s remarkable policy of reading its users’ email and data, purportedly for marketing purposes and to “make users’ experience easier”. That stored data has been a plum for the NSA which gets it with the company’s cooperation via court order or by using sneaky programs to intercept messages and search data on-line.
Although not a data storage company, Apple’s programs move data and interact with storage services. Its iPhone, one of the world’s most popular hand-held devices, uses a lot of Google software as well as much of its own programming. Through cell phone technology, these two companies are the major sources of NSA-gathered information. Google gives the government copious information stored on most cell phones and Apples does the same for its powerhouse iPhone.
So savvy critics are wondering if this latest announcement is really a pledge to privacy or the latest in the long string of cynical marketing ploys that have made these outfits the powerhouses they are.
One sensationally reported incident this week exposes a dual threat: your data isn’t safe on a corporate-controlled “cloud” and spying software made for police and government agencies makes it completely accessible.
The leaking of celebrities’ photos, most compromising and some nude, from Apple’s iCloud storage system shows how silly we can be about nudity and celebrity and what our media thinks is important in the world. These were self-shot photos nude people and nudity is something we can all see in the mirror!
There is, however, a very important point to the entire affair and, unlike the naked photos, it’s worth talking about.
From phone to computer! But to whose computer?
Apparently, according to Apple, this wasn’t a breach; there was no break-down in the security system for the company’s giant storage service. Instead, the hackers used what is called a “brute force attack” — a password-guessing method that uses software readily available to hackers to guess and test passwords to access a private account.
In the last couple of days, however, experts have become almost sure that the software used to capture the iCloud user data is a program designed for use by police and government surveillance. The program is called EPPB or Elcomsoft Phone Password Breaker and it’s made by a Russian outfit called Elcomsoft. Elcomsoft specializes in selling it to government authorities but it will sell it to anyone willing to pay the price. Apparently these hackers got a hold of that program and maybe, indeed, have done so through legal purchase.
Are you a Time-Warner Internet customer? Have you ever experienced an outage? Have you called the company for a reimbursement? Most people would probably answer “no” to that last question. In fact, most company customers don’t realize that these companies aren’t required to reimburse and, in Time Warner’s case, they usually don’t. You have to call them.
Maybe it’s time to make this sensitive movement for Time Warner a bit more sensitive.
This is already a sensitive time for the Cable and Internet giant because, holding hands with its fellow giant Comcast, the company is asking the Federal Communications Commission to approve what amounts to a merger of the two companies which would give the resulting offspring virtually complete control of cable and high-speed Internet service across this country. Comcast is already the biggest provider of such services in the U.S.; Time Warner is the second largest.
Good things to do but Time Warner shouldn't charge us for them!
Since they have worked (Adam Smith would have said conspired) for several years to divvy up territory and avoid over-lap and competition, their combination would blanket most of this country’s major (and many smaller) markets. The very goal of the regulations that forced them to split up service areas is now being turned on its head by this proposal. Given recent FCC rulings on issues like Net Neutrality riding the wave of corporate cannibalism that has deeply affected the Internet, opposition to this corporate hip-joining has been fierce and nationwide.
So Time-Warner’s recent Internet outages are causing a bit of embarassment and spreading the concern activists have long had to lots of “regular” customers.
The recent news that Russian hackers have the usernames and passwords for over a billion users as well as a half billion email accounts wraps up a week of Internet craziness.
Last week, Google revealed that it had turned into police a Google user who had included child pornography on some of his emails. The company made clear that it had been investigating this guy and that its procedures for doing so “cannot violate the privacy of other users”. This week, MicroSoft made a similar announcement about a similar investigation of data stored on its “Cloud” storage system.
Those zeros and ones are yours — or are they?
It seems these guys can’t refrain from competing in whatever they’re into. It also seems that, as usual, these companies are playing an informational shell game when they explain what they’re doing and the threat it poses.
How does the news on the Internet make you feel?
What sounds like a frivolous question, the kind you might be asked in a bar after a few drinks, is actually a profound and powerful one. If the Internet’s content can affect your feelings, the manipulation of that content can exert powerful social control.
So for a week in 2012, Facebook, in collaboration with Cornell University and the University of California at San Francisco, set out to explore that possibility. It edited the content seen by a select 689,000 of its users, overloading its news feed content with positive news for some users and negative news for others and then studied their posts in reaction without their knowledge.
Just what are they testing? (courtesy Technewspedia).
As a result, Facebook learned a lot. According to an abstract of the study, “for people who had positive content reduced in their News Feed, a larger percentage of words in people’s status updates were negative and a smaller percentage were positive. When negativity was reduced, the opposite pattern occurred.”
And, when news about the study broke last week, Facebook confronted an immediate and powerful push-back from horrified activists and users (and now a couple of governments) who raised some significant questions. Does a company have the right to use its customers as test subjects without their knowledge? Is it ever ethical to change news feed content for any reason?
But the more important issue sits behind those questions. Facebook obviously thought this was okay; it does research on users all the time. And its hunch about the outcome proved correct. So what does it mean when one of the largest information companies on earth, the centerpiece of many people’s information experience, practices how to program people through lies?
As bad as things get for our movement in this country, we are not yet feeling the full throttle of repression and, if one needs a reminder of that and perhaps a profile of what’s in store for us if we don’t organize now, the situation facing Internet activists in the Middle East provides it.
Two weeks ago, June 11, Egyptian blogger and on-line activist Alaa Abdel Fattah was sentenced to 15 years in jail by an Egyptian court. His crime? He was part of a Nov. 26, 2013 peaceful demonstration in front of the Egyptian Shura council protesting a proposed constitutional provision allowing military trials for civilians. His trial was held at a police station and he and 23 other defendants in his case weren’t allowed to be present. They were all sentenced in absentia as they stood outside the courtroom.
Fattah is one of the world’s best-known Internet activists; he’s given interviews to so many countries he’s like a United Nations of sound-bites. That makes even more brazen the farcical trial and nightmarish sentence handed down. It also makes clear how far governments will go in implementing the blueprint for Internet repression that is being followed, in one way or the other, world-wide.
Ahmad (left) and Fattah: profiles in principle and courage
About a week later, Pakistan’s chapter of Bytes for All (among the most acclaimed Internet rights organizations in the world) released a remarkable study about hate speech in Pakistan. The study is among the most informative ever on this topic and that’s an enormous contribution. But its most important finding is that hate speech isn’t some random rant by a fool or a crazy person; it is political, organized and a motor of repression.
Perhaps the greatest lesson is that the study was publized at all. Bytes for All (Pakistan) operates under relentless attack and repression. Its coordinator, Shazhad Ahmad, has been sentenced to death (the sentence deferred) and can’t live with his family for security reasons. Its staff is constantly harassed and some staff members have been arrested and one was beaten fiercely outside the organization’s office.
This is about how much worse repression can get and how it is being facilitated. But it’s also about how, despite the conditions, brave people keep fighting and should be supported.
It just wasn’t a very good week for phones or for freedom.
Last week’s obscene joke of a bill coughed up by a Congress  wheezing with immobilizing congestion morphed an already compromised law about data collection into a green light to spy on everyone.
The bill passed the House last Thursday and is now heading to the Senate where the chances of getting a better bill are pretty slim. The President has endorsed this House bill; after all, it endorses his policies.
Sponsored by Wisconsin Republican Jim Sensenbrenner (the author of the Patriot Act), the ironically named USA Freedom Act’s most salient feature is that, contrary to the bluffery about how it’s going to rein in the government on phone surveillance, it has now made massive phone data capture legal and public. The NSA and related agencies under this supposed “reform” bill would gain full authority to collect all information from phone companies and, what’s more, the bill mandates that the companies hold on to that information (apparently permanently).
The House obviously caved. Not that the first edition of this bill was very good to start with. The government obviously is not going to limit its own power. But the bill as passed by the House is much weaker and, in a “blink if you don’t believe it” moment, many Democratic Congressional leaders are actually congratulating themselves. Even John Conyers (D-Mich.), Detroit’s traditionally progressive Democrat, supported this bill: “We stand poised to end domestic bulk collection across the board,” he said not making clear where he was standing or when domestic bulk collection was going to end. It certainly didn’t end with this bill.
On the other hand, a few Congresspeople did express concern, including Sensenbrenner himself, who called the new law “an abuse” of the Patriot Act. One is left wondering what the Wisconsin lawmaker expected from the draconian nightmare he authored.
Ooopsss! Should Sensenbrenner Rethink His Patriot Act?
While that little humorless comedy was playing out, we got another glimpse of how phone surveillance is being used. Wikileaks revealed that the NSA has been collecting phone data on virtually all phones in Afghanistan. This comes on the heels of revelations a few days earlier about such mass phone call collection in the Bahamas, Mexico, Kenya and the Philippines. The punch-line to this gross violation of people’s rights is that the bill passed last week doesn’t even mention international phone call capture — that’s still left completely unregulated.