“This is exactly why we need Title II net neutrality protections that ban blocking, throttling, and censorship,” said Evan Greer, campaign director of Fight for the Future. (Photo: Alyson Hurt/cc/flickr)
Open Internet proponents who have been fighting the Trump administration’s rollback of net neutrality protections, which has been enacted at the bidding of the telecom industry, said Tuesday that Comcast is now threatening legal action saying the website Comcastroturf.com is infringing on its trademark.
As the organization Fight for the Future quipped on Twitter, “You can’t make this stuff up.”
The website in question is currently providing a tool for the public to see if their names are among those stolen and used by anti-net neutrality bots to post comments in support of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) plan to undo Title II protections that classify the internet as a public utility. Continue reading →
The U.S. State Department has allocated tens of millions of dollars to promote internet freedom, primarily in the area of censorship circumvention. And just this month, the United Nations Human Rights Council passed a resolution declaring internet freedom a fundamental human right. The resolution condemns internet shutdowns by national governments, an act that has become increasingly common in variety of countries across the globe, including Turkey, Brazil, India and Uganda.
On the surface, this policy makes sense. The internet is an intuitive boon for democracy. It provides citizens around the world with greater freedom of expression, opportunities for civil society, education and political participation. And previous research, including our own, has been optimistic about the internet’s democratic potential.
However, this optimism is based on the assumption that citizens who gain internet access use it to expose themselves to new information, engage in political discussions, join social media groups that advocate for worthy causes and read news stories that change their outlook on the world.
And some do.
But others watch Netflix. They use the internet to post selfies to an intimate group of friends. They gain access to an infinite stream of music, movies and television shows. They spend hours playing video games.
However, our recent research shows that tuning out from politics and immersing oneself in online spectacle has political consequences for the health of democracy.
The power of distraction
Political use of the internet ranks very low globally, compared to other uses. Research has found that just 9 percent of internet users posted links to political news and only 10 percent posted their own thoughts about political or social issues. In contrast, almost three-quarters (72 percent) say they post about movies and music, and over half (54 percent) also say they post about sports online.
This inspired our study, which sought to show how the internet does not necessarily serve as democracy’s magical solution. Instead, its democratic potential is highly dependent on how citizens choose to use it.
The study was situated in two nondemocracies, Russia and Ukraine. The two share a common history, geography and culture. Both rank well above the global average of 48 percent of internet penetration. More than 70 percent of Russians and 60 percent of Ukrainians reportedly use the internet.
The results of our study revealed the internet’s double-edged sword. Citizens who used the internet for news and political information were more likely to express greater criticism about their country’s autocratic political institutions and leaders. As a consequence, they were more likely to demand greater democratic reforms.
But, when used differently, the internet can actually harm democratization efforts. Those who spent more of their online time engaging with entertainment content were more satisfied with living under autocratic conditions. These users were happy with the authoritarian elites who oversaw them and were uninspired by the prospects of greater freedom. In other words, online political use enhanced democratic attitudes, while online entertainment use entrenched authoritarian ones.
And it gets worse.
Tamping down political interest
It seems the world’s most shrewd authoritarian leaders have predicted these consequences. They have implemented policies that greatly restrict the internet’s political benefits while enabling a rich entertainment culture that carefully sidesteps political issues.
For example, since 2012, Russia has precipitously increased its censorship of political opposition websites and has recently engaged in consultations with Chinese censorship experts to curtail it even further. In China’s tightly controlled online environment, even entertainment content is carefully screened for subversive messages. Unsurprisingly, both Russia and China did not support the UNHRC human rights resolution guaranteeing citizens unfettered access to the internet.
However, censoring political content is only part of the authoritarian’s “online toolkit.” As we have discussed previously at The Conversation, authoritarian governments seek to create a “psychological firewall” that paints the internet as a scary world full of political threats. This rationale increases threat perceptions among the public. This, in turn, increases the public’s support for online political censorship. These threat perceptions also further motivate audiences to seek “safe” entertainment content rather than “risky” news and information.
When this approach proves unsuccessful, authoritarian regimes instead turn to even more overt scare tactics. Under President Erdogan, the Turkish government has created an aggressive program of legal, political and economic intimidation targeting not only journalists but also average citizens. As a consequence at least one-third of Turkish internet users are afraid to openly discuss politics online. This trend will likely only become worse as the Turkish government carries out its purge of political opponents in the wake of the failed coup.
Ensuring citizens have access to the internet is not sufficient to ensure democracy and human rights. In fact, internet access may negatively impact democracy if exploited for authoritarian gain.
The U.S. government, NGOs and other democracy advocates have invested a great deal of time and resources toward promoting internet access, fighting overt online censorship and creating circumvention technologies. Yet their success, at best, has been limited.
The reason is twofold. First, authoritarian governments have adapted their own strategies in response. Second, the “if we build it, they will come” philosophy underlying a great deal of internet freedom promotion doesn’t take into account basic human psychology in which entertainment choices are preferred over news and attitudes toward the internet determine its use, not the technology itself.
Allies in the internet freedom fight should realize that the locus of the fight has shifted. Greater efforts must be put toward tearing down “psychological firewalls,” building demand for internet freedom and influencing citizens to employ the internet’s democratic potential.
Doing so ensures that the democratic online toolkit is a match for the authoritarian one.
United States — On Monday the Supreme Court declined to hear a petition from the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) that sought to force the Department of Homeland Security to release details of a secret “killswitch” protocol to shut down cellphone and internet service during emergencies.
EPIC has been fighting since 2011 to release the details of the program, which is known as Standard Operating Procedure 303. EPIC writes, “On March 9, 2006, the National Communications System (‘NCS’) approved SOP 303, however it was never released to the public. This secret document codifies a ‘shutdown and restoration process for use by commercial and private wireless networks during national crisis.’”Continue reading →
Prime Minister Viktor Orban. Photo by Pilgab (Own work (own picture)) [GFDL or CC-BY-SA-3.0 ] via Wikimedia Commons
One of the big stories of last week was ignored for the most part by media here in the US. I’m talking about the protests in Hungary over an Internet data tax, and the government’s cancelling the planned tax because of the opposition.
The tax was originally to be 150 forints (£0.40; 0.50 euros; $0.60) per gigabyte of data traffic. After thousands of people took part in large scale protests that included hurling old computer parts at the headquarters of the ruling Fidesz party, the government decided to cap the tax at 700 forints per month for individuals and 5000 forints for companies. This didn’t satisfy the protesters, though, who called the tax not only a financial burden, but a move that would restrict free expression and access to information. Finally, last Friday Prime Minister Viktor Orban backed down, saying “This tax in its current form cannot be introduced.” Continue reading →
By Federal Communications Commission (FCC Website Vectorized by Hazmat2) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
On April 24th, the FCC proposed new regulations to replace the net neutrality rules that were overturned in Verizon v FCC. I covered that decision and the possible consequences of it in an earlier post. So, what does the proposal cover, and should we be worried about it?
Is this the end of the road? Fortunately, not quite yet. The FCC should vote on introducing the proposed rules for public comment on May 15th. Before and during the public comment period, you can contact your Congressthing and let it know that this is not a good plan. Sign the new White House petition, and tell your friends and neighbors why they should sign it, too.
Net neutrality’s still not dead, but it still smells funny…
By GNOME icon artists (GNOME SVN / GNOME FTP) [GPL (http://www.gnu.org/licenses/gpl.html)], via Wikimedia Commons
On January 14, the DC Court of Appeals struck down key parts of the Open Internet Order, the means by which the FCC defines net neutrality rules. To understand the implications of this, we need to review what the term “net neutrality” means.
Net neutrality is the principle that Internet service providers should enable access to all content and applications regardless of the source, and without favoring or blocking particular products or websites. A simple example from the commercial side would be that if AT&T is your ISP, it cannot block or slow down streaming content from Hulu, which is owned by Comcast – a direct competitor.
Without these rules in place, service providers could legally limit or slow down your access to sites not associated with the service provider, or block access entirely. If this sounds like more corporate control of speech to you, you’re right- it is. It’s also a slap in the face to smaller service providers, as the larger players in the game could put in place restrictive licensing fees, slow down out of network online activities or block access to the content that they host, thus creating a tiered service model. It doesn’t take a paranoid mindset to imagine a future scenario where political or social commentary outside what the powers that be deem acceptable wouldn’t be able to be expressed online.
However, with all the doom and gloom postulated in the above paragraphs and various blogs/articles I’ve read on the ruling, all’s not lost. The Court of Appeals overturned the provisions on a technical ground saying that the FCC hadn’t clearly defined their common carrier rules; not on the constitutionality of such a law. This leaves a clear path forward for the FCC to define what common carrier means as far as internet usage goes, as they did with cell phones (it’s why you have roaming with a cell phone out of its normal network instead of no reception at all). And, the service providers are still required to disclose their activities as far as blocking content, etc. goes; something the large service providers wanted struck down.
What can youdo? Call or write your Congressthing. Call or write your service provider. Sign Al Franken’s net neutrality petition. Make your voice heard!
Gigaom has a good series of articles about the ruling, starting with this one. Follow their links in the related stories sidebar for other takes on the subject. Ars Technica also has a good piece. For the MSM spin on the whole thing, try the Wall Street Journal.