Recent and Upcoming Changes to Internet Privacy and Censorship

(This was originally posted to my facebook on March 28, 2018.)
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I don’t want to flood you guys with individual links about all the news from the past week regarding changes to the fundamental rules of the internet, but I don’t want to stay quiet about it, either. Here’s a quick overview of the big changes, in no particular order:
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  1. Net Neutrality
  2. Cambridge Analytica / Facebook Data Sharing
  3. The FOSTA Act
  4. The CLOUD Act

Net Neutrality is a big deal, but it’s not as recent as the other changes in this list. Basically, the Federal Communications Commission deregulated Internet Service Providers, so they can pick and choose what kind of content gets more bandwidth. They also gave control of Internet Service Provider regulation over to the Federal Trade Commission, who are deregulating ISPs as fast as they can. Internet Service Providers like Verizon and Comcast are now allowed to charge us different rates for access to different sites, and charge different sites different prices for bandwidth, essentially allowing them to pick winners and losers (for example, they could charge Netflix twice as much as Hulu for bandwidth, and watch Netflix disappear). ISPs will charge us more for a package of websites we can access that includes Facebook and Google, and then sell us another package with Slashdot and Reddit, like they do with TV channels. This is already being done in Portugal. If you’ve read Ready Player One, this is basically IOI’s business model. There are a lot of other issues caused by the deregulatory regime at the FCC. For example, cell phone towers no longer have to pass environmental and historical preservation reviews. (that’s bad news for archaeologists).
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The Cambridge Analytica story is overblown, IMHO. If you need to catch up on it, and get a sense of the moral panic surrounding the story, listen to this episode of On The Media, from NPR this past weekend. Facebook selling us out to the highest bidder is a problem, but in the end, I think it’s a distraction from real issues. We all knew Facebook was doing this, because all major web sites do it, and Edward Snowden warned us about Cambridge Analytica and other firms years ago. They use ‘psychographics’, which rely on stupid ideas like ‘personality’, which have been debunked for decades now. Belief in personality is like belief in horoscopes. Only rubes believe in it. I mean, Cambridge Analytica apparently made some good ads, but they would have done much better if they didn’t saddle themselves with silly notions like personality.
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Anyway, if you are worried about who sells your data, you need to think bigger than facebook. I mean, Facebook is massive, so it might sound odd to say that thinking only about facebook is thinking too small. If everybody in America deleted facebook today, the company would lose less than 10% of it’s users. That said, the internet outside of facebook is much bigger, and full of trackers. To start at the lowest level and work our way up… ISPs sell more data than Facebook even has access to. Do you have a smart phone? Of course you do. Google tracks every app you use, every location you are at, and if you are offline, your phone saves that data to upload to them later. Microsoft snoops on your Skype to make sure you don’t say bad words. Then we have trackers embedded into most web sites you visit and app ads you see on your phone (the image at the top of this post is a map of the biggest tracker networks, from the Network Science blog). Finally, we have these personality quiz hustlers, selling their ‘psychographic’ data to the highest bidding rube. As you can see, Cambridge Analytica and the like are small fish in a giant sea of monsters.
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That said, the impact of Cambridge Analytica is big, because the media can’t stop freaking out about it. It’s a tempest in a teapot, but it’s a tempest that will influence policy. Governments are pushing to enact regulations on Facebook and other social networks. Bill Gates has been saying regulation is coming for a while now. Zuckerberg is testifying before congress soon, and was called to testify for parliament in the UK (which he turned down). Watch Germany. They seem to be on track to have the most strict rules in the world regarding online privacy, so they will probably set the global standard for privacy, because America isn’t the technological superpower we used to be (a couple of decades ago, every technological standard in the world came from America). Also, watch for Zuckerberg to try to turn this regulation in his favor. He will try to shape the regulations to build economic moats that make it impossible for other people to build social networks that compete with Facebook.
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FOSTA/SESTA: Now we are getting to the heart of the recent changes. FOSTA stands for the Fight Online Sex Trafficking act. It does away with safe harbor protections, which makes social network and web site operators liable for any crimes committed using their platforms. Advocates of the bill say that it fights sex trafficking by making it illegal to let users post ads for prostitution on the internet. In other words, if somebody posts an ad for prostitution on Craigslist, the owner of Craigslist goes to jail for prostitution or pimping. This bill seems to have noble intentions, but it overreaches, and hurts the safe harbor legal frameworks that the internet is based on. If you hold web sites responsible for what the users post on them, every internet forum and social network in the world will be shut down. That’s why Craigslist shut down their personals sections last week, and Reddit shut down a lot of sex subreddits, as well. Some people think that FOSTA informed Twitter’s recent ban of cryptocurrency ads on the service. Some might think that this is ok, because if it’s good for victims of sex trafficking, it’s worth the price of a few forums getting shut down here and there, but if you talk to actual sex trafficking victims, they say that this will make things a lot worse, because it makes it harder to find sex traffickers and rescue victims. Also, this doesn’t just affect the big, wealthy social network operators. It can be used to target you, directly. Imagine you put up a facebook post, and somebody comments a prostitution ad on it. You don’t notice, go to bed, then wake up to a SWAT team kicking in your door and arresting you for pimping. FOSTA puts us all at risk, because safe harbor laws protect all of us.
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Where are we going?
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All of this means that the way we use the internet is about to change, rapidly. ISPs will start herding us into walled gardens, because there’s no Net Neutrality. Our forums will be policed by stupid, annoying bots that won’t allow us to even think about anything illegal, because we will have no safe harbor protections. We will be subject to harassment and persecution for having unpopular beliefs, or just annoying a cop in Saudi Arabia, because due process and sovereignty does not matter any more.
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I don’t know what the internet will look like a year from now, when all of this shakes out, but I do know that it won’t be what we have right now. We could all be intimidated into blind compliance to authority all over the internet, or we could all become cypherpunks, rebel and end up on the dark web. I think something halfway between those extremes will probably develop.
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We need to demand better from our government. I don’t care if you are conservative, liberal, socialist, or libertarian, these laws clearly hurt all of us. The government needs to reverse these laws. Until they do reverse these laws, though, you can try to keep some kind of control over your data by developing good security habits.
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