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“Court Sanctioned Discrimination, Again”: Big Monopolies Are Now Free To Ruin The Internet

Countries like China or Russia, with centuries-long traditions of authoritarian rule, revert to their past practices when confronted with any kind of novelty. The United States, with its tradition of frontier free marketism, reverts to the laissez-faire when confronted with the new. But the result in both cases is the same: the radical constriction of popular democracy and freedom. A case in point is yesterday’s Appeals Court ruling on net neutrality.

The question is this: Can internet providers like Verizon and Comcast allow some web companies to provide better (that is, faster) service to their customers than their competitors by paying a higher price to the providers? Can Amazon knock an upstart by providing better service to its customers by paying off Verizon? Or can the Heritage Foundation’s web site provide better service than, say, that of the Economic Policy Institute by paying higher prices to Verizon? In 2010, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) ruled that internet providers could not discriminate among web sites in this manner. Yesterday, the Appeals Court ruled that they could. That’s an obvious blow to consumers, who will suffer the usual effects of monopoly; but it could also be a blow to free speech on the internet.

The obvious villain is the Appeals Court, but the damage was actually done earlier. In 2002, the FCC under chairman Michael Powell—the son of Colin Powell and reputedly an extremely decent person, but also a doctrinaire pro-business libertarian in the mold of the Koch brothers—issued a ruling that internet companies were “information services” and not “telecommunications companies.” That seemingly innocuous decision on wording held momentous consequences, because it meant that the internet could not be regulated like the public utility that it is. Phone companies, for instance, can’t by law provide static-free service to callers from a wealthy suburban area (at a price), but barely audible service to callers from the inner city, because they are regulated like a public utility. By the FCC’s ruling, internet providers could discriminate, and in 2005, the Supreme Court affirmed the FCC’s right to make this invidious distinction.

Obama’s first appointee as FCC chairman, Julius Genachowski, understood the damage that Powell’s ruling had done, and sought to undo it. In May 2010, Genachowski announced that he was redefining cable as a telecommunications service.  That would have opened the door to re-regulating it. The cable and wireless industry stepped in.  “He felt himself to be in a difficult position,” Susan Crawford, the author of Captive Mind and an expert on communications law, recalled.  She said Genachowski feared that it would “be World War III. And the president didn’t need World War III.”  So in December 2010, Genachowski announced that he would not attempt to counter Powell’s definition. That left any attempt to regulate broadband—including the net neutrality standards that the administration adopted—open to a court challenge. Verizon then proceeded to challenge the FCC’s right to set net neutrality standards, and yesterday it won, and the FCC and the American people lost.

Powell was happy about the ruling. He is now the President of the National Cable & Telecommunications Association in Washington, the industry’s chief lobbying arm. “It’s ironic that the big winner coming out of the court’s decision could end up being the one person who wasn’t a litigant—the consumer,” Powell declared. It’s unclear whether Genachowski’s successor as FCC chair, former industry lobbyist Tom Wheeler, will challenge the ruling. But if he doesn’t, and the ruling stands, the FCC can kiss goodbye its power to regulate the internet and the protect the rights of citizens and consumers against avaricious monopolies.

 

By: John B. Judis, The New Republic, January 15, 2014

January 16, 2014 Posted by | Monopolies, Net Neutrality | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Traitor Or Hero”: He May Think So, But It Seems A Bit Early To Call Edward Snowden A Hero

The fact that former National Security Agency employee Edward Snowden decided to go public with his grievances against the U.S. government is certainly brave and bold.

People can and will accuse Snowden of many things. But no one will ever accuse him of not having the guts to stand up for what he believes.

Whether or not Snowden should be regarded as a “hero” for exposing what he believes is horrible intelligence gathering abuse by the U.S. government, however–as some are already suggesting he should be–remains to be seen.

Snowden has certainly made some startling claims about the scope of the U.S. intelligence and surveillance programs.

Most notably, Snowden claims that, as a 29 year-old security contractor, he had both the legal authority and the technological ability to “wiretap anyone — from you or your accountant, to a federal judge, to even the President.

If that’s true, that is indeed very startling.

Snowden also claims that the National Security Agency now intercepts and records almost all global communications, and that these recorded communications can be easily accessed:

“…the vast majority of human communications are automatically ingested [by the NSA] without targeting. If I wanted to see your emails or your wife’s phone, all I have to do is use intercepts. I can get your emails, passwords, phone records, credit cards.”

Now, the NSA–or FBI, DOJ, or even your local police department–have always been able to get access to all of this information for U.S. citizens, provided they have a warrant from a judge allowing them to do so and provided you or your service providers have retained these records. But what seems new, based on Snowden’s description, is that the government is now maintaining its own records of all this information and, if I understand Snowden correctly, can now access and use any of it without a warrant.

If that’s true, it’s certainly worth asking whether we really want the government to be able to do that. It’s also worth asking whether the the government really does have the legal authority to do that–or whether it has gone way beyond what the lawmakers intended.

But, I, for one, would like some confirmation that what Snowden is saying is true before I denounce the government.

And some of the other things that Snowden has said have certainly made me wonder whether he isn’t just viewing all this from a perspective that mainstream Americans might consider, well, extreme.

Asked why he decided to leak classified information to the media, for example, Snowden said the following:

“I don’t want to live in a society that does these sort of things … I do not want to live in a world where everything I do and say is recorded. That is not something I am willing to support or live under.”

Asked whether surveillance might help deter or prevent terrorism, Snowden appeared to suggest that we shouldn’t pay so much attention to terrorism:

“We have to decide why terrorism is a new threat. There has always been terrorism. Boston was a criminal act. It was not about surveillance but good, old-fashioned police work. The police are very good at what they do.”

Asked whether he sees himself as “another Bradley Manning,” the U.S. Army private who sent a boatload of classified U.S. documents to Wikileaks, Snowden expressed nothing but admiration for Manning:

“Manning was a classic whistleblower. He was inspired by the public good.”

To address these statements in reverse order…

Bradley Manning may have been “inspired by” his own personal view of the “public good.” But, personally, I’m not convinced that what Bradley Manning did was actually good for the public. I don’t think it was terrible for the public. And it was certainly interesting to read some of those diplomatic communications. But I didn’t see anything in them that made me think they were so important that they were worth Manning breaking the law and risking a lifetime in jail to make them public.

(And, for what it’s worth, I do think that some things should be classified.)

I also confess that I am happy that there has not been another 9/11 since 9/11, and I wish the FBI had stopped the deranged Tsarnaev brothers before they allegedly killed four innocent people in Boston and maimed a few dozen others. I understand that the authorities will never be able to eliminate terrorism entirely, but I am glad that they’ve limited it as much as they have.

And, lastly, although I don’t relish the thought of having the government intercept and record all of my communications, I want to find out whether it’s actually true that the government is doing this before I freak out about it. Also, because I am not a terrorist, because this country has a well-developed legal system, and because I do not instinctively regard all government employees as evil power-hungry scumbags, I would also like to believe that, even if the government is recording all of my communications, this won’t necessarily wreck my life.

All of which is to say…

I’m not yet ready to pronounce Edward Snowden a “hero.”

I understand that he means well.

And I understand that he may think he’s a hero.

But he hasn’t persuaded me of that yet.

By: Henry Blodget, Business Insider, June 9, 2013

June 12, 2013 Posted by | National Security | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Who Watches The Watchers?”: The Government Wouldn’t Be Able To Accumulate Data On Citizens If Companies Weren’t Collecting It

Yesterday, President Obama for the first time publicly addressed the controversies surrounding the National Security Agency’s Internet snooping, noting that there’s an important discussion to be had about the balance between security and liberty in a free country. “I welcome this debate,” he said.

I wonder, though, whether this debate is too narrowly drawn: Is the nub of the problem too much government surveillance or too much surveillance, period? After all, the government wouldn’t be able to so easily accumulate all this data on private citizens if private companies weren’t collecting it first.

In case you live under a rock, the kerfuffle involves a pair of National Security Agency programs. In one the agency spent years collecting the nation’s phone records – who called whom when and from where. In the other, codenamed PRISM, it has reportedly mined data – emails, chats and photographs, for example – of ostensibly foreign targets from prominent Internet providers like Microsoft, Yahoo, Google, Facebook, AOL and Apple, to name a few. (For their part, these companies have issued various types of denials regarding their cooperation in the program.)

But as I said, the government surveillance, which is deeply unsettling, raises a larger question about corporate surveillance. Amie Stepanovich of the Electronic Privacy Information Center points out that none of the information in question would be sharable if Internet and telecommunications companies encrypted it to protect privacy. In other words, it’s not a given that corporations must collect vast amounts of information from and about us. But failing to do so wouldn’t be good for business.

Somebody’s watching you. As security technologist Bruce Schneier has written, “The Internet is a surveillance state.” The mere act of visiting websites means you’re being tracked whether you’re aware of it or not. “Click tracking is a huge source of personal data that most people aren’t aware is being collected,” says Stephen Wicker, a Cornell University professor and author of the forthcoming “Cellular Convergence and the Death of Privacy.” He adds that “sites that you would think are relatively benign are actually hosting third party click trackers that take this data and then resell it.”

Indeed, earlier this year The Atlantic’s Alexis Madrigal dug into the world of Internet tracking and discovered 105 companies that had tracked him in a 36-hour period of normal Web surfing. “Every move you make on the Internet is worth some tiny amount to someone, and a panoply of companies want to make sure that no step along your Internet journey goes unmonetized,” he wrote. (Full – or at least partial – disclosure: I do not know whether and to what extent usnews.com employs click trackers.)

Or consider the big data kid on the block: Google. Many people probably view the company as a search engine, or a map provider, or a mobile phone company or a cloud repository for documents. What Google is, in fact, is a data collection company: It collects data on you 15 ways to Sunday, sorts it, chops it up and sells it. And as Robert Epstein pointed out on this site in May, it’s not just when you’re using the Google search engine or Gmail (though it is assuredly the case then).

The Internet behemoth is collecting information on you whether you know it or not and whether you’re using its products or not. Using Safari or Firefox? Both web browsers, Epstein wrote, use Google’s blacklist, “an ever-changing list of about 600,000 websites that Google’s bots have identified – sometimes mistakenly – as dangerous. No government agency or industry association ever gave Google the authority to maintain such a list, but it exists, and Firefox uses it.” So does Safari. If you’re visiting a website that uses Google analytics (and most major sites do) or is serviced by Google ads or has Google maps embedded in it then Google, as Epstein writes, has gotcha.

But Google’s the “Don’t be evil” company, right? (After all, they’ve just gotten Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson to star in a two-hour movie-cum-commercial.) And don’t all major social media platforms have privacy policies to protect consumers? Maybe. But in the last few years Google, Facebook and MySpace (remember that site?) have reached settlements with the Federal Trade Commission for charges related to how they handled users’ personal and private data.

The spy in your pocket. And that doesn’t even get into the personal, portable surveillance tools practically everyone in the country voluntarily carries around with them: mobile phones and other wireless devices. Pew Research reported this week that for the first time a majority of Americans own a smart phone of some kind, while fully 91 percent of the adult population now owns some flavor of cell phone. (The wireless industry lobbying group CTIA reports that wireless devices have now reached 102 percent penetration in the U.S. and its territories, which means that the machines now outnumber the people.)

And if you’re using your mobile phone, you’re being tracked. “I don’t think people realize they’re revealing their location to their carrier just by using their device,” says Ashkan Soltani, an independent privacy researcher and consultant. A 2011 investigation by the Wall Street Journal (on which Soltani consulted) found that Apple and Android smart phones routinely send location information, including information about local Wi-Fi networks, back to Apple and Google. Separately, the Journal reported in 2011, Apple’s iPhone collected and stored location data even when users had turned off “location services” – which is to say when they thought they had opted out of being tracked.

Why? This information is a potential treasure trove for these companies. From the Journal:

Google and Apple are gathering location information as part of their race to build massive databases capable of pinpointing people’s locations via their cellphones. These databases could help them tap the $2.9 billion market for location-based services – expected to rise to $8.3 billion in 2014, according to research firm Gartner, Inc.

Google uses this information to help show on its maps where automobile traffic is especially heavy or light. Verizon sells aggregate location data to advertisers, according to Soltani, so they can know where to place billboards. The wireless companies’ viewpoint, according to Soltani, is “we got this information for free, let’s use it for this other use-case, which is the marketing data.”

And there are a lot of companies trying to get a piece of this financial pie. In another story, the Journal surveyed 101 popular iPhone and Android apps and found that “56 transmitted the phone’s unique device ID to other companies without users’ awareness or consent. Forty-seven apps transmitted the phone’s location in some way. Five sent age, gender and other personal details to outsiders.” As Soltani told a Senate subcommittee in 2011, “applications can access and transmit data which includes text messages, emails, phone numbers, contacts stored and even browser history stored on the device.”

So if you woke yourself up this morning with an alarm clock app on your phone, the instant it went off, says Soltani, not only did it transmit noise to your ears but location data back to people you don’t know. “There are times where there are 50 or 100 third parties – companies that you’ve never had a relationship with – who are able to monitor your … activities,” he says.

Not big on apps? Consider your next visit to the local mall. Carriers and other companies are installing sensors around shopping malls, Soltani says, allowing them to track where people are lingering, what’s popular and what’s not, analytics that then go to the mall.

Perverse incentive. All of this creates what Soltani calls a “perverse incentive that creates this worst case scenario for consumers.” Companies have an incentive to collect and keep user data; and that trove proves an irresistible target for the government in its ongoing war on terrorists.

Which brings us back to the current uproar over the NSA’s data collection and data mining. The outrage is justified, as is the broader concern about how the cult of secrecy has infected and distorted the government. But there is something somewhat comforting to the notion that government agencies are ultimately responsible to the voters, even if that process has become calcified and overly complex.

But the surveillance state is built upon its corporate counterpart. And who watches those watchers?

 

By: Robert Schlesinger, U. S. News and World Report, June 8, 2013

June 9, 2013 Posted by | Corporations, National Security | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Non-Factual Facts”: Washington Post Hedges Claim That Google, Facebook, Gave The Government Direct Access To Their Servers

Yesterday, the Washington Post reported a shocking story about how the FBI and National Security Agency had partnered with Google, Facebook, and many other tech companies to spy on the tech companies’ hundreds of millions of users.

The government agencies, the Post said, were “tapping directly into the central servers of nine leading U.S. Internet companies, extracting audio, video, photographs, e-mails, documents and connection logs that enable analysts to track a person’s movements and contacts over time.”

This surveillance program, the Post reported, had been “knowingly” facilitated by the tech companies, which had allowed the government to tap directly into their central servers.

The Post story described a “career intelligence officer” as being so horrified by the power and privacy intrusion of this surveillance system that the officer was helping to leak the news to expose it.

“They quite literally can watch your ideas form as you type,” the officer reportedly told the Post.

Not surprisingly, the Post’s story created an instant explosion of outrage. The ire was directed at both the government and the technology companies.

The story also led to immediate, explicit denials from the technology companies. Google, Facebook, and Yahoo all said that the government did not have “direct access” to any servers. Apple said it had never even heard of the program it was supposedly partnering with.

So The Post’s claim that the companies had voluntarily given the government direct, open, un-monitored access to their servers quickly seemed suspect.

And now, 24 hours later, after more denials and questions, the Post has made at least two important changes to its spying story.

First, the Post has eliminated the assertion that the technology companies “knowingly” participated in the government spying program.

Second, and more importantly, the Post has hedged its assertion that the companies have granted the government direct access to their servers.

The latter change is subtle, but important. In the first version of its story, the Post stated as a fact that the government had been given direct access to the companies’ servers.

Now, the Post attributes the claim to a government presentation–a document that has been subjected to significant scrutiny and skepticism over the past day and that, in this respect, at least, seems inaccurate.

In other words, the Post appears to have essentially retracted the most startling and important part of its story: That the country’s largest technology companies have voluntarily given the government direct access to their central servers so the government can spy on the tech companies’ users in real time.

Specifically, here’s how the Washington Post story has changed…

Here’s the original first paragraph:

The National Security Agency and the FBI are tapping directly into the central servers of nine leading U.S. Internet companies, extracting audio, video, photographs, e-mails, documents and connection logs that enable analysts to track a person’s movements and contacts over time.

Here’s the updated paragraph (our emphasis):

The National Security Agency and the FBI are tapping directly into the central servers of nine leading U.S. Internet companies, extracting audio and video chats, photographs, e-mails, documents, and connection logs that enable analysts to track foreign targets, according to a top-secret document obtained by The Washington Post.

That change is important. The direct-access claim changes from a fact asserted by the Washington Post to a claim made in a document the Washington Post has seen–a document that might be wrong.

The idea that Google, Facebook, Apple, et al, had voluntarily given the government direct unfettered access to their servers always seemed far-fetched.

This behavior would justifiably trigger the wrath of the companies’ hundreds of millions of users worldwide and exacerbate already existing concerns that these companies routinely trample all over their users’ privacy.

Furthermore, the government’s assertions that its spying programs are directed primarily at foreigners, not US citizens, would not be viewed as comforting to Google, Facebook, et al.

Why not?

Because the vast majority of the users of these companies’ services are foreigners.

If the international users of Facebook, Google, et al, were to feel that the companies were opening their data centers in this way, the international users might revolt. So it’s hard to imagine that these companies would just voluntarily open their servers to the U.S. government (or, for that matter, any other government).

The Washington Post also broke the news about the existence of the vast government program Internet spying called PRISM, which other outlets have since confirmed. And the story illustrated how extensively the government uses Internet communications in its intelligence efforts and how important these communications are to national security.

But, a day after the Post story appeared, it seems likely that the following claims are wrong or at least need major qualification:

  • that the NSA and FBI are “tapping directly into the central servers” of Facebook, Google, et al, and,
  • that the government can “quite literally watch your ideas form as you type.”

 

By: Henry Blodget, Business Insider, June 7, 2013

June 9, 2013 Posted by | National Security | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

   

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