Reading09: Net Neutrality, or Why Thinking About Our Internet Situation Just Makes Me Mad

Reading09: Net Neutrality, or why thinking about our internet situation just makes me mad

Net neutrality is, in short, the principle that Internet Service Providers (ISPs), like Comcast, AT&T, Time Warner, etc, cannot throttle or block particular content on any grounds except for legality. In other words, they have to act as infrastructure and infrastructure alone – who the user communicates with, and what they say, cannot be grounds for their web traffic to be handled any differently.

The arguments for net neutrality mostly focus on protecting the customers (both individuals and other companies) from predatory practices by ISPs. A free and open internet is in everyone’s best interest. Without net neutrality, ISPs would be free to do things such as block certain sites based on their content, throttle or block entirely services of competitors, and divide the internet into fast and slow lanes based on who’s paying.

The arguments against net neutrality say that the government is overreaching with these regulations, and is stifling the free market competition. Removing the ability for companies to have different tiers, or to differentiate traffic stifles the growth of the ISP industry. Certain services could benefit from paying to be guaranteed fast access, and companies are now disincentivized from innovating to provide a better product.

Like many people on the tech-ier side of things, I am staunchly for net neutrality. A lot of the arguments for repealing the net neutrality regulations claim “The ISPs won’t do these profit grabbing things that they would now be able to do! In fact, we don’t even want to! We just… don’t want that regulation!” I’m pretty cynical on this subject as a whole – to me, it seems that net neutrality is in the best interest of everyone but the ISPs (who stand to make increased profits without it), and its repeal is symptom of large corporate donors having too strong a voice in American politics.

Questions of implementation and enforcement I’m less able to speak to – beyond having regulations and federal oversight from the FTC/FCC to punish infractions, I don’t know the specifics of what can be done to enforce this. If certain services load just a little faster on a certain ISP, how are we to tell if that’s deliberate, or just a quirk of the fluctuating speeds and unreliable connection that we’ve all-too-often come to accept as normal from our ISPs?

But, above all, I am not at all confident in the free market fixing all of our internet woes. Time and time again, the ISPs have showed that they are not interested in continually improving their service, iterating on their company for the benefit of the consumer. The internet sector as a whole has been historically very money-driven and bad for the consumer. Staggering amounts of money have disappeared to ISPs and telecom utilities companies, with nothing visible to show for it, and no clear answers given what happened to it (See the $200 billion dollar grant to cable companies to build fiber optic lines for the US that just… disappeared).

The internet situation in the US is profoundly broken. ISPs are already charging twice (charging users on both ends, be they people or corporations) on any interactions that occurs over the cables they own. They want the freedom to differentiate the service they provide in order to get more money out of people. In what other sector do the people that own the infrastructure have such radical control over everyone else involved? We need to reassess, and it’s hard to do so when the huge corporations have such strong voices (read: such deep pockets).

Reading08: Corporations are by the few, for the few

Reading08: Corporations are by the few, for the few

Corporate Personhood is when corporations are afforded some of the same rights and freedoms that people are granted (and, too infrequently, when they are given the same responsibilities). The most high-profile example is the ability of corporations to participate in the political process by lobbying and giving donations, a freedom given under Free Speech from the 1st amendment.

Most of the aspects of corporate personhood are freedoms, under the 1st, 4th, 5th (though they have no privilege against self-incrimination), 6th, and 8th Amendments to the U.S. Constitution. Criminal and civil legal actions can be taken against a corporation as a whole, as well.  The legal ramifications are pretty straightforward – certain actions by its members can be held against a corporation as a whole, and penalties (usually in the form of fines) can be levied against them.

The social and ethical ramifications are more complicated, and I think are where our current system is lacking. In short, I believe that a problem arises because we give corporations the ability to do things like participate in our political process and engage with communities, but the current view and structure of corporations holds that making as much money as possible (i.e. maximizing shareholder profit) is the goal. I will discuss this more after the specific case study.

I chose to read about the Sony BMG Rootkit. It seems like a no-brainer to me that installing a rootkit without users’ knowledge was unethical. In addition to installing software on user systems unbeknownst to them with no clear way of uninstalling it (bad enough already), the rootkit made the users vulnerable to all manner of attacks – any malicious program simply needed to put “$sys$” at the start of its name, and it would be hidden from the user.

I’m largely against DRM – if people want to pirate, they’re going to pirate; no company can make their content completely locked down. But, I don’t think that DRM in and of itself is unethical. I think it’s ineffective, unnecessary, and often puts too much power in the hands of the distributors rather than those who produce the media, but that’s beside the point. DRM in and of itself isn’t unethical. Coopting customers’ systems without their knowledge is. Doubly so because it was done irresponsibly, in a way that opens even careful customers up to opportunistic attacks.

I think that if corporations are afforded the same rights as individual persons, they should also be expected to, at the very least, have similar ethical and moral obligations and responsibilities. There will obviously be differences because it’s a corporation, but it can’t be like it is now – where profit matters above all else.

Just like people, corporations need to act as citizens. Currently, they largely try to make money above all else, to others’ detriment – they lobby for political change in self-interest, not policies that will help better society, they pollute the environment except where fines make it more economic not to, etc. Corporations have a lot of power, much more so than any one person. If we’re going to let them into our political process, we also need to rethink how we approach corporations. When they’re understood to be these large machines, controlled by the C-level executives, it’s no small wonder that the effects they have benefit the few rather than the many.

I don’t have a good answer for how to fix things, but the current system is not set up to approach the good of everyone. It would be a step forward if, as one reading suggested, lower-level workers had more say in the running and policy of their corporation. If employees contributed more than just labor to their company – their views and opinions in discourse, too – it would be at the very least a step in the right direction.

Reading07: Data gathering isn’t always good… but it’s not always bad, either

Reading07: Data gathering isn’t always good… but it’s not always bad, either

I’m honestly not sure how to judge the use of data gathering/mining in order to sell customers goods and services. There is definitely a point that goes too far, but there’s also a degree that is logical and necessary for a company to function well. How do we draw a line between these two? When does a company go too far?

It seems fitting and necessary for a company to aggregate data one their customers that are directly pertinent to their business. I wouldn’t begrudge a supermarket for tracking my purchases and using my purchasing habits to send me coupons or alert me on deals I’m interested in. That seems fitting and logical.

However, I’m less sure about the practice of seeking out/buying additional data on consumers, even if it’s pursuant to the goals of the company. For example, when Target sought out extra data on their customers to determine who was pregnant, in order to send them targeted advertising. This is clearly in line with their “greedy strategy” – they’re doing their best to maximize their sales and profits, and capture the spending habits of additional people. But, and I think I’m far from alone in this, something feels a bit off. To have this corporate giant purchasing information about me that’s not really relevant in order to sell me things? That doesn’t feel quite right.

My initial thoughts are that the issue arises when the company seeks out and purchases additional data on people. Data gathered in the course of doing business is, in my opinion, pretty uncontroversially “fair game”. But should companies be able to purchase additional, seemingly unrelated information about us?

To say that data brokers should be abolished and are across-the-board unethical is a bit naïve. On one hand, when there is money to be made from doing this (and there clearly is), it’s not as if it’s going to stop easily. On the other, though… aren’t we deriving benefit from this?

If a pregnant woman is preparing to have a child, and receives coupons and deals from Target, isn’t she drawing benefit? Maybe money is tight, and they really make a difference. Is it so wrong for Target to benefit from this knowledge, if they’re providing a service? We’ve all benefited from the growing interconnectedness of different parts of our lives, often in ways that we don’t even think about.

To me, a large part of the concern is in what happens to personal data, and how it’s handled. Hacks and data breaches happen, and the more companies that have our personal data, the more it’s been spread around, the more opportunities there are for it to get out to people whose intentions might be less above-board, might be seeking to benefit from our loss. If there was a guarantee that the information was completely secure, would we care as much? What if Target had, after figuring out who was pregnant and acting on it, immediately deleted all the data it had gathered? Why does that feel less objectionable?

Data gathering and analysis is never going to go away. There are definitely degrees that are too much, and there should be an obligation to protect the personal information that is gathered. However, we do at times derive very real benefit from these practices. Maybe this is just the reality of the increasingly connected world we live in.