The door slams shut on the open internet
Private control of the internet by a handful of corporations is nearly complete.
The internet's greatest feature has long been that no one controls it. Internet pioneer John Gilmore, one of the founders of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, once stated that "[t]he Net interprets censorship as damage and routes around it." We are now finding out what happens when telecoms and internet utilities usurp internet openness and take over the internet.
Dr. Monica Horten describes the power "network providers and content platforms" now wield over governments and internet users, and how the ceding of power to these companies has led to the demise of the internet's openness. In an August 2016 interview on Deutsche Welle, Horten notes that politicians cite terrorism fears as the reason for restricting the internet, yet such restrictions immediately raise the potential of infringing on free speech.
As Horten notes, some of the loudest calls for restricting the open internet are from copyright holders, who want to block unauthorized use of their copyrighted material preemptively. The companies already control the hardware and software that run our phones and tablets: Google's Android and Apple's iOS are not only dominant platforms, they are the mobile infrastructure.
(Horten also points out that because these internet giants own the platforms, they exert tremendous pressure over government regulators, who are loathe to challenge the Googles and Facebooks while bending over backwards to do their bidding.)
Now media and internet companies are attempting to build digital rights management (DRM) into all browsers so they can control what we can access on the internet via our PCs. This week, the firms that own the copyrights took a giant step toward closing the internet by controlling our access to web content.
Browsers will soon include a copyright gate
Why does DRM matter on the web? The companies that own copyrights on web content want to prevent unauthorized use of their copyrighted products, so they are promoting a standard that will apply DRM controls to web browsers.
A new DRM standard from the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) called Encrypted Media Extensions (EME) is intended to block movies and other copyrighted media from being saved, copied, or shared, as the Register's Kieran McCarthy writes in a September 18, 2017, article. Netflix, Microsoft, and Google are among the companies that support EME.
So why did the W3C's recent vote to approve the EME specification cause the Electronic Frontier Foundation to resign from the W3C? In an open letter dated September 18, 2017, Cory Doctorow, who is EFF's Advisory Committee representative to the W3C, states that EME is contrary to the W3C's mission to keep the web "free and open."
In particular, the EFF believes there are many legitimate reasons for bypassing DRM protections in media. Three examples are security research, archiving, and enhancing the material to make it accessible to people with disabilities. EME will also stifle innovation, according to Doctorow. Perhaps the most portentious implication of the W3C's approval of EME is the change of direction the decision represents for the group charged with maintaining web standards.
In a September 21, 2017, article on Wired, Doctorow writes that all W3C standards approved prior to 2017 were intended to formalize "some technological means of giving users control over their computers." EME does just the opposite, according to Doctorow: It gives copyright holders the power to control your computer while you play their media. So even if you have a legal right to record the material for later playback, the copyright holder will block you.
Doctorow and other open-internet proponents suggested alternatives to EME that would accommodate people who have a legitimate and perfectly legal reason for bypassing the copyright controls built into media. The W3C instead bowed to the media companies and big internet platforms in approving EME on a vote of 58.4 percent. This marks the first time a W3C standard was approved with what Doctorow refers to as "a far cry from consensus."
It's difficult to get excited about web standards, which Doctorow describes as "boring, complicated, and important." The decision to approve EME marks a turning point in the history of the web. Rather than standing with users as it has since its inception more than 20 years ago, the W3C has partnered with "big entertainment companies," according to Doctorow.
Making a last stand for net neutrality
Another tenet of the open internet that is under serious attack is the principal that all network traffic is treated equally. Net neutrality ensures that the companies running the show can't give preference to some web material so it is delivered to users faster than other content, or otherwise favored over similar material. As Ars Technica's Jon Brodkin writes in a May 18, 2017, article, the U.S. Federal Communications Commission has proposed killing the regulations that enforce net neutrality. This will allow internet services to favor their own internet traffic, or offer their widest pipes to the highest bidder.
A group of net-neutrality proponents plans two days of protest in Washington, DC, next week as they attempt to reverse the FCC's repeal of net-neutrality protections. Sci-Tech Today's Dominic Rushe writes in a September 18, 2017, article that the protesters plan to attend the September 26, 2017, meeting of the FCC to voice their opposition to the change. The group will head for Capitol Hill the next day to meet with elected officials to express their concerns about the negative effects of the change for internet users.
Organizations participating in the protest include Public Knowledge, EFF, Center for Media Justice, Common Cause, Consumers Union, Free Press, and Writers Guild of America West. They have designated September 27, 2017, as a Net Neutrality Day of Action. The group has the support of nine Democratic Senators who have written a letter to the FCC asking the agency to delay its rescission of the regulations, as the Hill's Harper Neidig reports in a September 21, 2017, article.
The new version of Apple's Safari browser adds features that make it more difficult for ad networks to track us on the web. MacRumors' Juli Clover writes in a September 15, 2017, article that the ad industry is fighting back. A group of six "trade and marketing organizations" sent Apple a letter requesting that the company roll back the Safari Intelligent Tracking Prevention feature. Apple's response was, in a word, "Nuts!"
Apple states on its WebKit blog that pervasive tracking and unauthorized collection of private data break the "user trust" that is a prerequisite for the web's success. To disable cross-site tracking in the iOS 11 version of Safari, choose Settings > Safari > Prevent Cross-Site Tracking. In macOS High Sierra, open Safari's Preferences and select Privacy > Prevent Cross-Site Tracking.
Show us the source code. Perhaps the only topic more boring than web standards is software source code. Yet lives are in the balance when software is used to authenticate evidence that can sentence someone to a long prison stretch, or even send them to death row. Many of the DNA-testing programs used by law enforcement and courts in legal proceedings are proprietary, which means the public doesn't have access to the software's source code.
Why does that matter? You may have heard that software sometimes has bugs. Let me rephrase that: Software always has bugs. Programmers hope the bugs they haven't yet discovered in their code don't cause any problems. Maybe software developers keeping their fingers crossed is an inadequate safeguard against errors that can send innocent people to jail, or let guilty parties go free.
A September 4, 2017, story by Lauren Kirchner, co-published by ProPublica and the New York Times, reports that the DNA laboratory used by the New York City chief medical examiner was relying on software whose accuracy "should be seriously questioned," according to testimony of a software expert. It took a court case to make the proprietary software subject to review.
A group of defense lawyers has asked New York's state inspector general's office to investigate use of the disputed DNA techniques in "thousands of criminal cases." Any flaws discovered in the software would likely lead to "an avalanche of litigation," according to Kirchner. In many criminal cases in New York, defense attorneys had asked for access to the source code of the DNA analysis software used to reach conclusions about evidence. Each request was denied on the grounds that the software was "proprietary and copyrighted."
In June 2016, a federal judge finally granted defense access to the software's source code. A forensic computer scientist who examined the code found that the program "dropped valuable data from its calculations," which affected the likelihood that the defendant's DNA was detected in the sample collected. No one except the software vendor's own employees analyzed the accuracy of the program. One of the scientists in the city's DNA lab said, "We don't know what's going on in that black box."
Algorithms are used to determine everything from sentencing to whether someone qualifies for a home loan, yet bias is built into nearly every algorithm, as Will Knight writes in a July 12, 2017, article in the MIT Technology Review. To raise awareness of an important issue that the tech industry and government agencies would rather ignore, the American Civil Liberties Union joined with a group of researchers to launch the AI Now Initiative.
It's clear that we can't trust the developers and purveyors of proprietary algorithms to ensure their products don't discriminate against minorities, women, and other groups. Yet the owners of the programs are unwilling to provide access to researchers who could test the algorithms for bias. Mathematician Cathy O'Neil, who wrote the book Weapons of Math Destruction, sums up the situation: "People trust [algorithms] too much."
Is there a government agency more heartless than ICE? An agent for the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency was tipped off that the parents of a seriously ill 2-month-old baby were in the country illegally. The parents had to get their child to a hospital a couple of hours away for life-saving treatment. To get to that hospital, the couple would have to pass through a Customs Bureau checkpoint.
The agent informed the parents that they would be arrested and deportation proceedings begun as soon as they arrived at the hospital. NPR's John Burnett reports in a September 20, 2017, article that ICE agents followed the parents around the hospital while their child was treated. The scrutiny led to the child's surgery being delayed for one day.
Because the parents had no criminal record, some people question why such "intense supervision" was necessary by ICE. As Burnett notes, the agency has recently made arrests of people who were leaving church, who were being treated at a hospital after brain surgery, and who were dropping off their children at school.
Democratic members of Congress have responded to ICE's heartless aggression by proposing the Protecting Sensitive Locations Act, which would identify certain places as safe zones where ICE would be prohibited from making arrests. Protected sites include courts, hospitals, churches, and bus stops.
Good luck getting the Lyin' King to sign that legislation.