Decentralized Web Pt 2: Surveillance and Privacy

In the last post, I focused on the “walled garden” problem associated with the oligarchy that dominates web traffic today — Google, Facebook, Amazon, Microsoft and Apple. That’s not the only issue associated with the Frightful Five, though. Consider your privacy online.

You’ve probably heard the bit about “if the web service is free for your use, you’re not the customer, you’re the product.” It’s as true as it ever was, and if you need more proof, consider why your internet service provider is so keen to remove legal restrictions on sharing your personal information — they argue a need because the content companies have no such restrictions.

Protecting privacy and anonymity onlineAnother privacy issue related to your online conduct is that it’s becoming harder to be anonymous on the web. Here are some ways to do it. That can be a good thing; we all want online bullies, harassers and trolls to be controlled. But consider all those people who live under repressive regimes, where bloggers who write things counter to the prevailing political or cultural winds wind up jailed, tortured, or dead. An enhanced surveillance state isn’t much good for democracy either.

Do I have to mention the threats to privacy represented by the potential for electronic identity theft? With so many folks trying to break security and breaches happening so often, at some point, someone will get access to Facebook’s database.

Nearly Getting it Right

Today, you have the option of creating and maintaining your own site on the World Wide Web. Having control over your own space online allows you to define what information you are willing to share with what subset of humanity. This should be the goal, not simply posting your thoughts, plans and activities to some other billion-dollar corporate entity, hoping that they will do the right thing with your information.

Curiously enough, it was Google Plus that seemed to understand how sharing online content by and from users should be done. They made it easy to define Circles, people who received only information from you that you intended them to see. Unlike Facebook, which wants everything you share to be Public (perhaps in part so they can be less concerned about hiding material that ought not be public).

Of course, like Facebook, Google wants you to post all the things you’re interested in so that they can collect data to better sell you to advertisers. Perhaps that’s a reason Google Plus became one of the more notable Google project failures.

Having your own website is a start, but isn’t everything. In the next post, I want to tell you about the IndieWeb, a way station to the decentralized web.

What concerns you most about the centralized web described here? Do you have a personal experience with lack of privacy or oversharing in social media? Further questions on what the decentralized web might look like? Add a comment!

What is a Decentralized Web? Part 1

In my relaunch post a few weeks ago, I raised the issue of building an open, decentralized web.

This paper launched the Decentralized Web Summit. It's signed by its author, Brewster Kahle, Tim Berners-Lee, and Vint Cerf.
This paper launched the Decentralized Web Summit. It’s signed by its author, Brewster Kahle, Tim Berners-Lee, and Vint Cerf.

As I write this, we mark the first anniversary of the Decentralized Web Summit (DWS) held at the Internet Archive in San Francisco. I wasn’t there, but was inspired by the ideas shared there. Click the link to see video of the keynote addresses given there, and much more information on what happened there. You may also find this Fast Company story from two of my favorite writers, Dan Gillmor and Kevin Marks quite useful.

It’s occurred to me that in the year since the summit, the term “decentralized web” hasn’t gained the traction among ordinary folk that “net neutrality” has.  In this and the next couple posts, I’m here to help.

We once solved a big problem with the internet

When the World Wide Web was born, most people got online through one of two commercial services: Prodigy and America Online. If you don’t remember, these companies offered dial-up access to news, games, and community — all of which were located inside the walls of each service. Both companies worked hard to keep you inside their walled garden, even after they started offering content from the open Internet.

At that time, your “online service” completely controlled what access you had to the information resources of the wider internet. They also controlled the look-and-feel of those resources, so even if they offered a gateway outside the walled garden, you might not realize it.

Eventually, demand for full internet access forced the corporate online services to acquiesce, even though they probably knew that their internally generated content could never compete with the wonders of the World Wide Web.

Today’s oligarchy

The problem today is not that far away from the early 1990s. Consider this:

Tim Berners-Lee, who won the Turing Award for inventing the World Wide Web in the first place, describes the new problem this way in this interview with The New York Times: “The problem is the dominance of one search engine, one big social network, one Twitter for microblogging. We don’t have a technology problem, we have a social problem.”

Farhad Manjoo of the New York Times has a slightly different list; omitting Twitter and adding the operating system behemoths: he calls them the Frightful Five: Google, Facebook, Amazon, Microsoft and Apple. Do take his survey to see how badly you’re hooked.

In the same interview, Berners-Lee identifies the results of this oligarchical control of the Web:

“It controls what people see, creates mechanisms for how people interact. It’s been great, but spying, blocking sites, repurposing people’s content, taking you to the wrong websites — that completely undermines the spirit of helping people create.”

So here we are again.

One solution: (Re)Decentralize the Web

The long-term solution would seem to be breaking up the Frightful Five, and putting users in control. But that’s easier said than done. I have long advocated that writers should have an online home of their own, but Berners-Lee highlights the problem that is everyone’s.

In the interests of preserving your time, I’ll stop now. In the next couple of posts, I hope to further explain the issue of centralization, how it affects you, and show you some intermediate steps along the way.

One more thing: Another blog for the Open Web

I want to introduce you to AltPlatform.org, another blog devoted to Open Web technologies. The founders are folks I have a ton of respect for, and (like me) think the time is right to move forward on these ideas.

What do you think of when you hear the phrase “decentralized web”? Does my premise reflect reality? What questions do you have? Leave a comment below, and I’ll try to answer in a subsequent post (if I don’t respond immediately).

 

Net Neutrality Update: Is John Oliver our only champion?

The fight’s begun! Last week, Ajit Pai’s Federal Communications Commission officially launched its “repeal and replace” plan for net neutrality. This principle identifies the level playing field for all content on the internet. You have a couple of months to preserve this principle from corporate assault.

Ajit Pai became FCC chair in January, firmly determined to gut real net neutrality, but with a smiling face. Pai has been giving interviews to a variety of media outlets. His pitch is something like this:

  • Everybody in the universe loves the free and open Internet.
  • The telecommunications companies that offer you and I our Internet connections hate the very idea of offering fast lanes to some content providers, and slow lanes for the rest of us.
  • The 2015 rules (known as the Open Internet Order) are deeply onerous, solve a nonexistent problem, and prevent these telecom giants from building better broadband connections that other industrialized countries take for granted.

Sadly, he leaves out the petty little detail that the telecoms have been busy, before and since the Open Internet Order was ratified, buying content companies.

John Oliver strikes again

Perhaps the first time you heard anything about net neutrality was from John Oliver, the very funny host of HBO’s Last Week Tonight. Three years ago, when the chair of the US Federal Communications Commission was first proposing  a corporate-friendly version of net neutrality, Oliver devoted one of his first post-Daily Show broadcasts to explaining what net neutrality was, why it was important, and how the proposed FCC rules were inadequate to the challenge. He asked his viewers to make their opinions known to the FCC online. The response crashed the agency’s servers.

About a year, and four million comments, later, the FCC passed strong net neutrality rules on a party line vote. The power of popular pressure on display was absolutely amazing.

The thing is, corporations don’t take defeat well. if they lose a fight, it’s only temporary. It may take time, but they will keep coming as often as necessary. Which brings us to the current situation.

The response: “Really, a comic?”

On Sunday, May 7, Last Week Tonight took up net neutrality again, with a similar result. The presumably beefed-up FCC servers crashed again under the weight of people’s fury. FCC staff even claimed the FCC was under attack by cyber-criminals!

In addition, conservative opponents of real net neutrality were ready for Oliver this time around.

Among other conservative, corporate pundits, Scott Cleland, a former official of the George H. W. Bush administration, wrote that “HBO’s John Oliver needs a Net Neutrality reality check” at TheHill .com on May 8:

“Is net neutrality policy the joke here? Or is the joke really that net neutrality activists think late night comedy is the most effective way for them to influence the FCC on public policy?”

His argument boils down to this: Everything’s changed since Oliver’s first rant. Wheeler could be pressured. Obama could be pressured. Pai already demonstrated that he’s not changing his mind. Trump will stand by Pai. Congress already overturned the privacy rules, and not a single REpublican member of Congress backs net neutrality. And supporters just trot out a comedian (again)?

In this world, the only effective pressure comes from the tech oligarchs.

If there is a political wildcard here, it is the handful of Internet networks that individually or together command that much potential political power. Among them are Google-Android-YouTube-Cloud; Facebook-Messenger-Instagram; Amazon-Prime-AWS; and Microsoft-Azure-Linked-in.

These four unregulated companies are worth $2 trillion, have unmatched media influence, and command dominant market shares in multiple communications-related markets.

Remember that Cleland’s audience at TheHill.com are the lobbyists, bureaucrats and others who need to know how the winds are blowing in DC. The mindset there is that the only actors that matter are the corporate influence-buyers. And most of the time, that is the reality. Cleland wants to tell the rest of us that this net neutrality thing is just a fight among billionaires, that it doesn’t matter who wins, and you and I shouldn’t waste time arguing about it.

But we still live in a democracy, for now at least. While I’m really glad that John Oliver is on our side, he is not our savior; we are the leaders we’ve been looking for. We need to apply a variety of tactics, but make both the FCC and the Congress bend to our will.

Is the fight for net neutrality hopeless? What can ordinary people do to preserve democracy on the internet? Your thoughts — and proposals — are appreciated here. In the meantime, let’s use John Oliver’s link to tell the FCC what we think:

http://www.gofccyourself.com

See also

Welcome Back! Let’s fight for an Open Web

Why Net Neutrality Matters to Writers

Welcome Back! Let’s fight for an Open Web

A few weeks ago, I was preparing a talk on WordPress at a local university. I knew that posting here at Notes from the Metaverse was on the erratic side in recent months. Yet it was something of a shock to discover that more than a year had gone by!

When confronted with a fact like that, you have to ask yourself if it’s time to recognize that Notes had run its course, and let it slip quietly away. Maybe no one would notice after all these months. After careful consideration, I realized I still had something to say. Blogosphere: You ain’t rid of me yet!

New Focus: Defending the Open Web and the technologies that enable it

What is the Open Web?

Notes from the Metaverse has nearly always been about helping people use technology, and occasionally how to think critically about technology. Moving forward, that really doesn’t change much.

I saw a headline last week that startled me: “Can democracy survive the Internet?” Haven’t read the article yet, but one of the philosophical premises of this blog is that the Internet might be the most powerful force for democracy that’s ever been. My concern is that the technologies empowering people through the Internet are under attack, and their promise might fade — or even disappear — if we don’t pull together to preserve what we have.

Thus, post topics here may benefit from a little more focus. For the immediate future, most Notes will fall under these broad categories:

Software tools that empower

Starting with the things that won’t change: You’ll learn stuff about Linux, WordPress and other Free Libre and Open Source Software (FLOSS). You’ll also get news about the communities that surround the code. FLOSS represents the most empowering technologies for folks like you and me, because the goal is to put you in charge of the tools.

Defend net neutrality and universal access to the Internet

I’ve written a lot about net neutrality, because the basic principle of the Internet favors a level playing field, where everyone has equal access to every website. I use WordPress in part because it enables anyone, regardless of how much money or fame or sense they may have, to communicate with readers. If only the sites that can pay for a fast lane can find an audience, we all lose.

More on this to come, but in the meantime, do take a look at my earlier writings on the topic.

For an open, decentralized web

The fight for net neutrality is often portrayed as being between the big telecommunications companies and the big content companies like Google, Netflix, and Facebook. There’s some truth to that, but that’s not the fight I’m concerned with. The AT&Ts, Verizons, and Comcasts of the world that provide the “pipe” through which the vast amount of content arrives in our homes, offices, and mobile devices have much in common with the giant content companies who either view the average Internet user as either a pair of eyeballs to sell to, or the product whose content and privacy are for sale to advertisers.

Many of the founders of the World Wide Web, including Sir Tim Berners-Lee, organized the Decentralized Web Summit in June 2016 to revive the idea that the web’s users should wrest control of the Web from the content oligarchs. Users should be able to control what information they want to receive, what they want to controbute, and not have to give up their privacy to participate in the conversation. I think this is a great idea, and will be reporting on its progress.

Details

Of course, this is a blog, so I reserve the right to diverge from these topics whenever I feel like it.

I’m hoping to return to a weekly posting schedule, but we’ll see how that goes.

If you’ve been reading these Notes for years (or even a decade), welcome back! Let me know what you think about these changes.

If you’ve come across this post through some other means, please take a look around. If you like what you see, please subscribe in the . Also check my main site at MichaelMcCallister.com.

Questions, comments, rebellion against the new themes? It’s all welcome, in the big box below.

Mitchell Baker: Technology is Not Enough!

The panel discussion among Internet pioneers started innocently enough, with Vint Cerf and David Farber reminiscing about the early days of the Internet and the other titans of personal computing. Engrossing stuff, even if I knew most of it before.

The Smithsonian National Museum of American History and the Internet Society hosted a panel last week called “The Internet Age: Founders to Future” last week. The panel featured Cerf, Farber, Mitchell Baker of Mozilla, and Sebastian Thrum of Udacity.

Resolving the Digital Divide

When the discussion turned to the future, though, things got a little testy. Farber and Cerf were talking about how about the global digital divide is being bridged by the increasing use of mobile phones in the underdeveloped world. This is a common meme among Internet optimists.

Česky: Mitchell Baker na OSCON 2005. Deutsch: ...
Mitchell Baker at OSCON 2005, with the same kind of look she had at the Smithsonian last week. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

If you watch the recording (below, at about 57 minutes), you’ll notice Baker start to fidget in her chair when this came up. If this were a grade school classroom, she’d probably start raising her hand in the air for recognition. Something is missing in this narrative.

http://livestream.com/accounts/686369/events/4119762/player?width=560&height=315&autoPlay=true&mute=false

“I don’t think technology’s enough,” Mitchell said. “It’s so comfortable to say ‘We have mobile phones, so the digital divide is just going away on its own. The bottom of the pyramid, the two billion people who are starving  will magically be able to get phones and access and a data plan – everything is going to open up.’”

Mitchell argued that progress in technology has a “positive direction,” but tech alone will not resolve every human problem. “It will continue to be an act of will of nation-states and individuals to assist in (fixing) not just the digital divide but the starvation divide. Just having a cheap phone is not going to fix that!”

Cerf said that Mitchell had a legitimate point, but noted that poor people have used smartphones as a way of transferring value. Making electronic payments through phones allow people to avoid some of the corruption involved with cash payments. “Don’t blame starvation on the Internet.”

Vint Cerf, North American computer scientist w...
Vint Cerf, North American computer scientist who is commonly referred to as one of the “founding fathers of the Internet” for his key technical and managerial role, together with Bob Kahn, in the creation of the Internet and the TCP/IP protocols which it uses. Taken at a conference in Bangalore. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Mitchell said that “Human beings still have to care and make some effort with our policies and our wealth distribution and social stigmas in order to address the divides.“ A rising tide may lift all boats, but you may still have “haves and have-nots.”

Tech as tool for democracy

Farber said the Internet can function as an important tool for making change. “Without technology, the little people are separated. … We provide the vehicle for people to get together.” Thrum had raised a similar point earlier, citing the 2011 Egyptian uprising and the Arab Spring as the prime example of the Net as a democratic tool.

Let me interject here: Egypt represents another common analogy when talking about the connection between the Internet and activism, but fails to note a key fact. While Hosni Mubarak is not president of Egypt anymore, the military was really the power in Egypt at the beginning of the decade, and has returned to power now. Far too many of the youthful revolutionaries of Tahrir Square are either quiet, in jail, or in exile.

Women on Tech Panels For the Win?

Now I don’t want to suggest that Cerf (who helped create TCP/IP), Farber (an originator of academic use of the Net) or Thrum are the bad guys here, but this discussion doesn’t happen without Mitchell Baker. She may not have the “founder of the Internet” credentials of the others, but she may have a better sense of the real social value of the Internet and associated technologies.

It’s easy to view the mass adoption of the Internet and the changes that personal computing have made with a sense of triumphalism. It’s truly been amazing! Just the same, Mitchell had it right — technology by itself just doesn’t cut it. People have to be empowered for the world to change. As I’ve said before, Democracy is not a spectator sport.

Bringing a different set of (non-engineering) life experiences, and being involved in one of the bigger open source projects, Baker forced the founders to think about the role of human beings in building democracy. Putting the whole Internet (not just the sites Mark Zuckerberg approves of) on cheap cell phones is important, but the Internet is just a tool for people to expand and exercise their power.

Happy Net Neutrality Day!

People of the Internet, Rejoice!

People of the Internet, Rejoice!

It’s an important day in the history of the Internet. Despite enormous pressure from the Big Media corporations, the US Federal Communications Commission (FCC) bowed to the democratic pressure of millions of Internet users. These users demanded strong protections against “slow lanes” for their network connections, and to preserve equal protection for all content traveling across the public Internet.

I’ve written about this before, most recently just after President Barack Obama came out for “the strongest possible protection for net neutrality.” If you’re confused by this whole thing, I hope that piece will help clarify things for you.

Net Neutrality: 3 corporations vs every other personSpeaking of confusing, some of the arguments made today against the plan were … interesting. For months, Republican legislators have been denouncing a plan to change the way Internet domain names are allocated around the world as “Obama’s plan to give away the Internet.” Did you notice how today, some opponents of strong net neutrality rules called this “Obama’s secret plan to control the Internet.”

A Couple of Thoughts on the Meeting

It’s worth spending some time watching the FCC meeting video. The FCC’s two opponents of strong net neutrality spent much of their debate time defending assorted companies that would be hurt by these rules. They also suggested that the public had not been heard on the matter. It was almost a breathtaking attempt to pretend that the 4 million responses to the original (far less neutral) rule presented last May didn’t exist.

That said, I agree with two things Ajit Pai and Mike O’Rielly said. There should have been more public hearings where ordinary people could speak to the commissioners directly. Like other advocates for net neutrality, I’m pretty confident we would have won that battle too.

I also don’t exactly see why Commission chair Tom Wheeler couldn’t have released the new proposal a few days ago. It’s a new era; people expect transparency. And there’s no doubt few minds would have changed in the process.

Time to Celebrate

I loved this tweet from Anil Dash:

One year ago, every person I know who understands the FCC or internet policy considered net neutrality dead. But the people were heard.

https://twitter.com/anildash/status/571007947498774528

It’s the truth. A salute to the organizations that even opponents conceded had led the fight:

Folks I’m probably forgetting too.

Ain’t Over Yet, Though

Corporations just don’t lie down when they’ve been defeated. We still have the best Congress money can buy. Courts too. As the founders used to say, “The price of liberty is eternal vigilance.” So connect with the groups above, and we’ll win more victories!

Digital Democracy is Not a Spectator Sport

Been reading a lot lately on one of my favorite topics: How to realize the democratic promise of the Internet.

You have to do more than vote periodically to call yourself a citizen. Especially true when it comes to the Internet, where no one really votes to decide on the critical issues.

That’s why the impending US Federal Communications Commission vote on net neutrality is so important — because we all had a role in moving the bureaucrats toward the right answer.

That’s not what I’m on about today, though. There’s a convergence of coincidences to tell you about.

Consent of the Networked

Sunday, I finished Consent of the Networked, Rebecca MacKinnon’s book from 2012 (and an update for the 2013 paperback edition) about the “worldwide struggle for Internet freedom.” MacKinnon is a former CNN correspondent in China that now manages Global Voices Online. This is a good, if occasionally dated, outline of the various battlegrounds facing human right activists when taking their struggles online.

centre
(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As is typical of these types of books, it closes out with a manifesto intended to describe the perfect online world. These are usually quite inspiring, but lacking in ways of getting from here to there. While I don’t agree with everything MacKinnon wrote in these pages, she does indeed realize that without a social movement, we won’t ever get her manifesto realized, or anyone else’s vision. Democracy isn’t a spectator sport.

(Something else I’m not on about today, but might be some other time: In a perfect world, the global Internet might be rightfully managed by a global organization that might have a name like the International Telecommunications Union. MacKinnon persuades me that in this world, that’s a really bad idea.)

MacKinnon proves her commitment to this principle (of action) by maintaining the book’s website consentofthenetworked.com, years after its publication. She blogs actively there, but more importantly she maintains a directory of digital democracy activist organizations on the Get Involved! tab of the site. I know it’s real and current because some of the listed organizations weren’t born yet when the paperback came out.

Building a Bottom-Up Internet Movement

Monday, I was going to begin working my way through the list to find places for information and the best places to channel my own energies, but then this piece on Medium showed up in my news feed. It’s called “Building an Internet Movement from the Bottom Up” by Tim Karr, one of the leaders of Free Press. Fabulous essay, with a couple of very important reminders:

It’s a fight not playing out between smartphone packing protesters and security forces, but among the Internet governance community — a globe-trotting tribe of non-governmental organizations (NGOs), international agencies, world leaders and corporate CEOs.

For as long as the World Wide Web has existed these groups have debated its control and administration. What rules should govern a network that transcends national boundaries to connect people everywhere?

It’s a discussion — replete with international agency acronyms and jargon (“multistakeholderism” anyone?) — that leaves the rest of us scratching our heads.

and there’s a new coalition of civil society organizations:

The coalition is organized on the belief that the Internet must evolve in the public interest with the full participation of the billions of Internet users who aren’t in the mix at Davos.

It plans to build a global network of grassroots groups that can better organize and amplify the concerns of those people often on the wrong side of the digital divide. The group plans also to convene the first Internet Social Forum later this year.

And hey, there’s going to be another manifesto developed! But not just out of a single mind, this will be (theoretically) the result of a crowdsourced process over the coming months. With a global coalition of organizations that (theoretically) will commit to realizing it.

I hope there’s some way for folks like me to get involved in this process, though. Seems focused (for now) on organizations.

Will follow this process closely. Let’s make it work!

Telecom companies step up pressure on FCC members

The president has declared himself for the “strongest possible form” of net neutrality rules, drawing rule making authority on Title II of the Communications Act. In response, the telecom companies have stepped up the pressure to keep their ability to create “fast lanes” for well-heeled content providers.

net neutrality world logo
net neutrality world logo (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Federal Communications Commission is a bipartisan affair. Two Republicans, two Democrats, and the chair who usually represents the president’s party (but for the last several years has also represented the communications industry in one fashion or another). In today’s Washington, you’ll not be surprised to learn that the current Republican members think Chairman Tom Wheeler’s first fast-lane proposal didn’t go far enough in removing restrictions on whatever the telecom companies want to do.

Until very recently, Commissioner Mignon Clyburn has been the most forthright about defending the strongest possible form of net neutrality. Very recently, however, she offered a less explicit defense of net neutrality during a Reddit Ask Me Anything session:

I support a free and open Internet because I want to preserve the openness and innovation that has occurred. I am focused on the consumer and the consumer experience. I want to know what attributes are necessary to keep the Internet free and open. I want to know whether the rules the FCC adopted in 2010, which banned blocking and unreasonable discrimination were the right approach.

Interestingly enough, the Washington Post reported on November 18 that Rev. Jesse Jackson and other traditional civil rights leaders visited the FCC to lobby against Title II regulation. The Post story cites a statement from the Minority Media and Telecommunications Council that buys into the telecom company arguments that “Section 706 regulation would achieve all of the goals of Title II reclassification, but would do so in a way that avoids the uncertainty of forbearance proceedings and without creating disincentives to infrastructure investment. Less investment would translate into less deployment, fewer jobs for our communities, and fewer service options to boost broadband adoption and close the digital divide.”

What the MMTC statement and Clyburn’s AMA comments don’t discuss is that Verizon won its lawsuit against the FCC’s 2010 rules precisely because they relied on Section 706 of the Communications Act, and not Title II. They suggest that telecom companies will stop investing in infrastructure if net neutrality is enforced, yet these companies haven’t exactly been bowling the country over with investment in low-cost, high-speed access.

It’s a shame that advocates for the poor are apparently bowing to the deep pockets that write off contributions to nonprofit organizations, but are not interested in investing in the infrastructure that meet people’s needs. Commissioner Clyburn should get back on the road to real net neutrality.

As always, I apologize for the wonkiness of my net neutrality posts. Check out Why Net Neutrality Matters to Writers for a broader description of these issues.

Net Neutrality: Five Reasons the President Did the Right Thing

Before leaving for the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in China, President Barack Obama recorded a video message that surprised many. Not only did he declare that “An open Internet is essential to the American economy, and increasingly to our very way of life,” but he endorsed the only way to defend an open Internet, that is: real net neutrality.

President Obama on Enforcing Net Neutrality

The president now agrees with me on this: The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) must reclassify Internet Server Providers (ISPs) as common carriers under Title II of the Communications Act to prevent cable, phone and wireless companies from forcing content providers from paying for fast access to your web browser.

The rest of this post is going to assume you know some of the basics about this issue, and I apologize for its deep wonkiness. If you’re not really up to speed, I’ve written about this before, and included some good links there.

Five Reasons

While I’m not privy to the West Wing machinations that led to this statement, I can speculate as well as any other blogger. Here are some of the reasons I think he did the right thing here:

  • The people have spoken: It takes a lot for millions of people to take a stand on a single government regulation, even more for thousands to take to the streets to make sure that government listens. The FCC received some 4 million comments on the original “fast lane” proposal from FCC Chair Tom Wheeler. The vast majority of those comments asked for ironclad net neutrality rules, with the real wonks demanding Title II reclassification. Rallies were held in cities across the country to demand compliance with these principles. Powerful movements make change, regardless of who may hold office.

  • The law is on his side: When ruling in Verizon’s favor on the FCC’s 2010 Open Internet rules, the judge in the case said the FCC had used the wrong law to justify their rules. The FCC said it had the right to enforce net neutrality through Section 706 of Communications Act. The court said that the common carrier part of the statute (that is, Title II) was the way to go. The former constitutional law professor in the White House clearly agrees. “Unfortunately, the court ultimately struck down the rules — not because it disagreed with the need to protect net neutrality, but because it believed the FCC had taken the wrong legal approach.”
  • Obama was predisposed: As the statement notes, Obama has always favored the principle of net neutrality. Over the last year, though, he’s been less than specific on what he thought about reclassification. This is new, and again, reflects the impact the movement has.
  • New Chief Technology Officer: The White House offered up Chief Technology Officer Megan Smith to discuss the statement on Monday’s PBS NewsHour. Smith came to the White House from Google just a few weeks ago, and you have to wonder if she got on the president’s case to take on this campaign.
  • Follow the money: Free speech should not be a left-right issue, but look how the pundits and politicians responded to the president’s statement. I haven’t combed through the campaign finance statements, but judging simply from all those quotes, I’ll guess that the bulk of telecom money went in the opposite direction from the president’s party.

What’s Next?

One more bit of speculation: FCC chair Wheeler has taken a severe beating after the first “fast lane” rules he proposed in May. Last week, it looked like Wheeler was going to aim for a compromise, hybrid set of rules. These would rely on both Section 706 and Title II regulation. This idea isn’t flying, either. This could mean that Wheeler is at least as much of a lame duck as the president is since the midterm elections.

Wheeler needs both of his Democratic allies on the five-member commission to approve any policy, as the two Republicans are likely to oppose anything that resembles a check on the “free market.” Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel appears to harbor ambitions to chair the commission one day.

If that’s true, the White House may be signalling to Ms. Rosenworcel that supporting the president on this issue may help her reach her goal sooner.

Celebrate Aaron Swartz Day

November 8 should have been Aaron Swartz‘s 28th birthday. But for an overzealous prosecutor, Swartz would likely still be innovating, still be rousing the rabble, still be sharing information that the rest of us need.

English: Aaron Swartz at a Creative Commons event.
Aaron Swartz at a Creative Commons event. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I didn’t know much about Swartz the human being while he was alive, but what I’ve learned about him since he died almost two years ago has been quite the inspiration. Go read his Wikipedia page, if you don’t know of his legacy. Then go visit Reddit, another bit of code he helped with.

At the bottom of this page, you’ll see another silent homage to Aaron Swartz: the Creative Commons license under which I share this blog’s conten.

By the time you read this, it’s likely too late to take part in the Swartz Day hackathon happening in several cities around the globe. I’ve already missed the showing of the Swartz documentary, The Internet’s Own Boy at the Internet Archive in San Francisco. But you don’t need to participate in an official event to honor Aaron Swartz. You just need to take some steps in his memory. Share some important information with someone who needs it, be it on your own blog (Today would be a good day to start a blog, by the way), Reddit, on your favorite social media site — or live and in person.

Information in the right hands is powerful , and Aaron Swartz knew that today’s powerful people hold information that keeps the less powerful in their place. So go empower someone today.