The Dangers of a Not-So Neutral ‘Net
Moves by the U.S. are the latest among countries fueling anxiety over online privacy and access.
This piece originally appeared in U.S. News and World Report, and was written by Assistant Managing Editor Kevin Drew.
British comedian and talk show host John Oliver urged viewers of his May 7 show to head to the U.S. Federal Communications Commission’s website and leave their comments protesting moves by the government to roll back privacy regulation of the internet. The following morning, the FCC website crashed, though the agency claimed the shutdown was the result of a cyberattack, not by people posting comments.
Regardless of the cause, the incident put the spotlight on the growing anxiety over both online access and privacy. The concerns are increasingly spanning the globe, media and technology, observers say.
Government censorship of the internet isn’t new, but a growing number of governments are taking steps to block online access and remove digital anonymity. In the latest edition of its annual report on internet activity, Freedom House, a nongovernmental organization that advocates on human rights issues, noted that internet freedom declined in 2016 for the sixth consecutive year. Governments increasingly are targeting social media sites and communication apps, according to the report, “Freedom on the Net.”
At risk, analysts say, is government action that jeopardizes equal access to the internet and digital privacy.
The worries come on the heels of a move by the U.S. government to eliminate online privacy rules that were scheduled to take effect later this year. The bill, signed in April by President Donald Trump, allows internet service providers to track customers’ online activity. The ISPs will then be able to use that personal and financial information to sell ads, without people’s permission.
Recent moves across the world underscore the access and privacy worries, says Maiko Nakagaki of the Center for International Private Enterprise, an institute that belongs to the National Endowment for Democracy, a Washington-based nonprofit organization that promotes democracy. Among the concerns Nakagaki listed:
- The Russian government, which already filters and censors the internet in various ways, including blocking the LinkedIn social media site, is pushing a bill in the legislature that targets the use of virtual private networks, or VPNs, a cyber “tunnel” that protects a person’s browsing information from an internet service provider. VPN use is widespread in countries such as China.
- In Malaysia, the government is proposing to arrest Whatsapp users/administrators who the government deems are circulating fake news.
- In April, Cameroon’s government restored internet access to its English-speaking minority regions. The government imposed the digital blackout in response to protests against the French-dominated government.
- For its 2016 presidential election, the Ugandan government blocked access to social media sites.
Those actions fly in the face of the stance of the United Nations Human Rights Council, which ruled in 2016 that denying access information online is a human rights violation.
The tight grip by governments comes in partial response to the increasing popularity of social media networks, says Mark Nelson, the senior director at the Center for International Media Assistance. Across Africa, Facebook is the No. 1 source for news, Nelson says.
“The growth of these social networks has made it difficult for governments to let go of internet regulation,” says Nelson, pointing to Turkey as an example of government trying to throttle the internet and make it slower to use.
While not as overtly aggressive as other governments’ actions, the net neutrality ruling by the U.S. government sends a signal to other countries about online privacy. “What’s decided here affects the rest of the world,” says Nelson, whose center also is part of the National Endowment for Democracy.
Online access has implications about privacy. Leaving digital footprints is almost unavoidable, says Michal Kosinski, a data scientist and psychologist at Stanford University.
An assistant professor at Stanford’s business school, Kosinski studies online activity. He says he can now determine factors such as political and religious views, as well as sexuality, based on digital footprints such as Facebook postings.
Other online activity, such as music playlists also can help predict intimate information about people, Kosinski says. Even if people were given full control over their digital data, preventing other parties from accessing is nearly impossible, he says. “Corporations are not really asking for data – they’re simply accessing it.”
Online privacy can be a matter of life and death. Imagine, Kosinski says, a person traveling to another country, a nation that criminalizes atheism or homosexuality – and that traveler has left online postings on those topics?
Kosinski says people must understand they already are living in what he labels, “a post-privacy world.”
Ramesh Srinivasan, as associate professor of information studies at UCLA, says a certain degree of online privacy can still be maintained.
“I don’t accept a pure sense of privacy has been lost,” says Srinivasan, who is founder of the UC-wide Digital Cultures Lab. “Privacy doesn’t mean a person is guarding everything, every bit of information about himself or herself. It’s more multi-layered than that.”
Srinivasan, author of the book “Whose Global Village? Rethinking How Technology Impacts Our World,” acknowledges that the buying of online ISP data is part of a larger trend to strip technology users of their sovereignty. He urges a multi-pronged strategy to “push back” against data collection.
For example, people can demand that governments and companies articulate ways data is being collected, and how it is used. Additionally, knowledge of encryption tools and other digital technologies needs to be made available to countries’ citizens, he says.
“The gap between wealthy and poor is larger when poor don’t have access to new technologies.”
Kevin Drew is assistant managing editor, international, at U.S. News and World Report. You can follow him on Twitter here.