As we shift from the Obama Era to the Trump Era, freedom of expression and human rights digitally clash with the consumptive, automated, and lucrative business of data mining and sharing in an old and ongoing battle morphing into the fight for net neutrality. Net neutrality is a vague term that alludes to the belief that all data should be treated equally by being technologically, socially, and economically accessible to everyone. On the other hand, corporate America believes user data should flow freely through a $30 billion big data industry that is managed by a $90 billion information security (infosec) industry that can easily get out of hand. However, the most important aspect of the battle for net neutrality is that nobody can disengage from it.
As our modes of communication and commerce are becoming ever increasingly entangled with the Internet of Things, social media, cloud storage, (nearly unconscious) production of data, and all things networked and digital, then the work we do in our physical lives and the data we produce in our digital lives become more and more inseparable. We’re at a point where our online engagement is a part of our freedom of expression and where the information and data we produce online is a result of our free labor and an extension of who we are.
If you’re willing to accept that online engagement comes at the cost of giving up your personal rights, freedoms, labor, and maybe even your own identity, then there are several Terms of Service agreements that companies would like you to sign. If not? Sorry, you still don’t have that much of a choice. If your friends and family unwittingly share information about you online then companies can still hunt down and collect information about you and share it with people who can check your face against an F.B.I. database, who can create real-time maps of social media activity in protests, and who can unknowingly enable cybercriminals who already have a step up in this game. Eventually, this mishandling of data feeds back into traditional forms of structural violence that most often harm women, black people, brown people, LGBTQ people, and other marginalized people, while wealthy, white Americans benefit the most. Despite these odds, we can push back by understanding the power dynamics of structural oppression and by gaining the self-awareness to understand how we individually and collectively operate within those dynamics.
The first official net neutrality fight occurred under the Obama Administration’s FCC head and former telecoms CEO and lobbyist Tom Wheeler. Internet Service Providers (ISPs) like Verizon, Comcast, AT&T, T-mobile, and Time Warner went up against non-ISPs or “edge services” like Google, Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, and Netflix, and their massive social media campaigns. Their dispute was over whether ISPs could offer tiered Internet services to non-ISPs or whether the FCC should regulate bandwidth and the Internet as a utility under Title II of the Communications Act of 1934 by following the guidelines of the FCC Open Internet Order of 2010. The latter choice would preserve net neutrality, while the former would undermine it by making it less economically accessible and even vulnerable to censorship. Due to the non-ISPs’ massive social media campaigns and Obama weighing in, in favor of the Title II classification, the panel of five FCC officials voted 3-2 along party lines and in favor of the Title II reclassification and net neutrality.
Fast forward to the post-election lame duck session of 2016 and Obama’s FCC tackles net neutrality again, but this time it issued midnight regulations related to how ISPs disclose and protect customer data security and protections. Specifically, it classifies mobile app usage, Internet browsing data, geolocation data, children’s information, financial data, health information, and communication content as “sensitive” or “private” data that is protected by FCC regulations. However, these regulations were indefinitely paused once Obama’s Administration was replaced by Trump’s.
The new FCC head and former Verizon lobbyist, Ajit Pai, believes that these new regulations prevent ISPs and non-ISPs from having an equal opportunity at benefitting from the “invisible hand” of the free market. Therefore, in an impressive show of how oblivious public officials can be, he wants to do away with most federal regulations so that corporations can be as profitable as possible and maybe customers will also benefit because of some flavor of “invisible hand” mumbo jumbo. He plans on halting or undoing most of the FCC’s regulations related to net neutrality, while Congress can utilize The Congressional Review Act to begin the joint passing of S.J. Res 34 and H.J. Res 86. S.J. Res 34 has, as of today, passed through both the Senate and the House and is on track to leave us with an ineffective hot mess of state laws on cybersecurity. Also, since non-ISPs are just as happy as ISPs to violate our privacy rights for cash, we can’t leverage their massive platforms for any help. In short, we’re on our own.
Even though we’re on our own, history has shown us that staying aware of cybersecurity issues and subverting surveillance through codified modes of communication can help protect us. In the digital era, the latter often takes the form of encryption, while the former relies on socializing new habits. Here’s a short and sweet list of ways to do both those things:
- Letsgetsafe.org gives you a step by step walkthrough on how to encrypt your devices.
- Jon Brodkin writes about how ISPs can sell your data and how you can stop them.
- Consider threat modeling outlined by Martin Shelton in his article on journalists and data breaches.
- And ACLU National created video on unconstitutional searches of your devices.
Finally, try to get together with your friends and families and make this issue into a casual conversation or social activity focused on encrypting devices that everyone does to pass some time. If you can even organize cryptoparties for your community then that’s even better. Things are going to get worse before they get better, but by socializing these practices into our communities then we can more easily engage critical thinking towards ways to subvert and fight back against big data issues.