Press freedom is increasingly under assault worldwide by governments that are finding the Internet much easier to control than the press ever was. While dictators everywhere suppress dissent by throttling the chokepoint of Internet access, Canada unfortunately leads the so-called “free” world in regulating online communication. First it was the Online Streaming Act, which was passed in April and expands the Broadcasting Act to cover not just online video but now also podcasts and even (shudder) online porn. It got back into the news recently with a requirement issued by the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) that podcasters, adult websites and even social media services that earn $10 million or more in annual revenues must register with it by November 28.
Gerhardt has a firm grasp of the extensive literature on Internet culture over the past fifty years – the critiques, histories, and technical controversies. What distinguishes his book from many others about the Internet is his political acuity in assessing the challenges. He offers chapters on “democratizing infrastructure” such as the electric grid and the Internet itself, as well as on how to support “design global, manufacture local” production. Unlike many techies, Gerhardt is also mindful of the limits of the natural world, so he devotes space to localism, urban waste, and agriculture as a renewable resource.
Oakland, California — The mission was supposed to be simple: At a moment when millions of students were being educated exclusively online, California’s leaders decided that high-speed internet should be available everywhere, even in places where residents struggle to afford it. So in 2021 the state directed millions in federal pandemic relief dollars and other funding– a total of $3.87 billion — to bridge the “digital divide” by installing fiber-optic cables that would bring high-speed internet to neighborhoods where it did not exist. Two years later, those ambitious plans appear to have been slashed disproportionately, threatening to leave some urban communities, including East Oakland and South Central Los Angeles, further behind.
Elon Musk has announced that he is helping to smuggle hundreds of Starlink satellite communications devices into Iran. The South African-born billionaire made the admission on December 26, replying to a tweet lauding female Iranian protesters for refusing to cover their hair. “Approaching 100 Starlinks active in Iran”, he tweeted, clearly implying a political motivation to his work. That Musk is involved in Washington’s attempts to weaken or overthrow the administration in Tehran has been clear for some months now. In September – at the height of the demonstrations following the suspicious death of 22-year-old Iranian woman Mahsa Amini – Secretary of State Anthony Blinken announced that the U.S. was “taking action” “to advance Internet freedom and the free flow of information for the Iranian people” and “to counter the Iranian government’s censorship,” to which Musk replied, “Activating Starlink…”
Jan. 11, 2023 marks the tenth anniversary of the death of Aaron Swartz. Swartz had a prolific career as a computer programmer: At the age of 12 he created The Info Network, a user-generated encyclopedia widely credited as a precursor to Wikipedia. Swartz’s later work would transform the internet as we know it. He helped co-found Reddit, developed the RSS web feed format, and helped lay the technical foundations of Creative Commons, “a global nonprofit organization that enables sharing and reuse of creativity and knowledge through the provision of free legal tools.” In 2011, Swartz was arrested and indicted on federal charges after downloading a large number of academic articles from the website JSTOR through the MIT network. A year later, prosecutors added an additional nine felony counts against Swartz, ultimately threatening him with a million dollars in fines and up to 35 years in prison.
Fairlawn, Ohio - There is a recent story out of Fairlawn, Ohio that perfectly illustrates the future of Internet access in this country. For years, the small town was at the whims of large, incumbent Internet providers. The Internet was so slow and unreliable that businesses threatened to relocate, jeopardizing the economic vitality of the area. The mayor, alongside city leaders and council members, realized that the various incumbent providers were not going to cooperate, and to save their city, they would need to build their own city-wide fiber-to-the-home network. On this episode of Building Local Power, Christopher Mitchell, Director of ILSR’s Community Broadband Networks Initiative, and Sean Gonsalves, Senior Reporter and Editor, explain how, in the 5-plus years since the deployment of its city-wide network, “Fairlawn is doing so well [that] they are now boosting speeds and slashing prices.”
Cloudflare’s recent headline-making decision to refuse its services to KiwiFarms—a site notorious for allowing its users to wage harassment campaigns against trans people—is likely to lead to more calls for infrastructure companies to police online speech. Although EFF would shed no tears at the loss of KiwiFarms (which is still online as of this writing), Cloudflare’s decision re-raises fundamental, and still unanswered, questions about the role of such companies in shaping who can, and cannot, speak online. The deplatforming followed a campaign demanding that Cloudflare boot the site from its services. At first the company refused, but then, just 48 hours later, Cloudflare removed KiwiFarms from its services and issued a statement outlining their justifications for doing so.
If 2020 convinced the country that broadband for all Americans is essential, then 2021 underscored a reality of life: Goals often require longer timelines than we’d prefer. To put it another way, a worldwide emergency helped the U.S. recognize the importance of having ubiquitous high-speed Internet, and now we’re playing catch-up. There’s no quick and clean fix, which is a clunky pill to swallow for millions of people who contend with substandard or nonexistent connectivity as a new world of hybrid education, remote work, online services and telehealth takes over. The urgency for wider access to high-speed Internet has been palpable this year. The federal government has ramped up its focus on the issue.
The City of Highland Park, a predominantly Black city surrounded by Detroit, Michigan, has had most of its residential streets in the dark for the last 10 years. In 2011, the city owed $4 million to utility company DTE Energy. An agreement was made between DTE and city officials to remove roughly 1,200 streetlights to settle the debt. Reports suggest the repossessed lights were sold for scrap. Since then, Highland Park remained in the dark figuratively and literally. Residents had no clue what happened. “And it was just really a sad day actually seeing the poles, the trucks came to take the poles out, and it just left these stumps,” says Shamayin Harris, a lifelong Highland Park resident. “So they’re basically all around our city right now. It just looks like a graveyard of cement stubs where lights used to be on the residential street.
In the context of user-generated content platforms, the coop model is just such a natural fit. One of the principle questions that made a cooperative model feel relevant is this idea of, “Who's generating value, and who's capturing it?” Under capitalism, it’s people with ownership who end up capturing most of the value. So at a base level, sharing ownership with a company’s users and creators can align incentives. And that can dramatically affect the decisions that a platform makes, and steer it in a way that is to the benefit of the people who actually use it and rely on it. What's Spotify valued at, a billion or more? And they’re completely dependent on musicians to make their platform’s content. Lately though, there has been more awareness that this model is not serving its creators. So where coops pop up naturally is when people are like, "I'm not being served."
As we documented in our previous three posts, the $9.2-billion Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF) — FCC Chairman Ajit Pai’s supposed crowning achievement toward closing the broadband digital divide — is looking more and more like one of the most wasteful projects in FCC history. Our first post gave some examples of questionable funding in urban areas that we stumbled upon after spending just a few minutes with the map of winning bidders. This included ridiculous examples of “rural” subsidies awarded to major ISPs to offer broadband in gated urban communities where they already offer service, and awards to bring broadband to a posh resort that is already well-connected.
Today, Sen. Thom Tillis (R-NC) released a discussion draft of a bill that would “update” the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. The language in this draft, if enacted, would radically overhaul the current copyright system for online content by centralizing unprecedented control of both content and digital platforms in the hands of the executive branch. The current draft text would significantly curtail online speech, subjecting every upload to mandatory content filtering while effectively eliminating fair use on the internet. The following can be attributed to Meredith Rose, Senior Policy Counsel at Public Knowledge:
We believe online privacy should be simple and accessible to everyone, period. With the introduction of privacy regulations worldwide, consumers are gaining more rights to limit the sale and sharing of their personal data. While this is a great idea in theory, it doesn't amount to much if it is hard for consumers to take advantage of their rights. At present, consumers must invoke most all online privacy rights manually, website by website. That's why we're proud to be a founding member of a new effort to create a simple browser-oriented setting for users to more easily express their preference for privacy, called Global Privacy Control (GPC).
Recent weeks have seen a dramatic escalation in the U.S.’ stance towards tech companies from the People’s Republic of China (PRC). After hounding the telecommunications company Huawei for years, the social networking app TikTok is the latest Chinese company to enter the firing line. On 5 August U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo published a press release that could be seen as the master plan that explained the logic behind these policies: creating a parallel internet, defined as a place where companies from the PRC have no place.
Janice Bowling, a 67-year-old grandmother and Republican state senator from rural Tennessee, thought it only made sense that the city of Tullahoma be able to offer its local high-speed Internet service to areas beyond the city limits. After all, many of her rural constituents had slow service or did not have access to commercial providers, like AT&T Inc. and Charter Communications Inc. But a 1999 Tennessee law prohibits cities that operate their own Internet networks from providing access outside the boundaries where they provide electrical service. Bowling wanted to change that and introduced a bill in February to allow them to expand. She viewed the network, which offers speeds about 80 times faster than AT&T and 10 times faster than Charter in Tullahoma according to advertised services, as a utility, like electricity, that all Tennesseans need.