Obama Revives The Net Neutrality Fight

Yesterday, the president threw his full support behind the principle of net neutrality, urging the FCC to reclassify broadband Internet services as a public utility:

Obama’s argument explicitly rejects proposed rules that FCC considered earlier this year to allow paid prioritization, a plan by which content providers can make deals with ISPs to get faster service to their websites. (Those rules are still under consideration and have not been finalized.) The White House proposal calls for no paid prioritization, no blocking of any content that is not illegal, and no throttling of Internet services, where some customers have their Internet speeds artificially slowed down. The proposal also asks that any new rules include mobile broadband, which is already the primary access point for many users.

As the president himself reminds us, the FCC does not answer to him, and does not have to listen to (or even consider) his suggestions. So there are no guarantees that any of these rules will even come to pass. However, an endorsement by the White House would be the strongest push yet toward an FCC that treats all Internet traffic as equal.

Phillip Bump calls this politically smart:

[S]iding with people against Comcast (which actually is subject to a higher standard on neutrality than other companies for now) and other cable providers is hardly a political misstep. (Do you love your cable company? Right. Thought so.)

It also helps repair relationships with the tech community that were splintered in the wake of the National Security Agency’s spying revelations.

When leaks from Edward Snowden revealed the extent to which the agency was infiltrating social networks, it put firms like Facebook and Google in an awkward commercial position. The administration reached out to the companies as it planned revisions. But an embrace of net neutrality —backed by big companies that don’t want to have to pay more to push out their content — is a big win for for tech. It could use one; its marquee midterm race went poorly.

Jason Koebler weighs the reaction from net neutrality proponents:

At first blush, it looks like  many of the most net neutrality supporters are happy with Obama’s announcement. Tim Karr, senior director of strategy at Free Press, who has organized many of the net neutrality protests called it “huge.” Tim Wu, who invented the idea of net neutrality, called it “100 percent on target.” The Electronic Frontier Foundation also backed Obama’s statement.

Of course, in the end, this is the FCC’s decision, and chairman Tom Wheeler has already proposed a  mostly maligned “hybrid” proposal that is apparently already being thrown out because of the backlash it received when its existence leaked more than a week ago. In that proposal, paid prioritization could occur between content providers and ISPs: Netflix, for instance, could pay to have its content delivered faster to consumers. In his statement, Obama said that’s no good.

David Dayen detects a message here about what kind of lame-duck president Obama plans to be:

As for the president, this maneuver signals that he’s not looking to be a caretaker in his final two years, at least on discrete issues. Net neutrality activists correctly reasoned that getting Obama involved would provide the surge of support they needed for reclassification, and they targeted him as much as the FCC over the past several months. Obama showed that he listened, and it should give some solace to other groups wanting him to use his executive authority. In other words, Obama’s action on net neutrality is very good news for those who want him to move on immigration.

Nick Gillespie remains staunchly opposed to what he calls a dumb policy:

The most likely outcome is that regulators will freeze in place today’s business models, thereby slowing innovation and change. That’s never a good idea, especially in an area where new ways of bundling and delivering content are constantly being tried. It’s a historical accident that cable companies, who back in the day benefited from monopoly contracts with local governments, have morphed into ISPs. That will not always be the case, as the rise of Verizon (originally a phone company) and Google’s rollout of its own fiber system, attest. Just a few years ago, the FCC frowned on the cell-phone company MetroPCS’s discount plan that allowed access to the World Wide Web but denied users multimedia streaming. The FCC and Net Neutrality proponents thought that was a bad thing. Customers on a budget had a different opinion.

James Pethokoukis also opposes Obama’s proposal:

Keep in mind that the Obama plan would give the FCC, according to R Street’s Steven Titich, “the widest range of alternatives for economic and technological regulation of broadband.” And, of course, make the agency an even more attractive target for the lobbying class. …

All this, then, just to lock in “net neutrality” – a situation that does not exist and never existed — despite the risk of limiting new investment and innovation, Obama wants the FCC to treat the internet like a public utility. But the Obama proposal is based on flawed model of how the internet operates. Half of the internet’s traffic comes from just 30 content providers such as Google and Facebook.  And they’ve already made special arrangements by plugging directly into the ISPs. “Fast lanes” already exist. Again, R Street’s Titch: “There’s nothing about network neutrality to “preserve.” A regulation that pretends there is would serve to remove an economic incentive needed to ensure that broadband infrastructure is sufficiently robust to support the demands contemporary applications have placed on it.”

But Adam Clark Estes argues that opponents are overstating the level and nature of regulation Obama is proposing here:

If the idea of using an 80-year-old law to regulate a super futuristic communications technology worries you, you’ll be very glad to know that the president’s got your back. In his statement, there is this brief but very important line: “I believe the FCC should reclassify consumer broadband service under Title II of the Telecommunications Act—while at the same time forbearing from rate regulation and other provisions less relevant to broadband services.” (Emphasis mine.)

So the first part of it is the big reveal. Obama wants the FCC to treat broadband companies as common carriers. Telephone companies are also a common carriers regulated under Title II of the Telecommunications Act. However, this does not mean that Obama wants the FCC to apply all of the same regulations for telephones to broadband internet.

Meanwhile, here’s Ted Cruz’s response:

Yglesias tries to translate:

What, if anything, that phrase means is difficult to say. But its political significance is easy to grasp. All true conservatives hate Obamacare, so if net neutrality is Obamacare for the internet, all true conservatives should rally against it.

The asinine analogy prompted Matthew “The Oatmeal” Inman to create this explainer cartoon.

Human-Cyborg “Relations”

A.I. expert David Levy, the author of Love and Sex with Robots, expects that sex – or even an intimate relationship – with cyborgs will be considered perfectly normal within the next few decades:

“I believe that loving sex robots will be a great boon to society,” he says. “There are millions of people out there who, for one reason or another, cannot establish good relationships.” And when does he think this might come about? “I think we’re talking about the middle of the century, if you are referring to a robot that many people would find appealing as a companion, lover, or possible spouse.”

Spouse? “Yes.”

Michael Brendan Dougherty shakes his head:

The truth that Levy has lost is that healthy sexual desire does not take as its object a mere sensation or state, but a person.

We also know this, instinctively. If the hand that is discreetly caressing you is revealed to belong to someone other than your lover, the pleasure the hand gives is instantly poisoned and felt as a desecration. We have words for bestiality, pedophilia, and necrophilia, acts where the sexual object lacks personhood. The existence of anti-fap boards on reddit, as well as the recognition of pornography addiction as a serious problem, is more evidence that something goes wrong when sexual desire is directed away from people.

What healthy sexuality desires is a person. We don’t want mere sensations, but to be wanted and accepted by another. We want another persons’ conscious intentions for us acted upon our bodies, and for our intentions to be received as well. Lovers may use games that temporarily disguise consent and even pleasure itself, but their desire is to be freely wanted and freely given as persons, not as nerve endings. We call perverse those sexual encounters in which people intentionally and radically efface their own or another’s personhood.

Tech’s New Political Charge

In an analysis of the “long, awkward relationship between Silicon Valley and American politics,” Ben Smith sees tech industry on the brink of a new era:

The relationship between tech and politics is “radically changing,” said Ace Smith, a San Francisco political consultant whose clients have included the biggest names in both Democratic politics and technology. The startups jangling transportation, housing, and an array of other consumer areas have “opened the tech world’s eyes to needing a broader perspective, and it’s opened every one else’s eyes – it’s really brought them much more into the world of politics and government and communications.” Indeed, 2014 feels like the end of one era and the beginning of another.

A generation ago in Silicon Valley, “you didn’t even think about government until you were a public company – and even then it was a culture of avoidance,” said Matt Mahan, who has worked for a decade at the intersection of politics and tech and now runs Brigade, a startup aimed at reforming U.S. politics. … Now Uber, in particular, is winning more fights than it’s losing in an endless series of tussles with local regulators. The same is true for Airbnb, whose spokesman, Nick Pappas, had previously been selling Obamacare from the West Wing press office. (Two other former top Democratic staffers also work there.) These companies carry the confidence (at times, arrogance) and sense of destiny that has driven Silicon Valley’s burst of innovation; they also are being shaped by urgent battles with regulators of the sort that Microsoft, for instance, didn’t quite see coming (on a far larger scale) until the Department of Justice came calling. They are showing a new willingness to compromise the purism that sometimes made tech companies leery of dirtying themselves up in Washington.

Relatedly, Daniel Ben-Ami praises urbanist Joel Kotkin’s recent book The New Class Conflict, which tracks the ascent of tech power elite, as “an innovative attempt to rethink the main contours of US society”:

[Kotkin] sees the American elite as split between two mutually antagonistic oligarchies. On one side is a new elite based largely on information technology, although with substantial support from Wall Street. On the other is the old plutocracy centered on sectors such as agribusiness, construction, energy and manufacturing. The new oligarchy differs from the old in important ways. Its technology wing is concentrated in and around San Francisco, with a secondary cluster in Seattle, and it employs far fewer people than traditional industries. Kotkin estimates that in 2013 the leading social media companies together directly employed fewer than 60,000 people in the US. By contrast, GM employed 200,000, Ford 164,000 and Exxon more than 100,000. The different nature of technology firms, with far less dependence on cheap energy, helps explain why they are predisposed to green thinking. They also tend to be both geographically and emotionally distant from middle America.

Apple Locks Itself Out Of Your iPhone

Apple has announced a new feature in iOS 8 that prevents the company from complying with search warrants:

In an open letter posted on Apple’s website last night, CEO Tim Cook said that the company’s redesigned its mobile operating system to make it impossible for Apple to unlock a user’s iPhone data. Starting with iOS8, only the user who locked their phone can unlock it. This is huge. What it means is that even if a foreign government or a US police officer with a warrant tries to legally compel Apple to snoop on someone, they won’t. Because they can’t. It’s a digital Ulysses pact.

Law enforcement has a variety of legal tools it can use to compel a tech company to turn over data on its users. In some cases the tech company is even legally prohibited from talking about those requests publicly. If Apple’s correct and it truly has built an encryption system that they themselves can’t break, then they’ve found a pretty ingenious workaround to the problem tech companies face constantly — of being stuck having to choose between their users and the law.

The Bloomberg View editors argue that this is a bad idea on multiple counts:

Apple has now removed itself from this legal drama. If authorities come asking for information stored locally on a customer’s phone, Apple can say it doesn’t have it and has no way to get it. If police want anything on the phone, the user is going to have to let them in — and it’s an open legal question whether the government could force users to give up their passwords, because doing so could violate the Fourth or Fifth Amendments. In other words, Apple’s new privacy policy will make it harder for police to do their jobs.

It could also create new hassles for Apple’s customers. For one thing, the company now can’t help them access what’s on their phones if they’ve forgotten the password. And for all that, this feature would almost certainly do nothing to help them stop the kind of surveillance the NSA conducts. Apple may hope to burnish its reputation with this policy. But it was already something of a corporate exemplar with regard to security and privacy. If it turns out that this new feature is making life more difficult for law enforcement and more confusing for customers — well, it may not be quite the P.R. triumph Apple was hoping for.

Oren Kerr also finds the new design “very troubling”:

If I understand how it works, the only time the new design matters is when the government has a search warrant, signed by a judge, based on a finding of probable cause. Under the old operating system, Apple could execute a lawful warrant and give law enforcement the data on the phone. Under the new operating system, that warrant is a nullity. It’s just a nice piece of paper with a judge’s signature. Because Apple demands a warrant to decrypt a phone when it is capable of doing so, the only time Apple’s inability to do that makes a difference is when the government has a valid warrant. The policy switch doesn’t stop hackers, trespassers, or rogue agents. It only stops lawful investigations with lawful warrants.

But Andy Greenberg points out the cops can still get your data:

[A]s the media and privacy activists congratulated Apple on that new resistance to government snooping, iOS forensics expert Jonathan Zdziarski offered a word of caution for the millions of users clamoring to pre-order the iPhone 6 and upgrade to iOS 8. In many cases, he points out, the cops can still grab and offload sensitive data from your locked iPhone without Apple’s help, even in iOS 8. All they need, he says, is your powered-on phone and access to a computer you’ve previously used to move data onto and off of it.

“I am quite impressed, Mr. Cook! That took courage,” Zdziarski wrote in a blog post. “But it does not mean that your data is beyond law enforcement’s reach.”


Raging Against The Small Screen

In a review of a recent show by Neutral Milk Hotel, Grayson Haver Currin griped that frontman Jeff Mangum’s no-photo policy for concertgoers plays like a cynical ploy:

Mangum is attempting to preserve the same legacy of an enigma that turned into a bankable career during his prolonged absence; in an age of instant information and updates, where what you had for breakfast becomes part of your digital identity, can you actually prove that you saw Neutral Milk Hotel without telling and showing your friends? … [T]he unexpected and unfortunate part … is that he’s dictating how those who actively fund him can interact with their own nostalgia, the exact thing he’s been preying on and profiting from for several touring years now. Mangum’s reluctance to be photographed seems less like a savior complex or a production concern than a brilliant financial ruse: If you can’t preserve this experience, then goddammit, you will have to pay for it again and again and again.

Judy Berman doesn’t follow:

I don’t think that logic holds up. If you’re the kind of person whose concert experience is made or broken by the ability to “preserve” it via Instagram, then what do you get out of repeatedly paying to see a band that will never, ever let you do that? If Mangum’s photo ban really were rooted in some master plan to exploit his fans’ memories, you’d hope he’d do a better job monetizing it. Where is the Neutral Milk Hotel Tour 2014 Official “Bootleg” Series? Where is the one band-affiliated photographer who will sell you his shots of each show, with a hefty percentage of the proceeds going right into Jeff Mangum’s pocket? Where are the dumb fan-exploitation schemes like this one?

She sees plenty of advantages in no-photo shows:

At most shows I’ve been to recently, especially the ones where the performers have a significant following, I’ve been practically surrounded by people who’ve had their phones out for the entirety of every set, constantly Instagramming and shooting videos and texting or Snapchatting all of it to their friends. I’m fully aware that you can’t criticize this shit in 2014 without seeming like an out-of-touch Luddite, but so be it. It’s a special kind of terrible to shell out money to see a band you love, only to realize you’ll be watching them through the iPad the guy in front you is holding over his head. I mean, is that dude’s right to spoil the show for me (and everyone else unlucky enough to stand behind him) more important than my right to a clear view of the performance I paid for?

(Video: Jeff Mangum performs an encore at MASS MoCA on February 16, 2013)