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Precursor to Dystopia #3: “At This Point We Just Have To Save America.”

Welcome to the third Precursor To Dystopia Column.

Ever hear of the Brunching Shuttlecocks? If you’ve been on the internet since the days of dialup, you have. In fact, you probably remember as clearly as I do waiting an agonizing few minutes just to download one song; their then-legendary ode to Björk. I hadn’t thought of Lore Sjoberg or the Brunching Shuttlecocks in years.

And then, I saw this tweet floating around and recognized the name:

Just brilliant. He’s 100% right, and has been for many, many years. A monolithic corporation swears up and down that they don’t intend to actually do the thing Net Neutrality is designed to prevent, which they have spent hundreds of millions of dollars lobbying to have stricken. Why? Why, if you don’t intend to murder someone, would you oppose a law against murder? Why, if you don’t intend to rob someone, would you oppose a law against theft? Why, if you don’t intend to abuse a customer and control an entire medium of communication, would you be against a law that simply says you can’t do that?

Mostly because they’re full of shit. Because they’re not a person with morals, feelings, and everyday problems like you and I — the actual users of the internet — are. They don’t care. Any attempt to convince you they care, beyond how they can profit from you, is a lie. Or marketing, which is the same thing.

Comcast got outright busted faking over 1m user comments on the FCC’s message board, opposing Net Neutrality. They stole customers’ identity (theft) to post fake comments (lying) to try to create the illusion that Net Neutrality wasn’t supported by voters, thus taking away their protections of open internet access (theft, fraud, racketeering). But hey, they promised in a Tweet they wouldn’t, right? Except, in that very tweet, they tipped their hand, showing openings to charging for internet fastlanes.

In dystopian fiction, corporations run everything. They are the government, the police, and the masters of your every move. How do they get this way? Because they buy their way into positions where they can exert influence on your representatives, until those representatives are ultimately useless in controlling their new masters. It’s already happening.

Trusting a corporation to regulate itself is folly. How so? The answer lies in literally every single dollar any corporation has ever spent on any politician’s campaign, lobbying, courting cities for headquarters (over $100m in worker’s state taxes being gifted back to Amazon if it builds it’s new headquarters in Seattle? I mean, if you could, why WOULDN’T you? EXACTLY MY POINT).

It also lies in the history of the Net Neutrality battle. Here’s a summary of what internet providers have already tried, and were stopped by Net Neutrality, compiled by (linked above):

MADISON RIVER: In 2005, North Carolina ISP Madison River Communications blocked the voice-over-internet protocol (VOIP) service Vonage. Vonage filed a complaint with the FCC after receiving a slew of customer complaints. The FCC stepped in to sanction Madison River and prevent further blocking, but it lacks the authority to stop this kind of abuse today.

COMCAST: In 2005, the nation’s largest ISP, Comcast, began secretly blocking peer-to-peer technologies that its customers were using over its network. Users of services like BitTorrent and Gnutella were unable to connect to these services. 2007 investigations from the Associated Press, the Electronic Frontier Foundation and others confirmed that Comcast was indeed blocking or slowing file-sharing applications without disclosing this fact to its customers.

TELUS: In 2005, Canada’s second-largest telecommunications company, Telus, began blocking access to a server that hosted a website supporting a labor strike against the company. Researchers at Harvard and the University of Toronto found that this action resulted in Telus blocking an additional 766 unrelated sites.

AT&T: From 2007–2009, AT&T forced Apple to block Skype and other competing VOIP phone services on the iPhone. The wireless provider wanted to prevent iPhone users from using any application that would allow them to make calls on such “over-the-top” voice services. The Google Voice app received similar treatment from carriers like AT&T when it came on the scene in 2009.

WINDSTREAM: In 2010, Windstream Communications, a DSL provider with more than 1 million customers at the time, copped to hijacking user-search queries made using the Google toolbar within Firefox. Users who believed they had set the browser to the search engine of their choice were redirected to Windstream’s own search portal and results.

MetroPCS: In 2011, MetroPCS, at the time one of the top-five U.S. wireless carriers, announced plans to block streaming video over its 4G network from all sources except YouTube. MetroPCS then threw its weight behind Verizon’s court challenge against the FCC’s 2010 open internet ruling, hoping that rejection of the agency’s authority would allow the company to continue its anti-consumer practices.

PAXFIRE: In 2011, the Electronic Frontier Foundation found that several small ISPs were redirecting search queries via the vendor Paxfire. The ISPs identified in the initial Electronic Frontier Foundation report included Cavalier, Cogent, Frontier, Fuse, DirecPC, RCN and Wide Open West. Paxfire would intercept a person’s search request at Bing and Yahoo and redirect it to another page. By skipping over the search service’s results, the participating ISPs would collect referral fees for delivering users to select websites.

AT&T, SPRINT and VERIZON: From 2011–2013, AT&T, Sprint and Verizon blocked Google Wallet, a mobile-payment system that competed with a similar service called Isis, which all three companies had a stake in developing.

EUROPE: A 2012 report from the Body of European Regulators for Electronic Communications found that violations of Net Neutrality affected at least one in five users in Europe. The report found that blocked or slowed connections to services like VOIP, peer-to-peer technologies, gaming applications and email were commonplace.

VERIZON: In 2012, the FCC caught Verizon Wireless blocking people from using tethering applications on their phones. Verizon had asked Google to remove 11 free tethering applications from the Android marketplace. These applications allowed users to circumvent Verizon’s $20 tethering fee and turn their smartphones into Wi-Fi hot spots. By blocking those applications, Verizon violated a Net Neutrality pledge it made to the FCC as a condition of the 2008 airwaves auction.

AT&T: In 2012, AT&T announced that it would disable the FaceTime video-calling app on its customers’ iPhones unless they subscribed to a more expensive text-and-voice plan. AT&T had one goal in mind: separating customers from more of their money by blocking alternatives to AT&T’s own products.

VERIZON: During oral arguments in Verizon v. FCC in 2013, judges asked whether the phone giant would favor some preferred services, content or sites over others if the court overruled the agency’s existing open internet rules. Verizon counsel Helgi Walker had this to say: “I’m authorized to state from my client today that but for these rules we would be exploring those types of arrangements.” Walker’s admission might have gone unnoticed had she not repeated it on at least five separate occasions during arguments.

The court struck down the FCC’s rules in January 2014 — and in May FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler opened a public proceeding to consider a new order.

In response millions of people urged the FCC to reclassify broadband providers as common carriers and in February 2015 the agency did just that. Since his appointment in January 2017, FCC Chairman Pai has sought to dismantle the agency’s landmark Net Neutrality rules. He must be stopped.

But that’s all ancient history (by internet standards anyway… Stuff that happened last year might as well have happened last century). So let’s explore how corporations are using every single means at their disposal to abuse you — the customer — using only items from the last, oh, two weeks of news:

  • Twitter blocks the account of Rose McGowan, a sexual assault victim, for telling of the abuse, while allowing literal Nazi’s to receive verified status (and, don’t forget the sexual assaulter who is now President)
  • Dopamine Labs, a company whose entire service is figuring out how to manipulate your mind to get you more addicted to your phone, exists… Despite laws against subliminal manipulation in advertising, because hey, it’s not advertising, it’s apps
  • Toy companies making internet-connected toys are legally allowed to send recordings and activity information of your kids back to their servers for analysis for marketing and research, and that data can be sold according to most Terms of Service
  • Wells Fargo ripped off, tried to hide, and then lied to their customers (seriously, read that). And then tried to get a judge to dismiss the class-action lawsuit by — and I’m not making this up — claiming that the forged signatures by customers who NEVER SIGNED THE AGREEMENTS exempted them from being sued.
  • Thousands of websites — some you use daily — Use tracking software to monitor your every keystroke and capture input in fields, even if you don’t hit “SUBMIT” — ever back out of a purchase after putting in your credit card number, getting cold feet? They probably have it.
  • Don’t use Amazon Key. Just. Don’t

No corporation will ever properly police itself unless it has reason to be policed. By the very definition of a corporation, they are run by a board, answer to investors, and exist solely to make a profit. In my field of usability research and psychology, we discuss motivation for using a system ad nauseum (seriously, you get sick of it after a while). And the motivation for a corporation is to make money. Period.

Facebook will not police itself. Twitter will not police itself. NO major corporation will police itself. So how are we to believe Comcast and ATT and Time Warner when they swear, up one side and down the other, they will police themselves? Marc Rotenberg, president of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, puts it best:

The tech community, he continued “has to get away from the idea of self-regulation. Every technology—the train, the car—required regulation. The current model [of self-regulation] is collapsing.”

And followed up by Robert McNamee of Elevation Partners:

“I don’t think we can get back to the Silicon Valley that I loved. At this point we just have to save America.”

* * * * *

Other links for the week of November 22-28, 2017:

Come back Wednesday for an all-new piece as Welcome To Dystopia goes exclusive with Forces of Geek!


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