Unicorn Riot interviews Electronic Frontier Foundation on Net Neutrality

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On Friday, December 16, 2017, the day after the Federal Communications Commission voted to repeal “Net Neutrality” rules, we interviewed Bill Bundington of the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), “a nonprofit organization defending civil liberties in the digital world” on what this repeal means for the public. During the discussion, we covered how the repeal will affect public access to the internet, small media organizations, anonymity on the internet, and solutions at the grassroots community level; as well as tools to use during a censorship regime.

Full Transcript

Lorenzo S: We have a special guest, Bill Budington from the Electronic Frontier Foundation. We wanted to ask somebody about what was going on with Net Neutrality so we brought Bill in here. If you want to tell us a little bit about the Electronic Frontier Foundation, and you, and then what did happen with this decision about Net Neutrality?

Bill B: Sure, the Electronic Frontier Foundation is a San Francisco based organization that defends privacy, and anonymity, and rights online. And so yeah this decision that was made on Thursday morning is really kind of bringing us into a new territory. I called it a feeding frenzy in a recent article. Where the ISP’s, or internet service providers, can basically gouge both ends of the pipe that they control. So what is happening is that they have a privileged position in that they control the physical infrastructure that allows you to connect to the internet, right? Home internet connections are all controlled by major broadband companies: AT&T, Verizon, Comcast, Time Warner and they have this physical control over the infrastructure of home internet provision. And in 2015 what happened was that there was FCC regulation that was put in place that made it so that they had to treat internet provision as a utility, under the communications act. And that was a reclassification under what was called Title II. This meant that when you hopped on the internet you saw the same internet that everyone else saw. You didn’t get any discriminatory practices or weren’t able to see certain parts of the net versus others. That’s all blown away now. This is something, you know, completely new territory where they can create new tiers of internet, just like you have cable plans. You can have a plan that is just for YouTube, or you know, an additional plan that gives you Netflix, and then that’s more expensive because Hulu, which is a Comcast service, is competing with Netflix. So it’s really crazy, but you know I think the most concerning part is that there’s no way, there’s nothing that says that they can’t actually just shut off certain services. So radical content, Unicorn Riot, It’s Going Down, Crimethinc, whatever, these news organizations, radical content, our subjectivities, can really be stifled by this move if it doesn’t fall in line, or they deem it something that they really don’t want to have people see.

Lorenzo S: So you’re saying basically that these giant media corporations, telecommunications corporations, have control over the pipe completely to the sense where an organization like us can somehow be cut off. How would we be cut off?  I guess I don’t know if understand that.

Bill B: Yeah, so they can actually do it a number of ways.  I mean…in the past they were able to do something called quality of service. And this is just basically your basic network maintenance. So that…if someone is doing…using a certain program that doesn’t interfere with other people’s internet service. That’s the past, right? That’s actually kind of a reasonable way to do this kind of network maintenance stuff. But what we are seeing now is that they can just shut off entire websites. They can shut off your entire domain just because they want to either provide it at a higher tier of service, or if they want to just shut it off completely, because they see it as a threat to them, or whatever the case may be. You can see this as extremely…there is a campaign against Comcast itself. There’s no way for us to kind of say that this can’t be done. Also a crazy frightening aspect of this is that this is precluding local kind of carving out of exceptions to this. So basically, Comcast or whatever the telecommunications companies, can do all this and if a local municipality or whatever whats to provide a way for their constituents or whoever, who lives there to get internet access in a different way. Then there’s actually is very strong language that prevents that. So that’s really kind of a scary thing too.

Lorenzo S: And then I had a question. Earlier today the FCC chair, the person who very joyously passed it to get rid of net neutrality yesterday, tweeted that everyone was proven wrong because today twitter was still working. So, I don’t know how you respond to that.

Bill B: Right, Right. Yeah, this is..yeah, Ajit Pai, has kinda tweeted, in this kind of flippant way, about how… oh wow, we haven’t seen immediate censorship of the entire internet. You should all be thankful, we were right all the time. This kind of, you know, flaunting it in our faces, that we don’t have full censorship immediately, is you know, just shows us how far, and how bad things have gotten. You know, the fact is that they have, and they do want to have the internet look a lot like it does in Portugal. Where, in Portugal, Portuguese internet is, is tiered, just like when you buy cable, your cable package. You have certain access to certain websites if you pay them less, or pay more. And so, that’s something, that you know is completely against the entire history of the internet. The entire thing is that, when you connect you get the same internet that everyone else sees. And that is going the way of the dinosaurs if the cable companies have their way.

Lorenzo S: It just makes me think you know, this sort of Republican, or Libertarian, Capitalist idea that money is gonna free everything and make everything better. And I guess, is that what they are trying to say? That these big organizations with all this money are the ones that can make all the great things happen. And they are kinda opening the door to basically design the internet in the fashion that best serves those corporations. I don’t know if that makes sense.

Bill B: Yeah, I mean you know what’s funny about that is that Ajit Pai said that, you know we don’t have to worry about the cable companies acting badly, because they’ll self-regulate. Yeah, right. The thing that we have seen over the past ten years, with certain Net Neutrality provisions is that they’ve been violated over and over again by cable companies that don’t really give a damn about  self regulation of course not, but… they don’t really give a damn about people’s free and open access to the internet. They just care about maximizing profit, as you’d expect.

Lorenzo S: What is this going to do to the free flow of information. I’m thinking of the last five years, or last seven years, the explosion of all these social movements, the Arab Spring. All these social movements happened. Do you think that Net Neutrality being destroyed is going basically limit the ability for social movements to engage with each other through these social media platforms.

Bill B: You know, I think it’s difficult to say. You know, I think that the one thing that we can say is that the cable companies can actually have the power to do so. And so, what they do with that power is up to them. They could, for instance, see that it’s still profitable, or still in their self interest to allow the type of content that doesn’t interfere directly with their bottom-line. Allows websites to function because, you know, it’s within their kind of business model to do so. So it’s kind of hard to say. But you know, it’s not a good situation where you have this kind of turnkey system where a cable company has the ability to regulate what content you can and cannot see. That’s a really scary situation, something that we need to fight back against.

Lorenzo S: And what are people doing right now to fight back, what’s the, I heard there’s an appeals process, like what is it going to look like for this to roll out on the public?

Bill B: Yeah there’s a big push for congressional oversight in this kind of you know, the wake of this, this repeal. And I think that’s probably you know a good thing all in all. I mean if you have a reaction to this decision where it rolls it back in some way, shape, or form. You know unfortunately it’s up in the decision making bodies that are kind of outside of our control directly. So, there is this kind of appealing to our masters kind of element that we need to play in order for the worst of this to not go through. So I think that’s a real situation that we need to kind of deal with, but you know, again, the long-term solution is to actually create alternatives to have community controlled internet provision in some way shape or form. Otherwise, any regulatory shift in the future can just bring us right back to the situation. So hopefully we’ll get a better decision in the next few years. Again, you know, the reason why this is coming down now is because Ajit Pai, the current head of the FCC is an appointee of Donald Trump. So, you have a regulatory shift that’s based on an ideological framework shift, and so when we get a new administration in office then presumably that will change in 2020, or whatever. So you know that’s kind of one of the holds outs that we can have is that this will be a change in the policy when there’s a new administration as well.

Lorenzo S: The head of the FCC he used to work for Verizon is that correct?

Bill B: Yeah, he was a lobbyist I think. I’m not exactly sure where he was.

Lorenzo S: So, the squashing of Net Neutrality by the FCC, how is that going to affect people’s ability to stay anonymous on the internet if at all?

Bill B: Right, so one thing that the cable companies and broadband internet companies can do is they can shut off or do traffic inspection. And so when they look into the traffic stream, if they see something that looks like Tor for instance, which is the anonymity network that so many people rely on, then they can immediately shut that off. So this is like kind of a broad sweeping ability for the cable companies to actually stop the flow of Tor traffic and that will really impede peoples ability to stay anonymous online. One of the things that Tor does do is that they have been preparing for censorship regimes for a long time. And so they have these things called plugable transports that make your traffic look like not Tor traffic. It’ll look like something else. And using that you can actually kind of cloud your traffic stream to ensure that it will still be available under censorship regimes. So, that kind of impedes the usability as much as Tor is kind of a lot slower than your normal internet usage in general. If you’re using plugable transport, that can actually impede it even more. It’s gonna be a kind of a cat and mouse game for a while if they try to do that. I think that as so often is the case the state is setting itself up as the position of savior here. You know because, if we are forced to choose between a regulated internet by strong federal agencies, and that’s obviously not what we want either. But really they kind of position themselves as a savior in this situation. And now it’s a choice between either on the one hand complete corporate control over internet provision, on the other hand a strong federal regulatory body that makes it not the worst possible internet that you can possibly have. I think that there are radical alternatives that we can kind of envision, right? There are ways that communities can get together and provision internet by themselves. There’s exciting examples of this. Mesh networks are basically using your home routers and instead of connecting right out to your ISP, have them talk to each other and have a kind of grassroots locally provisioned internet system that you have with all your friends in a locality. So this is kind of a radical alternative to some of the more kind of hierarchical structures of internet provision and corporate control that we’ve seen.

Lorenzo S: I have heard a little about mesh networks. How does a mesh network attach to the whole wide web though, like how that a possibility is there a way for that to be done?

Bill B: Yeah yeah so, they can basically… if there is a mesh network that’s in a locality they can talk to each other, but they can also use everyone’s respective internet connections to provide broader connectivity to anyone who connects to the mesh. So it’s like you’re getting signal from certain nodes and they’re providing access to one another. It’s a very kind of you know, ad hoc kind of network. And a lot of it is very… not quite functional, everyone is experimenting with this technology right now so it’s not going to be the best quality. I’s not like this is ready to go as your alternative internet right now. But it’s a good step and it’s an encouraging step to see.

Lorenzo S: Unicorn Riot’s been following the J20 Trials and in there an independent journalist Alexei Wood was livestreaming and the judge was saying that he was participating in the protest, by advising and sharing information about it. So, like hearing that you’re like… what is going on? It seems like Net Neutrality just got squashed, and in the j20 [trials] they’re criminalizing somebody livestreaming, and saying this is happening right now, and the judge is saying, you telling people this is happening is bad information to go out to the public. And all these things sort of happening together is kind of horrifying.

Bill B: Yea and you see that all the J20 defendants were charged with twice as many felonies as the shooter in Portland, Oregon who killed those folks on the train. So this is like a really fucking crazy and scary situation that we are living in. But I mean it hasn’t, this is a long history of repression of movements that we’ve kind of dealt with, especially in the US. But you know, all around the world. I think that it’s a crazy kind of time we’re living in, especially now with the ability for us to have this kind of turnkey mechanism for information to be controlled and filtered to here you know, the profit motives. So anyway yeah.

Lorenzo S: All right well I want to say thank you so much for joining us today. We just wanted to provide some sort of information to our viewers and our audience and the people who follow Unicorn Riot, basically anybody. This is a pretty big deal, and we’re hoping the best comes out and I personally agree whatever solutions we can find, trying to figure out how to improve mesh networks, all that stuff sounds really important and I look forward to looking into it more actually. So thanks for bringing that up. Thanks for joining us on Unicorn Riot.

Bill B: Thanks a lot for having me.

We hope you enjoyed this informational interview with Bill Budington of the Electronic Frontier Foundation on the repeal of Net Neutrality. To help our volunteer operated, horizontally organized, non-profit media organization produce more media like this, please consider becoming a monthly sustainer with tax-deductible micro-donations:

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Unicorn Riot
Unicorn Riot is a volunteer-operated decentralized media collective comprised of multimedia artists and journalists. Born from the Internet in 2015, we operate non-hierarchically, independent of corporate and government funding. Our non-profit media organization currently spans across multiple US cities including Boston, Denver, Minneapolis, and New York City. Unicorn Riot’s purpose is to amplify the voices of people who might otherwise go unheard, and broadcast the stories that might otherwise go untold, as we further understanding of dynamic social struggles. We are committed to producing media that exposes root causes of social conflict and explores sustainable alternatives in today’s globalized world.