Speech and Life: thoughts on security in the Internet age

reading: the Hill

The recent terror attacks in London are disturbing and dreadful crimes. But hearing that British PM Theresa May feels that there appropriate response is greater regulation of the Internet makes me worry about where this well-meaning concern (or misplaced hysteria) will lead us.
This past semester I read Lawrence Lessig’s Code 2.0, for my class, “Media, Technology, and Culture” (for an overview of the book’s basic argument checkout my podcast). Towards the end of the book – in the section where he examines “latent ambiguities” where code and law either don’t quite meet or leave some room for interpretation – he says of the United States:

We have exported to the world, through the architecture of the Internet, a First Amendment more extreme in code than our own First Amendment in law.

(p. 257)

As the global society attempts to manage a world where extremism and linked violent action become more prevalent and more visible, we must realize that it is the legacy of the First Amendment and of American democratic values that allow it. The right to freedom of expression is enshrined into the current structure of the internet in a way it would be impossible (certainly for equal reach) to achieve in “real life”.

There is a lot to be said for making the gap between legal speech and the speech that is possible on the Internet. In recent years, we have had a crash course in the negative outcomes that complete freedom can generate. From Gamergate and doxxing, to the radicalization of men and women by neo-Nazi ideologues and extremist jihadi ideologies. The links between the things we read and see and what we do are becoming starkly visible.

But does that linkage justify a limiting of free speech by government and corporate/commercial entities?

The most obvious question is: how does one determine what constitutes an extremist ideology?

It might seem easy to say it’s to cut down on neo-Nazi rhetoric or propaganda from the Islamic State. But where do radical Leftists and Libertarians who argue for the toppling of the State fall? How do we decide what counts as “humor” and what constitutes a real threat? (see: Kathy Griffin) If we’re seeking to destroy propaganda or misinformation, which debates remain open and which are closed? The Holocaust? Global warming?

It is never easy to walk the line between liberty and security. In today’s world, one which feels ever more dangerous, we in the West are hardpressed to choose between our way of life, and the lives of our fellow citizens. 

All arguments for liberty are “slippery slope” arguments, and as such I wish to avoid them. All I can hope is that we seriously consider whose interests are best met through regulation of our online speech.

Is 80% “good enough”? Thoughts on Internet Penetration is Franklin County

Yesterday in the car, driving along Route 47, my friend said, “Wow, Sunderland really is just a lot of land.”

As a student at a large state university, it is strange to think about my current home as being “rural”. Nevertheless, that is exactly what it is, don’t let the pizza place or the laundromat fool you. The stretch of land between routes 116 and 47 is farmland, when it’s been cultivated or put to use at all.

The definition is elusive for the reason that many things are in New England, unless you’re overlooking the ocean; it’s hard to see much of anything at all with all the hills and trees interrupting your vision. The university helps hide it as well. The migrant population of tens of thousands of young bodies is reason enough for a reasonably extensive public transit system and provides more than enough indenture to build and maintain any number of housing complexes, which cause little related businesses to sprout up to attend to the needs they create (like pizza and laundry).

Without thinking about the landscape at all I’ve been contemplating what it means to be a rural area. In a fit of frustration about the cost of our telecoms utilities, I started looking to see if there were alternatives to our current subscription.

In the process, I visited BroadbandNow, a site which bills itself as a consumer interest group, looking to provide information on the services and available to a person in every county in every state in the US. Of the three options in Franklin County, in Western MA, only  one provider achieves the minimum download speed necessary for “broadband internet”. The FCC has set “broadband” speed as a minimum of 25 Mbps (megabits per second) download speed and a 3 Mbps upload speed. Xfinity by Comcast is your only choice if you want broadband internet. Their promotional first year rate is approximately $35/mo. if you keep their service for over a year, it goes up to nearly $90/mo.

comcast pricing-Recovered
Graphic displaying promotional vs. actual internet subscription rates from Comcast.

The thing that got me stuck on this issue is from the little factoids that run along the side of the BroadbandNow website when you look up a particular region. There’s a little box there that reads, “Approximately 5,000 people in Franklin County don’t have access to any wired internet.” It’s unclear if the other number, 14,000, which is the number of people who don’t have access to internet with a speed of 25 Mbps or higher, is inclusive of the 5,000 who don’t have any wired internet at all. To a degree, I’m not entirely sure that it matters. What I can tell you, from looking at the maps of “underserved” or “unserved” towns, is that Wendell, MA, 33 minutes away from the University by car, has no cable or DSL at all. Leverett, 13 minutes away, and Shutesbury, 19 minutes away, have only partial DSL, and no cable internet at all.

If you overlay the maps of the underserved towns, over the map of wireless broadband access, you’ll see that most of Franklin County only has mobile wireless.

I don’t know for absolutely sure, but I imagine that this is what it means to feel left out of the political conversation. The Internet was supposed to be the wave of the future; this was going to connect everyone to everyone else, make us all equals in a massive interconnected conversation. But, in this, as in most things, it seems that some are more connected, and more equal, than others.