June 16, 2024

Proper Use of Technology

A geeky post about content filtering, personal data ownership, and teen suicide…

The NY Times reports that the nation’s Internet Service Providers may be planning to being actively regulating the flow of content that is allowed to pass through their networks.  These companies – AT&T, Verizon, etc. – generally either have a monopoly on broadband services in a given geographic space or face minimal Comcast, competition and have heretofore acted as a more-or-less dumb conduit to the Internet, much as the power company provides electricity without regard to its source. 

Now they seem to be seeing themselves as a sort of quasi-capitalistic regulator on what you and I will be allowed to do with our computers and with the Internet that our tax dollars have, to a larger degree than most people realize, paid for.

Network-level filtering means your Internet service provider – Comcast, AT&T, EarthLink, or whoever you send that monthly check to – could soon start sniffing your digital packets, looking for material that infringes on someone’s copyright.

“What we are already doing to address piracy hasn’t been working. There’s no secret there,” said James Cicconi, senior vice president, external & legal affairs for AT&T.

Mr. Cicconi said that AT&T has been talking to technology companies, and members of the MPAA and RIAA, for the last six months about implementing digital fingerprinting techniques on the network level.

“We are very interested in a technology based solution and we think a network-based solution is the optimal way to approach this,” he said. “We recognize we are not there yet but there are a lot of promising technologies. But we are having an open discussion with a number of content companies, including NBC Universal, to try to explore various technologies that are out there.”

One commenter on the Times site asked the most immediately pertinent question, "Why are ISPs interested in this? What’s in it for them?"

Money, of course.  Content providers would certainly be expected to fork over some of their revenues to the ISPs who are providing the safeguards on their copyrighted content.  Additionally, ISPs have long hoped to get in on the business of providing content and keeping their users’ eyeballs and clicks on their own pages, helping to up ad revenue.

They could choose to do this by providing content that people actually want to see.  But that goal has proven elusive, as has providing the amount and quality of bandwidth that would be needed to support the hoped-for demand.

Free speech advocates oppose the proposed content filtering, calling it censorship and likening ISPs to Big Brother, whereas content providers are interested in only one thing:  getting paid for their product.  They apparently believe that they can pay the ISPs less to filter individuals’ downloads than they are allegedly losing to piracy.

Internet civil rights organizations oppose network-level filtering, arguing that it amounts to Big Brother monitoring of free speech, and that such filtering could block the use of material that may fall under fair-use legal provisions — uses like parody, which enrich our culture.

Rick Cotton, the general counsel of NBC Universal, who has led the company’s fights against companies like YouTube for the last three years, clearly doesn’t have much tolerance for that line of thinking.

“The volume of peer-to-peer traffic online, dominated by copyrighted materials, is overwhelming. That clearly should not be an acceptable, continuing status,” he said. “The question is how we collectively collaborate to address this.”

Whether that P2P traffic represents a loss of revenue for content providers is debatable.  Even so, NBC and its brethren seem to have made their decision, which is to use all means, fair and unfair, to perpetuate their current business models against the tide of changing technology.

All of this assumes that the ISP market is static and that the consolidation of players that’s taken place in the last decade will hold up.  But given a choice between AT&T censoring one’s Internet access and a competitor without such restrictions, it is possible that enough consumers would switch to make the market viable for new entrants.  Certainly the technology exists such that local and regional wireless operations could link themselves into a viable network that circumvents Big Telecom’s stranglehold on "the last mile", the runs of copper and fiber that links our homes and offices to the Internet.

I believe this is an important issue and one that will determine, to a large degree, the kind of technological freedoms that Americans will possess in the future.  ISPs, like the telephone, electric, and water companies before them, provide access to the resources of the larger world.  It is not their place to dictate what may be done with the Internet’s content or what that content will be; rather, their function is to provide a transparent, reliable service that justifies the near-monopoly status and government subsidies they’ve been granted already.

Similarly, providers of Internet software services such as Facebook and MySpace should consider adopting such an attitude rather than trying to control its customers, their use of the Internet, and the content of the data that they, the users, publish using their tools. 

Facebook recently took the drastic and foolish step of zapping Robert Scoble’s account because he copied some "Facebook" data to another service, thereby violating Facebook’s terms of service.  Now his on-line identity is "gone", despite Facebook’s previous claims that it is "impossible" to remove oneself from their (tar baby?) service once you’ve been entered.

It’s very parochial – and short-sighted – of Facebook to use their position of power over a user – effectively they are holding Scoble’s social data hostage – and indicative of a company that cannot be trusted in the long run, much like an ISP that that restricts the content that its users will be allowed to access because of a transitory alliance with the entertainment industry.

MySpace, a social networking web site similar to Facebook, is in the news for another, even more disturbing reason – the suicide of a teenage girl driven to despair by another girl’s parents:

A federal grand jury in Los Angeles has begun issuing subpoenas in the case of a Missouri teenager who hanged herself after being rejected by the person she thought was a 16-year-old boy she met on MySpace, sources told the Los Angeles Times.

The case created a national furor when authorities revealed the "boy" was the mother of one of the girl’s former friends.

When the woman ended the online relationship, telling Megan Meier, 13, the world would be a better place without her, Megan hanged herself as her parents were downstairs preparing for dinner.

About the only good news in this case is that Meier’s parents are not suing MySpace over the sad incident.  But neither is the government able to do anything to the perpetrators directly:

Local and federal authorities in Missouri were unable to find a statute under which to charge Lori Drew, the woman who allegedly perpetrated the hoax.

Prosecutors in the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Los Angeles, however, are exploring the possibility of charging Drew with defrauding MySpace by creating the false account she, her daughter and another person used to communicate with Megan, according to the sources, who insisted on anonymity because they are not authorized to speak publicly about the case.

The prosecutors believe they have jurisdiction because the would-be victim — MySpace — is based in Santa Monica, the sources said.

To call MySpace the victim in this case is ridiculous.  It seems clear that Drew deserves some sort of comeuppance – perhaps a civil suit would be appropriate in this case? – but that has nothing to do with MySpace playing the injured party.  The site’s entire business is based on the idea that its users can be themselves and more, presenting what they’d like to be as much or more than what they are. 

Should MySpace allow itself to be used as a legal stalking horse?  No.  If the case proves successful, which seems unlikely given the intentionally, semi-anonymous, semi-truthful nature of MySpace, Facebook, et al, the logical outcome is that this anonymity be removed and every MySpace user be forced to prove his/her identity as a pre-condition to using the site.

Not only would some of the fun go out of MySpace, et al, but this could act as an important first step toward requiring a globally unique Internet ID in order to access the web.  For most westerners such an identity token would provide a number of benefits – imagine fewer logins, more secure access to financial data, accurate email white-listing, knowing exactly with whom you are communicating – all good things.

However, the same cannot be said for people living in countries where free speech is hazardous to their health.  For them it’s either be anonymous or be in jail or worse. 

Megan Meier was driven to suicide by the deliberate actions of an adult – that’s the real crime and that’s what should be addressed, not the quasi-fictional nature of MySpace or the Net at large.

The common thread in these narratives is this that the players in the Internet technology space simply ought to have more respect for the freedom that is an inherent part of the Internet and without which it would become simply another bland, passive, ad-driven wasteland like cable television. 

The proper use of this technology is as a tool that enables people to freely express themselves with as few limitations as possible.  These are limits which neither the telecoms, cable companies, software vendors, or creepy b****es like Lori Drew have the right to set for us.


Marc is a software developer, writer, and part-time political know-it-all who currently resides in Texas in the good ol' U.S.A.

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