Government’s role in regulating access to personal data

Yuval Noah Harari recent wrote an article for The Atlantic where he posed the question, “How do you regulate the ownership of data?” Professor Harari argues in the article that data is the most important asset today, moving ahead of land and machinery.  “Politics will be a struggle to control the data’s flow”, says Professor Harari.

Last spring saw the United States Congress’ struggle to at least map out a course through the turbulent waters of data privacy as members of the House of Representatives and Senate took the opportunity to grill Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg about his company’s handling of personal data obtained from the social media giant by a consultancy.

Part of this struggle may be due in part to the popularity of social media network platforms. Facebook has climbed from a digital bulletin board developed in the early 2000s in an Ivy League college dorm room to a global subscribership of over two billion people.  Former president Barack Obama’s Twitter following is in the millions while the current president, Donald Trump, is not shy or slow to taking to Twitter to either connect with and inform his base of supporters or attack the traditional media for what he perceives as unfair coverage of his administration.

Professor Harari notes that users of social media network platforms have not reached the point where they are ready to stop feeding the “attention merchants.”  Speaking on the difficulty subscribers may have in exchanging personal data for “free” services, Professor Harari points out that:

“But it, later on, ordinary people decide to block the flow of data, they are likely to have trouble doing so, especially as they may have come to rely on the network to help them make decisions, and even for their health and physical survival.”

Professor Harari offered up one solution, nationalization of data, to stem the abuses that corporations may impart on addicted social media and internet consumers, but admits that just because an asset is in the hands of government doesn’t mean things will necessarily go well.  Hence the question, how should the ownership of data be regulated?

The question will require public policymakers and politicians go through the exercise of defining “personal data.”  Would personal data be any characteristic about you? Would it be about any marker, no matter how temporary or permanent, that can be attached to you?  Must the “data” be something that the consumer actually produced?

Politically, attention merchants would want a narrow reading of the definition of personal data.  A narrower reading of personal data means being able to obtain more information pursuant to fewer restrictions. While this outcome would be ideal for corporate entities in the business of brokering data, I don’t see Republicans, even with their mantra of promoting business, enthusiastically endorsing less restrictive collection of personal data given the public’s concern for privacy.

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Net neutrality challenges the affordability of information

Last weekend, the State of California upped the ante in the net neutrality debate when Governor Jerry Brown signed into law SB 822, a bill that put into California law net neutrality requirements that were contained in the Federal Communications Commission’s 2015 Open Internet Order, a set of rules that were later repealed by the FCC in its 2017 Restore Internet Freedom Order.  Section 3101(a) and Section 3101(b) of SB 822 provide the core element of the legislation and reads as follows:

“3101. (a) It shall be unlawful for a fixed Internet service provider, insofar as the provider is engaged in providing fixed broadband Internet access service, to engage in any of the following activities:
(1) Blocking lawful content, applications, services, or nonharmful devices, subject to reasonable network management.
(2) Impairing or degrading lawful Internet traffic on the basis of Internet content, application, or service, or use of a nonharmful device, subject to reasonable network management.
(3) Requiring consideration, monetary or otherwise, from an edge provider, including, but not limited to, in exchange for any of the following:
(A) Delivering Internet traffic to, and carrying Internet traffic from, the Internet service provider’s end users.
(B) Avoiding having the edge provider’s content, application, service, or nonharmful device blocked from reaching the Internet service provider’s end users.
(C) Avoiding having the edge provider’s content, application, service, or nonharmful device impaired or degraded.
(4) Engaging in paid prioritization.
(5) Engaging in zero-rating in exchange for consideration, monetary or otherwise, from a third party.
(6) Zero-rating some Internet content, applications, services, or devices in a category of Internet content, applications, services, or devices, but not the entire category.
(7) (A) Unreasonably interfering with, or unreasonably disadvantaging, either an end user’s ability to select, access, and use broadband Internet access service or the lawful Internet content, applications, services, or devices of the end user’s choice, or an edge provider’s ability to make lawful content, applications, services, or devices available to end users. Reasonable network management shall not be a violation of this paragraph.
(B) Zero-rating Internet traffic in application-agnostic ways shall not be a violation of subparagraph (A) provided that no consideration, monetary or otherwise, is provided by any third party in exchange for the Internet service provider’s decision whether to zero-rate traffic.
(8) Failing to publicly disclose accurate information regarding the network management practices, performance, and commercial terms of its broadband Internet access services sufficient for consumers to make informed choices regarding use of those services and for content, application, service, and device providers to develop, market, and maintain Internet offerings.
(9) Engaging in practices, including, but not limited to, agreements, with respect to, related to, or in connection with, ISP traffic exchange that have the purpose or effect of evading the prohibitions contained in this section and Section 3102. Nothing in this paragraph shall be construed to prohibit Internet service providers from entering into ISP traffic exchange agreements that do not evade the prohibitions contained in this section and Section 3102.
(b) It shall be unlawful for a mobile Internet service provider, insofar as the provider is engaged in providing mobile broadband Internet access service, to engage in any of the activities described in paragraphs (1), (2), (3), (4), (5), (6), (7), (8), and (9) of subdivision (a).”

Political actors that favor the FCC’s implementation of net neutrality rules have managed in the past to endear their position to the public by describing efforts opposing the rules as a barrier to freedom of expression.  Net neutrality rules proponents argue that internet service providers have a financial incentive to use their positions as gateways to internet access to favor their content over that of edge providers.  Favoring ISP content may take the form of throttling data coming from a favored website or blocking a consumer’s access to their favorite website.

Net neutrality rules proponents would also argue that even if their access to a website was not blocked or data from their favorite website not slowed down, the receipt by an ISP of compensation in exchange for giving an edge provider higher priority of their traffic may mean that smaller content providers are put at a disadvantage compared to larger content providers with deeper pockets.

Opponents of putting net neutrality into an agency rule would agree that the principles of net neutrality should be adhered to.  However, as network operators, ISPs argue that they cannot afford to devalue their networks by frustrating consumer access to internet content.  The internet has grown in use and popularity as a result of the “network effect” where as more consumers use the internet, the demand for and supply of content and other services increases thus increasing the value of an operator’s network.  In the end, blocking, throttling, or prioritizing content would only work against the network operator.

Often overlooked in the net neutrality debate is the global nature of the internet.  Facebook users, for example, take for granted that most of the social network’s subscribers are not located in the United States and that we all access a network of interconnected computers located in multiple countries. The traffic you receive can come from a number of jurisdictions before landing on your computer.

Ironically, California leads the way in North America when it comes to internet traffic density.  According to data from Akami, California accounts for 5.1% of traffic flows in North America.  Statista.com reports that internet traffic in North America amounts to  1,411,021 terabytes a month. This means that California’s approximate share is 71,962 terabytes a month.

And the amount of internet traffic flowing is expected to continue increasing.  According to findings by Cisco, internet traffic is expected to increase by 278 exabytes a month by 2021.  As gateways for internet traffic, ISPs concerned about managing congested networks may want to employ a time honored method of congestion management: price, and this method of determining where resources flow is what is really being kept in check by SB 822.

SB 822 prohibits ISPs from charging content providers for the handing off of edge provider traffic.  It is ironic that proponents of these rules on the one hand support the notion of regulating broadband providers like telephone companies, but prohibit the very practice telephone companies have used to recover a portion of their network costs. As internet traffic increases along with the costs for delivering traffic, would proponents prefer ISPs increase the prices the end use consumer pays while providing edge providers with free content? If this is the case, then net neutrality proponents in California, many of whom are unwittingly support keeping edge provider costs low, may find accessing information on the internet less affordable.

 

The likelihood of net neutrality being codified in statute looks dim…

Republicans in the U.S. House and U.S. Senate have been pushing for legislation that codifies net neutrality principles, making them a part of federal law.  Even with control of both chambers of the U.S. Congress, Republicans have not been able to convince enough Democratic members of Congress to get on board with passing a law that would avoid the back and forth pendulum between promulgating and repealing net neutrality rules on the agency level at the Federal Communications Commission.

Last spring, 52 U.S. Senators, including three Republicans, voted to reinstate net neutrality rules that were repealed in December 2017 by FCC chairman Ajit Pai’s Restoring Internet Freedom Order.  Mr. Pai’s treatment of net neutrality keeps the emphasis on one of the open internet’s four principles, transparency but leaves the other three principles; throttling, paid prioritization, and blocking, up to the “network effect”, where broadband access providers argue that discouraging use of the internet by blocking, throttling, or discriminating between carriers would lead to a devaluation of their networks, thus an illogical approach to take.

GOP control of the House is under threat this November.  If election sentiment carries over into the midterms, it is likely that the Democratic Party will capture the House.  Rasmussen Reports found that 47% of likely voters in the United States’ midterm elections are likely to vote for the Democratic Party while 42% of likely voters may cast their ballots for the Republican Party.

In the U.S. Senate, Republicans hold 51 seats while the Democrats hold 47 seats. Two independents, Angus King of Maine and Bernie Sanders of Vermont, caucus with the Democrats.  The Democrats need at least four seats to regain control of the Senate.

In the U.S. House, Republicans hold 236 seats to the Democrats 193.  Democrats need to pick up at least 25 seats to garner a House majority.

Will Democrats run on net neutrality as an issue? Based in polling from Pew Research, net neutrality is likely not an issue to grab the eardrums of voters.  For all voters, economic issues overall took first place, according Pew’s poll.  When broken down, the top six issues were:

  1. Immigration
  2. Health care
  3. Education
  4. Politicians/Government systems
  5. Guns/gun control/gun laws
  6. Economy/economic issues

For Democrats, while the top three overall issues for all voters were also a part of the Democrats of top three issues, gun control, politicians and government systems, and jobs rounded out the bottom three of their top six concerns.

House Democrats are aligning with their base’s apparent lack of priority for net neutrality.  Looking at a sample of 102 House Democrat websites, only four (3.9%) of those sites mentioned net neutrality, the open internet, or internet freedom as a key issue.

The low priority given to net neutrality this campaign season by voters and House Democrats tells me that Democrats will be in no hurry to join Republicans in drafting a bipartisan net neutrality bill.