SOC alumnus Dr. Luis Hestres discusses net neutrality on Texas Public Radio

Dr. Luis Hestres is a tenure-track assistant professor of digital media at the University of Texas at San Antonio. He received his Ph.D. in Communication from American University in 2014.

With last week’s announcement by FCC chair Ajit Pai that the agency plans to dismantle a set of landmark net neutrality regulations, many have asked what such a move could mean for consumers, the tech industry, and the future of the internet as we know it.

Discussing the implications of the proposed repeal on Texas Public Radio’s “The Source” on Monday, SOC alumnus and professor in digital communication at the University of Texas at San Antonio Dr. Luis Hestres described net neutrality as “the principle that internet service providers can’t discriminate against any type of data that flows through their networks.”

Click here to listen to the discussion.

The current net neutrality regulations, put in place by the Obama administration, categorize broadband as a public utility (on par with electrical and telephone grids), prohibiting internet service providers (ISPs) from “throttling” or otherwise slowing down the flow of data from certain websites or from charging more for high-quality streaming from certain websites.

The proposed repeal has reignited a debate between large telecom providers like AT&T and Verizon on one side and increasingly powerful tech companies like Google and Facebook on the other. Silicon Valley firms and internet freedom advocates argue that dismantling the regulations would stifle innovation and give ISPs the power to serve as digital gatekeepers.

Further complicating matters, the FCC proposal comes as the Department of Justice is suing AT&T to block a proposed $85.4 billion bid for Time Warner, a deal that would see the telecom giant acquire CNN, HBO, and Warner Brothers Pictures in an effort to merge content and distribution (a strategy already embraced by one of AT&T’s chief competitors Comcast, whose purchase of NBCUniversal was approved in 2011). Taken together, the government’s contradictory stances toward AT&T reflect the difficulty in reconciling the increasing consolidation of the telecom and media ecosystems with the current administration’s anti-regulatory pro-business agenda.

But as Dr. Hestres explains, the telecoms themselves have engaged in similar doublespeak, especially as it concerns net neutrality. “The telecoms are saying one thing to the FCC and something completely different to their investors,” ensuring their shareholders that they continue to invest heavily in network architecture even as they claim that the net neutrality rules have stalled investment in broadband.

Adding to these competing (often contradictory) set of interests, New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman published a letter to the FCC last week alleging that the agency’s public comments process, which allows citizens to voice their concerns on the proposed net neutrality repeal, “has been corrupted by the fraudulent use of Americans’ identities.” While it is as yet unclear who is behind the fraudulent comments (Schneiderman’s office received no “substantive” response from the FCC) it would seem to represent another instance in which networked actors have meddled in institutions of governance and the democratic process. “If law enforcement can’t investigate and (where appropriate) prosecute when it happens on this scale, the door is open for it to happen again and again,” wrote Schneiderman.

Update: On Monday, December 11, Dr. Hestres explained the net neutrality decision on KENS TV, a local CBS affiliate in San Antonio. Check out the video here.

 

 

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Internet Governance Lab Fellow and PhD Candidate Olga Khrustaleva at IETF 99 in Prague

Status code 451 is a reference to Ray Bradbury’s 1953 dystopian novel “Fahrenheit 451,” in which books are banned and burned.

Most Internet users are familiar with status code 404 “Not Found,” used when a requested web page is unavailable. Less recognizable, at least until recently, was status code 451, a new protocol standardized in 2016 and used to signal when a requested resource is unavailable “for legal reasons.” A reference to Ray Bradbury’s dystopian novel Fahrenheit 451, the new status code applies to resources inaccessible for a host of legal considerations, including national security, copyright violations, privacy, and local laws proscribing certain types of content (e.g. hate speech, blasphemy laws, etc.). 

Last week, SOC Ph.D. Candidate and Internet Governance Law fellow Olga Khrustaleva, who this summer is working as an Internet of Rights fellow with Article 19, a London-based digital rights advocacy group, presented research at the 99th meeting of the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) in Prague on the implications of status code 451 for human rights, both globally and in various national contexts. Using a web crawler that searches top-level resources for content being blocked or otherwise censored, the crawler reports any instances of 451 status codes and analyzes them to see what categories of content are being blocked where. 

Using a web crawler that searches top-level resources for content being blocked or otherwise censored, the crawler reports any instances of 451 status codes and analyzes them to see what categories of content are being blocked where. 

While the project is in its early stages — the research tools were unveiled at an IETF-sponsored “hackathon” in Prague last week — initial findings focusing on Reddit in Turkey showed that LGBT content was among the largest categories of content returning the status code. Similarly, the tools are being used to investigate occurrences of status code 451 in Russia, where LinkedIn was recently blocked due to the company’s refusal to comply with the country’s data localization law

The researchers expect to augment these initial findings with data collected from the team’s browser extension, with the goal of extending the project to other national contexts going forward. As Ms. Khrustaleva explains, “status code 451 makes digital censorship more transparent and gives more clarity to the end users who get a better idea why the page they are trying to access is unavailable.” But understanding how the code is used and under what circumstances will help shed light on how content filtering is implemented across national contexts. 

SOC PhD candidate Fernanda Rosa awarded Columbia University grant to study IXPs

SOC Ph.D. candidate Fernanda Rosa has been awarded a prestigious grant from Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA) to fund her dissertation research investigating the role of Internet exchange points (IXPs) in Internet governance. The project, titled “Global Internet, Local Governance: A Sociotechnical Approach to Internet Exchange Points,” examines these important sites in the Internet’s physical infrastructure from a science and technology studies (STS) perspective while making visible their impact on Internet governance and freedom of expression online.

Additionally, Ms. Rosa was awarded a 2017 Google Policy Fellowship, which will take her to Mexico City this summer where she will be conducting research for her dissertation and working with Red en Defensa de los Derechos Digitales (R3D), a Mexican organization dedicated to the defense of human rights in the digital sphere.

We congratulate Fernanda on these impressive accomplishments and look forward to seeing what she discovers as her research proceeds. You can follow her on Twitter @fefe_rosa

Are we coding for the future we want? Dr. Isabelle Zaugg on Digital Standards and Lost Languages

American University SOC Ph.D. student Dr. Isabelle Zaugg successfully defended her dissertation on Wednesday titled “Digitizing Ethiopic: Coding for Linguistic Continuity in the Face of Digital Extinction.” Drawing on field work conducted in Ethiopia last year as part of a Fulbright-Hays Doctoral Dissertation Research Abroad Fellowship, Dr. Zaugg’s project investigates the relationship between the growth of information communication technologies and rapid declines in language diversity.

Abstract: Despite the growing sophistication of digital technologies, it appears they are contributing to language extinction on a par with devastating losses in biodiversity.  With language extinction comes loss of identity, inter-generational cohesion, culture, and a global wealth of knowledge to address future problems facing humanity.  Linguists estimate a 50%-90% loss of language diversity during the 21st century, with the lack of digital support for minority languages and scripts a contributing factor.

Over time, digital design has come to support an increasing number of languages, but this process has been largely market-driven, excluding languages of communities too small or poor to represent viable markets.  Lack of support for a language in the digital sphere means that language communities begin using other more dominant or “prestigious’ languages for digital communication.  This results in “digital extinction,” including the impossibility of raising youth fluent in their mother-tongue.  Once the youth in a community have stopped using a language, it is typically on the path to extinction within the next few generations.

This research investigates the role of digital design and governance in including or excluding languages from the digital sphere through the instrumental case study of Ethiopic, a script that supports a number of languages at risk of digital extinction, including the national language of Ethiopia.  Using qualitative and quantitative methods, the dissertation investigates late 20th century efforts to include the Ethiopic script in Unicode-ISO/IEC 10646, the dominant digital sister standards that allow scripts of the world to appear on devices, websites, and software, as well as the ongoing challenges Ethiopic-based languages face for full digital viability in the 21st century.

Concluding with policy recommendations and best practices for digital design, governance, and advocacy efforts to preserve language diversity, this research sheds light on far-reaching implications for the public good of digital design and governance.  The decisions we make about digital technologies will impact generations to come, and this dissertation asks, “Are we coding for the future we want?”

Please join us in congratulating Dr. Zaugg on her defense and wishing her well as she begins a Mellon-Sawyer Seminar Postdoctoral Fellowship in “Global Language Justice” at the Institute for Comparative Literature and Society at Columbia University in the Fall.

Dr. Sargsyan Ph.D. Dissertation on Information Intermediary Privacy

Picture, T. SargsyanCongratulations to Tatevik Sargsyan, who today successfully defended her dissertation “Exploring Multistakeholderism Through the Evolution of Information Intermediaries’ Privacy Policies.” Her dissertation committee was chaired by Dr. Laura DeNardis; committee members included Dr. Kathryn Montgomery, Dr. Derrick Cogburn, and Dr. Declan Fahy. The external reader was digital privacy expert Dr. Michael Zimmer of the University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee.