AU hosts Facebook Live event on cyber-safety in the wake of campus hate crimes

By Kenneth Merrill

Following last Monday’s racist incident on campus and subsequent online harassment directed at AU Student Government President Taylor Dumpson, American University hosted a Facebook Live video event on Friday outlining practical steps students can take to protect themselves from online hate.

Watch the video here.

Vice President for Communication Terry Flannery and Assistant Director of Physical Security and Police Technology Doug Pierce touched on several actions the university is taking to protect students, both on campus and online, while also addressing best practices students can adopt to protect themselves in the offline and online worlds.

Mr. Pierce highlighted the importance of actively managing one’s privacy settings on social media platforms like Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and Snapchat, including disabling geolocation, which raises the risk that online threats could develop into real-world threats to a victim’s physical security.

In what was a concerted effort to engage with the university community in an open and transparent manner, Ms. Flannery and Mr. Pierce took questions from users posted in real-time, many of whom expressed a growing sense of frustration over the larger issues of hate and fear bubbling up on campus and beyond. Echoing these sentiments was a general sense of disillusionment as to the efficacy of one-off discussions (no matter how well-intended) in response to what many see as merely the latest in a string of incidents reflecting deep-seated divisions on campus.

Addressing the larger political and social context, Ms. Flannery explained, “I think so much has been affected by the current political climate that we’re in. And I’ve seen many people who’ve, in their social media streams, talk[ed] about how they’re taking a break because the heated rhetoric following the election resulted in just the kind of heated emotion that was difficult. But this is different, what we’re talking about now. We’re talking about people who are targeting you personally because of what you represent or particular views, or your identity based on race, or other factors. And so I think it’s a particularly egregious form of hate; and a particularly personal form of hate.”

Identifying strategies for dealing with direct online harassment, Mr. Pierce suggested avoiding engagement with perpetrators and so-called trolls. “Don’t respond to the messages from these people who are trolling you and trying to provoke a reaction. That reaction is exactly what they’re trying to achieve by doing this. So the goal would be to not give them that satisfaction.”

But several students balked at the notion of self-censorship in the face of deplorable expressions of hate. “We shouldn’t have to hide ourselves online or in person,” wrote one commenter, highlighting the difficulty and dissonance many social media users experience when balancing tradeoffs like privacy versus security online.

“We tend to pit participation on these platforms against protection… that more of one requires less of the other,” explains Internet Governance Lab affiliated alumna Dr. Tijana Milosovic, a post-doctoral fellow in the Department of Communication at the University of Oslo who studies online hate and cyberbullying (she received her Ph.D. in Communication Studies from AU in 2015).  “From what I have seen, the Facebook talk given by AU administrators focuses to a large extent on safety and security–framing the problem in this way. It is, of course, important to point out these security-related aspects, with advice for students on how to protect themselves and to ensure that everyone is safe and feels safe. However, I think we should be cautious not to forget the cultural aspect of it.”

And while framing the discourse of hate, whether online or offline, is increasingly difficult given the labyrinthine and constantly shifting web of actors seeking to pollute the public sphere with vitriol, Dr. Milosovic argues that combating it requires a more holistic approach. “We tend to forget the aspects of our culture that normalize humiliation. I think this is very evident with the new administration–normalizing and implicitly (or even explicitly!) sanctioning such behavior… Creating a culture (not just on campus but more widely, in the society) where these hate-related problems are openly talked about is very important as well.”

Facebook looks to counter ‘information operations’

By Kenneth Merrill

Last November, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg called claims that his company may have influenced the outcome of the U.S. presidential election by enabling the spread of propaganda a “pretty crazy idea.” But with a reportpublished on Thursday by Facebook’s own security team titled “Information Operations and Facebook,” it is clear attitudes at the social network have changed.

“We have had to expand our security focus from traditional abusive behavior, such as account hacking, malware, spam and financial scams, to include more subtle and insidious forms of misuse, including attempts to manipulate civic discourse and deceive people,” the report explains.

In an effort to combat these new forms of social network-mediated propaganda campaigns, Facebook’s security team said it would increase its use of machine learning and “new analytical techniques” to remove fake accounts and disrupt “information (or influence) operations,” defined as “actions taken by governments or organized non-state actors to distort domestic or foreign political sentiment, most frequently to achieve a strategic and/or geopolitical outcome.”

Additionally, the report seeks to “untangle” and move away from the term “fake news,” which it (rightly) argues has become a catch-all used to “refer to everything from news articles that are factually incorrect to opinion pieces, parodies and sarcasm, hoaxes, rumors, memes, online abuse, and factual misstatements by public figures that are reported in otherwise accurate news pieces.”

Instead, the report identifies three distinct categories of abuse falling under the umbrella of “information operations”:

False News – News articles that purport to be factual, but which contain intentional misstatements of fact with the intention to arouse passions, attract viewership, or deceive.

False Amplifiers – Coordinated activity by inauthentic accounts with the intent of manipulating political discussion (e.g., by discouraging specific parties from participating in discussion, or amplifying sensationalistic voices over others).

Disinformation – Inaccurate or manipulated information/content that is spread intentionally. This can include false news, or it can involve more subtle methods, such as false flag operations, feeding inaccurate quotes or stories to innocent intermediaries, or knowingly amplifying biased or misleading information. Disinformation is distinct from misinformation, which is the inadvertent or unintentional spread of inaccurate information without malicious intent.

Citing the 2016 U.S. Presidential election as a case study, the report explains how Facebook security experts “monitored” suspicious activity during the lead-up to the election and found a deluge of false news, false amplifiers, and disinformation (sidebar: if Facebook was monitoring suspicious activity during the run-up to the election why did Mr. Zuckerberg call such activity “crazy” after election day?).

The Facebook report comes less than a week after researchers at Oxford published the latest in a  series of studies analyzing the role of automated accounts (or “bots”) in disseminating “junk news” on social media in the weeks preceding national elections in the U.S.Germany, and France. According to the study, one-quarter of all political links shared in France prior to last Sunday’s election contained “misinformation,” though the researchers point out that in general French voters were sharing better quality news than Americans during the lead-up to the U.S. presidential election (whether this reflects stronger media literacy in France or more sophisticated propaganda is unclear).

While Facebook’s security team would not confirm the identity of the actors “engaged in false amplification using inauthentic Facebook accounts,” together the Facebook and Oxford reports add to a growing body of evidence — including from U.S. intelligence officials and private cybersecurity firms — attributing the surge in automated accounts and propaganda to a larger information operation orchestrated by Russian intelligence and aimed at influencing elections and/or sowing distrust in political institutions.

Regardless, the notion that governments are targeting social networks to mine intelligence and influence political outcomes seems less “crazy” and more like the new normal in global politics.

Q&A with Internet Governance Lab Faculty Fellow Jennifer Daskal

Dr. Jennifer Daskal is an Associate Professor of Law at American University Washington College of Law, where she teaches and writes in the fields of criminal, national security, and constitutional law. 

Dr. Jennifer Daskal is an Associate Professor of Law at American University Washington College of Law, where she teaches and writes in the fields of criminal, national security, and constitutional law. 

By Kenneth Merrill

Joining the Internet Governance Lab as a Faculty Fellow, Jennifer Daskal is an Associate Professor of Law at American University Washington College of Law, where she teaches and writes in the fields of criminal, national security, and constitutional law. She is on academic leave from 2016-2017, and has received an Open Society Institute Fellowship to work on issues related to privacy and law enforcement access to data across borders. From 2009-2011, Daskal was counsel to the Assistant Attorney General for National Security at the Department of Justice. Prior to joining DOJ, Daskal was senior counterterrorism counsel at Human Rights Watch, worked as a staff attorney for the Public Defender Service for the District of Columbia, and clerked for the Honorable Jed S. Rakoff. She also spent two years as a national security law fellow and adjunct professor at Georgetown Law Center.

Daskal is a graduate of Brown University, Harvard Law School, and Cambridge University, where she was a Marshall Scholar. Recent publications include Law Enforcement Access to Data Across Borders: The Evolving Security and Rights Issues (Journal of National Security Law and Policy 2016); The Un-Territoriality of Data (Yale Law Journal 2015); Pre-Crime Restraints: The Explosion of Targeted, Non-Custodial Prevention (Cornell Law Review 2014); and The Geography of the Battlefield: A Framework for Detention and Targeting Outside the ‘Hot’ Conflict Zone (University of Pennsylvania Law Review 2013). Daskal has published op-eds in the New York TimesWashington Post, and International Herald Tribune and has appeared on BBC, C-Span, MSNBC, and NPR, among other media outlets. She is an Executive Editor of and regular contributor to the Just Security blog.

Recently, we discussed her research and some of the many hot topics arising at the intersection of Internet governance and national security law. 

You’ve worked at the Department of Justice, in the NGO space at Human Rights Watch, in the DC Public Defender’s office, and now in academia. How do these varied experiences inform your current work? When it comes to the intersection of Internet governance and national security law, does Miles’s law hold (does where you stand really depend on where you sit)?

The move from Human Rights Watch to the National Security Division at the Department of Justice was quite eye-opening.  I thought I had prepared myself for the shift, but the adage that where you stand depends on where you sit turned out to be even more true than I had imagined.  In many ways, it makes sense.  At Human Rights Watch, the primary goal was to ensure that government pursued its national security policies in ways that protected human rights.  In the government, the primary goal was to protect the American public from the perceived national security threats.  Ideally, these two goals work in tandem, and both policy and law are generally at their best when it does.  But the primary starting point is quite different and that alters the lens through which just about everything is viewed.

Much of your research focuses on law enforcement’s use of online data.  To what extent are law enforcement officials concerned about the risks of fragmentation/balkanization associated with data localization and so-called “Internet sovereignty”? 

That depends a great deal on who you ask (and where you sit).  As Americans, we have long been used to having access to or control over a majority of the world’s data, thanks in large part to the dominance of American service providers.  Fragmentation of the Internet is thus a threat that undermines this dominance. But for many countries, this is not the case.  Mandatory data localization requirements and Internet fragmentation provide a means of ensuring access to sought-after data and asserting control.

From my perspective, these trends are quite concerning.  Mandatory data localization laws are extremely costly for companies that want to operate internationally, often pricing smaller start-ups out of the market.  The trend toward localization also serves as a means for authoritarian governments to limit free speech and assert increased control.

Any early indications as to how the new administration may handle cross-border data requests? Should we expect a more transactional approach, more multilateral cooperation, or a continuation of the status quo? What impacts could such decisions have on privacy and interoperability? 

The new administration hasn’t yet taken a public stance on these issues, but there are two key issues that ought to be addressed in short order.  First is the concerning impact of the Second Circuit decision in the so-called Microsoft Ireland case.  As a result of that decision, U.S. warrants for stored communications (such as emails) do not reach data that is held outside the United States. If the data is outside the United States, the U.S. government must make a mutual legal assistance request for the data to the country where it is located – even if the only foreign government connection to the investigation is simply that the data happens to be held there.  This makes little normative or practical sense, incentivizes the very kind of data localization efforts that the United States ought to be resisting, undercuts privacy, and is stymying law enforcement’s ability to access sought-after data in legitimate investigations.

As numerous Second Circuit judges opined, Congress should weigh in—and the new administration should support an update to the underlying law.  Specifically, Congress should amend the underlying statute to ensure U.S. law enforcement can access to extraterritorially-located data pursuant to a warrant based on probable cause, but also ensure that both law enforcement and the courts take into account countervailing foreign government interests.

Conversely, foreign governments are increasingly frustrated by U.S. laws that preclude U.S.-based companies from turning over emails and other stored communications content to foreign governments – even in situations where the foreign governments are seeking access to data about their own citizens in connection with a local crime.  These frustrations are also further spurring data localization requirements, excessively broad assertions of extraterritorial jurisdiction in ways that put U.S. companies in the middle of two conflicting legal obligations, and use of surreptitious means to access sought-after data.  These provisions should likewise be amended to permit, in specified circumstances, foreign governments to access that data directly from U.S.-based companies.  The legislation should specify baseline substantive and procedural standards that must be met in order to benefit from this access – standards that are essential to protecting Americans’ data from overzealous foreign governments.

What role do private companies play in establishing the normative and legal bounds of cross-border data requests? Do you see this role changing going forward?

Private companies play significant roles in numerous different ways.  They are, after all, the recipients of the requests.  They thus decide when to object and when to comply.  They also have a strong policy voice – meeting with government officials in an effort to shape the rules.  And they also exert significant power through a range of technological and business decisions about where to store their data and where to locate their people; these decisions determine whether they are subject to local compulsory process or not.

While the majority of ISPs and content platforms are currently located in the U.S., many have expressed concerns about the long-term impact(s) policies like Trump’s travel ban could have for Silicon Valley. Taking these concerns to their logical conclusion, do you see the geography of ISPs and content platforms changing significantly as a result of these policies, and if so, how might these changes alter the legal landscape vis-a-vis cross-border data requests?

I think it’s a fair assumption that whatever the reason, at some point the share of ISPs and content platforms located in the United States will decrease.  It is, as a result, critically important that the United States think about the broader and long-term implications of the rules it sets.  At some point, it may no longer hold the dominant share of the world’s data and will need the cooperation of foreign partners to access sought-after data.  The rules and policies that are adopted should take these long-term interests into account.

Can you tell us a bit about what you’re currently working on?

I continue to work on issues associated with law enforcement access to data across borders, engaging in a comparative analysis as to how some of these key issues are playing out in both the United States and the European Union.  More broadly, I am also examining the increasingly powerful role of private sector in setting norms, policies, and rules in this space. And I continue to do research and writing on the Fourth Amendment as it applies to the digital age.

Recap — Cybersecurity in an Age of Uncertainty: US-Israel Perspectives

By Kenneth Merrill

Cybersecurity experts from academia, industry, government, and civil society met at American University last week to discuss some of the key challenges and opportunities facing citizens, private enterprise, and policymakers as they wrestle with questions over how best to manage information security threats.

Hosted by the American University (AU) Center for Israel Studies, AU’s Internet Governance Lab, the American Associates of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, The American University Washington School of Law, AU’s School of International Service, the Kogod School of Business, Kogod’s Cybersecurity Governance Center, and the AU School of Communication, the two-day conference drew on US-Israeli perspectives to address some of the most important cybersecurity issues facing citizens and governments in both countries and beyond.

How can cybersecurity and human rights coexist in the digital era? How should private and public entities in Israel and the United States work to prevent and respond to cybertheft while preserving innovation essential to economic growth and national security? What are the national policies of each country with respect to the protection of cyber infrastructure and the role of cyber operations in national security strategy? At the same time as these global cyber challenges emerge, the United States and Israel have two of the most robust and innovative cybersecurity industry clusters. What cooperation and collaboration is necessary to support the massive cybersecurity industries in these countries?

To begin to answer these questions the conference kicked off with a keynote address from Professor Yuval Elovici of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev’s Department of Information Systems Engineering and the director of the University’s Cyber Security Research Center. Titled “The Internet of Things: The New Frontier of Cyber Conflict,” professor Elovici’s remarks provided an accessible yet in-depth assessment of the state of play at the intersection of the Internet of things (IoT) and cyber security. Citing multiple examples of his research teams’ experimental approaches to testing various IoT security vulnerabilities, professor Evolici left many in the audience rightly concerned, as Internet-connected devices become increasingly embedded in our homes and lives.

On Tuesday morning the conference began with a networking breakfast and opening remarks by AU President Cornelius Kerwin. This was followed by four panel discussions, the first of which focused on Cybersecurity and Human Rights. “Cybersecurity is the great human rights issue of our time — human security depends on cyber security,” explained AU School of Communication professor and Internet Governance Lab co-director Dr. Laura DeNardis, who moderated the panel.


Left to right: professor Jennifer Daskal, Benjamin Dean, Michael Nelson, Eldar Haber, and Dr. Laura DeNardis.

Left to right: professor Jennifer Daskal, Benjamin Dean, Michael Nelson, Eldar Haber, and Dr. Laura DeNardis.

Joining Dr. DeNardis were Washington College of Law professor and Internet Governance Lab Faculty Fellow Jennifer Daskal, Eldar Haber of the University of Haifa, Michael Nelson of Cloudfare, and Benjamin Dean of the Center for Democracy and Technology. Replying to a question from the audience regarding law enforcement access to data held outside the U.S. (even by U.S.-based companies, as in the recentMicrosoft/Ireland case), professor Daskal explained how approaches to jurisdiction that turn on physical location promote data localization, which paradoxically imposes local consequences on human rights.


Left to right: Stephen Thomas, Eli Ben-Meir, Yuval Elovici, and professor Erran Carmel.

Left to right: Stephen Thomas, Eli Ben-Meir, Yuval Elovici, and professor Erran Carmel.

The next panel saw Kogod School of Business professor Erran Carmel moderate a wide-ranging discussion titled “The Cybersecurity Industry”. Participants included Eli Ben Meir of CyGov and former chief of military intelligence research for the Israeli Defense Forces, professor Elovici of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, and Stephen Thomas of Cyberbit, a cybersecurity company with offices in Israel and Austin, Texas. Highlighting the important role that Israel and the U.S. play as key nodes in the geography of cybersecurity and technological innovation, the panel discussed ways in which each country can learn from the other as governments and the private sector look to cultivate the next generation of cybersecurity professionals.

Following a networking lunch, the conference continued with a panel on “Cybertheft Prevention and Response” moderated by Washington School of Law professor Melanie Teplinsky. Professor Teplinski was joined by Rebekah Lewis of the Kogod Cybersecurity Governance Center, Jonathan Meyer of Shappard Mullin Richter & Hampton LLC, Ran Nahmias of Check Point Software Technologies, and Eric Wenger of Cisco. Together the panel discussed varying strategic approaches to thinking about cybersecurity in an environment where the volume of attacks and number of threat vectors continues to increase. The conversation sought to distinguish between headline-grabbing acts of cyberwar and espionage and the sorts of attacks that keep chief information security officers (CISO) and everyday users up at night.

Left to right: Eric Wenger, Rebekah Lewis, Ran Nahmias, Jonathan Meyer, and professor Melanie Teplinski.

Left to right: Eric Wenger, Rebekah Lewis, Ran Nahmias, Jonathan Meyer, and professor Melanie Teplinski.

The conference closed with a panel titled, “Cyber Security and National Security Policies — The U.S. and Israel,” moderated by AU School of International Service professor Eric Novotny. Joining professor Novotny were Amir Becker of the Israeli Embassy, Camille Stewart of Deloitte, and Lior Tabansky of the Blavatnik Interdisciplinary Cyber Research Centre at the University of Tel Aviv. Placing cybersecurity in a geopolitical context, the discussion allowed for a wide-ranging discussion of the national security implications for both the U.S. and Israel, as well as the impact that recent domestic political controversies could have on the global cyber order.

Left to right: Amir Becker, Camille Stewart, Lior Tabansky, and professor Eric Novotny.

Left to right: Amir Becker, Camille Stewart, Lior Tabansky, and professor Eric Novotny.

Panel celebrates Dr. Derrick Cogburn’s new book “Transnational Advocacy Networks in the Information Society: Partners or Pawns?”

Dr. Cogburn presents work from his new book “Transnational Advocacy Networks in the Information Society: Partners or Pawns?”

Dr. Cogburn presents work from his new book “Transnational Advocacy Networks in the Information Society: Partners or Pawns?”

By Kenneth Merrill

In 2016 global governance of the Internet took a major step forward with the transition of the so-called IANA functions (the management of the authoritative mapping of domain names and IP address numbers) from US government oversight to a new multistakeholder arrangement housed under the International Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN). The product of decades of negotiations and planning by an array of stakeholders from government, industry, and civil society, the IANA transition proceeded even as new organizational forms and ICTs emerged to disrupt the established technosocial order, both within and outside these institutions of Internet governance like ICANN, the Internet Governance Forum (IGF), and the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF), among others. Interrogating the impact of these new organizational forms on multistakeholder approaches to Internet governance, AU School of International Service professor (and Internet Governance Lab co-director) Dr. Derrick Cogburn’s new book titled, Transnational Advocacy Networks in the Information Society: Partners or Pawns?, provides a timely contribution to an increasingly important field of study.

On Monday the Internet Governance Lab co-hosted a book launch celebrating Dr. Cogburn’s new book and discussing some of the important questions it raises for the future of multistakeholder Internet governance. Following introductory remarks from AU School of International Service Dean Dr. James Goldgeier and AU School of Communication professor and Internet Governance Lab director Dr. Laura DeNardis, the event proceeded with a panel discussion led by Ambassador Diana Lady Dougan, Senior Advisor at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) and former Assistant Secretary of State at the US Department of State.

Panel participants included Fiona Alexander, Associate Administrator in the Office of International Affairs at the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), Mike Nelson of the content delivery network and internet service provider CloudFlare, Andrea Glorioso, Digital Economy and Cyber Counselor with the E.U. Delegation to the U.S., Marc Rotenberg, President and Executive Director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC), and Larry Irving, President and CEO of the Irving Information Group.

Among the topics discussed were the role of civil society groups and transnational advocacy networks (TANs) in shaping the multistakeholder governance process and the IANA transition, differing approaches to Internet governance and information policy across various jurisdictional contexts (e.g. competing approaches to privacy taken by the EU and the US), and the role of the private sector (especially tech firms) in contributing to bottom-up governance of the Internet.

Nearly twenty years after political scientists Margaret Keck and Kathryn Sikkink developed the concept of transnational activist networks (TANs) and their role in global political movements like anti-war, anti-globalization, and the environmental movement, professor Cogburn’s book provides a timely adaption of the concept, using it to contextualize an increasingly important array of civil society and non-state actors and their impact on the field of Internet governance.

Watch the entire discussion here.

Internet Governance Lab organizes symposium on Internet governance research methods

Texas A&M professor Sandra Braman presents at symposium on Internet governance research methods.

Texas A&M professor Sandra Braman presents at symposium on Internet governance research methods.

By Kenneth Merrill

The Internet Governance Lab hosted a group of scholars on Monday to lay the groundwork for a forthcoming first-of-its-kind book focused on Internet Governance research methods.

Following introductory remarks by AU Dean Jim Goldgeier, contributors engaged in a lively discussion covering a wide range of methods and approaches to studying Internet governance. Participants included Laura DeNardis, Nanette Levinson, and Derrick Cogburn of the Internet Governance Lab, Sandra Braman of Texas A&M, Asvatha Babu of American University’s School of International Service, Farzaneh Badiei of Georgia Tech, the University of Zurich’s Rolf Weber, Eric Jardine of Virginia Tech, Rikke Frank Jorgensen of the Danish Institute for Human Rights, Maya Aguilar of American University, Francesca Musiani and Meryem Marzouki both of the French National Centre for Scientific Research, Ron Deibert of the University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab,  American University School of Communication professor Aram Sinnreich and AU School of Communication PhD candidate Kenneth Merrill.

While the field of Internet governance continues to grow, both in its size and importance for scholars, policymakers, and IT practitioners, there exists little in the way of literature addressing the methods used to study this increasingly important subject area. Relevant methodological traditions include quantitative, qualitative, and descriptive analyses drawing on case studies, interviews, and participant observation at Internet governance fora like the International Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) and the Internet Governance Forum (IGF). Meanwhile, the proliferation of large data sets, artificial intelligence, and machine learning pose novel opportunities and constraints, including important ethical implications. Highlighting this point, Ron Deibert explained the importance of reverse-engineering and hacking ICTs as a means of identifying potential threats to privacy and free expression online, a practice that can place scholars and research subjects at risk.

Additionally, the symposium addressed the extent to which many methods are inextricably intertwined with theory. Here the field of Science and Technologies Studies (STS) is instructive, as methods like Actor Network Theory (ANT) operate from a distinct epistemological standpoint that needs to be accounted for when discussing the method. To this end, part of the project will seek to trace the history of the field and identify the epistemological nodes around which these disparate methodological approaches coalesce.

How Trump’s war with the news media could impact net neutrality

By Kenneth Merrill

In a stunning attack on the nation’s news media, the President of the United States took to Twitter on Friday to write, “The FAKE NEWS media (failing @nytimes, @NBCNews, @ABC, @CBS, @CNN) is not my enemy, it is the enemy of the American People!”. Echoing the well-worn rhetorical agitprop of tyrants past and present, Trump’s tweet was viewed by many, including those in his own party, as an attempt to divert attention from the chaos enveloping his new administration by eroding trust in a fundamental pillar of democracy. But, viewed through the narrower prism of Internet and telecommunications policy, Trump’s latest salvo aimed at the news media sheds light on the complex and increasingly interconnected interests involved in the administration’s efforts to roll back regulations like net neutrality.

Passed in 2015, the Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) net neutrality provisions were designed to protect the principle that all data should be treated equally as it moves across the Internet. Advocates of net neutrality, including consumer rights groups and most of Silicon Valley, argue that it protects users and encourages innovation in the content space by prohibiting large telecom providers (e.g. AT&T, Verizon, Comcast, etc.) from throttling traffic (either by slowing down data from competitors or creating “fast lanes” for their own approved content). Critics, including Trump’s newly appointed FCC Chairman (and former Verizon lawyer) Ajit Pai, say the net neutrality rules discourage much-needed competition in the telecom infrastructure industry.

Of course, the lack of competition in the telecom space is hardly a new phenomenon — the concentration of ownership in the industry is a problem that predates the FCC’s net neutrality provisions by at least thirty years. Moreover, the few companies that have come to dominate in this exclusive ecosystem have, in large part, done so through the acquisition of content providers, including several of the mainstream news media outlets Trump so abhors. As such, debates over whether or not to keep net neutrality are not as simple as they may seem.

To this point, Klint Finley of Wired explains that several of the largest telecom providers will be required to adhere to the net neutrality rules, per the terms of their merger agreements, regardless of any changes the new Trump-controlled FCC may make. Comcast is contractually obligated to honor net neutrality until 2018 following its merger with NBC Universal (parent company of the “failing” @NBCNews), while Charter Communications must adhere to the provisions until 2023 after its merger with Time-Warner (parent company of the “failing” @CNN).

Criticizing the most recent media mega-merger in October, then-candidate Trump called AT&T’s proposed $85 billion acquisition of Time-Warner a deal that would place “too much concentration of power in the hands of too few.” But in prefacing his comments by calling out CNN in particular as a key part of “the power structure I’m fighting,” the president seemed more concerned with punishing his perceived enemies in the press than ensuring fair competition in the industry. And while most expect the AT&T/Time-Warner deal to be approved, some industry experts have expressed concern that the FCC’s net neutrality regulations could remain in place only to become a political cudgel used by the president to inflict pain on his critics in the press. As Harold Feld of the digital rights group Public Knowledge explains to Finley in the aforementioned Wired story:

“he could appoint commissioners who will keep the net neutrality rules on the books, but not enforce them. Then if MSNBC were to offend him he could launch an investigation into its parent company, Comcast, over net neutrality. If the administration approved the AT&T/Time-Warner deal, it would have a similar bludgeon to use against CNN. In other words, we could end up with perhaps the worst of both worlds: a highly consolidated media industry, coupled with a regulatory body that selectively enforces rules for political reasons.”

But if this sort of Machiavellian gambit is the worst-case scenario, the likely alternatives are not much better. For a self-described pro-business president who, during the campaign, promised to cut regulations by as much as “75 percent, maybe more!“, scrapping net neutrality altogether remains the most likely outcome. Others suggest some elements of net neutrality could gain bi-partisan support in Congress, although any legislation would almost certainly roll back the so-called Title II provision reclassifying broadband Internet service as a “common carrier,” on par with other utilities like telephone service. It is also likely that limits on “zero rating,” in which Internet/mobile network operators (like AT&T, Verizon, and T-mobile) provide free data to customers for certain preferred content (often their own content or through partnerships with third party content providers), will be significantly scaled back under the new FCC.

Perhaps the only silver lining for advocates of net neutrality is that any changes to the provisions will be met with the forceful and increasingly influential dissenting voice of Silicon Valley. The overwhelming majority of large content providers and online platforms like Google, Facebook, and Twitter strongly support net neutrality. And in the wake of Trump’s controversial travel ban, Apple’s fight with the FBI over encryption, the SOPA and PIPA protests, and the industry’s successful lobbying effort against a 2014 FCC proposal calling for the creation of “fast lanes,” it is clear Silicon Valley is ready and able to defend its interests in Washington.

How this all plays out remains to be seen. But it seems clear that in an environment of increasing ownership concentration, both among Internet service providers and online content platforms (recall that European lawmakers continue to pursue an antitrust case against Google), the consequences involved in reversing net neutrality will be far-reaching and difficult to contain.

Prospects for Cooperation Between Tech and Trump Complicated by Executive Orders

By Kenneth Merrill

In the wake of President Trump’s sweeping executive order restricting entry to the US to refugees and immigrants from seven majority Muslim countries and with a nascent anti-Trump movement beginning to coalesce, tech industry executives are struggling to navigate an increasingly politicized environment, in which efforts to engage the new administration are colliding with the demands of politically active usersand widespread dismay within Silicon Valley over the administration’s policies.  

Reflecting the potential impact of social media to harness popular discontent and underscoring the politically fraught position many tech CEO’s now find themselves in, the hashtag #DeleteUber began trending over the weekend after the ride-hailing app was criticized for undercutting New York City taxi drivers staging a work stoppage to protest the immigration order. Seizing on the popular backlash against Uber was the company’s chief competitor Lyft, whose co-founders Logan Green and John Zimmer announced a $1m donation to the ACLU and issued the following statement sharply criticizing the executive order:

“This weekend, Trump closed the country’s borders to refugees, immigrants, and even documented residents from around the world based on their country of origin. Banning people of a particular faith or creed, race or identity, sexuality or ethnicity, from entering the U.S. is antithetical to both Lyft’s and our nation’s core values. We stand firmly against these actions, and will not be silent on issues that threaten the values of our community.”

And Lyft was not alone. Twitter, Apple, Facebook, Google, Microsoft, Netflix, and Airbnb all released statements over the weekend, ranging from judicious to vociferous. Among the more strongly-worded repudiations was Aaron Levie of the cloud company Box, who took to Twitter to write, “On every level – moral, humanitarian, economic, logical, etc – this ban is wrong and completely antithetical to the principles of America.”

Meanwhile, Google co-founder Sergei Brin was spotted at a protest at San Fransisco International Airport less than a month after Mr. Brin’s co-founder and current Alphabet CEO Larry Page was among a group of tech executives invited to Trump Tower to meet with then President-elect Trump. And while Trump’s meeting with the tech leaders was seen by many as little more than a charm offensive aimed at paving the way for future cooperation with Washington, a new report by Adam Segal of the Council on Foreign Relations provides some context for why such cooperation is necessary.

“The Silicon Valley-Washington rift has real implications for U.S. cybersecurity and foreign policy,” writes Segal, adding, “An ugly fight between the two sides makes it more difficult to share cyber threat information, counter online extremism, foster global technology standards, promote technological innovation, and maintain an open internet.”

As the report explains, the divide between Washington and U.S. tech firms began in earnest over three years ago with the Snowden revelations, which forced global platforms to reckon with an outraged public demanding greater security and privacy protections. Most notably, these new economic and reputational incentives informed Apple’s decision to make end-to-end encryption standard across the company’s products, prompting a protracted fight with law enforcement after authorities were initially unable to access the contents of a cell phone belonging to one of the San Bernardino attackers.

But if debates over encryption, privacy, and net neutrality created the rift between Silicon Valley and Washington, last week’s immigration order left a gaping chasm between the two.

Aside from the obvious constitutional concerns, the immigration restrictions are particularly worrisome for tech companies that recruit some of their top talent from abroad.

On Wednesday Twitter joined Lyft and others, donating over $1m to the ACLU to help fight the immigration order, while the messaging platform Viber announced it would provide free international calls to the seven countries affected by the executive order. Also on Wednesday, the Hill cited several cybersecurity researchers who are declining to work with law enforcement until the immigration order is revoked.

Meanwhile, Bloomberg reported that an open letter expressing concern over Trump’s immigration policies was circulating through Silicon Valley and beyond, including among CEOs on Wall Street and in the manufacturing, energy, and consumer goods sectors.

Whether or not the combined weight of an overwhelming majority of the tech community is enough to sway the administration’s thinking on immigration (or anything for that matter) remains to be seen. Regardless, critical issues like stepping up cyberdefense, curbing data localization, and protecting a free and open Internet will require some degree of cooperation between Tech and Trump, a prospect that, at the moment, is difficult to imagine.

FTC complaint highlights growing threats from Internet-connected toys

By Kenneth Merrill

For years the Internet of things (IoT) has consistently been cited as one of the next big issues looming on the tech policy horizon. With a recent complaint filed by a group of privacy and consumer protection groups at the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) highlighting risks posed to children by Internet-connected toys, it seems the IoT’s time has come.

According to the complaint filed in December by a coalition of privacy and consumer groups, the My Friend Cayla and i-Que Intelligent Robot dolls, manufactured by U.S.-based Genesis Toys, eavesdrop on children by “recording and collecting the private conversations of young children without any limitations on collection, use, or disclosure of this personal information.” The complaint also charges Massachusetts-based voice recognition company Nuance Communications, which stores and processes the audio conversations, with using the data to market products and services to children as well as selling the data to third-parties for behavioral marketing purposes.

The dolls, which are available widely in the U.S. and abroad, instruct customers to download a mobile application that allows parents to listen and communicate with the child. But as the Norwegian Consumer Council discovered, following an in-depth legal and technical analysis of Internet-connected toys, the bluetooth enabled toys also allow strangers to covertly eavesdrop on children, creating “a substantial risk of harm because children may be subject to predatory stalking or physical danger.”

In particular, the complaint argues that the companies are in violation of FTC regulations and the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA), which regulates the collection of children’s personal information by online service operators. Here the privacy groups charge Genesis Toys with failing to provide adequate notice to parents regarding the collection and transmission of children’s audio conversations; failing to obtain consent for recording and collecting conversations; deceiving parents and children as to the nature of the recordings; and failing to comply with deletion and data retention regulations.

“With the growing Internet of Things, American consumers face unprecedented levels of surveillance in their most private spaces, and young children are uniquely vulnerable to these invasive practices,“ said Claire T. Gartland, Director, EPIC Consumer Privacy Project. “The FTC has an obligation here to step in and safeguard the privacy of young children against toys that spy and companies that exploit their very voices for corporate gain.”

But with an incoming president who vowed during the campaign to “cut regulations by 75%,” consumer advocacy groups are drawing on coordinated international consensus in an effort to establish norms regarding the IoT and children. “While it is unclear how the new Trump administration will handle any regulatory issues, we do have a tradition in the U.S. of protecting children from unfair and manipulative practices in the digital environment,” explains Kathryn Montgomery, Professor and Chair of the Communication Studies Department at American University (currently on sabbatical), adding that these protections include COPPA, “a law that has been in place for nearly a decade and that government and industry alike have embraced and continue to support.”

And of course it is not just children that are susceptible to violations of privacy and security at the hands of the ever-expanding IoT market. AU and the Center for Digital Democracy released a major study last month, funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, on the privacy and consumer protection concerns raised by the proliferation of health and fitness wearables.    

This comes on the heels of a massive distributed denial of service attack in October that harnessed an army of hacked internet-connected devices, including baby monitors, cameras, and routers, to flood the servers of Dyn Research, a DNS service that provides domain name resolution services for a host of Internet services, disrupting and in some cases halting Internet traffic on such services as Google Maps, Facebook, and Twitter. As The New York Times wrote following the attack, “It is too early to determine who was behind Friday’s attacks, but it is this type of attack that has election officials concerned. They are worried that an attack could keep citizens from submitting votes.”

Recap: Content Rules?! Newsfeeds, Algorithms, Content Moderation, and Ethics

By Kenneth Merrill

At Donald Trump’s first official press conference since his election the President-elect engaged in a heated exchange with reporters that culminated in him referring to CNN as “fake news”. Two days before Trump’s inauguration, the Washington, DC and New York chapters of the Internet Society (ISOC), in partnership with the Internet Governance Lab, hosted a panel of experts to interrogate the question: what is “fake news”?

Moderated by AU School of Communication Professor Aram Sinnreich, the panel included AU Professor and Executive Editor of the AU Investigative Reporting Workshop Charles Lewis; Jessa Linger of the Annenberg School of Communications; Andrew Bridges, Partner at Fenwick & West LLP; and, in New York, Gilad Lotan, head of data science at BuzzFeed; Shuli Hallak, Executive Vice President of ISOC-NY; and Harry Bruinius, author, journalist, and staff writer at The Christian Science Monitor.

“Just as trust in the institutions of government is important for a functioning democracy, so too is trust in the Internet,” explained David Vyorst of ISOC-DC. But how should we design trust into the algorithms that now mediate content for users? Should platforms bear any responsibility for the content spread across their networks? What role does the traditional news media play? And at what point do end-users bear a responsibility to speak up and develop tools and methods to combat fake news?

Grounding the concept in a historical context, AU Professor Charles Lewis began by explaining that“fake news” is not an entirely new phenomenon but fits within the rich and storied tradition of propaganda. “From truth to truthiness to post-truth society to, now, fake news, we’ve had these issues for some time,” argued Lewis. But whereas traditional propaganda models were more top-down, today’s algorithmically negotiated information spaces create distributed networks for the dissemination of propaganda.  

Here, data scientist Gilad Lotan presented findings from his own analysis of personalized propaganda spaces. “Even though fake news and propaganda have been around for a while, the fact that these algorithms personalize stories for individuals makes this very different,” explained Lotan, adding that one of the important issues at stake is the distinction between search engine optimization and algorithmic propaganda. On this point Jessa Lingel of the Annenberg School of Communications made the case for increased algorithmic transparency in order to identify how code influences public opinion and in order to provide individuals with a means of engineering tools, both technological and social, to combat the spread of fake news. 

Meanwhile Andrew Bridges of the law firm of Fenwick & West suggested that placing responsibility squarely on the shoulders of content platforms ignores larger technosocial dynamics and the important role that algorithms play in “giving us what we want.” And yet, as several audience members pointed out, engineering algorithmic solutions to the spread of propaganda and fake news should balance not only giving users what they want but also what they need, which in some cases may involve hard political and economic choices about the communication technologies we build and use.

Watch the discussion here.