The End of Neutrality?

In the 1990s, there was no shortage of internet evangelists. From Silicon Valley pioneers to Vice President Al Gore, everyone seemed to be promoting a particular kind of utopian dream—a frictionless economy where information is abundantly free and anyone you meet online might instantly become a friend. Some even believed your dial-up connection was a path to world peace.

Of course, we all know the “connected” world solved some problems, created new ones, and did little to quell the darkness within us. Freedom, we’ve known since ancient times, is a blessing and a curse. But what’s the alternative? 

This month’s stories raise that question from many different angles. There are the ongoing and persistent security risks that make the Luddites look prescient. There’s the question of online harassment and whether it’s possible for Twitter or any other platform to keep it at bay. But the story that is most on my mind is not really news at all, but a persistent threat that has the potential to turn those utopian hopes into dystopian nightmares.

Ending Net Neutrality is sometimes framed as a kind of fairness—why should internet providers treat everyone the same when a few “free riding” content providers and consumers transmit massive amounts of data? If you use Gore’s “information superhighway” metaphor, it’s as if nearly all of the vehicles on the road were massive trucks owned by Netflix and Google.

But recent rule changes by FCC Chairman Ajit Pai imply that fairness isn’t really the question being considered. It’s control. Why else would the Federal Government stop a program that provides discounted internet access to low-income people or shut down investigations into complaints that AT&T and Verizon are privileging their proprietary content?

To understand what’s at stake, we need to go back to the beginning, that first time you navigated a web browser or sent an email. It must have seemed like magic to realize you could find a website created by someone in New York or London or Tokyo. And you could make your own site that strangers could find. It was all right there for anyone to give or take.

Sure, the internet has gotten crowded, but that utopian idea—that we all have a place on the internet—is still alive. But for how long? The space is becoming increasingly valuable as we live more of our lives online. Those who control it can make even more money than they already do today. We, as nonprofits, have a responsibility to stand up for values that are greater than money. We as citizens have to stand up for our ability to be found and heard in what are increasingly our most trafficked public spaces. Whoever can control those spaces—or the internet itself—will have even more control over us than they already do.

Maybe some people are fine with that, but if they’ve ever tried to hash out a problem with their cable or internet provider, they might think twice.

Here are this month’s stories.


Best of the Web: February

Russia-Backed Malware Can Now Target Macs (Engadget)

A lot of people think owning a Mac is itself a safety feature. It isn’t.

Trump’s F.C.C. Pick Quickly Targets Net Neutrality Rules (New York Times)

New rules may be coming that allow service providers to limit what you see on the web.

What is a Data Scientist? (Jean-Nicholas Hould)

If you’ve been analyzing your nonprofit’s data, but want to take those skills further, check out this and other posts from Jean-Nicholas Hould.

Ignorance is Bliss? An Enormous WordPress Zero-Day has Been Secretly Fixed (Tripwire)

What’s surprising about this story isn’t that a vulnerability existed or that it was patched. It’s how quietly it was all revealed. WordPress users likely still don’t know the threat they were exposed to.

Staying Secure on the Road (Securing the Human)

This newsletter offers practical tips for people who work and travel a lot. It’s from SANS, one of the most trusted digital security organizations in the world.

Did Political Data Doom Hillary Clinton? (ePolitics)

There are political lessons here, but there are also data management and decision-making lessons. The takeaway for me: Collect the data and use it otherwise you might have big blind spots that can cost you dearly.

Twitter Admits ‘Didn’t Move Fast Enough’ on Abuse, Changes Coming (Engadget)

The trolls have been winning for a long time, especially on Twitter. Recent moves to curtail abuse might not be enough to save the platform. A lot of people, especially women, have signed off from Twitter for good.

Data Privacy Day: Will You Ever Have Control of Your Personal Info? (CNET)

Your personal data is valuable and is frequently bought and sold by people who want to sell you things (and some who want to take things). But is there reason to be optimistic? Some experts, speaking at Data Privacy Day in San Francisco, believe you will one day be able to move your data out of some platforms. How? They didn’t say, but even Tim Berners-Lee thinks its possible and has ideas for how to do it.

Tip of the Day: Creating a Metrics Dashboard (Idealware)

A dashboard can make your organization smarter and more effective. This post, part of our tip of the day series in February, outlines what makes a good dashboard.

Finding the Truth in Your Data (Idealware)

When you look at your data, you might find a few inconvenient truths. Karen recently attended the Data on Purpose-Do Good Data conference where Hyesook Chung, former Executive Director of the child advocacy organization DC Action for Children, talked about how trying too hard to present positive data can get in the way of your mission.