Public Policy

What net neutrality is (and isn’t)

There are few Internet policy issues as divisive as net neutrality, neither are there many issues that apparently elicit such passion. At the root of the debate is, in my opinion, not necessarily the principles of net neutrality; rather, I believe it is in the mechanism used to enforce it.

While there is no single interpretation of what net neutrality is, there are certain accepted principles set forth by Timothy Wu (who coined the term in 2003) that are widely accepted. This includes the principle that all traffic on the Internet should be treated equally or ‘neutrally’ by Internet Service Providers (ISPs) without blocking, throttling or discriminating against a competitor’s content or services.

Over the years, almost all participants in the Internet ecosystem—from civil society and public advocates to the largest Silicon Valley tech companies to ISPs themselves—have come around to agreeing with this general version of these principles.

The Internet Society published a policy brief on net neutrality in 2015. In this brief, we outline how openness is a fundamental value that has contributed to the success of the Internet, both in the U.S. and around the world. We have always supported the values of a truly global and open Internet based on transparency, access and choice.

Simply put, the Internet Society believes net neutrality means that ISPs should ensure Internet users have unhampered access to the legal content they want. We believe these principles should lead the way for the Internet’s continued growth and success globally. Further, we firmly believe that a multistakeholder process is the best way to develop the policy tools needed to preserve the open Internet in the future.

When the FCC voted on the Open Internet Order in 2015, we were concerned about whether an outdated statute like Title II was the right vehicle to preserve these core principles. At the same time, we knew that after a long and, at times, tortured proceeding, the U.S. Internet market needed a stable legal foundation, of which net neutrality is a part, that would generate the confidence to support growth, investment, competition, and opportunity. With the latest announcement from the FCC, the U.S. is once again faced with instability and lack of regulatory certainty. On the one hand, we have consensus on the principles, but on the other we have no clarity on how or if they will be enforced.

The time has come to put this issue to rest. What is needed is an approach to the open Internet that upholds the core Internet principles, provides market stability, a solution that puts consumers at the center, and creates opportunity for the future. Indeed, if we can learn anything from the net neutrality debate in the U.S. over the past decade, it is that a multistakeholder approach is urgently needed. We can no longer rely on traditional regulatory processes to develop solutions that can keep pace with the technologies of the future.

For this reason, I hope that the U.S. government can take a more sustainable approach to net neutrality; one that upholds the principles that are rooted in the Internet Society’s core values of a global and open Internet. Americans need clarity in this debate. By adopting a multistakeholder approach to develop a clear, sustainable and fair legal framework for net neutrality – one that reflects the dynamic nature of the Internet – we can finally achieve that stability that is so needed.

Should the U.S. government choose to adopt such an approach, I would look forward to participating in a meaningful multistakeholder process, along with diverse stakeholders, to seek consensus on an enduring framework that will continue the success of the global Internet for generations to come.

Public Policy

CRTC Decision Creates a Canadian Framework for Net Neutrality

Yesterday’s decision by the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) should be welcomed by advocates of net neutrality. Though not an ideal decision in certain respects, and continuing to make clear the need for specific, updated legislation on online connectivity and communication, it does nevertheless enshrine some of key principles of net neutrality in the CRTC’s regulatory framework.

Originating from a specific complaint against zero-rating data practices by Quebec-based ISP Videotron, the ruling builds a general framework for online traffic treatment practices which effectively bans differential treatment of data based on its origin point. In other words, ISPs, whether fixed or mobile, will no longer be able to offer packages which do not count certain preferred services or websites towards data caps, or to offer preferred speeds to these content providers.

There are, however, some details in which the framework is less effective than it could be and where future rulings will be critical to clarify and strengthen the principles laid out in this initial framework.

The CRTC derived its authority in making the decision from subsection 27(2) of the Telecommunications Act, and specifically dealt with the question of zero-rating or discounting of retail Internet traffic to consumers. Critically, the ruling does not affect the ability of ISPs to manage Internet protocol networks internally or to negotiate between each other for data and bandwidth sharing.

The Commission set out several criteria by which the decision was made, including impact on Internet openness and innovation, but with the main one being if, “the treatment of data is agnostic”; in effect, this puts neutral treatment of data at the heart of the CRTC’s decision-making process in regards to the Internet for the foreseeable future. This decision effectively means that competition between Internet providers and packages will now need to be based on a combination of price, connection speeds, network coverage and data bandwidth, rather than preferentially-treated services. In this respect, the decision builds upon and formally outlines principles underlying previous cases where service providers were forced to disclose bandwidth “throttling” practices and to discontinue using zero-rating practices for branded online television streaming.

With this said, the ruling also contains some unclear elements and potential loopholes for abuse that detract from its overall impact. The major factor is that, rather than adopting clear rules on disallowed practices, the CRTC has opted for a complaints-based approach to violations of the net neutrality framework adopted. Though there are concerns that adopting strict rules would not address quickly evolving ISP practices, creating a complaints-based framework could also lead to an access problem on the part of consumers, particularly those with low incomes or limited amounts of time. Contrary to submissions from net neutrality advocates, including some smaller ISPs, the decision stated that a new code for net neutrality was unnecessary in light of a body of regulations stemming from this and previous rulings. Again, in this respect, it falls short of a full commitment to net neutrality principles, even as it generally adheres to them. The Commission also effectively declined to rule or launch further proceedings on the question of data capping and throttling procedures, instead referring to previous decisions designed to increase network access and facilitated greater consumer bandwidth.

The CRTC’s placing of the onus on consumers to bring forward practice complaints, rather than taking a more proactive approach, is likely to make future action on emerging ISP practices more cumbersome in practice. As well, there are concerns, akin those around to the FCC’s previous use of Title II authority, that utility-like regulation of the Internet could stifle innovation. Those concerns aside, the ruling does create a framework for arguably more consumer-friendly ISP practices moving forward and one which explicitly recognize the goals of openness and innovation online.

This post was authored by Carter Vance, intern with the North American Regional Bureau, and Mark Buell, Regional Bureau Director for North America.


Privacy is key to reinforcing user trust on the Internet

Privacy has been a top-of-mind issue in the United States for the past couple of weeks. Last Tuesday, the House of Representatives voted to repeal privacy rules (pdf) passed by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) last year. The vote was close, 215-205, but it appears likely that the President will soon sign the resolution into law. Once that happens, Internet Service Providers (ISPs) will not have to obtain opt-in approval from their customers to share information about their online activities (like their browsing history and geo-location data).

At the Internet Society, we believe privacy is key to reinforcing user trust on the Internet, and that ISPs must act as trusted stewards of their customers’ data. ISPs are more than just a connection to the Internet. Their service enables users to browse the Web, do online banking, pay their bills, communicate with friends, access sensitive health information, and so on; all things that most people would regard as personal and private. Consumers therefore rightly expect their ISP to take the privacy of their information seriously.  In our opinion, ISPs should respect and protect users’ privacy, irrespective of the existence of rules or legislation mandating them to do so. Internet users should not have to opt-in to privacy; the starting point for any organization that collects personal data on its customers should be ‘to do no harm’.

In fact, good privacy practices should be the norm across all Internet companies that an Internet-user comes in contact with – not just at the ISP level but at the application level as well (search engines, social media, advertising, and online shopping providers and a host of others). The FCC’s privacy rules did not include these application providers, yet they often collect a tremendous amount of data on their customers and, in our view, should abide by high standards when it comes to protecting end-user privacy.

All data collectors have responsibilities to uphold end-user privacy and be transparent in how data is being collected and used. By taking a proactive approach to data collection and handling, companies across the Internet ecosystem can help ensure that their customers have trust in their online communications and transactions. The Internet Society would like to see all Internet-related companies and organizations adopt this approach. That trust is a critical factor in growing the digital economy and in enhancing the quality of life for all citizens around the globe.

There are also a number of things you can do to protect your privacy online. Check out our Top 10 tips to help protect yourself online and Your digital footprint matters to learn how to protect yourself online. And, consider encrypting your online communications for an extra layer of protection.

Community Networks Growing the Internet Technology

Creating an IXP in Denver, Colorado, USA

The word Internet is short for internetwork. It’s just a network of networks. So the more places you can connect those networks, the more robust the whole system is. That’s what Internet Exchange Points (“IXPs”) are. They’re the connection points where networks can connect to each other, and they’re a crucial part of the infrastructure of the Internet. 

In Europe, IXPs have traditionally been independent and are often run as nonprofits, whereas in North America, they’ve typically been owned and operated by commercial colocation facility operators or Internet Service Providers (ISPs). In the last several years, though, there’s been a movement in the US to build more independent, community-focused IXPs. IX-Denver is part of that movement. 

Denver is pretty geographically central in the United States.  It’s a city where there is a lot of fiber infrastructure, there are a lot of technology companies, and there are a lot of people with engineering expertise. But there hasn’t been a really big interconnection ecosystem there. There is one IXP there, but it’s facility-owned and you’re required to rent space there to gain access. That’s a barrier to entry. We wanted to bring the non-profit, bottom-up, open interconnection model to Denver, and simultaneously bring the local tech community together. 

We’re one year in, and we’re doing pretty well so far. The hardest part is outreach; getting those first few folks in and doing that community building. The value of an IXP is in the networks you can connect to. If you’re the first network to connect to an IXP, there’s zero value. There’s a chicken and egg problem where the IXP isn’t valuable unless there’s a bunch of networks connected to it, but nobody wants to connect to it to get that going. We were fortunate to get some early buy-in from a few well-known companies: Cloudflare, Yahoo, Hurricane Electric, and Softlayer. They joined, and that became the seed for us, and then more organizations wanted to join. 

I’m focusing a lot on outreach to organizations that haven’t historically peered. It’s been a real feet-on-the-street approach. We’ve been emailing our friends and contacts in the industry, going to events and talking to folks. There’s no silver bullet. Community-building is tough, but you just have to get out there and share the passion. 

Any organization that has an IT network or an Internet connection can potentially benefit from peering. Some organizations will be able to lower their Internet transit bills by peering, especially if they peer with organizations with whom they trade a lot of traffic. For instance, a lot of college campuses will have a lot of Netflix downloads. So, if you want to peer with Netflix, that would reduce the amount of traffic they have to send over paid-for Internet connection by quite a bit. So they’d be able to actually lower their bill. 

Peering doesn’t always lower your bill, but there’s still value even if you’re not saving money. You potentially have additional security by peering with partners. Because if you peer with them directly you’re avoiding sending proprietary trade secrets and other confidential data over the open Internet which is really insecure. It also allows you to bypass Internet congestion or choke points. 

The technology part of setting up an IXP is pretty easy. The hard part is on the people side, both in terms of convincing people to connect, and in making sure you have the right people on your initial team. You’re going to need some folks with good connections to the local community, folks with connections to the broader Internet community, and at least one or two folks who’ve done this before. But community is the most important thing. You can’t do this alone. 

Editor’s note – for more information about setting up IXPs, please visit our IXP Toolkit.

Chris Grundemann used to work for the Internet Society and now works for Myriad Supply. He is a friend and colleague and we asked him for his perspective on IXPs as one of the architects of the IXP in Denver, CO. We also thank Chris Dart for interviewing Chris and writing the first draft of this post. This blog post is part of a series on Internet infrastructure development. From IXPs to supporting community networks, the Internet Society works with partners on the ground to build sustainable Internet infrastructure from the bottom-up. Community first.

Beyond the Net Community Projects Development Growing the Internet Human Rights

Internet & Seniors. Falling in love with life again.

Beyond the Net Journal: Harlem – New York. Meeting Up With HICAP students after 6 years to recall how the Internet can change seniors lives for the better.

The Internet is able to keep seniors engaged in a variety of ways that were not imaginable a few decades ago. The Harlem Internet Computer Access Program, started in 2010 by the US New York Chapter and funded by a Community Grant, is still a shining example of how the Internet can be a great resource for seniors. The project provided Internet access and computer education to low-income, disabled senior citizens. HICAP’s impact to the Harlem community is still palpable. All participants, who attended to 80% of their classes and passed competency tests, now have computers and Internet access in their homes.

Merle Bush, the passionate computer instructor of HICAP, is firmly convicted about the need for seniors to be connected. Events like the death of a spouse or a medical recovery increase feelings of loneliness and depression. When living at home alone, life becomes smaller and options for socialization decrease. “Some people believe that when they become seniors, that’s the end of the line. ” Merle says. “The Internet is as good for them as it’s good for me, to see what’s going on in the world and to connect with friends and relatives”.

Merle takes pride opening up a whole new world of possibilities to people who may otherwise miss opportunities “Medicare, social benefits, paperwork, on line shopping, social media… these are all great things that seniors can do with what they learnt” she explains, “but this project has been more than imparting knowledge, we all gained lifelong relationships.”

The impact this project has made on seniors is unbelievable. An example is Ms. Barbara Stephens, who lives on the fourth floor and has a prosthetic foot. For a period of six weeks, the building’s elevator was being expanded for wheelchair access. So it was supposed to be wise suspending classes until the date of completion. All the tenants were offered $500 toward expenses and a six week hotel stay. But the students took a vote: they all wanted to stay and forgo the cash to attend class. They did not miss one session, including Ms. Barbara Stephens. Enjoy her dance at the end of our video….

Now Merle has a full-time job, but her students, including Barbara Stephens, Mamie Perfet, Joyce Walker, The Wu Family… they all keep in touch. We attended one of their meetings to hear from their voices how the project is still affecting their lives.

Watch the Video

Special thanks to Joly MacFie, President of US New York Chapter, for his kind collaboration.

Share this story

If you like this story please share it with your friends. That would tremendously help in spreading the word and raising the visibility of this project. Help more people understand how the Internet can change lives.

Do you have a great idea? We are interested in your project.

We are looking for new ideas from people all over the world on how to make your community better using the Internet. Internet Society “Beyond the Net Funding Programme” funds projects up to $30,000 USD.

Find out more about Beyond the Net Funding Programme.
Women in Tech

World Photo Day: Capturing The Invisible World

Shuli Hallak photographs the Internet.  And when we say she photographs it, we’re not just talking about cool pictures of wires (although those are in her portfolio) but entire worlds that are up and running right under our noses but remain invisible.

Her work is helping to demystify the sometimes complicated language surrounding the open Internet and is building a new understanding of how important the open Internet is for people everywhere.

She is Executive Vice President of our Chapter in New York and an active member in our North American Bureau.

For World Photo Day, we’ve chosen to #ShineTheLight on her as an amazing woman in tech who’s making a difference.


On How She Got Started

It’s an interesting time that we’re in.  We only recently moved from the industrial era to the technology era and there are so many of us who have industrial skills and training, living in this brave new landscape.

I feel like I am one of these people. I’m a photographer. This helps me capture all the things we can see. The physical reality of our world.  And while I’m passionate about photography, it does have its limitations.

There is an entire world out there that we don’t see, but we depend on. I began focusing on things like cargo ships and coal mining operations 

I started photographing the Internet in 2013. I mean, it’s the ultimate invisible network. I felt that if I could see it and photograph it, then maybe I could start to understand it and other people could too. 

So then the next step was to figure out how to do it. That was a series of cold calls, not knowing exactly what I was asking, and learning a lot.

My first shoot was inside an interconnection facility. I didn’t even know what that was, but I discovered an entire world. It was pretty much the closest thing you could get to being in the matrix.

I was hooked and began working toward my ultimate goal of getting on a cable ship – which I eventually did. 

On What She Found Out

But as I was doing all of this, I was also learning. I began to understand things like surveillance, access issues, privacy and so on.  Once I started to understand Internet standards I began to realize that photography was not enough.  So I took a three-month intensive course in coding and that allowed me to dive into what makes the open Internet so special.

On Who She Wants to Shine the Light On

I think there are women out there like Susan Crawford, who’s a professor of Internet law at Harvard who is doing incredible things. Or Anne Schwieger who works for the City of Boston’s Innovation and Technology department.  Both of these women are outside of what we could consider traditional ‘women in tech’ but how they’re using technology or fighting to keep the Internet open for people to create opportunity with is amazing.

On Becoming A Woman In Tech

I think the biggest thing that’s changed in the world is that tech is now a universal language. It’s in everything we do and encompasses so many disciplines.  We need to rethink the traditional definitions of what it means to work in technology.  It’s not just about working in a male-dominated space anymore. Don’t get me wrong; that does exist, but we need to remember the possibilities are endless. 

There is just so much. You can do anything you care about and use technology to further your field.  We all can use it to get connected to each other, to evolve and to make the world a better place.

Check out Shuli’s eBooks

Domain Name System (DNS) Growing the Internet Public Policy

Quebec to require ISPs to block websites

The provincial government in Quebec recently passed legislation that will require Internet Service Providers (ISPs) to block access, at the Domain Name System (DNS) level, to gambling websites that originate outside its borders.

Known as DNS blocking, this practice is not normally seen in highly-developed democracies like Canada (though it’s certainly not unheard of). It forms part of China’s Great Firewall, and was used during the Arab Spring to limit communications between protestors. I think Canadian legal scholar Michael Geist said it best when he wrote that DNS blocking violates the first rule of the Internet in Canada: “thou shall not block.”

Simply put, DNS blocking is an affront to the principles of a free and open Internet. It erodes the unified nature of the global Internet and interferes with with cross-border data flows. Putting aside the technical and security issues inherent to the practice (discussed here, and in this 2012 paper from ISOC), it’s fraught with potential negative consequences, and fundamentally isn’t very effective.

Under the new legislation, known as Bill 74, Loto Quebec will provide a list of offending sites to ISPs. Those ISPs will then be legally bound to block those sites within the province. If they don’t comply, they could face stiff fines – up to $100,000.

While the provincial government now says Bill 74 is meant to protect consumers, their motivations are possibly less altruistic. In Canada, most gambling activities are run by provincial government-controlled monopolies. Like many other businesses, Loto Quebec has been experiencing increased competition from online gambling sites. As a result, it has not been meeting its revenue targets. When the legislation was first proposed, it was framed as a way to increase the corporation’s revenue. Take away the competition, the theory goes, and consumers will have to use your service.

Only the reality is very different. The legislation will, in all likelihood, create a financial burden for both Loto Quebec and ISPs, and yet prove itself to be ineffective. Blocking a website at the DNS level does nothing to remove the offending material from the Internet. It will result in an online game of whack-a-mole; when one site is blocked, another will pop up. It’s easily circumvented – there are many services available to bypass DNS and geo-blocking.

The legislation may in fact be a nonstarter. According to many sources, the law would not survive a likely court challenge. Some argue that it limits freedom of expression guaranteed under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and others question whether a provincial government has the jurisdiction to enact such legislation at all as telecommunications is the exclusive responsibility of the federal government.

Regardless, it is unfortunate the Quebec government chose to pursue DNS blocking as policy. As the 2012 ISOC paper states, “The negative impact of DNS filtering far outweighs the short-term legal and business benefits.”

Internet Governance

Register Today for the 2016 IGF-USA!

What’s at stake in 2016: Internet leaders meet at IGF-USA to discuss Internet growth and policy

Eventbrite registration required 

On Thursday, July 14, thought leaders from civil society, industry, academia, and government will meet at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, DC for IGF-USA - the preeminent conference on Internet governance in the United States.

The Internet Governance Forum USA (IGF-USA) is a multistakeholder effort to illuminate issues and cultivate constructive discussions about the future of the Internet. The Greater Washington DC Chapter of the Internet Society (ISOC-DC) has proudly served as the Secretariat and organizational home of the IGF-USA since 2014. This year the IGF-USA will present a full day conference at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington DC. This year’s IGF-USA will feature panels, keynotes, and plenaries discussing issues vital to the continued growth of the Internet and increasing its benefits for all. We invite you to take part in sharing ideas on connecting the unconnected, privacy vs. security online, balancing human rights and online content, improving broadband for everyone, and much more.

As always the IGF-USA 2016 will be host to interactive sessions with representatives from across the Internet community and is your opportunity to engage with an array of stakeholders on issues that matter to you and Internet governance as a whole.

This year’s conference will feature major keynote speakers and panel discussions focused on critical Internet policy issues including:

  • The IANA Transition
  • ICANN Accountability
  • Managing Opportunities and Risks of the Internet of Things and Big Data
  • Expanding Broadband Access
  • Promoting Human Rights Online
  • Privacy v. Security
  • Digital Trade

We invite you to join us for a full day of interactive, informative policy discussions on of the moment Internet governance issues.

Eventbrite registration required – click here to sign up

Key Details

What: Internet Governance Forum – USA 2016

WhenThursday, July 14, 2016 at 8 a.m.

Where: Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) – 1616 Rhode Island Ave NW, Washington, DC 20036

IGF-USA 2016 Confirmed Keynotes:

  • Catherine A. Novelli – Under Secretary of State & Senior Coordinator for International Information Technology Diplomacy.
  • Lawrence E. Strickling – Assistant Secretary for Communications and Information and Administrator, National Telecommunications and Information Administration, U.S. Department of Commerce.
  • Ambassador Daniel A. Sepulveda – U.S. Coordinator for International Communications and Information Policy, U.S. Department of State.
  • Lee Rainie – Director of Internet, Science and Technology Research, Pew Research Center.
  • Dr. David Farber – Adjunct Professor of Internet Studies and Distinguished Career Professor of Computer Science and Public Policy, School of Computer Science, Carnegie Mellon University.
Community Projects

A natural fit

When I joined the Internet Society as the Regional Bureau Director for North America earlier this month, it was the culmination of my career to date. I’ve spent the better part of the last 15 years working on a variety of policy and communications issues, from the health of Indigenous Peoples to the governance of the Internet’s technical resources and the use of technology to enhance the economic and social well-being of the globe’s citizens. The one thread that ties these diverse roles together has been my approach – in each role, I have done my best to facilitate the creation of communities of interest to work together toward a shared vision.
My long-standing interest in the Internet Society has really been driven by how closely the organization’s values align with my own. The power of technology, and the Internet in particular, to drive transformational, positive change for the benefit of all citizens of the world is virtually unparalleled in our collective history. I am excited to be a part of the Internet Society’s team so that I can play an active role in advancing those values. 

I believe the Internet Society’s chapters, members and partners are important to its success and the achievement of the organization’s vision. I look forward to building strong, mutually-beneficial relationships with and among the North American Internet community. By working together, we can realize the true potential of the Internet as a platform for social, economic and cultural development.

North America is a unique region in the Internet Society’s ecosystem. While we enjoy some of the highest rates of Internet penetration and usage in the world, the fact remains that we have a lot of work to do to ensure all citizens can share in its benefits. Issues of access, broadband speed and price, security, and many others have become mainstream in the U.S. and Canada. In fact, Canada’s telco regulator has just wrapped up three weeks of public hearings to determine whether broadband should be treated as a basic service. 

I join the Internet Society with a commitment to collaboration, innovation and transparency in my work, and I’m pleased to have the opportunity to work with the amazing North American community.  I am reaching out to all North American chapters now, but if you would like to contact me directly (or are interested in starting a new chapter in North America), my email address is and I can be found on Twitter at @mebuell

Image credit: Screenshot from our updated map of Internet Society chapter locations.

Internet Governance

Welcome Mark Buell, the Internet Society’s new Regional Bureau Director for North America

In the past few years, the Internet Society has become an increasingly international and multicultural organization. We have increased the diversity and decentralization of our staff and currently have people based in 21 different countries, with 20 staff members working in our five regional teams.

These regional teams, or bureaus as we call them, are key in our efforts to increase our work on the ground by increasing our abilities to better understand local and regional issues and strengthening partnerships with local and regional actors to improve engagement.

The Regional Bureau Director for North America role has been vacant for a few months as we searched for the person we felt would be a good fit for this important position within our organization. We are happy to announce our search has been completed and we are pleased to welcome Mark Buell, who will join ISOC in May as the new Director for North America.

Mark is well known in the Internet world as a result of his work for the Canadian Internet Registry Authority (CIRA), the .CA registry authority. During his time there, he was involved in many Internet Governance related forums and processes such as ICANN, the Canadian Internet Forum, among others. Before he joined CIRA, Mark worked for the National Aboriginal Health Organization (NAHO) in Ottawa.

His experience in communication, policy issues and community-building gives him the variety of skills that ISOC needs for our work in North America. With Mark on the team we hope to strengthen our presence across the region, increase our work with the community, improve our involvement in domestic policy issues, and integrate our policy work regionally and globally.

To achieve these goals, we need to work very closely with our chapters and members. Supporting our chapters and members in the region including strengthening our existing chapters and increasing the number of new chapters will be among the priorities for the North America region.

Mark starts with us on May 2 and will be reachable then at  Meanwhile, you can find him on Twitter at @mebuell. I cannot tell you how excited I am to have Mark working with us to help us achieve our goals in the region.

Beyond the Net Building Trust Privacy

How Canadians worked together to shape an action plan for online privacy

Revelations of mass surveillance by government agencies. Invasive new spying legislation. Emaciated and powerless oversight bodies. Canadians have pretty much seen it all when it comes to threats to their online privacy.

In particular, the scale of the privacy intrusions exposed by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden revealed that the threshold for getting trapped in the government’s surveillance dragnet is problematically low — anyone, at any time, could be a victim and not even know about it.

All this has led to the very real danger that the Internet, the greatest tool for connectivity that humankind has ever invented, will be turned into something it was never intended to be— a tool for governments to spy on the private lives of everybody.

But is that dystopian vision inevitable? Or can citizens, working together, shape a new and positive alternative — a future where we’re every bit as secure in our online homes as we are in our bricks-and-mortar equivalents?

That’s the question my organization, OpenMedia, set out to answer with our Canada’s Privacy Plan project, which was made possible, in part, through a donation from the Internet Society’s Community Grants Programme.

We wanted to see what happens when we gave citizens a real say in terms of how to better protect the online privacy of all of us in an interconnected, digital age. We aimed to better understand Canadians’ priorities and expectations, and use that understanding to work with  experts in creating forward-thinking policy recommendations to address our privacy deficit.

Our project succeeding in involving over 125,000 Canadians in every province and territory, whose input helped shape our final set of key recommendations, that we have since taken forward to key decision-makers in Ottawa.

What worked well?

At OpenMedia, we believe the future of the Internet should be shaped through transparent and participatory processes weighted toward the lived reality of those most affected. As an organization, crowdsourcing is baked into our DNA — we know from experience that the best ideas often come from everyday Internet users, rather than from the Ottawa bubble.

What worked best for us was ensuring that citizens’ input shaped the direction of the project from beginning to end. To achieve that goal, we launched the project with a crowdsourcing tool, to enable participants to rank their privacy priorities in order of preference:

Our accessible and easy-to-use crowdsourcing tool was created to ensure as many perspectives as possible were heard.

This tool asked Canadians what was most important to them in terms of developing effective privacy safeguards. Participants could simply drag-and-drop the priorities in order of preference, and then had the option of either submitting their input, or taking part in a more detailed questionnaire about a range of specific potential proposals to address the privacy deficit. We also gave everyone the opportunity to submit open-ended feedback about what mattered most to them.

The feedback from our tool was invaluable; it was clear from Canadians’ input that 3 issues were of most concern: requiring a warrant to spy on personal info, independent oversight and review of spy agencies, and ending blanket surveillance of law-abiding people. We used this feedback to directly shape the overall direction of the report, and to ensure the key recommendations met the needs of Canadians.

We also successfully engaged Canadians through many other mediums, including a lively Social Media Town Hall, a range of coast-to-coast in-person events in Vancouver, Montreal, and Halifax, ongoing conversations on our website and social media channels, and by working with top experts to create the final recommendations of the report.

Our Facebook Town Hall proved a particularly popular way of engaging Canadians on the issue, and even saw the participation of the official opposition critic on digital rights, the NDP’s Charmaine Borg.

How people responded?

Our small team was really impressed by how many Canadians took the time to participate in our project. Over 125,000 people engaged directly with our privacy work, and over 10,000 of those provided detailed feedback using our crowdsourcing tool.

We were especially pleased by how word of the project spread, as more and more groups and individuals helped share our tool on social media. We even received some help along the way from iconic Canadian author Margaret Atwood, who shared our tool with her over 1 million Twitter followers!

As the person responsible for collating and coordinating our engagement, I think there were some especially inspiring moments along the way:

Firstly, we led two educational events on privacy issues at the B.C. Civil Liberties Association annual event for 16-17 year old high school students. We delivered an interactive presentation outlining the key privacy challenges facing Canadians today. Following Q&As, we followed up with a pen-and-paper exercise that enabled all the participants to take part in our crowdsourcing initiative. Given how deeply embedded the Internet is in the lives of the younger generation, it was truly inspiring to see just how informed and engaged young people are when it comes to their online privacy.

Secondly, simply reading the open-ended feedback provided by Canadians who used our crowdsourcing tool was a remarkable experience. It was humbling to know how many people took the time to craft this often-detailed feedback, while also being hugely valuable in terms of providing an insight into just how personally people view these privacy issues. We received far too many open-ended comments to include all of them in the report, but you can get a flavour by checking out the sampling we included on pages 84-87 of the final PDF. Here are just a few great examples:

  • Maureen told us: “Our electronic mail should have the same safeguards as our physical mail has had for over a century. The government should require a warrant to read any citizen’s communication no matter the form of transmission of that communication.”
  • My name sake David argued: “A judge must be consulted each and every time a government agency wants to invade the privacy of individuals, and the judge must be free from government influence or interference.”
  • Robert emphasized the urgency: “In less than 25 years all privacy rights for Canadians will have vanished. If the people do not speak up now it will be too late.
  • One of our high-school participants Sal summed it all up by arguing that spying “is a threat to autonomy, trespass to the mind. Your most basic human right is your right to be yourself.”

How can other groups replicate this?

We believe the message from our project is clear: rules to better safeguard our online privacy should be created not behind closed doors, but through the participation of all citizens. The Internet can be a powerful tool for more participatory models of decision-making, and we also hope other groups benefit from the detailed methodology section we included in our published plan.

Although this project was both topic- and country-specific (“Privacy in Canada”), we believe our methods could quite straightforwardly be adapted for other topics and settings. While we advise that you check out the full methodology section, some key lessons we learned include:

  • Our low-barrier, interactive crowdsourcing tool was key to maximizing public engagement with the project. We worked to ensure that the questions asked and issues raised were phrased in a way that was accessible to the general (i.e. non-expert) public. We also ensured people could choose to submit their questionnaire at any point, rather than being required to answer every question.
  • From the outset we were clear in our public communications about the crowdsourced nature of the project, the role that participants would play, and the scope of the problem we were seeking a solution to. We explained why it was so important that as many people as possible take part.
  • To shape the questionnaire, we consulted a range of leading privacy experts and organizations, and we are particularly grateful for their assistance when it came to the wording of the more detailed questions about potential privacy reforms.
  • We helped ensure word spread about the tool by including a gamified element, whereby each user received a unique URL they could share, with the people who encouraged the most new participants being recognized on a leaderboard (and even winning privacy prizes such as a year’s free VPN subscription).
  • We worked to ensure the tool would be usable by participants on a range of devices, including tablets and smartphones. A separate version of the drag-and-drop tool was built for mobile device users, with a pull-down menu replicating the drag-and-drop functionality.
  • Publicity was essential: we rolled out a comprehensive communications plan to spread the word about the tool. This included a big push via our website and social media outlets, alongside media publicity and on-the-ground work. We intensified this publicity in the run-up to the deadline with a “last chance to have your say” message.

Our final 96-page report is available here, and readers can also ensure they stay in the loop about our privacy and digital rights work by joining Canada’s Protect our Privacy Coalition, and by following us on our websiteFacebook, and Twitter.

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TELUS Wireless and Wireline IPv6 Statistics

As the engineer responsible for IP Address Management at TELUS, I highlighted the risk of IPv4 exhaustion a few years ago, and with support from executives and the great technical strength of our team we have faced the problem head on for both our home Internet service (wireline) and our mobility service (wireless). According to World IPv6 Launch measurements, we’re in the top 10 globally with 44% of the users on our network enabled to use IPv6.

I have some insight I could keep to myself, but I prefer to share because I hope others in the community will find it interesting or even helpful. Specifically, I have the benefit of looking at how the mix of Wireline and Wireless subscribers and their respective IPv6 enablement fits with the overall TELUS IPv6 deployment result of 45%. This insight in fact opens the door to understanding how many sessions or page loads occur on Wireline networks versus Wireless networks.

Let’s start with our subscriber numbers. As of our most recent quarterly report, TELUS has 1,544,000 wireline Internet connections and 8,421,000 wireless subscribers. What we don’t report there is the percent of IPv6 enablement done for those subscriber groups. Today, 73% of Wireline subscribers have IPv6 enabled, whereas that number is only 2% of Wireless subscribers.

But to give you an idea of the respective scale (remember we have over 8 million wireless subscribers compared to roughly 1.5 million wireline subscribers), the “All Subscribers” graph combines the two.

Now you can see quite clearly that we aren’t anywhere near 45% IPv6 enablement on a subscriber basis. We are quite close to 13% enabled on a subscriber basis. This does not suggest a disconnect between the numbers I am sharing and the measurements shown on the World IPv6 Launch site. Instead, it reveals clues to the relationship between page loads and subscribers.

Running the numbers gave me a chance to see that TELUS Wireline subscribers generate 59% of the page loads despite representing a much smaller percentage of our subscribers (see the green areas in the graph). Further calculations revealed that for every page load generated by a wireless subscriber, our wireline subscribers generate 8.73! Now in a way, this makes sense. Although I am calling them wireline subscribers, this conceals their nature. They are connected homes with couples, families, friends, roommates and tenants occupying them. And not only are there more people behind each one of those subscriptions, but they are likely to do a little more web browsing at home than on the go.

The result of those calculations was to show how 45% of the overall page loads are IPv6 enabled (the dark area in the “Page Loads” graph).

There is one more thought I have on how to use this information. If I could know the average number of people per household I could estimate (on average) how much more we browse the Internet at home versus out over mobile networks. Canada’s population of 35 million lives in a little over 12 million homes, so that there is an average of 2.82 people per home. That 8.73 ratio earlier divided by 2.82 gives us 3.1, telling us that in Canada, as of January 2016, we browse more than three times as much at home as we do on the go.

Like me, you might be wondering how a blog you expected to revolve around IPv6 ended up focusing on the comparison of Canadian browsing habits at home versus out of the home. I hope though that also like me, you leave with the impression that combining various measures can reveal interesting truths. I also leave this blog thinking a little more about how I use the Internet. One thing remains absolutely clear; it is incredible to have the Internet at our fingertips whether we are at sitting a desk, reclining on a couch or out with friends.