Growing the Internet

Could the CARES Act Close the Digital Divide in the United States?

Last week, the U.S. Congress passed the third stimulus bill in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. This bill primarily focused on economic relief for companies, individuals, cities, states, and tribal communities. It allocates over $2 trillion in funds for a variety of measures intended to ease the burden of COVID-19.

Some of the included measures have been in the news for weeks, including those related to individual checks for those financially impacted by the virus. But there is an element to this bill that is equally important, not only for our ability to cope with the virus now but also to permanently change our country for the better.

These emergency funds allocate $150 billion to states and territories, including $8 billion specifically for Tribal governments, for “coronavirus relief.” What that relief looks like, however, is relatively vague. If a community was financially impacted by the pandemic between March and December of this year, in a way that they did not originally anticipate in their budgets, this fund covers most of those expenses.

And what is one of the biggest impacts we’ve seen? Millions of people have been forced to isolate themselves at home and carry out their daily lives as best as possible.

Employees are working from home in record numbers. Students are being forced to leave their schools or dorms to finish the semester using only distance learning. Telemedicine requests are through the roof as hospitals and clinics try to help as many patients as possible without exposing them, or their facilities, to the virus.

If it wasn’t clear before the pandemic struck, it should be now – the Internet is essential to daily life and without it, individuals cannot participate in modern society.

This has put unprecedent (but not unmanageable) pressure on existing networks to increase their capacity and capabilities. The urgent need to deploy in un- or under-served areas can be felt everywhere, and both large and small providers alike are doing their best to connect as many people as possible. But for those without access, especially in areas where the necessary infrastructure doesn’t exist, the CARE Act provides an opportunity to take a big step towards the digital divide for good.

Communities have been building their own networks to suit their needs for decades. Examples can be found in cities as large as NYC and as remote as the Havasupai Nation at the bottom of the Grand Canyon. There are hundreds of examples across the United States, experts dedicated to supporting these deployments and trainings to teach community members how to do it themselves.

The Covid-19 response bills are a once in a lifetime (I hope!) opportunity to truly close the digital divide once and for all. It is critical that local and state government officials take this chance to deploy networks as quickly as they can to get their communities online, not only so that they can carry out their normal lives as much as possible, but also so that they can participate in the thousands of new resources that will exist after lockdowns have been lifted.

Of all the many priorities communities are balancing today, Internet connectivity must be at the top of the list.

Access to the Internet has never been more important. Learn about the work of communities around the world to keep the Internet open and globally connected.

Image by Sharon McCutcheon via Unsplash

Internet Way of Networking Strengthening the Internet

Canada’s Innovative Future Relies on Upholding Core Properties of the Capital ‘I’ Internet

As Canada considers how to renew its broadcasting and telecommunications regulatory regime, it should steer clear of recent recommendations that would impact key Internet properties that foster Canadian innovation online.

On Jan. 29 the Broadcasting and Telecommunications Legislative Review (BTLR) panel handed the Canadian government 97 recommendations to consider as it prepares new legislation to update the decades-old Telecommunications Act, Radiocommunication Act and Broadcasting Act.

While it has laudable advice on how to improve access to rural and remote Indigenous communities in Canada, the report’s major flaws would inhibit the same Canadian innovation the recommendations intend to promote.

This includes giving Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) the authority to treat the Internet like a broadcasting network, and setting unrealistic rules that would harm crucial elements of the Internet in the name of promoting Canadian content online.

There are many reasons you can’t treat the Internet like a traditional broadcaster, but the key one is this: the Internet is not like other technologies.

While it is essentially just an interconnected network of networks – hence the name: Inter-net – the Internet was built with a unique set of properties that were critical to its success to date: openness, decentralization, and permissionless innovation.

We believe these are three of the properties essential to the Internet way of networking that has seen a military and research communications network rapidly evolve into a tool ubiquitous within our day to day lives.

If implemented, the BTLR recommendations would not only threaten core elements of what the Internet Society considers the capital “I” Internet. They would have significant implications for net neutrality, intermediary liability, privacy, and security online.

Read more about how Canada’s Broadcast and Telecommunications Review panel’s recommendations threaten the Internet way of networking, and how policymakers can take actions to protect innovation online.

Community Networks Growing the Internet

Ulukhaktok: Community Networking in the (Far) North

In June of this year, I had the great privilege of traveling to Ulukhaktok, NWT, Canada to talk to community members about the possibility of building a new, local Internet service network. As a result of these meetings, and the incredibly driven individuals I met with in Ulu, this time next year, Ulukhaktok will be the proud owner of the far-most Northern community network in the world.

I left Washington, D.C. in the throes of summer – upper 80-degree weather and so humid you’d feel wet the second you stepped outside. Two days and five planes later I was in Ulukhaktok, a community of about 400 people on the 70th parallel. Summer there is a little different, and I explored the community amidst summer snow and 24-hour days.

I spent four days getting to know the community, and it wasn’t hard to understand the deep sense of community pride right away. Ulu is a beautiful, U-shaped town on the edge of the Arctic Ocean. It’s filled with people who will stop when they see a stranger, smile, and ask who you are and what you’re doing. And every time someone stopped, I told them about the Internet Society, community networks, and what we hoped to help the community do.

On my third day there, I hosted a meeting in partnership with the Inuvialuit Regional Corporation (IRC) and the Community Corp. at the community hall to talk more about community networks, and the resources the Internet Society has to help Ulu get their own up and running. I was thrilled to see the seats full of community members from all walks of life. Some of the strangers turned friends I’d chatted with were there, as well as Elders, the mayor, students, and representatives from the Hamlet Office and Community Corp.

We spent the evening together over bannock and stew, talking about what Internet connectivity is like in Ulukhaktok and what the community could build to improve it.

The meeting participants agreed – the satellite service they have now is far from adequate. On a good day, you might be able to get 5Mgbs, but only up to your 40Gb data cap per month. But even at these slow speeds, the cost can be incredibly high. What’s more, the current provider only offers a bundled package in Ulukhaktok, meaning community members must pay for phone service too if they want Internet access.

The real kicker? Phone service isn’t available in the area through that provider. If you want Internet in Ulu, you have to pay for a service that is literally impossible to access.

Needless to say, the appetite for a higher-speed, lower-cost option is fierce. And so is this community’s spirit.

Ulukhaktok is incredibly remote, with vast landscapes on one side and even more vast ice and ocean on the other. For hundreds of years these people have largely fended for themselves and overcome incredible odds. They are smart, resilient, and they operate as a community unit. They have adapted and innovated with the rise of all new technologies – from improvements for hunting tools and housing, to the applications of electricity. This town has had no problem integrating their traditional way of live and modern resources.

There is absolutely no reason they shouldn’t be able to use their skills and traits to learn a new trade and become network operators.

For an area like this, a community network makes complete sense. These networks are “DIY” solutions to connectivity and they bring power, resources, and new skills to the communities that build them.

That is why the Internet Society is creating a new community networks training course along with our partners and experts in the field. This course will help teach community members, like those in Ulukhaktok, the skills necessary to build, operate, and maintain a network.

Over the course of eight weeks, trainees will participant in a series of online webinars, led by individuals in the United States and Canada who have already built or assisted with community network builds in some of the hardest to reach areas of the region.

Participants who complete the course will receive a two-day, hands-on technical training, culminating in the deployment of an actual network.

This course is for anyone interested in building a network. We really believe that everyone is capable of playing a role in the deployment and maintenance of Internet infrastructure.

We are excited to offer this course, but we’re even more excited that a pilot program in 2019 will be in Ulukhaktok.

The people of Ulukhaktok are determined to take control of their digital futures, just as they navigated their community’s fate for hundreds of years. We know their story and the network they build will serve as inspiration to communities across the region, and the world.

Register for the 2019 Indigenous Connectivity Summit in Hilo, Hawaii!

Community Networks Growing the Internet

2019 Indigenous Connectivity Summit Training: Empowering Communities to Create Connections on Their Own Terms

Indigenous communities across North America are working to bridge the digital divide.

Each year the Indigenous Connectivity Summit (ICS) brings together community leaders, network operators, policymakers, and others to talk about new and emerging networks and the policies that impact them. During the two-day Summit, people from across the United States, Canada, and the rest of the world share best practices, challenges, and success stories – and learn how they can work together when they return home to solve connectivity challenges in Indigenous communities.

This year, we’ll be in Hilo, Hawaii from November 12-15.

But that’s not nearly enough time to cover everything, especially with close to 1,000 amazing participants (200 in-person and 700 online) ready to share their stories and create new connections.

So we’re trying something new. As we’ve done before, the ICS will still be split into two parts: a two-day training and a two-day event. Now participants can also attend a series of two distinct virtual training sessions before the event in Hawaii: Community Networks and Policy and Advocacy.

These sessions will allow participants to spend time over the course of several weeks getting in-depth information about two of the topics we spend the most time on at the Summit. They’ve been specially designed by experts in the field, most of whom have also participated in at least one ICS before. Their first-hand knowledge about what it’s really like to build, maintain, and operate a network and to advocate for policies that will reduce the barriers to connectivity that Indigenous communities face is invaluable.

The Policy and Advocacy Training is a six-week course that will include weekly webinars and curated resources on a variety of topics. It is intended for anyone interested in learning more about the ways in which existing policies can impact communities’ ability to get access to the Internet, and how they can make their voices heard and create change at a national level.

The Community Networks Training will have two parts. The first is a virtual, eight-week course via webinars (similar to the Policy and Advocacy course). Participants who complete the online portion of the course will have the opportunity to come to Pu’uhonua O Waimanalo, Hawaii after the ICS during November 14-15 for a two-day, hands-on technical training and launch of a community network. They’ll learn about the technical and soft skills – including funding, project management, and community engagement – necessary to build and run a network. They’ll also work closely with networking experts to learn best practices and create a new interpersonal network of networkers.

Each weekly course will be led by a different set of experts representing a variety of backgrounds: rural and urban, Indigenous and non-Indigenous, Canadian and American, etc. We hope these training sessions will help ICS attendees learn new, practical skills and that they’ll create an opportunity for deeper conversation for years to come. These new networks of training alumni will be ready to build and defend networks for themselves – and to teach their communities to do the same! (After the Summit, these trainings will be made publicly available so that alumni and their communities can continue to learn.)

Indigenous people have a right to high-speed, secure Internet on their own terms. When we meet in Hawaii for the 2019 Indigenous Connectivity Summit, alumni and other participants can build on these new skills, as well as their newly-formed networks of networkers, to help make that happen!

Register for the Indigenous Connectivity Summit!

Building Trust Privacy

Americans Deserve Better User Privacy

On May 15th, the White House tweeted it had created a new online surveying tool for Americans to report instances of social media censorship due to political bias. Setting aside the politics of this move, there are serious privacy and security concerns that come with hosting such a survey on its website.

When users visit the reporting site, they’re required to give personal information including their name, citizenship status, zip code, phone number, and email address, all before any questions are actually asked about the alleged social media bias. They are then prompted to include links to their social media platforms, usernames, and other digitally-intrusive information.

Sound fishy? It should.

That is a significant amount of personal, highly-identifiable information to give up as a part of a selective survey. The irrelevance of most of this information to the survey’s purpose begs the question: why does the government need it and what will they use it for?

Neither question is answered anywhere in the survey or its related materials. That alone poses a serious privacy concern. If users don’t know how their data will be used, how can they trust that their information is secure and being used only for the reason it was provided?

But it gets worse. Only after a user has given their personal information, as well as information about the alleged instance of social media bias, do they get to the user agreement details. And that’s where things get really troubling.

The agreement clarifies that all responses are a part of a U.S Government activity, and therefore the U.S. Government is licensed to “use, edit, display, publish, broadcast, transmit, post, or otherwise distribute all or part of the Content.” Furthermore, “the license…is irrevocable and valid in perpetuity, throughout the world, in all forms of media.”

In plain language: If you click “agree,” there’s no turning back. Ever.

Not only that, but by filling out this survey, users give up their rights to inspect or approve any of the “content or edited, composite, or derivative works made from the Content” without notice.

At this point, your head should be spinning. Take a minute to get it on straight, and we’ll keep going.

Because that’s not all. Not only can the U.S. Government use highly-personal information about users for their own purposes – indefinitely – without warning, you the user “solely bear all responsibility for all content.” Oh, and you can’t alter or delete any content after it’s submitted. Great.

If the gravity of all this hasn’t sunken in, picture the following scenario:

You’re an Internet user. You spend time on social media, you share your views, and you find out that (rightly or otherwise) your content has been removed.

You fill in the White House’s survey and likely don’t read the user agreement even when it is finally presented to you (most people don’t). Would you be surprised to find personal and highly-identifiable information about you later broadcast globally without any prior warning? With this kind of blanket ability to use your information, it would be well within the White House’s right to take your social media post, account name, or real name and broadcast it in ads, billboards, or other material for a political purpose that you may not agree with. And if something bad happened as a result of that publication of your information (say, you lost your job or suffered other ramifications), do you think you’d feel okay bearing all legal responsibility for it?

Or, in another scenario, let’s say you fill out the survey and then you notice you’re getting increasingly targeted by political organizations’ ads and messaging in an attempt to change your views or find out more about you. Does that sound like an appropriate use of the private information you submitted in a survey? Not to me.

These scenarios may be hypothetical, but they are entirely possible.

We should expect better from the government. This is a blatant breach of trust and privacy and could have significant real-world implications for users who unknowingly enter into such a broad waiver of their own information.

Not to mention the security implications. Creating a database with this kind of information is essentially giving hackers a one-stop-shop to access intimate details about people who already feel marginalized online.

Let’s not forget that the government, just like anyone else who collects personal information, is not immune to data breaches.

The ability of individuals to interact online without sacrificing their right to privacy is essential to reinforcing user trust in the Internet. When privacy and security are undermined, it exposes users to actual and potential harm and weakens their trust in the Internet, diminishing their overall experience with its resources.

Sadly, as egregious as this collection of data is, it’s not illegal. Americans have baseline privacy protections thanks to the Federal Privacy Act of 1974, but the White House is largely exempt. (The Federal Privacy Act of 1974 regulates the ability of federal agencies to collect, maintain, use, and disseminate personally identifiable information. However, courts have long held that the White House is exempt from this Act.)

There is no reason for the Federal Government of the United States to be collecting and storing this kind of user information under such broad terms. If we want to hold Facebook, Google, and others accountable for misleading or inappropriate user privacy standards, the government should lead by example with a higher standard for user protection.

Read the Internet Society’s Policy Brief on Privacy.

Internet Governance Public Policy

Finding Common Ground on U.S. Net Neutrality

After more than a decade of regulatory ping pong, net neutrality’s future in the United States is still unclear.

Since 2004, FCC rulemakings have been caught in a vicious cycle. They have been passed, fought in court, and returned to the FCC with minor (and sometimes major) revisions. In the last few years there have also been numerous attempts to pass legislation, cementing net neutrality once and for all, but nothing has succeeded in Congress.

Recognizing the importance of finding a sustainable solution, the Internet Society proposed a collaborative process to help experts find common ground on this complex policy issue. Starting in June 2018, we convened an ideologically diverse group of experts to create a baseline set of principles for an open Internet. 

The Net Neutrality Experts’ Roundtable series included representatives from the technical community, edge providers, academia, Internet service providers, industry associations, and both left- and right-leaning civil society groups.

In a series of meetings over ten months, participants discussed how to create a sustainable solution for net neutrality that protect the interests of Internet users while fostering an environment that encourages investment and innovation. 

Ultimately, the group was able to create a consensus-driven set of bipartisan principles for an open Internet in the United States.

It is important to note that the Net Neutrality Principles do not represent or replace the existing positions of the Internet Society or any organization that participated in the project.

Instead, they demonstrate the power of inclusive processes in allowing experts to reach common ground on complex issues, and in delivering a concrete outcome. To us, this work is proof of the value of the collaborative approach.  

Our report on this process outlines the need for a sustainable net neutrality policy in the United States, the importance of using a collaborative model for policymaking, and details about the Net Neutrality Experts’ Roundtable Series.

The Internet Society is pleased to have facilitated a collaborative effort to help experts find common ground on net neutrality in the U.S. The bipartisan principles give policymakers a powerful tool to create a solution that upholds a truly open Internet for all. We would like to sincerely thank all participants of this process for their time, effort, and dedication.