WELCOME to Connected Rights, your weekly buzzer in the handshake of digital rights news and analysis.
THE BATTLE’S ON for the future of the internet in the US. On July 12, tech firms (such as Amazon and Reddit) and activist groups (from Greenpeace to Access Now) will participate in an “internet-wide day of action to save net neutrality”. Here’s what’s going on.
A couple years ago, the US and EU made major progress in upholding the principle of net neutrality (i.e. that all online traffic should be treated equally with only rare, temporary exceptions when necessary). In the US, the Federal Communications Commission reclassified broadband providers as public utilities. This means internet access is internet access, much as a phone line is a phone line – providers can’t favour certain online services for cash, while blocking or degrading their rivals. In the EU, a whole new law was introduced to achieve the same goal. For Americans, the problem was that the FCC’s approach was more easily reversed.
And the Trump administration wanted it reversed. Trump’s new FCC chair, Ajit Pai, is a longstanding opponent of net neutrality, and last month the agency started the process of lifting the rules. Now there’s a consultation underway, and the first deadline for comments is July 17. Hence the protest several days before.
Will it work? An “Internet Slowdown Day” in 2014, which had many of the same participants, also took place five days before the FCC’s net neutrality comments deadline – and that seemed to have the desired effect. If you have online influence and want to help preserve internet equality, here’s the signup page: http://bit.ly/2qXTArp. And remember, what happens in the US could have an effect on the whole US-centric internet. To the barricades!
A SNEAKY PRINTER may have played a part in exposing an NSA whistleblower. Reality Leigh Winner, an NSA contractor, was arrested this week for printing out a classified document and giving it to journalists – it’s reportedly the document underpinning this story from The Intercept, which revealed evidence of Russian attacks on US voting technology suppliers ahead of last year’s election: http://bit.ly/2rE0mzI. The Intercept published the document with redactions, but unwittingly including a pattern of faint yellow dots that reveal which printer the document came from, and at what time: http://bit.ly/2sb5QVB.
NSA printers, huh? Nope, quite possibly your printer too. As the Electronic Frontier Foundation discovered a couple years back, “all major manufacturers of colour laser printers entered a secret agreement with governments to ensure that the output of those printers is forensically traceable… It is probably safest to assume that all modern colour laser printers do include some form of tracking information that associates documents with the printer’s serial number.” http://bit.ly/1yduWvF
THE UK’S INTERNET FILTERS are stopping many people from seeing the webpages of virtual private network (VPN) providers such as Private Internet Access: http://bit.ly/2r4JoJ9.
VPNs are simple-to-use tools that let people disguise their actual locations for security and privacy reasons (for one thing, they help people bypass filters such as these). To be fair, this isn’t yet a China-style system of treating VPNs as terrorist tools. The British filters in question are supposed to block “adult” material by default, and they can be turned off if the (adult) user tells their provider they want to see such things. But VPNs aren’t porn – they’re tools that privacy-conscious people, kids included, should be encouraged to use, particularly when connected to public Wi-Fi hotspots.
AUSTRALIANS ARE APPARENTLY FLOCKING TO VPNS because of their country’s data retention laws, which force internet service providers to store records of the websites that people visit. That’s according to NordVPN, which claims a big uptick in users from Australia: http://zd.net/2rTPznf. The UK, of course, also has a data retention law in the Investigatory Powers Act of 2016 – though it may well be illegal under EU law, which forbids indiscriminate surveillance.
BRITISH POLICE have made what appears to be their first arrest based on identifying someone through automated facial recognition. Those security cameras infesting the country aren’t always just for show, you know: http://bit.ly/2rHq7PE
THE INTERNET OF THINGS IS DANGEROUS, as shown by the regular exposure of security vulnerabilities and the hijacking of connected lightbulbs et al. to launch major cyberattacks. In short, we’re connecting ever more devices to the internet without paying enough attention to their security, and we’re starting to pay the price. Will that stop the spread of connected sensors into baby-monitoring devices, toothbrushes and toys? According to a survey of tech experts and leaders by Pew Internet, it won’t. Of 1,201 respondents, 85 percent said the expansion of the internet of things (IoT) would continue unabated: http://pewrsr.ch/2qSTDAN.
“While these experts expect that living an IoT-dependent life will be scary at times and often frustrating, most do not expect this will be enough to deter most people from diving deeper into connectivity,” the US research outfit said. “They say businesses expect to reap large dividends from the advancement of the IoT and that people are naturally driven to connect to other people, information and services.”
APPLE WILL BOOST PRIVACY for users of its Safari browser. The software will use “intelligent tracking protection” to stop companies from following you as you browse from website to website – one of the main techniques that advertising firms in particular employ to build up a detailed profile of you. Although these trackers are often triggered by the software hiding behind online ads, Apple won’t be blocking the ads themselves. “The web behaves as it always did, but your privacy is protected,” claimed Apple senior vice president Craig Federighi: http://mklnd.com/2sbTtIy.
GOOGLE, ON THE OTHER HAND, is planning to block ads in its Chrome browser – at least, ads that don’t come from its network, and that it sees as intrusive. As experts have noted, this could have antitrust implications: http://bit.ly/2qXFPo1
IS IT UNFAIR THAT WINDOWS 10 has built-in antivirus security that you can’t turn off? According to antivirus company Kaspersky, it is – the vendor has filed complaints with the EU and German antitrust authorities, claiming it’s an abuse of Microsoft’s desktop operating system monopoly: http://bit.ly/2qVsjCd.
Microsoft has certainly gotten into antitrust trouble before over its bundling of software with Windows, notably Internet Explorer and Windows Media Player. Kaspersky’s issues here are: Microsoft’s Windows Defender antivirus is impossible to turn off; Windows 10 stops Kaspersky from urging its users to extend their licenses after they (the licenses, not the users) expire; and users upgrading to Windows 10 sometimes saw their Kaspersky installations vanish, leaving them reliant on Defender.
This may or may not prove to be an antitrust violation, but it poses an interesting conundrum. Windows Defender is by most accounts pretty good (though not if you ask Kaspersky) and some security researchers have found security flaws in third-party antivirus products (including Kaspersky’s) that led them to say it may be safer to stick with Microsoft’s built-in security: http://bit.ly/2rA86nZ. The aim of the game is to keep us safe. A good, on-by-default defensive tool that’s built into the operating system is the easiest way to achieve that.
This could shape up to be a major legal confrontation between simplified safety (good for consumers) and competition rules (also generally good for consumers). Watch this space.