Net neu­tral­ity

A hate group was booted from the in­ter­net — but who gets to make that de­ci­sion?

Houston Chronicle Sunday - - OUTLOOK -

The CEO of a cy­ber­se­cu­rity com­pany woke up in a bad mood ear­lier this month, so he de­cided to kick neo-Nazis off the in­ter­net.

Cloud­flare, which pro­tects web­sites from be­ing shut down by at­tacks, had been sell­ing its ser­vice to the Daily Stormer, a long-time cy­ber out­post for racists, big­ots and hate. Af­ter the vi­o­lence and death in Char­lottesville, Va., Cloud­flare CEO Matthew Prince was de­ter­mined to cut them off.

By his own assess­ment, it was a per­sonal and ar­bi­trary choice.

“This was my de­ci­sion,” Prince wrote in an email to his staff. “Our terms of ser­vice re­serve the right for us to ter­mi­nate users of our net­work at our sole dis­cre­tion. My ra­tio­nale for mak­ing this de­ci­sion was sim­ple: the peo­ple be­hind the Daily Stormer are a ******* and I’d had enough.”

Any good-hearted per­son in his po­si­tion prob­a­bly would have done the same thing — but was it the right thing? As Prince told his com­pany, this de­ci­sion opens the door to ram­i­fi­ca­tions we can’t yet pre­dict.

“Lit­er­ally, I woke up in a bad mood and de­cided some­one shouldn’t be al­lowed on the In­ter­net. No one should have that power.”

The dark corners of the in­ter­net have be­come a refuge for the vilest forms of white supremacy and home-grown fas­cism. There they can fester and grow un­en­cum­bered un­til, as we saw in Char­lottesville, they reap­pear in pub­lic light bear­ing torches and firearms.

Shut­ting them down on­line helps get to the source of so much hate in our so­ci­ety, but who gets to make that call?

“We need to have a dis­cus­sion around this, with clear rules and clear frame­works. My whims and those of Jeff [Bezos] and Larry [Page] and Satya [Nadella] and Mark [Zucker­berg], that shouldn’t be what de­ter­mines what should be on­line,” Prince told Giz­modo, a tech­nol­ogy and science blog.

“I think the peo­ple who run The Daily Stormer are ab­hor­rent. But again I don’t think my po­lit­i­cal de­ci­sions should de­ter­mine who should and shouldn’t be on the in­ter­net.”

To­day we may cel­e­brate the fact that hate groups are be­ing driven out of cy­berspace — good rid­dance. How do we guar­an­tee that web com­pa­nies don’t ex­ploit this power to sti­fle free speech?

This con­ver­sa­tion shows why net neu­tral­ity pol­icy is so im­por­tant.

Ma­jor telecom­mu­ni­ca­tions com­pa­nies, like AT&T and Com­cast, con­trol the un­der­ly­ing net­work that pow­ers the in­ter­net. Web­sites like Face­book and Twitter pro­vide a pow­er­ful ser­vice on top of that net­work. But if those web­sites start cen­sor­ing con­ver­sa­tions or boot­ing users, there’s al­ways room for a com­pet­ing up­start. Don’t like Google? Try Bing.

How­ever, be­cause they con­trol in­ter­net ser­vice it­self, tele­coms have the abil­ity to shut down the up­starts. It would be as if a power com­pany could charge peo­ple more, or deny elec­tric­ity ser­vice, based on its own ar­bi­trary stan­dards.

Don’t like it? You prob­a­bly don’t have much choice. Nearly half of all U.S. house­holds have only one op­tion for wired broad­band ser­vice.

In the 21st cen­tury, in­ter­net ac­cess has be­come an­other must-have util­ity. It should be reg­u­lated like one. Com­pa­nies like Cloud­fare can choose their users — that op­tion shouldn’t be avail­able to Com­cast or AT&T.

The likes of Prince, Zucker­berg and Bezos need to have a pub­lic con­ver­sa­tion about the role they play in fight­ing hate groups and pro­tect­ing free­dom of ex­pres­sion.

Tele­coms, on the other hand, just have to en­sure the in­ter­net works.

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