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Repealing Net Neutrality: A Dissenting Opinion

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I must preface that I am not a certified or self-trained expert in computer networking, the Internet, or Information-Technology (IT). The following views are mine and have been arrived at by listening to/reading up on the issue of net neutrality from partisan and non-partisan sources. Well-informed and fact-based views from experts on the subject are most welcome and highly sought.

The Trump administration placed net neutrality on the chopping block and AjitPai did the honors by repealing it. The issue created a large furor in the world of Internet and social media with divergent explanations floated by both sides.

Conservatives and right-wingers supported the repeal stating that the government shouldn’t impose itself on service providers and get to have a say in their operations. Folks on the left claimed that the Internet is no longer free and that loss of net-neutrality will usher in tiered tariffs and throttling/blocking of web content at the whim of the service providers (ISP).

It’s increasingly difficult to take a purely scientific approach towards technical issues in a culture where the pettiest things are used to smear the opposition and play partisan political games. With much effort, I have attempted to put aside politics and look merely into the nerdy details of this extremely obtuse concept of net-neutrality.

The premise of net neutrality hinges on the aphorism that the Internet/Web (* a nuanced, yet significant, distinction between the two will be discussed briefly later) is a public utility, hence, should be made available and accessible to everyone equally, just like electricity, cooking gas, and water. Corporations are profit-driven and heartless, as a result, the government should get involved in the markets and make sure that everyone gets these utilities and nobody is left in the lurch.

So, is the Internet a public utility?

The science of economics describes two characteristics for a service to qualify as public utility: non-excludability (people cannot be denied the product regardless of whether they have paid) and non-rivalry (consumption by one doesn’t reduce availability for others).

The Internet certainly doesn’t meet the non-excludability criterion, in that people who don’t pay for the service don’t get to use it. Major cities across the US have set up public Wi-Fi in a bid to provide Internet to all, but such “access-for-all” isn’t standard across the vast majority of the nation.

Thankfully, the Internet doesn’t fail to meet the non-rivalry criteria. A huge slug of new users might overwhelm existing service capabilities transiently, but additional hardware can be added to accommodate the growing demand. Thus, for all practical purposes, the Internet qualifies the non-rivalry criterion.

In summary, the Internet isn’t a public utility, at least not now.

But I would like to make additional depositions to make my case well-rounded and cogent.

The Internet was conceived in the 1960s as an effort on part of the US federal government to transfer data over foolproof communication networks run by computers. What started as a nascent and clunky project involving huge machines and laughable transfer speeds evolved into a means of global networking, telephony, and information transfer at incredibly fast speeds. This evolution was majorly spearheaded by researchers at several government agencies from different parts of the world. In the 1990s, the Internet was opened up to private players for commercial usage. Thus, the Internet has been built and developed using taxpayer money. Also, of note is that the Internet is a decentralized space that no one has hegemony over.

Now, over to the Web. Thrown around carelessly and interchangeably to describe the Internet, the Web is actually different from the Internet. The Web is an application developed by Sir Tim Berners-Lee, during his time at CERN – a multi-government funded organization – to access documents, pictures, videos and other files on the Internet that are marked in a distinguished manner. It’s one of the several ways to access stuff on the Internet and communicate with one another. By corollary, the Web was thus crafted by an individual using public’s (taxpayer)money. It’s this little, yet extremely important, corner of the Internet that this brouhaha is all about.

ISPs function as middlemen connecting end users to the Internet space, mainly through the World Wide Web or the Web or WWW. Neither did they create the Internet or the WWW, nor do they maintain it.

Effectively, private corporations are helping us access a digital space that was created using public’s money. Moreover, the creators of this space – whether it be governmental agencies or individuals – in all their largesse decided to open up the space for commercial use and allow people to freely (not to be conflated with ‘for free’) use the space.

Over the years, the Web has grown from an information archive and emailing medium to a source of employment, a means of starting and running a business, a tool to reach out to people across the world, a place to broadcast yourself and your work, and much more. While the Web doesn’t qualify as public utility, it does serve as one of the few ways by which people in first countries can augment the socioeconomic momentum of the Industrial Revolution using digital technology and by which people in third countries can change their destinies by creating an app, or by engaging in commerce across borders, or educating themselves for free.

Repealing net neutrality gives ISPs a kind of hegemony, not over the Web or the Internet, but over what we consume from this public-utility-hopeful. While larger corporations can find a way around by paying the large sums of money ISPs might demand for a certain degree of visibility on their respective services, it is almost difficult for an entrepreneur or a blogger or an independent journalist to pay the same sum for the same degree of visibility on those services.

“Take your business over to Facebook or on some other social media outlet and you won’t be discriminated against,” one might argue. Not quite true! Social media have tailored news feeds and show you what you have already seen. It will be difficult to market your business on fronts that are slowly devolving into echo chambers. Also, one cannot be certain that social media giants are unbiased in the way they deliver content, as has been the case with Facebook, which was accused of manipulating the ‘trending’ feature to suit their political leaning.

The gravity of the problem is further compounded when one factors in the regional monopolies that ISPs enjoy in the US. Competition is scarce because of the cost-intensive nature of running cables under the streets and setting up hardware. Overbuilders (ISPs using existing hardware and cables to provide an alternative) can increase competition, but financial feasibility and ROI of such ventures are pretty dim. In this regard, the Web certainly functions like a public utility and requires some sort of accountability on part of the ISP.

There is also a technical angle to the importance of net neutrality, which is lucidly explained here.

Repeal of net-neutrality should get everyone disconcerted, especially, small business owners, entrepreneurs, innovators, and the most vulnerable – alternative news media outlets, especially the ones with unsavory views – many of which tend to be on the political right. Cheering along to your own demise because your guy did it is the gold standard of intellectual indolence and buffoonery.

I would like to once again post face that I am not a certified or self-trained expert in matters of the Internet, computing, or networking and would welcome fact-based feedback on this subject.

Having said that, I can tell you two things with certainty: 1. Capitalize the first letter of Internet and Web and place the definite article the before these words when referencing them; and 2. We use the Web to get on the Internet to do stuff.

Signed

A Conservative-Libertarian

Tech

The urgent need for new action and thinking on the governance of emerging technologies

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The World Economic Forum today released a new book by its Founder and Executive Chairman Klaus Schwab entitled Shaping the Fourth Industrial Revolution. The book aims to help leaders develop the techniques necessary to harness technological advances to solve critical global challenges.

The book is a sequel to Schwab’s bestselling 2016 book, The Fourth Industrial Revolution. The new book provides a practical guide to understanding 12 sets of emerging technologies from a systems perspective and better appreciating the rules, norms, institutions and values that shape their development and use.

Such an approach is necessary, Schwab argues, given the unprecedented speed at which technology is developing, which makes outdated and redundant the approaches of governments, regulators and companies on which we rely to manage the impact of technologies.

Schwab’s response is for leaders to adopt a “systems leadership” approach to ensure that developments in technology are not able to occur without parallel consideration being given to rules, norms, values and infrastructure. Unless technology develops within an inclusive and sustainable governance system, the Fourth Industrial Revolution could exacerbate income inequality and leaving billions of people behind, while wasting the opportunity to deploy technology to help address global challenges.

“It took the world more than a decade to develop a collective response to climate change. If we take the same amount of time to respond to the Fourth Industrial Revolution, we will have lost the opportunity to influence the development of the technologies that shape the way we work, live and act. If we act now, we have the opportunity to ensure that technologies – such as artificial intelligence – sustainably and meaningfully improve the lives and prospects of as many people as possible,” said Schwab.

The book calls on leaders to rapidly adopt the concept of agile governance of technologies, matching the nimbleness of the technologies and the private-sector actors who create them in constantly updating and rethinking rules in collaboration with other sectors. For businesses, greater experimentation with new technologies and greater investment in people and skills are required to maximize firms’ ability to develop and bring to market winning innovations.

When it comes to the general public, Shaping the Fourth Industrial Revolution urges people to be engaged in the issues surrounding the evolution of technology, and to make their voice heard to ensure that technology plays a positive role in helping to build a sustainable, inclusive, innovation-driven future.

Shaping the Fourth Industrial Revolution draws on the contributions of more than 200 of the world’s leading technology, economic and sociological experts to present a practical guide for citizens, business leaders, social influencers and policy-makers. It outlines the most important dynamics of the technology revolution; highlights important stakeholders who are often overlooked in the discussion of the latest scientific breakthroughs; and explores 12 technology areas central to the future of humanity. It was co-authored by Nicholas Davis, the World Economic Forum’s Head of Society and Innovation, and features a foreword by Satya Nadella, Chief Executive Officer of Microsoft Corporation.

The preparation of this book has also led to the creation of the Center for the Fourth Industrial Revolution in San Francisco, soon to be supported by a network of affiliated centers around the world, to establish an agile governance cooperation platform for business and government.

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Cybersecurity Threats Outpacing Abilities of Governments and Companies

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Cybersecurity threats are outpacing the ability to overcome them unless all stakeholders begin to cooperate. The increasingly networked, digitized, and connected world is vulnerable to cyber-threats that can only be addressed by the combined capabilities of the public and private sectors, according to a new report by the World Economic Forum in collaboration with The Boston Consulting Group (BCG). Cyber Resilience: Playbook for Public-Private Collaboration is a tool to facilitate capacity-building, policies and processes necessary to support collaboration, safeguard cyberspace and strengthen cyber-resilience.

“We need to recognize cybersecurity as a public good and move beyond the polarizing rhetoric of the current security debate. Only through collective action can we hope to meet the global challenge of cybersecurity,” said Daniel Dobrygowski, Project Lead for Cyber Resilience at the World Economic Forum.

Working collaboratively in the cybersecurity space is difficult. Cyber-threats are complex, dynamic and increasingly personal as technology saturates our economy and society. Addressing these threats requires dialogue across industries and competencies, and on subjects from the technical to the ethical. Currently, dialogue between leaders in the public and private sectors is often off-target and at cross purposes. Policy implementation also varies by national context: every country has its own unique capabilities, vulnerabilities and priorities.

“There is no simple, elegant policy solution or silver bullet here. The iterative progress and feedback loop used in software development should be a model for improving policy,” said Walter Bohmayr, Global Leader of Cybersecurity at BCG.

The Cyber Resilience: Playbook for Public-Private Collaboration report helps leaders develop a baseline understanding of the key issues and pros and cons of different policy positions on cybersecurity. The policy models discussed in detail include Zero-Days, Vulnerability Liability, Botnet Disruption, Encryption, and 10 others.

In connecting norms and values to policy, the report encourages all actors to move past absolute and rigid positions towards more nuanced discussions aimed at solving key challenges, and presents the implications of policy choices on five key values: security, privacy, economic value, accountability and fairness. Cyber-resilience will continue to be a top-of-mind topic for decision-makers, and the Forum intends to continue leading future efforts in this space through its new Global Centre for Cybersecurity, which will be presented at the Annual Meeting in Davos.

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Buckle up for the new passenger economy

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A hundred years ago, few thought that the clunky automobile that broke down so often would ever replace a horse. In the 1970s, people wondered if the personal computer that a few eccentrics were using would have any use beyond storing recipes. It’s safe to say that these innovations, along with many of the technologies we now use daily, were once considered impossible dreams.

Right now, the most-talked-about piece of technological innovation that is poised to transform our lives is the autonomous or self-driving car. As self-driving cars gain widespread adoption, analysts are predicting the rise of what is known as the passenger economy — a term coined by Intel — that is expected to be worth $7 trillion by 2050 as validated in a new report by analyst firm Strategy Analytics.

Seven trillion dollars is a lot of money! A decade ago, people couldn’t fully imagine the way smartphones would give rise to the app economy. Today we are at the threshold of something equally momentous — that’s why entrepreneurs and investors are now beginning to imagine the economic possibilities tied in with autonomous cars.

The following are five big areas of opportunity that will unfold in the passenger economy era.

Time will be on people’s side. One of the most obvious benefits of a self-driving car is the amount of time it frees up. Drivers become passengers, and so will be able to concentrate on other tasks. Not only will people be able to work or watch a movie on their way to work, but the commute itself will be shorter, since traffic congestion will become a thing of the past. With smarter analytics, it’s estimated that by 2050, the widespread use of autonomous cars will free up over 250 million hours of commute time per year in the most congested cities.

Apps were only the beginning. As more people use autonomous cars, companies and entrepreneurs will respond by developing innovative applications that will entertain and provide services to passengers. Just like innovators used smartphones to unlock the sharing economy, there will be opportunities for startups to discover new “car-veniences” that will be expected to generate some $200 billion in revenue.

A new world of advertising. From the late ’90s, we started seeing new forms of advertising emerge on the web. With self-driving cars, we are poised to see powerful new opportunities that deliver personalized messages to consumers. For instance, algorithms can compute routes and route history to hone in on passengers with specific onboard advertisements from surrounding businesses or attractions. This could be a huge boost to local businesses and will be much more effective than the primitive billboard.

Mobility-as-a-service. Imagine ordering take-out, or having your groceries or a package of diapers come to your door via a driverless car. This is something that we’re likely to see fairly soon. Shipping and freight companies, local delivery services and internet giants will make use of autonomous vehicles to transport goods across the country. These types of services will likely generate $3 trillion in revenues by 2050.

New business models. Today, many companies offer perks such as work-from-home days or the option for people to leave the office to work in a cafe or wherever is most suitable for them. In the not-too-distant future, the workplace will further transform as the commute evolves. The self-driving car will blend with the office, turning the commute into a productive part of the workday. In turn, this will allow people to go home earlier and spend more time with their families.

The advent of the passenger economy will contribute to a safer and more efficient world. Those who can imagine and anticipate the coming changes will be in the best position to get the most out of it.

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