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.
Asia Needs a Region-Wide Approach to Harness Fintech’s Full Potential
Asia’s policy makers should strengthen cooperation to harness the potential of new financial technologies for inclusive growth. At the same time, they should work together to ensure they can respond better to the challenges posed by fintech.
New technologies such as mobile banking, big data, and peer-to-peer transfer networks are already extending the reach of financial services to those who were previously unbanked or out of reach, boosting incomes and living standards. Yet, fintech also comes with the risk of cyber fraud, data security, and privacy breaches. Disintermediation of fintech services or concentration of services among a few providers could also pose a risk to financial stability.
These and other issues were discussed at the High-Level Policy Dialogue on Regional Cooperation to Support Innovation, Inclusion, and Stability in Asia, organized by the Asian Development Bank (ADB), Bank Indonesia, and the ASEAN+3 Macroeconomic Research Office (AMRO).
The panel comprised Ms. Neav Chanthana, Deputy Governor of the National Bank of Cambodia; Mr. Diwa Guinigundo, Deputy Governor of Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas; Ms. Mary Ellen Iskenderian, President and Chief Executive Officer of Women’s World Banking; Mr. Ravi Menon, Managing Director of the Monetary Authority of Singapore; Mr. Takehiko Nakao, President of ADB; Mr. Abdul Rasheed, Deputy Governor, Bank Negara Malaysia, and Mr. Veerathai Santiprabhob, Governor of the Bank of Thailand. Mr. Mirza Adityaswara, Senior Deputy Governor of Bank Indonesia, gave the opening remarks at the conference and Ms. Junhong Chang, Director of AMRO, gave the welcome remarks.
“Rapidly spreading new financial technologies hold huge promise for financial inclusion,” said Mr. Nakao. “We must foster an enabling environment for the technologies to flourish and strengthen regional cooperation to build harmonized regulatory standards and surveillance systems to prevent international money laundering, terrorism financing, and cybercrimes.”
“Technology is an enabler that weaves our economies and financial systems together, transmitting benefits but also risks across borders,” said Ms. Chang. “Given East Asia’s rapid economic growth, understanding and managing the impact of technology in our financial systems is essential for policymakers to maintain financial stability.”
“Asia, including Indonesia, is an ideal place for fintech to flourish,” said Mr. Adityaswara. “In Indonesia’s case, there are more than a quarter of a billion people living on thousand of islands, waiting to be integrated with the new technology; young people eager to enter the future digital world; more than fifty million small and medium-sized enterprises which can’t wait to get on board with e-commerce; a new society driven by a dynamic, democratic middle class which views the digital economy as something as inevitable as evolution.”
Despite Asia’s high economic growth in recent years, the financial sector is still under-developed in some countries. Fewer than 27% of adults in developing Asia have a bank account, well below the global median of 38%. Meanwhile, just 84% of firms have a checking or savings account, on a par with Africa but below Latin America’s 89% and emerging Europe’s 92%.
Financial inclusion could be increased through policies to promote financial innovation, by boosting financial literacy, and by expanding and upgrading digital infrastructure and networks. Regulations to prevent illegal activities, enhance cyber security, and protect consumers’ rights and privacy, would also build confidence in new financial technologies.
Cutting-edge tech a ‘double-edged sword for developing countries’
The latest technological advances, from artificial intelligence to electric cars, can be a “double-edged sword”, says the latest UN World Economic and Social Survey (WESS 2018), released on Monday.
The over-riding message of the report is that appropriate, effective policies are essential, if so-called “frontier technologies” are to change the world for the better, helping us to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and addressing climate change: without good policy, they risk exacerbating existing inequality.
Amongst several positive indicators, WESS 2018 found that the energy sector is becoming more sustainable, with renewable energy technology and efficient energy storage systems giving countries the opportunity to “leapfrog” existing, often fossil fuel-based solutions.
The wellbeing of the most vulnerable is being enhanced through greater access to medicines, and millions in developing countries now have access to low-cost financial services via their mobile phones.
Referring to the report, UN Secretary-General António Guterres said that “good health and longevity, prosperity for all and environmental sustainability are within our reach if we harness the full power of these innovations.”
However, the UN chief warned of the importance of properly managing the use of new technologies, to ensure there is a net benefit to society: the report demonstrates that unmanaged implementation of developments such as artificial intelligence and automation can improve efficiency but also destroy quality jobs.
“Clearly, we need policies that can ensure frontier technologies are not only commercially viable but also equitable and ethical. This will require a rigorous, objective and transparent ongoing assessment, involving all stakeholders,” Mr. Guterres added
The Survey says that proactive and effective policies can help countries to avoid pitfalls and minimize the economic and social costs of technology-related disruption. It calls for regulation and institutions that promote innovation, and the use of new technologies for sustainable development.
With digital technology frequently crossing borders, international cooperation, the Survey shows, is needed to bring about harmonized standards, greater flexibility in the area of intellectual property rights and ensuring that the market does not remain dominated by a tiny number of extremely powerful companies.
Here, the UN has a vital role to play, by providing an objective assessment of the impact that emerging technologies have on sustainable development outcomes – including their effects on employment, wages and income distribution – and bringing together people, business and organizations from across the world to build strong consensus-led agreements.
Our Trust Deficit with Artifical Intelligence Has Only Just Started
“We suffer from a bad case of trust-deficit disorder,” said UN Secretary-General António Guterres in his recent General Assembly speech. His diagnosis is right, and his focus on new technological developments underscores their crucial role shaping the future global political order. Indeed, artificial intelligence (AI) is poised to deepen the trust-deficit across the world.
The Secretary-General, echoing his recently released Strategy on New Technologies, repeatedly referenced rapidly developing fields of technology in his speech, rightly calling for greater cooperation between countries and among stakeholders, as well as for more diversity in the technology sector. His trust-deficit diagnosis reflects the urgent need to build a new social license and develop incentives to ensure that technological innovation, in particular AI, is deployed safely and aligned with the public interest.
However, AI-driven technologies do not easily fit into today’s models of international cooperation, and will in fact tend to undermine rather than enforce global governance mechanisms. Looking at three trends in AI, the UN faces an enormous set of interrelated challenges.
AI and Reality
First, AI is a potentially dominating technology whose powerful – both positive and negative –implications will be increasingly difficult to isolate and contain. Engineers design learning algorithms with a specific set of predictive and optimizing functions that can be used to both empower or control populations. Without sophisticated fail-safe protocols, the potential for misuse or weaponization of AI is pervasive and can be difficult to anticipate.
Take Deepfake as an example. Sophisticated AI programs can now manipulate sounds, images and videos, creating impersonations that are often impossible to distinguish from the original. Deep-learning algorithms can, with surprising accuracy, read human lips, synthetize speech, and to some extent simulate facial expressions. Once released outside of the lab, such simulations could easily be misused with wide-ranging impacts (indeed, this is already happening at a low level). On the eve of an election, Deepfake videos could falsely portray public officials being involved in money-laundering or human rights abuses; public panic could be sowed by videos warning of non-existent epidemics or cyberattacks; forged incidents could potentially lead to international escalation.
The capacity of a range of actors to influence public opinion with misleading simulations could have powerful long-term implications for the UN’s role in peace and security. By eroding the sense of trust and truth between citizens and the state—and indeed amongst states—truly fake news could be deeply corrosive to our global governance system.
AI Reading Us
Second, AI is already connecting and converging with a range of other technologies—including biotech—with significant implications for global security. AI systems around the world are trained to predict various aspects of our daily lives by making sense of massive data sets, such as cities’ traffic patterns, financial markets, consumer behaviour trend data, health records and even our genomes.
These AI technologies are increasingly able to harness our behavioural and biological data in innovative and often manipulative ways, with implications for all of us. For example, the My Friend Cayla smart doll sends voice and emotion data of the children who play with it to the cloud, which led to a US Federal Trade Commission complaint and its ban in Germany. In the US, emotional analysis is already being used in the courtroom to detect remorse in deposition videos. It could soon be part of job interviews to assess candidates’ responses and their fitness for a job.
The ability of AI to intrude upon—and potentially control—private human behaviour has direct implications for the UN’s human rights agenda. New forms of social and bio-control could in fact require a reimagining of the framework currently in place to monitor and implement the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and will certainly require the multilateral system to better anticipate and understand this quickly emerging field.
AI as a Conflict Theatre
Finally, the ability of AI-driven technologies to influence large populations is of such immediate and overriding value that it is almost certain to be the theatre for future conflicts. There is a very real prospect of a “cyber race” in which powerful nations and large technology platforms enter into open competition for our collective data as the fuel to generate economic, medical and security supremacy across the globe. Forms of “cyber-colonization” are increasingly likely, as powerful states are able to harness AI and biotech together to understand and potentially control other countries’ populations and ecosystems.
Towards Global Governance of AI
Politically, legally and ethically, our societies are not prepared for the deployment of AI. The UN, established many decades before the emergence of these technologies, is in many ways poorly placed to develop the kind of responsible governance that will channel AI’s potential away from these risks and towards our collective safety and wellbeing. In fact, the resurgence of nationalist agendas across the world may point to a dwindling capacity of the multilateral system to play a meaningful role in the global governance of AI. Major corporations and powerful member states may see little value in bringing multilateral approaches to bear on what they consider lucrative and proprietary technologies.
There are, however, some important ways in which the UN can help build the kind of collaborative, transparent networks that may begin to treat our “trust-deficit disorder.” The Secretary-General’s recently-launched High-Level Panel on Digital Cooperation, is already working to build a collaborative partnership with the private sector and establish a common approach to new technologies. Such an initiative could eventually find ways to reward cooperation over competition, and to put in place common commitments to using AI-driven technologies for the public good.
Perhaps the most important challenge for the UN in this context is one of relevance, of re-establishing a sense of trust in the multilateral system. But if the above trends tell us anything, it is that AI-driven technologies are an issue for every individual and every state, and that without collective, collaborative forms of governance, there is a real risk that it will be a force that undermines global stability.
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