Law in the Internet Society

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TWikiGuestSecondEssay 6 - 23 Dec 2017 - Main.MayaUchima
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Introduction

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Maya Uchima
 
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It is easy to be misled by the FCC’s recent announcement that is will be restoring internet freedom. Apparently, this new policy direction will lead to rapid Internet growth, openness, and freedom. In class, one thing I learned was how the proposed destruction of network neutrality should really be better understood as allowing discriminatory routing because it more accurately describes the problem with a non-neutral internet.
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Bitcoin: The Illusion of Anonymity

 
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Our class discussion on carriage regulation of the FCC’s announcement also prompted me to reconsider the reasons why I believe in non-discriminatory routing. This essay will consider three of the most common arguments made in favor of the FCC’s position, and attempt a rebuttal and defense of non-discriminatory routing.
 
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Incentivizing Network Investment

The main slated benefit arising out of the FCC’s decision is “restoring a favorable climate for network investment”. This argument is premised on the idea that the prior structure with its ‘utility–like’ rules did not sufficiently encourage investment into upgrading the network infrastructure. Now, buoyed by the potential to monetize the pipes and switches in ways broadband providers could never do before, as the argument goes, they have every incentive to invest in the network: to improve bandwidth, reach and speed.

Better Access

A further ancillary benefit to this anticipated investment is “closing the digital divide”. This argument is based on the logic that further investment into network architecture will improve access to the internet, particularly in rural areas. In such areas, broadband providers cannot improve its service offering because of limited growth in demand for internet connectivity, as compared to urban areas where more investment has landed. The access argument had particular persuasiveness in India, during the time Free Basic Internet was proposed, because of the talk of some 800 million people potentially getting connected to some form of the internet.

More innovation online

A third anticipated positive outcome from the FCC’s decision is “spurring competition and innovation that benefits consumers”. The logic underpinning this argument is that having more freedom with respect to pricing and service provision terms will lead broadband providers to develop innovative solutions: for example, a more efficient way to move 4K video data packets, if they can charge more for such provision. Hence, the end result might leave consumers with greater optionality. Like many, I too can see the potential for broad-based positive change when the FCC frames its decision in such rosy terms. In reality, however, there are many problems related to discriminatory routing practices that will now be considered.

Rebutting the attracting investment argument

Addressing the inducement of investment, I think fact that the FCC needed to essentially lay down a red carpet to the ISPs to make network investment speaks volumes about the existing market structure and condition of regulatory capture. Firstly, it is surprising that given the essential nature of internet services in today’s world, investment to improve its provision or quality is so hard to come by. When firms lack incentives to invest, often it is a sign of lack of competition in the market. The broadband provision market is in exactly that predicament – with last mile provision being essentially a collection of local monopolies. Secondly, the fact that the FCC commissioners are essentially promoting the ISPs interests with this decision suggests regulatory capture, where the regulators are functionally in bed with the companies they are obligated to regulate. The real problem, a lack of sufficient network investment, therefore shouldn’t be solved by essentially paying the ISPs to invest; perhaps the cost of investment in network architecture should be subsidized by the government, or entirely funded by them, similar to funding for road or transport infrastructure investment.

Rebutting the access argument

Regarding access, again while the slated network investments could theoretically improve access in poorly connected areas, in reality, improving access is far from the real aim of discriminatory routing. If anything, the access gains are incidental to the real motive: monetizing the browsing patterns of internet users. It is interesting that major platform companies are also against the FCC’s decision because it seems a potential challenger to the current dominance by Google and Facebook of the online advertising industry.

Rebutting the innovation argument

The underlying motive of monetizing browsing patterns also explains why ditching network neutrality will crush innovation. We usually perceive innovators or disruptors to an industry to be new market entrants, who have figured out radically new ways to perform a task or provide a service. Under these new rules, companies in this mold will face an almighty task of breaking into the platform company market or any ‘e-commerce’ sector which has an incumbent already. They will be forced to pay for play under paid prioritization schemes; preferential arrangements between huge market incumbents and ISPs will effectively price out competitors who cannot afford these premiums. As the CEO of Reddit said, “If we don’t have net neutrality protections that enforce tenets of fairness online, you give internet service providers the ability to choose winners and losers” in every sector of the market online.

A 'principled' approach to 'network neuttrality'

Having rebutted the clearly misrepresented benefits of discriminatory routing, it is important to provide an alternative. The fact remains that, as the reason for abandoning the term of net neutrality demonstrates, there is already non-neutral service provision, because ISPs already do traffic management. In order to ensure Quality of Service, ISPs frequently alter the route of packets. The phttp://...https://www.eff.org/issues/net-neutrality][“discrimination in favor of particular apps, sites or services”]].
 
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In other words, what we really need is certain principles to guide ISPs routing practices. For example, I think ISPs should be prohibited from conducting behavioral advertising based on users browsing patterns. This is because unlike Google or Facebook, it is incredibly hard to work around the ISP and avoid that data collection. Whatever you do online, your gateway to internet access is still based on access to a nhttp://...s.lse.ac.uk/67362/7/Murray_Principled%20approach_2016.pdf][Murray and Audiebert]] describe a ‘principled approach’ to network neutrality, whereby ideas like respecting privacy and freedom of expression are the guiding principles of traffic management, not maximizing profit through fast lanes.
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How the Illusion Started

 
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Another important principle that should guide ISPs routing practices is transparency. In this regard, the FCC seems absolutely right to focus on that principle. But transparency should supplement not replace rules banning discriminatory routing. We should know how traffic management is being done so that for example there are no chilling effects to freedom of expression based on people’s right to consume certain content being affected by paid prioritization.
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Bitcoin, whose market cap surpassed a quarter of a million dollars this year, has long given its users a sense of security that their transactions are “anonymous” because of its elimination of a centralized bank, or any trusted third party. Users of Bitcoin seek anonymity, not because they want to deal in illegal activity (although there are plenty of criminals turning to digital currencies to hide transactions) but because they desire privacy and security in knowing that they control the release of personal data and their spending history. In the Bitcoin network, instead of having a general overseer who holds all the information, people can check a “public ledger” that records every exchange made and is available for the public to see. With this lack in monitoring and regulation traditionally done by banks, people have assumed that their activity is untraceable to them and completely anonymous. This isn’t so great a stretch of the imagination, as, although every transaction is recorded in the “public ledger,” the only immediately identifiable characteristic of the exchange is the pseudonym attached to the wallets transacting. No personal information is attached to these wallets and none is needed to set one up.
 
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In a way, this process of reflection for me re-iterates the class discussions about how network neutrality debates are about allocating power, and it is clear the deck has been stacked against internet users. My conclusion of this short reflection reaches the same sense I left that class with, that somehow the FCC made a huge mistake in prioritizing who it protects, a mistake other regulators like TRAI in India, did not make. And while they may clothe the wolf in sheep’s clothing, the dangers of the FCC’s action are no longer lost on me.
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Breaking the Trance

Any user of Bitcoin who has had to buy Bitcoin would know that one must use an online exchange, such as Coinbase. When creating an account on this site, a user must enter all government standard KYC and AML information including social name, security number, government issued identification, address, and phone number. This would immediately call into question the “anonymity” of a currency if this kind of data must be input to buy it. Even with more complex strategies, wherein a user could buy Bitcoin (providing all the above information) and place it into a wallet (which does not contain any personal information) and then transfer those funds to a second wallet, adding a buffer between the online exchange transaction and the second wallet, the impediment is slight. If one wished to trace a single bitcoin back to the online exchange, it is easy to do so by looking through the public ledger. Every transaction in the history of Bitcoin is logged in and searchable. The second wallet’s Bitcoin would be traced back to the initial wallet and then to the online exchange. This sounds eerily like the trusted third party system that Bitcoin, and other cryptocurrencies today, sought to avoid and banish in the past. It is now up to the online exchange to securely protect its users’ personal data. Just because there is no easily identifiable information attached to these transactions once the Bitcoin has entered the wallet, there are still ways to figure out who does what on the Bitcoin network. There have been major busts by law enforcement cracking down on individuals using Bitcoin to engage in criminal activity. Companies such as Chainalysis use analytical tools to measure activity on the network and flag suspicious exchanges. Once they have located a shady transaction, they can log all of its actions and can correlate this activity with real world actions an individual has taken. For example, by watching the timing of the transactions of a particular wallet, investigators can match those times with periods where a suspected individual is online or can find emails that provide evidence pointing to the completion of a transaction (“just sent you the money”). Although seemingly circumstantial, the analysis can cover enough details that the evidence can pinpoint a single person. In the takedown of the Silk Road, investigators used a combination of server insecurities as well as old-school investigative techniques to link the founder of the Silk Road, Ross Ulbricht, to the TOR server handling the activities on the site. They searched Ulbricht’s emails and facebook account for clues and used PEN registers to collect routing data to correlate Ulbricht’s online activity.

Is Anonymity Even Possible?

Bitcoin may not have concurred the issue of anonymity, and may have even replicated the bank system that its users sought to skirt. What of other currencies? Is anonymity in the digital realm even attainable? Two digital currencies, ZCash and Monero, seem to be the leaders of the pack in achieving anonymity on a blockchain currency. “Zero knowledge proofs” separate the transactions from the people who make them so no one can reverse engineer where the funds come from by reviewing the blockchain. The public ledger reveals different information and no longer discloses which wallet sends or receives what. All that is shown is whether or not the funds were transferred in a positive or negative fashion- not even how much was transferred. Although there are benefits to being able to trace a fund back to its roots, if the higher priority for a user is in its anonymity, Bitcoin may not be the answer.


Revision 6r6 - 23 Dec 2017 - 21:43:04 - MayaUchima
Revision 5r5 - 22 Dec 2017 - 23:10:14 - RohanGeorge1
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