Internet

Controversial Anti-Sex Trafficking Bill Eliminates Safe-Harbor for Tech Companies

Maya Digre, MJLST Staffer

 

Last week the U.S. Senate voted to approve the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act. The U.S. House of Representatives also passed a similar bill earlier this year. The bill creates an exception to Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act that allows victims of sex trafficking to sue websites that enabled their abuse. The bill was overwhelmingly approved in both the U.S. House and Senate, receiving 388-25 and 97-2 votes respectively. President Trump has indicated that he is likely to sign the bill.

 

Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act shields websites from liability stemming from content posted by third parties on their sites. Many tech companies argue that this provision has allowed them to become successful without a constant threat of liability. However, websites like Facebook, Google, and Twitter have recently received criticism for the role they played in unintentionally meddling in the 2016 presidential election. Seemingly the “hands off” approach of many websites has become a problem that Congress now seeks to address, at least with respect to sex trafficking.

 

The proposed exception would expose websites to liability if they “knowingly” assist, support, or facilitate sex trafficking. The bill seeks to make websites more accountable for posts on their site, discouraging a “hands off” approach.

 

While the proposed legislation has received bipartisan support from congress, it has been quite controversial in many communities. Tech companies, free-speech advocates, and consensual sex workers all argue that the bill will have unintended adverse consequences. The tech companies and free-speech advocates argue that the bill will stifle speech on the internet, and force smaller tech companies out of business for fear of liability. Consensual sex workers argue that this bill will shut down their online presence, forcing them to engage in high-risk street work. Other debates center on how the “knowingly” standard will affect how websites are run. Critics argue that, in response to this standard, “[s]ites will either censor more content to lower risk of knowing about sex trafficking, or they will dial down moderation in an effort not to know.” At least one website has altered their behavior in the wake of this bill. In response to this legislation Craigslist has remove the “personal ad” platform from their website.

 


The Unfair Advantage of Web Television

Richard Yo, MJLST Staffer

 

Up to a certain point, ISPs like Comcast, Verizon, and AT&T enjoy healthy, mutually beneficial relationships with web content companies such as Netflix, YouTube, and Amazon. That relationship remains so even when regular internet usage moves beyond emails and webpage browsing to VoIP and video streaming. To consume data-heavy content, users seek the wider bandwidth of broadband service and ISPs are more than happy to provide it at a premium. However, once one side enters the foray of the other, the relationship becomes less tenable unless it is restructured or improved upon. This problem is worse when both sides attempt to mimic the other.

 

Such a tension had clearly arisen by the time Verizon v. FCC 740 F.3d 623 (D.C. Cir. 2014) was decided. The D.C. Circuit vacated, or rather clarified, the applicability of two of the three rules that constituted the FCC’s 2010 Open Internet Order. The D.C. Circuit clarified that the rule of transparency was applicable to all, but the restrictions on blocking and discrimination were applicable only to common carriers. The FCC had previously classified ISPs under Title I of the Communications Act; common carriers are classified under Title II. The 2014 decision confirmed that broadband companies, not being common carriers, could choose the internet speed of websites and web-services at their discretion so long as they were transparent. So, to say that the internet’s astounding growth and development is due to light touch regulation is disingenuous. That statement in and of itself is true. Such discriminatory and blocking behavior was not in the purview of broadband providers during the early days of the internet due to the aforementioned relationship.

 

Once web content began taking on the familiar forms of broadcast television, signs of throttling were evident. Netflix began original programming in 2013 and saw its streaming speeds drop dramatically that year on both Verizon and Comcast networks. In 2014, Netflix made separate peering-interconnection agreements with both companies to secure reliably fast speeds for itself. Soon, public outcry led to the FCC’s 2015 Open Internet Order reclassifying broadband internet service as a “telecommunications service” subject to Title II. ISPs were now common carriers and net neutrality was in play, at least briefly (2015-2018).

 

Due to the FCC’s 2018 Restoring Internet Freedom Order, much of the features of the 2015 order have been reversed. Some now fear that ISPs will again attempt to control the traffic on their networks in all sorts of insidious ways. This is a legitimate concern but not one that necessarily spans the entire spectrum of the internet.

 

The internet has largely gone unregulated thanks to legislation and policies meant to encourage innovation and discourse. Under this incubatory setting, numerous such advancements and developments have indeed been made. One quasi-advancement is the streaming of voice and video. The internet has gone from cat videos to award-winning dramas. What began as a supplement to mainstream entertainment has now become the dominant force. Instead of Holly Hunter rushing across a busy TV station, we have Philip DeFranco booting up his iMac. Our tastes have changed, and with it, the production involved.

 

There is an imbalance here. Broadcast television has always suffered the misgivings of the FCC, even more than its cable brethren. The pragmatic reason for this has always been broadcast television’s availability, or rather its unavoidability. Censors saw to it that obscenities would never come across a child’s view, even inadvertently. But it cannot be denied that the internet is vastly more ubiquitous. Laptop, tablet, and smartphone sales outnumber those of televisions. Even TVs are now ‘smart,’ serving not only their first master but a second web master as well (no pun intended). Shows like Community and Arrested Development were network television shows (on NBC and FOX, respectively) one minute, and web content (on Yahoo! and Netflix, respectively) the next. The form and function of these programs had not substantially changed but they were suddenly free of the FCC’s reign. Virtually identical productions on different platforms are regulated differently, all due to arguments anchored by fears of stagnation.


New Data Protection Regulation in European Union Could have Global Ramifications

Kevin Cunningham, MJLST Staffer

 

For as long as the commercial web has existed, companies have monetized personal information by mining data. On May 25, however, individuals in the 28 member countries of the European Union will have the ability to opt into the data collection used by so many data companies. The General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), agreed upon by the European Parliament and Council in April 2016, will replace Data Protection Directive 95/46/ec as the primary law regulating how companies protect personal data of individuals in the European Union. The requirements of the new GDPR aim to create more consistent protection of consumer and personal data across the European Union.

 

Publishers, banks, universities, data and technology companies, ad-tech companies, devices, and applications operating in the European Union will have to comply with the privacy and data protection requirements of the GDPR or be subject to heavy fines (up to four (4) percent of annual global revenue) and penalties. Some of the requirements include: requiring consent of subjects for data processing; anonymizing collected data to protect privacy; providing data breach notifications within 72 hours of the occurrence; safely handling the transfer of data across borders; requiring certain companies to appoint a data protection officer to oversee compliance of the Regulation. Likewise, the European Commission posted on its website that a social network platform will have to adhere to user requests to delete photos and inform search engines and other websites that used the photos that the images should be removed. This baseline set of standards for companies handling data in the EU will better protect the processing and movement of personal data.

 

Companies will have to be clear and concise about the collection and use of personally identifiable information such as name, home address, data location, or IP address. Consumers will have the right to access data that companies store about the individuals, as well as the right to correct false or inaccurate information. Moreover, the GDPR imposes stricter conditions applying to the collection of ‘sensitive data’ such as race, political affiliation, sexual orientation, and religion. The GDPR will still allow businesses to process personally identifiable information without consumer consent for legitimate business interests which include direct marketing through mail, email, or online ads. Still, companies will have to account

 

The change to European law could have global ramifications. Any company that markets goods or service to EU residents will be subject to the GDPR. Many of the giant tech companies that collect data, such as Google and Facebook, look to keep uniform systems and have either revamped or announced a change to privacy settings to be more user-friendly.


University of Minnesota Partners with Michigan State University to Launch SCOTUS Notes

Brandy Hough, MJLST Staffer

 

If you thought your elementary school’s grueling cursive curriculum was all for naught, you’re sadly mistaken. The University of Minnesota, in partnership with Michigan State University, launched a crowdsourcing project this month to transcribe Supreme Court justices’ handwritten conference notes. The project, dubbed SCOTUS Notes, engages “citizen archivists” to decipher and transcribe the justices’ notes, with the goal of making them broadly accessible in an electronic and legible format. If you can spot a cursive Z from a mile away, you might just help transcribe history.

 

Researchers at the two universities received a three-year federal grant from the National Science Foundation to fund the project, which is hosted on Zooniverse, a large-scale platform for “people-powered research.” The researchers hope that crowdsourcing the work will lead to more efficient and accurate results than could be achieved by staff researchers alone. Project co-director Tim Johnson explains that ten people independently transcribe each page, which allows researchers “to obtain high level agreement scores for every word transcribed—even when the words are really difficult to determine.” At the time of writing, 876 volunteers have registered since the project’s February 13 launch date. You can monitor the project’s progress in real time on the SCOTUS Notes Zooniverse page.

 

In its current phase, SCOTUS Notes aims to harness its volunteer power to transcribe 12,600 pages of conference notes taken by Justices Harry A. Blackmun and William J. Brennan related to cases decided between 1959 and 1994. These notes provide valuable insights into judicial decision-making at our nation’s highest level. As explained on the SCOTUS Notes blog:

 

“U.S. Supreme Court justices cast votes in complete secrecy during weekly meetings, which only justices are allowed to attend. During these meetings, the justices discuss, deliberate, and make initial decisions on cases they have heard–many of which address the most important legal and policy issues in the U.S.. The written notes the justices themselves take during these meetings provide the only record of what was said and by whom.”

 

Project co-director Tim Johnson adds “I think law students will find that ‘understanding how the sausage is made’ is integral to understanding how and why SCOTUS makes the decisions it does. Without knowing what happens behind the scenes it is hard to really hard to have a fully accurate picture.”

 

In the future, the researchers plan to engage volunteers to transcribe notes of Justices Powell, Douglas, Marshall, Rehnquist and Warren. Upon completion of the project, scotusnotes.org will provide public access to images of the original pages as well as the transcriptions. 

 

For more information or to get involved with the project, visit the SCOTUS Notes page at https://www.zooniverse.org/projects/zooniverse/scotus-notes-behind-the-scenes-at-supreme-court-conference.


E-threat: Imminent Danger in the Information Age

MJLST Staffer, Jacob Weindling

 

One of the basic guarantees of the First Amendment is the right to free speech. This right protects the individual from restrictions on speech by the government, but is often invoked as a rhetorical weapon against private individuals or organizations declining to publish another’s words. On the internet, these organizations include some of the most popular discussion platforms in the U.S. including Facebook, Reddit, Yahoo, and Twitter. A key feature of these organizations is their lack of government control. As recenty as 2017, the Supreme Court has identified First Amendment grounds for overturning prohibitions on social media access. Indeed, one of the only major government prohibitions on speech currently in force is the ban on child pornography. Violent rhetoric, meanwhile, continues to fall under the Constitutional protections identified by the Court.

Historically, the Supreme Court has taken a nuanced view of violent speech as it relates to the First Amendment. The Court held in Brandenburg v. Ohio that “the constitutional guarantees of free speech and free press do not permit a State to forbid or proscribe advocacy of the use of force or of law violation except where such advocacy is directed to inciting or producing imminent lawless action and is likely to incite or produce such action.” Contrast this with discussion of a moral responsibility to resort to violence, which the Supreme Court has held to be distinct from preparing a group for imminent violent acts.

With the rise and maturation of the internet, public discourse has entered a new and relatively unchartered territory that the Supreme Court would have been hard-pressed to anticipate at the time of the Brandenburg and Noto decisions. Where once geography served to isolate Neo-Nazi groups and the Ku Klux Klan into small local chapters, the internet now provides a centralized meeting place for the dissemination and discussion of violent rhetoric. Historically, the Supreme Court concerned itself mightily with the distinction between an imminent call to action and a general discussion of moral imperatives, making clear delineations between the two.

The context of the Brandenburg decision was a pre-information age telecommunications regime. While large amounts of information could be transmitted around the world in relatively short order thanks to development of international commercial air travel, real-time communication was generally limited to telephone conversations between two individuals. An imminent call to action would require substantial real-world logistics, meetings, and preparation, all of which provide significant opportunities for detection and disruption by law enforcement. By comparison, internet forums today provide for near-instant communication between large groups of individuals across the entire world, likely narrowing the window that law enforcement would have to identify and act upon a credible, imminent threat.

At what point does Islamic State recruitment or militant Neo-Nazi organizing on the internet rise to the level of imminent threat? The Supreme Court has not yet decided the issue, many internet businesses have recently begun to take matters into their own hands. Facebook and Youtube have reportedly been more active in policing Islamic State propaganda, while Reddit has taken some steps to remove communities that advocate for rape and violence. Consequently, while the Supreme Court has not yet elected to draw (or redraw) a bright red line in the internet age, many businesses appear to be taking the first steps to draw the line themselves, on their terms.


Airbnb Regulations Spark Controversy, but Have Limited Effect on Super Bowl Market

MJLST Staffer, Sam Louwagie

 

As Super Bowl LII descends upon Minneapolis, many Twin Cities residents are hoping to receive a windfall by renting out their homes to visiting Eagles and Patriots fans. City regulations placed last fall on online short-term rental platforms such as AirBnB, which prompted an outcry from those platforms, do not appear to be having much of an effect on the dramatic surge in supply.

The short-term rental market in Minneapolis has been a renter’s market in the opening days since the Super Bowl matchup was set. There are 5,000 placements in the Twin Cities on AirBnB this week, as compared to 1,000 at this time last year, according to the Star Tribune. The flood of posted housing options has limited prices, as the average listing has cost $240 per night—more than usual, but much less than the thousands of dollars some would-be renters had hoped for. One homeowner told the Star Tribune that she had gotten no interest in her 4,000-square-foot, six-bedroom house just five blocks from U.S. Bank Stadium, and had “cut the price drastically.”

The surge in AirBnB listings comes despite ordinances that went into effect in December in both Minneapolis and St. Paul. The cities joined a growing list of major U.S. cities that are passing regulations aimed at ensuring guest safety and making a small cut of tax revenue from the rentals. Minneapolis’ ordinance requires a short-term renter to apply for a license with the city, which costs $46 annually. St. Paul’s license costs $40 per year. As of mid-December, according to MinnPost, only 18 applications had been submitted in Minneapolis and only 32 in St. Paul. That would suggest that many of the thousands of listings during Super Bowl week are likely unlicensed. The cities both say they will notify renters they are not in compliance before taking any enforcement action, but a violation will cost $500 in Minneapolis and $300 in St. Paul.

The online rental platforms themselves had strongly objected to the passage of the ordinances, which would require Airbnb to apply for a short-term rental platform license. This would bring a $10,000 annual fee in St. Paul and a $5,000 large platform fee in Minneapolis. According to MinnPost, as of mid-December, no platforms had submitted an application and it was “unclear whether they [would] comply.” Airbnb said in a statement that it believes the regulations violate the 1996 federal Communications Decency Act, and that “the ordinance violates the legal rights of Airbnb and its community.”

While the city ordinances created controversy in the legal world, they do not seem to be having a similar effect on the ground in Minneapolis, as Super Bowl guests still have a dramatic surplus of renting options.


Fi-ARRR-e & Fury: Why Even Reading the Pirated Copy of Michael Wolff’s New Book Is Probably Copyright Infringement

By Tim Joyce, MJLST EIC-Emeritus

 

THE SITUATION

Lately I’ve seen several Facebook links to a pirated copy of Fire & Fury: Inside the Trump White House, the juicy Michael Wolff expose documenting the first nine months of the President’s tenure. The book reportedly gives deep, behind-the-scenes perspectives on many of Mr. Trump’s most controversial actions, including firing James Comey and accusing President Obama of wiretapping Trump Tower.

 

It was therefore not surprising when Trump lawyers slapped a cease & desist letter on Wolff and his publisher. While there are probably volumes yet to be written about the merits of those claims (in my humble opinion: “sorry, bros, that’s not how defamation of a public figure works”), this blog post deals with the copyright implications of sharing and reading the pirated copy of the book, and the ethical quandaries it creates. I’ll start with the straightforward part.

 

THE APPLICABLE LAW

First, it should almost go without saying that the person who initially created the PDF copy of the 300+ page book broke the law. (Full disclosure: I did click on the Google link, but only to verify that it was indeed the book and not just a cover page. It was. Even including the page with copyright information!) I’ll briefly connect the dots for any copyright-novices reading along:

 

    • Wolff is the “author” of the book, a “literary work” that constitutes an “original works of authorship fixed in any tangible medium of expression” [see 17 USC 102’].
    • As the author, one of his copyrights is to control … well … copying. The US Code calls that “reproduction” [see 17 USC 106].
    • He also gets exclusive right to “display” the literary work “by means of a film, slide, television image, or any other device or process” [see 17 USC 101]. Basically, he controls display in any medium like, say, via a Google Drive folder.
    • Unauthorized reproduction, display, and/or distribution is called “infringement” [see 17 USC 501]. There are several specific exceptions carved into the copyright code for different types of creative works, uses, audiences, and other situations. But this doesn’t fall into one of those exceptions.

 

  • So, the anonymous infringer has broken the law.

 

  • [It’s not clear, yet, whether this person is also a criminal under 17 USC 506, because I haven’t seen any evidence of fraudulent intent or acting “for purposes of commercial advantage or private financial gain.”]

 

Next, anyone who downloads a copy of the book onto their smartphone or laptop is also an infringer. The same analysis applies as above, only with a different starting point. The underlying material’s copyright is still held by Wolff as the author. Downloading creates a “reproduction,” which is still unauthorized by the copyright owner. Unauthorized exercise of rights held exclusively by the author + no applicable exceptions = infringement.

 

Third, I found myself stuck as to whether I, as a person who had intentionally clicked through into the Google Drive hosting the PDF file, had also technically violated copyright law. Here, I hadn’t downloaded, but merely clicked the link which launched the PDF in a new Chrome tab. The issue I got hung up on was whether that had created a “copy,” that is a “material objects … in which a work is fixed by any method now known or later developed, and from which the work can be perceived, reproduced, or otherwise communicated, either directly or with the aid of a machine or device.” [17 USC 101]

 

Computer reproductions are tricky, in part because US courts lately haven’t exactly given clear guidance on the matter. (Because I was curious — In Europe and the UK, it seems like there’s an exception for temporary virtual copies, but only when incidental to lawful uses.) There’s some debate as to whether it’s infringement if only the computer is reading the file, and for a purpose different than perceiving the artistic expression. (You may remember the Google Books cases…) However, when it’s humans doing the reading, that “purpose of the copying” argument seems to fall by the wayside.

 

Cases like  Cartoon Network v. CSC Holdings have attempted to solve the problem of temporary copies (as when a new browser window opens), but the outcome there (i.e., temporary copies = ok) was based in part on the fact that the streaming service being sued had the right to air the media in question. Their copy-making was merely for the purposes of increasing speed and reducing buffering for their paid subscribers. Here, where the right to distribute the work is decidedly absent, the outcome seems like it should be the opposite. There may be a case out there that deals squarely with this situation, but it’s been awhile since copyright class (yay, graduation!) and I don’t have free access to Westlaw anymore. It’s the best I could do in an afternoon.

 

Of course, an efficient solution here would be to first crack down on the entities and individuals that first make the infringement possible – ISPs and content distributors. The Digital Millennium Copyright Act already gives copyright owners a process to make Facebook take bootleg copies of their stuff down. But that only solves half the problem, in my opinion. We have to reconcile our individual ethics of infringement too.

 

ETHICAL ISSUES, FOR ARTISTS IN PARTICULAR

One of the more troubling aspects of this pirateering that I saw was that the link-shares came from people who make their living in the arts. These are the folks who–rightly, in my opinion–rail against potential “employers” offering “exposure” instead of cold hard cash when they agree to perform. To expect to be paid for your art, while at the same time sharing an illegal copy of someone else’s, is logically inconsistent to me.

 

As a former theater actor and director (read: professional almost-broke person) myself, I can understand the desire to save a few dollars by reading the pirated copy. The economics of making a living performing are tough – often you agree to take certain very-low-paying artistic jobs as loss-leaders toward future jobs. But I have only met a very few of us willing to perform for free, and even fewer who would tolerate rehearsing with the promise of pay only to be stiffed after the performance is done. That’s essentially what’s happening when folks share this bootleg copy of Michael Wolff’s book.

 

I’ve heard some relativistic views on the matter, saying that THIS book containing THIS information is so important NOW, that a little infringement shouldn’t matter. But you could argue that Hamilton, the hit musical about the founding of our nation and government, has equally urgent messages regarding democracy, totalitarianism, individual rights, etc. Should anyone, therefore, be allowed to just walk into the theater and see the show without paying? Should the cast be forced to continue performing even when there is no longer ticket revenue flowing to pay for their efforts? I say that in order to protect justice at all times, we have to protect justice this time.

 

tl;dr

Creating, downloading, and possibly even just viewing the bootleg copy of Michael Wolff’s book linking around Facebook is copyright infringement. We cannot violate this author’s rights now if we expect to have our artistic rights protected tomorrow.

 

Contact Me!

These were just some quick thoughts, and I’m sure there’s more to say on the matter. If you’d like to discuss any copyright issues further, I’m all ears.


Congress, Google Clash Over Sex-Trafficking Liability Law

Samuel Louwagie, MJLST Staffer

Should web companies be held liable when users engage in criminal sex trafficking on the platforms they provide? Members of both political parties in Congress are pushing to make the answer to that question yes, over the opposition of tech giants like Google.

The Communications Decency Act was enacted in 1934. In the early 1990s, as the Internet went live, Congress added Section 230 to the act. That provision protected providers of web platforms from civil liability for content posted by users of those platforms. The act states that in order to “promote the continued development of the internet . . . No provider of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider.” That protection, according to the ACLU, “defines Internet culture as we know it.”  

Earlier this month, Congress debated an amendment to Section 230 called the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act of 2017. The act would remove that protection from web platforms that knowingly allow sex trafficking to take place. The proposal comes after the First Circuit Court of Appeals held in March of 2016 that even though Backpage.com played a role in trafficking underage girls, section 230 protected it from liability. Sen. Rob Portman, a co-sponsor of the bill, wrote that it is Congress’ “responsibility to change this law” while “women and children have . . . their most basic rights stripped from them.” And even some tech companies, such as Oracle, have supported the bill.

Google, meanwhile, has resisted such emotional pleas. Its lobbyists have argued that Backpage.com could be criminally prosecuted, and that to remove core protections from internet companies will damage the free nature of the web. Critics, such as New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof, argue the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act was crafted “exceedingly narrowly to target those intentionally engaged in trafficking children.”

The bill has bipartisan support and appears to be gaining steam. The Internet Association, a trade group including Google and Facebook, expressed a willingness at a Congressional hearing to supporting “targeted amendments” to the Communications Decency Act. Whether Google likes it or not, eventually platforms will be at legal risk if they don’t police their content for sex trafficking.


In Doge We Trust

Richard Yo, MJLST Staffer

Despite the closure of virtually all U.S.-based Bitcoin exchanges in 2013 due to Congressional review and the uncertainty with which U.S. banks viewed its viability, the passion for cryptocurrencies has remained strong, especially among technologists and venture capitalists. This passion reached an all-time high in 2017 when one Bitcoin exchanged for 5000 USD.** Not more than five years ago, Bitcoin exchanged for 13 USD. For all its adoring supporters, however, cryptocurrencies have yet to gain traction in mainstream commerce for several reasons.

Cryptocurrencies, particularly Bitcoin, have been notoriously linked to dark web locales such as the now-defunct Silk Road. A current holder of Bitcoin, Litecoin, or Monero, would be hard pressed to find a completely legal way to spend his coins or tokens without second guessing himself. A few legitimate enterprises, such as Microsoft, will accept Bitcoin but only with very strict limitations, effectively scrubbing it of its fiat currency-like qualities.

The price of your token can take a volatile 50% downswing or 3000% upswing in a matter of days, if not hours. If you go to the store expecting to purchase twenty dollars’ worth of groceries, you want to be sure that the amount of groceries you had in mind at the beginning of your trip is approximately the amount of groceries you will be able to bring back home.

After the U.S. closures, cryptocurrency exchanges found havens in countries with strong technology bases. Hotbeds include China, Russia, Japan, and South Korea, among others. However, the global stage has recently added more uncertainty to the future of cryptocurrency. In March 2017, the Bank of Japan declared Bitcoin as an official form of payment. Senators in Australia are attempting to do the same. China and Russia, meanwhile, are home to most Bitcoin miners (Bitcoin is “mined” in the sense that transactions are verified by third-party computers, the owners of which are rewarded for their mining with Bitcoins of their own) due to low energy costs in those two nations and yet are highly suspicious of cryptocurrencies. China has recently banned the use of initial coin offerings (ICOs) to generate funds and South Korea has followed suit. Governments are unsure of how best to regulate, or desist from regulating, these exchanges and the companies that provide the token and coins. There’s also a legitimate question as to whether a cryptocurrency can be regulated given the nimbleness of the technology.

On this issue, some of the most popular exchanges are sometimes referred to as “regulated.” In truth, this is usually not in the way that consumers would think a bank or other financial institution is regulated. Instead, the cryptocurrency exchange usually imposes regulations on itself to ensure stability for its client base. It requires several forms of identification and multi-factor authentication that rivals (and sometimes exceeds) the security provided by traditional banks. These were corrections that were necessary after the epic 2014 failure of the then-largest cryptocurrency exchange in the world, Mt. Gox.

Such self-adjustments, self-regulation, and stringency are revealing. In the days of the Clinton administration when internet technology’s ascent was looming, the U.S. government adopted a framework for its regulation. That framework was unassuming and could possibly be pared to a single rule: we will regulate it when it needs regulating. It asked that this technology be left in the hands of those who understand it best and allow it to flourish.

This seems to be the approach that most national governments are taking. They seem to be imposing restrictions only when deemed necessary, not banning cryptocurrencies outright.

For Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies, the analogous technology may be the “blockchain” that underlies their structure, not the tokens or coins themselves. The blockchain is a digital distributed ledger that provides anonymity, uniformity, and public (or private) access, using complex algorithms to verify and authenticate information. When someone excitedly speaks about the possibilities of Bitcoin or another cryptocurrency, they are often describing the features of blockchain technology, not the coin.

Blockchain technology has already proven itself in several fields of business and many others are hoping to utilize it to effectuate the efficient and reliable dissemination and integration of information. This could potentially have sweeping effects in areas such as medical record-keeping or title insurance. It’s too early to know and far too early to place restrictions. Ultimately, cryptocurrencies may be the canary that gets us to better things, not the pickaxe.

 

*Dogecoin is the cryptocurrency favored by the Shina Inu breed of dog, originally created as a practical joke, but having since retained its value and now used as a legitimate form of payment.

**The author holds, or has held, Bitcoin, Ether, Litecoin, Ripple, and Bitcoin Cash.


Say Goodbye to Net Neutrality: Why FCC Protection of the Open Internet Is Over

Kristin McGaver, MJLST Guest Blogger

[Editor’s Note: Ms. McGaver’s blog topic serves as a nice preview for two articles being published in this Spring’s Issue 18.2, one on the FCC generally by researchers Brent Skorup and Joe Kane, and one on the Open Internet Order more specifically by MJLST Staffer Paul Gaus.]

Net neutrality is a complex issue at the forefront of many current online regulation debates. In these debates, it is often unclear what the concept of “net neutrality” actually entails, what parties and actors it affects, and how many different approaches to its regulation exist. Nevertheless, Ajit Pai—newly appointed chairman of the United States Federal Communications Commission (“FCC”)—thinks, “the issue is pretty simple.” Pai is openly opposed to net neutrality and has publicly expressed his intent not to enforce current FCC regulations pertaining to the issue with his recently acquired position of power. This is troubling to many net neutrality supporters. Open Internet advocates are rightfully concerned that Pai will hinder recent success for the advancement and protection of net neutrality achieved under former President Obama, resulting in the FCC’s 2015 “Protecting and Promoting the Open Internet” Regulation. With Pai at the FCC helm, net neutrality policy in the United States (“US”) is noticeably in flux. Thus, even though official policies protecting net neutrality exist on the books, the circumstances surrounding their enforcement and longevity leave much gray area to be explored, chiseled out, and set into stone.

Net neutrality is the idea that all Internet traffic should be treated equally. Yet, since 2003 when Tim Wu coined the term, scholars and commentators cannot agree on a standard definition since that very definition is at the base of a multi-layered over-arching debate. In the US, the most recent FCC articulation of net neutrality is defined by three principles—“no blocking, no throttling and no paid prioriti[z]ation.” These principles mean that ISPs should not be allowed to charge companies or websites higher rates for speedier connections or charge the user higher amounts for specific services. The new “bright-line” rules forbid ISPs from restricting access, tampering with Internet traffic, or favoring certain kinds of traffic via the use of “fast lanes.” Markedly, one thing the 2015 Regulation did not completely forbid is “zero-rating” or “the practice of allowing customers to consume content from certain platforms without it counting towards their data plan cap”—a practice many see as violating net neutrality. Even with this and other exceptions, the 2015 Regulation’s passing was not met without resistance: Republican Senator Ted Cruz from Texas tweeted that the 2015 Regulation was “Obamacare for the Internet.”

Additionally, net neutrality supporters and the FCC majority did not have long to bask in their success after the 2015 Regulation’s approval. The United States Telecom Association and Alamo Broadband quickly challenged it in a lawsuit. Because the new regulation re-classified ISPs as common carriers and therefore subject to the FCC’s authority, Telecom claimed that the FCC was overreaching, harming businesses, and impeding innovation in the field. Fortunately for the FCC, the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia upheld the 2015 Regulation in a 2–to–1 decision.

Yet, the waves are far from settling for the FCC and net neutrality supporters in the US. Following the D.C. Circuit’s 2016 decision, American company AT&T and other members of the cable and telecom industry signaled an intent to continue the challenge, potentially all the way to the Supreme Court. More importantly, the lead dissenter to the 2015 Regulation is now chairman of the FCC. In his first few months as Chairman, Ajit Pai declined to comment on whether the FCC plans to enforce the 2015 Regulation. Pai’s “no comment” does not look promising for net neutrality or for those hoping the US will maintain its intent to protect the open Internet as was articulated in the 2015 Regulation.

Although the 2015 Regulation remains on the books, the likelihood that it is carefully enforced, or really enforced at all, is pretty low. This leaves a total lack of accountability for breaching ISPs. Achieving a policy that is not entirely spineless is admittedly complicated in the context of an Internet that is constantly evolving and a market that is increasingly dominated by just a few ISPs. But, effective policies are not impossible, as evidenced by success in the European Union and several of their member states in setting policies that protect and promote net neutrality. It is clear from these examples that effective net neutrality regulation in the online context requires setting, maintaining, and enforcing official articulations of policy. However, with a clear signal from the FCC chairman to back away from the enforcement of a set policy, it will be as if no regulation exists at all.