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Ajit Pai: the man who could destroy the open internet

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Ajit Pai: the man who could destroy the open internet

Ajit Pai, the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, has a reputation as a nice guy who remembers co-workers’ birthdays and their children’s names.

After he was targeted by trolls on Twitter, he took it in good humor, participating in a video where he read and responded to “mean tweets”.

Pai reads mean tweets

This is the man who could destroy the open internet.

Pai, a 44-year-old Republican attorney, is spearheading the Trump administration’s regulatory rollback of net neutrality protections.

Net neutrality, which some have described as the “first amendment of the internet”, is the idea that internet service providers (ISPs) treat everyone’s data equally – whether that’s an email from your mother, an episode of House of Cards on Netflix or a bank transfer. It means that cable ISPs such as Comcast, AT&T or Verizon don’t get to choose which data is sent more quickly and which sites get blocked or throttled based on which content providers pay a premium.

As the comedian John Oliver puts it: “ISPs should not be able to engage in any fuckery that limits or manipulates the choices you make online.”

In February 2015, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) voted to more strictly regulate ISPs and to enshrine in law the principles of net neutrality. The vote reclassified wireless and fixed-line broadband service providers as title II “common carriers”, a public utility-type designation that gives the FCC the ability to set rates, open up access to competitors and more closely regulate the industry.

But Trump’s FCC, with Pai at the helm, wants to repeal the rules.

The son of Indian immigrants who came to the US to work as doctors in rural Kansas, Pai went to Harvard University, where he studied social studies before getting his law degree from the University of Chicago. Aside from his two years working as associate general counsel at Verizon, Pai has spent most of his career in government.

Pai was nominated for a Republican party position on the FCC by Barack Obama in 2011 and was reconfirmed by the US Senate in 2o12. After his four-year term, Donald Trump made Pai the chairman of the FCC, where he’s been an advocate for less regulation.

Ajit Pai and the over-sized mug he described as “infamous”

Pai argues that if the US introduced strong net neutrality protections, authoritarian states would have an excuse to clamp down on online freedoms – in spite of the fact that authoritarian states don’t need an excuse to do so. He also says that legislation should only be applied if there’s a market failure. However, as Pai has said, “nothing is broken” and the rules were established on “hypothetical harms and hysterical prophecies of doom”.

Beyond that, he argues that the broadband market is more competitive than the search engine market, despite the fact that 76% of people have either zero or one fixed ISP offering industry-standard broadband speeds. Google might have a huge market share, but there are many other options available to anyone with an internet connection. Many Americans have just one option for their home broadband provider.

Pai’s views echo those of the big broadband companies. That might have something to do with the huge sums AT&T, Comcast and Verizon throw toward lobbying, collectively spending $11m in the first quarter of 2017.

The big telecommunications companies also argue that the rules are too heavy-handed and will stifle investment in infrastructure – although they say the opposite when talking to their investors. Instead of being regulated like utilities, these companies say they’d prefer to self-regulate until net neutrality protections can be passed by Congress.

That hasn’t worked out well for consumers so far: during negotiations with Netflix in 2014, Comcast and Verizon throttled streaming speeds by up to 30% on average – until Netflix decided to cough up cash through “paid prioritization” deals. These types of deals were scrapped under the 2015 legislation. Internet providers have also given technical advantages to their own streaming services, as AT&T did with DirectTV in 2016.

Pretty much everyone outside the large cable companies supports the FCC’s net neutrality rules. In an uncharacteristic display of unity, large companies such as Amazon, Google and Facebook have joined forces with smaller companies such as Reddit, Netflix, Vimeo and Etsy and activists including the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the ACLU and Demand Progress to protest the proposed rollback. They are among the 200 organizations to participate in a day of action on 12 July in an attempt to get their users to contact Congress and the FCC and demand that net neutrality be protected.

“Ajit Pai may think big cable’s interests are more important than the public’s, but the day of action makes it clear that few outside the boardrooms of Comcast or AT&T agree,” said Pierce Stanley of Demand Progress. “A majority of Americans support net neutrality, and their voices will be heard loud and clear when we take back the internet from Pai and his cronies.”

After Wednesday’s day of action, members of the public will have until 18 July to send comments to the FCC. Replies to those comments are due by 16 August, after which the FCC will make a final decision.

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What is net neutrality and why does it matter?

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What is net neutrality?

Net neutrality is the idea that internet service providers (ISPs) treat everyone’s data equally – whether that’s an email from your mother, a bank transfer, or a streamed episode of The Handmaid’s Tale. It means that ISPs don’t get to choose which data is sent more quickly, and which sites get blocked or throttled (for example, slowing the delivery of a TV show because it is streamed by a video company that competes with a subsidiary of the ISP) and who has to pay extra. For this reason, some have described net neutrality as the “first amendment of the internet”.

“Net neutrality is basically the principle that keeps the internet open. Without it, big cable companies will be able to slow down certain websites and pick winners and losers on the internet,” said Mark Stanley from Demand Progress, one of the activist groups organizing the day of action.

What is the difference between an internet service provider (ISP) and a content provider?

ISPs, such as Verizon, Comcast, Charter, Verizon, CenturyLink and Cox, provide you with access to the internet. Content companies include Netflix, Hulu and Amazon. In some cases, ISPs are also content providers: for example, Comcast owns NBCUniversal and delivers TV shows through its Xfinity internet service.

Why is net neutrality under threat?

In February 2015, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) voted to more strictly regulate ISPs and to enshrine in law the principles of net neutrality.

The vote reclassified wireless and fixed-line broadband service providers as title II “common carriers”, a public utility-type designation that gives the FCC the ability to set rates, open up access to competitors and more closely regulate the industry.

How does Australia plans to access encrypted messages?

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The Australian government is proposing a legislation that will compel technology companies to provide access to users’ messages, regardless of whether they have been encrypted.

The attorney general, George Brandis, said: “What we are proposing to do, if we can’t get the voluntary cooperation we are seeking, is to extend the existing law that says to individuals, citizens and to companies that in certain circumstances you have an obligation to assist law enforcement if it is in within your power to do so.”

Here is how encrypted messaging currently works:

I use an app, such as WhatsApp, to type a message to Darren on my phone. Before sending the message to Darren, my phone encrypts the message specifically for Darren using what is called a “public key”. Now, the message can only be read by Darren using his “private key”, which corresponds to the public key the message was encrypted with.

WhatsApp’s server doesn’t have access to the private keys of either user, and so cannot decrypt the message. The situation is the same for other apps that use end-to-end encryption, such as Signal and iMessage.

With a warrant the proposed legislation could compel companies such as Apple, Google and Facebook, to provide access to messages from phones and other devices.

There are several ways this could occur.

  1. One way is that at the point of message encryption the message is not just encrypted for the recipient’s key but also with a key belonging to the technology company that makes the app. Then the technology company would be able to decrypt the message, store it and then later provide this to law enforcement agencies. This amounts to what most people would call a “backdoor” – that is a method introduced, usually by the manufacturer, that allows someone to bypass a security system.
  2. Another way is to circumvent the encryption entirely, by copying the message before it is encrypted or after it is decrypted. This requires either the phone operating system or the messaging application to be modified to record what someone is typing, and then store the unencrypted message for later retrieval or send it to another server.

This is very similar to the way that criminals use programs known as “keyloggers” to steal people’s passwords and other details, and is also a method used by intelligence agencies to get around encrypted messaging.

Various security researchers have expressed concern that if companies did install backdoors that allow them to decrypt messages, this would have significant security implications for the general public. Once discovered, it’s possible that any backdoor method could be exploited for criminal purposes, compromising the privacy of all users of a service.

It’s also likely that people concerned about security and privacy would simply stop using the services of any company that introduces methods to decrypt or record messages, and switch to other means of secure communication.

For example, in addition to using encrypted messaging apps, members of the terrorist group Isis have also been known to use simple, open-source encryption software to encrypt files which can then be transferred conventionally. It’s hard to see how the government’s legislation could address methods such as this, given the basic function of encrypting and decrypting files is done by mathematical algorithms.

This situation led tech reporter Asha McLean from ZDnet to ask the prime minister: “Won’t the laws of mathematics trump the laws of Australia? And then aren’t you also forcing people onto decentralised systems as a result?”

To which Turnbull replied: “The laws of mathematics are very commendable, but the only law that applies in Australia is the law of Australia.”

Just how the law of Australia will override mathematics is still unclear.

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