I read Marvin Ammori’s book, “On Internet Freedom” the weekend it came out close to one…err…two…err…three…err… four months ago. And, unlike my review, his work is super timely. If you’ve been following internet policy issues over the past couple of years you’re probably familiar with the Internet Defense League and, thus far, some unsuccessful bills: Stop Internet Piracy Act (SOPA), Protect IP Act (PIPA), and, more recently, the Cyber Intelligence Sharing and Protection Act (CISPA).

Tumblr is ‘not for’ malicious bigotry, bullying minors, gore, or sexually explicit content… because ‘we’re not in the business of profiting from adult-oriented videos and hosting this stuff is fucking expensive.’ (Location 1277).

Thanks to Marvin translating the law into understandable concepts via colorful examples, I now understand what Network Neutrality is and how it intersects with Free Speech. Network Neutrality is easy to understand:  the Internet is a platform like the power grid – general purpose and “limited only by imagination, software and caffeine.” (312). How PG&E run the power grid, Internet Service Providers (ISPs) provide access to the internet. Sometimes ISPs argue that they shouldn’t have to provide uncensored access to the internet, and, because they are private companies, think they don’t have to provide access to all kinds of information. But, as Marvin puts it, “you might think this argument is stupid. You’re onto something there (Location 1986).”

He then makes some sophisticated arguments about Congress/FCC not even being powerful remove network neutrality and/or enable ISPs to control our access to the Internet. This overarching legal argument is nice (and necessary), but it’s a bit too theoretical for my taste. What did resonate is the following: Adam Smith’s invisible hand can’t save Free Speech. Here’s the deal, ISPs argue that if someone doesn’t like their censorship, they can move to another ISP (So if AT&T censors information, a person can switch to Verizon.). Here’s why:

  1.  There are rules and people to enforce those rules in competitive markets (think FTC and FCC).
  2. The rules don’t matter. This isn’t a competitive market.

Market competition does a lot of wonderful things. But, like the Internet, it doesn’t always give us unicorns and rainbows. (Location 1921)

People don’t get to make choices about who their ISP is in a lot of instances. I grew up in rural California. I know how it is to only be able to get one kind of internet from one provider. Thanks to my dad being a tech nerd, I distinctly remember him getting totally jazzed over dialup, DSL, and, OMG-it's-lightening-fast cable internet. Why was he so excited? Because you could only get certain types/speeds as they came out. You still can’t get internet in some areas.

It was great I read this before Boing Boing came out with a column that compared telco profit models to uniary tract infections and fee-for-service healthcare:

On the other hand, it's easy to see why telcos would love the idea that every play of "your" media involves another billable event. Media companies, too -- it's that prized, elusive urinary-tract-infection business model at work, where media flows in painful, expensive drips instead of healthy, powerful gushes.

The progeny of this hellish marriage is the non-neutral Internet connection where a telco offers to spy on, and slow down, its users' connections -- but selectively, so that the media from a "preferred partner" comes in more quickly, and doesn't count against a bandwidth cap. This is especially virulent where telcos are entertainment companies -- Comcast and Rogers and so on, all champing to freeze out services like Netflicks by metering its bandwidth, but freeflagging downloads from their in-house competing services.


Speaking of healthcare, somehow, I drew correlations between Internet Free Speech and the FDA’s Mobile Medical Apps guidance (my favorite!). Which helped me put a bit more faith into overarching regulatory frameworks. So Marvin refers to two issues:

When SOPA was introduced in 2011, existing law concerning technologies that enable speech (and infringement) consisted primarily of two components:

First, in the 1984 decision Universal Studios v. Sony, the supreme court decision that Sony’s VCR was not illegal for contributing to the copyright infringement of its users the justices enunciated a new rule in copy right law: if a company sells a device that is “capable of substantial noninfringing uses” then the maker of the device isn’t liable for the infringement of its users.

Second, in 1998, Congress passed the Digital Millenium Copyright Act (DMCA)… so long as the companies followed a notice-and take down procedure and met a few other requirements set out in the law. The company would have immunity. (Location 592)

Ok, so the first component is an information deliverer the second component is the platform for selling software/information and neither are responsible for the copyright infringement. This is exactly what the FDA did in their MMA draft guidance – they aren’t going to regulate either:

  1. Mobile Platforms, aka smartphones and tablets, won’t be regulated so long as it’s used for other purposes. Why not? Because they’re capable of being used for things beside diagnostic medicine. Now that EKG machine, now that is only for diagnostic medicine so they will be regulating it.
  2. Distributors, aka Android marketplace or iTunes, aren’t device manufacturers and just have to comply with takedown procedures. Now if the platform is helping design the mobile medical app or owns the device, well then, maybe we’ll have some regulatory implications.

And, there we have it folks, there is some consistency across lawmaking!

Finally, It reminded me of A Separate Peace, one of the first books I used Spark Notes accessed via dialup internet to analyze. In the last paragraph of A Separate Peace John Knowles refers to the same Maginot Lines Ammori does –

All of them… constructed at infinite cost to themselves these Maginot Lines against this enemy they thought they saw across the frontier, this enemy who never attacked that way- if he ever attacked at all; if he was indeed the enemy.

In his book, Marvin is referring to the way Joe Lieberman circumnavigated the defenses would have protected Wikileaks by phone calls and press statements. My takeaway with these Maginot lines is a little different – my takeaway is that even if lawmakers construct laws that legislate the internet the internet will find a way despite them. Admittedly this may result as he fears: “the ultimate effect would be to silence the many and empower the few.” (758), but I am hopeful that, we can all be, as Marvin puts it,  the hero of this story, and find a way to either take down, go around, or prevent these Maginot Lines from destroying the internet.

Marvin Ammori and I met at a Startup Weekend last June where we were part of a team called Pineapple - a solution that helped people on SNAP to get healthy foods delivered to their corner stores based on open data from USDA. I was the project manager and Marvin the pretty face (who eventually presented at the World Bank’s 2012 Open Government Data Conference). Following another Startup Weekend, he and the amazing Stephanie Nguyen have helped form Silica Labs, a company devoted to applications for Google Glass.