The control of private information on the internet has been a contentious for as long as the people have been online. It has long been the consensus that maintaining internet freedoms is essential for free expression, the exchange of ideas and the ability for proponents of democracy and human rights activists to mobilize and advocate for political, social, and economic reform. Currently, the debate about internet freedom is centered around the concept of net neutrality.
Net neutrality is the principle that internet service providers should enable access to all content and applications regardless of the source, and without favoring or blocking particular products or websites by offering different speeds of bandwidth to different service providers. While publications such as Forbes and The Heritage Foundation paint net neutrality as a principle which threatens internet freedoms in the long term and hurts consumers by reducing their ability to customize internet services offered to them, proponents argue that it ensures equal access to the internet. However, major supporters of net neutrality have created doubts about the concept due to their increasing support of censorship, violations of personal privacy and attacks against political opponents and journalists.
The most immediate issue with net neutrality is the fact that many of the groups supporting it are purportedly concerned with social issues which are totally unrelated. One such organization is the protest movement Color of Change. Color of Change’s website states that their mission is “design campaigns powerful enough to end practices that unfairly hold black people back.” However, the group has increasingly begun to focus on advocating for net neutrality, a cause which does not appear to be related to their mission statement in any obvious manner. Color of Change claims that changes the FCC plans to make to net neutrality rules will “devastate black communities” without bothering to explain exactly how this might happen. In February 2015, the executive director of Color for Change Rashad Robinson published an opinion piece in The Hill where he claimed that securing the right to net neutrality victory would be “civil rights history in the making.”
Despite their apparent support for the principle of net neutrality, Color for Change has primarily concerned itself with attacking journalists who report news with a conservative perspective, including Fox News personalities Sean Hannity and Bill O’Reilly. On May 18th, 2017, USA News reported that Color of Change and other protest groups planned a protest and meeting with FCC officials ahead of it’s intended vote to repeal Obama era protections requiring that all internet traffic be offered equally. Rather than focus on defending “information equality,” the protest seemed to center around attacking alternative media. Signs photographed at the event demanded censorship of the Drudge Report, Breitbart News and conservative journalists. Video footage of the event shows Color of Change speakers stating that O’Reilly’s firing from Fox News was a result of net neutrality advocacy. The FCC ultimately ruled 2-1 to start the process of eliminating net neutrality rules and begin classification of home and mobile internet service providers as common carriers under Title II of the Communications Act.
The focus on censorship of the media at an event purporting to focus on “information equality” is no surprise given Color of Change’s financial supporters. Data published by the Center for Responsive Politics shows that in 2016, billionaire George Soros made two payments totaling $400,000 to the group. The Washington Examiner has stated that Soros and the Ford Foundation have donated over $196 million to various net neutrality advocacy groups. Soros has spent hundreds of millions supporting various anti-government movements, including the Women’s March, the People’s Climate March, the Tax Day protests and far left Berkeley protest group Refuse Fascism. The ACLU also began actively organizing and training protest movements just one month after Soros sank $35 million into the group.
Other big name proponents of net neutrality have themselves been implicated in improper censorship and violations of personal privacy. In April, The Verge reported that Google, Netflix and Facebook were among a number of companies leading a group known as The Internet Association in efforts to lobby for retaining protections of net neutrality. The involvement of these tech giants in pushing for net neutrality raises troubling questions about who truly benefits from regulations which support the concept.
Since the end of the 2016 US presidential elections, Google has increasingly become involved in censorship of so-called “fake news.” In spring of 2017, Google News Lab used its CrossCheck project to fight “fake news” prior to the French presidential election in collaboration with journalists, newsrooms, and social media companies alike. What CrossCheck appeared to act a function that took the liberty of appointing various groups to collaboratively decide what is true or false in real-time. Google’s push to become involved in censorship came after George Soros acquired stakes in Netflix as well as Google’s holding company Alphabet.
Facebook has similarly faced criticism for engaging in censorship and instances of improper access to user’s personal data. In February, Disobedient Media discovered that Facebook was self-censoring links to a story by CNBC which discussed comments picked up on a hot mic during a conversation between German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg where Merkel asked Zuckerberg to censor speech critical of immigrants and Zuckerberg agreed to do so. The censorship came after Zuckerberg edited a manifesto to remove an admission that he supported monitoring private channels of communication. In February 2017, Zuckerberg released a 5,700 word essay warning about “isolationist” threats to globalism, stating that Facebook was there to help counteract popular trends towards nationalism and pro-soveriegn state ideologies. The original draft of the essay was “revised” to remove a reference which had revealed that Facebook actively monitored private conversations of individuals accused of plotting terror attacks.
In March 2017, BBC News conducted an investigation exposing a child abuse ring operating on Facebook which resulted in a four year prison sentence for one of the offenders. In response to the BBC’s report, Facebook left 80% of photos depicting child abuse online, then reported the BBC journalists to the police before cancelling plans for an interview. Facebook subsequently apologized for their behavior, but The Times reported in April that the social media giant may face criminal prosecution relating to the images of child abuse as well as pro-jihadist content which was being shared on the website. A May 2017 report by Heat Street has also revealed that Facebook has been continually shutting down “ex-Muslim” and atheist groups using its social media services.
While the debate may continue for some years to come, the open support by large sponsors for federal regulation raises serious concerns about net neutrality. The deep financial involvement of George Soros, the focus of protest groups on targeting free speech and the colored history of corporate sponsors of the principle makes it clear that “information equality” is likely much darker than it appears on the surface.