Elections Are Too Online

“In theory, voting machines are already offline, even air-gapped. In practice, however, “many polling places around the country transmit voting results to their county election offices via modems embedded in or connected to their voting machines,” The New York Times reported in 2018, and that’s a point of internet access. Independent investigators in 2019 said they found “nearly three dozen backend election systems in 10 states connected to the internet,” including systems in swing states Wisconsin, Michigan, and Florida—just a “few” weak points. The nonpartisan National Election Defense Coalition says the “assertion that voting machines or voting systems can’t be hacked by remote attackers because they are ‘not connected to the internet'” is a “myth” and has called for results to be transmitted by offline methods, like USB sticks.

That sort of tool would work because the proposal here isn’t that we return to paper ballots in a wooden box or hand-written voter rolls. Paper and the trail it leaves have an important place in electoral security, but I’m not suggesting a completely nondigital approach. We can still have machines as the main counting mechanism, a useful timesaver in uncontested races. Likewise, election authorities can continue to manage voter databases with computers.

Think 1990, not 1890—there’s no need to go full Luddite. But we should disconnect our voting processes from the internet where it’s feasible. We already know online voting is insecure, and given the detrimental effects even small hacks could have on Americans’ confidence in our election outcomes, we’d be wise to harden electoral targets against digital attacks.”

Do We Really Need 100 Different Federal Programs To Fund Broadband?

“President Joe Biden’s bipartisan infrastructure bill apportioned $1.2 trillion for such projects as roads, bridges, and airports. But it also designated $65 billion “to help ensure that every American has access to reliable high-speed internet” by funding broadband expansion. This included a $45 billion “Internet for All” program, under which Biden pledged to expand broadband access to all Americans by 2030.

But this was not the first tranche of federal funds dedicated to expanding internet access: The 2009 stimulus bill allocated more than $7 billion toward broadband grants for rural areas, and expenditures have grown since. A new report from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) shows that the return on that investment has been underwhelming.

The report, titled “Broadband: National Strategy Needed to Guide Federal Efforts to Reduce Digital Divide,” was released…Based on Biden’s pledge of getting to universal broadband access by the end of the decade, the GAO studied the government’s current broadband programs and expenditures, looking for shortcomings or areas of improvement.

What it found was a jumbled mess.

“Federal broadband efforts are fragmented and overlapping,” with “at least 133” programs “administered by 15 agencies,” the report found. These agencies varied widely, with the three largest being the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), and the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), which is part of the Department of Commerce. Between FY 2015 and FY 2020, these programs collectively dispensed at least $44 billion in broadband assistance.

In practice, so many programs from so many agencies all pursuing the same goal leads inevitably to waste. In one case the report cites, “multiple providers received funding from different programs to deploy broadband to the same county in Minnesota.” If the goal of the federal broadband effort is to expand into areas that lack access, then there is no reason to fund multiple providers in the same area.”

“Overall, the report determined, “The U.S. broadband efforts are not guided by a national strategy with clear roles, goals, objectives, and performance measures.””

“A previous GAO report noted that while the federal government invested over $47 billion in rural broadband infrastructure between 2009 and 2017, the broadband industry invested $795 billion over the same period. To the extent that federal funding would ever be necessary, it would be to fill in any gaps the private sector was unable to cover.

“The problem is the Biden administration is prioritizing the government being the provider,” rather than the private sector, says Swarztrauber. “The rhetoric is all about how we should prioritize the local government being the owner and operator of the network.”

In the past, such plans consistently lead to higher costs, corrupt bidding processes, and technology inferior to what’s offered by the private sector. But the Biden administration is moving full steam ahead, with NTIA Administrator Alan Davidson saying last month that his agency would “press” states to allow more municipal broadband programs.”

Europe Escalates the Threat to Online Free Speech

“It’s easy to overstate, but attitudes towards freedom of action differ in the United States and the European Union. Americans tend to believe that people have a right to make their own decisions and are better trusted to do so than coercive governments; Europeans place more faith in the state, allowing room for personal choice only after officialdom installs guardrails and files away sharp edges. Yes, that exaggerates the case and there are plenty of dissenters under both systems, but it captures the treatment of speech and online conduct in the EU’s new Digital Services Act.

“Today’s agreement on the Digital Services Act is historic, both in terms of speed and of substance,” European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen commented on April 23. “The DSA will upgrade the ground-rules for all online services in the EU. It will ensure that the online environment remains a safe space, safeguarding freedom of expression and opportunities for digital businesses. It gives practical effect to the principle that what is illegal offline, should be illegal online. The greater the size, the greater the responsibilities of online platforms.”

There’s a lot in the proposed law, as you would expect of wide-ranging legislation paired with a companion bill addressing digital markets. The overall tone is of micromanagement of online spaces with dire consequences for platforms that fail to protect users from “illegal and harmful content” as defined by the government. Those who violate the rules by, for example, repeatedly failing to scrub forbidden material in timely fashion, face massive fines or expulsion from the EU market. Of course, no matter official assurances, speech hemmed in by red tape and subject to official oversight in monitored spaces isn’t especially “free” at all”

Does banning extremists online work? It depends.

“It’s been over a year since Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube banned an array of domestic extremist networks, including QAnon, boogaloo, and Oath Keepers, that had flourished on their platforms leading up to the January 6, 2021, Capitol riot. Around the same time, these companies also banned President Donald Trump, who was accused of amplifying these groups and their calls for violence.

So did the “Great Deplatforming” work? There is growing evidence that deplatforming these groups did limit their presence and influence online, though it’s still hard to determine exactly how it has impacted their offline activities and membership.

While extremist groups have dispersed to alternative platforms like Telegram, Parler, and Gab, they have had a harder time growing their online numbers at the same rate as when they were on the more mainstream social media apps, several researchers who study extremism told Recode. Although the overall effects of deplatforming are far-reaching and difficult to measure in full, several academic studies about the phenomenon over the past few years, as well as data compiled by media intelligence firm Zignal Labs for Recode, support some of these experts’ observations.

“The broad reach of these groups has really diminished,” said Rebekah Tromble, director of the Institute for Data, Democracy, and Politics at George Washington University. “Yes, they still operate on alternative platforms … but in the first layer of assessment that we might do, it’s the mainstream platforms that matter most.” That’s because extremists can reach more people on these popular platforms; in addition to recruiting new members, they can influence mainstream discussions and narratives in a way they can’t on more niche alternative platforms.”

4 Years After the FCC Repealed Net Neutrality, the Internet Is Better Than Ever

“the Obama administration eventually codified net neutrality under Title II of the Communications Act of 1934. (Wu now serves as an adviser on technology policy for the Biden administration). When then–FCC Chairman Ajit Pai undid the policy on December 14, 2017, Democratic policy makers and pundits widely anticipated that the end was nigh.

Again, that was four years ago. Today, the internet is still here, and still functioning properly. Expectations that ISPs would practice widespread and improper discrimination did not pan out. On the contrary, the internet is better and faster for basically everybody than it was when net neutrality ended—in fact, it’s better and faster than at any point in the past.”

Trolls Will Be Trolls, Online and Offline, Reports New Study

“If you’re a troll online, you are most likely also a troll offline, at least with respect to political discussions, reports new research published in the American Political Science Review. In their study, Aarhus University researchers Alexander Bor and Michael Bang Petersen investigate what they call the “mismatch hypothesis.” Do mismatches between human psychology, evolved to navigate life in small social groups, and novel features of online environments, such as anonymity, rapid text-based responses, combined with the absence of moderating face-to-face social cues, change behavior for the worse in impersonal online political discussions?

No, conclude the authors. “Instead, hostile political discussions are the result of status-driven individuals who are drawn to politics and are equally hostile both online and offline,” they report. However, they also find that online political discussions may tend to feel more hostile because the greater connectivity and permanence of various Internet discussion platforms make trolls much more visible online than offline.”

LC: The article and study seem to use a broader definition for “trolling” than I use.

The Case for Beaming Internet Into Cuba

“Originally developed by Google before being partially scrapped for not being economically viable, Project Loon was a pre-Starlink attempt to bring mobile internet to rural areas by attaching antennas to weather balloons that could function as de facto cell phone towers floating more than 10 miles up in the air. The idea has only been tested on a large scale once—in Puerto Rico during the aftermath of the two devastating hurricanes that hit the island in 2017—but showed some promise. A 2018 test showed that a fleet of Loon balloons could maintain a connection over 620 miles, according to the Associated Press.
Again, Cuba is just 90 miles from the United States.

It’s not a slam dunk, of course. Signals could be jammed by the Cuban government, which already tries to block Radio Televisión Martí as much as possible. Many Cubans’ cell phones might not be able to connect due to differences in network protocols. And whatever connectivity is possible will be slow and spotty, at least by American standards.

But it may be worth making the attempt anyway, particularly since the technology already exists and could be deployed for minimal cost. There’s little to lose, and much that could be gained—not just in Cuba, but in other fights against tyrannical regimes.”

Will the Internet Destroy Cuba’s Communist Dictatorship?

“On Sunday, July 11, thousands of Cubans in dozens of cities around the island nation took to the streets to protest the country’s communist dictatorship and persistent shortages in food, energy, and medicine, all of which have been made worse by the pandemic.

The demonstrations have been enabled by social media and the internet, which only came to Cuba in a big way in late 2018, when President Miguel Diaz-Canel allowed citizens access to the internet on their cellphones.”