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Is the U.S becoming a “Black Box Society” under President Trump?

Where we've been and where we might go

On a rather quiet Tuesday, the 28th of March to be exact, the House of Representatives voted to repeal a law that demanded ISPs (internet service providers) obtain users’ permission to share personal information, such as location data. This law, which was created under the Obama administration, required Internet service providers to obtain consent from users in order to share browsing history with marketers or other third parties.

President Trump, who was expected to sign the order, officially repealed the Obama-era online protections on April 3rd. Trump’s signature overturning internet privacy rights was not a surprise to those who have followed the president’s previous statements regarding the issue.

He had formerly described the rules as an “attack on the internet” and even suggested the victims of the law would be conservative media sites.

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Those on the ‘winning’ side have argued the move will increase competition; however many on the other side are concerned this will have detrimental effects on the rights of the individual user. And it is worth noting, the category of the individual internet user, and the rights they may or may not possess, intrinsically depends on their ability to navigate within a highly surveilled environment.

What is not in dispute is that corporations and Internet companies have unprecedented knowledge about us, while we know little of how they operate and use knowledge to alter the decisions we make. This is central to Frank Pasquale’s Black Box Society.

By focusing on the automated processes that have improved our lives — guiding our planes, providing the backbone of the Internet, interpreting our GPSs and so forth, — Pasquale argues they simultaneously allow corporations and internet companies to collect massive amounts of data on our every move.

So what does it mean when authority is expressed algorithmically?

What happens when we use big data driven decisions and computation to hold power not just over things, but people too?

All of our actions on the Internet are subject to manipulation, especially those related to social media, i.e. the ranking of sites on Google, trending topics on Twitter and status updates on Facebook.

Recommendation engines that aid in our everyday lives, like helping one select a restaurant or a car company, are efficient tools. But how do these engines rank the results of our searches and how do those rankings influence what we ultimately decide? What is obscured even in the apparent hyper-availability of information? What might be some forms of resistance to subtle yet powerful mechanisms of control? Pasquale asks us to contemplate the idea of a recommendation engine that gives us a list of restaurants with information regarding their worker health benefits and paid maternity policies. Designing algorithms to accommodate these concerns could allow users to have more agency over the decisions they make through the Internet. Yet, the rules that are employed by Internet companies create strict measures for consumers to follow. More importantly, within the domains of Silicon Valley and Wall Street, Pasquale notes “[t]he values and prerogatives that the encoded rules enact are hidden within black boxes” (8).

We are led to ask how these mechanisms of the Internet actually function — in good faith to aid users or in biasing results to favor certain commercial interests? When is the strict secrecy of company techniques a method of protecting intellectual property and when is it a method of hiding serious information, through what Pasquale refers to as their “black box”?

Drug companies have used a method of secrecy in cherry-picking the most positive studies for publication and hiding the studies that warn against potential side effects, just as finance companies have avoided regulation by appearing too complex for government intrusion.

Fortunately, as Pasquale reminds us, a demand for a more transparent and just society has been a part of the American tradition. One instance includes the country’s laisez faire policies of the 20s, which led voters to eventually scrutinize the suspicious commercial practices of the market. The Great Crash, and the purveyors who brought it about, were met with Roosevelt’s New Deal and an intensified Progressivism. Congress was committed to imposing new disclosure obligations in the Securities Act of 1933 and the Securities Exchange Act of 1934. The New Deal agencies served to reveal the function of vital industries in order to hold them accountable.

By the 1960s, reformers were interested in opposing both government and corporate secrecy by advocating for citizen empowerment and consumer protection; the 1966 Freedom of Information Act was a product of this era’s concern about transparency. It is noteworthy to mention that these efforts were met with pushback, which promptly followed into the Nixon administration.

After 9/11, notable government officials — Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld — advocated for greater government secrecy, arguing that, for the United States, “the only way to win ‘war on terror’ was to act as clandestinely as its shadowy enemies” (Pasquale, 13). Pasquale argues that not too long ago, just a little over a decade, the Internet was a “promising new era of transparency,” where open access to information provided “extraordinary liberty”(13-14). But, as long as corporations and Internet companies hide critical information in order to undermine market competition and law enforcement, the intrusiveness and exploitation of these practices will increase and citizen’s rights will diminish.

The Federal Communications Commission Chairman, Ajit Pai, issued a statement regarding President Trump signing the congressional resolution of disapproval of the FCC’s broadband privacy regulations.

Pai stated the president and Congress “appropriately invalidated one part of the Obama-era plan for regulating the Internet,” since those “flawed privacy rules” were ultimately “designed to benefit one group of favored companies, not online consumers.”

The FCC has also argued that this move will increase competition and make it more “fair” among internet providers in accessing consumer information.

One opposition group, the Internet rights nonprofit Fight for the Future, plans to put up billboards with the names of every Congress member who voted to repeal the FCC’s broadband privacy rules. The billboards will read: “They betrayed you. These members of Congress voted to gut internet privacy and allow ISPs like Comcast to sell your personal information to advertisers without your consent.”

Given the dismantling of whatever few Internet rights users may have had before the Trump administration took office, it may be useful to ask: Should the courts now be reeducated in the Bill of Rights as it pertains to cybersecurity?

Does, for example, Fourth Amendment search and seizures involve protection of emails and other personal and private communication online?

The House of Representative’s decision to repeal a pivotal law, which protects citizen’s personal information and geo-location, is a threat to Internet users’ safety and security. Decisions regarding Internet laws should not be made in the favor of major companies, such as Verizon and AT&T, where their vested interest is clearly in the business of profit. Decisions regarding Internet laws should instead center on the rights of every citizen, to not be monitored and spied on without proper consent, especially when the citizen knows close to nothing about the agency in charge of invading their privacy.

Pasquale encourages us to do more than merely complain about the actions of our financial systems and businesses, and instead to “imagine a future in which the power of algorithmic authority is limited to environments where it can promote fairness, freedom, and rationality” (16). Furthermore, he argues that the same revolutions in the sphere of technology and law that have deprived individuals of their personal privacy, can be used in turn to protect them and promote an understanding of the social world through practices of transparency and regulation.

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Jesse Noltimier

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