Battle for the Net

Mad-libs for astroturf; holding the line in the civic sphere; and more.

  • Stanford Law professor Barbara van Schewick takes apart FCC chairman Ajit Pai’s proposed repeal of its net neutrality rules, and explains how and why Congress can stop him.

  • Go to, which has already organized nearly 600,000 calls to Congress since Pai released his plan.

  • In The New York Times, Tim Wu explains how Pai may have overreached on the legal grounding for his plan.

  • Data scientist Jeff Kao used natural language processing to analyze the 22 million-plus comments submitted to the FCC on net neutrality, and found “at least 1.3 million fake pro-repeal comments” sent using email addresses of Americans that had been hacked or stolen. Many of the fake comments had a disturbing regularity to their phrasing, suggesting they were generated using synonyms and a mail merge program. “It was like mad-libs, except for astroturf,” Kao writes. Comments in favor of net neutrality were far more likely to deviate from being a form letter, and the 800,000 comments that were totally unique were 99 percent in favor of keeping it.

  • April Glaser of Slate explains what it will take to stop the FCC’s “net neutrality death train.” (A clue: Republican members of Congress listening to constituents who don’t want them to sell out to cable monopolists.)

  • Privacy, shmivacy: Australia’s Attorney General is in discussions with telcos to sell them access to its national facial recognition database, Elise Thomas reports for The Guardian. Privacy advocates worry that consumers will have little choice but to opt into the program to get access to services, and that private companies will also use the data to build their own databases.

  • Wednesday, the Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in Carpenter vs United States, and Washington Post media columnist Margaret Sullivan explains why it is “one of the most important privacy cases in many years.” At stake, whether law enforcement need a warrant before they get location data from cellphones.

  • This is civic tech: The Financial Times’ Joshua Jacobs reports on the work of Iceland’s Citizens Foundation, which has been active for more than ten years developing digital democracy platforms like “Your Priorities,” which allows citizens to propose laws, policies and budget measures; Better Reykjavik, which has some 20,000 users (out of a municipal population of 123,000), and Better Neighborhoods, a participatory budgeting portal. (h/t Steven Clift)

  • Life in Facebookistan: Responding to a letter from U.S. Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), the social network announced last week that it will set up a portal where users can find out whether they followed pages that were set up by operatives tied to Russia’s effort to interfere in the 2016 election. You’ll have to go looking for the answer; Facebook didn’t say anything about actually reaching out to users to notify them directly.

  • Futurist Mark Pesce argues that in an era when social media helps amplify hate speech, by enabling like-minded speakers to rally together, “we need to hold the line on what is considered acceptable speech in the civic sphere.”

  • Using bitcoin to fund startups through so-called “initial coin offerings” is “the most pervasive, open and notorious violation of federal securities laws since the Code of Hammurabi,” former SEC commissioner and Stanford law and business professor Joseph Grundfest tells The New York Times’ Nathaniel Popper.

  • Trump watch: Responding to a presidential tweet attacking CNN International for misrepresenting the United States to the world, former CIA and NSA director General Michael Hayden writes, “If this is who we are or who we are becoming, I have wasted 40 years of my life. Until now it was not possible for me to conceive of an American President capable of such an outrageous assault on truth, a free press or the first amendment.”

  • If you are worried about America’s tilt toward authoritarianism, bookmark and study this powerpoint from Dmitri Mehlhorn.

  • Your moment of zen: Syrian artist paints world leaders as refugees.