FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

The Drones of Facebook (and the NSA)

by

“Connectivity,” Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said in a CNN interview last year, “is a human right.”

If it surprises you that one of the kings of the corporate Internet would repeat a slogan used by Internet activists to mobilize against companies like his, examine the context. Zuckerberg made his remark to support and explain a new set of Facebook strategies that will, if successful, put the world’s Internet connectivity under his company’s control.

It’s called internet.org which is not only a real website but a consortium of companies and government agencies Facebook is leading. The very name — “internet.org” — also provides a glimpse of Facebook’s intentions.

Using a combination of drones, satellites and other technologies, Facebook seeks to bring connectivity to the entire world. The picture is remarkable: Facebook satellites and drones with six month life cycles will bounce every connection signals (like Wify) to people in every corner of the earth. Every human being will now have access to the Internet.

On its face, it’s a wonderful idea until you realize that this would put all the world’s connectivity in the hands of one company and a coalition of partners it’s brought on to realize the project. Those partners, by the way, include — are you ready? — the National Security Agency of the United States.

Zuckerberg reminds us that this isn’t imminent; it’s a project for what he calls “the far-off future”. But he doesn’t explain how far off “far-off” is. Connectivity projects are a process and portions of the world would be progressively “hooked up”. In fact, his company has already invested $1 billion in the project and, he says, will continuously invest a lot more.

The people of the world are, Zuckerman says, “… going to use it to decide what kind of government they want, get access to healthcare for the first time ever, connect with family hundreds of miles away that they haven’t seen in decades.”

The Facebook announcements followed by a year an announcement by Google that it’s researching how to use huge balloons to bring the Internet to the world or at least to remote locations in it. Google calls it “Project Loon”.

The obscene irony in using drone technology (used, among many other things, to kill thousands of people a year) to bring the human race together is offensive, but the very real threat posed by putting most people’s communications in the hands of one company is deeply disturbing. To grasp that threat and the reason behind these initiatives, one must understand that this is a corporate response to a very real problem.

If you live in the United States (or one of what are commonly called “developed countries), most people you know are probably connected in some way to the Internet. In fact, over 70 percent of the households in this country are Internet- capable. The same is roughly true of Canada, much of Europe, Japan and the People’s Republic of China. But Africa is a different story: only 7 percent are connected there. Latin America varies with about 30 percent of Mexico connected, 60 percent in Brazil (one of the leading Internet countries) and about 55 percent in Venezuela, but less than 20 percent in most of the other countries. Besides China and Japan, Asia , at under 20 percent connected, is almost as unconnected as Africa.

(Here’s an interactive map with the precise numbers by country.)

The implications of the problem are obvious: people can’t communicate in those places like they can here and that frustrates the very purpose of the Internet, curtailing the possibilities it provides for collaboration and social change.

The reasons for the problem are just as obvious. For one thing, technology is hampered by under-developed infrastructure — the absence of the electricity and telephone wires we take for granted and that the Internet thrives on. Additionally, governments in many of these countries are reluctant to prioritize communications — often for obvious reasons, since a communicating population often overthrows bad governments. Finally, there are tight and restrictive controls placed on these regions by the communications companies that serve them. Nobody is looking to expand the Internet very aggressively in much of the world.

That’s a problem for most us but it’s a different kind of problem for Facebook. While activists and organizers see the problem as an impediment to organizing, Facebook sees the problem in terms of market. Right now, the ubiquitous social networking giant has about a billion people signed up. If you don’t think that’s marketing gold, consider the fact that Zuckerman’s stock in Facebook is now worth about $3 billion. But capitalists don’t sit around counting their money like Mafia chieftans; they look for ways to make more of it. If Facebook is going to expand its user-base, and to cash in on the advertising revenues those numbers generate, it has to look to the rest of the world. To do that, it has to put the rest of the world on-line.

While the intent is the same, the reasons underscore the divergence in potential outcomes. If you connect a population to the Internet, and it depends on that connection, your ability to turn it off gives you virtually dictatorial powers. Governments in some countries have, in the recent past, shut off portions of the Internet to their populations — a means of political control or for the quashing of growing social movements. Activists can get around those restrictions using other lines of communication or other systems…provided they can access them. But it one company can stop all access, that option for free communication is gone.

But the more pressing problem is in terms of content delivery. With the recent court decision on Net Neutrality, a providing company has power to provide fuller access to some sites and to slow access to others. It can now, under the law, simply deny access to certain content to its users. When a company controls access for 10 million users (like Comcast, for instance), the outcome is horrible. But when a company controls access for several billion, it’s devastating.

What’s even more disturbing is who Facebook is partnering with. What in the world is the NSA doing as part of this “connect the world” coalition? Facebook will only say the NSA is working on research to use its satellite system to expand connectivity. But if the agency is handling that chunk of connectivity, what will that mean for people’s privacy and rights?

The NSA spies on everyone it can. It collects all the data it can. It has shown no respect for people’s rights or for constitutional restrictions. It is a criminal organization and, under this plan, it would control Internet access for large parts of the world.

Are all these horrors coming to fruition?

Many “experts” and pundits would caution us against being paranoid. The project is far off from completion although the technology for it is actually feasible and could be put in place in a couple of years. You have to negotiate with countries and other companies and all that takes time, as several technology columnists have pointed out.

But if you have that kind of power, negotiations can be scaled down to a matter of money — a fee paid to any specific government and, in this technology world, money talks. How may cash-starved developing country governments, offered usage fees and basic “authority” over their people’s connectivity, are going to turn down an offer to put their population on line? All Facebook would have to do is assure a government some basic “control”.

Besides, since the program can be incrementally realized, Facebook can prioritize certain sections of the world over others. One can only imagine the problems that would produce.

In the end, though, whether the company would do any or all of this or not isn’t the issue. We structure our rights to make sure that decisions about them are never in the hands of one person or one institution. If connectivity is, as Zuckerberg says, “a human right”, then it should never be up to him or his company to decide who among us has it, how and when.

Alfredo Lopez writes about technology issues for This Can’t Be Happening!

Alfredo Lopez writes about technology issues for This Can’t Be Happening!

May 02, 2016
Michael Hudson – Gordon Long
Wall Street Has Taken Over the Economy and is Draining It
Paul Street
The Bernie Fade Begins
Ron Jacobs
On the Frontlines of Peace: the Life of Daniel Berrigan
Louis Yako
Dubai Transit
Bill Quigley
Teacher, Union Leader, Labor Lawyer: Profile of Chris Williams Social Justice Advocate
Patrick Cockburn
Into the Green Zone: Iraq’s Disintegrating Political System
Lawrence Ware
Trump is the Presidential Candidate the Republicans Deserve
Ron Forthofer
Just Say No to Corporate Rule
Ralph Nader
The Long-Distance Rebound of Bernie Sanders
Ken Butigan
Remembering Daniel Berrigan, with Gratitude
Nicolas J S Davies
Escalating U.S. Air Strikes Kill Hundreds of Civilians in Mosul, Iraq
Binoy Kampmark
Class, Football, and Blame: the Hillsborough Disaster Inquest
George Wuerthner
The Economic Value of Yellowstone National Park
Rivera Sun
Celebrating Mother Jones
Nyla Ali Khan
Kashmir and Postcolonialism
Mairead Maguire
Drop the Just War Theory
Weekend Edition
April 29, 2016
Friday - Sunday
Andrew Levine
What is the Democratic Party Good For? Absolutely Nothing
Roberto J. González – David Price
Anthropologists Marshalling History: the American Anthropological Association’s Vote on the Academic Boycott of Israeli Institutions
Robert Jacobs
Hanford, Not Fukushima, is the Big Radiological Threat to the West Coast
Ismael Hossein-Zadeh
US Presidential Election: Beyond Lesser Evilism
Dave Lindorff
The Push to Make Sanders the Green Party’s Candidate
Peter Linebaugh
Marymount, Haymarket, Marikana: a Brief Note Towards ‘Completing’ May Day
Ian Fairlie
Chernobyl’s Ongoing Toll: 40,000 More Cancer Deaths?
Pete Dolack
Verizon Sticks it to its Workers Because $45 Billion isn’t Enough
Moshe Adler
May Day: a Trade Agreement to Unite Third World and American Workers
Margaret Kimberley
Dishonoring Harriet Tubman
Deepak Tripathi
The United States, Britain and the European Union
Eva Golinger
My Country, My Love: a Conversation with Gerardo and Adriana of the Cuban Five
Richard Falk
If Obama Visits Hiroshima
Vijay Prashad
Political Violence in Honduras
Paul Krane
Where Gun Control Ought to Start: Disarming the Police
David Anderson
Al Jazeera America: Goodbye to All That Jazz
Rob Hager
Platform Perversity: More From the Campaign That Can’t Strategize
Pat Williams
FDR in Montana
Dave Marsh
Every Day I Read the Book (the Best Music Books of the Last Year)
David Rosen
Job Satisfaction Under Perpetual Stagnation
John Feffer
Big Oil isn’t Going Down Without a Fight
Murray Dobbin
The Canadian / Saudi Arms Deal: More Than Meets the Eye?
Gary Engler
The Devil Capitalism
Brian Cloughley
Is Washington Preparing for War Against Russia?
Manuel E. Yepe
The Big Lies and the Small Lies
Robert Fantina
Vice Presidents, Candidates and History
Mel Gurtov
Sanctions and Defiance in North Korea
Howard Lisnoff
Still the Litmus Test of Worth
Dean Baker
Big Business and the Overtime Rule: Irrational Complaints
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail