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The ‘Bern’ and the Internet

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Bernie Sanders’ stunning success in the campaign for the Democratic Presidential nomination, highlighted by what is effectively a victory in the Iowa caucuses this past Monday, provokes serious thinking about what a Sanders presidency would look like.

Were he to take office, he would be doing so at a moment where the human race is considering the possibility of its extermination and thinking about ways to survive. In that conversation about survival, the Internet takes part of the center stage. It is not only a critical tool for education and information on our present and future but the communications tool in the struggle to have a future.

It is here that Sanders can mark his progressive territory because the Internet is so important to people’s lives and our movements of struggle. If Sanders is serious about this “political revolution” he talks about and has yet to really define, we’re going to need the Internet to make it happen.

So the question is how good are Bernie’s politics on Internet issues. The answer is better than any other candidate’s. On issues of the Internet, Bernie is a vocal and public supporter of the Internet’s progressive movement but he’s not yet a leader. Whether he becomes a leader may impact the Internet’s freedom and, in the process, his own presidential aspirations.

There are three major Internet issues that every candidate must take up: net neutrality, universal access and privacy. These define not only how we use the Internet (and how much we can use it) but what communications in our future world will look like: a question whose answer will define what our world looks like.

None of the candidates speak much about these issues except Sanders and that alone makes him unique and way ahead of his opponents. That his positions and statements reflect progressive thinking on almost all the issues makes him even more attractive.

Net Neutrality

Sanders has been an advocate of Net Neutrality since the issue seriously arose.

To quickly summarize, net neutrality is the principle that internet service providers should treat all data that travels on their networks equally. You pay for your connection — and usually the amount you pay defines your connection’s speed — and then everything that flows into your computer should flow at that speed. If there’s a variation, it should be due to network conditions, traffic or some other act of god or technology but never an outcome of a company policy. No website is allowed to pay more to stream content faster.

The principle (which the FCC made law last year) protects smaller websites since, without net neutrality, content providers could be charged for speed. Larger sites would be able to pay while smaller ones (like This Can’t Be Happening!) probably wouldn’t. We’d be the turtle in the race and soon enough our readers would suffer slowdowns and traffic jams. Our content and that of most websites would be punished.

The FCC determined that the Internet must be Net Neutral, facing down challenges and pressure from the Internet industry and the Republican Party. It was able (or perhaps compelled) to do that by a mass movement and a campaign of over four million emails to the FCC.

Several people in the congress supported that campaign and Sanders was among them.

This is significant because there are strong challenges to the FCC’s decisions and even its right to make them in the courts and the congress. A president who is strong on this issue will make a big difference.

Hillary Clinton says she is for net neutrality but hasn’t said much about it in her campaign.

All Republicans oppose it.

Surveillance

Here’s a Bernie tweet on surveillance: “In my view, the NSA is out of control and operating in an unconstitutional manner. I worry very much about kids growing up in a society where they think ‘I’m not going to talk about this issue, read this book, or explore this idea because someone may think I’m a terrorist.’ That is not the kind of free society I want for our children.”

It’s not hot air; Sanders has been tough on this issue for a long time. He was one of just 67 members of congress who voted against the Patriot Act, the law that trashed the Constitution and embedded surveillance on citizens as a government policy, and he has openly opposed its reauthorization. He has publicly denounced and opposed all laws that broaden citizen spying including the Cyber Intelligence Sharing and Protection Act (CISPA), an unsuccessful bill that would have forced corporations to share Internet data with the government, as well as a later version of it called CISA, (the Cyber Information Sharing Act). CISA was inserted into a budget bill and was almost surreptitiously passed by both houses despite Sander’s loud objections.

To be clear, Sanders believes in surveillance and investigation, but only after warrants are issued with due process. That’s more or less the traditional surveillance and investigation powers claimed by the government all along.

Hillary Clinton has been woefully fuzzy on this issue. To be fair, she wasn’t in Congress for votes on several of these laws; in fact, she was in the Obama Administration, which supported or authored them, for some of them and couldn’t comment on them. But when she was a Senator, she voted for the Patriot Act and, in her campaign, she has refused to commit herself to restraining the NSA. Most Internet activists believe she won’t change much if she’s in the White House.

The Republicans are a complete mess on this issue with some of them, like Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio and Donald Trump, calling for intensified surveillance (particularly of Muslim communities) and the rest of them apparently not knowing what surveillance is (or at least never speaking about it).

Universal Access

Because many of the people who follow, plan and comment on campaigns are in big cities (and have high-income demographics) where high-speed Internet flows as easily as water, we tend to ignore a sobering fact: there are many Americans who don’t have access and can’t get it.

Half the people who live in poverty — 45.7 million people in this country (about 15 percent of the population) — don’t have high-speed Internet access. Additionally, for residents of rural communities, the only access possible is via satellite connection. Phone line or cable access is virtually non-existent and obscenely expensive when it’s available.

The problem is infra-structural. Most of the internet traffic in these locations is carried over copper phone lines which don’t reliably deliver high-speed service. If there’s a cable line, it’s usually the only one in the area and so, when it goes down or gets cut (as these lines frequently do), service is disrupted for several days.

If you’re going to address this, it has to be a serious program of infrastructural development.

You’d think this would be a no-brainer for candidates but, even with Sanders, you have to search for some mention of the problem. To his credit, he treats the issue as part of his infrastructure development proposal mentioning high-speed access several times in the proposal summary but not really mapping out what he’d do or how.

There lies the rub. While Sanders is clearly progressive, he is also a master politician and veteran of campaign design. The political logic would be that people who are affected by limited access are either not going to vote for him overwhelmingly or have problems that are more life-threatening than whether they can use the Internet. In capitalist politics, you play to the issues that people are most conscious of and you only define yourself clearly when you have to. On this issue with this constituency, Bernie doesn’t have to so he doesn’t.

But is that what a candidate who presents himself as a progressive visionary should be doing? Is that how Bernie Sanders should be seeing the world?

In fact, a true leader’s platform should be a glimpse into the future and a snapshot of the world he or she is envisioning. It should be more than a response to other candidates or the clamoring of a constituency. Rather than tell us what he would do to address the problems we see, Sanders should be telling us about real problems that affect us including those we don’t see.

There are several technology issues which are critical to communications in this country and have yet to be addressed by any candidate. To name four:

* Cellphone technology is now the primary Internet technology for young people, particularly young people of color. Yet it is unregulated, unmoderated, not net neutral, subject to price gouging and a magnet for problems and abuses. No candidate has said anything about making cell phone Internet safe and affordable for people.

* Young people of color are not taught how to understand computers, program and develop as much as white kids are. Computer use among students of color is high but actual administration and programming is very low. As a result, the Internet (and information technology) is controlled by white male technologists. This is the new “digital divide” and it is potentially devastating. Is anyone going to say anything about how to fix that?

* There are no laws protecting women on the Internet, one of the most woman-hostile institutions we have in this country. A UN report on hate speech called sexist and misogynistic attacks on the Internet an “epidemic”. This makes addressing the other problem affecting women — the hostility toward female programmers and techies — more difficult to address. Should there be? Shouldn’t someone be debating that?

* Why don’t anti-monopoly laws apply to big technology companies? Google owns almost every service you use and it has achieved that position by buying over 180 smaller companies that developed and previously offered those services; Yahoo has acquired 114. This isn’t just acquisition to keep services afloat. More often than not, these giants buy out competitors offering products that compete with their own. They buy them out and close them down. This is the very thing anti-monopoly laws are meant to prevent. Why isn’t this being debated in this campaign?

Why should Bernie Sanders’ campaign address those issues? After all, he is hands-down the best candidate on communications and privacy issues. But he is asking movements that have been fighting these issues for many years to support his candidacy and, in exchange for our support, he should give us more.

Bernie claims to be a candidate for the future. While we are voting for him, we should be asking him to tell us what that looks like.

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

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