Net Neutrality Repeal Was a Win for Russia – And its Bots Worked Hard For It
With last week’s repeal of the Obama-era regulations that ensure an open Internet, civil liberties activists were up in arms. In an act of digital protest, the front page of Reddit was swarmed with calls for action. Based on actions like this, it is easy to see why net neutrality is an issue close to the heart of millennials and privacy-lovers alike, and it is likely to dominate discussion in civil liberties circles for weeks and months to come. However, net neutrality’s repeal threatens American norms in more ways than one. It also leaves this country and its democratic process vulnerable to foreign influence campaigns.
When the FCC opened its process to public comment, it received over 20 million comments. However, there was one extremely powerful voice lobbying hard for repeal: Russia’s information warriors. More than two-million comments submitted to the FCC were done so illegitimately, and over 400,000 came from Russian-sourced e-mail addresses according to two studies. This is the strongest piece of anecdotal evidence for the importance of net neutrality for national security. Simply stated, this would not have happened unless Russia had a vested interest in repeal.
Why would Russia care about the United States having an open Internet? One might think they would be in favor because an open Internet allows Russian-sourced media such as Sputnik and RT to exist in our information space. However, this instance is different. It flooded the FCC comment line as part of its ever-evolving and omnipresent effort to undermine American institutions and therefore, net neutrality is of utmost importance for national security.
By allowing Internet providers to gate-keep speed and access to certain parts of the Internet, those mechanisms could be misused if they fell victim to a cyber-attack. Former Director of Great Britain’s GCHQ (its equivalent of the NSA) said this, “[T]he key issue is transparency. We are already struggling to understand foreign political manipulation of Internet content…Without greater compulsory transparency, the end of net neutrality would allow hostile foreign states new avenues to spend their way into silencing or overriding opposing views.”
A cyber-attack on a major Internet service provider could potentially turn users towards or away from certain information, or shut them out of the information space all together. The future implications of such are frightening.
Open sourcing is one of the best ways to keep the Internet secure from nefarious interests. Traditional hawks might look at the problem and suggest tighter restrictions on information. Such an argument is often used when referencing extremist propaganda found online. Furthermore, closing the Internet as Russia and China have done is a way to insulate them from political influence campaigns.
The president himself said during the campaign that he would call Bill Gates and ask to turn off the Internet. This line got laughs from technically literate people, but it is an echo of ideas shared by autocrats around the world.
Tighter restrictions on Internet traffic do more harm than good. The most reasonable way forward would be for congress to pass legislation protecting the open Internet as a public utility. In 2014 the Netherlands Scientific Council for Government Policy looked extensively at the “public core of the Internet.” Its authors argued that the Internet should be seen as a global public good, and that net neutrality was a critical pillar in ensuring worldwide fairness. My colleague at Boise State University astutely argues that access to an open Internet is a human right.
Public utilities have evolved over time. When electricity was first distributed, it was a novelty and a luxury. Today, the electrical grid is regulated for consumer protection, and is seen as one of the most critical infrastructures to protect from foreign attack. The Internet is no longer a novelty or luxury. It is the primary method of information exchange, and should be protected as such. Without such reframing, our country and its democratic process remain frighteningly vulnerable.
This is why the Net Neutrality repeal was another win for Russia’s information warriors. Their interest is not so much in the outcome as it is in the confusion. Now the president’s son says people “do not understand” Net Neutrality – a true statement – but then only obfuscated the debate further. Ted Cruz even got into a Twitter argument with Mark Hamill on the issue. In all likelihood, Net Neutrality will be drowned out of the news cycle by the impending tax bill vote, or some major development on the Russia investigation. FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn alluded to this in her dissent when she stated, “[W]hat we have wrought well one day be apparent and by them when you really see what has changed, I fear, it may not only be too late to do anything about it because there will be no agency empowered to address your concerns.” The confused and soon-to-forget nature of stories like this are what make Russian influence operations so successful and net neutrality is just another notch on the belt for the Kremlin.