I read the news too often. I say that because it’s too often depressing, which is not healthy for me. The prime example I have at the moment is this news from various sites, best summarized at BroadbandReports.com: the government is outsourcing Fourth Amendment violations to private industry. Some of the facts discussed here were not new to me, such as the old partnership between NSA and AT&T, as revealed by a courageous whistle-blower in San Francisco, Mark Klein. Inquiries over projects related to the NSA codename ECHELON have been public since 2000. Our defenders at the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) and American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) are still fighting for our rights to privacy from these corporate-government collaborative invasions.
The only concern I understand about Network Neutrality is the fear that it will become a tool for government intrusion into our private communications. All the stories above should tell you it’s far too late to be worried about that — that intrusion has already happened. The truth is that Network Neutrality only requires one provision to better protect us from the government invasion we are already experiencing today: a prohibition from discriminately throttling or altering encrypted traffic. That is fairly covered by FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski in his latest additions to the existing Network Neutrality rules: non-discrimination and transparency. Even just implementing comprehensive network management transparency is sufficient for our purposes, because encrypted protocols could be coded around the stated traffic management issues. Of the two additions, non-discrimination is probably the easiest for the FCC to actually enforce. Preventing discrimination against encrypted data would sustain our privacy.
There remain concerns that the FCC will be unable (or as the period from 2001-2007 shows, unwilling) to enforce encryption-preserving Network Neutrality in the future. Their new “third way” approach to interpreting the 1996 Telecommunications Act, after all, was a reaction to losing at their first attempt at Network Neutrality enforcement in court. Despite the general acknowledgement that lax regulatory enforcement created the current American decline, in everything from finances to broadband development, Congress might not get their act together in time. We may have to look to new alternatives to communicate safely and privately.
If I create a tin-can phone, and pass one end over a shared fence line to you, then we can finally talk over a secure line. Nobody is allowed to come on our property and tap our string, without a warrant — not even AT&T. We own the string, not our ISP. At least that interpretation of the 4th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution is clear. A more complicated way would be to run a VoIP network directly between our homes, with every component installed on our private property. That solution is complicated, but still technically and financially feasible. The required lines, network routers, WiFi, and VoIP equipment are already surprisingly affordable. If we’re doing that, we might as well enable everything else an IP network is capable of, including web content and video calls. If you want to converse freely, assured of your privacy when you’ve done nothing wrong, this kind of direct shared connection may soon be your only feasible option.