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Letter From New Hampshire: The Dangers of Disinformation

A few days before the New Hampshire primary vote, midway through a speech at a packed town hall in Nashua, Andrew Yang began to talk about data.

Specifically, the industrial-scale harvesting of private data that is at the heart of today’s biggest and most profitable tech companies. “We produce an enormous outflow of information that is taken from us, often without our consent, and monetized,” said Yang.

But then he swerved. Instead of issuing the call-to-arms implicit in the “Data as a Property Right” plank of his presidential platform, Yang launched into a pitch for what he called a “Data Dividend”: a monthly, thousand-dollar check that he saw as a way to remunerate citizens for their loss of privacy at the hands of unaccountable Big Tech overlords. (This was Yang’s “Freedom Dividend” by another name; both refer to a proposed Universal Basic Income (UBI) that was at the center of the campaign until Yang dropped out after the New Hampshire vote.)

“If you received a Data Dividend, how much of it would stay right here in Nashua?” he asked the audience. “Most of it, right? Maybe not all of it – you might get your own Netflix password.”

The line got a laugh, one of several that afternoon. (Yang was easily the funniest of the Democratic candidates.)

The use of data harvesting as a set-up for UBI – suggesting the system can’t be changed, so you might as well take a cut – might have surprised those most familiar with the details of Yang’s platform. That platform includes a large section on data and tech that understands them as moral and political issues. It’s an incredibly detailed program – including “The right to download all data in a standardized format to port to another platform” – but the fact that he largely ignored it on the stump tells you much about the issues’ low-profile on the campaign trail.

It took a bit of searching at the rally to find anyone who felt strongly that the issue deserved more serious treatment. That person was a 50-something local podcast host and former PBS programmer named Larry Rifkin. An undecided voter, he described Yang as “an interesting guy” and felt strongly the tech and privacy issues were getting short thrift on the trail.

“Everybody sees privacy as an individual right issue, but it should be framed as a social issue,” said Rifkin. “We’re giving away our rights, as Ralph Nader has said, one disclaimer at a time. Modern life requires us to be online and pass through these digital gates. How do you live in this age unless you give away these rights? Who can we question? We need to broaden this conversation.”

He said he supported Elizabeth Warren’s calls to dismember Facebook on anti-monopoly and public-interest grounds, but was careful to say not every tech-related issue requires a federal sledgehammer.

“When you look at the power Facebook has amassed, and their cavalier attitude to real problems, they’ve shown they should be broken up. But all the big tech companies are different," Rifkin added. "Some require oversight, others need to be herded a bit. So far, Congress has proven to be way out of its depth – it doesn’t even know what to ask, let alone what to safeguard.”

***

It’s been a long seven years since NSA contractor Edward Snowden blew the roof off the U.S. government’s far-reaching and unconstitutional surveillance program. The revelations were followed by a steady drip of stories about data breaches exposing Americans to various forms of manipulation and theft, capped by the Cambridge Analytica-Facebook scandal. Around the time of Donald Trump’s election, the large plurality of Americans who once believed technology firms were a positive force in American life disappeared. By early 2017, the percentage of the population with a sunny view of Big Tech had plummeted 22 points from recent highs to 50 percent.

That this anxiety and concern was not much in evidence in New Hampshire, however, suggests a reckoning may not be on the horizon.

To find the possible outlines of this reckoning, it was necessary to dig into the platforms of the candidates. Along with Yang, the most detailed reform programs – covering everything from the digital divide to online privacy – belongs to Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. The latter is running on a plan to not only rein in the power of Facebook and others, but is calling for an $85 billion public investment in public broadband.

In Berlin, the capital of Coos County in New Hampshire’s “Great North” bordering Canada, I met a Warren supporter and former computer fraud investigator named Kathleen Kelley. She was well-versed in Warren’s tech platform, which she described as a source of the candidate’s appeal amid a crowded Democratic field.

“I am increasingly concerned about privacy,” Kelley, 64, told me over coffee one morning at a café in the shadow of the White Mountains. “Facebook seems to know what I’ve seen, and said – even recommending things that I was just thinking about. I have Siri at home, and it knows my patterns: when I come home, what music I like, what news I listen to. It’s a little scary. I’m at the point, with Amazon and others, where I’m asking, ‘How big is too big?’ I think we need to talk about that, just as we broke up the Ma Bells years ago, which led to innovation. Good things could come out of reducing their power over the economy and our private data.”

As a resident of a remote community, Kelley was impressed with Warren’s focus on bringing public broadband to rural communities. This is an infrastructure and development crisis across the country. According to Pew, one in five American students can’t finish homework because of lack of internet access. A full quarter of rural Americans say internet access is a major problem. And while views on the government’s responsibility for fixing this are mixed, there is overwhelming public support for government action to override large commercial providers seeking to block the emergence of local solutions.

To see what this crisis looks like, Kelley directed my attention to the other end of the Granite State, where the Massachusetts-New Hampshire border town of Royalston, Mass., has emerged as a perfect test case for the programs advocated, however quietly, in so many Democratic platforms.

***

Midway between the primary circus of Manchester and the technology hub of Boston, is Royalston, a farming town. Until five years ago, one-sixth of the town’s 1,200 residents were without high-speed internet, because it did not make economic sense for the town’s commercial ISP to service them. This was unacceptable to a Royalston resident named Jon Hardie, a 70-something veteran community organizer, entrepreneur and computer enthusiast. With a small grant from the state, he launched an initiative to build a community-owned fixed LTE wireless network that could service the entire town – including the otherwise cut-off residents. The project was successful, and serves as a beacon for those who believe powerful community-owned WiFi networks are not only possible, but much cheaper and resilient than the fiber cables preferred by commercial operators.

“The major vendors cherry-pick high-density population areas, and to heck with people in rural areas,” says Hardie, who has expanded his project into a network of 42 rural communities in the region. “Corporations are putting a huge amount of pressure on state legislatures and agencies to prevent local communities from building their own networks. We invited Sprint and Verizon to our towns, but we said you gotta do the rural schools, fire and police and municipal offices. They said no. Here in Royalston our network serves 600 homes and 1,200 people for $1.4 million, when the fiber cost would be $3.5 million.”

Hardie declined to discuss his voting preference in the election, but he speaks a language that resonates strongly with that found in Bernie Sanders’s platform on internet access: public investments, social goods, climate resilience, and community organizing. Indeed, Sanders’s platform includes a plank, “High Speed Internet Access for All,” that lines up exactly with the vision and details of Hardie’s initiative. Sanders is calling for $150 billion to be invested, as part of the Green New Deal, in “infrastructure grants and technical assistance for municipalities [and] states to build publicly owned and democratically controlled, co-operative, or open access broadband networks [that are] resilient to the effects of climate change.”

Unique among the Democratic candidates, Sanders also supports breaking up ISP and cable monopolies, “unwinding” anticompetitive mergers and barring ISPs from providing content.

“How do you we deliver rural healthcare and education without information? Like health care, you have to subsidize it,” Hardie told me, echoing another of Sanders’s signature policy ideas. “State support and community ownership is a winning combination for high-speed internet in rural America. Fiber is expensive and susceptible to bad weather in an age of increasing climate volatility. The government should be investing in the lowest cost, highest performance tech. It used to be $1,000 a meg, now it’s a couple of bucks. The cost will continue to fall, especially in the Southwest where solar can power the community-owned systems. This is not what the companies want to hear, because it keeps revenue streams out of their hands.”

***

Few of Sanders’s supporters may understand the technical details of building resilient community internet networks, but those I met in New Hampshire thought it a no-brainer the state should be more involved in the sector.

“A public option for the internet that runs like a local utility is a great idea,” said Mark Grueter, a Lyft driver and out-of-work academic that I met at the Sanders rally in Manchester on the night of the vote. “Other countries do it and the results are usually better than what we have in the States. The corporate monopolies in this country don’t come close to delivering the best service at the best price. I think the candidates should be talking about it more.”

Grueter also said breaking up Facebook, and possibly other tech giants, was a good idea deserving of close consideration for the Democratic Party’s 2020 platform. “They are the new robber barons,” he said. “It started off as an innovative sector, but now it’s just so oppressive. I haven’t used Facebook in a long time. I hate how everything you do online requires a Facebook account, like Facebook is the gatekeeper for participating in the modern world. It’s a very alienating time. Social media companies should be held accountable for misinformation. I mean, what’s the counterargument? That it’s a free speech issue? It’s ridiculous.”

Up in Berlin, Kathleen Kelley was also worried about bad information, which like high-speed internet can be worse in rural communities. “We don’t have newspapers up here, like so many places, so people are getting their news on Facebook, Reddit or Instagram, and how much of that is wrong or false? I try to figure out what is true, but sometimes I get fooled and have to stop myself,” she said. “I don’t think we’re teaching our children how to filter information. We need education. When I sub at schools I see kids using Wikipedia, or open-source information. Is that all true?”

Rifkin, the podcaster at the Yang rally, said education and individual responsibility are ultimately the most important lines defense. He mentioned that he was currently reading Rana Foroohar’s book about Google and data harvesting, "Don’t Be Evil," and he had recommended it on his show, “American Trends.”

“Unfortunately, so much falls to us as individuals, and we choose to go into these dens, because we feel comforted, or feel backed up in our prejudices,” said Rifkin. “I want more cautionary alerts, maybe not regulation. It’s just a very strange time in this country’s public life.”

* **

On the sub-freezing night of Feb. 7, groups of supporters behind every candidate lined the street outside of St. Anslem College, site of the final Democratic debate before the vote. Among the clusters of machine-made signs for Elizabeth, Amy, Pete and Bernie was a dozen or so homemade signs decrying the capture of government by special interests. At their lead was Brain Beihl, director of the Concord, N.H.-based non-profit Open Democracy. The group is best known for its founder, Doris “Granny D” Haddock, who at the age of 88 began a two-year trek from California to D.C. to rally support for campaign finance reform. When I asked Beihl what Granny D, who died in 2010 at age 100, would think about the unique kind of power now wielded by Big Tech – in D.C., in our living rooms, in our minds – he said that any solutions and reforms will only be possible after curtailing their power over regulators and Congress.

“If you want to rein in these tech companies, it’s the same as dealing with climate and health care and education – none of it is gonna happen until we get campaign finance fixed,” he said. “They are big-time lobbyists now. If you want to regulate or reform them in any way, start with their ability to buy influence.”

A small but active segment of the Democratic base has lost patience with Congress altogether, and believes that the fight should be taken to the streets – in particular, the streets outside of Mark Zuckerberg’s two Bay Area mansions.

A week after the primary, an alliance of media advocacy and human rights groups – led by Global Exchange and Media Alliance – held protests outside of the Facebook CEO’s private residences in San Francisco and Palo Alto, demanding the company follow Twitter’s lead and ban political ads. (Google has instituted a partial ban focused on targeted ads; YouTube has announced a plan to remove misleading election-related content). Twice in January, the groups protested outside Facebook’s headquarters in Menlo Park, and on February 21 unfurled a “Truth Matters” human billboard outside of the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative in Redwood City. Since January, more than 88,000 people have signed two petitions related to the campaign, called “Wake the ZUCK Up!”

“Facebook has been concealing its vast profits from sabotaging democracy under a fig leaf of free speech,” said Tracy Rosenberg, one of the organizers. “It refuses to take responsibility for lies, hate and disinformation that could jeopardize the integrity of the 2020 elections. The company is also all too happy to profit from micro-targeting that directs disinformation at vulnerable communities and hides it from everyone else.”

The sense of urgency animating the direct-action campaign is clear enough to comprehend: The president has shown no interest in investing in public broadband, breaking up monopolies, or making an issue of data and privacy. If he is reelected, with or without the help of Facebook, Americans can forget about the sensible reforms and proposals being put forward by the Democratic candidates to expand access to the internet while at the same time reigning in the giants that control it.

Alexander Zaitchik is a freelance journalist living in New Orleans. He is the author, most recently, of "The Gilded Rage: A Wild Ride Through Donald Trump’s America."

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