October 24, 2021 / by 

 

Fertile Ground: Lack of Broadband and Disinformation Proliferation

Focusing on infrastructure this week, The Verge published an article Monday about broadband distribution in the U.S., providing a tidy map denoting which counties are not adequately served by high-speed internet.

Do you see what I see? Because it looks really familiar, kind of like this somewhat more granular map published in USAToday:

There are exceptions to my theory, but on the face of it there’s a correlation in most states between broadband access and so-called conservative voters.

Look at these two excerpts side by side:

There may be another corollary, at least in Michigan: the areas with crappy to nonexistent broadband are the ones which were hardest hit by the third wave COVID because there are more anti-mask, anti-lockdown, ‘COVID’s a hoax’ residents on average. Here’s NYT’s national map of COVID hot spots from April 9 (sorry, I didn’t get a zoomed-in image of WI-MI at that time):

Wisconsin is not as obvious a challenge in this map but the lack of broadband and red voters correlates to COVID hot spot region in north Texas.

This map, published by State of Michigan a few weeks earlier into Michigan’s third wave COVID cases, also shows the correlation:

While there are some exceptions like Marquette and Keweenaw Counties (both of which may have been affected by student and faculty populations in state universities) in the Upper Peninsula, the hot spots tracked from March into May the areas with low broadband and red voters.

Do note the one small outlier county near the middle of Wisconsin — that’s Menominee County, which voted blue but has crappy broadband. It’s the least populated of all counties in the state but its roughly 4550 residents are more than 87% Native American. Which means there’s not enough profit for broadband providers, and no ethics or adequate legislation at either state or federal level obligating coverage.

This week’s map of vaccination uptake in Michigan as published by Mlive shows the effect of anti-vaxx disinformation. In spite of horrific case counts, hospitalizations, and deaths in the low broadband Trump-voting areas, vaccine uptake has been slow.

Note the yellow county at the right of the map along Lake Huron; this is in MI-10, an area so pro-Trump that its previous congressional representative retired rather than run for re-election. Also not served adequately by broadband. (Also ripe for manipulation by outside parties like banking and real estate investors; it’s through this county that the new pipeline for water from Lake Huron to Flint was run at considerable expense and time, in spite of the proximity to Saginaw’s water system to the north and Detroit’s to the south.)

Another layer to this onion is the lack of print news media, shown on this Knight Foundation national map:

While that Trump-voting Michigan county of Sanilac on Lake Huron has print media, there’s a correlation between other counties without adequate broadband and low vaccine uptake.

I can’t find a decent map showing broadcast TV and radio coverage but some of the same problematic counties are underserved — most definitely in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula and the upper portion of Wisconsin. There are concerns about how much of the state is served by Sinclair-owned television stations; they’re not as bad as Fox, but Sinclair owns far too much opportunity to push right-wing friendly content over publicly-owned airwaves.

Granted, there are some additional factors which shape the ideology espoused by persons who are slow to accept vaccination and reject masks. Some of these counties are extremely non-diverse, by which I mean more than 96% non-Hispanic white. Some are more than 55% male.

At least one of the counties in Michigan’s UP leans the other way because its population is older. Ontonagon County’s median age is 52.7 years while Sanilac’s median age is 43.

All of this is to say that the lack of broadband infrastructure serving Americans uniformly leaves them prey to disinformation about existential matters. If they aren’t getting information from a variety of media served up by broadband, AND they don’t have ready access to print media, AND they are likely underserved by broadcasters, they are ripe for whatever media is easiest to access including Facebook and other social media platforms on their cell phones.

~ ~ ~

Now here’s where it gets personal.

I have a family member who lives in a broadband desert, in a Trump-voting rural county. I thought of them immediately when Marcy wrote Radicalized by Trump: A Tale of Two Assault Defendants last week. This family member has written some things my kids won’t share with me (I’m not on Facebook and they are) because what this person has shared is so Trumpy and Qultish.

One of the two defendants Marcy wrote about blamed “Foxitis” for their radicalization. This isn’t the case for this family member because they live in a broadband desert. They may get digital broadcast but this means they aren’t exposed to Fox programming on cable. They don’t have cable, DSL, or wireless internet, only the data they purchase with their cell phone service.

This family member isn’t getting the newspaper, either; they’re not stupid but they’ve never been much of a reader.

Whatever is rotting their brain is coming through their phone, and my kids already know Facebook is one of the social media outlets this family member uses.

Fortunately this same family member isn’t prone to activism and has enough demands on their personal time that they aren’t likely to take off and go to rallies with other Trumpers and Qultists.

But we’re still looking at someone who views any messaging from the state government under Governor Whitmer and the federal government under President Biden with great suspicion and skepticism, to the point where they may resist measures intended to protect them, their family, and their community. The only information they’re getting about either state or federal government is through the filter of their limited social media.

I’m afraid this person’s mind won’t change until they have access to a lot more information from a much broader range of sources. Until they have cheap and easily accessible broadband, they’re going to be lost to disinformation and at continued risk.

This is bad enough — a family member who lives a couple hours away who I’ll have to write off as inaccessible for the near term because they have been poisoned by disinfo.

But this disinfo poisoning managed to affect my household directly.

Friends who are in agriculture suggested purchasing a side of beef soon as they expect meat prices to go up over the next few months. They recommended a processor in one of the counties which was hit hard by the third wave — a processor from whom we haven’t purchased before.

I suggested to my spouse that we try a processor up north who we’ve used in the past. They live in a very rural county which has fared a little better, and we’ve always liked their service.

When my spouse looked into placing an order, he was told they’d just lost two personnel who died of COVID and orders were backlogged.

How the heck do people who process meat for a country store in a county of less than 15,000 people end up dead of COVID?

What else may be hurting, possibly killing these people for lack of adequate, rational information?

I can’t be certain of anything except for not buying my beef there any time soon, and that country store’s location in a county indicated by blue denoting a lack of broadband.


Long Overdue Policies that Look Obvious in the Age of Pandemic

I’m not usually a fan of George Packer. But I keep coming back to this column, We Are Living in a Failed State. The coronavirus didn’t break America. It revealed what was already broken, which is something I might have written. It argued that this pandemic, to which the US responded like a corrupt poor country, was actually the third crisis of this century, and our responses to the previous two — 9/11 and the Iraq War, and the Wall Street crisis — simply brought this country to the place where Trump could loot it.

Like a wanton boy throwing matches in a parched field, Trump began to immolate what was left of national civic life. He never even pretended to be president of the whole country, but pitted us against one another along lines of race, sex, religion, citizenship, education, region, and—every day of his presidency—political party. His main tool of governance was to lie. A third of the country locked itself in a hall of mirrors that it believed to be reality; a third drove itself mad with the effort to hold on to the idea of knowable truth; and a third gave up even trying.

Trump acquired a federal government crippled by years of right-wing ideological assault, politicization by both parties, and steady defunding. He set about finishing off the job and destroying the professional civil service. He drove out some of the most talented and experienced career officials, left essential positions unfilled, and installed loyalists as commissars over the cowed survivors, with one purpose: to serve his own interests. His major legislative accomplishment, one of the largest tax cuts in history, sent hundreds of billions of dollars to corporations and the rich. The beneficiaries flocked to patronize his resorts and line his reelection pockets. If lying was his means for using power, corruption was his end.

Packer ends with a call for renewed solidarity.

But he might as well also call for a fix to all the failures of the past twenty years. Right now, mind you, Trump is failing, miserably, in part because he believes maximizing the opportunities for looting by his friends is all the policy he needs.

But the sheer scale of the crisis makes policies that long made sense for the United States more urgent and far easier to justify. I plan to keep a running list of those policies.

Medicare for All

No one has figured out how all the people put out of work by the shut-downs will pay for COVID-related health care. Trump has persisted in a plan to kill Obamacare, and some badly affected states never even expanded Medicaid.

Early reports suggested that Trump’s administration has claimed it is willing to pay hospital bill, so long as they pay those bills directly (thereby avoiding establishing a policy, I guess). But with so many people out of work and with hospitals reeling from the shut-down, the far better solution is to make Medicare available to all.

Universal Basic Income

The US government has been backing credit for big industry and tried, but failed, to provide free money for small businesses to keep their employees on staff. Instead, 26 million Americans have applied for unemployment, a sixth of all workers (and a third of all workers in MI, KY, and RI). Meanwhile, the Administration botched even a one-time $1,200 payment.

The government could better ensure that markets don’t crash entirely–and keep states from buckling as they try to serve all these unemployed people–if they simply gave a UBI to all people, as Spain has decided it will do. By keeping it, the US might be able to address the underlying inequality problems that have led to such a disproportionate impact of COVID on communities of color.

Decarceration

Closed spaces, generally, amount for a huge percentage of COVID cases and (in the case of nursing homes) deaths. ACLU just rolled out a paper that argues the models for COVID (which were originally based off other societies’ social patterns, including their prison system) underestimate the total number of deaths because they don’t account for the spread in our prisons.

COVID will remain lethal for long enough that states and the federal government will need to achieve some level of decarceration to prevent the prisons from becoming a source of spread to the wider community (as they have become in the localities with harder hit prisons).

In this case, even before COVID hit, there was bipartisan support to wean ourselves from overincarceration. Prisons will become less lucrative in conservative communities, especially as some states begin to end prison gerrymandering (which gives rural communities representation for prisoners who can’t vote, just like slavery did).

So now is the time to end incarceration for minor crimes, and improve the humanity of incarceration for those who need to be jailed.

Deindustrialization of the Food System

We’ll be lucky if we avoid famine conditions. That’s partly because our food system has the same institutional/retail split our toilet paper supply chain does, meaning the market for half of the food out there disappeared when restaurants and other institutional buyers shut down. That’s partly because bottlenecks in our food supply chain — most notably, thus far, meatpacking plants, but there will be others — have further undermined the market for our plentiful food production. And that’s partly because Trump’s farmer support, thus far, has emphasized direct payments that are effectively a continuation of his earlier bribery of farmers whose markets his trade war screwed, rather than purchasing up surpluses to provide to food banks.

Trump hasn’t shown an ability to get any other needed supplies where they’re needed; it’s unlikely he’ll do better with food.

Meanwhile, food supplies that bypass these commodity markets remain. We need to make this food supply chain more resilient and one way of doing so is to bypass the industrial bottlenecks.

Broadband as a Utility

When schools shut down, it suddenly became acutely visible how many Americans — both rural and urban — don’t have broadband. While some areas have gerry-rigged solutions (like driving wifi-enabled busses to poorer neighborhoods) to get some kids online and learning, that’s not possible everywhere. And even for adults, it takes broadband access to be able to social distance.

Trump is already talking about using infrastructure investments to get America working again. Extending basic broadband as a utility should be part of that.

Update: Arne Duncan describes what needs to happen for existing efforts to expand broadband access to be really effective.

Industrial Policy

Two months after we first identified shortages in necessary medical supply, we’ve barely managed to switch production to those necessary objects, even as entire factories were otherwise shut down. We’ve got shortages of not just testing kits, but the underlying supplies. We’ve got drug shortages too (and had them, even before the President started pitching miracle cures).

It’s long past time to admit that we do have an industrial policy — but right now, it’s focused on building the troubled F-35, not ensuring that the United States has the ability to build the things we need domestically, even if we interact openly with the rest of the world. This story uses the failed lithium battery investments Obama made, largely in Michigan, to talk about how we came to be unable to supply our own medical equipment.

We have an industrial policy. We just need to be willing to match that policy to our society’s real needs, not exporting warmongering.


Facebook, Hot Seat, Day Two — House Energy & Commerce Committee Hearing

This is a dedicated post to capture your comments about Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s testimony before the House Energy & Commerce Committee today.

After these two hearings my head is swimming with Facebook content, so much so that I had a nightmare about it overnight. Today’s hearing combined with the plethora of reporting across the internet is only making things more difficult for me to pull together a coherent narrative.

Instead, I’m going to dump some things here as food for further consideration and maybe a possible future post. I’ll update periodically throughout the day. Do share your own feedback in comments.

Artificial Intelligence (AI) — every time Mark Zuckerberg brings up AI, he does so about a task he does not want to employ humans to do. Zuckerberg doesn’t want to hire humans even if it means doing the right thing. There are so many indirect references to creating automated tools that are all substitutions for labor that it’s obvious Facebook is in part what it is today because Facebook would rather make profits than hire humans until it is forced to do otherwise.

Users’ control of their data — this is bullshit whenever he says it. If any other entity can collect or copy or see users’ data without explicit and granular authorization, users do not have control of their data. Why simple controls like granular read/not-read settings on users’ data operated by users has yet to be developed and implemented is beyond me; it’s not as if Facebook doesn’t have the money and clout to make this happen.

Zuckerberg is also evasive about following Facebook users and nonusers across the internet — does browsing non-Facebook website content with an embedded Facebook link allow tracking of persons who visit that website? It’s not clear from Zuckerberg’s statements.

Audio tracking — It’s a good thing that Congress has brought up the issue of “coincident” content appearing after users discuss topics within audible range of a mobile device. Rep. Larry Buschon (R-Indiana) in particular offered pointed examples; we should remain skeptical of any explanation received so far because there are too many anedotes of audio tracking in spite of Zuckerberg’s denials.

Opioid and other illegal ads — Zuckerberg insists that if users flag them, ads will be reviewed and then taken down. Congress is annoyed the ads still exist. But at the hear of this exchange is Facebook’s reliance on users performing labor Facebook refuses to hire to achieve the expected removal of ads. Meanwhile, Congress refuses to do its own job to increase regulations on opioids, choosing instead to flog Facebook because it’s easier than going after donors like Big Pharma.

Verification of ad buyers — Ad buyers’ legitimacy based on verification of identity and physical location will be implemented for this midterm election cycle, Zuckerberg told Congress. Good luck with that when Facebook has yet to hire enough people to take down opioid ads or remove false accounts of public officials or celebrities.

First Amendment protections for content — Congressional GOP is beating on Facebook for what it perceives as consistent suppression of conservative content. This is a disinfo/misinfo operation happening right under our noses and Facebook will cave just like it did in 2016 while news media look the other way since the material in question isn’t theirs. Facebook, however, has suppressed neutral to liberal content frequently — like content about and images featuring women breastfeeding their infants — and Congress isn’t uttering a peep about this. Congress also isn’t asking any questions about Facebook’s assessments of content

Connecting the world — Zuckerberg’s personal desire to connect humans is supreme over the nature and intent of the connections. The ability to connect militant racists, for example, takes supremacy (literally) over protecting minority group members from persecution. And Congress doesn’t appear willing to see this as problematic unless it violates existing laws like the Fair Housing Act.

More to come as I think of it. Comment away.

UPDATE — 2:45 PM EDT — I’m gritting my teeth so hard as I listen to this hearing that I’ve given myself a headache.

Terrorist content — Rep. Susan Brooks (R-Indiana) asked about Facebook’s handling of ISIS content, to which Zuckerberg said a team of 200 employees focus on counterintelligence to remove ISIS and other terrorist content, capturing 99% of materials before they can be see by the public. Brooks further asked what Facebook is doing about stopping recruitment.

What. The. Fuck? We’re expecting a publicly-held corporation to do counterintelligence work INCLUDING halting recruitment?

Hate speech — Zuckerberg used the word “nuanced” to describe the definition while under pressure by left and right. Oh, right, uh-huh, there’s never been a court case in which hate speech has been defined…*head desk*

Whataboutism — Again, from Michigan GOPr Tim Walberg, pointing to the 2012 Obama campaign…every time the 2012 campaign comes up, you know you are listening to 1) a member of Congress who doesn’t understand Facebook’s use and 2) is working on furthering the disinfo/misinfo campaign to ensure the public thinks Facebook is biased against the GOP.

It doesn’t help that Facebook’s AI has failed on screening GOP content; why candidates aren’t contacting a human-staffed department directly is beyond me. Or why AI doesn’t interact directly with campaign/candidate users at the point of data entry to let them know what content is problematic so it can be tweaked immediately.

Again, implication of discrimination against conservatives and Christians on Facebook — Thanks, Rep. Jeff Duncan, waving your copy of the Constitution insisting the First Amendment is applied equally and fairly. EXCEPT you’ve missed the part where it says CONGRESS SHALL MAKE NO LAW respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press…

The lack of complaints by Democratic and Independent representatives about suppression of content should NOT be taken to mean it hasn’t happened. That Facebook allowed identified GOP-voting employees to work with Brad Parscale means that suppression happens in subtle ways. There’s also a different understanding between right and left wings about Congress’ limitation under the First Amendment AND Democrats/Independents aren’t trying to use these hearings as agitprop.

Internet service — CONGRESS NEEDS TO STOP ASKING FACEBOOK TO HELP FILL IN THE GAPS BETWEEN NETWORKS AND INTERNET SERVICE PROVIDERS THEY HAVE FAILED TO REGULATE TO ENSURE BROADBAND EVERYWHERE. Jesus Christ this bugs the shit out of me. Just stop asking a corporation to do your goddamned jobs; telcos have near monopoly ensured by Congress and aren’t acting in the best interest of the public but their shareholders. Facebook will do the same thing — serve shareholders but not the public interest. REGULATE THE GAP, SLACKERS.

3:00 PM thank heavens this beating is over.

Three more thoughts:

1) Facial recognition technology — non-users should NEVER become subjected to this technology, EVER. Facebook users should have extremely simple and clear opt-in/opt-out on facial technology.

2) Medical technology — absolutely not ever in social media. No. If a company is not in the business of providing health care, they have no business collecting health care data. Period.

3) Application approval — Ask Apple how to do it. They do it, app by app. Facebook is what happens when apps aren’t approved first.

UPDATE — 9:00 PM EDT — Based on a question below from commenter Mary McCurnin about HIPAA, I am copying my reply here to flesh out my concerns about Facebook and medical data collection and sharing:

HIPAA regulates health data sharing between “covered entities,” meaning health care clearinghouses, employer-sponsored health plans, health insurers, and medical service providers. Facebook had secretly assigned a doctor to work on promoting a proposal to some specific covered entities to work on a test or beta; the program has now been suspended. The fact this project was secret and intended to operate under a signed agreement rather than attempting to set up a walled-off Facebook subsidiary to work within the existing law tells me that Facebook didn’t have any intention of operating within HIPAA. The hashing concept proposed for early work but still relying on actual user data is absurdly arrogant in its blow off of HIPAA.

Just as disturbing: virtually nothing in the way of questions from Congress about this once-secret program. The premise which is little more than a normalized form of surveillance using users’ health as a criteria is absolutely unacceptable.

I don’t believe ANY social media platform should be in the health care data business. The breach of U.S. Office of Personnel Management should have given enough Congress enough to ponder about the intelligence risks from employment records exposed to foreign entities; imagine the risks if health care data was included with OPM employment information. Now imagine that at scale across the U.S., how many people would be vulnerable in so many ways if their health care information became exposed along with their social records.

Don’t even start with how great it would be to dispatch health care to people in need; we can’t muster the political will to pay for health care for everybody. Why provide monitoring at scale through social media when covered entities can do it for their subscriber base separately, and apparently with fewer data breaches?

You want a place to start regulating social media platforms? Start there: no health care data to mingle with social media data. Absolutely not, hell to the no.


Facebook on the Hot Seat Before Senate Judiciary Committee

This is a dedicated post to capture your comments about Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee this afternoon. At the time of this post Zuckerberg has already been on the hot seat for more than two hours and another two hours is anticipated.

Before this hearing today I have already begun to think Facebook’s oligopolic position and its decade-plus inability to effectively police its operation requires a different approach than merely increasing regulation. While Facebook isn’t the only corporation monetizing users’ data as its core business model, its platform has become so ubiquitous that it is difficult to make use of a broad swath of online services without a Facebook login (or one of a very small number of competing platforms like Google or Twitter).

If Facebook’s core mission is connecting people with a positive experience, it should be regulated like a telecommunications provider — they, too, are connectors — or it should be taken public like the U.S. Postal Service. USPS, after all, is about connecting individual and corporate users by mediating exchange of analog data.

The EU’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) offers a potential starting point as a model for the U.S. to regulate Facebook and other social media platforms. GDPR will shape both users’ expectations and Facebook’s service whether the U.S. is on board or not; we ought to look at GDPR as a baseline for this reason, while compliant with the First Amendment and existing data regulations like the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA).

What aggravates me as I watch this hearing is Zuckerberg’s obvious inability to grasp nuance, whether divisions in political ideology or the fuzzy line between businesses’ interests and users’ rights. I don’t know if regulation will be enough if Facebook (manifest in Zuckerberg’s attitude) can’t fully and willingly comply with the Federal Trade Commission’s 2011 consent decree protecting users’ privacy. It’s possible fines for violations of this consent decree arising from the Cambridge Analytica/SCL abuse of users’ data might substantively damage Facebook; will we end up “owning” Facebook before we can even regulate it?

Have at it in comments.

UPDATE — 6:00 PM EDT — One of my senators, Gary Peters, just asked Zuck about audio capture, whether Facebook uses audio technology to listen to users in order to place ads relevant to users’ conversational topics. Zuck says no, which is really odd given the number of anecdotes floating around about ads popping up related to topics of conversation.

It strikes me this is one of the key problems with regulating social media: we are dealing with a technology which has outstripped its users AND its developers, evident in the inability to discuss Facebook’s operations with real fluency on either the part of government or its progenitor.

This is the real danger of artificial intelligence (AI) used to “fix” Facebook’s shortcomings; not only does Facebook not understand how its app is being abused, it can’t assure the public it can prevent AI from being flawed or itself being abused because Facebook is not in absolute control of its platform.

Zuckerberg called the Russian influence operation an ongoing “arms race.” Yeah — imagine arms made and sold by a weapons purveyor who has serious limitations understanding their own weapons. Gods help us.

EDIT — 7:32 PM EDT — Committee is trying to wrap up, Grassley is droning on in old-man-ese about defending free speech but implying at the same time Facebook needs to help salvage Congress’ public image. What a dumpster fire.

Future shock. Our entire society is suffering from future shock, unable to grasp the technology it relies on every day. Even the guy who launched Facebook can’t say with absolute certainty how his platform operates. He can point to the users’ Terms of Service but he can’t say how any user or the government can be absolutely certain users’ data is fully deleted if it goes overseas.

And conservatives aren’t going to like this one bit, but they are worst off as a whole. They are older on average, including in Congress, and they struggle with usage let alone implications and the fundamentals of social media technology itself. They haven’t moved fast enough from now-deceased Alaska Senator Ted Steven’s understanding of the internet as a “series of tubes.”


Software is a Long Con

 


King Arthur Slays Internet Traffic to UK’s Tax Haven with Tons of Steel

I’m mostly writing about the fact that the Isle of Jersey lost most of its Internet connection after its three main submarine telecommunications cables were severed by the anchor of a liquified petroleum tanker named the King Arthur so I can use that headline.

Internet speeds on the UK island of Jersey have been slashed – literally – after a ship’s anchor destroyed three submarine cables linking the isle to the British mainland.

Broadband speeds on the Channel island immediately slowed to a trickle after the data cables, owned by telco JT, and the voice traffic cable, owned by ISP Sure, were severed. Network operators rerouted data to a separate cable connecting Jersey to the main French data networks to pick up the slack, but speeds are still below their usual level.

[snip]

The coastguard is investigating, and the ship involved was reportedly the King Arthur, an Italian-registered liquefied petroleum gas tanker. It is believed to have anchored in a restricted area over the submarine cables and then dragged its anchor over them.

But longtime readers of this site know that I obsess over severed cables, even if the cause is so readily apparent.

Plus, when things like this happen, it tends to get noticed. When the Northern Mariana Islands lost its one Internet cable in 2015 in a big storm, the FCC all of a sudden decided underseas cables were something it did and should have regulation authority over, passing a rule the telecoms were none too happy over.

And while Jersey will be back to full capacity a lot sooner than the three weeks it took to get the Marianas back online, given its role in global finance, Jersey is a tad more sensitive than the Marianas.

So keep an eye on the aftermath on this unlikely assault an Italian ship named King Arthur made on one of the UK’s key tax havens.

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Originally Posted @ https://www.emptywheel.net/internet-infrastructure/