Author Archives: Mark Leombruni

Free Basics

If you live in India, or happen to have visited in the past month, you probably noticed the seemingly-ubiquitous advertising for something called Free Basics. It’s what you might call a full-court press: full-page ads in newspapers, billboards, and movie theater trailers. Also, if you were to log into Facebook, you’d be presented with an ad (and possibly if you were in the US, too).

The first thing to understand is that Free Basics is Facebook, and Facebook is Free Basics, and they’re both basically Internet.org. Perhaps more accurately, if expressed in matryoshka dolls, Free Basics is inside Internet.org which is inside Facebook. First, Facebook launched the Internet.org initiative, which covers various projects aimed at spreading internet access to developing countries. One of the first projects was a free service that offers limited access to the internet, including ad-free Facebook and other sites. Then, in September, Facebook rebranded that service from Internet.org to Free Basics.

Free Basics is Facebook’s effort to help the billion people of the world who don’t have access to the internet take their first baby steps online. Or, cynically, it’s Facebook’s effort to suck the next billion people of the world who don’t have access to the internet into Facebook. What sites are available varies by country, but every one of the 37 countries now enrolled in Free Basics offers Facebook.

Open internet advocates in India went positively up in arms. I’d wager that Mark Zuckerberg did not expect the backlash to be so decisive. “Who could possibly be against this?” he wrote in an editorial in the Times of India.

Well, lots of people, for a number of reasons. First, there is the Western imperialism angle. (Economist news editor Leo Mirani told me Free Basics includes “the sort of things that people in the West think that people in the poor world should have access to.”) Most of the backlash, however, was centered not on the gall of a Silicon Valley company galavanting into India with its own prescription for what it sees as a problem, but rather on the implications for the open internet. Indians know that “some of the internet” is a poor approximation of the whole internet.

Furthermore, zero rating—making some parts of the internet free while other parts aren’t—chips away at the nature of the open internet as we know it.

That’s where T-Mobile comes in. The mobile carrier recently started offering a video service called Binge On, which allows anyone who doesn’t opt out to stream video from Hulu, HBO NOW, Netflix, and others without having it count against data caps. Already, things are getting weird.

That’s all to say, zero rating is a worldwide issue. It’s also not going away. I am sure this won’t be the last time we talk about it on Radio Motherboard.

The telecom regulatory authority in India banned Free Basics at the end of December and is now soliciting public feedback on the issue. It’s expected to make a ruling by the end of the month, but even if that’s not delayed, there will probably be appeals and debates for months. Listen on for a primer on the Free Basics fight in India and what it means for the internet everywhere.

Transhumanists in Their Own Words

Transhumanism, the idea that humans should use science and technology to extend our natural abilities, is the religion of the 21st century. It’s a concept that has been around since the 70s, but seems to be resonating with a growing number of people. Whether it’s because of the rise of smartphones, the idea of the quantified self, disillusionment with the world, or something else, transhumanist ideas have been gaining traction in the last 10 years with no signs of stopping.

Cryptoparty in Harlem

Ever heard of a cryptoparty? It’s a gathering of people interested in privacy and encryption. You’ll often hear of cryptoparties in association with other techy, geeky spaces or organizations, and they’re usually dominated by computer-savvy nerds who are often male or white or both. But recently, Motherboard attended a cryptoparty in a less obvious place: Harlem, the predominantly black neighborhood in New York City.

 

Wait. Maybe Harlem is the perfect place to find a cryptoparty.

 

The New York City Police Department is increasingly monitoring and targeting young people of color on social media in what critics say amounts to racial profiling. “Is the online surveillance of black teenagers the new stop-and-frisk?” asked a headline in The Guardian, referring to the now-banned practice of stopping people on the street for “suspicious behavior.”

 

On top of that, members of the Black Lives Matter protest movement are now reportedly being targeted. Vice News broke the news in August that Deray Mckesson, a prominent civil rights activist, had been identified as a “professional protester” who was “known to law enforcement” and had his Twitter account monitored by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). The Intercept also reported that DHS has been tracking the movement.

 

In other words, simply exercising your right to protest is enough to get you on the feds’ radar.

 

This is sounding familiar. In the 60s, COINTELPRO, short for Counterintelligence Program, was an FBI program for domestic surveillance that spied on the Black Panthers. Even the FBI itself admits today that the program was overreaching, violating the First Amendment and other rights. The FBI also kept files on black leaders including Martin Luther King Jr.

 

The threats to black privacy are why Matthew Mitchell organizes Cryptoparty Harlem. In his past life, Mitchell was a data journalist at the New York Times and, before that, a developer at CNN. Nowadays he works with journalists, activists, and specifically people in his community of Harlem, on issues surrounding digital security, privacy, and surveillance.

 

“A lot of times I’ll hang out with hackers in hacker spaces and people who do digital security stuff for the United States, and they’ll always say, man, it’s like there are no black people who want to know about this stuff,” Mitchell said.

 

Of course, that’s not true—although there may be many black people who don’t know they want to know about this stuff. Beyond the fact that everyone has something they want to keep private, the black community has reasons to distrust the police, especially with the revelations about the Department of Homeland Security monitoring Black Lives Matter protests.

 

For this week’s Radio Motherboard, we spoke to Mitchell and Nusrat Choudury, a staff attorney at the ACLU’s Racial Justice program, about why the black community might want to use encryption.

 

We also discuss how the growing number of privacy intrusions from hackers, government, and law enforcement may be creating an elite class of techies who know how to protect themselves, while the rest of the population is stuck being surveilled.