Republican Congressman Asks the Important Question: Were There Ancient Civilizations on Mars?
On Tuesday, the Space Subcommittee of the U.S. House of Representative’s Committee on Science, Space, and Technology met for what could have been a routine hearing. For just over a minute, however, that two-hour session diverged into stranger and more speculative territory.
As Space.com reports, the hearing “was a general discussion of NASA’s upcoming planetary-science missions, with a focus on the 2020 rover and Europa Clipper.” Along the way, Kenneth Farley, a professor of geochemistry at the California Institute of Technology and a Mars Rover 2020 project scientist, brought up evidence suggesting that Mars may have been habitable long, long ago.
To be clear, those indications point to the mere possibility of microbial life, not, as Space.com puts it, of “intelligent organisms.” Nevertheless, Farley’s comments were enough to pique the curiosity of one member of the subcommittee, California Republican Dana Rohrabacher.
Requesting a minute to bring up what he called “the most important thing,” Rohrabacher asked, “You have indicated that Mars … was totally different thousands of years ago. Is it possible that there was a civilization on Mars thousands of years ago?”
In the video, you can see a young boy behind Rohrabacher suddenly lean over to whisper something to his own seat mate. Farley, meanwhile, barely seems to pause before responding with a correction.
“So, the evidence is that Mars was different billions of years ago … not thousands of years ago,” Farley said. “There is no evidence that I am aware of.”
“Would you rule that out?” Rohrabacher broke in.
Here, Farley took a more conclusive tone, though he still maintained a scientist’s commitment to uncertainty: “I would say that is extremely unlikely.”
At this point, the conversation moved on, giving Space Subcommittee Chairman Brian Babin the last word on the issue: “Looking forward to finding out what’s up there. That’s for sure.”
Now, it’s easy enough to make fun of Rohrabacher’s line of questioning, and plenty have. Where Space.com takes a flatly dismissive tone, Ars Technica points out, “[L]ast month InfoWars host and conspiracy theorist Alex Jones entertained the notion that Earth children have been kidnapped and sent to slave camps on Mars.” Mashable, meanwhile, compared Rohrabacher to an “internet troll” and derided him for “wast[ing] NASA’s time.”
That’s all fair enough, but it’s worth remembering the U.S. government has wasted time of its own on these questions in the past. As I’ve reported before, in 1984, the U.S. Army had “psychic spy” Joseph McMoneagle astrally project to Mars. According to a document about that attempt, publicly available via the Central Intelligence Agency’s Reading Room site, McMoneagle says he saw evidence of ancient Martians, who had slipped into hibernation as a buffer against the planet’s increasingly inimical conditions.
That’s silly stuff, but, hey, the information is out there and Rohrabacher was just asking questions! I reached out to Rohrabacher’s spokesman, who simply told me, “Because of his position on the space committee, [Rohrabacher] not infrequently gets inquiries about this from far and wide. He was looking for something definitive. Apparently, many of those who covered the exchange didn’t hear the wink in his voice.”
We’ll leave it to you to determine whether you can identify that supposed “wink,” but we’ll say this much: Rohrabacher’s office neither confirmed nor denied whether the history of psychic spying influenced the representative’s line of inquiry.
Future Tense Newsletter: Robots Aren’t Poets, but They Don’t Know It
Greetings, Future Tensers,
When talk of artificial intelligence and automation dominate our discussions about the future of work, it can be good to step back and remind ourselves robots, in fact, can’t do everything. For instance, Grace Bellenger reports that while A.I. has managed to reproduce the structure of poetry, it fails to capture the genre’s nuance. Another thing it isn’t great at? Making us less depressed. Woebot, a chatbot on Facebook designed to provide therapy-like conversation, recently made a splash as the first peer-reviewed technology of its type. But despite the hype, the bot didn’t actually do much to decrease anxiety and depression for users. Ciarán Mc Mahon explains what the results actually show—and the role these kinds of apps can play in mental health care.
And while they might be intelligent, robots still need coordination. Take the recent case of a security robot that fell into a fountain outside of the D.C. office it was bought to protect. While the incident lent itself to some fun, dark online humor, it was also a reminder that robots aren’t always mechanically equipped to navigate a world designed for humans.
Other things we learned this week in between sending our friends puke emojis over internet service providers’ reactions to calls for net neutrality.
- A Comic Sans of errors: The next time your co-workers get annoyed at you for obsessing over fonts, send them this story of how a font is making a bad scandal worse for Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and his family.
- E.T., hit snooze: Wondering why it’s 2017 and we still haven’t made contact with aliens? A new paper proposes that our extraterrestrial neighbors are hibernating and don’t want to waste their energy on answering our messages.
- There are robots with bigger hearts: The Trump administration finally gave an Afghan girls’ robotics team a pass and allowed them into the country for an international competition. Future Tense’s Torie Bosch explains why we shouldn’t give his intolerance a pass.
- Stalker-chat: Adults aren’t the only ones alarmed by Snapchat’s new map feature. Two teens explain why they think it’s creepy, too.
- Lost in translation: As companies like Amazon and Tinder scramble for a piece of the 355 million user Indian internet market, they must also figure out how to tailor content for new audiences. Meeran Karim reports on why tech giants are pre-emptively censoring their products before the government gets involved.
Still definitely not a robot,
Maryam Mirzakhani Was an Inspiration to Women of Color in STEM Fields
On July 14, Maryam Mirzakhani, Stanford professor of mathematics and the only female winner of the prestigious Fields Medal in Mathematics, died at the age of 40.
In just a few hours, her name, both in her native Farsi (#مریم میرزاخانی) and English (#maryammirzakhani), was trending on Twitter and Facebook. Most major news agencies were covering the news of her death as well as recounting her many achievements.
The grief was especially hard-hitting for a generation of younger academics like me who have always held Maryam as a role model whose example is helping redefine women’s status in science and especially mathematics.
The irony was that Maryam always tried to avoid the media’s spotlight. Her modesty and simplicity despite being the only woman to gain such high status in the world of mathematics—winning what’s often called the “Nobel Prize of math”—stood out to those who knew her.
Unfortunately, I did not get the chance to meet Maryam personally. But like many of my Iranian peers in academia, I looked to her example as proof that the world would welcome us and our scientific contributions no matter our skin color, nationality, or religion.
As people around the globe grieve the loss of this talented mathematician, Maryam’s life stands as an inspiration for young girls and boys from all walks of life the world over.
Steady advances of a hard-working genius
Despite her calm expression and warm smile, Maryam was a warrior. She and her family, alongside many other Iranians, lived through the hard economic and social transformations after the Iran revolution in 1979 and also survived the eight years of the Iran-Iraq war a few years after that.
Maryam originally wanted to be a writer, a passion of hers that never faded away even during her postgraduate studies. However, she found an even greater joy in how rewarding it felt to solve mathematical problems. As a student, she was the first female member of Iran’s national team to participate in the International Math Olympiad, and she won two gold medals in two consecutive years—still a record.
She received her bachelor’s degree from Sharif University of Technology in Iran and later a doctorate from Harvard. In 2014, Maryam was recognized with the Fields Medal, the highest-ranking award in mathematics, for her efforts in what’s known as hyperbolic geometry. Her work focused on curved surfaces—such as spheres or doughnut shapes—and how to understand their properties. Her achievements have applications in other fields of science including quantum field theory, engineering, and material science, and could even influence theories around how our universe was born.
Maryam was a “hall of fame” all by herself. She modestly attributed her own success to her perseverance, hard work, and patience. As she put it: “The beauty of mathematics only shows itself to more patient followers.”
Unfortunately, when she was honored with the Fields Medal, she was already tackling her last challenge, the breast cancer that eventually killed her.
Who she was, not just what she did, matters.
Maryam’s contributions to the field of mathematics will long be remembered. But just as important is her legacy as a role model.
Maryam was an Iranian, a woman and an immigrant to the United States. Unfortunately, these three words together raise red flags for some in Western countries, particularly in the U.S., in the time of Trump’s proposed travel ban.
Against all odds, Maryam’s talent was nurtured in Iran and later flourished in the U.S. Her successes discredit the xenophobic stereotypes that are encouraged by a politics of fear. Maryam defied expectations and rose above all the labels that make it easy to judge others who are not like “us.”
Maryam’s legend may continue to grow after her early death. Still only 20 percent of full-time math faculty at U.S. universities are women, according to a 2015 demographic survey of 213 departments by the American Mathematical Society. Research shows that stereotyped role models can influence whether people “see themselves” in certain STEM careers. The example of a woman who rose to the top of this still very male field may help inspire math’s next generation.
In the same way people think of Marie Curie or Jane Goodall as scientific pioneers, Maryam Mirzakhani will go down in history as a trailblazer as well as a mathematical genius.
U.K. Implements a Requirement for Age Verification on Porn Sites
The United Kingdom will officially implement an age-checking system on porn sites by next spring, Ars Technica reports. This comes as a part of the Digital Economy Act, which was passed in April 2017.
Users who want to visit porn sites will have to verify their ages by providing credit card information. Companies that do not implement these methods by April 2018 could face repercussions, like being blocked by internet service providers, paying a fine, or being denied access to payment websites like PayPal.
The British Board of Film Classifications will play the main role in the monitoring of this requirement. To the dismay of activists and citizens, the BBFC can also force ISPs to block content it deems inappropriate or obscene, even for adult viewers.
Some are also worried that this age verification system will leave people more vulnerable because companies will have data about those using the sites.
And advocates feel that the government should be more concerned with the privacy of its citizens. Ars Technica reported that Jim Killock, a group director for the digital freedom group Open Rights, said, “the government has repeatedly refused to ensure that there is a legal duty for age verification providers to protect the privacy of Web users.”
The Digital Economy Bill was passed at the tail end of the legislative session and covered a wide range of technology-related issues. Nonporn segments of the law increase the length of prison sentences for those found guilty multiple times of copyright infringement, increase communications monitoring, add more regulations to the BBC, and other things.
Back in 2016, the Electronic Frontier Foundation addressed the bill, which was then being tabled in Parliament. The organization had many issues with the proposed age verification system, including concerns about how the law might affect other parties like advertisers and payment service providers, but its core objection had to do with consumer privacy.
“It provides only minimal additional protection for children against exposure to age-inappropriate material, but at the cost of making anonymous access to adult content impossible,” they wrote.
*Correction, July 19, 2017: This post originally and incorrectly included a photo of the French Parliament. It has been replaced with one of the British Parliament.
As American Tech Firms Move to India, Many Choose to Self-Censor
Among big American tech companies, the race for India is on. With 355 million internet users (and rapidly growing) up for grabs, it’s no surprise that firms like Facebook, Netflix, and Amazon are investing billions of dollars to make inroads in the world’s largest democracy.
But as they do, they’re running up against a particular conundrum: how to cater to the country’s cosmopolitan consumers without offending its more conservative classes, including the right-wing government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. In a surprising number of cases, companies are erring on the side of censorship—for instance, by blocking images of dead cows and ads for anti-nationalist home goods.
A Robot Security Guard Rolled Its Way Into a Fountain
Robots can do all kinds of things that humans just can’t.
They can sit in the same place for years and weld car parts together with a level of precision that no human can faithfully reproduce. Some smart machines can speak dozens of languages. Others can fly hundreds of feet in the air, surveilling life down below.
But sometimes the biggest challenges for robots are things that we humans take for granted. Like, say, not falling into decorative fountains.
On Monday, a robot security guard from the California-based startup Knightscope fell in a fountain outside of a Washington, D.C., office building. The wheeled robot was making its rounds when it encountered a common feature of manmade environments it’s not built to handle: a fountain with stairs.
Our D.C. office building got a security robot. It drowned itself.— Bilal Farooqui (@bilalfarooqui) July 17, 2017
We were promised flying cars, instead we got suicidal robots. pic.twitter.com/rGLTAWZMjn
Knightscope says that this is an isolated incident and that it’s replacing the robot at no charge. Presumably, the robot is equipped with computer vision software that should be able to detect obstacles, like bodies of water, or cars. But clearly, its smart eyes didn’t quite work in this instance, demonstrating how difficult it is for robots to navigate a world built for humans.
Knightscope’s robot is supposed to deter criminals and act as a roving security camera that can call for backup if it senses something has gone awry. But because it’s on wheels, it can’t pursue a human for very long, especially say, if the suspect walks up a flight of stairs. It also seems clear now that a savvy intruder would head to a water trap to evade his mechanical pursuer.
Other robots intended to navigate environments built for people are equally limited. Take the humanoid Pepper made by Softbank. Pepper is supposed to provide customer service in retail settings, like by answering basic questions and helping people find their way around a store. While Pepper is impressive in that it can move its arms and fingers in a remarkably lifelike manner and understand human language, ultimately, its most useful feature is the iPad strapped to its chest.
Same goes for Kuri, a new robot designed to rove around people’s homes. Kuri is cute and all, but like Pepper, it’s pretty limited. It can record what’s happening when you’re out of the house, like if your dog is letting itself out, and it can entertain your kids and remember their faces. But it can’t exactly help out with household chores.
This isn’t the first time a Knightscope robot has acted out of bounds. Last summer, a Knightscope robot was on guard at a mall in California when it rammed into a 16-month-old toddler and ran over one of his feet.
Bilal Farooqui, whose tweet brought the Knightscope robot’s dip in the fountain to widespread attention, referred to it as “suicidal.” But that’s giving the machine too much credit. After all, the robot security guard probably didn’t even realize where it was headed before it took the plunge.
For its part, Knightscope is playing along with the jokes online:
What the Research Really Suggests About That Facebook Chatbot Therapist
Using social media can be a little like a free—albeit not very effective—therapy session. People share life events, complain about their problems and offer each another advice, along with lots of FOMO, rants, and vaguebooking.
So Woebot—a chatbot engaging in therapy-like services via Facebook Messenger—seems intriguing. The idea is to help you understand and monitor your moods using a combination of natural language processing and therapeutic expertise. Sounds good, right? Using A.I. via social media to significantly reduce psychological problems like anxiety and depression would be quite a breakthrough. But there are some major hurdles to overcome.
Like the rest of the health care sector all across the world, mental health treatment is in crisis. Therapy and counseling are incredibly labor-intensive, requiring multiple sessions with one expert per client over long periods of time to achieve even modest results. As such, this is an area ripe for Silicon Valley-style disruption—using technology to scale a competitor service to a bigger audience at a lower cost. In the past year, we’ve seen ample evidence of this happening. Ever since Facebook opened its Messenger platform to developers, there’s been an explosion of chatbots, and several of them are explicitly marketed as mental health tools.
Woebot, built by a Stanford team, is one of the first to be scrutinized under empirical research and peer review, and the results were published in the Journal of Medical Internet Research (Mental Health) on June 6. From a flyer posted online, researchers were able to recruit a convenience sample of about 70 participants, mostly white women. While it would be easy to criticize such a lopsided sample, it’s more important to note that at baseline, more than 75 percent scored in the severe range for anxiety symptoms. These people are vulnerable and in need of care and protection.
Participants were randomly assigned to either interacting with the bot (test condition) or were directed to self-help resources (control condition). Before beginning the treatment, Woebot first introduced participants in the test condition to the concepts of cognitive behavioral therapy, which is a type of psychotherapy that encourages clients to restructure their thinking patterns to try to improve their moods. Then Woebot gathered mood data by asking general questions and replied with appropriate empathetic responses. For example, if a participant expressed loneliness, Woebot would reply with something like, “I’m so sorry you’re feeling lonely. I guess we all feel a little lonely sometimes.” (Here’s an example of a Woebot interaction.) Its conversational style also included CBT techniques such as goal-setting and reflecting participants’ mood trends back to them. If a participant reported clinical-level problems like suicide or self-harm, he or she was directed to emergency helplines.
After about two weeks, participants once again completed measures of depressive/anxious symptoms, and positive/negative mood. The study’s lead author said that she was “blown away” by the data, but compared with baseline, no significant between-group differences were observed in terms of anxiety, positive mood, or negative mood. Only on reported depressive symptoms were any significant results achieved. In other words, being assigned to Woebot instead of self-help material made no difference to participants’ mood or anxiety levels.
To be frank, these results aren’t much to write home about. But at the same time, in these times of extraordinarily dysfunction in health care provision, any work that tries to alleviate mental health suffering should be welcomed, if cautiously. While Woebot might not be a cure-all right now, as the authors of the study say, for the 10 million U.S. college students suffering from anxiety and depression, it has the potential to become a useful mental health resource.
However, there’s another wrinkle here, one the study authors don’t mention in their write-up. Because Woebot is built on Messenger, participants’ data is shared not only with the Woebot operators, but with Facebook, too.
Facebook came under fire earlier this year when it was accused of helping advertisers target teenagers by their emotional state—an accusation it strenuously denied. In comment to Slate, Facebook confirmed that it does not offer tools to target ads to people based on their emotional state. Moreover, Facebook also said that it does not target any type of advertising based on the content of Messenger conversations. So, if you use Woebot, you should not receive targeted ads based on the deeply sensitive data you share with it, and hence Facebook. So far, so good.
However, Facebook could not confirm that it had no plans to do so in the future. Of course, Facebook never comments on future product developments, so this is unsurprising, and it doesn’t necessarily mean anything nefarious is in the works. But at the same time, this policy could change, and certainly Facebook has done so in the past. Note, for example, the $122 million fine thrown at Facebook by the European Commission for combining its data with data from WhatsApp—something that it said it “couldn’t” do when it first purchased WhatsApp.
Fundamentally, the social media industry is largely self-regulated, and as a result, so are therapeutic bots like Woebot. Even if they are minimally effective, the people using them are clearly vulnerable and deserve to have their most sensitive information secured indefinitely. Our mental health crisis is not going any time soon, and government and the tech industry have profound responsibilities here. As therapy and counseling are disrupted, we need to make this emerging field safe and secure for all of us.
A Close Reading of Apple’s Latest Emojis
The longer that we live with emoji, the more disappointingly familiar they threaten to become. Slate has taken a firm and consistent line on the growing realism of these once abstract images: Last year, Zoe Mendelson chastised Apple for its increasingly realistic emoji keyboard, writing that its characters had grown, “way too lifelike, literal, objectively interpretable, and well, way less weird.” More recently, Ian Prasad Philbrick mourned the passing of Android’s peculiar blob emojis. And back in March, Christina Cauterucci surveyed some of iOS’s promised options, writing that emoji’s real power had once been its provocative imprecision, a quality that threatens to fade with each new addition.
Now that those iOS characters are almost here, however, it may be time to reconsider that line of reasoning, if only because many of them are still deeply, deeply strange. On Monday, Apple previewed some its new offerings, complete with a cutesy animated GIF. In what follows, we offer close readings of six of these soon-to-be iconic icons.
FACE WITH OPEN MOUTH VOMITING
It’s hard to imagine an emoji that we at Slate have wanted or needed more than this concise representation of queasy disgust. In Slack, the chat program we use for internal communications, we’ve employed a handful of substitutes to make up for its persistent absence, including a still of Peter from Family Guy throwing up. It’s an option that I’ve been loath to use, largely because the show itself does little to calm my stomach.
So despite its graphic qualities, this new emoji comes as a sort of relief, much as leaning over the toilet can when you have food poisoning. Look closely, however, and you’ll see that this image is still surprisingly strange. That veritable river of green spew seems to be peppered with tiny yellow and red dots of … something. It is as if our hero had attempted to Taste the Rainbow™, only to find that it disagreed with his digestive system. Will Skittles sue Apple? Only time will tell!
This emoji set, which comes in two genders and a variety of skin tones, feels less overdue, and less necessary, than its upchucking compatriot, but it may yet play an important role. It seems primed, of course, to appeal to the Lord of the Rings fan in us all, but in its wide-eyed wonder it seems poised to help us tell other stories. No mere reminder of J.R.R. Tolkien’s imagination, it might become an invitation to other adventures. I, for one, know what I’ll be texting to my old Dungeons and Dragons group when the time comes to get the gang back together for one last delve into the lost mine of Phandelver.
This is a good zebra. Nice stripes, strong pose. Great work, Apple.
Here we have another with fairly obvious applications. I can already imagine texting it to a friend, accompanied by a selfie of me standing beside Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist David Fahrenthold that I might someday take, my own mouth similarly agape with undisguised delight.
And yet, I can’t escape the way those outsized stars obscure the character’s eyes. Might we, perhaps, interpret this image as a subtle commentary on our cult of celebrity? Is there not a story here of the ways that our fascination with fame blinds us to the realities of our world? Despite its seemingly cheerful charms, perhaps this image is a grim indictment of the way we live now. Reader, this is nothing if not an artifact of an era that could have elected a manifestly incompetent businessman to the highest office in the land, just because he happened to have a successful television show.
Sometimes you need an emoji that simply says, “My. Mind. Is. Blown.” And until now we haven’t had one that fits the bill. Despite its grim implications at a time when the Doomsday Clock ticks toward midnight, the mushroom cloud that rises from this figure’s head finally satisfies that need.
Nevertheless, I find myself dwelling on the incidental debris that projects outward from the explosion. Those bits of emoji skull resemble nothing so much as a shattered shell, and yet there is no neural tissue in sight. The implication seems clear: Apple’s emoji faces, these characters we know and love, are as hollow within as painted Easter eggs. In this, there is a paradox of sorts: How can your mind be blown if you have no mind to blow?
Zombies serve many functions in our culture, but at best they are manifestations of pure, appetitive Id. They are hungry for our brains because they, monstrous embodiments of ugly drives that they are, have no mind of their own. How strange, then, that Apple’s zombie seems almost tentative. He reaches out, yes, but there’s something plaintive the way his eyes roll upward, as if he were asking your permission to come closer.
Here, I think, we learn the real lesson of Exploding Head. As he joins the pack, this zombie knows that he is already among his kin. In Apple’s emoji, there are no brains to eat.
Even Teenagers Are Creeped Out by Snapchat’s New Map Feature
On June 30, Snapchat released its newest opt-in feature, the Snap Map. With one swipe, users’ Snapchat contacts appear on a map, making it easy to share one’s whereabouts with friends. As the company put it: “If you and a friend follow one another, you can share your locations with each other so you can see where they’re at and what’s going on around them!”
But that’s not all. Snapchat users will be able to use maps to check in on “sporting events, celebrations, breaking news, and more from all across the world.” In other words, Snapchat users will be able to see curated content uploaded by strangers. When users opt in to the feature, they encounter a “Welcome to Snap Map” animated screen followed by a tiny message that reads, “Using the Map requires location access.” Underneath this message—in larger font—is a blue button that reads “Allow.”
We are both big Snapchat users—as a senior in high school and sophomore in college, we are firmly in the app’s primary demographic. But if we had our way, this new tool would not be offered at all.
Snap Map does indeed connect us even more closely to our contacts. Knowing friends’ locations can allow people to find one another more easily and facilitate impromptu meetups. But this is taking the upside of connectivity too far. The locations aren’t estimates—they’re precise street addresses. The app can now be used to pinpoint the exact locations of your contacts, down to their homes. And that’s a huge problem. Especially because geolocation data is some of the most sensitive personal data.
This is a topic close to our hearts. We’re sisters, and we grew up hearing our mother Danielle Citron, who is an expert on cyberharassment and information privacy law, talk about the risks inherent in data collection. That hasn’t stopped us from loving apps like Snapchat and Instagram, but we are also acutely aware of the fact that our personal data is sold and traded in ways that are often unsafe.
Snapchat’s fan base is young: Sixty percent of users are under 25, and 23 percent haven’t graduated from high school yet. We both fall squarely into that demographic. We use Snapchat to stay connected with our friends and each other. When J.J. started her freshman year at Colgate University, Snapchat helped us stay in touch.
But we will not be opting into the Snap Map feature. Snapchat’s ability to track and trade users’ geolocation can be embarrassing and far worse. If you opt in but don’t end up using the feature regularly, you could easily forget you’re being tracked. Snap Map can reveal a visit to the psychiatrist or plastic surgeon. It can show an afternoon at the local bar, even though the user is underage. It can signal a visit to an ex-boyfriend’s house, something that a current love interest would not be thrilled to know about. Worse, the feature opens the door for that random Tinder match you added on Snapchat two years ago to find you walking alone at night.
In England, police have already raised concerns about the Snapchat’s newest update. Preston Police issued a statement on its Facebook page which emphasized the potential threat to younger users and detailed how to remove oneself from the service after opting in. Additionally, the U.K. Safer Internet Centre said: "It is important to be careful about who you share your location with, as it can allow people to build up a picture of where you live, go to school and spend your time.”
The real purpose of Snap Map may be to prove to your contacts that you are indeed social. Let’s face it: Someone who’s sitting on the couch watching a movie with her parents isn’t going to opt in. It’s the college student vacationing in Europe or the high schooler partying with friends who will opt in. In exchange for perceived social capital, users have sacrificed their privacy. With this in mind, we cannot expect them—especially young people—to proceed with caution.
So whose duty is it to educate kids about these risks? We think Snapchat has an obligation to educate its users about both the risks and benefits of the Snap Map. Users should be held accountable for their online behavior. But, at the same time, they should be aware—meaningfully aware—of what they’re opting into.
Internet Service Providers Were Not Amused by the Net Neutrality Day of Action
Wednesday was a day of action for those supporting net neutrality. Many companies and sites displayed banners and pop-ups asking users to contact the Federal Communications Commission, which recently voted to repeal Obama-era rules to protect the open internet. The FCC is currently accepting public comment about the decision, which is why Wednesday’s protest was so important. Fight for the Future, the organizing group, reported that more than 125,000 websites, internet users, and organizations participated. People sent than 3 million emails to Congress about the importance of protecting net neutrality—the concept of a free and open internet that doesn’t prioritize certain traffic—under the auspices of Title II of the Communications Act of 1934. (There are a lot of wonky details in this battle. Helpfully, after the FCC vote in May, the Verge explained the technicalities.)
With all that momentum, it could hardly be expected that major ISPs would just sit back.
Comcast had the most dramatic response to the situation, saying supporters of net neutrality were creating hysteria, Ars Technica reported. In a blog post, Senior Executive Vice President David Cohen wrote, “The scare tactics being pursued by some groups that ISPs like Comcast will block or throttle lawful content are simply untrue.”
Verizon responded to the online protest with a blog post that said the fight for net neutrality has been “characterized primarily by slogans and rhetoric” and that it was time for “real action”—though it didn’t say exactly what that action should look like.
Many of these companies, including Comcast, maintain that they actually support the concept of net neutrality—they just disagree with the way it was implemented in 2015, under something known as Title II of the Communications Act of 1934. But most open internet activists think that without Title II, net neutrality is doomed. (In fact, many small internet service providers support Title II.)
AT&T went so far as to join the day of action—sort of. Like other sites, it had pop-ups urging users to contact the FCC by filling out a form and sending a pre-written message. The only problem is those contact forms actually supported the FCC adopting new rules that end use of Title II to protect net neutrality, the Verge reported. For example, one template said, “I agree with the FCC that it doesn’t make sense to apply an 80 year-old regulatory scheme to the internet.”
Back in 2015, after the FCC adopted long-awaited rules to enshrine net neutrality principles, AT&T was among other organizations, including the National Cable & Telecommunications Association and the American Cable Association, that sued the FCC to overturn the regulations. A July 2017 study from MapLight found that over the past nine years Comcast, AT&T, Verizon, and the National Cable & Telecommunications Association have spent $572 million on influencing multiple government agencies, including the FCC. The study estimates that for every comment sent to the FCC about the proposed elimination of net neutrality this time around, those four groups spent about $100 on their lobbying efforts. Good news, though: Thanks in part to the day of action, the number of comments sent to the FCC has risen to 7.5 million. And it seems safe to wager that most of those didn’t come via AT&T’s form.