Future Tense
The Citizen's Guide to the Future

Oct. 27 2016 5:27 PM

Netizen Report: Protesters Set Fire to Modems in Saudi Telecom Boycott

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The Netizen Report offers an international snapshot of challenges, victories, and emerging trends in internet rights around the world. It originally appears each week on Global Voices Advocacy. Afef Abrougui, Ellery Roberts Biddle, Weiping Li, and Sarah Myers West contributed to this report.

When Saudi Arabians began a boycott of mobile providers Oct. 1, they planned for it to last a day. Nearly one month later, it is still going. Protesters are pressuring Saudi Telecom Company, the country’s state-owned provider, to lower service rates and push back against bans on select services offered by Viber, WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger, Telegram, and Skype. Protesters are refusing to use mobile networks, ceasing all text messaging and declining to add credit to their data packages.


While a handful say they are relying exclusively on broadband connections for communication, Global Voices’ sources in the country say that most people involved have switched to smaller service providers including local competitor Mobily and Kuwaiti telco Zain. The campaign has gained significant traction on Twitter and on YouTube, where several supporters have posted videos of people destroying modems (some with the Saudi Telecom logo clearly visible) and flushing SIM cards down the toilet.

Fadal Bou Al-Ainain, an economist interviewed by local outlet Arab News, says Saudi Telecom could lose more than $13 million if the boycott continues through the end of the month.

In other news from Saudi Arabia, social activist Mamdouh Alshammari, also known as Al Monsadah, was arrested by law enforcement authorities for allegedly publishing critical videos on Snapchat. The Arabic Network for Human Rights Information reports Saudi security officials have begun a campaign of arrests against social media critics over the past several days, including arresting one teenager and the activist Aboud Bad. It is anticipated that they will file charges against Al Monsadah for “disrupting the public order, the religious values or public morals, or any false accusations.”

LinkedOut? Russian court decides to block LinkedIn on privacy grounds
LinkedIn, the world’s largest online professional network, is at risk of being blocked in Russia, where federal censors have convinced a Moscow court to outlaw the network. A judge found that LinkedIn illegally shares nonusers’ personal data without their permission. The court also ruled that LinkedIn collects personal information from users in Russia without storing the data on servers located in Russia—a legal requirement introduced last year that few foreign internet companies respect.

Yandex takes independent news sources off its “top news” roster
The Russian search engine Yandex plans to stop featuring articles from news outlets that have not registered with the Russian government in its “top news” lists. Yandex is being forced to make the change in order to comply with a June 2016 law regulating online news aggregators with more than 1 million daily viewers. The changes are anticipated to take effect by January 2017.

Morocco lifts ban on VoIP apps, for now
Moroccan authorities have unexpectedly lifted a ban on VoIP applications that left subscribers unable to use voice-calling features of tools like WhatsApp and Skype since January 2016. As of Oct. 24, Moroccan users have been able to access these and other applications without using virtual private networks or other circumvention tools. Moroccans suspect that the change is temporary and believe it came in anticipation of the U.N. Climate Change Conference set to take place in the city of Marrakesh between Nov. 7–18.

Chinese police report calls virtual private networks “violent and terrorist software”
A police report leaked last week from China's Xinjiang province describes internet censorship circumvention tools as falling into a special category of “second class violent and terrorist software.” The report does not describe an actual crime taking place; rather, it anticipates that a crime might have taken place because the suspect attempted to access censored web content with a circumvention tool. There is no public information describing how or why certain technologies are classified as such, or what other products share this classification. For users in China—VPNs are relatively common in major cities and at private companies—the leak has raised major questions about the legalities of circumvention tools now and in the future.

New Research

Oct. 27 2016 3:07 PM

New FCC Rules Require Internet Providers to Protect Users’ Personal Information

On Thursday, the Federal Communications Commission passed new regulations that require internet service providers to protect the privacy of their customers.

Oct. 27 2016 12:17 PM

Twitter Says It Will Crack Down on Abuse—After the Election

Twitter says it will be making some meaningful changes to its safety policy in order to clean up its notoriously toxic atmosphere and crack down on “targeted behavior that harasses or threatens others to silence another person’s voice.”

Oct. 27 2016 11:40 AM

Will Technology Make Ownership Obsolete? A Future Tense Event Recap.

The destinationless driver and her beloved Mustang facing the open road. The Bob Dylan fan thumbing through his prized vinyl collection. Ms. Fix-It tinkering away her basement workshop.

These are the joys—the independence, the control, the freedom, the physical connection—that have defined the American pursuit of ownership. But what happens if technology—in the form of app-based sharing companies, digital rights management, and user agreements—makes this kind of ownership obsolete?


That’s the question Future Tense—a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University—posed to experts at a live event on Oct. 25 in Washington, D.C. It was part of the “Future of Ownership” edition of Futurography, a project in which Future Tense explores a different tech-related topic each month.

The subscription-based and shared-economy business models operate under the premise that the ownership we once romanticized is largely overrated. After all, cars cost us $9,000 a year to use and maintain and sit in garages or parking spaces most of the time. So why not get a ride—and music, movies, even clothes—on-demand instead?

Lauren Belive, the senior federal relations manager for Lyft, kicked off the conversation by describing the near-future the ridesharing company envisions. By 2025, Lyft hopes, autonomous networked fleets will have made private car ownership obsolete in urban environments. (She took care to note that human drivers will still be in high demand through the transition, and the change will come later in suburban and rural areas.) Individuals not only retain their ability to get around from place to place through on-demand services, but also get the added benefit of fewer cars parked or on the road—less congestion, less pollution, and more urban space freed from pavement and parking spots. That could transform cities, as Slate’s Henry Grabar recently explored in a Futurography piece.

These subscription and sharing-based models also give many consumers access to things they would never have been able to own, said Spotify’s senior director of sales, Holly Maine. “We are able to bring more music to more people with more diverse backgrounds, people that may not have had access to it or even known that they’d liked certain genres to more people than when it just came down to buying that CD or buying that piece of vinyl.” But that doesn’t mean she thinks that ownership is going the way of the 8-track tape. Though she’s an ambassador for a streaming service, Maine said she still puts on one of her vinyl records from time to time because she loves the way they sound.

This gets at a larger point about the changing nature of ownership: Though we may be able to access everything, people will still want to own what they care about most—that classic car in the garage or that designer gown in the closet. On the other hand, those who don’t have the same attachments to traditional ownership, particularly people growing up now, may find these post-ownership experiences to be particularly freeing—be it building a playlist to send to their crush or by stylizing a self-driving car experience with customized music, lighting, and video landscapes.

But that’s not to say this vision of the future is inevitable or entirely desirable. While there may be some freedom in shedding possessions, we can’t overlook the you-bought-it-but-you-don’t-really-own-it phenomenon. Through restrictive licensing terms (those things you never scroll through before clicking “I agree”) and digital and physical locks, more companies have started to obstruct users’ abilities to access, share, alter, and repair their purchases, as Charles Duan, the director of Public Knowledge’s Patent Reform Project, discussed. For example, Apple Music swapped out its users’ music files overnight and replaced them with streaming versions that lived in the cloud.  Macbooks now come with proprietary screws that make them difficult to open and repair. Lexmark made printers that stopped working if they detected unauthorized ink (as Duan wrote about for Futurography). And, with the Internet of Things upon us, the lines of ownership will continue to blur as software and software updates may limit consumers’ abilities to use a car, thermostat, or programmable cat-feeder—and already have.

The downsides of this trend aren’t just for individual consumers, Duan said. These sorts of blocks prevent innovation from those who find unintended uses for products (like putting food coloring in those ink cartridges so they can print on cakes, or Ikea hacks like Duan’s printing press) and from those who can point out flaws and help make products better (like third parties who find and notify companies of security vulnerabilities). It’s also an environmental threat—if devices become harder to fix, more people will give up on them, creating a big recycling and resource problem. And then there are the complicated copyright and trademark issues that 3-D printing will raise. U.S. Patent and Trademark Office Chief Communication’s Officer Patrick Ross said the revolutionary technology will undoubtedly improve our lives and transform the economy, but that its rules have yet to be worked out publicly and may “make headlines” along the way.

These new models can also be much more complicated than they look at first. Do consumers know what they’re getting and what they’re giving up when they hit “I agree” on those End User Licensing agreements? Are they thinking about potential privacy concerns that may come with their networked choices? And, as journalist Monica Potts suggested, are we making “sure that people are participating in the sharing economy because it’s what they prefer”—that they’re choosing not to own things rather than not being able to afford them? Will the government step in to fill in the gaps not filled by the sharing economy by funding public transportation options or pushing for portable benefits for contract workers?

Even though the models may be changing, those in the conversation agreed that consumers and workers still hold some power to shape what ownership, or non-ownership, will look like in the future. But with a younger generation growing up in an increasingly post-ownership world, it’s unclear what desires will drive their choices, what fights they’ll pick, and what power dynamics they’ll accept.

Watch the full Future Tense event on the New America website.

Oct. 26 2016 5:49 PM

Facebook’s Revamped Safety Measures Aim to Prevent Suicides

Facebook revamped its safety measures this week, making its “Safety Center” available in more than 50 languages and updating its reporting tool to allow users to flag friends’ concerning posts.

The Safety Center includes bullying prevention advice for teens, parents, and educators and links to more than 60 partner organizations and suicide hotlines, along with privacy and account security tips.


The reporting tool lets users reach out to friends about other friends who may need help. USA Today describes how it works:

To use the tool, go to the concerning post, click the down arrow in the top right corner, select “Report Post” and click “I think it shouldn’t be on Facebook.” Then, select what is wrong with the post. For users concerned about a suicidal friend, they can select: “It’s threatening, violent or suicidal.” The following window asks to choose a type, where an option is “self-injury or suicide.”
A window then pops up, prompting users to contact a local authority immediately if they believe their friend is in danger. Plus, Facebook offers a list of next steps: “Reach out to a friend,” “Learn how to talk with Facebook Safety about this” and “Ask us to look at the post.”
When users select "reach out to a friend," they have the option to send a direct message to another friend with the concerning post and Facebook suggests this language: “Hey, this post makes me feel worried about [Name]. Do you have any idea why [Name] would have written this? Do you think there's something we can do to help?”

When Facebook first announced the tool in June, it said “if you or someone you know is in crisis, it is important to call local emergency services right away.” The tool was developed in collaboration with organizations including Lifeline and Save.org.

Facebook first launched its safety center in 2010 and added the bullying prevention hub in 2013.

Oct. 26 2016 3:11 PM

Google’s Super-Fast Fiber-Optic Internet Service Provider Cuts Staff, Pauses Operations

Google Fiber, the super-fast fiber-optic internet service first announced in 2010, has “paused” operations in 10 cities where it is not already committed and cut its staff, the company announced in a blog post Tuesday.

Oct. 26 2016 12:00 PM

U.S. Intelligence Chief Says Internet Outage Was Likely the Work of a Non-State Actor

The head of U.S. intelligence, James Clapper, said Tuesday that a non-state actor was likely behind the cyberattack that caused a massive internet outage Friday. Speaking at the Council on Foreign Relations, Clapper said the investigation was still underway but that it “appears to be preliminarily the case” that the attack was the work of an individual or group not affiliated with a foreign government.

Oct. 26 2016 11:27 AM

Don’t Worry! The Law Justin Timberlake Broke Is Unconstitutional.

Justin Timberlake just wanted to get out the vote. On Monday, Timberlake voted in Memphis and shared a photo of his ballot on Instagram, encouraging his followers to “#rockthevote”—“Choose to have a voice!” he implored.* But several outlets quickly noted that Timberlake had clearly violated a Tennessee law prohibiting so-called ballot selfies, thereby risking up to 30 days in jail. The district attorney’s office initially said that Timberlake’s actions were under review, but it later clarified that it would not use its “limited resources” to investigate his criminal conduct.

This entire incident is extraordinarily unfortunate, because it likely gives the impression to Timberlake’s many followers that banning ballot selfies (and punishing those who share them) is a valid exercise of state power. It isn’t. Every court to consider the constitutionality of ballot selfie bans—four so far—has concluded that they constitute a suppression of free speech in violation of the First Amendment. As the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 1st Circuit ruled in late September, these “restrictions on speech” are “antithetical to democratic values,” censoring political expression under the tenuous rationale of preventing voter coercion—“an unsubstantiated and hypothetical danger.” And on the same day that Timberlake snapped his now-infamous photo, a federal judge in Michigan suspended the state’s ballot selfie ban, concluding that the law substantially burdened political speech without any adequate justification.


Civil liberties groups know a winning cause when they see one, and the American Civil Liberties Union is eager to invalidate the ballot selfie bans that remain in about two dozen states. Millennials snap and share ballot selfies en masse, using them to express their enthusiasm about voting and encouraging their friends to exercise the franchise. That’s why it’s such a shame that the DA decided not to prosecute Timberlake. Had it pursued charges, Timberlake—with the ACLU’s help—could have valiantly battled Tennessee’s attempt to censor his political expression. His legal crusade would have surely captured the nation’s attention and sent a powerful message to his many young followers that in America, we don’t let the state silence our free speech rights without a fight.

But instead, Timberlake simply removed the Instagram photo, meekly allowing Tennessee to chill his constitutionally protected expression. What a shame. The First Amendment needs defenders, now more than ever. If Justin Timberlake won’t stand up for free speech, who will?

*Correction, October 26, 2016: This post originally stated that Timberlake voted in Nashville.

Oct. 26 2016 10:48 AM

Future Tense Newsletter: Making Sense of That Cyberattack

Greetings, Future Tensers,

Early Friday morning, major internet destinations—including Twitter, Netflix, BuzzFeed, and more—seemed to go offline, more or less simultaneously. After some initial confusion, security researchers determined that it had been a distributed denial of service attack against a company called Dyn that provides crucial infrastructure for many sites and services. Significantly, those researchers also demonstrated that the attack was perpetrated using hacked “Internet of Things” devices. As a subsequent recall confirms, it was mostly hacked cameras and DVRs from a single Chinese manufacturer.


We still don’t know who perpetrated the attack, and it’s possible that we never will. But Josephine Wolff writes that we can still learn a great deal from it. Notably, she points out that though the Internet of Things methodology is relatively novel, the results look a lot like those we’ve seen in past cyberattacks. There’s something reassuring about this, since it suggests that we’re not heading for some apocalyptic scenario where our internet-connected toasters try to burn our houses down. By way of example, look to the case of automobile hacking, which is more likely to end in extortion than old-fashioned murder.

Speaking of cars, Henry Grabar explores how shared self-driving cars might transform urban spaces in a video and accompanying essay for our Futurography unit on the future of ownership. (Tesla’s Elon Musk also has some troubling thoughts on the topic.) In that same series, Charles Duan discusses Lexmark, a printer company with a litigious history that helped limit our control over devices we own. And Emily Tamkin tries to solve a fascinating enigma: Why do we often pay more for digital versions of a product than we do for the physical ones? This week, we held an event to discuss some of these questions. If you missed it, you can check out C-SPAN’s coverage of it here.

Here are some of the other stories we read while waiting for our phones to update:

  • Climate change: Want to better understand what’s happening to the environment? Check out some fiction on the topic.
  • Pediatrics: Screen time may not be terrible for young kids after all (but that doesn’t mean you should just leave them in front of an iPad, unsupervised).
  • Silicon Valley: Should tech companies exile Peter Thiel from their boards for his support of Trump? Will Oremus doesn’t think so.
  • Gaming: I talked to a guy who’s collected hundreds of screen shots of soda machines in video games. His project is equal parts stupid and brilliant. I love it.


  • Join New America President Anne-Marie Slaughter for a screening and discussion of the 2010 film Never Let Me Go. The screening of Never Let Me Go will take place at 6:30 p.m. on Wednesday, Nov. 2, at Washington, D.C.’s Landmark E Street Cinema at 555 11th St. NW. For more information and to RSVP click here.

Jacob Brogan

for Future Tense

Oct. 25 2016 5:37 PM

Amnesty International Slams Snapchat and Skype for Not Encrypting Messages

Amnesty International says digital encryption is a human right because it’s vital to unimpeded communication of activists and journalists.