The US this week showed its strangely contradictory approach to regulating the internet.
Yesterday, president Barack Obama gave his first comprehensive response to criticism of America’s electronic surveillance regime. He promised new checks to reduce the chance that innocent people around the world—and their leaders—are swept into nets meant for terrorists and criminals.
But those nets will still sweep. Obama endorsed the collection of information (“metadata”) about most electronic communications, if not their actual content. And many questions about the revelations from former US intelligence contractor Edward Snowden are still unanswered.
Yet while the the government is happy to flex its muscles in the name of national security, it seems to flinch from using them for the benefit of internet users.
Obama entered office endorsing “net neutrality,” the idea that broadband providers must treat all data on their networks equally. But regulators, rather than directly enforcing that rule by declaring the broadband companies “common carriers,” tried to implement it via a circuitous route. This week, as many predicted, a legal challenge—from telecoms giant Verizon—overturned that approach. The regulators could still choose to enforce net neutrality on the telecoms more directly. But will they, given that they have shied away from it up to now?
Those same broadband firms, unlike the newer data companies—Google, Facebook and the like—made barely a peep of complaint about the intrusive surveillance that Snowden revealed. It may be mere coincidence that regulators are so reluctant to impose their will on a sector so complicit in that surveillance. But it’s not an attractive-looking coincidence for Obama, and it doesn’t bode well for an open internet in the years ahead.—Tim Fernholz
Five things on Quartz we especially liked
Understanding Google’s purchase of Nest. Why pay $3.2 billion for a company whose only products are an internet-enabled thermostat and smoke detector? Well, say Christopher Mims and Tim Fernholz, Nest is a foundation for the coming smart grid and for the internet of things, which means it could be bigger than Android. Plus, it has at least 100 ex-Apple employees.
Tiger mother, eat your heart out. Francis Thompson’s 12 children all paid their own way through college. He explains how he and his wife raised them. (A lot of self-teaching was involved, including how to wash toilets, build computers and fix cars.) We haven’t met the Thompson kids, but at least three-quarters of a million of our readers sure would like to.
The world’s taste for coffee and whisk(e)y. In a series of charts and maps, Roberto Ferdman reveals that Singaporeans are the world’s most avid guzzlers of Scotch whisky, Australians drink (just slightly) more American whiskey than Americans, and the world’s true coffee fiends are northern Europeans.
A final message for Ariel Sharon. In 2005 Gideon Lichfield went to Gaza to visit his cousins, religious settlers who were being evacuated in Israel’s “disengagement.” This week Ariel Sharon, who orchestrated the pullout, died after eight years in a coma. Lichfield caught up with his cousins to find out what they would have said to the Israeli leader before he died.
Everyone who’s at Davos this year. David Yanofsky reprises our interactive graphic allowing you to search the elite conference’s 2,633 attendees by name, region, and other criteria. As one disappointed reader has already discovered, there’s nobody called Murphy.
Five things elsewhere that made us smarter
How to build a good toilet. What could be simpler than digging a hole in the ground? A lot, says Zach Gershkoff in the Atlantic. His experience of making pit latrines as a Peace Corps volunteer in South Africa informs an illuminating essay on the importance, and small miracles, of human sanitation.
The case of the missing heat. Climate-change skeptics have seized with glee on the fact that the overall global temperature has barely risen since 1998. Jeff Tollefson in Nature reviews the attempts of scientists to explain the hiatus—and explains why we might be about to see the heat come back with a vengeance.
Brain-death hangs in the balance. The medical consensus that a “brain-dead” person is, for all intents and purposes, truly dead enabled organ transplants that have saved countless lives. Now, writes Gary Greenberg in the New Yorker, a mix of religion, politics, the internet and new medical knowledge are conspiring to upset that consensus in the US.
Why you keep putting off your retirement planning, and that diet. Neuroscientists have discovered that we perceive our future selves as literally different people. Alisa Opar in Nautilus reports on some surprising tricks that are now being employed to get people to act more in their own long-term interests.
The movie Her isn’t about love, but interaction design. Spike Jonze’s tale about a man who falls head over heels with a computer operating system may seem to question the nature of relationships. In fact, argues Kyle Vanhemert in Wired, its predictions about how computer interfaces will work are far more radical and influential.
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