Late last week, Hacker­noon’s Jeff Kao posted ‘More than a Mil­li­on Pro-Repeal Net Neu­tra­li­ty Com­ments were Likely Faked’, an arti­cle and ana­ly­sis that alle­ged that up to several mil­li­on com­ments sub­mit­ted to the US’s Federal Com­mu­ni­ca­ti­ons Com­mis­si­on (FCC) were gene­ra­ted by bots.

 

In his rese­arch, Kao focu­sed on one cam­pai­gn. That cam­pai­gn, he esti­ma­ted, had used mail-mer­ge to dis­gui­se 1.3m com­ments as ‘uni­que grass­roots sub­mis­si­ons’. An over­whel­ming pro­por­ti­on of tho­se com­ments were in favour of aban­do­n­ing net neu­tra­li­ty.

 

On the other hand,” Kao con­ti­nued, “com­ments in favour of net neu­tra­li­ty were more likely to devia­te from a form let­ter and were much more nume­rous in the long tail. If the type, means of sub­mis­si­on, and ‘spammi­ness’ of com­ments from both sides were equal, we would expect a rough­ly-even dis­tri­bu­ti­on […]. That is evi­dent­ly not the case.”

 

Kao’s break­down found that fewer than 800,000 of the more-than 22m com­ments could be con­s­i­de­red tru­ly uni­que. Of tho­se uni­que com­ments, more than 99 per cent were in favour of kee­ping net neu­tra­li­ty.

 

It is important at this point to take a step back at this point and talk brief­ly about what net neu­tra­li­ty is. Net neu­tra­li­ty is a simp­le con­cept, yet one that sounds incredi­b­ly com­plex due to the unfa­mi­lia­ri­ty of the phra­se. Good pri­mers on what it is can be found here, here, and here. What it means essen­ti­al­ly is that all data on the web must be trea­ted equal­ly by tele­coms com­pa­nies. So the web­site for an inde­pen­dent book­shop plays on the same level play­ing field as Ama­zon.

 

In 2015, the Oba­ma Admi­nis­tra­ti­on enshri­ned into law regu­la­ti­on that guar­ran­teed net neu­tra­li­ty. That legis­la­ti­on ensu­red that inter­net access was clas­si­fied as Tit­le II, mea­ning that it could be regu­la­ted by a public utility—in this case, the FCC. In short­hand, it meant that pro­vi­ders were sub­ject to open inter­net rules.

 

Sin­ce then, the world has chan­ged and the 45th US pre­si­dent seems intent on undoing ever­y­thing the 44th put into place. The cur­rent chair­man of the FCC is Ajit Pai, who in a pre­vious role was Asso­cia­te Gene­ral Coun­sel at Veri­zon, whe­re he hand­led com­pe­ti­ti­on mat­ters, regu­la­to­ry issu­es, and coun­se­ling of busi­ness units on broad­band initia­ti­ves. He out­lined in April that the FCC inten­ded to ful­ly repeal Obama’s 2015 legis­la­ti­on, reclas­si­fy­ing the inter­net as Tit­le I. This would mean that the Federal Tra­de Com­mis­si­on would take over regu­la­ti­on in this area and the pre­sent rules would be repla­ced by ‘princi­ples’. The­se princi­ples are much har­der to regu­la­te, repor­ted­ly, than rules. The only rule left at that point in this game would be that of transparency—the tele­coms com­pa­nies would have to inform con­su­mers that they were choo­sing to thrott­le speeds.

 

Pai’s cur­rent jus­ti­fi­ca­ti­on for this is that net neu­tra­li­ty has been harm­ful for con­su­mers, ham­strin­ging invest­ment by tele­coms com­pa­nies in infra­st­ruc­tu­re. Howe­ver, this has been con­tra­dic­ted by the com­pa­nies them­sel­ves, as seen in this video from Vice, which also offers a neat sum­ma­ti­on of the cur­rent sta­te of play. The offi­ci­al vote regar­ding net neu­tra­li­ty and the new legis­la­ti­on is set to take place on 14 Decem­ber.

 

The­re will be very-defi­ni­te effects on the aban­don­ment of net neu­tra­li­ty. Finan­ci­al­ly, get­ting rid of it means that lar­ger orga­ni­sa­ti­ons with finan­ci­al clout will be able to domi­na­te mar­ket­pla­ces, pushing out their smal­ler, inde­pen­dent com­pe­ti­tors. It also means that tele­coms com­pa­nies will be able to push and divi­de their custo­mers, crea­ting a two-tier sys­tem for the inter­net. The­re are alre­ady moves in that direc­tion post-net neu­tra­li­ty: as repor­ted in ars tech­ni­ca, Com­cast is alre­ady hin­ting at paid fast lanes fol­lo­wing its repeal.

 

The­re are other impli­ca­ti­ons. Any orga­ni­sa­ti­on that upsets a tele­coms com­mu­ni­ty may find their inter­net access cut short. We have seen this in a dif­fe­rent con­text recent­ly when Peter Thiel bank­rol­led a law­su­it against Gaw­ker that ulti­mate­ly saw the web­site forced to shut­ter.

 

The inter­net is cur­r­ent­ly open to ever­y­bo­dy; aban­do­n­ing net neu­tra­li­ty moves that influ­ence to the grasp of a few, lar­ge cor­po­ra­ti­ons.

 

This type of lar­ge-sca­le attack, as seen on the FCC, is not uncom­mon in the­se times. And the effects have been pro­found and deva­sta­ting. In 2016, hackers working for the Rus­si­an government, from a base in St. Peters­burg, worked to try and sway the US Pre­si­den­ti­al elec­tion. Simi­lar sus­pi­ci­ons and smo­king guns have tied that cyber-cam­pai­gn in to inter­fe­rence with the UK’s Brex­it refe­ren­dum, an event that cau­sed seis­mic shocks across Euro­pe and has desta­bi­li­sed much of wes­tern poli­tics. Even now, over a year from the Arti­cle 50 dead­line, the UK remains and bit­ter and divi­ded coun­try. Fur­t­her attacks, thought also to ori­gi­na­te from Rus­sia, came during the Ger­man federal elec­tion in Sep­tem­ber, which ended up brin­ging far-right group AfD into the Ger­man par­lia­ment. Even now, mon­ths later, Mer­kel is struggling to form a government and the pos­si­bi­li­ty of ano­t­her elec­tion is loo­m­ing. The­re are fears, too, that Rus­si­an hackers worked their black magic around this year’s elec­tion in Fran­ce and the inde­pen­dence refe­ren­dum in Cata­lo­nia.

 

It is not yet clear who or what was respon­si­ble for the bots that atta­cked the FCC’s web­site. But it is only natu­ral to look as to who would bene­fit from a repeal of net neu­tra­li­ty and to who has the resour­ces to imple­ment such a sche­me.

 

Attacks like the­se are no lon­ger iso­la­ted, nor are they any­thing other than com­mon­place. Despi­te Natu­ral Lan­guage Gene­ra­ti­on (NLG) being open to all, the­re is still some orga­ni­sa­ti­on that is requi­red. It can­not be accom­plished by someo­ne weig­hing 400lbs sit­ting on their bed.

 

Whiche­ver orga­ni­sa­ti­on is behind the­se bots, the impli­ca­ti­on is clear: we are in a sta­te now of per­pe­tu­al cyber­war. Every shot fired across the bows in the last year has been a star­ting pis­tol for the next wea­pons race.

 

But it also shows the power of NLG. This morning, we ran a test for one of our pro­jects, che­cking some of the lan­guage code. The cur­rent speed of that pro­ject, accord­ing to my machi­ne, is 24.19 texts per second. The texts also read pret­ty well.

 

The upshot? NLG is here to stay.

 

And if the last year has pro­ven any­thing, it is that NLG is some­thing that can be misus­ed, espe­ci­al­ly if imple­men­ted in the shadows, as seems to have been the case. But NLG is not inher­ent­ly a bad thing; it is, ins­te­ad, sim­ply a tool. The best com­pa­ri­son would be with a kni­fe: you can use one to eat din­ner or per­form heart sur­ge­ry. But you can also use it to rob or attack peop­le.

 

At this point, it would be use­ful for a set of ethics to be deve­lo­ped by NLG com­pa­nies, and we are glad to be lea­ding the way. In our next blog, we are going to out­line some of the issu­es and thoughts about what tho­se ethics would be and whe­re they could take us.