SXSW 2018 Take Back Your Internet Event Recap

This year, Golden Frog held our annual Take Back Your Internet panel and party with Giganews and Data Foundry on March 9th during the opening night of SXSW. Hosted at the Texas Public Policy Foundation a mere 352 yards from the Austin State Capitol, our guests and panelists discussed a few key questions about the repeal of Net Neutrality, data as property and the state of Internet Freedom and what it means for Internet users going forward.

Panelists for our 2018 event included:

  • Philip Molter, Co-CTO, Golden Frog
  • Chance Weldon, Attorney, Texas Public Policy Foundation (TPPF)
  • Rachel Wolbers, Policy Director, Engine
  • Joseph Lorenzo Hall, Chief Technologist, Center for Democracy and Technology (CDT)
  • Moderator – Ellen Troxclair, Austin City Council

FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn, a longtime supporter of an open Internet and outspoken champion for smart, targeted regulatory action, joined us for introductory remarks. Then, Moderator Ellen Troxclair was diving into the big questions with our panelists: what is next after Net Neutrality, whether personal data should be considered personal property, and what their thoughts were on the worrisome decline of worldwide Internet freedoms.

About the repeal of Net Neutrality, Weldon warned, “Be cautious, sometimes you see stagnation when there is over-regulation.”

Wolbers, whose company Engine supports tech entrepreneurship and startups through research, analysis and advocacy, believes, “A startup’s number one issue is net neutrality. They cannot pay for a fast lane or special access.”

“Net Neutrality is good for large businesses as well,” Hall added to the discussion. “We still hold some hope Congress can do something coherent.”

And Molter stated, “We’re tepidly supporting net neutrality because it’s a solution, but not the best. You used to have to compete. Net Neutrality enshrines the government-supported monopoly we have. It’s a band-aid on top of this kind of gaping wound of Internet service.”

Internet-related issues aren’t confined to United States borders, either. For most people with their finger on the pulse of global Internet policies, another great concern looming on the horizon is the continual decline in freedoms around the world. A good barometer for how limited Internet freedoms are in a country is the amount of energy that government invests in restricting or outlawing VPN services within their borders. China and their development of the great firewall to use advanced forms of machine learning was one such example.

Molter spoke of the rise of VPNs to circumvent those blocks anyway, and how it isn’t limited to countries we typically consider staunchly restrictive. “VPN use is increasing not just in places we think of as autocratic, but in places we think of as free,” he said. “You ask what can people do? Go out and get a VPN.”

“I do a lot of work in Internet freedom and let me tell you it’s pretty depressing,” Hall remarked. “The decline in Internet freedom is global, not limited to autocratic regimes. Even the EU and US are actively reconsidering intermediary liability which could result in proactive or live monitoring. That’s a far cry from the free and open Internet we grew up with.”

When the conversation shifted to concerns about privacy, which is of course closely connected to Internet freedoms and human rights in general, the proposed changes to Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act (CDA) were discussed. In response, Wolbers noted, “Congress doesn’t seem to realize the tech industry isn’t just made up of two big companies [Google and Facebook]. Whatever works or doesn’t work for those companies won’t be the same for the whole industry. If platforms want to remove content they can do so, but they should not be forced to by the government.”

There is a legal theory in the United States called the third-party doctrine which holds that a person has no reasonable expectation of privacy for information voluntarily provided to third parties. This doctrine, which U.S. courts have adhered to since the 1970’s, allows government law enforcement to collect records from banks, phone companies, Internet providers, and other businesses without precluding Fourth Amendment rights.

Referencing the doctrine, Weldon said, “Property rights aren’t legal construct, but natural rights. You absolutely have a property right in your data.”

“I don’t think data is property; it’s not a tangible thing you can give away,” Hall put in. “But that doesn’t mean data doesn’t need legal protection. The U.S. is the only country without a data protection law. Instead of creating property rights, create laws about how to collect and use this data.”

Molter agreed with Hall’s sentiment, voicing his own concerns about data collection; “The only people who think your personal data is not your personal property are people who want to take and sell your personal data.”

Working alongside the Center for Democracy and Technology and other partners, Golden Frog is helping to establish a best practices guide for VPN companies regarding standards for the VPN industry to empower consumers to select providers they can trust.

Didn’t catch our panel or party live? Check out the gallery below to see what you missed!