Week in Review: December 28, 2016

by Priscilla Guo

Google Signs Internet Deal with Cuba
On Monday, December 12, Alphabet Chairman Eric Schmidt signed a deal with ETECSA President Mayra Arevich Marin to speed up Google services in Cuba, concluding months of talks between Google and Cuba. La Empresa de Telecomunicaciones de Cuba SA (ETECSA) is a state-run telecommunications provider that has a monopoly over Cuba’s internet. With a population of 11.2 million, Cuba is one of the world’s most isolated nations based on Internet usage. The United Nations Development Program (UNDP) reports that only 3.4% of Cuban homes had either Internet or Intranet access in 2015. Access to the Internet is incredibly expensive and at-home connections are illegal. Moreover, the small amount of Cuban Internet usage is heavily censored and surveilled by the state.

According to the Associated Press, the Google Cuba deal will not expand Internet access in the country but rather, simply reduce latency to Google services, such as YouTube. The speed for non-Google services will not be affected. Over the past couple of years, Google has expanded services in Cuba to include Chrome, Google Analytics, and Play Store. Through the deal, Google plans to install servers on the island, allowing the Google Cache network to locally cache content and hastening load times up to 10 times faster. An internet-infrastructure analyst at Dynamic Network Services Inc. Doug Madory finds that the Google Cache network is already being used in Greenland, Somalia, Yemen, and the Gaza Strip. Countries that do not contain Google servers include China, Iran, Syria, and North Korea to name a few. However, according to a local telecom technician, the new deal will not be able to improve reception of Gmail, a core Google service, because email depends on local bandwidth. The incentives for the company are clear – faster services mean that users are able to interact more with the products. More Google searches and YouTube queries allows the company to sell more advertisements to the citizens of Cuba.

There is still no direct Internet link between the United States and Cuba; Google data must travel through Venezuela before it reaches Cuba. Due to national security concerns, Cuba has refused to create a more comprehensive Internet infrastructure via cable. For the past two years, the Obama administration has been building the United States’ diplomatic and commercial ties to the country. There are concerns about the undoing of US-Cuba relations with the new administration but this deal represents one of many that the Obama administration hopes will normalize relations between the two countries.

US Supreme Court Upholds Internet Sales Tax in Colorado
On December 12, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a Colorado law that imposed requirements on Internet retailers in order to recoup sales taxes from Internet purchases. The law mandates that Internet retailers must provide the names, addresses, and purchase amounts to tax authorities; notify customers of their obligation to pay taxes on their purchases; and present purchase summaries to customers, who spend more than $500 in a year. Customers are supposed to pay the internet tax themselves but they rarely do. The Direct Marketing Association (DMA) contended unsuccessfully that the Colorado tax, dubbed the Amazon tax, is a violation of the U.S. Commerce Clause, which prohibits undue burdens on state commerce. The Colorado ruling goes against the 1992 Supreme Court decision that bars states from requiring merchants to collect taxes unless they have a physical presence in the state. State officials estimate that Colorado lost $172.7 million in 2012 alone from missing online sales tax revenue. With online sales expanding 15% annually, sales tax accounts for nearly a third of revenue in many states and more in those states with no income tax. According to a 2012 estimate by the National Conference of State Legislatures, the United States loses $23 billion every year in uncollected sales taxes from internet purchases. At least three other states, Louisiana, Oklahoma, and Vermont, have followed in Colorado’s footsteps by passing similar laws to collect an internet sales tax.

Backing up the Internet in Canada
On November 29, Internet Archive founder Brewster Kahle announced their plan to build the Internet Archive of Canada, which would create a full backup of the Internet in Canada. The Internet Archive is a U.S. based nonprofit that has been archiving the web for the past twenty years. It has provided services like the Wayback Machine, which allows anyone to visit an archived version of most web pages. Likening itself to a library, the Internet Archive has collected petabytes worth of web pages and still continues to archive 300 million new web pages each week. The decision was prompted by the outcome of the most recent U.S. presidential election. U.S. President Elect Donald Trump has stated that the tech industry needs to “close that internet up” to stop the spread of extremism. Since the vote, the number of downloads of the Internet Archive’s privacy program has seen significant increases. By creating a duplicate copy of the archive in Canada, the Internet Archive is creating a “mirror”, or a backup that will lessen the load on servers and circumvent censorship. The nonprofit has begun to solicit donations for this extensive project, which will cost millions. Kahle wrote: “For us, it means keeping our cultural materials safe, private and perpetually accessible. It means preparing for a Web that may face greater restrictions.”

Canada Declares High-Speed Internet is a Basic Service
On December 21, the Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) announced that Canada will spend $750 million over the next five years to ensure that all Canadians have access to a basic telecommunications service. The standards that the CRTC has established include download speeds of at least 50 megabits per second (Mbps), upload speeds of 10Mbps, and an unlimited data option for fixed broadband access services. Moreover, the latest mobile wireless technology will need to be available in homes, businesses, and along major Canadian roads. 18% of Canadians, or 2 million Canadian households, do not have access to internet speeds at these standards. According to CBC News, “The CRTC’s goal is to reduce that to 10 percent by 2021 and down to zero in the next 10 to 15 years.” The plan also addresses an accessibility problem, mandating that wireless service providers accommodate for the needs of people with hearing or speech disabilities within six months. However, the CRTC will not regulate the rate that customers pay for Internet services. Chairman and CEO of the CRTC Jean-Pierre Blais has declared that “High quality and reliable digital connectivity is essential to the quality of life of Canadians and Canada’s economic prosperity.”

Thailand Amends Computer Crime Act to Tighten Internet Control
On December 16, Thailand’s National Legislative Assembly (NLA) unanimously passed an amendment to their 2007 Computer Crime Act (CCA). The amendments stipulate that state officials will be allowed to obtain user and traffic data from online service providers without court approval. The state will also be able to remove or suspend any content that is seen as a threat to national security or “offend people’s good morals”. The law previously required court approval to remove any content. “Blocking websites and persecuting critics…will make us unable to criticize the government at all,” said Yincheep Atchamont of the legal monitoring group iLaw. The amendment has been widely unpopular. On the day before the NLA vote, an online petition against the amendment was led by Thai Netizen Network, an Internet freedom advocacy group, and went on to receive more than 360,000 signatures. On December 20, hackers took down a number of government websites, including Government House, Office of the PM, and the Royal Gazette, went down in retaliation for the passing of the amendment. The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) has identified several concerning aspects to the new amendments of the CCA: ambiguity for users, dangerous intermediary liability, and lack of accountability. According to Human Rights Watch Asia director Brad Adams, “The adoption of the Computer-Related Crime Act drastically tightens the chokehold on online expression in Thailand. Hundreds of activists have been prosecuted since the May 2014 coup for exercising their freedom of expression online, and these latest amendments will make it even easier for the junta to punish its critics.”