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Good morning.

It’s 2017, and the internet is ubiquitous. If you're reading this, chances are you can’t get by in your daily life without it. And most of us take it for granted.  

Last week, chair Ajit Pai announced the FCC's move to vote on the termination of net neutrality rules. 

But the bright pixels on your smartphone mask a greater ecosystem at play—one that we usually don’t think about on a daily basis. The internet is a complex network of peers, so to speak, and is governed in the U.S. by 2015 Federal Communications Commission rules prohibiting internet service providers (ISPs) from creating “fast” and “slow” lanes for certain types of content. That is, companies like AT&T and Comcast couldn't privilege or prioritize specific websites or domain names, nor can they block lawful content, applications, or internet-based services.  

“Net neutrality is the principle that your internet service provider, after you give them your money, does not get to decide to charge you more or less to access certain websites,” said Jeremy Gillula, senior staff technologist at the Electronic Frontier Foundation. “They’re not allowed to basically paint winners and losers that way.”

Last week, the current FCC chairman, Ajit Pai, announced that on December 14, the Commission will vote on the Restoring Internet Freedom order, which would roll back many of the net neutrality regulations currently in place. Since Republicans have a 3-2 majority, it’s likely the order will pass. Under loosened net neutrality laws, we might see the internet become more like cable TV

“You’ll have to choose, ‘Do I want the Facebook package or the Twitter package? Do I want the conservative or the liberal media package? Do I have to pay extra to access that obscure message board about knitting hobby?” Gillula said. “In that way, we’re a little worried about the Balkanization of the content that people are most likely to access.”

Big names like Google and Facebook probably won’t be affected—but the rest of the internet will likely be subject to fiercer competition net neutrality regulations leveling the playing field.

“That’s a fundamental change in the functioning of the internet and its protocol design, which treated all data sent from point to point equally,” said Sara M. Watson, technology critic and affiliate of the Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University. “The costs for better service will be passed on to consumers. And that could result in a very different experience of the internet for haves and have nots.”

Gillula, who has a background in robotics and previously worked on both drones and autonomous cars, says that the proposed order could affect more than just your browser. It could impede the development of new Internet of Things devices, for example, since any internet-connected appliance would have to be approved by an ISP—and then it’d have to abide by its rules.

“That’s going to squash the opportunity for that new device to really thrive and take off,” he said.

Those against net neutrality argue that it has discouraged investment and that the internet should remain unregulated. But proponents of net neutrality say the digital landscape is radically different now than it was five or 10 years ago—and that requires a reevaluation of what’s fair.

“The concerns of the people are being ignored,” former FCC chairman Tom Wheeler told NOVA Lens. He instated the 2015 neutrality rules. “We’re only talking about the network around which the entire 21st century is going to be built. The question is, who is going to make the rules?"

He says the internet has quickly moved from a discretionary service to an essential one.

“The fact that the agency of government—which since 1934 has been responsible for protecting the public interest with America’s networks—has now announced that they’re going to walk away from any responsibility over consumer’s access to the internet is just a shocking development,” Wheeler said. On the flip side, there will be some guardrails to the new proposal, including the possibility that ISPs would be open to antitrust suits.

Regardless of your political beliefs on this or other issues, the debate over net neutrality is a case study of how technology and policy can become deeply entangled. 


A volcano in Bali—Mount Agung—is erupting, and climatologists are saying it could affect global temperatures.

Volcanoes have been erupting since pretty much the beginning of time," said volcanologist Janine Krippner. "It’s basically a normal part of the Earth’s cycle. There are some volcanoes, though, that have produced so many gases like sulfur dioxide that can actually go up into the atmosphere, they can reflect light back, away from the Earth—and this can cause a little cooling. There are no climate implications based on the current observed emissions to date from Agung." 

Bali's Mount Agung, the morning right after the eruption | Photo courtesy KieselUndStein, iStock

While there are no climate implications based on current observed Agung emissions, Krippner says that if Agung erupts in a similar way to how it erupted in 1963, it could lead to about a 0.1 to 0.2 degree Celsius cooling for one to two years. Whether or not that happens will depend on the severity of this eruption and the types and ratio of gases that get emitted from the volcano.


If you think you already don't have enough privacy, take a minute to ponder your cell phone.

This week, the United States Supreme Court heard the case Carpenter v. United States, which will has to do with cell phones and privacy. In 2011, the FBI was investigating a series of armed robberies around Detroit. They suspected Timothy Carpenter was guilty, and used his cell phone location data as evidence. 

This case is a big deal because it will determine whether our digital information has constitutional protection against government surveillance. Read more in New York Magazine, and check out our video about the physics behind texting:

What’s the science behind texting? When you hit send, how does your message leave your phone and make the journey to your friend’s phone?


In response to our post about a new lightning detector in space, Josh Hust wrote:

That's awesome, Josh! We love hearing about people's personal connections to new science and technology developments. Thanks for sharing!
Earlier this fall, researchers from West Virginia University and the University of Kansas released a report that compared fertility rates in Flint to those in other Michigan cities before and after Flint changed its water source in 2014. They found that the birth rate declined by 12% and the fetal death rate increased by 58%. Babies that were born in Flint were less healthy than elsewhere throughout the state. This is only the beginning of the immense negative impacts that lead poisoning will have on the health, education, and overall life prospects for the children that are being born into an already difficult situation in one of the nation’s poorest cities.

This research is a dangerous reminder that policy decisions made without the health and well-being of communities in mind and that disavow their voices and those of scientists, can have disastrous outcomes. It is difficult to tally the cost of life that this crisis will have on the Flint community for decades to come, but I’m sure that it far surpasses the “savings” made in a decision that has poisoned children and will possibly change their life trajectories.

—Ralph Bouquet, NOVA education and outreach manager


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See you next week, 

Allison and the NOVA team

National corporate funding for NOVA is provided by Draper and 23andMe. Major funding for NOVA is provided by the David H. Koch Fund for Science, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and public television viewers.
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