The President’s State of the Union address was a dangerously mixed-bag for gamers Tuesday night. The plethora of recent high-profile data breaches and hacks, such as the Sony hack, has given the President the political cover to push a stringent agenda that offers more potential negatives for gamers than positives. Interestingly, even though the President talked about Internet issues extensively in three speeches leading up to the State of the Union, he spent relatively little time on the subject Tuesday night. Indeed, the word “Internet” only appears three times in his hour-long speech and is only used in broad ideas, not connected to specific policies. However, by looking at those earlier speeches and their associated legislative proposals, gamers can understand the President’s Internet priorities.
On the bright side of things, President Obama’s call to increase broadband Internet service through municipal networks could be good news for thousands of underserved gamers. Currently, nineteen states have laws in place that make it illegal for counties or cities to build and offer their own Internet service to residents. The President and the FCC argue the FCC has the authority to change that through rule-making. The FCC chairperson has been warning of this action since the summer and last week, the President gave a preview of the issue. Many Republicans believe that the FCC does not have the regulatory authority and that this issue is a legislative one.
Municipal broadband, when it works, generally offers great rates for very fast Internet connections. Chattanooga, Tennessee, for example, has a system that offers 100 Mbps connections for $58 and 1 Gbps for $70 per month. However, in order for municipal broadband to be effective, you generally need relatively high density and/or centralized population to make the investment make sense. It is a plan that does not generally work in rural communities, meaning that the least served in America will remain so.
Also good news for gamers, one of the three mentions of the Internet in the State of the Union was his pledge “to protect a free and open Internet”. This is a clear signal that the President intends to continue his push for Net Neutrality. Net Neutrality is the idea that all traffic and devices on the Internet should be treated the same by carriers- ISPs cannot discriminate based on where this data originates or is headed. For gamers, Net Neutrality would ensure we do not have to pay more for our connections to Steam, Xbox Live, PSN, or any other gaming service nor would it cost us more to keep our speeds high.
More troubling for gamers is the President’s “tough” stance on cybersecurity issues. His proposals could lead to a murkier legal landscape when it comes to many of the activities in which gamers like to partake. There is a new data and intelligence sharing bill very similar to previous bills that the Internet rose up against with such responses as the Internet blackout of 2012. The new incarnation is CISPA and it has many of the same concerns as the earlier versions, but this time, apparently, it also has the President’s support.
For gamers, the language is especially troubling because it gives companies immunity for data breaches. PSN had a data breach in 2011 that led to the compromise of millions of users’ information. Sony settled a resultant class-action suit for $15 million dollars. That would not be an issue for them under the new law. Additionally, the law asks that information about “cyber-threats” be shared with the US government without adequately defining what that means. Theoretically, the government could know what you are doing on-line without a warrant because private companies are freely telling them in the name of information sharing.
The other very troubling change for gamers is a tightening of language and increase in punishments under the Computer Abuse and Fraud Act. The changes would further criminalize violations of terms of service. Do you let a friend share your gaming service log-in? Currently, that is a violation of the Terms of Service and can get your account suspended. If these proposed changes go into law, that act could be a felony. One would hope that federal prosecutors would have something better to do with their time, but as the Aaron Swartz case suggests this is sadly not always true.
So what can you, as a gamer, do to ensure your rights online stay strong? Contact your representatives and let them know your opinion. Let them know this is a priority issue for you, and let your voice be heard.