FCC Fork Tongues on Net Neutrality

Little Rock   It wasn’t so long ago that we don’t remember, but in a fierce fight that logged more citizen comments that ever before recorded on a Federal Communications Commission matter, the FCC essentially declared the internet equivalent to a public utility assuring net neutrality, meaning that all providers have equal access to users. Everyone from consumers and citizens to Silicon Valley were happy to have won this one. The telecommunications monopolies sued and are still in court, but in a disappointment to them and the politicians they fund with their huge contributions, they have most recently lost their efforts to overturn the Obama FCC order, and are appealing to the Supreme Court.

In the wave of the Trump Administration rollbacks of Obama era regulations and initiatives, the new FCC Chairman, Ajit Pai, has immediately sought to unravel the internet’s classification as a utility, assure net neutrality, and pretty much have the FCC play any role in regulating any of this. Chairman Pai is a slick one. He claims he is totally committed to what he calls an “open” internet. He swears he is a big “streamer” himself and that he’s a bannerman for “Game of Thrones” as a binge watcher.

Listening to an interview with him on the radio was a very scary thing, because not only is he a fast and smooth talker, but he’s duplicitous and evasive on the issues. He had two key talking points in trying to muddy the waters.

First, he harps on the fact that the regulation defining public utilities goes back to 1934 and President Franklin D. Roosevelt. He made that points several times in different ways in order to try and embed the notion that this is antiquated and out of date and the internet is modern, so how could one possibly be adequate for the other. He slightly slips up by mentioning that the 1934 regulations were dealing with monopolistic tendencies of AT&T, forgetting for a minute that it might be worth still looking at what’s up with AT&T and its buddies now, since it’s a longway from small potatoes.

Secondly, he tried a curve ball, trying to argue that he was trying to take the FCC back to what he called the Clinton era regulatory philosophy which prevailed from what he claimed was 1990 to 2015, meaning until the Obama FCC majority put the internet under protective custody, so to speak. No question, President Clinton was a deregulator supreme, but what Pai was trying to plant here in unsuspecting minds was the idea that he is mainstream and that Obama and his FCC majority were outliers.

The game was up when the interviewer pressed him for how he thought under his proposal that telecoms speeding up their own content and slowing up their competitors would be handled. This was a forked-tongue masterpiece. He answered quickly saying that if they did that and it hurt consumers then the Federal Trade Commission could investigate and so could the Justice Department, along with state agencies around the country. Huh? Yes, he was careful to push any and all responsibility for telecom miscreants to everyone and anyone other than the FCC. Under his watch, they are clearly planning to wash their hands of any supervision or regulation. Essentially, he was saying, hey, if you have a problem, catch them if you can, and good luck with that.

In these days this passive, reactive approach to anything involving the internet and consumers just doesn’t work, and he knows it though he doesn’t want to upset his patrons and paymaster. Case in point, we have Uber creating software in order to deliberately trick states and cities where it was committed to avoiding and breaking regulations barring or limiting its participation. Another case in point, we also have is the huge scandal where Volkswagen created software to trick regulators on how many miles per gallon its diesel engines were getting.

The internet and software both giveth and taketh away. It’s not easy finding the tricksters, because this is wildly sophisticated lawbreaking. The FCC wants to go back to 1934 and snooze their way through the Trump-era, but citizens and consumers depend on the internet, and the FCC needs to do their jobs of protecting us and it, and not just spin their way around their duty.

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Secrets? Who Has Secrets Anymore?

yahoohackLittle Rock   If you ever want to keep a secret, don’t ever write it down anywhere. Don’t walk, but run away the internet! That’s increasingly the single biggest clue to protecting your privacy.

The evidence mounts daily as the tidal surges of data seep out of every conceivable internet portal and stream into hands both nefarious and purposeful. Let’s look at some cases in point.

  • WikiLeaks has to be in the conversation, but someone has to explain Julian Assange to me these days. Is he about transparency or anarchy? Is he serving a greater cause or an agent of the KGB? The fact that we’re scratching our heads, means there is a big warning sign attached to anything with a WikiLeaks label these days.
  • Yahoo had all of the critical data lifted from a half-million customers in the latest and largest hackfest, including social security numbers and the whole enchilada. The biggest concern in the papers was whether it would lower Yahoo’s sale price to the telecoms.
  • The FBI arrested someone in August who had lifted the source code for hacking into foreign government websites (and just maybe we should discuss that sometime, too!), but now they aren’t clear if he was a Snowden wannabe or a hoarder who couldn’t keep himself from taking stuff home. Booz Allen has made billions subcontracting to NSA and other agencies for this kind of spy craft, but seems to be running a Swiss cheese factory.
  • Yahoo seems to have answered a secret subpoena from the government and created a scanner for its email to try and isolate messages for an alleged terrorist the G-men were tracking.

The list is endless: Apple, one bank after another, credit companies, department stores, hotels, and on and on. Pretty much if you operate in the modern economy, your data is eventually going to end up everywhere, partly because it cost money for companies to protect it, and they would rather apologize for the breech and say, “it’s happening to everyone,” rather than provide the security they are implicitly promising whenever you turn over your information.

No worries, you could go with encryption right?

Not if you follow what is happening to Open Whisper, reputedly the best encryption site out there developed by Mr. Encryption, Moxie Marlinspike, an eccentric, genius hacker and programmer. The government has secretly subpoenaed his company for information. We know this because the ACLU has won some court proceedings trying to protect Marlinspike and his operation. Nonetheless the government is still after Open Whisper because they are trying to collect information that the company expressly says that it does NOT collect.

We’re living in a catch-22 world now. We can’t live with the internet, but we can’t live without it. At this point we need to come to grips with the fact that unless we’re hand signaling to someone out in the wilderness somewhere, no secret is safe, and of course even while our lips might be moving and our hands waving, an eye in the sky probably has our GPS coordinates handy and some footage available.

Our lives are an open book. Get used to it!

***

Please enjoy Suzanne Vega’s We of Me. Thanks to KABF.

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Establishing Internet as a Utility – This is Big!

internet-logos-1024x643Quito   In the midst of so much tragedy at the massacre of almost 50 LGBT men and women at a nightclub in Orlando and the horror and insensitivity of the Trump and Republican response, it was still possible to find a bright spot in the news: a federal court has backed policies establishing the internet as a utility.

It was not just any court either, it was the highly influential United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, one of the most prestigious in the country. By a 2-1 vote on the panel, the judges in an 184-page decision came down solidly with the people rather than the industry by holding that the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) rightly can regulate the internet and assure net neutrality, because in fact the internet is not a luxury good, subject to special pricing and plundering by cable companies, but a utility, necessary for all the people.

This doesn’t close the door. There will likely be an appeal of course to the Supreme Court, but it opens many doors that might include more expansive rulings by the FCC that the internet is not only a utility, as a vital communication and consumer tool, but a public good that should be regulated accordingly and done so aggressively.

At one level this is something we all knew. Applying for jobs, getting through school, applying for many public benefits for the poor, keeping up with friends, and even the news of the nation, is increasingly impossible without the internet. The federal government’s investment in recent years to extend access to the internet to more rural areas and to public schools and libraries was evidence of this, even while being a subsidy for private carriers.

Interestingly, there are signs that the recognition of the public utility nature of the internet may be trickling down. On the one hand the FCC is talking about loosening the restraints that private internet providers have managed to lobby through many state legislatures to block municipalities from establishing their own systems to insure that all their citizens have affordable, high speed access. On the other, I got a press release the other day that the Ouachita rural electric cooperative in southern Arkansas of all places had partnered with an outfit so that it could extend internet services to 9000 families lacking access in the footprint of the cooperative. That would be a nice idea to catch on fire with other cooperatives that are sitting on money and unclear what to do with it other than pay their directors.

So, sure, we all hate utility companies and there have been thousands of campaigns to try and get them to be more accountable, provide better service, and affordable or lifeline rates, but if there’s one thing we’ve learned to hate even more than the local telephone, gas, or electric company, it’s the profiteering cable companies. With this decision we can hope their time in the sun and at the trough is finally coming to an end, so that all the people can access and afford the internet, because it’s a utility operating as a public good and necessity as well.

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Only One Hand Clapping for FCC Expanded Lifeline Rule for Internet

indexNew Orleans   FCC Chairmen Tom Wheeler claimed the decision to expand Lifeline programs from telephones to the internet was a major breakthrough in closing the digital divide. This was a 3-2 decision on party lines. The majority at the FCC claim that this broadening application of the subsidy will “help millions of low-income households connect to the internet.”

The New York Times noted that “only about 40% of families making less than $25,000 a year can afford broadband while 95% making over $150,000 have high-speed internet at home.” The program will provide a monthly subsidy of $9.25 to access broadband. The eligibility for the program will begin with those eligible for either food stamps through the SNAP program or veterans benefits.

This must be a good thing, right? Why are we not applauding or at best have only one hand clapping this new FCC initiative?

Let’s look at just some of the reasons.

First, this program will NOT close the digital divide, and the subsidy is basically a subsidy for internet providers like Comcast, Times-Warner, Charter, Cox, and others, more than it is a subsidy for lower income families.

Why do I say this?

Well, let’s please remember that analysts argued several years ago when the FCC required Comcast to establish a $10 per month program for lower income families as a condition of approving their acquisition of Universal, that Comcast would still make money on internet even at $10. This program will be almost a ten dollar subsidy for a family to access broadband, which in plain English means of course that the internet provider will be charging more, and potentially way more, for the service while the $9.25 knocks a bit off the bill. In the run-up to the FCC’s action some argued that average basic internet bills were running $30 to $40 per month. Knock a ten-spot off of that bill, and we’re still talking about families pushed up against the wall having to come up with another twenty or thirty bucks. And, I’m not even talking about the cost of installation or whether or not the family has a computer. This is just not going to happen.

And, will this be “high-speed” just like those 95 percenters have who are making $150,000? I doubt it. In Canada for several years after we got Rogers to agree to a $10 per month plan in public housing in Toronto, we were constantly arguing with them about issues of speed. One or two megabytes per second is not enough to stream or download or do most web-based homework. The FCC action was silent on this issue.

One-hand clapping might say this is better than nothing. Maybe. But, the fact that internet providers are not complaining should be a clue, friends and neighbors. They are glad to get their hands on some of the billions that had been solely subsidizing phone service for some lower income families. The Comcasts don’t sell phones and phone service, so this is all good news for them.

For lower income families this new program will mainly be another myth where they are playing Tantalus and trying to reach the grapes, always out of reach.

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Internet for All

Screen Shot 2016-02-02 at 10.26.18 AMNew Orleans    If we want to make a difference in income inequality, there are some easy and accessible first steps that we can take and one of them is to lower the digital divide.

ACORN Canada released a report based on a survey of 400 of our nearly 80,000 members across the country, and it was impossible to miss the point.

Looking at the facts in the report, the survey found that:

· 58 Percentage of Canadian households with annual incomes of $30,000 or less with home Internet access.
· 98 Percentage of Canadian households with annual incomes of $120,000 or more with home Internet access.
· 83.5 Percentage of ACORN survey respondents who find high-speed Internet “extremely expensive.”
· 59 Percentage of survey respondents who pay for Internet by forgoing other household necessities.
· 71 Percentage who used food money to pay for Internet services.
· 64 Percentage who used recreation money to pay for Internet services.
· 13 Percentage who used rent money to pay for Internet services.

ACORN had already prodded Rogers, one of the telecom monopolies in Canada to offer a $10 per month program but it was limited to public housing, largely in Toronto. Several other companies have come on board, but as the facts indicate, not enough has been done to reconcile the fact that access to the internet has now become a basic utility.

The ACORN report came out while the Canadian equivalent of the Federal Communications Commission, the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission or CRTC continues its review of Canada’s basic telecommunications services first begun in the spring of 2015.

The ACORN demands are straightforward:

Specifically, members are asking for:

$10/month product for high speed (15 megabits/second or equivalent to high speed in area);

Families and individuals below the Low Income Measure as eligible to qualify;

Subsidized computers for qualifying families and individuals.

The LIM or low income measure in 2013 was $20,933 for an individual and $41,866 for a family of four, after taxes. These are demands that resonant across North America.

One ACORN member told the story to the Toronto Star that might be repeated a million times,

Toronto single mother Kashima Wright had to give up her home Internet last fall when the bills began to top $100 a month. Now she and her 6-year-old daughter Nalise have to walk to the local library to go online.

“I just couldn’t afford it anymore,” said Wright, 25, a personal support worker who earns about $1,700 a month after taxes and pays more than $1,200 a month in rent.

“I don’t want my daughter to fall behind in school,” Wright said. “But it’s not always easy to get to the library to help her with her homework.”

Facebook is flying drones over Africa. Google and Alphabet are reporting record profits. Cable and telecoms are making record profits. Canada, the USA, or wherever, this is a problem that can be solved, and if the divide is not closed, then the gaps show up everywhere and inequality spreads like a disease.

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Want Privacy? Move to Europe

euro_internet_privacy_custom-8ee191296b311315d8f8271fcb0b6672f75ca820-s900-c85Pittsburgh   New internet privacy rules are emerging in Europe with the announcement that there will be one set of rules governing internet data for all 28 countries in the European Union. US companies are already crying like stuck pigs even though the rules do not take full effect for another two years and still have some procedural steps before being completely finalized.

The problems from the tech side: permissions and transparency. The EU rules would require individual user sign-off on every instance where a company wants to use your data. Period. In the USA consumers at best are asked for a blanket permission without knowing the what or wherefore, but increasingly knowing that ticking approval on the box means you can expect ads to follow interminably that try to align your interests and their products. In Europe conceivably you could simply say “no” to use of your data for advertising purposes, while in the USA the constant requests for sweeping approvals almost block usage of your phones and other tools unless you automatically consent. The outline of the new regulatory regime in Europe in this area indicates that penalties and fines for companies aren’t patty cake, but could range as high as “4% of global profit.” One corporate lawyer complained to the Wall Street Journal that ambiguous law and high fines were a “toxic” combination. The EU has their attention!

On the transparency side Europeans are about to learn how they are sorted by the algorithms used by the companies. That’s not to say they are going back office and seeing the code, but they will see the “baskets” and categories where they are grouped. And, they can complain about it and that should be interesting. Add the earlier right of Europeans to “disappear” or have data removed from Google, Yahoo, and the other search engines, and Europe isn’t just a different set of governments from the United States, it’s a whole different world.

Meanwhile Hillary Clinton, in a speech on security coinciding with the most recent Republican shout out, debate, or whatever they call it, pleaded with tech companies to play nicer with the government in the name of security, claiming the techies need to get over the Edward Snowden revelations. I imagine that she’s not asking for a real solution as much as a workaround, but in some way her speech also demonstrated the real difference on privacy and its regulation between Europe and the United States. In Europe the regulations flow from what the individual wants to governing corporate behavior. In the United States it runs the other way and what the corporations want from the individuals ends up in government regulations. There they are worried about individual rights. Here we are just sales figures on profit and loss columns, more data to be crunched, part of the garbage in and the garbage out.

This may be a case where compliance with EU regulations may end up having some benefits that wash over the shores on our side of the Atlantic.

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