Internet as a Weapon at Home and Abroad

Houston   Silicon Valley and its fans argue that tech is a tool enabled by the wonderful world of the internet.  They aren’t totally wrong, though like all tools, tech and the internet, have to be used correctly of course.  We all know that, right?  We also are finding out more and more that these tools in the wrong hands for the wrong purpose, quickly become weapons.

When India went after its Muslim state and citizens in Kashmir, what did it do quickly?  Turn off the internet.  Zimbabwe dealing with civil strife and unhappiness with the economy responded to its people by doing what?  Turning off the internet.  We’ve seen turning the internet off and on frequently as a weapon used by countries to contain and coerce their citizens around the world.

In another way, we see the internet used as a weapon by big telecoms against the populations that need and depend on the service.  An investigation by the Dallas Morning News found that AT&T, whose headquarters is in the Dallas area ironically, had weaponized access to the internet for profit.  More than that, they had targeted lower income families and census tracts using access to the internet and its affordability as blunt instruments against the poor.

The paper found that AT&T determined where to establish faster internet by property values.  Higher values, indicating higher incomes, got faster internet first.  Lower property values got faster internet either later or not at all.  There’s more though.  AT&T also charged lower income customers in those areas more for the slower service than they charged those with higher valued locations.

Local 100 and ACORN in the US, Canada, and elsewhere have campaigned aggressively under the banner “Internet for All” to lower the digital divide.  Amazingly, AT&T in Dallas, and likely other cities once these investigations spread, is not only profiting from the digital divide, it is building a digital wall with the rich on one side and the poor on the other.

Reading the Dallas Morning News article was not exactly a surprise to us.   Several years ago (BT, before Trump) when the FCC had required Comcast to offer $10 per month internet access in acquiring Times-Warner, they touted this program on a voluntary basis to other companies.  Our Dallas office was never able to get AT&T to respond or meet with us to join a similar program.  Now, (AT, after Trump), there’s no mention of a voluntary or mandatory program.

AT&T is likely using a similar geo-placement strategy throughout the country.  They are unlikely to be the only company practicing this scam on their customers and larceny against the poor.  Will the FCC act?  Unlikely.  Will local public service regulators step into the breach?  Let’s hope so.

This is outrageous!

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Access for the People?  Free Streaming and Smart Feature Phones

New Orleans       There was a brief blurb that went across my screen the other day.  ACORN Canada was taking another national action demanding “Internet for All” in the long running campaign we have waged to increase access to the internet for lower income families.  We’ve made progress there. Way more than we have in the USA and many other countries.  A low cost $10 to $15 a month program for high speed has now been extended on a voluntary basis to most of the major internet providers in Canada, thanks to the intercession of the Canadian Radio & Television authority which handles internet access much like the FCC does in the US.  Given the resistance of companies like Canadian Bell, it was a win and showed some progress.  In most countries including the USA, we have less to show, even as there is universal consensus that the digital divide is creating huge barriers that are exacerbating inequality.

There is some good news from an unlikely quarter:  not a smart phone, but a smart feature phone.  75 million were shipped in 2017 to India, Africa, and Indonesia with 84 million expected to roll this year.  In India, where 60 million have now been sold, the phone is called JioPhone and put out by the giant local company Reliance.  The phone can be purchased for $20 and many can keep their monthly payments to as little as $2.50 making them affordable for very low-income families and workers.  As any would expect, they are slower and less powerful, but recognizing the cost and access to electricity, part of that is because they have a much longer battery life on a single charge.  The phones are manufactured largely by Hong Kong-based KaiOS Technologies.  Google of course has invested in KaiOS, according to the Wall Street Journal.  An Indonesian model is reportedly going to go on sale for $7.  A model is being designed for Brazil.  We need one for the USA and the rest of the 3.4 billion people worldwide without internet access.

Beat ‘em at their game, I like it.  Another instance of this kind of shrewdness has to do with streaming, and it’s crazy clever.  I caught notice of this new streaming service when four monopolistic US broadcast networks combined to sue something called Locast.  As described in the Times, Locast “is available through a free app that relays broadcast feeds online.  It has more than 200,000 users in 13 cities, including Chicago, Los Angeles, New York, San Francisco, and Washington.”  The founder, David Goodfriend, formerly with the Obama administration and now a law professor, found a loophole in the law allowing this service.  “Under federal law, broadcast stations must provide their signals free to the public, making networks …easily available through the use of an antenna.”  Remember always, friends, that the airwaves are public property licensed to broadcasters, not private property!  “Locast argues that its service complies with copyright law because as a nonprofit entity, it is allowed to act as a so-called signal booster for the broadcasters’ programming.”  Wow, isn’t that the bomb!  I wonder if AM/FM and our radio stations couldn’t figure out how to do this as well, but that’s another question for another day.

My point is that in this bleak area there is hope that the disrupters and the monopolies might still be hoisted by their own petard once there is a realization that people come first, and their demands for service and streaming are huge and must be met at an affordable level.

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