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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Evictions Soar, Solutions Plummet

Greenville        New York City added a right to legal counsel for tenants facing eviction.  It made a difference with the city’s eviction rate falling from almost 29000 in 2013 to only a bit over 18000 in last year.  Nationally, it is likely that more than 2.5 million evictions are filed for tenants annually now, perhaps the numbers are even larger.  It didn’t solve anything, but it put a stopper in the problem.

Nothing new there, but here’s a real head scratcher.  Two sets of economists, as reported in The Economist, studied the impact of evictions on the poor, one in Chicago and the other in New York City.  Their conclusion:  the poor were poor before they were evicted, and darned if they aren’t still poor after they were evicted.  Their underwhelming conclusion on both cases was essentially that they were a bit poorer, but not all that much.  What are we to do with information?  Is there anyone anywhere in the world that thought that evictions were a poverty-reduction strategy?  This is when you have to wonder what economists do with their time and why?

The group that looked at New York said there was also no spike in payment of increased food stamps or welfare benefits.  Read the papers, fellas!  It’s almost impossible to get welfare now, no matter where you live, and food stamps are moving that way as well.  For welfare, you almost always need a physical address, so remember that when you were study evictions.  This group did note that use of hospitalization and homelessness increased dramatically and, being economists, couldn’t sidestep the fact that evictions were triggered by less than $2000 in back rent, but it cost the city $41,000 per homeless person annually.

This is all shuffling paper in a hurricane.  When I read that a huge trigger for the Hong Kong demonstrations is the lack of affordable housing and high rents, all I can say, is let’s hit the streets here, too.

One demand that would change all of this is not more lawyers – or more economists for godsakes, but making rental assistance like Section 8 an entitlement rather than an NBA lottery pick.  Only 25% of the eligible families actually receive a voucher, leaving 75% in the muck.

Why are the banks and housing industry not lining up with us to demand this?  The amount of new construction that would break ground overnight, if all qualified families received rent support, would jump the entire economy several notches.

There’s no comfort in discovering that the poor were only a bit more desperate by degree after an eviction.  Affordable and decent housing is in fact a poverty reduction winner.  Let’s go all Hong Kong over that!

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