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About Karl Bode

Karl Bode is a freelance writer living in New York that has been babbling, jabbering and prattling about technology, politics and culture professionally for more than fifteen years. Follow me on Twitter @KarlBode


Posted on Net Neutrality Special Edition - 20 April 2015 @ 10:33am

Facebook's Zuckerberg Thinks Aggressively Violating Net Neutrality Is Fine...If You Just Mean Well

from the open-your-ears-and-listen dept

As we noted last week, India is in the midst of a heated conversation about net neutrality, as the government puts out feelers to determine how best to define an "open internet." As part of this conversation, Facebook's Internet.org initiative has come under particular scrutiny; the platform offering users in some countries walled gardens to a limited crop of zero rated apps and content. While Facebook consistently emphasizes the philanthropic nature of this effort, content companies have been dropping out of the project in droves, arguing that they don't like the idea of Facebook (or an ISP) determining who does and doesn't get cap-exempt treatment (and therefore a leg up in the market).

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has since posted an interesting blog post in which he pretends to address these criticisms, but actually winds up showing he's not actually listening to what critics of the initiative are saying. As Facebook has done previously, Zuckerberg first highlights his philanthropic motivations for the Internet.org initiative with a short anecdote:

"First, I’ll share a quick story. Last year I visited Chandauli, a small village in northern India that had just been connected to the internet. In a classroom in the village, I had the chance to talk to a group of students who were learning to use the internet. It was an incredible experience to think that right there in that room might be a student with a big idea that could change the world — and now they could actually make that happen through the internet."
And that's great! If you're in a philanthropic mood, give poor nations help connecting to The Internet. But as Susan Crawford and others have pointed out repeatedly, what these zero rated efforts by Facebook and Google offer is a selective, walled garden governed by the ad-delivery ambitions of a handful of large companies. That's not the internet -- it's a fractured, tiny, Facebook-dominated version of AOL. And it's one in which innovative startups can't compete, because they can't pay off the internet access tollman. So it's a case where big players are able to pay up to effectively keep out the competition.

Zuckerberg proceeds to argue that zero rated systems are ok because some internet is better than none at all:
"We’re proud of this progress. But some people have criticized the concept of zero-rating that allows Internet.org to deliver free basic internet services, saying that offering some services for free goes against the spirit of net neutrality. I strongly disagree with this.

We fully support net neutrality. We want to keep the internet open. Net neutrality ensures network operators don’t discriminate by limiting access to services you want to use. It’s an essential part of the open internet, and we are fully committed to it. But net neutrality is not in conflict with working to get more people connected. These two principles — universal connectivity and net neutrality — can and must coexist.

To give more people access to the internet, it is useful to offer some service for free. If someone can’t afford to pay for connectivity, it is always better to have some access than none at all."
Well, no. You don't get to claim you support the open internet while at the same time building a system that is indisputably anything but. And claiming people have to choose between no internet and Facebook's vision of what its expanding international ad ambitions want the internet to look like is a false (and frankly insulting) choice. Again, if Facebook really wants to help -- help by offering the actual internet -- and all the freedom and opportunity that entails.

Zuckerberg then proceeds to take this bad logic further, by arguing that if you're fighting against zero rated apps, then you're the one hurting poor people:
"Arguments about net neutrality shouldn’t be used to prevent the most disadvantaged people in society from gaining access or to deprive people of opportunity. Eliminating programs that bring more people online won’t increase social inclusion or close the digital divide. It will only deprive all of us of the ideas and contributions of the two thirds of the world who are not connected."
While Zuckerberg claims to be fully supportive of net neutrality, someone should tell him that this bogus argument is the exact same one that anti-net neutrality folks from the big broadband companies have been making, and Zuckerberg's statement plays right into their hands. They've been arguing (incorrectly) that pro-net neutrality forces are depriving the poor of internet access. And now they can quote supposedly "net neutrality supporter" Mark Zuckerberg making their argument for them. Over and over again, the big broadband players just keep arguing that they need to violate net neutrality to provide service to people in need, and Zuckerberg is advancing that argument for them, while claiming to be supportive of the other side.

Again, there's nothing stopping Facebook from helping to finance real internet access in developing nations -- even deals in which Facebook's services and ads play a starring role (provided the internet access itself remains open). Instead, Facebook is pushing a walled garden where only Facebook exists (ridiculously under the name "internet.org" when it's anything but). Remember, Facebook's facing this backlash because India is trying to define what an open internet looks like, and consumers and content companies are making it pretty clear to Zuckerberg and the Indian government that an open internet doesn't involve Facebook deciding which services and content consumers get to view. If Facebook cares as much about an open internet as Zuckerberg breathlessly claims, he'll stop for a moment and actually listen. Internet.org can be a part of the solution, by helping to provide actual internet access, not limited walled gardens where only wealthy companies' services are available.

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Posted on Techdirt - 17 April 2015 @ 12:56pm

Details Leak From Inside Putin's 'Humourless And Draconian' Internet Troll Army

from the ministry-of-truth dept

With fifteen years under my belt writing about astroturf, think tanks, fauxcademics, and other dirty lobbying and policy tricks, I've always had a hobbyist's fascination with propaganda, especially online. When done "correctly," disinformation or guerrilla marketing is utterly invisible. When done poorly -- you get more comedic, ham-fisted attempts at information control, like Scientology's personal website's attacks on the new HBO documentary "Going Clear" or, well, ISP-paid sockpuppets who insist they fight net neutrality because they just love internet freedom so very much.

Of course, the one-two punch of violence and propaganda has for some time put Putin's Russia on another level of intellectual aggression. The Guardian recently penned a pretty fascinating interview with several members of Putin's internet troll army, paid to spam forums, websites, and social networks around the globe with pro-Putin propaganda. Working in twelve-hour shifts in a nondescript building marked "business center," hundreds of writers work in "humourless and draconian" teams dedicated toward supporting Putin's worldview for 45,000 rubles ($790) a month. And it often works:

"The scariest thing is when you talk to your friends and they are repeating the same things you saw in the technical tasks, and you realize that all this is having an effect,” the former worker said.

Marat, 40, worked in a different department, where employees went methodically through chat forums in various cities, leaving posts. "First thing in the morning, we’d come in, turn on a proxy server to hide our real location, and then read the technical tasks we had been sent,” he said. The trolls worked in teams of three. The first one would leave a complaint about some problem or other, or simply post a link, then the other two would wade in, using links to articles on Kremlin-friendly websites and “comedy” photographs lampooning western or Ukrainian leaders with abusive captions.
The staffers work around the clock creating and maintaining proxied, viable fake personas, sure to discuss their favorite music and recipes, peppered authentically with rants about the Kiev government being fascist. Hand in hand with tens of thousands of Twitter bots, they create a massive sound wall that makes Apple's reality distortion field look like a nineteenth century circus performance. The Guardian points to websites like this one set up with Internet memes to make mocking Putin opponents that much easier:
"Many of them have obvious racist or homophobic overtones. Barack Obama eating a banana or depicted as a monkey, or the Ukrainian president, Petro Poroshenko, in drag, declaring: “We are preparing for European integration.” The trolls have to post the photographs together with information they can pull from a website marketed as a “patriotic Russian Wikipedia”, featuring ideologically acceptable versions of world events."

Of course, as Glyn noted earlier this week, the Russian government has moved to "clarify" existing law and is now declaring all internet memes illegal -- unless of course you're paid by the government to twist and distort the very fabric of online reality. It probably goes without saying that the United States certainly is no saint on this front (industry astroturfing or the media coverage of the Iraq war quickly leap to mind), but Putin's frontal-assault on the internet is starting to make Orwell's darkest predictions seem like playful childhood fiction.

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Posted on Techdirt - 16 April 2015 @ 11:47am

ALEC Threatens To Sue Critics That Point Out It Helps Keep Broadband Uncompetitive

from the sloppy-denial dept

As you might have read, the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) has been losing some major clients lately, including Google, T-Mobile and Microsoft. Those companies have been quietly distancing themselves from ALEC, after critics have illustrated its ties to legislative assaults on climate change science and meaningful pollution standards. Before Google announced it was leaving the group last fall, chairman Eric Schmidt went so far as to accuse the legislative grist mill of "literally lying" about its role in climate change denial. In a response letter to Google, ALEC proclaimed Google's departure was "based on misinformation from climate activists who intentionally confuse free market policy perspectives for climate change denial."

With T-Mobile, AOL, and Facebook quietly following in Google's footsteps (but not publicizing the reason for their departures), ALEC has apparently decided that its best course of action is to threaten lawsuits against those claiming ALEC denies climate change. ALEC has sent cease and desist letters (pdf) to a number of critics like Common Cause, the letters directing groups to the ALEC website where the organization insists it's not a opposed to climate change -- it's simply a "market environmentalist" dedicated to the "betterment of human health and well-being."

Apparently climate change isn't the only sensitive topic for ALEC as the outfit tries to stem the flow of client departures. The group has also been sending cease and desist letters to companies like wirelesss MVNO Credo Mobile, which in recent months has been sending its subscribers missives hammering ALEC for its role in fighting community broadband. The small company markets itself as having an activist, pro-consumer edge, and has scored exceptionally well on the EFF's privacy report card.

Credo's been busy pointing out to its subscribers how ALEC's model legislation, clearly visible on ALEC's website, has been used as the framework for roughly twenty state-level protectionist broadband bills nationwide. As we've frequently discussed, these bills are the worst sort of protectionist dreck, shoveled into the legislative bloodstream by the likes of AT&T, Comcast, Time Warner Cable and CenturyLink to protect its duopoly power from communities desperate for something better. Credo frames ALEC's participation in these efforts this way in a recent notice to subscribers:

"The American Legislative Exchange Council—a shadowy corporate front group that works to enact discriminatory voter ID laws, weaken gun safety laws and eliminate environmental regulations—is now pressuring state legislatures around the country to ban cities from offering broadband Internet access. ALEC is pushing its anti-municipal broadband agenda through model legislation it has developed, which one municipal broadband advocate described as “the kind of language one would expect to see if the goal is to protect politically powerful cable and telephone company monopolies.” Many perennial funders and members of ALEC, including AT&T, Verizon, Comcast and Time Warner [Cable], stand to gain financially from these state laws because they eliminate the possibility of competition from city-run broadband services."
In its cease and desist letter to Credo, ALEC first proclaims it's a respected think tank, not a lobbying apparatus. It also insists it doesn't "block" municipal broadband, the group simply advocates encumbering towns and cities with "certain steps," should they be interested in building their own broadband:
"We demand that you cease making inaccurate statements regarding ALEC, and immediately remove all false or misleading material from the Working Assets and Credo Action or related websites and action pages within five business days," the letter, dated March 5, reads. "Should you not do so, and/or continue to publish any defamatory statements, we will consider any and all necessary legal action to protect ALEC."

ALEC contends that it does not oppose city broadband but only advocates that certain "steps" be required before a municipality can provide telecom services. Additionally, ALEC takes issue with Credo labeling it as an organization that lobbies state legislatures at all, arguing that it is merely a "think-tank for state-based public policy issues and potential solutions."
How exactly can you claim you don't oppose municipal broadband when you've played a starring role in opposing municipal broadband? Because many of the bills ALEC helps pass don't technically "block" municipal broadband. They are however usually saddled with language by ISP lawyers that effectively does the same thing. For example most of the bills prohibit communities from getting into the broadband business if their market is "served" by an existing provider. They then go on to define "served" to include satellite and cellular connections, while using extremely generous versions of zip code coverage analysis. Similarly ALEC doesn't lobby to pass these bills directly, their incumbent ISPs client do that.

Regardless, Credo Mobile doesn't appear to be too worried about ALEC's threat, sending the organization a response letter (pdf) illustrating that not only does ALEC's own website document its opposition to municipal broadband, but so have numerous news outlets:
"Not only does ALEC attempt to influence legislative outcomes, it clearly succeeds in doing so. As recounted in a 2011 Bloomberg News article, ALEC's model legislation on municipal broadband was the principal reason why cable companies were able to block Lafayette, Louisiana from offering high speed Internet access to its citizens (editor's note: Lafayette was ultimately able to offer gigabit connections via LUS Fiber, but only after a protracted legal fight against regional incumbents Cox and BellSouth (now AT&T)).

"Under these circumstances, the language used in the statements you challenge -- "working to make sure it never happens" and "pressuring state legislatures" -- is well within the bounds of political discourse in making the point that ALEC's model legislation and positions have the intent and effect of encouraging enactment of state legislation effectively banning cities from offering broadband Internet access."
It's not entirely clear what ALEC hopes to accomplish here, as its role in both climate change and municipal broadband is pretty clearly established by documentable history, news reports, and the legislative process itself. It's kind of like the town drunk, after months of being videotaped punching clowns in the face, becoming foul-mouthed and indignant at the mere mention of the odd number of clown black eyes around town. In fact the behavior is only bringing additional critical attention to ALEC's longstanding role as an organization that's useful to corporations looking to quietly shovel bad legislation through financially compromised state legislatures with the bare minimum of fuss or actual public debate.

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Posted on Net Neutrality Special Edition - 16 April 2015 @ 6:16am

Facebook, Google's Supposed Love Of Net Neutrality Notably Absent In India

from the don't-be-evil dept

With it now relatively clear that nobody will tolerate outright throttling or blocking of services, we've noted repeatedly how ISPs have turned their gaze toward other, more subtle ways of abusing their gatekeeper mono/duopolies on the net neutrality front. The most notable being interconnection -- or intentionally degrading service to extract new tolls from content companies, and zero rated apps -- or letting some content bypass the cap if a content or service company is willing to pay ISPs a premium. Both battlefields obviously benefit the ISPs and content companies with the deepest pockets.

One of the major reasons Facebook and Google were so quiet during the latest round of the net neutrality fight is because they were happy with the original 2010 rules, given they didn't cover wireless whatsoever. But they were also happy about the loopholes regarding zero rated apps, which play a starring role in the companies' future global ambitions. Zero rating is particularly important to the companies overseas, where both offer free, walled-garden internet access where their services get preferential treatment from wireless carriers (see Facebook Zero or Google Free Zone).

With the neutrality debate taking root globally, both Facebook and Google are taking increased criticism for "supporting net neutrality in the US" (though, as we've noted, they really haven't) while pushing for zero-rated models that trample neutrality overseas. In India for example, regulators are now being bombarded with comments from a public that's realizing just how badly these models tilt the entire massive playing field toward the gaping maws of industry giants, whether that's the regional wireless company, Facebook, or both:

"Reliance’s deal with Facebook, called Internet.org, effectively gives you one social network at no cost, while forcing you to pay for others like LinkedIn. It might seem like the company being generous, but it only works because Facebook and Reliance were able to strike a deal. A smaller social networking firm that doesn’t have Facebook’s resources or influence would find it harder to build an audience, because they’re competing with a free service....Pahwa pointed out that this strategy could result in dominance of major players in the market and crowding out of others who can’t afford to “strike deals or pay up for getting access to the fast lane".
Indian Internet users aren't alone in realizing the problems inherent in zero rated apps. A growing chorus of Internet content companies have started backing away from zero rated efforts like Airtel Zero or Facebook's Internet.org deal with Reliance. The Times Group, India Today, NDTV, IBNLive, NewsHunt, and BBC have all pulled out of the initiatives citing the bad precedent set in cherry picking which content gets a free ride. Flight, hotel and travel price tracking website Cleartrip also dropped out, posting to their blog that such exclusionary practices are against the company's DNA:
"...the recent debate around #NetNeutrality gave us pause to rethink our approach to Internet.org and the idea of large corporations getting involved with picking and choosing who gets access to what and how fast. What started off with providing a simple search service has us now concerned with influencing customer decision-making by forcing options on them, something that is against our core DNA."
While the neutrality debate in India may be fresher, the public and industry there are already more in tune to the threat posed by zero rated apps than many U.S. customers and companies are. And the U.S. and India are obviously seeing more conversation on this issue than, say, markets in Africa. There, in many markets, users are happy to get access no matter what it looks like, and Google and Facebook are aggressively jockeying for pole position over billions in new advertising eyeballs. These services in particular are a two-sided coin. On the one side, both companies are correct in noting that the services deliver limited web access (and all the great things that entails) to those who currently don't have service. On the other hand, as Susan Crawford highlighted a few years ago, what these users are getting is a notable bastardization of the internet:
"For poorer people, Internet access will equal Facebook. That’s not the Internet—that’s being fodder for someone else’s ad-targeting business," she says. "That’s entrenching and amplifying existing inequalities and contributing to poverty of imagination—a crucial limitation on human life."
If you're building internet access from the ground up dominated by a few ISPs and a few content gatekeepers, it certainly makes you wonder what kind of strange monstrosities these models evolve into. When the internet starts from a place of openness, companies have a steeper uphill climb. Here in the States, both AT&T and T-Mobile have struggled to convince the public that these models heavily benefit consumers. AT&T has been setting a horrible precedent by allowing deep pocketed companies to bypass usage caps, pitching the concept as "1-800" or "free shipping" for data. T-Mobile's had better luck convincing users that exempting only the biggest music services is a consumer boon for the ages (it's not, because it puts non-profits, independents and smaller companies in an immediate competitive hole).

While zero rated apps are now banned by net neutrality rules in a growing list of countries (Chile, Slovenia, The Netherlands and Canada), the FCC's new rules appear to take a hands off approach to zero rating. That's a decision you can be sure Facebook and Google -- both still frequently praised in the media as champions of net neutrality -- had notable input on.

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Posted on Net Neutrality Special Edition - 15 April 2015 @ 6:28am

Verizon: Nobody Really Wants Unlimited Data Plans, And Those Who Do Should Ignore Such Silly 'Gut Feelings'

from the these-are-not-the-droids-you're-looking-for dept

As we've made repeatedly clear, consumers really like the ease and simplicity of unlimited data plans. Whether that's on fixed-line or wireless networks, users don't really like having to guess if they'll make it in under the wire this month, and don't particularly enjoy being socked with $15 per gigabyte overages should they stream a few extra songs or watch a YouTube clip. However, when you enjoy the kind of regulatory and market power AT&T and Verizon do, you don't have to give a flying cellular damn what your consumers actually want.

As such, both companies decided to eliminate their unlimited data plans entirely a few years ago, replacing them with shared data plans laden with caps and steep overages. And while both companies did grandfather existing unlimited users, they made life as uncomfortable as possible for those users, whether it was by secretly throttling them after a few gigabytes of usage or restricting their access to specific apps unless they "upgraded" to a shared, metered plan. Meanwhile, competitors T-Mobile and Sprint have tried to differentiate themselves by continuing to offer unlimited data options.

Continuing the proud tradition of telling users what they want instead of giving them what they want, Verizon this week offered up an amusing blog post in which an analyst paints unlimited data plans as a public menace of the highest order. To hear analyst Jack Gold tell it, we should all agree that you can't have unlimited data plans, because they'll obliterate the network and leave us all weeping over our smart devices:

"The quality of connection is important to wireless users, and when connections become slow or disconnections occur due to overcrowding, users become disappointed. Let’s face it, if everyone had unlimited data and used it fully, the performance of the networks would suffer because of bandwidth restrictions and the “shared resource” nature of wireless. The bottom line is: users agree that degrading the networks is something that they don’t want to happen."
If I only had a nickel every time the congestion bogeyman was trotted out to defend anti-competitive pricing and policies. While spectrum is certainly a finite resource, Gold intentionally ignores the fact that offering unlimited data plans doesn't mean idiotically ignoring all network management and letting your network implode. While both Sprint and T-Mobile offer unlimited data, they still implement network management and throttling practices that ensure traffic loads remain relatively balanced and the consumer experience remains consistent.

In other words, most unlimited data plans aren't really unlimited anyway, or users have to pay a steep premium for the privilege of not having to worry about data thresholds. That's because AT&T and Verizon dominate 85% of the special access and cell tower backhaul market, resulting in Sprint and T-Mobile (and most everybody else) having to pay an arm and a leg too. It's all quite by design.

Gold knows this, but it's apparently much more fun to try and argue that unlimited data plans decimate the fabric of the space-time continuum and rip the very axle of the universe from its foundation. Disagree? Verizon's analyst proceeds to imply you're simply being overly emotional:
"So, while unlimited data may sound attractive, there is no practical effect of data limits on the majority of users. Understanding this should bring rationality to a discussion that is often held on a “gut feeling” level. Keeping adequate speed and performance while allowing all users to share the limited commodity we call wireless data is the fair way to deal with wireless connectivity. And ultimately, that is what is beneficial for wireless consumers."
Just so it's clear, it's "rational" to support Verizon's vision of internet pricing, in which you pay some of the highest prices among developed nations, but it's a "gut feeling" should you start to desire a better value plan. It's never quite clear to me who these telecom blog authors actually think they're speaking to. Surely the goal is to influence an overarching policy discussion, but all they generally wind up doing is having their brand mocked mercilessly by news outlets for being painfully out of touch with what consumers actually want.

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Posted on Net Neutrality Special Edition - 14 April 2015 @ 9:58am

Wireless, Cable Industries Show Their Love Of An 'Open Internet' By Suing To Overturn Net Neutrality Rules

from the love-is-a-battlefield dept

Now that the FCC's net neutrality rules have been published in the Federal Register, the broadband industry has fired its litigation cannons and filed the expected lawsuits via all of the major trade organizations (see suits for the NCTA, ACA and CTIA, pdfs). All of the suits proclaim that the FCC's new net neutrality rules, and its reclassification of broadband providers as common carriers under Title II are an "arbitrary and capricious" implementation of "outdated utility style regulations" that will harm the greater Internet, sector innovation and industry investment (claims even the industry itself has admitted are bunk, yet never seem to go away).

The industry's statements defending the suits are a who's who of revolving door regulators. In a statement posted to the NCTA website, former FCC chief turned top cable lobbyist Michael Powell insists that the cable industry's lawsuit to destroy net neutrality rules isn't actually about net neutrality. It's about the cable industry loving the open Internet and rule of law so much, it's stepping in and doing the right thing so that a Congress awash in Comcast campaign finance cash can do its job:

"This appeal is not about net neutrality but the FCC’s unnecessary action to apply outdated utility style regulation to the most innovative network in our history,” said Michael Powell, NCTA President & CEO. “The FCC went far beyond the public’s call for sound net neutrality rules. Instead, it took the opportunity to engineer for itself a central role in regulating and directing the evolution of the Internet. We regrettably file this appeal and urge Congress to assert its role in setting national policy, by enacting legislation that fully protects the open Internet, without the harmful impact of public utility regulation."
In a similarly noble CTIA statement, the wireless industry trots out all the old familiar bogeymen, including claims that Title II will crush sector investment, harm innovation, drive up prices for consumers, and generally wreak havoc on the Internet ecosystem:
"Detailing the infirmities of the FCC's Order, Smith added: "Instead of letting consumers decide the success of new, innovative mobile services, government bureaucrats will now play that role. National, regional and rural wireless carriers will spend substantial time and resources trying to comply with the new vague and overbroad rules. CTIA's member companies should be focused on meeting consumers' growing demand for mobile data and creating new offerings."
That's particularly interesting, since CTIA member Sprint has come out in full-throated support of Title II and the agency's new net neutrality rules, all but calling their fellow CTIA members liars for drumming up innovation and investment fears. Similarly T-Mobile has proclaimed that it doesn't see the rules having a serious impact on its business one way or another, since the FCC appears eager to provide notable leeway toward controversial policies like zero rating. That's two of the CTIA's four biggest members basically telling the organization it's full of hot air.

Unlike the USTelecom lawsuit, the CTIA is taking specific aim at the inclusion of wireless services, long arguing that the wireless industry is so unique, dynamic and competitive, there's simply no need for consumer protections. That's again the gist of the argument put forward by CTIA boss Merideth Atwell Baker, who was an FCC Commissioner and a Comcast lobbyist before her stint as head of the CTIA. Baker proclaims the suit is being filed because wireless carriers just love the open Internet, and it had "no choice" but to spread this love throughout the U.S. court system like so much delicious peanut butter:
"CTIA and the wireless industry have always supported an open Internet, which is why these rules will only chill investment and innovation and increase costs for consumers. The FCC ignored that the competitive, constantly innovating mobile broadband industry provides Americans with faster networks and a wide variety of devices and service plans. Instead of promoting greater industry investment in the connected world of tomorrow, the FCC opted to resuscitate a command-and-control regulatory regime...CTIA had no choice but to seek judicial review to preserve the regulatory approach that has been instrumental in helping the U.S. become the global leader in 4G services. We are confident that the courts will reject the FCC's overreach for the third time, particularly with respect to mobile broadband services."
There's layers of irony here. One being that the FCC's 2010 rules originally didn't include wireless, and for that reason were generally liked by AT&T and Comcast. But CTIA member Verizon sued to overturn the rules anyway in the hopes of crippling the FCC's authority permanently. That didn't work, and Verizon's (and by proxy the CTIA's) behavior directly lead to the FCC shifting toward a more legally supportable Title II model.

As for loving the "open Internet," that's relatively funny for an industry whose members have lied about throttling unlimited users, blocked video services to force users to more expensive service plans, blocked competing mobile payment services in the hopes of giving their own a leg up, worked tirelessly to ensure devices remain locked and often unrootable, and fought a laundry list of technological innovations ranging from Bluetooth to tethering because they threatened their market power. If that's what loving the open Internet looks like, I wouldn't want to see the wireless and cable industries' version of hatred.

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Posted on Net Neutrality Special Edition - 14 April 2015 @ 6:22am

The Mere Threat Of Google Fiber Has Time Warner Cable Offering Speeds Six Times Faster At The Same Price

from the behold-the-magic-competition-fairy dept

Like so many other incumbent ISPs, Time Warner Cable has grown all-too comfortable with the lack of broadband competition it enjoys across most of its territory. Some markets are worse than others, usually not-coincidentally directly tied to the level of regulatory capture in a region. In the Carolinas, the company has worked tirelessly to protect its regional monopoly and duopoly, passing a bill in North Carolina (on the fourth try) preventing towns and cities from improving regional broadband. Company execs have also downplayed the rise of gigabit broadband, proudly informing users they don't really want faster, cheaper services.

Now Time Warner Cable is facing the worst-case scenario for a government-pampered duopolist. One, the FCC has moved to pre-empt Time Warner Cable's protectionist law in North Carolina, arguing it hinders the deployment of broadband services in a reasonable and timely basis. Two, Google Fiber recently announced it will be expanding $70, gigabit services (you know, the ones users don't need or want) into Raleigh, Durham and Charlotte sometime in the next year. The one-two punch of regulators thinking independently and increased competition has to be a nightmarish hellscape for company executives.

Time Warner Cable has of course responded by announcing it is increasing speeds in Charlotte and Raleigh six fold (to 300 Mbps) at no additional charge sometime this summer:

"Starting this week, customers will receive communications from TWC outlining the first phase of the project as the company begins the process of creating a 100% digital network..."With ‘TWC Maxx,’ we’re essentially reinventing the TWC experience,” said Darrel Hegar, regional vice president of operations, Time Warner Cable. “We will boost Internet speeds for customers up to six times faster, add to our robust TWC WiFi, dramatically improve the TV product and set a high bar in our industry for differentiated, exceptional customer service."
That's on the heels of an AT&T announcement that it would be offering its own $70, gigabit service in parts of North Carolina (it's $110 or more in non Google Fiber markets). Funny how this whole competition thing works, huh? Granted the whole concept of responding to price competition is new to some of these folks, so there's obviously some initial kinks to work out as these companies figure out what the concept means.

For example, Time Warner Cable's 300 Mbps down, 20 Mbps up tier will run you $65 promotional, $108 regular price -- notably slower and more expensive than Google Fiber's symmetrical 1 Gbps, $70 a month offering. Similarly, AT&T's service is very selectively deployed (mostly high-end developments) and the company is only willing to match Google Fiber's price point if you agree to deep packet inspection snoopvertising. Meanwhile, while Google Fiber pricing is generally straightforward, both AT&T and Time Warner Cable still employ a wide variety of obnoxious fees to drive up the advertised price post sale.

That's of course the best part about real broadband competition. You actually have a choice, and can respond to slow speeds, abysmal customer service, net neutrality violations and other shenanigans by voting with your wallet. The downside? Google Fiber's only available in a handful of markets, hopefully putting the onus on other companies to follow Google Fiber's lead and start lighting a fire under the posterior of a broadband industry that's just screaming for some disruption.

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Posted on Techdirt - 10 April 2015 @ 12:51am

70% Of Fans Still Can't Watch LA Dodgers Games On TV Thanks To Time Warner Cable

from the good-job,-team dept

Last year Time Warner Cable and the Los Angeles Dodgers struck a twenty-five year, $8.35 billion deal giving Time Warner Cable the exclusive broadcast rights to all Dodgers games in Los Angeles via its creatively-named regional sports network, Time Warner Cable SportsNet LA. Time Warner Cable then immediately turned around and demanded massive price hikes (rumored to be around $5 per subscriber) for any other pay TV provider that wanted to offer the channel. All of the regional cable operators (including AT&T, Cox, Dish and DirecTV) balked at the hike, resulting about 70% of fans in Dodgers territory being unable to watch the final six games of last season.

All sides had ample opportunity during the offseason to negotiate a fair price, but by all accounts Time Warner Cable simply refused to move on the price tag (though the fact it's in a holding pattern over a Comcast acquisition also likely played a role). As such, the new baseball season kicked off this week and Dodgers fans remain unable to watch their favorite team's games. Making matters worse, Time Warner Cable has refused to seriously answer questions about the logjam, offering some variation of the same statement over and over again:

"We want all Dodger fans to have access to SportsNet LA. Despite our repeated attempts, other providers are unwilling to engage in any discussions. If Dodger fans want to enjoy SportsNet LA this season, we encourage them to switch to a provider that carries the network."
The problem with that logic? Time Warner Cable is the only cable operator offering access to its own sports network, and 70% of Los Angeles lives in an area where they can't get Time Warner Cable. As such, Time Warner Cable's recommendation is not only useless, it's insulting. When that's pointed out, the company just refuses to comment. When asked why it refuses to compromise on the price, the company provides similarly epic non answers:
"SportsNet LA is available on fair terms consistent with its value. We know that the rates for the network owned by this iconic franchise are in line with what other RSN’s around the country charge, including DirecTV’s own regional sports networks."
While it's understandable that Time Warner Cable wants to recoup its investment, the total inflexibility here is pretty well in character for a company that actually has worse customer satisfaction ratings than even the much-hated Comcast. The growing cost of sports programming and the steady increase in annoying retransmission fee dispute blackouts usually help drive cord cutting, but in this case there's absolutely nowhere else to go to watch the content in question. Even over the air broadcasts aren't an option thanks to the nature of the Time Warner Cable, Dodgers arrangement.

So far, regulators have chosen to treat these kinds of programming rate standoffs as just "boys being boys," but it's unclear how much longer they're going to be willing to stand on the sidelines given how much politicians love to earn cheap, sports-related political brownie points. Last year FCC boss Tom Wheeler sent a letter to Time Warner Cable claiming that "inaction is no longer acceptable" and the FCC was "monitor(ing) this situation closely in order to determine whether intervention is appropriate and necessary." But the FCC has said little since. Given that three of the companies involved in the standoff (AT&T, DirecTV and Time Warner Cable) are awaiting merger approval, conditions might be used to force the issue over the next few weeks.

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Posted on Net Neutrality Special Edition - 9 April 2015 @ 6:21am

One ISP's Prices Are So Bad, It Refuses To Tell Anyone What They Are

from the pampered-duopolist dept

Given that the lack of competition keeps broadband prices sky high, it's really no surprise that most ISPs make their pricing as confusing as possible, either hiding what you'll pay behind a prequalification wall, or sacking users with a bevy of bizarre fees to covertly jack up the advertised rate post sale. While the industry is quick to issue a slew of press releases every time they bump their downstream speeds a few megabits, they'll usually do their best to avoid mentioning what customers pay for the honor of these faster services, well aware that they're only drawing additional attention to competitive shortcomings.

Still, even with layers upon layers of obfuscation, broadband ISPs will usually tell you what they charge users when pressed. Not so with FairPoint. When an industry outlet recently reached out to FairPoint as part of a series trying to compare prices, FairPoint actually refused to tell the news outlet how much it charges for DSL service. When pressed, the company would only provide what has to be one of the most long-winded non-answers I've ever seen:

"We offer internet access to both consumer and business customers through a variety of technologies leveraging both copper and fiber infrastructure, including digital subscriber line ('DSL'), dedicated fiber and lit buildings throughout our footprint," FairPoint said in an e-mailed statement. "Certain of these services provide speeds up to 1 gigabit per second. In select markets, we also offer cable modem internet service, 'Fiber to the Home', and wireless internet access. We sell Internet service as both a standalone, managed or packaged solution. Many customers like to simplify vendors and utilize our packaged and bundled solutions to meet their communications needs."
That's code for saying that FairPoint faces so little competition in its territories, it not only doesn't have to disclose how much it charges for service, it doesn't have to care whether you find that kind of stonewalling obnoxious. If you need FairPoint's broadband service, there's a pretty good chance that FairPoint service is your only option, so you'll have to wait until you've actually signed up to truly learn how much you'll get to pay.

Correction: In the initially published version, we accidentally called FairPoint, Frontier in some places. We apologize for the error.

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Posted on Techdirt - 8 April 2015 @ 8:12am

FCC Moves To Give Internet Video Startups The Same Protections As Cable Companies

from the actually-leveling-the-playing-field dept

While the FCC's decision to raise the base broadband definition to 25 Mbps, its ruling on municipal broadband and the agency's new net neutrality rules have seen the lion's share of media attention, there's another potentially important FCC plan underway that has largely managed to fly under the radar. The FCC has recently been fielding comments on whether the agency should reclassify linear over-the-top (OTT) Internet video providers as multi-channel video programming distributors (MVPDs), giving these companies FCC-enforced access to vertically integrated programming. The full order can be found here (pdf).

The idea is that by giving Internet video providers formal protections and the right to negotiate content deals like cable companies, we'll see a surge in Internet video service competition and a reduction in the logjam surrounding content licensing. Note that this would only really impact subscription-based, prescheduled content (live TV), and as a result wouldn't really apply to on-demand catalogs like Netflix or YouTube. Not too surprisingly, the cable industry, still sore from the FCC's Title II ruling and wary of new competitors, doesn't think modernizing cable regulations to include Internet video is a great idea:

"[H]aving recently adopted what was once understood to be the 'nuclear option' of Title II regulation of broadband Internet access service to address a hypothetical threat to the openness of the Internet," NCTA told the commission, "the Commission in this proceeding is proposing to apply an arsenal of regulations from the Cable Consumer Protection and Competition Act of 1992, purportedly to promote competition in the already competitive and well-functioning online video marketplace."
Some of the new wave of Internet video giants similarly aren't happy with the idea. Even though the rule change likely wouldn't impact the company's on-demand services specifically, an Amazon filing with the FCC argues it doesn't really want the FCC's help, either:
"In light of the excellent results achieved over the last several years, Amazon does not see why the commission would risk interfering with the OTT marketplace, which is still growing and changing, at this stage in its development," the company said. Amazon argued that services offered by Amazon, Netflix and Apple represent a whole new ballgame, not another team in the MVPD league. It said that planned services from Dish and HBO are an effort to be players in this new space, a space it and others have been building for years."
Amazon's likely wary for two reasons: the company's already seeing success and is justly nervous about regulatory good intentions, and the FCC's proposal could actually go both ways -- as in it might help cable operators looking to deploy an out-of-footprint streaming service (giving them mandated access to regional sports networks, for example), generating additional competition for Amazon. Meanwhile, broadcasters like ABC, CBS, Fox, and NBC support the measure, pleased that it would force OTT upstarts into gaining consent out of the gate for retransmitting their broadcasts (read: they think it will help thwart piracy or force the next Aereo to the negotiations table).

Consumer advocates like Public Knowledge quite like the rule change, suggesting it could ramp up competition and bring down prices "without subjecting most kinds of online video services to additional regulation." The updating of the definition of an MPVD could provide Internet video companies with protections they didn't have previously:
"That interpretation meant that none of the protections that MVPDs have against other MVPDs, and that programmers have against MVPDs, applied to online video. That means that programmers could be prevented through contracts or incentives from selling video to online services, and that programmers affiliated with cable companies could discriminate against online services. Actions like this can add up to starve online video services of content--which is why most of the most popular services offer video that is complementary to traditional MVPD service (back catalog programming, and original and user-generated content) instead of the same lineup of things like first-run shows and live sports."
For an agency that spent decades paying empty lip service to competition, the FCC's focus in this case really does appear to actually be on modernizing regulations to help foster competition and protect the smaller Internet video providers of tomorrow. Reclassifying ISPs as common carriers under Title II protects upstart companies from discrimination by broadband and cable companies, and reclassifying Internet video providers as cable companies would provide them additional protections and programming negotiations rights they don't currently have.

In short, for the first time in fifteen years or so the FCC actually appears to be focusing on competition as a real policy goal. That's in stark contrast to the expectations most people had (myself included) when we learned that a former wireless and cable industry lobbyist would be the latest to run the FCC.

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Posted on Techdirt - 8 April 2015 @ 4:12am

Weather Channel Tackles Criticism For Airing Too Much Fluff, With New Ads Attacking Competitors For Airing Too Much Fluff

from the windy-glass-houses dept

Last year, we noted how The Weather Channel's tendency to air a higher volume of fluff and nonsense was harming the company's leverage and negotiating power when demanding higher rates from cable operators. DirecTV, you'll recall, responded to The Weather Channel's demands by simply pulling the channel and replacing it with weather services that, well -- actually reported the weather. Amusingly, many users found this to be an improvement over the channel's usual approach to reporting the weather: funny pictures of buffalo, photos of "sexy beaches," or programs like "Prospectors."

Having not learned a valuable lesson, last month The Weather Channel made the same demands from Verizon, which, like DirecTV before it, simply responded by replacing the weather channel with AccuWeather and directing users to apps that actually forecast the weather. Initially, The Weather Channel tried to claim Verizon was toying with the public's safety. It then launched a website aimed at generating outrage among viewers, urging them to contact Verizon and complain.

Except, given the growing disdain consumers have for a company that has increasingly stumbled away from its core mission, none of this appears to be working. As such, The Weather Channel has come up with a great new idea: mocking other weather organizations for focusing too much on fluff, and not enough on the weather. In a letter to employees, The Weather Channel CEO David Kenny calls Verizon "reckless" and urges employees to cancel all Verizon services. He then tears into AccuWeather for focusing on hippos during a recent tornado emergency in Oklahoma:

"We saw that last Wednesday night, when we featured live coverage from Oklahoma. Interestingly, Accuweather took a shot at the NWS for calling the tornado potential “low” that day, yet the Accuweather network itself, as you can see in the image below, was not even covering weather during Oklahoma’s severe outbreak. Here’s their coverage on the left:
Yes, hippos swimming."
Yes, that's a channel that has been mercilessly mocked for years about its tendency to air fluff, attacking other channels for airing too much fluff. For good measure, The Weather Channel decided to up the ante and launch a new media and print campaign that also mocks AccuWeather for showing hippos when a tornado struck Oklahoma:
AccuWeather CEO Barry Meyers quickly responded to the ad campaign by pointing out that AccuWeather isn't offered in Oklahoma. He also ponied up some advice about stones and glass houses:
"In 168 hours of week, the amount of programming they have devoted to real weather is really small,” Myers said. “People need to judge what that means." "People need to ask themselves what The Weather Channel is so afraid of,” Myers added. “They’ve had a virtual monopoly for 30-some years. They almost lost with DirecTV , and they have lost with Verizon. Competition is good, and it offers people choice and strengthens products."
The Weather Channel does slowly appear to be learning that you don't have much negotiating leverage when nobody thinks your product is very good. Serious coverage has ramped up slightly and its website's dumbest videos now at least have some tangential connection to actual weather forecasting. Still, it would be nice if The Weather Channel could learn this lesson without the heavy dose of head-spinning hypocrisy.

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Posted on Techdirt - 7 April 2015 @ 6:06am

Comcast Deeply Offended By Claims It Pays People To Support Its Merger

from the pay-no-attention-to-the-man-behind-the-curtain dept

Comcast has consistently crowed about the volume of individuals and organizations that support the company's $45 billion merger with Time Warner Cable. Of course the company has just as consistently failed to mention how much of this "support" is from people paid to regurgitate pretty much any Comcast dreck-filled missive that comes stumbling down the road. Want funding for a new events center or a "closing the digital divide" photo op? Just leave independent thought at the door and send lawmakers a pre-written form letter with your name or organization's logo on it.

It doesn't take much sleuthing to uncover the money trail, because Comcast (and the politicians and groups beholden to it) usually (with some think tank exceptions) don't bother hiding it. They just outright deny that the money impacts policy positions whatsoever. For example, take reports this week that clearly highlight how Comcast can effectively buy a media sound wall of merger support, then pretend there's nothing untoward about an army of "consultants," minority groups, and fauxcademics all paid to effectively be glorified parrots:

"Increased Concentration Does Not Equal Anticompetitive Effect,” Mr. Manne wrote last August, summarizing his submission. He separately wrote pieces in Wired magazine, extolling the virtues of the deal, and through a separate advocacy organization he helps run, called TechFreedom, wrote a blog post that appeared the same day that the deal was announced early last year. Each time, he praised the transaction. But nowhere in these statements does Mr. Manne directly disclose that Comcast is among a small group of donors that finances his nonprofit group, a fact that Mr. Manne confirmed in response to a question late last week. "We are no value to our donors or ourselves unless we maintain our independence and academic rigor,” he said, before adding that “maybe there is some subconscious thing there."
Yes, surely Comcast's cash comes associated not with an expectation that you'll give automated and artificial justification to what's frequently very anti-consumer and anti-competitive policies, but that you'll exercise your "independence and academic rigor" and tell Comcast to piss off when you're approached to help "correct perceptions" about the latest Comcast PR campaign. You see there's nothing untoward going on here -- because we say there's nothing untoward going on here. We're all just healthy American patriots busy expressing our First Amendment rights, after all.

That logic was mirrored by Comcast's top lobbyist David Cohen -- who calls himself the company's "Chief Diversity Officer" to help skirt lobbying rules (I bring that up every time I write about Cohen because to me it just never gets old). Cohen says he's "offended" by the very idea that Comcast has to pay for its policy support:
"He did not dispute that many of the voices supporting the deal received donations from Comcast. But he said he was offended by the suggestion that their endorsements had been made in return for the financial help. "We have never provided financial support to an organization in exchange for support in a transaction,” he said. “Our support is based on the quality of the work they do in the community."
Now I'm sure that somewhere there exists a person that actually believes that, but I'd recommend not putting them in charge of your finances (or even lawn care). In Mr. Cohen's head, this is just another conspiracy contributing to the unfair overall "atmospherics" of anti-Comcast sentiment:
"The atmospherics around our customer service clearly stir some antipathy among some consumers," Mr. Cohen said. "And it does provide a basis for opponents of the transaction to gin up three-sentence, nonsubstantive communications to the F.C.C. saying that they don’t like Comcast or they don’t like Time Warner Cable."
That's a company with arguably the worst customer satisfaction ratings in any industry -- one that manufactures support for bad policies out of thin air -- trying to claim its horrible reputation is somehow manufactured. It's still not clear if regulators plan to deny the merger (or approve it with something vaguely-resembling meaningful conditions), but whatever happens it will spell the end of some fantastic entertainment that easily tops anything in Comcast's channel lineup.

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Posted on Techdirt - 7 April 2015 @ 4:10am

Fighting Toddler 'Porn Addiction,' UK Lawmakers Demand Porn Sites Include Age Checks Or Face Closure

from the you-have-no-idea-how-this-works dept

The UK's attempts to filter the Internet of all of its naughty bits are nothing if not amusing, whether it's the nation's porn filter architect getting arrested for child porn, or the complete and total obliviousness when it comes to the slippery slope of expanding those filters to include a growing roster of ambiguously objectionable material. The idea of forcing some kind of overarching structure upon porn consumption in the UK is another idea that never seems to go away, whether it's requiring a "porn license" (requiring users to clearly opt in if they want to view porn) or the latest push -- mandatory age checks.

Seemingly unaware of the way the internet (or law, or the world itself) works, some UK lawmakers are now demanding that porn websites around the world include age verification systems, or face fines or closure. How exactly the UK government plans to enforce these restrictions upon a global pornography industry isn't explained. The only thing the UK is sure of is that these restrictions are absolutely necessary for the welfare of the country's tots:

"Providers who did not co-operate could also be fined. Mr Javid said: "If you want to buy a hardcore pornography DVD in a store you need to prove your age to the retailers. "With the shift to online, children can access adult content on websites without restriction, intentionally or otherwise. "That is why we need effective controls online that apply to UK and overseas. This is about giving children the best start in life."
Well intentioned, perhaps, but it's yet another example of people not realizing how the internet genie has left the bottle, and no amount of thrashing or cajoling is going to re-imprison the agitated djinn. The UK's latest push is being propped up by a flood of recent scary headlines across the UK proclaiming that the country has a porn addiction problem among around a tenth of the nation's 12- and 13-year-olds. In fairly typical media fashion, the stories proclaiming this fact don't really bother to dissect the claims or hunt down the survey's origins.

If they had, they might discover that the survey in question was probably about as far from science as you can get without involving clowns and sacrificial altars:
"It turns out the study was conducted by a "creative market research" group called OnePoll. "Generate content and news angles with a OnePoll PR survey, and secure exposure for your brand," reads the company's blurb. "Our PR survey team can help draft questions, find news angles, design infographics, write and distribute your story." The company is super popular on MoneySavingExpert.com, where users are encouraged to sign up and make a few quid. Here's what that website says: "Mega-popular for its speedy surveys, OnePoll runs polls for the press, meaning fun questions about celebs and your love life." So the company behind these stats about porn addiction are known for their quick and easy surveys and promise to generate headline-grabbing stats. An unusual choice, perhaps, for such a sensitive subject."
While the group behind the effort (Childline) appears well intentioned, there are surely better ways to protect children than by scaring politicians into a global charade of internet booby whac-a-mole. Like, with actual parenting perhaps. Paying attention to what your kids do online, and intelligently explaining sexuality to them before they run into age-inappropriate content would be worlds more effective than demanding the globe's pornography industry capitulate to the whims of the UK's ludditical legislators.

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Posted on Techdirt Wireless - 6 April 2015 @ 1:43pm

Two And A Half Years Later, Verizon Finally Lets People Opt Out Of Its Stealth Zombie Cookie

from the that-took-a-while dept

Back in 2008, Verizon proclaimed that we didn't need additional consumer privacy protections (or opt in requirements, or net neutrality rules) because consumers would keep the company honest. "The extensive oversight provided by literally hundreds of thousands of sophisticated online users would help ensure effective enforcement of good practices and protect consumers," Verizon said at the time. Six years later and Verizon found itself at the heart of a massive privacy scandal after it began covertly injecting unique user-tracking headers into wireless data packets.

The headers not only allow Verizon to ignore browser privacy settings to track online behavior, it allows third parties to do so as well (something Verizon initially denied). Worse, perhaps, while users could opt out of the personalized ads delivered by the system, they couldn't actually opt out of having their online behavior tracked. Initially, Verizon responded to the controversy by repeatedly downplaying it, but as it became clear regulators and lawyers were contemplating action, Verizon stated in February that it would finally let users opt out.

As of last week, Verizon's mobile advertising FAQ now states that users can choose whether they want to let Verizon manipulate their traffic and spy on them:

"Verizon Wireless has updated its systems so that we will stop inserting the UIDH after a customer opts out of the Relevant Mobile Advertising program or activates a line that is ineligible for the advertising program. Government and enterprise lines are examples of ineligible lines. The UIDH will still appear for a short period of time after a customer opts out of the Relevant Mobile Advertising program or activates an ineligible line. If a customer chooses to participate in Verizon Selects, the UIDH will be present even if the customer has also opted out of the RMA program."
Users can either opt out of the company's snoopvertising via the privacy settings at the Verizon website, or by calling 866-211-0874.

So was Verizon right in that the public would keep the company honest? While that did ultimately happen here, it's worth noting that it took the nation's best security researchers two years to even notice that Verizon was embedding the headers. It took Verizon another six months (and a pretty merciless and sustained beating from the media and privacy advocates) before it finally allowed users to opt out of the traffic manipulation. And, while groups like the EFF would prefer the system be opt in, this is likely where Verizon's latest privacy scandal gets put to bed.

It makes you wonder just how long it will take the public to discover Verizon's next great innovation in snoopvertising?

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Posted on Net Neutrality Special Edition - 3 April 2015 @ 1:11pm

AT&T's Title II Tap Dance Fails To Derail FTC Throttling Lawsuit

from the Schrodinger's-carrier dept

Back in 2010, AT&T eliminated the company's unlimited data plans and began offering users only plans with usage caps and overage fees. While AT&T did "grandfather" existing unlimited wireless users at the time, it has been waging a not-so-subtle war on those users ever since in the attempt to get them to switch to more expensive plans. That has included at one point blocking video services from working unless users switched to metered plans (one of several examples worth remembering the next time someone tells you net neutrality is a "solution in search of a problem").

AT&T also switched some unlimited users to its metered plans without user consent, something the carrier received a whopping $700,000 FCC fine for in 2012. But the telco's primary weapon against these users has been to throttle these users to speeds of 128 to 528 kilobits per second should they use more than a few gigabytes of data in the hopes they'd switch to metered but unthrottled plans. AT&T was sued for the practice by the FTC in October of last year, the agency claiming AT&T violated the FTC Act by changing the terms of customers’ unlimited data plans while those customers were still under contract, and by "failing to adequately disclose the nature of the throttling program to consumers who renewed their unlimited data plans."

As we noted previously, AT&T tried a rather amusing defense to try and tap dance away from the lawsuit. It claimed that because the FCC was now classifying ISPs as common carriers under Title II, the FTC no longer had the authority to police AT&T actions under the FTC Act. In other words, AT&T hates Title II -- except when it allows them to skirt lawsuits for bad behavior. In a twenty-three page ruling (pdf), Judge Edward Chen says the law is "unambiguously clear" that only AT&T wireless voice, not wireless data, was classified as common carrier when the lawsuit was filed last fall:

"Contrary to what AT&T argues, the common carrier exception applies only where the entity has the status of common carrier and is actually engaging in common carrier activity."
In other words, no, AT&T can't have its cake (claim to loathe Title II with every shred of its being) and eat it too (run to Title II and common carrier protections when it suits it).

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Posted on Net Neutrality Special Edition - 3 April 2015 @ 6:17am

AT&T Publicly Promises Tennessee A Broadband Revolution, Privately Fights To Keep It A Broadband Backwater

from the cake-and-eat-it-too dept

As we've covered repeatedly, AT&T's busy backing away from countless DSL markets it doesn't want to upgrade, promising states that if they gut all consumer protections, those states will magically be awash in numerous broadband options. Of course what AT&T's actually doing is gutting DSL and traditional phone service, then shoving those users toward significantly more expensive wireless service -- which may or may not actually be available, and usually isn't a full substitute. At the same time, it's going state to state pushing protectionist laws that prevent towns and cities from improving their own networks, whether that's through building their own broadband networks, or partnering with a private company to do so.

It's a situation where AT&T truly gets to have its cake and eat it too. AT&T won't provide quality service, but it wants state protection ensuring that nobody can either -- just in case any of these efforts brush up against the company's business interests sometime down the road.

As we've discussed, the FCC has finally started taking aim at these protectionist broadband laws in Tennessee and North Carolina. Tennessee has already filed suit against the FCC for trampling "states rights," though the fact AT&T is literally writing stating law that tramples these same rights isn't seen as much of a problem. While the FCC works to try and gut these protectionist laws, there are a few bills circulating in the Tennessee legislature (like HB 152) that would allow these municipal broadband operations to extend outside of their current footprints without the FCC having to get involved.

AT&T unsurprisingly opposes the proposal, and has played a role in killing similar proposals in three straight legislative sessions. With this latest fight, AT&T has been e-mailing its employees, telling them to oppose the proposals if they know what's good for them:

"Government should not compete against the private sector, which has a proven history of funding, building, operating and upgrading broadband networks," she said in the emailed statement. "Rather than delivering more broadband, we believe that this policy will discourage the private sector investment that has delivered the world-class broadband infrastructure American consumers deserve and enjoy today."
Of course, the only thing AT&T has "proven" is that it will go to any lengths to project its uncompetitive fiefdom from outside competition. AT&T has spent years in Tennessee (and many other states) refusing to seriously upgrade broadband infrastructure, but doing its very best to ensure nobody else can either. Just ask the numerous Tennessee residents who filed their complaint with the FCC in support of the agency's push to dismantle protectionist law:
"For the past 15 years, Joyce and other people in her community have requested better service from AT&T. They were told repeatedly it would be 3 months, 6 months, 9 months until they would get upgrades but it never happened. They finally decided to look for connectivity elsewhere. Joyce and her neighbors approached their electric provider, Volunteer Energy Cooperative, in the hopes that they could work with (Chattanooga's municipal utility broadband company) EPB to bring services to the area. Volunteer and EPB had already discussed the possibility, but when the state law was passed that prevented EPB from expanding, the efforts to collaborate cooled."
AT&T's quick to claim it isn't blocking municipal broadband, because the bills it's pushing (usually based on draft legislation by ALEC in turn written by AT&T lawyers) do allow these operations to expand -- but only if they target markets that aren't "served" by existing providers. Of course, the bills then include an absurdly generous definition of what constitutes a community being "served," whether that's just one DSL line in an entire zip code, or the inclusion of pricey and capped wireless or satellite broadband services. AT&T President Joelle Phillips hides behind this logic when she tells people AT&T isn't against municipal broadband:
"Phillips said AT&T is not opposed to municipal networks, but government-owned providers should be limited to areas where broadband service from the private sector is unavailable or is not likely to be available in "a reasonable time frame." The proposed bill "allows for unfettered deployment of these publicly funded networks," she said."
A better idea would be for AT&T to either offer broadband services that don't suck, or get the hell out of the way. Millions of AT&T customers in Tennessee (and elsewhere) pay an arm and a leg for slow DSL lines with 150 GB usage caps, thanks to the now all-too-familiar lack of broadband competition seen across vast swaths of the country. Allowing towns and cities to improve things would ruin AT&T's ambitious plan to bathe those users in price hikes or apathy, or shovel these neglected customers toward hugely expensive and capped LTE service plans.

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Posted on Net Neutrality Special Edition - 2 April 2015 @ 11:38am

Despite Claims Title II Will Kill Investment, Comcast Launches Major New 2 Gigabit Deployment

from the watch-what-we-do,-not-what-we-say dept

While broadband ISPs have repeatedly claimed that being reclassified as common carriers under Title II will crush sector innovation, investment, and destroy the Internet as we know it -- they simultaneously continue to do a bang up job highlighting how these claims are complete and utter nonsense. For example, while Verizon was busy proclaiming that Title II would ruin, well, everything, it's been using Title II to reap massive tax benefits. Similarly, despite the fact wireless voice has been classified under Title II for years, that didn't stop the industry from investing massive amounts during that period or spending record amounts at the FCC's latest spectrum auction.

Comcast has similarly proclaimed that if the FCC moved toward Title II it would have a devastating impact on network investment. In fact Comcast's top lobbyist David Cohen had this to say the day the FCC voted to approve Title II rules:

"To attempt to impose a full-blown Title II regime now, when the classification of cable broadband has always been as an information service, would reverse nearly a decade of precedent, including findings by the Supreme Court that this classification was proper. This would be a radical reversal that would harm investment and innovation, as today's immediate stock market reaction demonstrates."
Of course on the day in question telecom stocks actually rallied, suggesting Wall Street wasn't all that worried about the FCC's new rules. Meanwhile, this sudden freeze in investment is nowhere to be found on the news this week that Comcast is going to deploy symmetrical 2 gigabit per second service to an estimated 18 million homes. From the Comcast blog post:
"We’ll first offer this service in Atlanta and roll it out in additional cities soon with the goal to have it available across the country and available to about 18 million homes by the end of the year. Gigabit Pro is a professional-grade residential fiber-to-the-home solution that leverages our fiber network to deliver 2 Gbps upload and download speeds...

Gigabit Pro isn’t the only way we plan to bring gigabit speeds to customers’ homes. We are currently testing DOCSIS 3.1, a scalable, national, next generation 1 Gbps technology solution. We hope to begin rolling out DOCSIS 3.1 in early 2016, and when fully deployed, it will mean almost every customer in our footprint will be able to receive gigabit speeds over our existing network (a combination of both fiber and coax)."
Before people get too excited, remember that Comcast is trying to get its acquisition of Time Warner Cable approved, and as such is probably willing to make any number of promises it may or may not keep. ISPs also often like to conflate homes "passed" with fiber with homes served, so we'll have to see if Comcast actually gets anywhere near that 18 million mark. It's also worth noting that the company's current top-shelf tier of 505 Mbps runs users $400 a month, has a $1000 early termination fee, a $250 installation fee, and a $250 administrative fee. As such, if pricing for the new tier is similar Comcast knows most users won't take the option, with the possible exception of markets where Google Fiber creates downward pricing pressure.

Still, which is it? Does classifying ISPs as common carriers under Title II create telecommunications Armageddon, or do things generally just proceed as normal, the only exception being an FCC equipped to police the most egregious examples anti-competitive behavior? Because increasingly, all signs are pointing to the latter.

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Posted on Net Neutrality Special Edition - 2 April 2015 @ 6:16am

AT&T Shows Cupertino Precisely What Broadband Competition (Or The Lack Thereof) Looks Like

from the fiber-to-the-press-release dept

As many of you may know, AT&T has been responding to Google Fiber with a gigabit broadband deployment of its own, primarily aimed at high-end housing developments where fiber is already in the ground. Dubbed AT&T U-Verse with "Gigapower," the service first appeared in Google Fiber markets like Austin, though AT&T tried to claim this timing was entirely coincidental. As with similar offerings from companies like CenturyLink, it's part of an industry push to at least give the impression that they're keeping pace with Google Fiber and gigabit municipal broadband deployments, even if the announcements often tend to be more impressive than the actual deployments (something I affectionately call "fiber to the press release").

Given this is AT&T, there are of course several caveats. One being that the company's promise to deploy the service to "up to 100 cities" is a bit of a bluff aimed at making the telco appear cutting edge, since it's actually consistently slashing its fixed-line investment budget. The actual deployment is much, much smaller (as in a few housing developments in a dozen markets or so), and AT&T's ambiguous projection numbers tend to ebb and flow depending on what AT&T's trying to get from the government. The other is that users need to pay $40 to $60 more if they want to opt out of AT&T's "Internet Preferences" snoopvertising, which uses deep packet inspection to track online behavior down to the second.

In short, yes it's competition -- but it's AT&T's special brand of competition. Still, it highlights the fact that Google Fiber markets very quickly see a much-needed industry response on both speed and price. Case in point: in the markets where Google Fiber is present, AT&T's gigabit offering costs significantly less, whether it's a standalone gigabit line, or a bundle. For example, this is the pricing seen by an AT&T customer in Austin, where Google Fiber is present:

Last week, AT&T launched the service in select parts of Cupertino, California where there's no Google Fiber pricing pressure. This is what local Cupertino users see when they try to sign up for service:

So yes, it's pretty clear it doesn't take much for pampered duopolists to respond to real price competition. The problem is despite the fact that Google Fiber is nearly five years old, its actual footprint remains fairly small, with only portions of Austin, Provo and Kansas City online so far. And that's a company with billions to spend and a massive lobbying apparatus that can take aim at the sector's regulatory capture. That's why community broadband and public/private partnerships become such an integral part of trying to light a fire under the U.S. broadband industry, as are the attempts to dismantle ISP protectionist state laws aimed at keeping these speeds and real price competition far, far away from most U.S. broadband markets.

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Posted on Net Neutrality Special Edition - 1 April 2015 @ 10:29am

Massive Anti-Net Neutrality E-mail Campaign Shows Signs Of Faking Many Signatures

from the sockpuppetry-and-astroturf dept

During the first round of the FCC's net neutrality comment period, the agency was absolutely swamped by public input (including ours), the vast majority of it supporting net neutrality. After the agency released a database of the comments, analysis of the comments showed that while around half were generated via "outrage-o-matic" forms from various consumer advocacy groups, once you got into the other half of the comments -- almost all were in support of net neutrality. After the volume of pro-neutrality comments received ample media coverage, anti-neutrality organizations -- like the Phil Kerpen's Koch-Funded "American Commitment" -- dramatically ramped up their automated form comment efforts to try and balance the comment scales.

As we noted at the time, Kerpen and American Commitment's efforts were jam packed with some absurd, alarmist dreck. Similarly, claims that net neutrality opponents then "won" the comment period because they purchased some wingnut e-mail lists to pad the petition were misleading as well. Perusing the FCC comments and analysis of the data, there's really no way to conclude anything other than the fact the FCC's efforts have broad, bipartisan public support. Like countless similar groups, American Commitment obscures its funding sources, making its ties to the broadband industry impossible to prove.

That brings us to this week, when American Commitment proudly crowed it had managed to urge 540,538 citizens to send 1,621,614 letters to Congress opposing net neutrality and basically asking for the FCC to be defunded. Except some new analysis of the latest wave of comments suggests there was some serious skulduggery afoot. As in, some of the constituent names used to sign these letters -- either don't exist or never sent letters opposing net neutrality:

"The flood of traffic seemed to raise some lawmakers’ eyebrows, including Democratic Rep. Jackie Speier of California, whose office soon determined some of the messages had come from constituents who didn’t recall sending them. Her aides pointed to a memo sent to members’ staff last week by Lockheed Martin, which manages the technology behind some lawmakers’ “contact me” Web pages. Lockheed initially said it had “some concerns regarding the messages,” including the fact that “a vast majority of the emails do not appear to have a valid in-district address.” In some cases, Lockheed also questioned the “legitimacy of the email address contact associated with the incoming message[s]."
When asked about this, Kerpen suggested that the actions are that of unspecified third party rogue agents, and that his organization knew nothing about the ploy:
"Asked about the matter, Kerpen told POLITICO that American Commitment hadn’t impersonated members’ constituents. But he said that other groups had mounted similar campaigns, and borrowed the pre-written text available on his website. "We’re aware that other groups used identical language in their campaigns and we cannot speak to those efforts,” Kerpen said. “We verified our data through postal address verification and follow up phone calls. We stand by our campaign and Congress should work to stop President [Barack] Obama’s plan to regulate the Internet at the request of these constituents."
Whoever is to blame (and I'd imagine this entire affair is quickly forgotten in the annals of muddy neutrality lore), it certainly speaks to the quality of your argument when you need to either buy -- or just outright fabricate -- your support.

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Posted on Techdirt - 1 April 2015 @ 8:12am

Comcast, CenturyLink Give New Home Owner Kafka-esque Introduction To U.S. Broadband Market

from the like-a-bad-novel dept

There's been no shortage of Comcast horror stories in the media of late, the company promising time and time again that it has made customer service a top priority under the careful watch of a new "Customer Experience" VP. Except despite ten years of these promises and what seems like an endless parade of horrible PR, the customer satisfaction rankings for companies like Comcast are actually getting worse. That's because with no serious competition forcing their hand and regulatory capture ensuring nobody tries to fix things, there's simply no organic penalty for being historically awful at what they do.

While these kinds of stories are a dime a dozen, the Consumerist recently posted what I think is the near perfect encapsulation of what's wrong with the U.S. broadband market. The website tells the story of a Washington State resident named Seth, who purchased a new house after being told by Comcast (several times, according to a FAQ the user is maintaining) that the house was ready for broadband service. Of course once he moved in he was told that neither Comcast or regional telco CenturyLink could provide him service.

On it's face that's not necessarily a big deal -- broadband coverage gaps are common, as are inaccurate service databases. It's the experience the customer has with customer service after the fact that perfectly illustrates the utterly abysmal state of the U.S. broadband industry, and the way carriers' left hand (or right hand, or left foot, or brain) usually doesn't know what the right hand is doing. Seth notes it actually takes months and more than three Comcast technician visits for the company to realize the house has never been serviced before:

"He just appeared out of nowhere and asked us where our cable box was,” writes Seth. “We explained that we didn’t have one, but that we did have a Drop Bury Request in place. He looked perplexed. He told us that there was no way a Drop Bury Request could possibly get us hooked up, we were too far away from the cable infrastructure. We asked him to contact someone at Comcast to get things resolved, and he left."

Then on Feb. 9 another tech showed up — at least this one was on schedule — but just like his predecessors, this guy had not been given the memo that the house was not yet connected to the Comcast network. He was just there to hook up a modem and some cable boxes. Several days later — and again without an appointment — yet another Comcast tech showed up to do an install that simply couldn’t be done."
From there, Seth has to stumble through layer upon layer of what can only be described as total, relentless absurdism, including countless conversations with Comcast support personnel, on site engineering visits, phantom appointment cancellations and claims by Comcast that he'd had a successful install when no work had actually been done. From there it goes beyond "horror story" and well into Terry Gilliam "Brazil" territory, with Comcast at several points being totally unaware of his work order status, whether his house has service, whether the house could get service, and frankly, what planet Seth lives on.

After initially being told he could pay part of the $50,000 to $60,000 needed to do a coax and hardware run to his house (pretty common for rural cable customers just out of range), Seth ultimately has to give up months later, after the company finally concludes the ROI on the work isn't worth Comcast's time, even with Seth and his neighbors footing the lion's share of the bill. Seth then turns to regional telco CenturyLink in the hopes it could offer something vaguely resembling a sane business transaction, since their website claims he can get service. Yet somehow, his experience actually manages to get worse:
"But then the next day he got a call informing him that his area was in “Permanent Exhaust” and that CenturyLink wouldn’t be adding new customers. Of course, that didn’t stop CenturyLink from billing Seth more than $100 for service he never received and will never be able to receive. Seth then had to convince someone with CenturyLink’s billing department to zero out the account that should have never been opened."
At one point, The Consumerist tries to lend Seth a hand and contacts CenturyLink on his behalf, only to be told by the support rep they can't help because they're leaving the company. Said rep then decides to forward on the complaint to a manager -- who winds up being on a multi-week vacation. Ultimately, CenturyLink has to admit that their website has inaccurate data regarding its coverage area (data that hasn't been corrected to date). CenturyLink, it should be noted, has played a starring role in protectionist state level legislation preventing neighborhoods like Seth's from building their own networks, even in cases where CenturyLink refuses to service them.

With telecommuting to do and the daily usage caps of satellite broadband not an option, Seth's currently stuck on a capped and very expensive Verizon LTE plan until he can figure out what to do with the house. As we've been discussing, AT&T and Verizon have been backing away from DSL in the hopes of shoveling customers just like Seth on to capped, very expensive LTE plans -- in the process actually making already dismal fixed-line competition actually worse. Ultimately, this lack of competition means these companies don't have to care whether you like their service -- or their Kafka-esque support. You will, whether you like it or not, take exactly what they're willing to give you.

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