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Posted on Techdirt - 21 July 2017 @ 6:24am

FCC Won't Release Data To Support Its Claim A DDOS Attack, Not John Oliver, Brought Down The Agency's Website

from the not-so-transparent-after-all dept

You might recall that when HBO comedian John Oliver originally addressed net neutrality on his show in 2014, the FCC website crashed under the load of concerned consumers eager to support the creation of real net neutrality rules. When Oliver revisited the topic last May to discuss FCC boss Ajit Pai's myopic plan to kill those same rules, the FCC website crashed under the load a second time. Both instances did a fantastic job highlighting how satire often tops traditional journalism in driving interest toward what can often be rather wonky tech policy issues.

But then something weird happened. In the midst of all the attention Oliver was receiving for his segment, the FCC issued a statement (pdf) by FCC Chief Information Officer David Bray, claiming that comprehensive FCC "analysis" indicated that it was a malicious DDoS attack, not angry net neutrality supporters, that brought the agency's website to its knees:

"Beginning on Sunday night at midnight, our analysis reveals that the FCC was subject to multiple distributed denial-of-service attacks (DDos). These were deliberate attempts by external actors to bombard the FCC’s comment system with a high amount of traffic to our commercial cloud host. These actors were not attempting to file comments themselves; rather they made it difficult for legitimate commenters to access and file with the FCC."

But this claim that a DDoS disabled the FCC website at coincidentally the exact same time Oliver's segment was airing raised a few eyebrows among security experts, who noted they saw none of the usual online indicators pointing to a DDoS attack, nor any evidence of an attack via publicly-available logs. Security analysts noted the FCC provided no evidence to support their claim of an attack, and the agency has consistently and repeatedly refused to offer any additional hard detail, despite being prodded by several Senators on the subject.

Hoping to glean a little more information, Gizmodo recently filed a FOIA request asking for server logs or documents offering more insight into this supposed attack. What they found is that the FCC never conducted said "analysis" of the attack in the first place:

"The FCC now tells Gizmodo, however, that it holds no records of such an analysis ever being performed on its public comment system; the agency claims that while its IT staff observed a cyberattack taking place, those observations “did not result in written documentation."

Gizmodo's FOIA request asked for "all communications between employees in the offices of Chairman Ajit Pai and Commissioner Michael O’Rielly" concerning the alleged cyberattack, as well as copies of "any records related to the FCC 'analysis' (cited in Dr. Bray’s statement) that concluded a DDoS attack had taken place." What they got instead was 17 pages of heavy redactions and nonsense (including several user complaints about what Pai's been up to) and a rotating crop of excuses for why the FCC couldn't be more transparent about the alleged attack:

"The agency cited a variety of reasons for why it was refusing to release 209 documents related to the purported DDoS attack. Some of the records, it says, contain “trade secrets and commercial or financial information” which it deems “privileged or confidential,” citing the Trade Secrets Act. Other documents were withheld in an effort to “prevent injury to the quality of agency decisions,” citing a FOIA exemption that typically protects attorney-client communications but also extends to documents that reflect “advisory opinions, recommendations and deliberations” as part of the government’s decision-making processes."

It didn't take long for news outlets to highlight the FCC's refusal to be clear about what happened, prompting the agency to e-mail this press release to reporters, deriding said reports as "completely irresponsible":

"Media reports claiming that the FCC lacks written documentation of its analysis of the May 7-8 non-traditional DDoS attack that took place against our electronic comment filing system are categorically false. In its FOIA request, Gizmodo requested records related to the FCC analysis cited in Dr. David Bray’s May 8 public statement about this attack. Given that the Commission’s IT professionals were in the midst of addressing the attack on May 8, that analysis was not reduced to writing. However, subsequent analysis, once the incident had concluded, was put in writing. Indeed, analysis was made public in response to a request from Capitol Hill.

“Moreover, the FCC has never stated that it lacks any documentation of this DDoS attack itself. And news reports claiming that the Commission has said this are without any basis and completely irresponsible. In fact, we have voluminous documentation of this attack in the form of logs collected by our commercial cloud partners."

But while the FCC's statement proclaims the agency has oodles of documentation detailing the supposed DDoS (it just doesn't want to reveal it), that's the precise opposite of what the agency is telling reporters that have filed FOIA requests to get a hold of it:

So it seems like there's two options here. One is that there really was some kind of non-traditional DDoS attack, but the agency failed to conduct a detailed written analysis of what caused it, and despite boss Ajit Pai's breathless dedication to transparency, has zero interest in being up front about it.

The other possibility is the entire attack narrative was poorly-constructed bullshit, feebly designed to try and deflate the "John Oliver effect" in the media and downplay the volume of consumers pissed off about what Ajit Pai is up to. And now that Senators and reporters are pushing harder for actual evidence, the FCC is having to engage in some comical tap dancing to obfuscate the fact it made up a DDOS attack as a lame (and ineffective) PR ploy.

The former's certainly possible, but the latter's also in character. Either way, expect this and the agency's willful disregard of comment proceeding fraud to pop up in the inevitable lawsuits awaiting Ajit Pai when he rams through the final net neutrality killing vote later this year.

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Posted on Net Neutrality Special Edition - 20 July 2017 @ 6:22am

Supposed Stickler For Transparency, FCC Boss Won't Release Net Neutrality Complaints

from the only-transparent-when-it-suits-Comcast dept

When Ajit Pai was first appointed as the new head of the FCC, he promised to be a stickler for transparency at the agency. And in one way he followed through, by making it standard operating procedure to now publish FCC orders a month before they're voted on (even though former staffers and consumer advocates believe he only did so to give ISP lobbyists more time to construct counter-arguments and their legal and policy assaults). Elsewhere, this supposed dedication to transparency has been decidedly lacking however, especially in regards to his efforts to repeal net neutrality protections.

When he first proposed killing popular net neutrality protections (pdf), he insisted he would proceed "in a far more transparent way than the FCC did" when it first crafted the rules in 2015. But Pai has also long tried to argue that a lack of broadband competition (and the resulting symptom of this disease that is net neutrality violations) isn't a real problem, despite the obvious, repeated evidence to the contrary.

There's of course some very solid evidence that can clarify whether or not net neutrality is a "solution in need of a problem," and that's the 47,000 (give or take) complaints consumers have filed with the FCC since the rules were passed in 2015. Back in May, the National Hispanic Media Coalition (NHMC) filed a Freedom of Information Act (FoIA) request to obtain copies of these complaints, and urged the FCC to extend the public comment period on the net neutrality proceeding for sixty days, providing time to analyze the data.

The group has repeatedly argued these complaints are relevant in analyzing whether or not Pai's attempt to repeal the rules runs contrary to the public interest:

"The commission's Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) that proposes overturning the net neutrality rules asks the public for comment on various issues. The NHMC points out that the document asks the public if there is "evidence of actual harm to consumers" or evidence that Internet access has improved since the net neutrality rules were approved. Those questions could be answered by releasing all the net neutrality complaints, the group says.

"These questions seek evidence that the Commission holds in its exclusive possession," the NHMC said in its motion for a delay.

Not too surprisingly, Pai's FCC is blocking the release of these complaints, insisting that providing public access to the complaints would be "unreasonably burdensome." The NHMC, also unsurprisingly, isn't particularly impressed with the agency's justification for withholding the complaints:

"The FCC's denial of our motion is shortsighted, denies the public critical information, and flies in the face of their acknowledgment that they have received over 47,000 open Internet complaints since the 2015 net neutrality rules were enacted. It should give the public pause that the agency with exclusive control over regulating Internet service providers refuses to share such information with the public. The information is within the FCC’s exclusive control and was completely ignored in the NPRM."

If you've been playing along at home, refusing to release valid user complaints outlining genuine net neutrality concerns runs in line with the agency's attempts to downplay public opposition to its proposal. That has also included turning a blind eye to fraud and abuse of the FCC's comment system, which is currently being filled with bot-crafted industry "support" for the FCC's tone-deaf plan. The goal, consistently, has been to downplay public support for net neutrality, while pushing the illusion that repealing the rules is anything more than a giant, shameless gift to AT&T, Comcast and Verizon.

And while Ajit Pai clearly thinks he can bulldoze his way through transparency and operational apathy concerns, these are all certain to come up again during the inevitable lawsuits against the agency -- all of which will highlight how Pai and friends blatantly ignored the public interest to the exclusive benefit of a handful of extremely-unpopular duopolists.

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Posted on Techdirt - 19 July 2017 @ 11:55am

EFF Highlights How ISPs Are Lying To Californians To Try And Kill New Broadband Privacy Protections

from the trust-us,-we're-the-phone-company dept

When AT&T, Verizon and Comcast convinced lawmakers to kill broadband consumer privacy rules earlier this year, everybody in this chain of campaign-cash dysfunction got notably more than they bargained for. As with net neutrality, the relatively-modest privacy protections had broad bipartisan consumer support (our collective disdain for Comcast magically bridges the partisan divide). As a result, when the FCC's rules died, more than a dozen states rushed in to craft their own privacy rules that largely mirror the discarded FCC protections.

And while that creates the problem of multiple, potentially discordant (or just plain bad) state laws, that's probably something the broadband industry should have thought about before paying Congress to axe the FCC's privacy rules.

Obviously worried that states would step up and protect consumers where the FCC will not, ISP allies like Marsha Blackburn quickly got to work trying to pass new federal regulation that pretends to address privacy concerns, but is being designed primarily to pre-empt state efforts on this front. FCC boss Ajit Pai, who has previously defended protectionist ISP-written state laws as a "states rights" issue, suddenly turned on a dime here, stating he would be exploring ways to use FCC authority to keep states from protecting consumer privacy in the wake of repealing the FCC's privacy rules.

In California, Assemblyman Ed Chau introduced AB 375 (pdf) earlier this year. AB 375 mirrors the FCC proposal in that it requires that ISPs transparently disclose what private data is being collected and sold, while requiring ISPs provide working opt out tools. In some ways it goes further than the FCC's proposal, in that it specifically bans ISPs from charging broadband subscribers more money to protect their privacy -- something both AT&T and Comcast have flirted with. Needless to say, large ISP lobbyists are desperate to prevent this law from taking root.

The EFF has been documenting this week all of the misleading claims being made by ISP lobbyists as they attempt to scuttle the legislation. The ISPs, with their rich history of violating consumer trust on this subject, are telling the California legislature that privacy protections aren't necessary because ISPs have done nothing wrong. That ignores how Verizon was caught covertly modifying packets to track users around the internet, how ISPs have hijacked search queries for financial gain, how AT&T and Comcast made efforts to charge more for privacy, and how ISPs made efforts to use credit data to offer lower quality customer service to less affluent customers.

Again, these behaviors are all symptoms of a broader disease that nobody in either political party really wants to fix for fear of upsetting powerful campaign contributors: a lack of broadband competition. And while these regulatory patches certainly aren't ideal, until we actually decide to do something about a lack of competition -- these protections are/were the only thing standing between your family and Comcast's ability to nickel and dime the living hell out of you in a rotating array of creative new ways.

The EFF notes that in addition to ignoring obvious, documented history (not even mentioning AT&T's cozy relationship with the NSA), AT&T lobbyists are also pushing the narrative that the state law isn't necessary because FTC authority over broadband providers is plenty good enough moving forward:

"To California’s Legislature, AT&T right now is saying the following:

"AT&T and other major Internet service providers have committed to legally enforceable Privacy Principles that are consistent with the privacy framework developed by the FTC over the past twenty years."

In essence, there is no need to pass a state law because the Federal Trade Commission can enforce the law on us.

But we've noted already how AT&T lawyers are currently suing the FTC to try and ensure the agency has no authority over AT&T businesses whatsoever. We've also noted how this is all part of an ISP lobbying plan to gut FCC authority over broadband providers by rolling back Title II (net neutrality being just a small part of this), then shovel all remaining authority to an FTC that lacks the resources, authority, or funding to police duopoly ISP behavior. The goal is really quite simple: little to no actual oversight of some of the least competitive and least-liked companies in America.

And, as the death of privacy and looming death of net neutrality rules can attest, so far this plan is going swimmingly for ISPs. Except for the dozen or so states actually interested in standing up for their citizens' privacy rights.

While the EFF had previously warned that killing the FCC rules would cause a wave of less-ideal state-level laws, they're supporting AB 375 as they feel it's a good template for other states to follow for some consistency on this front:

"EFF supports states responding to the demands of the public for privacy protections, particularly in light of Congress having failed to do so. It has become even more important as the Federal Communications Commission itself is actively undermining consumer protections on behalf of Comcast, AT&T, and Verizon. It should surprise no one that state legislators who care about consumer privacy will act and ultimately having as many state laws on the books as possible to protect personal information is a superior outcome to having no clear protections at all.

And if A.B. 375 becomes law, we hope it would serve as the model for states across the country to avoid a patchwork problem, but again this problem was created by the ISP lobby repealing the federal rules in the first place."

So far ISP efforts to derail California's proposal (including having former FTC boss Jon Leibowitz pen misleading op/eds lobbying for ISPs against privacy protections) have seen mixed results, with the bill passing the first of several hurdles in the California legislature earlier this week. But again, California's fight is far from over. And it's just a microcosm of ISP attempts to remove already fairly-tepid oversight of the telecom sector, under the pretense that zero accountability for uncompetitive duopolists like AT&T and Comcast somehow magically results in connectivity Utopia.

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Posted on Techdirt - 19 July 2017 @ 10:41am

Comcast: We Must Kill Net Neutrality To Help The Sick And Disabled

from the you-do-realize-nobody-believes-anything-you-say,-right? dept

For years now, large ISPs like Comcast have tried to have it both ways on net neutrality. They consistently profess to support the concept of net neutrality, but they don't want any meaningful rules actually holding them to their word on the subject. And if there are rules, they want them to be so loophole-filled as to be utterly useless. That's effectively what the FCC's initial 2010 rules did, and that's why companies like Comcast are now pushing to have the tougher 2015 rules killed and replaced with a new net neutrality law they know either won't happen, or will be quite literally written by the industry itself.

This have your cake and eat it too approach continued in this week's Comcast comment on the FCC's proceeding to kill net neutrality. In it, Comcast again pats itself on its back for the company's non-existent dedication to net neutrality, uses industry-paid economists to falsely claim net neutrality rules hurt broadband investment, and trots out all manner of flimsy justifications for the kind of feeble rules that look meaningful to the nation's nitwits, but allow Comcast the leeway to act anti-competitively whenever it likes.

One long-standing ploy used by giant ISPs to scare people into compliance is to argue that net neutrality rules will somehow prevent ISPs from prioritizing medical network traffic. That point was most starkly made when Verizon tried to argue that net neutrality protections would hurt the deaf and disabled by preventing ISPs from being able to prioritize needed communications tools. That's never actually been a problem, and every set of rules we've had so far carves out obvious, glaring exceptions to these services. But that didn't stop Comcast from trotting out this bogeyman once again in its FCC filing (pdf):

"...the Commission also should bear in mind that a more flexible approach to prioritization may be warranted and may be beneficial to the public. For example, a telepresence service tailored for the hearing impaired requires high-definition video that is of sufficiently reliable quality to permit users “to perceive subtle hand and finger motions” in real time. And paid prioritization may have other compelling applications in telemedicine. Likewise, for autonomous vehicles that may require instantaneous data transmission, black letter prohibitions on paid prioritization may actually stifle innovation instead of encouraging it."

The goal here is to scare policy makers into "more flexible" rules (read: embedding all manner of loopholes into net neutrality protections) or we'll inadvertently hurt the disabled, disadvantage the sick, or kill the smart-driving car industry in the cradle. But again, this has never actually been a problem. The 2010 net neutrality rules had so many exceptions of this type as to make them utterly meaningless, letting ISPs do pretty much whatever they'd like provided they argued it was for the health and security of the network. The 2015 rules also include broad, tractor trailer sized exceptions for this kind of traffic.

What Comcast really wants is rules so "flexible" and broad they don't actually address any of the real hot-button subjects in the net neutrality debate. Like Comcast's decision to abuse the lack of broadband competition to impose arbitrary usage caps and overage fees. Or the way it exempts its own content from these unnecessary limits to put competing streaming providers at a notable disadvantage in this emerging market (aka zero rating).

So it's important to understand that when Comcast pens blog posts insisting it supports net neutrality, what it's really saying is it supports an absurdly-broad definition of net neutrality, which includes so many caveats and loopholes as to make said support utterly meaningless. That's again why you're currently seeing large ISPs argue that they want to do away with the strong 2015 rules (which more clearly differentiate anti-competitive behavior from justifiable paid prioritization), and replace it with a new, industry-written law that takes us back to the murky definitions seen in the FCC's since-discarded 2010 rules.

So once again with feeling: anybody that actually cares about net neutrality should support the simplest and easiest way to protect consumers, startups and small businesses moving forward: keep the existing rules intact.

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Posted on Net Neutrality Special Edition - 19 July 2017 @ 6:23am

AT&T Tricked Its Customers Into Opposing Net Neutrality

from the with-friends-like-these dept

As most of you probably noticed, last week saw a massive, online protest against FCC boss Ajit Pai's plan to completely ignore consumer welfare and gut popular net neutrality protections. Giant ISPs like AT&T, Comcast and Verizon responded to the protest in the way they've always done: by comically insisting that the press somehow got it wrong, and these companies actually really love net neutrality -- despite a decade of documented anti-competitive behavior, and the fact they've spent millions upon millions of dollars trying to kill any meaningful neutrality protections.

AT&T took things a bit further by hysterically saying the company loved net neutrality so much, it too would be participating in the protest -- a PR ploy that was pretty soundly ridiculed by ourselves and others. But a deeper look at AT&T's "participation" in the protest found that AT&T used the opportunity to trick its customers into opposing real net neutrality protections -- and convinced many to root against their own self interests.

The Verge was the first to notice that AT&T spent the day sending e-mails and other notifications to customers professing the company's dedication to net neutrality. These missives even showed up on AT&T set top boxes, as several users noted on Twitter:

These notifications have several variations. But all of them directed AT&T customers to this AT&T website where they were informed that AT&T really loves net neutrality (narrator: they don't), and were told to fill out a form letter AT&T said it would forward on to "the FCC and your officials." But the letter doesn't actually support net neutrality. What it supports is the gutting of the existing popular protections and replacement with a Congressional law:

"Simply put, it is time to stop this regulatory see-saw. Consumers need a set of basic online protection and competition rules put in place that will last longer than the next Presidential administration. Congress should pass a law to ensure consumers are always protected and all internet companies compete on a level playing field under a single set of rules."

So in an ideal world, having Congress craft a net neutrality law makes sense -- especially since it would end the game of partisan patty cake that occurs every time a new administration takes office, potentially ending fifteen years of net neutrality debate. The problem, as we've noted several times, is that we don't live in an ideal world. We live in a world where Congress is bogged down in immense partisan dysfunction, and companies like AT&T, Verizon and Comcast have immense control over both federal and state-level lawmakers.

Their control is so complete, they're often the ones writing awful, anti-competition, protectionist state and federal telecom law. There's a reason AT&T wants to gut the existing, popular rules and replace it with a new law: it knows it will be the one writing it. As such, you can be certain the law -- assuming it got passed at all (not at all likely) would be filled with so many loopholes as to be utterly useless. Despite this grotesque corruption and dysfunction being fairly apparent to anybody with eyes, many reporters have bought into this argument for a new law.

Fortunately a few reporters have been able to see through AT&T's bullshit on this front:

This is all cleverly worded bullshit from people who actually want to dismantle a responsive regulatory agency and cede responsibility back to Congress, which is much slower to act and, where the ISPs are concerned, can be easily bought. All of these ISPs continue to say they love net neutrality with fingers crossed behind their backs.

Make no mistake: AT&T doesn't care about healthy internet competition, level playing fields, or consumer welfare. Its goal is to gut all meaningful oversight of one of the least liked, and least competitive industries in America, and replace it with the policy equivalent of fluff and nonsense. And while there's still many folks that somehow believe that blindly deregulating companies like Comcast will magically result in good ISP behavior and telecom utopia, history has shown us time and time again that logic only tends to make the problem worse.

There's a far simpler way to settle the issue and protect consumers and startups, and that's to leave the existing net neutrality rules alone.

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Posted on Techdirt - 17 July 2017 @ 9:38am

Indian ISPs Continue Futile Effort To Prevent Subscribers From Using Decent Encryption

from the good-luck-with-that dept

The global war against privacy tools, VPNs and encryption continues utterly-unhinged from common sense, and the assault on consumer privacy remains a notably global affair. Reddit users recently noticed that India's fifth largest ISP, YOU Broadband, is among several of the country's ISPs that have been trying to prevent customers from using meaningful encryption. According to the company's updated terms of service, as a customer of the ISP you're supposed to avoid using encryption to allow for easier monitoring of your online behavior:

"The Customer shall not take any steps including adopting any encryption system that prevents or in any way hinders the Company from maintaining a log of the Customer or maintaining or having access to copies of all packages/data originating from the Customer."

Of course enforcement of such a requirement is largely impossible. But You Broadband isn't just being randomly obtuse, and while the ISP's TOS is making headlines, this effort isn't really new. Most Indian ISPs are simply adhering to a misguided (and still not adequately updated) set of 2007 guidelines imposed by India's Department of Telecommunications (word doc) demanding that ISPs try and prevent their subscribers from using any encryption with greater than a 40 bit key length if they want to do business in India:

"The Licensee shall ensure that Bulk Encryption is not deployed by ISPs connecting to Landing Station. Further, Individuals/Groups/Organizations are permitted to use encryption upto 40 bit key length in the symmetric key algorithms or its equivalent in other algorithms without having to obtain permission from the Licensor. However, if encryption equipments higher than this limit are to be deployed, individuals/groups/organizations shall do so with the prior written permission of the Licensor and deposit the decryption key, split into two parts, with the Licensor."

Which is and of itself is rather hysterical, given that since 1996 or so, most folks have considered a 40 bit key length to be the security equivalent of wet tissue paper. In fact, Ian Goldberg won $1,000 from RSA for breaking 40 bit encryption in just a few hours way back in 1997, saying this at the time:

"This is the final proof of what we’ve known for years: 40-bit encryption technology is obsolete."

And yeah, that was twenty years ago. But this sort of policy is pretty standard fair in India, which is no stranger to censorship, internet filtering, and blind, often-mindless expansion of surveillance. India's government has also been at the forefront of attempting to impose backdoors in encryption, and there's a recent effort in some corners to attempt to ban Whatsapp as well.

I've yet to see any ISP successfully enforce this ridiculous governmental restriction (if you're in India and you have, let us know in the comment section precisely how). But it's still part of an over-arching mindset that sees standard, intelligent privacy and security practices as an enemy that must be thwarted. Usually either to expand government surveillance, prop up idiot ham-fisted internet filters (as we're seeing in Russia, China and India), or to erode consumer rights in the face of what are endless attempts to monetize your online behavior.

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Posted on Techdirt - 14 July 2017 @ 6:26am

Charter Spectrum 'Competes' With New $20 Streaming TV Service Featuring $6 In Entirely Bogus Fees

from the the-illusion-of-competition dept

You may have noticed that things aren't going particularly well for the traditional cable TV industry. Ratings for many channels are in free fall, the rate at which customers are cutting the traditional TV cord is accelerating, and the number and quality of competing streaming services is only growing. Cumulatively, this has forced many previously myopic cable and broadcast executives to stop denying the obvious and to candidly admit there's an actual market (r)evolution afoot, even if most of them still aren't quite exactly sure how to adapt to it.

And while the headlines are often filled with dire warnings about traditional cable TV being "doomed," that's not really true. Cable operators still lay claim to somewhere around 98 million paying customers. And keeping these users from fleeing to competing streaming services really isn't that complicated. These companies just don't want to do what's necessary. Namely, listen to their customers, offer more flexible and convenient services, shore up their atrocious customer service, and finally begin seriously competing on price.

Many traditional cable providers have responded by offering a new suite of so-called "skinny bundles" that profess to offer lower costs and to offer greater channel flexibility. But more often than not old habits die hard, and the industry often saddles these offerings with numerous murky restrictions, or layers of misleading fees. The end result is that these offers either aren't really competitive, or wind up costing nearly as much as traditional cable.

Case in point: Charter (Spectrum) is currently hyping a new $20 bundle of a few dozen channels they're testing in a handful of markets. Usually these trials exist to give the impression the cable company is being innovative, but are never launched nationwide for fear of mass-cannibalization of traditional customers downgrading from more expensive plans. But most news outlets were quick to lavish praise on Charter's new offering, many posting the ad for the $20 price point alongside their reports on the new service:

Except that "$20" isn't really $20, since the cable industry just can't let go of some bad habits.

Trial participants who actually have tried the service say it not only doesn't work all that well, but Charter has chosen to hide a number of obnoxious fees that dramatically jack up the price of the service. Of particular note is the fact that Charter saddles the offering with a $6 per month "broadcast TV fee." As we've noted previously, this increasingly-utilized fee simply takes some of the cost of programming and buries it below the line. Why? It lets the cable provider falsely advertise a lower price. And despite being false advertising, regulators from both parties traditionally haven't given much of a damn.

Some companies, like Comcast, have gone so far as to try and claim the broadcast TV fee is just their way of being transparent with consumers, since nothing quite says transparency like customers having no idea what a service they're buying will actually cost. But as the market floods with alternatives from the likes of Hulu, YouTube, Sling TV and more increases, cable and broadcast executives are eventually going to have to realize that the threshold for tolerating this kind of bullshit -- in the face of real competition -- isn't going to be quite at high as they're accustomed to.

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Posted on Techdirt - 13 July 2017 @ 1:20pm

Trump Puts Voter Data Collection On Hold After Highly Insecure & Potentially Illegal Process Is Widely Ridiculed

from the encryption-is-for-losers dept

At the tail end of June, The Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity turned heads when it began asking states for confidential voter data. The Commission was formed via executive order back in May as part of a supposed effort to crack down on what the Trump administration has insisted (without any supporting evidence) is an epidemic of widespread voting and voter registration fraud. As part of the data collection the Trump administration demanded voter names, political affiliations, addresses, dates of birth, criminal records, the last four digits of their Social Security numbers, and more.

But it didn't take long for the entire effort to unravel. The commission's first misstep was asking states to submit this personal data via unencrypted e-mail. The commission also offered states the ability to deliver the data via a system called SAFE—the Safe Access File Exchange. Traditionally used by the military for the transfer of unclassified files too large for email, the service does allow encrypted transfers via civilian computers, but would have required numerous technical steps and guidance (the commission didn't take or offer) to adequately protect the data's integrity:

"But the site’s HTTPS setup, which enables data transmitted from a browser to the site to be sent over an encrypted connection, is problematic for civilian users in state governments. In fact, when state government officials visit the website, they are greeted with a conspicuous warning telling them that their connection is not private—implying that the data could be stolen or altered in transit."

The commission's attempt to obtain private voter data by insecure means was quickly and surprisingly laughed off by the majority of states concerned with the obvious privacy implications. Only Arkansas has fully complied with the President's request, and many states expressed concern that the request and insecure transfer of private data could violate respective state voter privacy laws. Trump's response to these entirely legitimate, bipartisan concerns about voter privacy? Taking to Twitter to accuse the states of trying to hide something:

Things have been notably complicated by a lawsuit by the ACLU, which claims the commission violated federal public access requirements by holding its first meeting in private, without public notice. The effort has also been hamstrung by a request by The Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) for a temporary restraining order (TRO) on the administration's request until the privacy issue can be litigated in court. That has subsequently forced the Trump administration and its commission to suspend its data collection efforts until a Judge rules on the request:

"Today, July 10, 2017, the Commission also sent the states a follow-up communication requesting the states not submit any data until this Court rules on plaintiff's TRO motion," the government wrote (PDF) the court. The commission e-mailed state election officials early Monday that, "Until the judge rules on the TRO, we request that you hold on submitting any data."

EPIC is suing the commission on accusations that the requested information violates the privacy of American voters. EPIC also says the commission is asking the states to forward the data to an unsecure website, the Department of Defense Safe File Exchange site. The commission said that, if it prevails, it will "use an alternative means for transmitting the requested data."

This all appears to be driven by Trump's belief that the only way he could have possibly lost the popular vote is due to fraud (which again, nobody has found any evidence of). Bubbling under all of this is the additional concern that this entire effort has little to do with actually policing voter fraud, and everything to do with finding new and ingenious methods of voter suppression down the road.

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Posted on Techdirt - 13 July 2017 @ 10:40am

Comcast/NBC Caught Intentionally Misspelling Show Names To Help Hide Sagging Nielsen Ratings

from the obvious-integrity dept

The cable and broadcast industry goes to some amusing lengths to downplay cord cutting and streaming competition's impact on ratings and subscriber totals. Initially the impulse was just to insist that cord cutting wasn't real. When the data made outright denial impossible, the industry began insisting cord cutting was only something done by irrelevant nobodies living in mom's basement or Millennials who would see the error of their ways once they procreated. Of course data repeatedly showed that these people were the norm, and now we're looking at potentially one of the biggest quarterly subscriber losses in television history.

As ratings have reflected the industry's dying cash cow, they've also taken consistent aim at viewership measurement systems as well. A bone of particular contention has been Nielsen, which is stuck between trying to accurately measure the damage and cater to myopic cable and broadcast clients that can't hear well with their heads buried firmly in the sand. A few years ago, Nielsen was forced to stop publicizing the rise in broadband-only (not TV) households. More recently, ESPN tried to publicly shame Nielsen when the company accurately highlighted the massive subscriber exodus happening at the channel.

But the cable and broadcast industry has been engaged in some other notable shenanigans to try and protect the illusion that everything is going swimmingly. The Wall Street Journal indicates that the industry has increasingly been going so far as to intentionally misspell their programs in program listings. Why? Because when they know a show is going to see a ratings dip, listing it under another name prevents its core listing from being impacted in the Nielsen ratings:

"That explains the appearance of "NBC Nitely News," which apparently aired on the Friday of Memorial Day weekend this year, when a lot of people were away from their TVs. The retitling of “NBC Nightly News” fooled Nielsen’s automated system, which listed “Nitely” as a separate show. Hiding the May 26 program from Nielsen dramatically improved the show’s average viewership that week," the report adds. "Instead of falling further behind first-place rival 'ABC World News Tonight,' NBC news narrowed the gap."

The Journal goes on to note how this has been a sort of "open secret" in the industry for several years, but as cord cutting has begun to accelerate, its use has increased. At one point, NBC intentionally misspelled "NBC Nitely News" every night for a week. And all of this appears to be happening with the blessing of Nielsen, which again tries to walk a tightrope between being taken seriously as a rating metric system and keeping paying cable and broadcast clients happy with manufactured tales from fantasy land.

For its part, NBC issued a statement that features a number of words, but at no point addresses the issue at hand:

"As is standard industry practice, our broadcast is retitled when there are pre-emptions and inconsistencies or irregularities in the schedule, which can include holiday weekends and special sporting events,” a show spokesman said."

Granted that sounds so much nicer than "we intentionally misspell our own programs to try and pretend our industry isn't facing a massive revolution we're ill-prepared for."

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Posted on Techdirt - 13 July 2017 @ 6:27am

Private Data Of 6 Million Verizon Users Left Openly Accessible On The Internet

from the Whoops-a-Daisy dept

Yet another company has been caught leaving personal customer data just sitting on an openly-accessible server for anybody to obtain and abuse. According to Upguard and security researcher Chris Vickery, the data was being stored by Nice Systems, a Ra'anana, Israel-based company employed by Verizon to store and analyze the data for an "unknown purpose." The data, left unprotected on an Amazon S3 storage server by the company, included information on six million subscribers that had called Verizon support in the last six months, including customer names, phone numbers and the account pins used to access their accounts.

Vickery notes that the ability to abuse these pin numbers was particularly problematic:

"Beyond the risks of exposed names, addresses, and account information being made accessible via the S3 bucket’s URL, the exposure of Verizon account PIN codes used to verify customers, listed alongside their associated phone numbers, is particularly concerning. Possession of these account PIN codes could allow scammers to successfully pose as customers in calls to Verizon, enabling them to gain access to accounts—an especially threatening prospect, given the increasing reliance upon mobile communications for purposes of two-factor authentication."

Similarly problematic was the fact that Verizon and Nice were notified of the breach on June 13th, but the data wasn't secured until June 22:

"This exposure is a potent example of the risks of third-party vendors handling sensitive data. The long duration of time between the initial June 13th notification to Verizon by UpGuard of this data exposure, and the ultimate closure of the breach on June 22nd, is troubling. Third-party vendor risk is business risk; sharing access to sensitive business data does not offload this risk, but merely extends it to the contracted partner, enabling cloud leaks to stretch across several continents and involve multiple enterprises."

For its part, Verizon tried to downplay the breach to ZDNet, laying the entirety of the blame on Nice while trying to insist that most of the data had no real value:

"Verizon provided the vendor with certain data to perform this work and authorized the vendor to set up AWS storage as part of this project," said a spokesperson. "Unfortunately, the vendor's employee incorrectly set their AWS storage to allow external access."...The phone giant said that the "overwhelming majority of information in the data set has no external value."

Yeah, not comforting. The timing is ironic given that Verizon was one of several ISPs that just got done lobbying Congress and the Trump administration to kill new FCC broadband privacy protections that would have taken effect back in March. Those rules (pdf) would have not only required that ISPs be transparent about what third party data vendors obtain and store customer information, but required ISPs adhere to basic private data storage and protection standards, and quickly notify subscribers when their data is exposed (impacted users in this instance do not appear to have been notified yet).

Verizon had long argued that telecom privacy protections aren't necessary because the industry could "self regulate," something quickly disproven when Verizon was busted a few years ago covertly modifying wireless user data packets to track their behavior around the internet. At one point the company insisted that privacy protections aren't necessary because "public shame," would keep the company honest -- something that's a bit difficult when customers have absolutely no idea who's collecting, reviewing, or storing (poorly) their personal information in the first place.

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Posted on Techdirt - 12 July 2017 @ 10:40am

Trump Hopes To Use AT&T Time Warner Merger As 'Leverage' Over CNN

from the the-peanut-butter-and-jelly-of-bullshit dept

On the campaign trail, you might recall that Donald Trump threatened to block AT&T's $89 billion acquisition of Time Warner, insisting that the deal was "an example of the power structure" he was fighting, because it would deliver "too much concentration of power in the hands of too few." Granted he subsequently appointed an FCC chairman in Ajit Pai who's little more than a rubber stamp for companies like AT&T, and nominated an antitrust boss already on record stating he has no real problems with the merger, leading most analysts to believe the deal will be approved anyway.

There are of course a number of legitimate reasons to block the deal, including concerns that AT&T will make licensing access to necessary programming more difficult than ever for streaming video competitors. Or the fact that AT&T's using its dominance in wireless to give Time Warner content an unfair advantage over competitors via usage caps and overage fees (aka "zero rating"). It would be foolish to think a company with such a rich history of anti-competitive and anti-consumer behavior wouldn't use this greater size and leverage anti-competitively.

But these are complicated nuances it's not-terribly-likely the current President actually understands. Instead, his focus in recent months has been the fact that he doesn't like Time Warner-owned CNN's critical coverage of his administration, and, according to the New York Times, hopes to use the deal as "leverage" to force CNN to soften its critcism of the President as part of his broader assault on the media:

"White House advisers have discussed a potential point of leverage over their adversary, a senior administration official said: a pending merger between CNN’s parent company, Time Warner, and AT&T. Mr. Trump’s Justice Department will decide whether to approve the merger, and while analysts say there is little to stop the deal from moving forward, the president’s animus toward CNN remains a wild card."

Other news outlets noted that the Trump administration is also contemplating demanding the ouster of current CNN boss Jeff Zucker in exchange for approving the deal. The news was quick to result in letters to the DOJ from several Senators who claimed Trump was "interfering" in an approval process that should be left up to regulators and the DOJ to decide:

"Any political interference in antitrust enforcement is unacceptable," Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar wrote in a letter to Attorney General Jeff Sessions. "Even more concerning, in this instance, is that it appears that some advisers to the President may believe that it is appropriate for the government to use its law enforcement authority to alter or censor the press. Such an action would violate the First Amendment."

If you're at all familiar with the ethical behavior over at AT&T (like the times it ripped off a program for the hearing impaired or made bills harder to understand to help criminals scam its own customers), it would certainly be in character for AT&T to agree to trample the editorial firewall between itself and CNN to get the deal done -- it just wouldn't be stupid enough to put any such agreement in writing. As the net neutrality fight makes clear, telecom giants aren't particularly concerned about the whole free speech thing (check out Verizon's first foray into tech content, for example).

AT&T's also a world-class expert at making utterly bogus claims when it comes to its latest megamergers, consistently claiming such deals will lower prices, expand broadband coverage and create oceans of new jobs (telecom megamerger history makes it abundantly clear the exact opposite almost always occurs). Given some similar expertise over at the Trump camp, there's an incredible opportunity for some amazing bullshit here; an opportunity Trump likely won't want to waste by continuing what's become an arguably unhealthy fixation on CNN.

The likely outcome is that we'll get to have our rotten cake and eat it too: a torrent of bogus job and broadband expansion promises the likes of which we've never seen before -- and a CNN left bridled by a meddling new corporate parent focused exclusively on currying favor in the Trump administration to anti-competitive benefit. Just think of the incredible potential for synergies...and bullshit.

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Posted on Techdirt - 12 July 2017 @ 6:24am

Microsoft Unveils Plan To Deliver Broadband To 2 Million, NAB Immediately Craps All Over The Announcement

from the I-just-hate-innovation-and-disruption dept

Since 2004 we've talked about the effort to take unlicensed spectrum, previously used by TV stations, and make a new wireless broadband delivery alternative. Dubbed "white spaces" (or occasionally and misleadingly "super WiFi") the technology has the potential to provide less expensive, niche connectivity in areas incumbent broadband providers are unwilling to upgrade. Even then, incumbent ISPs have consistently tried to kill the technology, as has the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB), whose members aren't keen on an entirely new broadband and TV delivery mechanism they won't have control over.

This week, Microsoft punctuated years of global trials of this technology with the announcement that it would be deploying white space broadband to around two million Americans in 12 states (New York, Texas, Washington, Virginia, Michigan, Maine, Arizona, Georgia, Kansas, North Dakota, South Dakota, and Wisconsin) over the next five years. According to Microsoft, the project should cost somewhere around $10 billion, and provide another layer of competition in some of the areas that need it most:

"The time is right for the nation to set a clear and ambitious but achievable goal – to eliminate the rural broadband gap within the next five years by July 4, 2022. We believe the nation can bring broadband coverage to rural America in this timeframe, based on a new strategic approach that combines private sector capital investments focused on expanding broadband coverage through new technologies, coupled with targeted and affordable public-sector support."

Of course the push to connect 2 million rural consumers to broadband in a nation where 34 million Americans still can't access broadband is a small drop in the dysfunction bucket. And Microsoft's obviously not operating out of blind altruism here, since like Facebook their focus on broadband is primarily driven by cornering the hardware used to receive these signals, and therefore the ad load. Still, it's at least an effort to do something to shore up connectivity in a nation that has let companies like AT&T, Verizon and Comcast dictate federal policy for decades -- to what should be obvious results.

White Space broadband has had a long, difficult road to arrival thanks in part to intense lobbying against the technology by incumbent broadband providers, companies like Cisco, and NAB. NAB's legal and PR assault on the technology has often been particularly comedic. At one point they employed Dolly Parton to rail against the technology, claiming it would cause interference armageddon. At several points NAB launched incredibly alarmist campaigns featuring grandmothers being left unable to watch their TV programs if white space broadband was allowed to materialize.

And while studies showed that a ham-fisted, idiotic approach to the technology might cause problems, those same studies indicated there were numerous ways to mitigate any potential issues. So plenty of very smart engineers spent the better part of a decade testing the technology, and developing an elaborate system of databases that can be used to track and prevent any potential interference in target markets. Microsoft meanwhile has been conducting trials to show the tech works as promised, and pushing the FCC to set aside unlicensed spectrum for broader adoption of the technology.

But, right on cue, NAB today issued a short and pithy statement crapping all over Microsoft's announcement, insisting the entire technology was little more than an "unmitigated failure":

"It's the height of arrogance for Microsoft -- a $540 billion company -- to demand free, unlicensed spectrum after refusing to bid on broadcast TV airwaves in the recent FCC incentive auction," whined NAB. "Microsoft's white space device development has been a well-documented, unmitigated failure. Policymakers should not be misled by slick Microsoft promises that threaten millions of viewers with loss of lifeline broadcast TV programming."

Again, while there are potential interference concerns, NAB likes to play those up for dramatic effect. Why? Because the organization's deeper-pocketed member companies (like, oh, Comcast NBC Universal) don't much like the idea of an entirely new technology disrupting the existing telecom and television ecosystems. After all, somebody might, oh, offer cable TV for less than the cost of a new Tesla, or deliver broadband that doesn't require a second mortgage. Hardware companies like Cisco similarly oppose the tech because they missed the boat on early hardware development (telecom sector lawyer Harold Feld explains this in great detail here).

All of that said, it's still not entirely clear if white space broadband will be anything more than a niche broadband solution. But it's at least another tool in the tool chest as we attempt to bring something vaguely resembling competition to bear on a captive market. And it should go without saying that there's oodles of legacy companies that like the current culture of dysfunction -- just the way it is.

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Posted on Net Neutrality Special Edition - 11 July 2017 @ 10:42am

AT&T Pretends To Love Net Neutrality, Joins Tomorrow's Protest With A Straight Face

from the Dracula-supports-blood-donors'-rights dept

You'd be hard pressed to find a bigger enemy of net neutrality than the fine folks at AT&T. The company has a history of all manner of anti-competitive assaults on the open and competitive internet, from blocking customer access to Apple FaceTime unless users subscribed to more expensive plans, to exempting its own content from arbitrary and unnecessary usage caps while penalizing streaming competitors. AT&T also played a starring role in ensuring the FCC's 2010 net neutrality rules were flimsy garbage, and sued to overturn the agency's tougher, 2015 rules.

So it's with a combination of amusement and awe to see the company's top lobbying and policy head, Bob Quinn, pen a missive over at the AT&T website proudly proclaiming the company will be joining tomorrow's "day of action protest" in support of keeping the existing rules intact. According to Quinn, the company still opposes the FCC's popular 2015 consumer protections, but wanted to participate in the protest because that's just how much the sweethearts at AT&T adore the open internet:

"Tomorrow, AT&T will join the “Day of Action” for preserving and advancing an open internet. This may seem like an anomaly to many people who might question why AT&T is joining with those who have differing viewpoints on how to ensure an open and free internet. But that’s exactly the point – we all agree that an open internet is critical for ensuring freedom of expression and a free flow of ideas and commerce in the United States and around the world. We agree that no company should be allowed to block content or throttle the download speeds of content in a discriminatory manner. So, we are joining this effort because it’s consistent with AT&T’s proud history of championing our customers’ right to an open internet and access to the internet content, applications and devices of their choosing.

That is an incredible, astounding line of bullshit.

So one, some of you might recall that the net neutrality debate began in earnest when former AT&T CEO Ed Whitacre said in 2005 that he "wasn't going to let Google ride his pipes for free." What Whitacre was proposing was using a lack of broadband competition to force companies to pay an arbitrary and duplicative toll to so much as touch the AT&T network. Ed thought he was being pretty clever in forcing other companies to pay for network upgrades, but his comments are what set off concerns that in the absence of real competition we needed rules to keep duopolies from abusing their market dominance.

Like Comcast and Verizon, AT&T is one of several companies that subsequently spent hundreds of millions of dollars to thwart these efforts, yet now would like you to believe they're somehow still a major ally in the fight to keep the internet healthy and open. And sure, AT&T supports not blocking websites entirely since that's not something ISPs were ever truly interested in anyway. The net neutrality debate has long since shifted from ham-fisted blocking to more clever applications of anti-competitive intent like interconnection, arbitrary and punitive usage caps, and zero rating.

Quinn's post is filled with alternative history, including this little gem:

"For more than a decade, whether under a Democratic or Republican administration, AT&T has supported the need for clear and enforceable open internet rules. We supported the efforts of Republican FCC Chairmen to introduce the nation’s first Open Internet Principles. And we welcomed FCC Chairman Genachowski’s Open Internet Order in 2010 and testified before Congress, as a Democratic witness, in support of it.

It should be reiterated that AT&T did support the FCC's original 2010 rules, but only because they were utter and total garbage, quite literally co-written by AT&T, Verizon and Google to ensure they were filled with loopholes. These loopholes allowed them to pretty much do whatever they wanted -- provided they pretended it was for the health and safety of the network. AT&T was also a major reason the rules didn't apply to wireless. When the FCC shored up those horrible rules in 2015, there was no more vocal opponent than AT&T, which is why this disingenuous prattle about supporting net neutrality is almost high art.

Also... Quinn's post pretends that the 2010 rules stayed in place until the evil Tom Wheeler overturned them... leaving out the fact that it was actually a lawsuit filed by Verizon that overturned the rules and explicitly told the FCC if it wanted these rules, it needed to use Title II. But in AT&T's revisionist history all that goes missing:

Unfortunately, in 2015, then-FCC Chairman Wheeler abandoned this carefully crafted framework and instead decided to subject broadband service to an 80-year-old law designed to set rates in the rotary-dial-telephone era. Saddling modern broadband infrastructure and investment decisions with heavy-handed, outdated telephone regulations creates an environment of market uncertainty that does little to advance internet openness. Instead, it jeopardizes the prospects for continued innovation and robust growth we have witnessed since the internet’s creation.

Not any bit of that is accurate. Internet access was under Title II until the mid-2000s and there was a ton of broadband infrastructure buildout (and... competition). And since Wheeler put things back under Title II, investment in broadband has continued.

So what's AT&T actually up to here? As we've mentioned previously, large ISPs want the current rules thrown out, and replaced with entirely new rules drafted by Congress. In an ideal world that would make sense, given that Congressional rules couldn't be overturned by the partisan whims of the FCC. But AT&T knows that Congress is such a epic shitshow these days that these replacement rules either won't happen, or they'll be quite literally written by AT&T lawyers. Quinn would have you simply ignore that our Congress is so awash in AT&T campaign contributions that a real net neutrality law of any worth is all-but impossible:

"The debate around an open internet has been going on for nearly 15 years. In the end, the issue is never really about what the rules should be or whether we should have an open internet. Rather, the debate focuses on whether open internet rules should derive from the 80-year-old Communications Act or some other theory of Congressional authority because the current law predates the internet. Instead of having this debate again, Congress should act now to provide the clear statutory authority that guarantees an open internet for all consumers."

So again, the goal here isn't to protect net neutrality. It's to kill effective and popular rules at the FCC, to gut nearly all regulatory authority over major ISPs, and to replace all of it with fluff, nonsense, and a piece of feel-good legislation that will be quite-literally crafted by AT&T lawyers. It's a pretty clever policy play by AT&T since it gives the impression they're not a bunch of anti-competitive jackasses. But AT&T pretending to care about an open internet is like Dracula suddenly professing a heartfelt concern for the plight of blood donors, or Jeffery Dahmer saying he just popped by to lend a helpful hand in the kitchen.

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Posted on Net Neutrality Special Edition - 11 July 2017 @ 6:30am

Telecom Industry Feebly Tries To Deflate Net Neutrality Protest With Its Own, Lame 'Unlock The Net' Think Tank Campaign

from the black-is-white,-up-is-down dept

With this week's net neutrality protests being joined by the likes of Google, Facebook, Amazon, Netflix, Reddit and hundreds of startups and small companies, the cable and broadcast industry appears to be getting a little nervous. So far they've had a relatively easy time convincing FCC boss Ajit Pai to not only dismantle the rules, but to blatantly ignore the massive public support the rules enjoy. Pai's even turned a blind eye as somebody used a bot to stuff the agency's public comment system with bogus support for the telecom industry's horrible idea.

The media coverage of this week's protest risks popping the narrative bubble that there's significant support for killing net neutrality. So the telecom-industry funded think tank FreedomWorks apparently came up with an ingenious plan to launch, well, something that kind of looks vaguely like a counter protest:

You'll note that this "unlock the net" campaign is designed to give the impression of a broad coalition of support for killing net neutrality, but only really lists a bunch of think tanks (like the Competitive Enterprise Institute) you're supposed to ignore are also funded by the telecom industry. And when you head over to the campaign's bare bones unlockthenet website, you're unsurprisingly greeted with a lot of logically-inconsistent talk about "freedom," and a backgrounder on how net neutrality is a villainous concept responsible for all manner of nefarious evils:

"The Internet has been an engine of innovation and growth for two decades because previous Republican and Democratic administrations correctly recognized how a federal regulatory assault on the Internet would undermine its evolution and expansion. Yet, without evidence of any problem, Obama’s FCC catered to scare tactics and misinformation campaigns driven by the left to take control of the Internet without congressional authority.

This shocking move by the federal government opened the doors for forms of online censorship, potentially new government taxes and fees, and resulting price hikes on consumers."

The hope, of course, is to use a lot of misleading bobble-headed partisan rhetoric to get hardline partisans rooting against their own best self interests, which, if you may have noticed recently, is a pretty effective tactic. Of course net neutrality exists to help thwart censorship and obnoxious price hikes on consumers, and there's a long, long list of examples of why a lack of broadband competition has made net neutrality protections necessary. And, contrary to the missive above, net neutrality rules exist to protect the innovation groups like these groups pretend to care so very deeply about.

The reality is a bipartisan majority of Americans support net neutrality protections because they are very familiar with the anti-competitive behavior of giant companies like AT&T, Verizon and Comcast. And while it's not terribly likely a hacked-together campaign that prattles on about freedom is going to change that, it helps present the illusion that this is a debate that's far more publicly contentious than it actually is.

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Posted on Net Neutrality Special Edition - 11 July 2017 @ 3:23am

The FCC Insists It Can't Stop Impostors From Lying About My Views On Net Neutrality

from the simply-Comcastic dept

So we've been talking for months now about how the Trump FCC has quite intentionally turned a blind eye to fraudulent comments being posted to the agency's net neutrality proceeding, since the lion's share of these bogus comments support the agency's plan to gut the popular consumer protections. Numerous people say they've had their identities lifted by somebody that has used a bot to populate the agency's comment system with hundreds-of-thousands of fake comments supporting the telecom-industry backed effort. Calls by these folks (and a few Senators) for an investigation have been simply ignored.

I'm among the folks that had their identities used to generate bogus support for killing the rules. My case is, however, a bit more tailored and personal. Back in April, somebody posted this comment to the FCC comment system pretending to represent me and one of the websites I write for. In it, my obtuse doppleganger falsely claims I run an unlicensed political PAC, then proceeds to prattle through a series of repeatedly, painstakingly debunked claims about how the agency's arguably-modest rules somehow stifle investment, harm orphans, and damage the time-space continuum:

"I operate an unregistered PAC at DSLREPORTS.COM. We have found that the Obama administration's Title II order has diminished broadband investment, stifled innovation, and left American consumers potentially on the hook for a new broadband tax. Furthermore, under the Obama administration, the Wheeler FCC presided over a model whereby Internet competition has been stifled, and an unprecedented concentration of market power was allowed to occur with the Charter merger. Many unhappy users can attest to that on my political action website (DSLREPORTS.COM). I urge the Commission to roll back the failed Title II provisions and return the Internet to the people."

As somebody that has spent the better part of twenty years advocating for a healthy and open internet, this is obviously a little irritating, even if, by itself, I'm not egotistical enough to think it makes a difference one way or the other. But it is part of an over-arching and obvious trend at the FCC to try and dilute the value of public input on this proceeding, since they're well aware net neutrality has broad, bipartisan support (something yet another survey highlighted this week).

So, at the tail end of May I began filing complaints with the FCC's website administrators, and asking the agency's PR department to explain why they're doing nothing about the pile of bogus comments (some of which originate from dead people) spoiling what should be a simple democratic exercise. After repeated requests for comment, the agency said on June 2 that it had at least received my complaint, and would eventually get back to me. Another month passed -- and after several more prods this week I received this letter from G. Patrick Webre (pdf), acting chief of the FCC Consumer and Governmental Affairs Bureau.

While the letter contains numerous paragraphs, none of them actually say all that much -- except the part that tries to claim the agency is forbidden from somehow modifying or editing public proceeding comments:

Once filed in the FCC's rulemaking record, there are limits on the agency's ability to delete, change, or otherwise remove comments from the record. Doing so could undermine the FCC's ability to carry out its legal obligation, which is which is to respond to all significant issues raised in the proceeding.

To that end we continue to encourage you and all members of the public to submit comments to the FCC via ECFS (electronic comment filing system) that include accurate identifying information. This will ensure that the record reflects your views. You are welcome to include your correspondence on this matter -- including a statement that the comment you reference were not filed by you -- in ECFS for the public record.

While the FCC claims it faces "limits" on its ability to modify or delete comments, I've spoken to several former FCC staffers and one telecom industry lawyer unfamiliar with any such restrictions, especially when it applies to outright and obviously-fraudulent comments. A request to the FCC for a specific definition of these legal limits -- and a request for the IP address in question -- have yet to be responded to. The other problem is that the FCC is basically saying it doesn't care about any of this, informing users that have had their identities used to root against their own best self interests that they should just re-file new comments.

If you're thinking these comments don't really matter (which is clearly what the current FCC thinks), you'd be wrong. The 4 million comments filed during these rules' creation in 2015 helped shift former FCC Boss Tom Wheeler's thinking away from what would have originally been a potentially-legally unsupportable position, and toward classification of ISPs as common carriers under Title II. The comments also matter when it comes time to defend the policies in court, since they go a long way toward documenting whether the agency is actually supporting the public interest -- or just mindlessly being dictated to by deep pocketed incumbents.

In the broader context of the bogus bot issue -- we're at best witnessing outright apathy to identity theft and abuse of the FCC website -- and at worse an attempt to discredit legitimate opposition to FCC policy by effectively sanctioning fraudulent behavior. That's a curious policy decision for an FCC boss that has repeatedly claimed to be a stickler for professionalism and transparency. You have to think that if I began submitting copyright-violating missives -- or a hundred comments professing to be Ajit Pai or some other high-ranking FCC official -- the response would be notably...different.

And while the FCC may think it's immeasurably clever to quietly encourage illusory support for its attack on net neutrality, the agency's decision could prove problematic for it down the line.

After the public comment period, the agency is expected to vote again to finalizing dismantling the rules. After that will come the inevitable lawsuits by startups and consumer advocates. Pai and friends already faced a challenge in convincing the courts the broadband market changed substantively enough to warrant such a draconian and unpopular policy reversal. Now, net neutrality supporters may have some additional ammunition when it comes time to pointing out flaws in the FCC process, and how an agency that's supposed to represent the public interest -- pretty clearly doesn't.

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Posted on Techdirt - 10 July 2017 @ 10:41am

Facebook, Google Wake Up From Their Coma On The Subject, Join Wednesday's Massive Net Neutrality Protest

from the nice-to-see-you-could-show-up dept

So if you hadn't heard, Wednesday will bear witness to a major protest (both online and off) against the FCC's plan to kill popular net neutrality protections here in the States. Spearheaded by consumer advocacy group Fight for the Future, the "day of action" is an effort to bring attention to the attack on net neutrality, to drive more people to the FCC's comment proceeding, and to generate a wave of backlash supporters hope will mirror the SOPA/PIPA uprising. Countless small companies, consumer groups, and many large companies (including Amazon, Reddit, and Netflix) will be participating in the protests.

But also joining the proceedings are several Silicon Valley giants that, in recent years, have not just been apathetic to genuine net neutrality, but in many instances have actively worked to undermine the concept. While they didn't make a formal announcement (that would have been too bold), both Google and Facebook reps are quietly telling news outlets they'll be participating in the protests. The depth of their involvement isn't clear, but managers of the campaign say they're obviously happy with the support all the same:

"We have not heard directly from either Facebook or Google, but we’re glad to hear that these companies are listening to their employees and Internet users and will speak out for net neutrality with the rest of the Internet on July 12," Evan Greer, campaign director at Fight for the Future and an organizer for the event, said in a statement.

"In previous years these companies have often been on the sidelines of these fights, so we hope that they plan to do something meaningful in the spirit of the protest and educate their users about what’s at stake if we lose net neutrality protections that protect our online free speech, and give them opportunities to take action."

Saying that Google and Facebook have been "on the sidelines" of the net neutrality fight is understandably polite on Greer's part. Both have been working hard to broaden their lobbying focus under the Trump administration, and both have been more than happy to sacrifice some integrity (and the health of the internet) in the process. They've not only been mute as the FCC has taken aim at the rules, but historically they've taken actions to directly undermine the entire concept of network neutrality -- here and abroad.

You'll recall Facebook faced a massive backlash in India after it tried to corner the ad market with a free, AOL-esque service that critics say gave Facebook far too much influence over what content consumers would see. Criticism only grew after the "zero rated" service initially went so far as to prohibit the use of encryption. India ultimately banned the practice after critics like Mozilla pointed out that if you want to bring internet access to the poor -- you should actually bring real internet access to the poor, not a curated walled garden that only thinly disguises your international ad ambitions.

While consistently still portrayed by some press outlets as a net neutrality ally, Google has also effectively been AWOL from the discussion since 2010, when it actively worked to make the FCC's initial rules as flimsy as possible. Working hand in hand with AT&T and Verizon, Google played a big part in ensuring the original rules didn't even cover wireless networks. When efforts emerged in 2015 to craft the notably tougher rules we currently have (for now), Google was nowhere to be found -- and has lobbied pretty consistently against net neutrality protections for consumers overseas.

So yes, while it should be applauded that both companies are participating in Wednesday's proceedings, the depth of their participation is far from clear, and their efforts to undermine net neutrality in recent years should not be forgotten by those working to keep the internet a relatively open and healthy platform for competition and free speech.

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Posted on Techdirt - 10 July 2017 @ 6:20am

50 Million US Homes Can't Get 25 Mbps From More Than One ISP

from the who-needs-competition? dept

We've talked for a while how while there has been a lot of hype placed upon the nation's scattered but modest deployment of gigabit networks, broadband in countless parts of the country is actually getting significantly-less competitive. That's thanks in large part to the nation's phone companies, which have increasingly refused to pony up the necessary costs to upgrade their aging DSL networks at any scale. Instead, many have shifted their focus either to enterprise services, or as in the case of Verizon, into trying to peddle ads to Millennials after gobbling up AOL and Yahoo.

As a result, cable has established a growing monopoly over broadband across massive swaths of the country. This reduced competition has resulted in rampant price hikes (usually in the form of hidden surcharges or arbitrary and unnecessary usage caps and overage fees). But it also has eliminated any real incentive to keep rates low or repair what's statistically some of the worst customer service in any industry in America.

A new study by several consultants for the broadband industry offers a little more insight into the real-world result of the sector's ongoing competition problem. According to the report by Economists Incorporated and CMA Strategy Consulting, there's a fairly staggering number of broadband consumers that don't see any real competition whatsoever, especially at the FCC's standard definition of broadband (25 Mbps down, 3 Mbps up):

"More than 10.6 million US households have no access to wired Internet service with download speeds of at least 25Mbps, and an additional 46.1 million households live in areas with just one provider offering those speeds, a new analysis has found. That adds up to more than 56 million households lacking any high-speed broadband choice over wired connections. Even when counting access to fixed wireless connections, there are still nearly 50 million households with one 25Mbps provider or none at all."

So it should be noted here that these estimates are likely optimistic. FCC data has previously suggested that this number is even higher, former FCC boss Tom Wheeler stating that around 80% of homes can't get access to the agency's standard definition of broadband. It's notably worse in rural or tribal areas. But even this week's new, toned down report by industry consultants doesn't paint a particularly pretty picture. Even at slower broadband speeds, you'd be hard pressed to identify anything close to reasonable competition:

"There were 31.1 million households with exactly one wireline provider offering speeds of at least 10Mbps, and another 6.9 million households with zero providers offering such speeds over wired connections. At the paltry level of 3Mbps download speeds, 19.3 million households had access to one wireline ISP and 4.9 million households had no access at all."

It should be noted that one of the co-authors of the report, Hal Singer, has a bit of a history creatively-massaging data at the industry's behest -- especially when it comes to trying to vilify net neutrality (which the 45-page report seems to avoid talking about). So while Singer's ability to candidly acknowledge a lack of competition is a little surprising (even though the report does try to scale back previous FCC estimates on this front), less surprising is the authors' proposed solution to the broadband industry's broadband deployment and competition shortcomings: the magical wand that is telecom sector deregulation.

So again, the report is quick to avoid the debate over the current administration's decision to kill consumer privacy protections and gut net neutrality, despite Singer being a major player in trying to make the latter happen. And while it pays some lip service to competition, it fails to acknowledge how cable's growing monopoly and outright telco apathy are making competition problems worse. The report however does try to claim that several, less talked about FCC initiatives are going to expand fiber and competition to an additional 26.7 million homes:

"In two recent Notices of Proposed Rulemakings (“NPRMs”), the FCC has outlined a range of potential actions to make it faster and less costly to deploy next-generation networks. It is expected that these proposals will lower pole-attachment costs, reduce the time and cost of make-ready, reduce barriers to copper retirement, accelerate legacy time-division multiplexing (“TDM”) product discontinuance, and reduce barriers to locating and deploying wireless infrastructure.

The telecom industry has insisted for decades that if you remove all regulatory oversight, competition and connectivity will magically spring forth from the sidewalks, bathing us uniformly in dirt-cheap, ultra-fast connectivity. Of course that never happens because reality is notably more complicated, and each piece of regulation (especially in an industry where incumbent legacy giants are usually quite-literally writing the laws) needs to be weighed on its actual merits. When you just blindly "deregulate" a sector that suffers from both regulatory capture and limited competition, history tells us you don't get a miracle -- you get Comcast.

What most people also don't seem to understand is that when the telecom industry pushes for "deregulation," what it actually means is passing regulation it writes. And, historically, that regulation unsurprisingly makes life easier for wealthy, entrenched duopolists, but makes life substantially harder on the smaller competitive upstarts that lack the same lobbying and campaign-contribution firepower. It's generally how they get partisans who adore the concept of killing burdensome regulations (because yes, there is plenty of that) into cheering against their own best self interests. And it has been a smashing success for decades. Your Comcast bill surely agrees.

So while the report is correct that things like utility pole attachment reform is important for fiber deployment, it fails to mention that cities that have attempted to do so have been sued by Comcast, Charter and AT&T to try and slow competitive threats. Similarly, while the report is quick to emphasize the importance of "reducing barriers to copper retirement," it fails to mention that AT&T and Verizon's version of this involves severing the taxpayer-subsizied DSL connections of millions of users (many elderly), and just shoving them toward notably-more expensive wireless (assuming it's even available).

So yes, some of these efforts -- in an ideal world -- could speed up deployment. But because we've let industry giants quite literally infect government (including surveillance) on a bone-marrow level, actually implementing any regulatory or deregulatory policies that improve competition simply doesn't happen -- because it would reduce sector revenues. Consultants predominantly paid by the industry aren't likely to admit this, but as somebody having spent the better part of a lifetime tracking this sector I can assure you: none of the competition, coverage and service problems in telecom are going to be fixed until we somehow lessen Comcast, AT&T, Charter and Verizon's influence over state and federal politics.

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Posted on Techdirt - 7 July 2017 @ 6:25am

Disney Feels The Heat As Children Lead The Cord Cutting Revolution

from the adapt-or-perish dept

For a while now we've noted that it's actually the youngest among us that are leading the cord cutting revolution. Viacom has watched channels like Nickelodeon experience a ratings free fall for several years now as streaming alternatives have emerged as a useful alternative to strictly-scheduled, commercial-bloated Saturday morning cartoons. Toddlers don't really care if they're watching the latest and greatest "True Detective" episode or not, and parents, like everybody else, are tired of paying for bloated cable bundles filled with channels they never watch.

Like Viacom, Disney has been feeling the brunt of this evolution, especially since cable TV accounted for 30% of its revenue and 43% of profits last fiscal year. But, as evident by the ongoing subscriber exodus at Disney-owned ESPN, the company really hasn't really done a very good job adapting to the changing market. The same thing is occurring at Disney's kid-oriented networks like the Disney Channel, Disney Jr., and Disney XD, all of which are, well, not faring particularly well under this new streaming paradigm:

"For the first six months of this year, the commercial-free Disney Channel's ratings among in its core 2-11 and 6-14 demographics fell 23% in prime time and 13% and 18%, respectively, during the full day, compared with the same period a year ago. Ratings are also down at the smaller Disney Jr. and Disney XD networks, which fall under Mr. Marsh's Disney Channel umbrella.

Cable revenue at Disney is relatively flat, and operating income is down 6% in the first half of the current fiscal year. That has contributed to a freak out or two among Wall Street analysts, which have in recent months finally, truly woken up to a trend they spent years both ridiculing and denying. That's in large part thanks to the fact that 2016's 1.7% decline in traditional cable TV viewers was the biggest cord cutting acceleration on record. The second quarter is expected to be notably worse, with most analysts predicting a 1 million subscriber decline (or greater).

And that fear on Wall Street has, in turn, forced traditionally myopic cable executives to finally realize that they need to stop trying to defend the traditional bloated cable TV cash cow -- and begin offering cheaper, more flexible streaming alternatives:

"Disney Chief Executive Robert Iger has said that strengthening online accessibility for television programs is a priority and that the company is preparing to offer its channels, in part or whole, directly to consumers online rather than just through costly cable packages. Profits for Disney Channel and Freeform are driven in part by long-term contracts with cable companies, but the erosion in ratings is likely to ultimately hit the bottom line unless the networks can generate substantial new digital revenue."

Of course, like the Millennials ahead of them, most of these kids will grow up (correctly) believing its bizarre and punitive to force people to buy oodles of often-horrible cable TV channels at outrageous prices. And contrary to some cable and broadcast executives who still think this is all just a temporary blip on a radar screen, this rise in competition and the resulting massive shift toward cheaper, more flexible viewing options isn't going anywhere.

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Posted on Techdirt - 7 July 2017 @ 3:23am

The Great Firewall Of China Grows Stronger As China Forces App Stores To Remove VPNs

from the total-information-control dept

Like clockwork, governments eager to censor the internet inevitably shift their gaze toward tools like VPNs used to get around restrictions. We've documented rising efforts to ban the tools use in countries like Russia, where VPN providers are being forced out of business for refusing to aid internet censorship. Whether it's to protect VoIP revenue for state-run telecom monopolies, or to prevent users from tap-dancing around state-mandated filters or other restrictions, VPNs have become the bogeyman du jour for oppressive governments looking to crack down on pesky free speech and open communication.

China's great firewall is a sterling example of draconian censorship, and since 2012 or so China has been trying to curtail both encryption and VPN use. Earlier this year China's Ministry of Industry and Information Technology declared that all VPN providers now needed prior government approval to operate, a move generally seen as the opening salvo of an outright ban. These new restrictions will last until July 2021, impose fines up to $2000 on companies offering unsanctioned VPNs (read: all of them), and feature government warnings sent to users consistently caught using the tools.

But in some areas, the pretense has washed away and VPN usage has been simply banned entirely. And as of July, VPN services began disappearing from both the Android and iOS app stores, with popular VPN providers like Green informing their customers the government has forced them to shut down completely:

"Dear respected Green customers,

We have received notice from the higher authorities. We regret to inform you that Green will cease our service on July 1st, 2017. We apologize for any inconvenience caused.

We will start processing our users’ refund request after service stopped (the amount will be calculated based on the remaining days in your plan). If you need a refund, please make sure to submit your refund request by August 31, 2017. We won’t be able to process any refund request submitted after that date. Since the workload of processing the requests, information verification and money transfer would be huge, we won’t be able to set an exact date for the refund. We plan to process the refund soon after August 31, please wait patiently.

Originally, statements made by the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology seemed to suggest the country's VPN ban wouldn't be fully implemented until March 2018. But these recent reports indicate that the Chinese government has grown tired of the pretense and has expedited its VPN crackdown dramatically. Since around 1-3% of China's 731 million internet users use tools like VPNs to tap dance around internet filters, even with this crackdown this will be a long, difficult, expensive game of Whack-a-Mole for the Chinese government all the same.

While VPNs are not a panacea for our endlessly eroded privacy rights, they remain an incredibly useful tool for those living under repressive regimes. Most legislative VPN bans are of the "death by a thousand cuts" variety, where lawmakers go out of their way to pretend they're not trying to kill VPNs, even if the end goal always remains the same: the elimination of any tool that might let citizens peek through the curtain of draconian efforts at information control.

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Posted on Techdirt - 6 July 2017 @ 1:26pm

AMC To Charge Cable Customers $5 More To Avoid Advertisements

from the look-mom,-we're-innovating! dept

We've discussed ad nauseum how, as the Internet video revolution accelerates, the cable and broadcast industry's response has predominantly been to double down on bad ideas in the false belief that they can nurse a dying cash cow indefinitely. Netflix nibbling away at your subscriber totals? Continue to glibly impose bi-annual rate hikes. Amazon Prime Video eroding your customer base? How about we edit programs to be shorter so more ads can be shoveled into every viewing hour? By and large, the cable industry's response to the cord cutting threat has been to do more of the things that forced annoyed consumers to leave.

And when you do see a cable or broadcaster attempting to be creative on this front, there's often a degree of lacking common sense. Case in point: AMC Networks last week fancied itself creative when it unveiled a new plan to let consumers skip advertisements on its programs -- if they're willing to pay an additional $5 per month:

"Would you like to pay more for cable TV than you’re already paying? Then AMC has an offer for you: The cable programmer is going to start selling an add-on service that lets cable TV subscribers watch most AMC shows, without commercials, for an extra $5 a month. AMC, which is rolling out its new “AMC Premiere” option to Comcast pay TV subscribers, says the new service is aimed at “super-fans” of its programs like “The Walking Dead,” who have a pay TV subscription but are willing to pay more to watch live, ad-free TV.

So, several problems here. One, the offer ignores the fact that many subscribers already skip ads using their DVRs, making this kind of unnecessary and insulting to the savvy consumer. AMC's also ignoring the lessons learned about needing to compete with piracy, something that doesn't stop being true just because you're offended by piracy's existence. And with often bi-annual price hikes already driving consumers away from cable at a record rate, you'd be pretty hard pressed to find any consumer that thinks it makes sense to pay a penny more for cable television at this juncture, something the company seems fleetingly aware of:

"It’s not for everyone," said AMC president Charlie Collier. "But it’s a good choice for people who want it."

Is it really? This is, once again, the cable and broadcast industry attempting to look innovative and competitive without having to put the time and money into actually being innovative or offering lower prices. AMC "solves" a heavier ad-load problem that consumers have already managed to avoid with their DVRs, hikes up the price of expensive cable TV service even further, then pats itself on the back under the pretense that this is delivering added value to "super fans."

If the cable and broadcast industry really wanted to be innovative, it would work to respond to the rise in streaming competitors and actually compete on price and channel bundle flexibility. Until it does that, everything else is hollow lip service.

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