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Posted on Techdirt Wireless - 23 September 2020 @ 6:03am

AT&T Whines That The T-Mobile Merger Consolidated Too Much U.S. Spectrum In One Place

from the glass-houses dept

AT&T and Verizon didn't have much to say as T-Mobile was lobbying for Sprint merger approval. In large part because most of the downsides of the merger -- such as lower overall pay for sector employees -- or higher overall prices due to a consolidated lack of competition -- aided the two wireless giants.

Now that the deal's done, AT&T (no stranger to mindless consolidation and monopolization itself) is apparently concerned that the deal consolidated too much spectrum in the hands of one company. Namely, T-Mobile. From a FCC filing this week spotted by Ars Technica:

"The combination of Sprint and T-Mobile has resulted in an unprecedented concentration of spectrum in the hands of one carrier. In fact, the combined company exceeds the Commission's spectrum screen, often by a wide margin, in Cellular Market Areas representing 82 percent of the US population, including all major markets."

This is apparently part of a new trend at AT&T where it engages in bad faith critiques of U.S. policy despite decades engaging in the same or worse behavior (see AT&T's terrible take on Section 230, or its bad faith claim that it wants a real privacy law). In this case AT&T, a company that has benefited for decades from feeble U.S. restrictions on "spectrum squatting" (hoarding valuable wireless spectrum either for sale or simply so smaller competitors can't use it to hurt you), is now just super concerned about the practice when somebody else does it. From a companion blog post by the company:

"Given this unprecedented level of spectrum concentration in the hands of a single carrier, we have entered a new era for the FCC’s spectrum acquisition analytical tools. The Commission must now take action to reaffirm the importance of a spectrum aggregation tool and define a meaningful approach going forward."

Now that another company has abused feckless U.S. oversight to its own advantage, AT&T wants the FCC to do something. Whereas when AT&T, which dominated the wireless sector for the better part of the last two decades engaged in the same sort of hoarding, there was nothing to worry about.

The FCC does have a spectrum screen it uses to determine when accumulation of spectrum raises consolidation flags, but, like so much with U.S. telecom regulators, often isn't accompanied by substantive action. Especially if those triggering the flag happen to be politically-powerful telecom giants all but fused to the nation's intelligence-gathering apparatus. Given reports suggest the Trump FCC didn't even look at the data (or existing complaints about T-Mobile spectrum hoarding) before rubber stamping the T-Mobile merger, it shouldn't be surprising that policy inconsistencies got lost in the weeds.

Perhaps AT&T officials could come testify before Congress about the perils of mindless consolidation and regulatory capture?

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Posted on Net Neutrality Special Edition - 22 September 2020 @ 6:22am

DOJ Continues Its Quest To Kill Net Neutrality (And Consumer Protection In General) In California

from the who-needs-monopoly-oversight? dept

After the FCC effectively neutered itself at telecom lobbyist behest, numerous states jumped in to fill the consumer protection void. As a result, California, in 2018, passed some net neutrality rules that largely mirrored the FCC's discarded consumer protections. Laughing at the concept of state rights, Bill Barr's DOJ immediately got to work protecting U.S. telecom monopolies and filed suit in a bid to vacate the rules.

The DOJ's central argument was that California's attempt to protect consumers was somehow "anti-consumer." And the lawsuit largely centered on language the FCC had included in its net neutrality repeal (again, at telecom lobbyist behest) attempting to ban states from filling the void created by the federal government no longer giving a damn. The courts so far haven't looked too kindly upon that logic, arguing that the FCC can't abdicate its authority over telecom, then try to lean on that non-existent authority to try to tell states what to do.

Last week California filed its first brief (pdf) in its legal battle with the DOJ. ISPs are seeking a preliminary injunction to prevent California from enforcing the rules during the lawsuit. Again though, their primary argument continues to be that states can't enforce net neutrality because the FCC said so. Which, as Stanford Professor Barbara van Schewick continues to point out, is still nonsense no matter how many times industry and the captured U.S. government repeat the claim:

"According to case law, an agency’s decision to deregulate can only block the states from stepping in when the agency has the power to regulate and decides not to use it.

But when the FCC eliminated net neutrality in 2018, it also removed its own authority over broadband providers. In essence, the agency decided that broadband providers are not telecommunications companies that simply shuttle data back and forth (like a telephone company), but information service providers which interact with and alter data, like a website.

This removed any authority that would have allowed the FCC to adopt net neutrality protections. Thus, the elimination of net neutrality did not establish a calibrated federal deregulatory regime, as the U.S. and the ISPs argue; it simply reflected the FCC’s lack of authority. Simply put, the FCC’s 2018 Order created a regulatory vacuum, and you can’t conflict with a vacuum."

Of course one of the reasons you stack the courts with unqualified sycophants and partisan yes men is so basic, fundamental logic doesn't apply. So as usual, while it's likely the courts will laugh at the telecom sector's efforts here, it's certainly not guaranteed. And while the press will cover this story as a "government lawsuit," make no mistake: this is AT&T, Verizon, and Comcast using the federal government as a hand puppet as they attempt to have their cake and eat it too. Namely, no real oversight on the state or federal level, and no pesky market competition to keep their worst impulses in check.

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Posted on Free Speech - 21 September 2020 @ 6:25am

Experts Say Internet Shutdowns Don't Thwart Protests

from the the-last-refuge-of-simple-minds dept

Like so many authoritarians, Belarus "President" Alexander Lukashenko has taken to violence, intimidation, and censorship in a ham-fisted bid to stifle those critical of his dubious election win. On the technology side, that has involved hiring U.S. network gear maker Sandvine to help the country block citizens' access to the broader internet. During August's contested election, citizens found their access to social media outlets like Twitter and Facebook prohibited thanks to Sandvine and the Belarusian government, which originally tried to claim that the blockade was the result of a cyberattack. News outlets like CNN and the BBC, and search engines like Google, were also blocked.

Aside from being harmful, there's increasing evidence that this kind of censorship simply doesn't work. A recent study in the International Journal of Communications took a closer look at what happened to protest movements in African countries when governments attempted massive censorship of the internet, and it found that while there wasn't evidence that such shutdowns drove greater unrest, there also was no evidence such behavior thwarted protests:

"For example, a social media blackout in Ethiopia in December 2017 “completely failed” to suppress protests caused by ethnic tensions in part of the country, the authors wrote. There was actually a surge in clashes during the shutdown itself. The study used data on the locations of protests and whether they were considered violent or not, but the researchers didn’t have access to detailed information on the number of demonstrators present or what form their online activity had taken prior to the internet shutdown or social media blackout.

Experts have been quick to note such censorship doesn't magically thwart the underlying grievances driving the protests, and creative protesters are likely to develop tools to bypass internet lockdowns anyway. In Belarus and countless other areas users most frequently simply migrate to VPNs to dodge the watchful eye of governments and their private sector allies like Sandvine (which, you'll recall, played a starring role in the early days of the net neutrality fights here in the States).

At the end of the day, experts are clear that internet crackdowns are the last resort of cowardly authoritarians, whose last option is to try and drive further unrest in the hopes it somehow plays into their hands:

"It’s often as a “last resort tactic” says Joss Wright, senior research fellow at the Oxford Internet Institute. But the strategy is also a crude one, he adds, noting that it can result in the spread of rumours and misinformation through other channels—with unpredictable consequences. Rydzak agrees: “It’s about creating an atmosphere of fear and uncertainty.” As a blunt demonstration of power, he adds, shutdowns may heighten the overall sense of chaos in a country or locality, creating a fluid situation that authorities may hope ultimately plays into their hands."

Except, again, there's no indication that's actually a successful tactic.

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Posted on Techdirt - 18 September 2020 @ 1:47pm

House Passes Bill To Address The Internet Of Broken Things

from the your-fridge-needs-a-better-firewall dept

Though it doesn't grab the same headline attention as the silly and pointless TikTok ban, the lack of security and privacy standards in the internet of things (IOT) is arguably a much bigger problem. TikTok is, after all, just one app, hoovering up consumer data in a way that's not particularly different from the 45,000 other international apps, services, governments, and telecoms doing much the same thing. The IOT, in contrast, involves millions of feebly secured products being attached to home and business networks every day. Many also made in China, but featuring microphones and cameras.

Thanks to a laundry list of lazy companies, everything from your Barbie doll to your tea kettle is now hackable. Worse, these devices are now being quickly incorporated into some of the largest botnets ever built, resulting in devastating and historic DDoS attacks. In short: thanks to "internet of things" companies that prioritized profits over consumer privacy and the safety of the internet, we're now facing a security and privacy dumpster fire that many experts believe will, sooner or later, result in some notably nasty results.

To that end, the House this week finally passed the Internet of Things Cybersecurity Improvement Act, which should finally bring some meaningful privacy and security standards to the internet of things (IOT). Cory Gardner, Mark Warner, and other lawmakers note the bill creates some baseline standards for security and privacy that must be consistently updated (what a novel idea), while prohibiting government agencies from using gear that doesn't pass muster. It also includes some transparency requirements mandating that any vulnerabilities in IOT hardware are disseminated among agencies and the public quickly:

"Securing the Internet of Things is a key vulnerability Congress must address. While IoT devices improve and enhance nearly every aspect of our society, economy and everyday lives, these devices must be secure in order to protect Americans’ personal data. The IoT Cybersecurity Improvement Act would ensure that taxpayers dollars are only being used to purchase IoT devices that meet basic, minimum security requirements. This would ensure that we adequately mitigate vulnerabilities these devices might create on federal networks."

Again, it's not going to get the same attention as the TikTok pearl clutching, but it's arguably more important.

The IOT is a simultaneously a successful sector while at the same time suffering from a form of market failure. I come back a lot to this Bruce Schneier blog post because I think it explains IOT dysfunction rather well:

"The market can’t fix this because neither the buyer nor the seller cares. The owners of the webcams and DVRs used in the denial-of-service attacks don’t care. Their devices were cheap to buy, they still work, and they don’t know any of the victims of the attacks. The sellers of those devices don’t care: They’re now selling newer and better models, and the original buyers only cared about price and features. There is no market solution, because the insecurity is what economists call an externality: It’s an effect of the purchasing decision that affects other people. Think of it kind of like invisible pollution."

One problem is that consumers often don't know what they're buying because sellers aren't transparent, which is why groups like Consumer Reports have been working on an open source standard to include security and privacy issues in product reviews. Another big problem is that these devices are rarely designed with GUIs that provide transparent insight into what these devices are doing online. And unless users have a semi-sophisticated familiarity with monitoring their internet traffic via a router, they likely have no idea that their shiny new internet-connected doo-dad is putting themselves, and others, at risk.

Fixing the IOT requires collaboration between consumers, vendors, governments, and security experts, and so far that coordination has been patchy at best. Instead of developing policies and standards that address an entire sector's worth of security and privacy problems, the U.S. adores hyperventilating about individual threats (see: TikTok) then pushing policies (see: the TikTok ban) that don't actually accomplish that much. U.S. data privacy and security is a problem that requires a much wider view, instead of this bizarre, inconsistent consternation that's more ADHD Whac-a-Mole than serious policy.

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Posted on Techdirt Wireless - 18 September 2020 @ 6:28am

Verizon Buys Tracfone As U.S. Wireless Gets Even More Consolidated

from the merge-ALL-the-things dept

As economists and experts had warned, the recent $26 billion Sprint T-Mobile merger effectively decimated the prepaid space. T-Mobile had already laid off around 6,000 employees at its Metro Prepaid division, with more layoffs expected. Many of the "mobile virtual network operators" that operated on Sprint's network now face an uncertain future, with growing resentment in the space among prepaid vendors, who say T-Mobile is already using its greater size and leverage to erode commissions and to renegotiate their contracts for the worse. Many prepaid vendors are calling for help that most certainly won't be coming any time soon from the Trump Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and Department of Justice’s Antitrust Division.

With that as backdrop, another major effort at wireless consolidation has emerged with Verizon's announced purchase of Tracfone, one of the biggest prepaid vendors in the U.S. The $6.2 billion deal will, Verizon insists, result in "exciting and compelling" products in the years to come:

Yes, if there's one word that American consumers have come to associate with major telecom mergers, it's "excitement."

The problem here, of course, is that the direct result of mindless M&A in the U.S. telecom space couldn't be any more apparent. Less overall competitors means less effort to seriously compete on price. And the MVNO space had already been under relentless assault by companies like Verizon that have slowly but surely done their best to elbow out any smaller players that dare seriously compete on price with the major networks they must rely on to survive.

With the postpaid market saturated, wireless players are now forced to eek out growth wherever possible. In this case, via acquisitions, followed by only a superficial continued dedication to prepaid wireless lower-priced offerings. As part of the Tracfone deal, Verizon not only nabs 21 million Tracfone customers, but the company's Net 10, Walmart FamilyMobile, SafeLink, Simple Mobile, Straight Talk Wireless, and Clearway prepaid brands as well.

Fewer major networks means less incentive than ever to negotiate on rates, roaming, or much of anything else. With Sprint (the most friendly company to MVNOs by a wide margin) now out of the picture, things have gotten more treacherous for smaller MVNOs than ever. Of course, if the U.S. stays close to its historical norm, in about five years U.S. wireless data (pre and postpaid alike) will be significantly higher, and everybody will be left standing around with a dumb look on their collective faces wondering what went wrong.

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Posted on Techdirt - 17 September 2020 @ 6:33am

AT&T Says It's Eyeing 'Wireless Discounts For Ads.' But It's Not Going To Be What You Think.

from the when-a-discount-isn't dept

AT&T is telling Reuters that it's considering offering wireless customers a "$5 to $10 reduction in their bill" in exchange for some targeted ads:

"I believe there’s a segment of our customer base where given a choice, they would take some load of advertising for a $5 or $10 reduction in their mobile bill,” Stankey said. Various companies including Amazon.com Inc, Virgin Mobile USA and Sprint’s Boost Mobile have tested advertising supported phone services since the early 2000s but they have not caught on. AT&T is hoping that better advertising targeting could revive the idea."

Doling out discounts in exchange for ads doesn't sound like a bad idea on its face. The problem is that's not quite what AT&T is planning. AT&T's goal here is to create a paradigm where people willing to be tracked and hammered with behavioral ads will pay less than those who want to have their privacy respected. In recent years, AT&T has made it very clear the company wants a paradigm whereby opting out of snoopvertising and tracking will cost you more, effectively making privacy a luxury line item (not great for a country already in a broadband affordability crisis).

AT&T already tried some variation of this idea once, and it wasn't just "discounts for ads." The company spent several years charging its broadband subscribers up to $500 more (!) per year to opt out of its snoopvertising systems. The kicker: it only opted you out of receiving behavioral ads, not out of being tracked. This was then passed off to consumers and the press as some kind of discount, when again it was simply making privacy (more accurately the illusion of privacy) only possible with an additional charge.

The other problem, of course, is that this is AT&T. A government-pampered telecom monopoly with a very long history of talking a lot about innovation, then inevitably falling flat on its face once it actually attempts it. It's also a company with a very long history of cozying up to the NSA, repeatedly violating consumer privacy, and undermining absolutely any effort whatsoever to craft even modestly serious privacy guidelines. It's been particularly opposed to any privacy guidelines that would prohibit companies charging a surcharge for privacy protection.

This is all fairly important context Reuters' scoop oddly fails to mention.

AT&T's new pivot to ad-sponsored plans, which is still a year or two out, involves hoovering up an awful lot of location, viewing, and other data from the company's wireless, broadband, phone, and TV customers. AT&T's been a little slow to capitalize on all this data due to a heavy debt load, executive dysfunction, and an investor revolt, but the scope of what they're building from a consumer tracking perspective should be fully understood:

"AT&T engineers are creating “unified customer identifiers,” Stankey said. Such technology would allow marketers to identify users across multiple devices and serve them relevant advertising. The ability to fine tune ad targeting would allow AT&T to sell ads at higher rates, he said. AT&T has invested in developing targeted advertising on its own media properties using data from its phone, TV and internet customers, but the company has been “slower in coming up the curve” on expanding its marketplace that allows advertisers to use AT&T data to target other media companies’ audiences, Stankey said."

AT&T policy folks and lobbyists have (with the GOP's help) managed to convince a big chunk of DC and tech policy Twitter that when we talk about privacy, monopolization, and the health of the internet that "big tech" is the root of all evil. As a result we're launching a slew of "antitrust inquiries" into "big tech," while effectively gutting all meaningful oversight of telecom giants that have the same ad and consumer tracking ambitions but access to as much if not more data than the biggest Silicon Valley giants. I'm sure that kind of accountability vacuum and wholly asymmetrical tech policy won't be a problem down the road though, right?

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Posted on Techdirt Greenhouse - 16 September 2020 @ 12:03pm

That's A Wrap: Techdirt Greenhouse Content Moderation Edition

from the building-a-better,-more-ethical-internet dept

When we launched Techdirt Greenhouse, we noted that we wanted to build a tech policy forum that not only tackled the thorniest tech policy issues of the day, but did so with a little more patience and nuance than you'll find at many gadget-obsessed technology outlets. After our inaugural panel tackled privacy, we just wrapped on our second panel subject: content moderation. We'd like to thank all of those that participated in the panel, and all of you for reading.

You'd be hard pressed to find a thornier, more complicated subject than content moderation. On one hand, technology giants have spent years prioritizing ad engagement over protecting their user base from malicious disinformation and hate speech, often with fatal results. At the same time, many of the remedies being proposed cause more harm than good by trampling free speech, or putting giant corporations into the position of arbiters of acceptable public discourse. Moderation at this scale is a nightmare. One misstep in federal policy and you've created an ocean of new problems.

Whether it's the detection and deletion of live-streaming violence, or protecting elections from foreign and domestic propaganda, it's a labyrinthine, multi-tendriled subject that can flummox even experts in the field. We're hopeful that this collection of pieces helped inform the debate in a way that simplified some of these immensely complicated issues. Here's a recap of the pieces from this round in case you missed them:

  • Michael Karanicolas examined how localized content moderation decisions can have a massive, often unpredictable global impact, as disinformation-fueled genocide makes abundantly clear.
  • Robert Hamilton explored the need to revisit the common law liability of online intermediaries before Section 230, helping us better understand how we got here.
  • Jess Miers explored how getting rid of Section 230 won't magically eliminate the internet's most problematic content.
  • Aye Min Thant took a closer look at how conflating Facebook with "the internet" in locations like Myanmar, without understanding the culture or having adequate safeguards in place, threw accelerant on the region's genocide.
  • Matthew Feeney examined how evidence "supporting" the repeal of Section 230 is shaky at best, and the fixation on Section 230 is hugely myopic.
  • John Bergmayer argued that it doesn't make sense to treat ad the same as user-generated content, and that websites should face the legal risk for ads they run as print publishers.
  • Brandi Collins-Dexter explored how the monetization of polarization has had a heartbreaking impact on America's deep, longstanding relationship with bigotry.
  • Emma Llanso discussed how the sharing of content moderation knowledge shouldn't provide a backdoor to cross-platform censorship.
  • David Morar explored how many of the problems currently being blamed on "big tech," are simple, ordinary, human fallibility.
  • Yosef Getachew examined how social media could easily apply many of the content moderation practices they've custom-built for COVID-19 to the battle to protect election integrity from domestic and foreign disinformation.
  • Adelin Cai and Clara Tsao offered a useful primer for trust and safety professionals tasked with tackling the near-impossible task of modern content moderation at scale.
  • Gaurav Laroia & Carmen Scurato discussed how fighting online hate speech requires keeping Section 230, not discarding it.
  • Taylor Rhyne offered a useful content moderation primer for startups facing a daunting challenge without the bottomless budgets of their "big tech" counterparts.
  • Graham Smith took a closer look at the content moderation debate and how it intersects with existing post-Brexit headaches in the UK.
  • Daphne Keller took a deep dive into what policy makers can do if they don't like existing platform free speech rules, and how none of the options are particularly great.
  • Much like the privacy debate, crafting meaningful content moderation guidelines and rules (and ensuring consistent, transparent enforcement) was a steep uphill climb even during the best of times. Now the effort will share fractured attention spans and resources with an historic pandemic, recovering from the resulting economic collapse, and addressing the endless web of socioeconomic and political dysfunction that is the American COVID-19 crisis. But, much like the privacy debate, it's an essential discussion to have all the same, and we hope folks found this collection informative.

    Again, we'd like to thank our participants for taking the time to provide insight during an increasingly challenging time. We'd also like to thank Techdirt readers and commenters for participating. In a few weeks we'll be announcing the next panel; one that should prove timely during an historic health crisis that has forced the majority of Americans to work, play, innovate, and learn from the confines of home.

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    Posted on Techdirt - 16 September 2020 @ 6:26am

    Josh Hawley Isn't 'Helping' When It Comes To TikTok

    from the sound-and-fury,-signifying-nothing dept

    It's the dumb saga that only seems to get dumber. Earlier this week, we noted that Trump's dumb and arguably unconstitutional order banning TikTok had resulted in (surprise) Trump friend and Oracle boss Larry Ellison nabbing a cozy little partnership for his fledgling cloud hosting business. Granted the deal itself does absolutely nothing outside of providing Oracle a major client. It's more cronyism and heist than serious adult policy, yet countless outlets still somehow framed the entire thing as somehow meaningful, ethical, and based in good faith (it's none of those things).

    Senator Josh Hawley, one of the biggest TikTok pearl clutchers in Congress, obviously didn't much like the deal. Hawley sent an open letter to Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin calling the deal "completely unacceptable" and demanding an outright ban:

    Hawley's major complaint is correct in that the deal does absolutely nothing to thwart Chinese intelligence from collecting TikTok data since ByteDance would still own TikTok and control all algorithms:

    "CFIUS should promptly reject any Oracle-ByteDance collaboration, and send the ball back to ByteDance’s court so that the company can come up with a more acceptable solution. ByteDance can still pursue a full sale of TikTok, its code, and its algorithm to a U.S. company, so that the app can be rebuilt from the ground up to remove any trace of CCP influence."

    Here's the thing that Hawley, and every other TikTok pearl clutcher can't or won't understand: even a full ban of TikTok doesn't meaningfully thwart Chinese intelligence. Why? U.S. privacy and security standards are a joke. Sectors like telecom, adtech, and apps are such a poorly regulated dumpster fire (when they see any oversight at all), China can simply buy or steal this (and so much more) data from an absolute ocean of dodgy information brokers and middlemen.

    Banning TikTok to protect U.S. consumer privacy is like spitting on a wildfire then patting yourself on the back for being an incredible firefighter. The real solutions to these problems require taking a far smarter, broader, more holistic view. That means passing a meaningful privacy law, shoring up election reform, adequately funding privacy regulators, passing some standards for the IOT, adequately securing decade-old U.S. network vulnerabilities, mandating transparency in the adtech, telecom, and other sectors, and better policing the collection and sale of U.S. location and other data. Fix the broader problem(s), and TikTok becomes a detail.

    Hawley not only doesn't seem to understand that, he's actively opposed to many of these broader reform efforts.

    Hawley, much like Marsha Blackburn or Tom Cotton, oddly adores freaking out when China is involved, but is either absent from -- or detrimental to -- efforts to shore op overall U.S. privacy and security standards and oversight. Blackburn, Cotton, or Hawley don't make so much as a peep when U.S. telecom providers get mired in privacy scandals. They've said nary a word about the dodgy adtech sector and the way it sells access to U.S. user location data to any moron with a nickel. They've actively opposed election security reform, adequately funding or staffing the FTC, or passing even the most basic of privacy rules.

    And yet when a Chinese company develops a product that outperforms the best Silicon Valley has to offer, there are months upon months of absolute and total "security and privacy" hysteria. It's just weird how, for some folks, security and privacy only seem to matter when foreigners are involved. It's performative, xenophobic, wildly inconsistent, and largely just stupid. Either you genuinely care about U.S. security and privacy or you don't. Showing up late, crying about China, then disappearing entirely when broader solutions are recommended isn't "helping," it's performative histrionics.

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    Posted on Techdirt Wireless - 15 September 2020 @ 6:11am

    Yet Another Study Shows U.S. 5G Over Promises, Under Delivers

    from the unwarranted-hype dept

    It was the technology that was supposed to change the world. According to carriers, not only was fifth-generation wireless (5G) supposed to bring about the "fourth industrial revolution," it was supposed to revolutionize everything from smart cities to cancer treatment. According to conspiracy theorists and internet imbeciles, 5G is responsible for everything from Covid-19 to your migraines.

    Unfortunately for both sets of folks, data continues to indicate that 5G is nowhere near that interesting.

    A number of recent studies have already shown that U.S. wireless isn't just the most expensive in the developed world, U.S. 5G is notably slower than most overseas deployments. That's thanks in large part to our failure to make so-called middle band spectrum available for public use, resulting in a heavy smattering of lower band spectrum (good signal reach but slow speeds) or high-band and millimeter wave spectrum (great speeds, but poor reach and poor reception indoors). The end result is a far cry from what carriers had spent the last three years promising.

    PC Magazine was the latest to put carrier promises to the test and came away decidedly unimpressed. Networks certainly are getting faster, the report concludes, but it's largely due to steady evolutionary improvements being made to 4G networks, not newer 5G networks. As such, PC Magazine is forced to admit they bought into early carrier hype promising an amazing revolution:

    "We admit it, we bought into the 5G hype. Carriers, phone makers, and chip makers alike have all been selling 5G as faster and more powerful than 4G, with lower latency. So I was shocked to see that our AT&T 5G results, especially, were slower than 4G results on the same network. This is a crisis for marketing, not for performance. All three US carriers showed significantly higher download speeds and better broadband reliability than they did in our 2019 tests. It's just that these gains, particularly on AT&T, are largely because of improvements in 4G, not 5G networks."

    Wireless carriers haven't given much thought to the perils of over-hyping 5G, thereby associating the standard with empty bluster and frustration in the minds of consumers. You'll recall that AT&T has lied repeatedly in trying to pretend that 4G is 5G via misleading phone icons, and Verizon perpetually enjoyed hyping 5G market launches, only to have those looking for an actual 5G signal find that availability is these markets is spotty... at best (one study found that a Verizon 5G signal was available around 0.4% of the time in launched 5G markets).

    Not too surprisingly then, PC Magazine routinely found it difficult to actually obtain a 5G signal:

    "It's been more than a year since the US carriers launched 5G. AT&T purports to have 5G in 22 of our 26 test cities; Verizon has it in 18; and T-Mobile has it in all of them. But our 5G results were disappointing all around, on every carrier. Often, it was a choice between faux G (we’ll explain this shortly) and no G...most of our current 5G coverage offers people a slightly improved 4G experience dressed up with a shiny new icon. That’s not bad, but to live up to their lofty promises about how 5G will change education, medicine, industry, and home internet, the carriers will need to use more spectrum and better technology than they’re currently giving us.

    It's also worth noting that despite all the promises surrounding the T-Mobile and Sprint merger, the initial result has been slower speeds overall as the companies work to integrate discordant networks:

    "So far, T-Mobile's absorption of Sprint hasn't shown much advantage for consumers. It's to the contrary, really: In our results, it looks like the rush of Sprint users onto T-Mobile's network has created some congestion that has caused T-Mobile to fall behind in comparative performance. All of the carriers' speeds increased from 2019 to 2020, but T-Mobile's increased less than AT&T's and Verizon's did."

    PC Mag's study was mirrored this week by a Washington Post investigation that basically concluded all the same things. Namely that 5G isn't much to write home about, and in many instances U.S. 4G networks outperform 5G in 5G launch markets:

    "Your experience with a 5G phone in 2020 is likely to be all over the map. I got searing fast 750 Mbps downloads from AT&T in one corner of downtown. But in the same spot, my 4G phone got an also extremely fast 330 Mbps. Moreover, because of the pandemic, those aren’t places I go very often. As I write this from my home office in the middle of San Francisco, I’m getting 11 Mbps downloads on my AT&T 5G phone. On T-Mobile, I get a laughable 8 Mbps on 5G, which is barely enough to stream HD Netflix."

    I regret to inform you that despite a lot of tech policy bluster and carrier marketing, we are most assuredly not winning the "race to 5G." In fact, our broadband maps are so routinely terrible, I'm not sure we'd be able to confirm it if we were.

    Again, 5G will certainly offer faster speeds, lower latency, and more reliable networks over the long haul, especially as carriers push new middle band spectrum to market. Even then, don't expect 5G pricing to be particularly innovative thanks to the death of net neutrality and reduced competition due to consolidation. Carriers are also lobbying the FCC to exclude 5G from broadband mapping improvements (meaning don't expect an accurate read on where it's truly available any time soon). The more things change...

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    Posted on Techdirt - 14 September 2020 @ 6:31am

    Over At Politico, The AT&T Monopoly Gives Tips On Fixing A Broadband Problem It Spent Thirty Years Creating

    from the do-as-we-say,-not-as-we-do dept

    Every time legislation is looming that could threaten its broadband monopoly, AT&T attempts to get in front of it and steer the conversation away from subjects it doesn't want tackled by legislation. The biggest of those subjects is the lack of overall competition caused by sector monopolization, and the high prices, crappy customer service, and patchy availability that usually results. With COVID-19 resulting in folks realizing the importance of affordable broadband more than ever, it's becoming pretty clear that AT&T is worried somebody might just try to finally do something about it.

    You'd be hard pressed to find a company more responsible for this country's broadband shortcomings than AT&T, whose lobbyists work tirelessly to scuttle absolutely any attempt whatsoever to disrupt the mono/duopoly status quo. Which is why it's ironic to see AT&T CFO John Stankey publish an op-ed at Politico professing to have the cure for America's longstanding digital divide. Not too surprisingly, AT&T's solution for the problem is greater subsidization of companies like AT&T, a company that has already received countless billions in subsidies for fiber networks it almost always only partially deploys.

    Amusingly, most of Stankey's fixes are things AT&T has routinely lobbied against. Like here, where Stankey acknowledges that fixing the digital divide isn't something private industry can do alone:

    "Our country needs to close that gap, and now is the time for legislators and policymakers to act to ensure the educational and economic success of all Americans by making broadband connectivity more accessible, affordable and sustainable. Market forces and private companies can’t do it alone because of the lack of return on the significant investment necessary to reach all Americans."

    Well gosh, perhaps AT&T shouldn't have lobbied for (and in many instances written) legislation in nearly two-dozen states blocking towns and cities from building their own creative broadband alternatives then, huh? AT&T lobbyists have long fought tooth and nail against public or even public/private alternatives because, as a monopoly, it simply doesn't like competition. Any suggestion AT&T has credibility on this subject is laughable.

    From there, AT&T goes on to support another idea its lobbyists have routinely opposed: better broadband maps:

    "To close the digital divide, we must know the contours of where the divide starts and ends. We need to telescope our broadband maps from the macro, census-block level to the micro, building level to understand with more precision where broadband is unavailable. The government’s existing mapping methodology is past its shelf life."

    Here too, AT&T has lobbied against better, more accurate broadband maps (or the inclusion of broadband pricing in said maps) because it doesn't want people highlighting the lack of competition and coverage gaps in the sector. And while some broadband mapping improvements have finally been passed after relentless pressure from states looking for their cut of the pie, AT&T has lobbied to exclude technologies like 5G from those improvements.

    Stankey also takes some time to pretend that deploying fiber isn't "economical," despite his company receiving untold billions in tax breaks, subsidies, and regulatory favors to deploy fiber networks that mysteriously, routinely, wind up only partially deployed:

    "The FCC currently heavily weights subsidies toward gigabit speeds (fiber) over other technologies (such as fixed wireless). It is simply not practical or responsible to assume a fiber broadband service can be delivered to every unserved rural household—the prohibitive cost is part of why connecting many of these households has been uneconomical."

    This one's a real laugher if you know AT&T's history. For the better part of the last generation AT&T has received a fountain of taxpayer cash in exchange for fiber it never fully deploys. AT&T spent much of the aughts under-investing in fiber despite rampant deregulation that was supposed to incentivize it to do so. It just received a $42 billion tax cut from the Trump administration that resulted in more than 41,000 layoffs and a $3 billion CAPEX reduction for 2020. AT&T's running a 30-year con in which it takes taxpayer dollars, pockets the lion's share of it, under-deploys broadband, then tries to obfuscate the results.

    AT&T just spent $150 billion on an array of terrible mergers that saddled the company in an ocean of debt and resulted in customers leaving in droves. Between tax breaks, subsidies, and the gutting of FCC consumer protections like net neutrality and privacy, it's almost impossible to calculate the amount of taxpayer assistance AT&T has received in the last decade alone. In fact, the only reason Stankey is even CEO is because the last CEO got driven out of town for wasting money on misguided ideas. Yet here we have AT&T giving advice on what is or isn't "cost prohibitive."

    What's AT&T and Stankey really up to here? With stories in the press about kids having to squat outside of Taco Bell just to get online for class, AT&T's policy guys know we're likely to see new legislation in the next year to help bridge the digital divide. AT&T would prefer that legislation fixate on throwing billions in additional subsidies at monopolies like AT&T, instead of tackling the real cause of U.S. broadband mediocrity: rampant state and federal corruption, or the monopolization that results from timid policymakers fecklessly bending the policy knee to monopolistic telecom giants for the better part of a generation.

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    Posted on Techdirt - 11 September 2020 @ 6:33am

    Auto Industry Pushes Bullshit Claim That 'Right To Repair' Laws Aid Sexual Predators

    from the fear-mongering-ahoy dept

    A few years back, frustration at John Deere's draconian tractor DRM culminated in a grassroots tech movement dubbed "right to repair." The company's crackdown on "unauthorized repairs" turned countless ordinary citizens into technology policy activists, after DRM (and the company's EULA) prohibited the lion's share of repair or modification of tractors customers thought they owned. These restrictions only worked to drive up costs for owners, who faced either paying significantly more money for "authorized" repair, or toying around with pirated firmware just to ensure the products they owned actually worked.

    Of course the problem isn't just restricted to John Deere. Apple, Microsoft, Sony, and countless other tech giants eager to monopolize repair have made a habit of suing and bullying independent repair shops and demonizing consumers who simply want to reduce waste and repair devices they own. This, in turn, has resulted in a growing push for right to repair legislation in countless states.

    To thwart these bills, companies have been ramping up the use of idiotic, fear mongering arguments. Usually these arguments involve false claims that these bills will somehow imperil consumer privacy, safety, and security. Apple, for example, tried to thwart one such bill in Nebraska by claiming it would turn the state into a "mecca for hackers."

    While there's been no shortage of bad faith arguments like this, the auto industry in Massachusetts has taken things to the next level. The state is contemplating the expansion of an existing state law that lets users get their vehicles repaired anywhere they'd like. In a bid to kill these efforts, the Alliance for Automotive Innovation, which represents most major automakers, has taken to running ads in the state falsely claiming that the legislation would aid sexual predators:

    The primary message of the ads is that if we allow people to more easily repair their vehicles, data from said vehicles will somehow find itself in the hands of rapists, stalkers, and other menaces. Granted actual experts have made it abundantly clear that this is utterly unfounded. The existing law requires that automakers use a non-proprietary diagnostic interface so any repair shop can access vehicle data using an ordinary OBD reader. It also makes sure that important repair information is openly accessible. The update to said law simply attempts to close a few loopholes in the existing law:

    "Question 1 seeks to close a loophole in that earlier law, which exempted cars that transmitted this data wirelessly. As cars become even more computerized, independent repair shops are worried that manufacturers will do away with the OBD port and will store this data wirelessly, exempting them from the earlier law. The new initiative simply guarantees that car owners and independent repair companies can access this data wirelessly without "authorization by the manufacturer," and requires car manufacturers to store this data in a secure, "standardized, open-access platform."

    One local ABC affiliate in Massachusetts thoroughly debunked the ads' claims. Experts told Matthew Gault at Motherboard that the real goal of the auto industry here is to simply shift all of this diagnostic tech to wireless to wiggle around the law. In part to maintain a monopoly on repair (letting them drive up the cost of taking your vehicle to the dealership), but also to further obscure all the driving, location, and other data automakers are collecting and selling to a long list of companies:

    "My guess is what automakers really don't want to talk about is all of the data that they are collecting from connected vehicles that they're not telling us about,” Paul F Roberts, founder of Securerepairs—a group of security and repair professionals who advocate for security and repair issues—told Motherboard on the phone.

    “The backup safety cameras that go on every time you put your car in reverse, are those on all the time and are they observing your surroundings and inferring data about your whereabouts and preferences?” Roberts said. “The in-cabin cameras that we know Tesla has on their cars, are those just monitoring you all the time… are they monitoring your GPS data and mining that or selling that? We don’t know."

    Of course they're collecting and selling that data with minimal oversight. The United States still lacks any meaningful privacy laws for the modern era, in part because many of these same companies have opposed such legislation. Because it's hard for the auto industry to honestly admit it wants to monopolize repair, drive up consumer costs, and obfuscate the wholesale hoovering up and sale of your data, they've apparently concocted a grotesque bullshit narrative that the legislative updates will somehow aid sexual predators. Stay classy, Alliance for Automotive Innovation!

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    Posted on Techdirt - 10 September 2020 @ 1:39pm

    FCC Formally Kills Rules That Would Have Brought Competition To The Cable Box

    from the competition-schmompetition dept

    In early 2016, the cable industry quietly launched one of the most misleading and successful lobbying efforts in the industry's history. The target? A plan concocted by the former FCC that would have let customers watch cable TV lineups on third-party hardware. Given the industry makes $21 billion annually in rental fees thanks to its cable box hardware monopoly, the industry got right to work with an absolute wave of disinformation, claiming that the FCC's plan would put consumer data at risk, result in a "piracy apocalypse," and was somehow even racist (it wasn't).

    At one point, the industry even managed to grab the help of the US Copyright Office, which falsely claimed that more cable box competition would somehow violate copyright. Of course the plan had nothing to do with copyright, and everything to do with control, exemplifying once again that for the US Copyright Office, public welfare can often be a distant afterthought.

    Once in office, the Pai FCC dutifully got to work dismantling the Wheeler-era FCC proposal, coordinated with and justified by cable providers which promised their own "free market alternatives" would make the proposal irrelevant. More specifically, they promised that you'd be able to order Comcast or Spectrum's cable lineup through an app, making cable boxes irrelevant. But this promised alternative never showed up:

    "Last June, Big Cable made an appealing offer for viewers and regulators. Companies would provide consumers with free apps to watch TV rather than making them pay monthly fees for cable boxes. But the cable companies didn’t do this out of the kindness of their hearts — they wanted to stop the Federal Communication Commission from passing regulations making them ship apps.

    A year after that “Ditch the Box” pledge, two things have changed. There’s now zero threat of federal regulators requiring cable operators to give subscribers free apps to replace rented boxes, and the industry’s “Ditch the Box” plan seems to have disappeared."

    Funny how that works. This week the FCC put the finishing touches on scuttling the proposal, while also eliminating the need for cable providers to support CableCARD, technology that lets you avoid buying a traditional cable provider cable box, and instead using hardware like TiVo. It's a tech the industry always under-supported because it took revenue away from cable box rentals. And now that too is largely dead, buried under (false) claims it was no longer necessary because streaming is now so gosh darn competitive:

    "In explaining why it killed off Wheeler’s plan for good last week, the FCC largely regurgitated cable industry talking points. The agency said it had “serious and unresolved concerns” about security and copyright protection (concerns that consumer advocacy groups have disputed), and reiterated the same argument it used against CableCARD: Customers already have the ability to watch cable programming on their streaming devices, so there’s no need for more regulatory intervention."

    While it's true that streaming providers have brought some helpful competition to the sector, much of the content is still owned by consolidated telecom/cable/media giants like AT&T Time Warner and Comcast NBC Universal. And while they're very slowly losing their dominance thanks to cord cutters, these gatekeepers have enough power that they're still doing everything in their power to lock you inside their walled gardens, tracked by their data tracking systems, using clunky old cable boxes if you want the "best experience":

    "Sure, if you’re a Comcast subscriber, you can use the Xfinity Stream app in place of a cable box on Roku devices, Samsung TVs, and LG TVs. But that same app isn’t available on other streaming platforms such as Apple TV, Amazon Fire TV, Android TV, or Chromecast. A report last year by BestAppleTV claimed that Comcast is more interested in building up its own X1 platform than supporting more third-party alternatives such as Apple TV, and while Comcast disputed the story, it hasn’t launched any new streaming apps in more than a year.

    Likewise, if you’re getting TV service through Spectrum, you can use the Spectrum app on Roku, Apple TV, Samsung TVs, and Xbox One consoles, but not on Fire TV, Android TV, or Chromecast. Meanwhile, Dish Network only offers live TV and DVR on Amazon Fire TV devices."

    The ideal solution to this problem continues to be to vote with your wallet and cut the cord. But for those who can't do so (due to a desire to watch live sports, or lack of a fast, uncapped broadband line for streaming), you're still going to find yourself stuck, more often than not, renting a dated, crappy, expensive, locked-down cable box. And with the FCC's help, the cable industry continues to work overtime to ensure that's the most expensive proposition possible, charging you major monthly fees to use their cheap, clunky, proprietary, locked-down hardware.

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    Posted on Techdirt - 10 September 2020 @ 6:21am

    T-Mobile Merger Approval Violated Every Last One Of the DOJ's Updated 'Antitrust Principles'

    from the do-what-I-say,-not-what-I-do dept

    Earlier this month, the Department of Justice issued a new, "modernized" merger remedies manual that's supposed to dictate agency behavior as it ponders approving, denying, or applying conditions to major U.S mergers. Superficially, many of the changes outlined in the document make perfect sense. For example, the new breakdown dictates that any merger remedies (including blocking deals outright) should do most of the things you'd expect, such as preserving competition:

  • Remedies must preserve competition.
  • Remedies should not create ongoing government regulation of the market.
  • Temporary relief should not be used to remedy persistent competitive harm.
  • The remedy should preserve competition, not protect competitors.
  • The risk of a failed remedy should fall on the merging parties, not on consumers.
  • The remedy must be enforceable.
  • In a statement, DOJ antitrust boss Makan Delrahim crowed about how the new guidelines would result in more consistent, transparent antitrust review:

    "The modernized Merger Remedies Manual reflects our renewed focus on enforcing obligations in consent decrees and reaffirms the Division’s commitment to effective structural relief,” said Assistant Attorney General Makan Delrahim of the Department of Justice’s Antitrust Division. “It will provide greater transparency and predictability regarding the Division’s approach to remedying a proposed merger’s competitive harm."

    The "funny" part? It was just a few months ago that the DOJ rubber stamped T-Mobile's $26 billion merger with Sprint, ignoring countless experts who clearly noted that the deal would not only erode competition, but raise rates, lower sector pay, and result in potentially tens of thousands of lost jobs (layoffs that are already well underway). Said approval violated every last DOJ guideline espoused above. Every, last, one.

    The DOJ proposed "remedy" for these problems was to try and shovel some spectrum off to Dish Network, which will spend seven years piggybacking on the T-Mobile network in the hopes of someday being a viable replacement fourth carrier for Sprint. It's a proposal that's not likely to work for a long list of reasons, the biggest being that the remaining three carriers (AT&T, Verizon, and T-Mobile) have a vested interest in ensuring the proposal never works to prevent real price competition. That and the fact that industry-cozy regulators like Ajit Pai, who crow endlessly about the need for "hands off" "oversight" of the telecom sector, will never effectively nanny the proposal to fruition or seriously penalize Dish or T-Mobile for flaking on their promises.

    Economists that pointed out the flaws in the deal in court found the DOJ's new guidance a bit entertaining:

    Again, blocking the T-Mobile merger was the most sensible, cleanest solution. Just like the last two times this kind of merger was attempted (AT&T/T-Mobile in 2011, Sprint/T-Mobile in 2014). But because T-Mobile kissed enough Trump ass to gain his political support, the Barr DOJ twisted itself into knots to ensure the deal was approved. Not only did the DOJ ignore all objective data showing the deal would clearly be terrible for customers, the market, and employees, Delrahim himself used his personal phone and email accounts to guide T-Mobile to deal approval and actively lobby U.S. regulators and lawmakers.

    That is, if you're new to this, the exact opposite of what an "antitrust enforcer" is supposed to do. The T-Mobile merger approval process was glorified cronyism disguised as serious adult policy making, and it placed the entire onus of remedy failure on the backs of sector employees and consumers. It was an embarrassment of corrupt, performative theater, and is important to remember as Bill Barr's DOJ shifts its antitrust attentions to one of the biggest enemies of the GOP and his friends in the telecom sector: Google.

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    Posted on Techdirt - 9 September 2020 @ 1:34pm

    If We're So Worried About TikTok, Why Aren't We Just As Worried About AdTech And Location Data Sales?

    from the you're-not-being-consistent dept

    We've noted a few times how the TikTok ban is largely performative, xenophobic nonsense that operates in a bizarre, facts-optional vacuum.

    The biggest pearl clutchers when it comes to the teen dancing app (Josh Hawley, Tom Cotton, etc.) have been utterly absent from (or downright detrimental to) countless other security and privacy reform efforts. Many have opposed even the most basic of privacy rules. They've opposed shoring up funding for election security reform. Most are utterly absent when we talk about things like our dodgy satellite network security, the SS7 cellular network flaw exposing wireless communications, or the total lack of any meaningful privacy and security standards for the internet of broken things.

    As in, most of the "experts" and politicians who think banning TikTok is a good idea don't seem to realize it's not going to genuinely accomplish much in full context. Chinese intelligence can still glean this (and much more data) from a wide variety of sources thanks to our wholesale privacy and security failures on countless other fronts. It's kind of like banning sugary soda to put out a forest fire, or spitting at a thunderstorm to slow its advance over the horizon.

    Yet the latest case in point: Joseph Cox at Motherboard (who has been an absolute wrecking ball on this beat) discovered that private intel firms have been able to easily buy user location data gleaned from phone apps, allowing the tracking of users in immensely granular fashion:

    "A threat intelligence firm called HYAS, a private company that tries to prevent or investigates hacks against its clients, is buying location data harvested from ordinary apps installed on peoples' phones around the world, and using it to unmask hackers. The company is a business, not a law enforcement agency, and claims to be able to track people to their "doorstep."

    This, of course, comes on the heels of countless scandals of this type, where app makers, telecoms, or other companies collect and monetize your sensitive location data with zero meaningful oversight and little to no transparency, selling it to any nitwit with a nickel. The global adtech location surveillance market is such a complicated mess, even experts and journalists have a hard time tracking what data is being collected and who it's being sold to:

    "The news highlights the complex supply chain and sale of location data, traveling from apps whose users are in some cases unaware that the software is selling their location, through to data brokers, and finally to end clients who use the data itself. The news also shows that while some location firms repeatedly reassure the public that their data is focused on the high level, aggregated, pseudonymous tracking of groups of people, some companies do buy and use location data from a largely unregulated market explicitly for the purpose of identifying specific individuals."

    Do folks hyperventilating about TikTok not realize Chinese intelligence can also access this data? If so, why haven't I seen equal histrionics in relation to location data from folks like Josh Hawley? This massive, international network of telecoms, adtech vendors, and data brokers are engaged in wholesale, largely unaccountable surveillance of vast swaths of human beings. And yet, outside of a few lawmakers like Ron Wyden, countless lawmakers and regulators who've risked embolism with their TikTok outrage have been utterly silent when it comes to the threats posed by companies like HYAS:

    "HYAS differs in that it provides a concrete example of a company deliberately sourcing mobile phone location data with the intention of identifying and pinpointing particular people and providing that service to its own clients. Independently of Motherboard, the office of Senator Ron Wyden, which has been investigating the location data market, also discovered HYAS was using mobile location data. A Wyden aide said they had spoken with HYAS about the use of the data. HYAS said the mobile location data is used to unmask people who may be using a Virtual Private Network (VPN) to hide their identity, according to the Wyden aide."

    Either you care about U.S. data security and privacy or you don't, and I'm beginning to suspect that most of the folks who think TikTok poses an existential threat to the republic aren't engaging in a good faith understanding of the actual problem. With no privacy rules, transparency, or consistency we're a sitting duck for malicious actors, be they state-sponsored hackers, sex offending jackasses, or U.S. law enforcement officers out over their skis.

    Want to genuinely shore up U.S. security and privacy problems? Pass a simple but meaningful privacy law for the internet era. Fund election security reform. Shore up our communications network security. Stop hamstringing and defunding privacy regulators at the FTC. Mandate transparency in the adtech market. Create some unified standards for the privacy dumpster fire that is the internet of things. Hyperventilating over a single Chinese-owned teen dancing app, then acting as if you've cured cancer is dangerous, counterproductive, and aggressively stupid in full context.

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    Posted on Techdirt - 9 September 2020 @ 6:14am

    Pai FCC Ignored Falsely Inflated Broadband Numbers To Pat Itself On The Back

    from the whoops-a-daisy dept

    We've noted more than once that the Donald Trump, Ajit Pai FCC isn't much for this whole accurate data thing. This FCC can routinely be found parroting inaccurate lobbyist claims on a wide variety of subjects, whether that's the rate of recent broadband investment, or the number of people just out of reach of affordable broadband. As such, it's not uncommon to find the FCC basing policy decisions on junk data; most recently exemplified by its rubber stamping of the job and competition eroding Sprint/T-Mobile merger (which was approved before FCC staff had seen ANY data).

    Last year, Pai's FCC tried to claim that the number of U.S. residents without access to fixed broadband (25Mbps downstream, 3Mbps upstream as per the FCC) dropped from 26.1 million people at the end of 2016 to 19.4 million at the end of 2017. Pai's agency attributed this improvement to the agency "removing barriers to infrastructure investment," which is code for gutting most meaningful consumer protections at lobbyist behest. But last year we noted that a good chunk of that improvement was not only thanks to policies Pai historically opposed (community fiber broadband networks and fiber build out conditions affixed to the 2015 AT&T DirecTV merger), but to administrative error.

    Consumer groups also pointed out that a big reason for that shift was a major false claim on the part of a smaller ISP named BarrierFree. BarrierFree had dramatically overstated its coverage areas in Form 477 data submitted to the FCC, resulting in broadband improvement numbers overstated by millions of Americans. In a follow up report this week, the FCC quietly acknowledged that the FCC was long aware of the "mistake" but published the falsely inflated numbers anyway:

    "This week, the FCC released more details on BarrierFree's apparent history of violating rules requiring ISPs to submit "Form 477" broadband-deployment data every six months, and it shows that numerous warning signs were spotted by FCC staff long before Pai touted the inaccurate data. The FCC on Tuesday issued a Notice of Apparent Liability that proposed a $163,912 fine for BarrierFree, kicking off a process that gives BarrierFree a chance to respond to the allegations and fight the proposed penalty.

    The problem, of course, is that this isn't some one off. The form 477 data submitted by ISPs has long been taken at face value by the FCC; an obvious problem since ISPs have a vested interest in obscuring any broadband coverage or competition shortcomings (lest somebody try to do something about it). In addition to not really verifying submitted numbers, the FCC compounds the problem with methodology that declares an entire census block "served" with broadband if just one home in that block has service. As a result, the FCC is in no position to claim with any accuracy that it even knows where broadband is truly available, much less that unpopular efforts like the attack on net neutrality contributed to meaningful improvements.

    Consumer groups say in this case, the Pai FCC once again failed to make accurate data a genuine priority, or take any real accountability for its own failure to adequately police the data reported by ISPs:

    "Although the FCC is trying to fine BarrierFree for submitting inaccurate data, the commission is not penalizing the ISP for failing to submit over 10 years' worth of required Form 477 reports. "The Pai FCC slept on BarrierFree's repeated violation of FCC rules," Free Press Research Director Derek Turner told Ars, calling the FCC's attempt to downplay its own role in spreading inaccurate data "shameful."

    This bunk data and willful incompetence is most easily reflected by the FCC's $300 million broadband availability map. Spend just a few minutes perusing your neighborhood and it quickly becomes apparent the FCC is not only all but hallucinating available providers and speeds, but it also refuses to even collect and share data on another telling metric: broadband prices. The end result is a broadband affordability problem we genuinely haven't yet measured, and rose-colored glasses proclamations by the Pai FCC that are based more on magical thinking than anything resembling hard data.

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    Posted on Techdirt - 8 September 2020 @ 2:09pm

    Astronomers Say Space X Astronomy Pollution Can't Be Fixed

    from the blinded-by-the-light dept

    We recently noted how the Space X launch of low orbit broadband satellites is not only creating light pollution for astronomers and scientists, but captured U.S. regulators, eager to try and justify rampant deregulation, haven't been willing to do anything about it. While Space X's Starlink platform will create some much needed broadband competition for rural users, the usual capacity constraints of satellite broadband mean it won't be a major disruption to incumbent broadband providers. Experts say it will be painfully disruptive to scientific study and research, however:

    While Space X says it's taking steps to minimize the glare and "photo bombing" capabilities of these satellites (such as anti-reflective coating on the most problematic parts of the satellites), a new study suggests that won't be so easy. The joint study from both the National Science Foundation's NOIRLab and the American Astronomical Society (AAS) found that while Space X light pollution can be minimized somewhat, it won't be possible to eliminate:

    "Changes are required at both ends: constellation operators and observatories. SpaceX has shown that operators can reduce reflected sunlight through satellite body orientation, Sun shielding, and surface darkening. A joint effort to obtain higher-accuracy public data on predicted locations of individual satellites (or ephemerides) could enable some pointing avoidance and mid-exposure shuttering during satellite passage. Observatories will need to adopt more dynamic scheduling and observation management as the number of constellation satellites increases, though even these measures will be ineffective for many science programs."

    Granted, in March, Space X boss Elon Musk predicted there would be no impact whatsoever from his Starlink project:

    "I am confident that we will not cause any impact whatsoever in astronomical discoveries. Zero. That's my prediction. We'll take corrective action if it's above zero."

    The report, which was first spotted by Ars Technica, notes that enough data has been collected to clearly indicate the impact is well above zero. Worse, they note that companies have only just started launching low-orbit satellite constellations. OneWeb and Space X have only just begun their efforts, and Amazon is expected to join the fray in a major way. Collectively, these launches will create some significant problems for scientists around the planet, the report concludes:

    "If the 100,000 or more LEOsats proposed by many companies and many governments are deployed, no combination of mitigations can fully avoid the impacts of the satellite trails on the science programs of current and planned ground-based optical-NIR [near-infrared] astronomy facilities. Astronomers are just beginning to understand the full range of impacts on the discipline. Astrophotography, amateur astronomy, and the human experience of the stars and the Milky Way are already affected."

    While Space X's lower altitude satellite are problematic, higher altitude satellites being eyed by the likes of Amazon are notably worse, the experts found. In a press release the groups detailed several ways of minimizing the impact of low-orbit satellite constellations (including launching less of them). But that's going to require a lot of collaboration between researchers and industry. Collaboration that would be easier if we had U.S. regulators actually interested in helping coordinate that collaboration.

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    Posted on Techdirt - 4 September 2020 @ 10:49am

    Bill Barr's 'Antitrust Crackdown' Of Google Is Going To Be A Weaponized Farce

    from the bad-faith-bullocks dept

    Back in May we discussed how strange it was that folks would assume that Bill Barr's "antitrust inquiry" into Google would be in good faith, given Barr's history of, well, everything. It's abundantly clear by now that Barr's DOJ has been eager to weaponize antitrust to go after companies Trumpland is politically opposed to (like the legal cannabis sector), while turning a blind eye to every monopolistic whim of his BFFs in the telecom sector. The DOJ's petty lawsuit against California automakers also made it clear there's no real intellectual consistency being applied at the Trump DOJ when it comes to antitrust.

    Now reports indicate that Barr has been expediting the DOJ "antitrust inquiry" into Google, in a transparent bid to get his "crackdown of big tech" into the headlines during the election cycle:

    "In an unusual move, Mr. Barr placed the investigation under Jeffrey A. Rosen, the deputy attorney general, whose office would not typically oversee an antitrust case. Mr. Barr and Mr. Delrahim also disagreed on how to approach the investigation, and Mr. Barr had told aides that the antitrust division had been asleep at the switch for decades, particularly in scrutinizing the technology industry."

    Context here matters. As the net neutrality fracas made abundantly clear, Google has long been the nemesis of the telecom sector, which has been clamoring for greater scrutiny of "big tech" while successfully convincing the Trump administration to neuter pretty much all oversight of telecom monopolies. Barr, a former Verizon lawyer, has eagerly rubber stamped numerous telecom consolidation efforts with less than zero interest in hard data, most notably the job and competition eroding merger between T-Mobile and Sprint.

    Despite an ocean of data showing that deal would reduce competition, harm sector pay, kill overall jobs, and result in higher prices, T-Mobile did everything in its power to kiss the Trump administration's ass to gain merger approval. As a result, DOJ antitrust boss Makan Delrahim not only approved the deal without listening to experts, but used his personal phone and email accounts to help lobby the deal to approval. That is what "antitrust enforcement" looks like at Donald Trump and Bill Barr's DOJ. It's just cronyism dressed up as serious adult policy.

    Now, apparently, we're to believe that Barr genuinely cares about "big tech" monopolies.

    The speed at which Barr is moving to shovel the inquiry into the spotlight for election season fodder has apparently upset many staffers at the DOJ, who say the rush has eroded the integrity of the investigation:

    "Many career staff members in the antitrust division, including more than a dozen who were hired during the Trump administration, considered the evidence solid that Google’s search and advertising businesses violated antitrust law. But some told associates that Mr. Barr was forcing them to come up with “half-baked” cases so he could unveil a complaint by Sept. 30, according to three people with knowledge of the discussions.

    Some lawyers who felt they needed more time laid out their concerns in the memo and left the case; about 20 lawyers remain on the team."

    There are clearly several goals here for Billy Barr.

    The first is to get the false "Conservatives are being unfairly targeted" victimization complex in headlines ahead of the election. The second is to gain leverage over companies like Google as they ponder cracking down on Trump disinformation during an election season. The third is to aid telecom giants and folks like Rupert Murdoch that have long coveted Silicon Valley's advertising revenue. None of these motivations have anything to do with a genuine "antitrust inquiry," but we're going to spend the next month or two watching experts and journalists, who should know better, pretend otherwise.

    Some economists have pointed out that Barr's quest to use antitrust to police viewpoint diversity not only isn't particularly legally sound, it (like so much in Trumpland) flies in the face of everything Conservatives claimed they believed in over the last thirty years. For example, there was decades of right wing histrionics about the "fairness doctrine" -- a concern that's suddenly and mysteriously absent as Barr attempts to mutilate antitrust to support his quest to police "viewpoint diversity":

    Google engages in plenty of dodgy behavior that requires intelligent, adult antitrust and regulatory scrutiny. But Iran Contra cover upper Billy Barr, fresh off endless bouts of sycophancy, obvious falsehoods, and antitrust abuse, is probably the last guy capable of doing so with even a modicum of integrity.

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    Posted on Techdirt - 4 September 2020 @ 6:45am

    America Needs To Stop Pretending The Broadband 'Digital Divide' Isn't The Direct Result Of Corruption

    from the we-didn't-get-here-by-accident dept

    Last week, a tweeted photo of two kids huddled on the ground outside of a Taco Bell -- just to gain access to a reliable internet connection -- made the rounds on social media. The two found themselves on the wrong side of the "digital divide," forced to sit in the dirt just to get online, just 45 minutes from the immensely wealthy technology capital of the United States:

    America's broadband access and affordability issues have long been a problem. But they're taking on greater urgency in the COVID-19 era, with millions of Americans being forced to learn, teach, work, and socialize from home. In that climate, it didn't take long for the photo to garner attention and public sympathy, resulting in outlets like CNN reporting that the local school district wound up giving the family a mobile hotspot so they could actually do homework at home:

    "The district gave the family a hotspot so the students could access classroom instructions from their home, according to Gebin...In a statement, a spokesperson for Taco Bell Corp. told CNN that "the photo of two young girls outside of a Salinas, CA Taco Bell is a tough reminder of basic inequalities facing our communities."

    While a kind gesture, the episode is fairly representative of our relationship to the digital divide and America's patchy, expensive broadband networks. As in, we've let telecom giants dictate state and federal policy for 30 years, resulting in geographic monopolies where the primary objective is maintaining the status quo (high prices, little competition, zero real accountability for market failure). Then, in the rare instance where the problem can hold our attention for more than thirty seconds, we throw a band aid on the byproduct of this corruption and pat ourselves on the back for a job well done.

    Granted CNN, like so many major news outlets, covers this problem in a way that implies that expensive, mediocre, patchy broadband networks are just some thing that magically happened, and not the obvious byproduct of state and federal corruption. The kind of corruption that usually involves companies like AT&T burying competition crushing language in unrelated ordinances, literally writing state laws banning creative local community broadband alternatives, or convincing the FCC to effectively self-immolate upon request, gutting not only the agency's authority over telecom, but most meaningful consumer protections.

    American broadband doesn't suck because America is big, or because we haven't thrown enough money at the problem (giants like AT&T have received countless billions in tax breaks, subsidies, and regulatory favors, usually in exchange for bupkis). American broadband sucks because giant monopolies literally write state and federal telecom law, and have completely corrupted the legislative process from the town level on up.

    It takes thirty seconds watching state and federal legislatures before it becomes clear that the majority of our lawmakers have prioritized Verizon, Comcast, and AT&T campaign contributions above anything even vaguely resembling the public interest. It's simply undeniable, and it should be the bedrock upon which all U.S. broadband policy conversations and news coverage is built upon. Fail to acknowledge this reality and you're allowing the problem to perpetuate. There's an entire cottage industry of telecom-linked think tankers, economists, and consultants whose mortgage payments depend on pretending American broadband isn't a monopolized mess. It's hard to look at coverage from the likes of CNN and not come away realizing how effective they've been at shaping the discourse.

    Despite its reputation as a haven for "the socialisms," California is certainly no exception to this corruption (just ask the EFF). Several recent legislative proposals have been pushed to help lessen the digital divide, including expanding fiber networks, funding "middle-mile" broadband projects, and boosting the standard speed of what's considered broadband in California from a pathetic 6 Mbps down, 1 Mbps up -- to 25 Mbps in both directions. But more than a few consumer advocates have been complaining to me that the broadband speed bill was never even allowed to come to a vote despite widespread support. Why? AT&T didn't like it:

    "Senate bill 1130, authored by senator Lena Gonzalez (D – Los Angeles), would have raised the bar to symmetrical 25 Mbps down/25 Mbps up speeds. The California senate approved it in June, but it died in the assembly as democratic leaders refused to allow a full floor vote on it.

    Had they done so, SB 1130 would have easily won the majority needed to pass. That wasn’t acceptable to assembly speaker Anthony Rendon (D- Los Angeles). Backed up by majority floor leader Ian Calderon (D- Los Angeles), Rendon pulled the bill, caving in to pressure – and loads of money – from AT&T and a solid line of cable companies, including Comcast and Charter Communications. Frontier Communications was against it too, but the relative pittance it directly puts in legislative pockets – $61,000 over the years versus $7.4 million from AT&T alone – doesn’t buy much influence. AT&T’s indirect payoffs to Californian democrats and republicans are more than five times that."

    This isn't some one-off. Unless beneficial telecom legislation can somehow garner massive public attention (difficult to do since telecom wonkery doesn't generate ad impressions), it's trivially easy for a giant like AT&T to covertly kill pretty much any legislation that even remotely challenges the status quo, attempts something new, or opens the door to more serious competition. As such it's not particularly surprising that AT&T-owned CNN examines the lack of broadband as a heart-warming fable -- without explaining to its readers/viewers why U.S. broadband has been mired in mediocrity for the better part of a generation.

    42 million Americans lack broadband, nearly double the FCC's official, rose-colored-glasses estimates. Another 83 million or so live under a monopoly, ensuring they see terrible customer service, high prices, and little effort to seriously improve. Millions more live under duopolies where their only choice is either Comcast or a phone company that hasn't updated its DSL lines since 2002. It's the result of corruption. It's the end result of a wholesale failure in ethical governance. Ignoring this reality, denying this reality, or painting this American failure as just quirky happenstance -- ensures we'll never set about truly fixing it.

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    Posted on Techdirt - 3 September 2020 @ 6:12am

    AT&T Is Astroturfing The FCC In Support Of Trump's Dumb Attack On Social Media

    from the fake-support-for-dumb-ideas dept

    We've noted for a long time that telecom giants like Comcast and AT&T have been pushing (quite successfully) for massive deregulation of their own monopolies, while pushing for significant new regulation of the Silicon Valley giants whose ad revenues they've coveted for decades. As such, it wasn't surprising to see AT&T come out with a incredibly dumb blog post this week supporting Trump's legally dubious and hugely problematic executive order targeting social media giants. You know, the plan that not only isn't enforceable by the agencies supposedly tasked with enforcing it (the FCC), but that also risks creating a massive new censorship paradigm across the entire internet.

    As Mike already noted, AT&T's post was a pile of bad faith nonsense, weirdly conflating net neutrality with the ham-fisted attack on Section 230. AT&T just got done deriding the FCC's relatively modest net neutrality rules as "government interference in the internet run amok." Yet here it is, advocating for a terrible plan that attempts to shovel the FCC into the role of regulating speech on social media, authority it simply doesn't have. For those that tracked the net neutrality fight, the intellectual calisthenics required here by folks like AT&T and its favorite FCC officials have been stunning, even for Trumpland:

    By "momentum," Carr clearly means "intellectually-flimsy support by lobbyists employed by a telecom monopoly."

    Folks like FCC boss Ajit Pai know damn well Trump's order is laughable and legally dubious, going against nearly every principle they spent the last decade claiming to stand for. But they're going through the motions anyway to avoid upsetting dear leader and derailing any future political prospects. As a result, the FCC is burning resources holding a public comment period on Trump's EO and the (equally laughable) petition from the NTIA.

    Numerous folks have submitted their comments on the record (you can read Mike's here). That includes AT&T, which is apparently not only busy making intellectually inconsistent arguments, but is providing form letters to other organizations to try and get them to support Trump's crappy EO. Some folks digging through the comments noticed that a lot of these groups are submitting AT&T's form letters to the FCC... without bothering to proof read them first:

    It is surely only a coincidence that several groups with links to AT&T all submitted the same exact letter:

    This is a greasy lobbying tactic companies like AT&T have employed for years. In fact, we wrote a piece just about a decade ago busting AT&T for the exact same behavior. AT&T can routinely be found giving money to groups in exchange for support for problematic to downright terrible policies, be it be support for AT&T's latest merger, or the culling of any meaningful oversight of telecom monopolies. Often this includes the "co-opting" of even civil rights or consumer groups. Other times, it involves the creation of entirely bogus "consumer rights" or advocacy groups.

    The goal is always the same: to create the illusion of broad support for what's almost always terrible tech policy that aids AT&T in some way.

    This sort of "astroturfing" (fake grass roots) has been a problem nobody wants to fix. This being the Trump FCC, you shouldn't expect them to police this kind of gamesmanship with any sort of integrity. You'll recall that the FCC not only turned a blind eye as the telecom sector used dead, fake, or hijacked personalities to spam the FCC during the net neutrality repeal, it actively blocked law enforcement inquiries into who was behind them.

    This corporate co-opting of what's often the only chance the public has to express their thought on the record plagues numerous agencies, not just the FCC. And given AT&T's still busy doing this sort of thing nearly a decade after being busted for the exact same thing, you can clearly see how important protecting the integrity of public policy discourse is for U.S. leaders. Granted if your arguments are sound on their merits (which the Trump EO most certainly isn't), you wouldn't need to generate fake support from dead people or co-opted organizations in the first place.

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    Posted on Techdirt - 1 September 2020 @ 10:48am

    Fake 'Russian Hack' Of Public Michigan Voter Rolls Gets Absurdly Overhyped On The Interwebs

    from the good-old-fashioned-freak-out dept

    On Tuesday morning a story began making the rounds indicating that Russian hackers had somehow managed to hack into Michigan's election systems, gaining access to a treasure trove of voter data. Russian newspaper Kommersant was quick to proclaim that nearly every voter in Michigan -- and a number of voters in additional states -- had had their personal information compromised. The report was quickly parroted by other outlets including the Riga-based online newspaper Meduza, which insisted that the breach was simply massive:

    "Russian hackers have leaked the personal data of nearly every voter in Michigan (7.6 million of the state’s 7.8 million voters), as well as the information of another million voters in Arkansas, Connecticut, North Carolina, and Florida, according to the newspaper Kommersant. The data recently appeared on a Darknet forum, posted by a user nicknamed “Gorka9.” The information was current as of March 2020 and a source at the security firm “InfoWatch” confirmed to Kommersant that the data is authentic.

    For each American voter targeted in the leak, the following information is now available: full name, date of birth, sex, date of registration, home address, zip code, email address, voter ID number, and polling station number."

    The reports also insisted that hackers were then exploiting the U.S. Rewards for Justice Program to get paid for bringing the hack to the attention of the U.S. government. From there, the story quickly ballooned across Twitter, thanks in part to journalists:

    The problem? This data was already either widely available, or available via a basic Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request. Much like the recent hysteria over TikTok (in which many people act as if banning the app prohibits China from accessing U.S. user data that's available pretty much everywhere thanks to our crap privacy and security standards), people that actually study or report on infosec for a living were then forced to try and do damage control by adding useful context. That context being that the ease in which anybody could obtain this data means it doesn't actually hold much value:

    The disconnect between those that cover infosec for a living, and those who engage in security or privacy tourism on Twitter was a bit jarring:

    The one truly interesting bit, that the U.S. tip line was being exploited to pay hackers for directing them to publicly accessible data, is far more interesting and will require additional reporting. Meanwhile, the Michigan Department of State was forced to issue a statement noting it was never hacked, and urging internet users to exercise a little better judgement in terms of what they choose to hyperventilate over:

    All told, just another day on the internet. Granted, our non-transparent and dodgy election security systems in many states still pose a genuine threat to U.S. security. A threat that's not being fully addressed due to the fact we seem to have idiotically made basic election security a partisan issue. But freaking out over inflated claims of hacks that never happened sure as hell isn't helping to fix that problem.

    9 Comments | Leave a Comment..

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