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Posted on Techdirt Wireless - 15 February 2019 @ 6:15am

5G Has Become The Magic Pixie Dust Of Tech Policy Conversations

from the hype-parade dept

Fifth generation wireless (5G) has quickly become a sort of magical carrot on a stick in tech and telecom policy circles. Telecom lobbyists and the Ajit Pai FCC have spent the better part of the last two years trying to claim that unless we gut consumer protections like net neutrality, America will somehow fall behind in the "race" to 5G. U.S. companies have also convinced the government that if America doesn't want to lose said race (whatever that means), we most assuredly should ban cheaper Chinese networking gear from the country (the protectionism angle of this is entirely coincidental, they'll insist).

More recently, Sprint and T-Mobile have been telling anybody who'll listen that their competition and job eroding merger is the only way to ensure that America doesn't fall behind on 5G. Despite the fact that both companies are on record clearly stating they both could have easily deployed 5G independently, that same argument popped up again this week during merger hearings on Capitol Hill. As did the well-weathered claim that the merger is essential if America wants to beat China in the rush to 5G and avoid being laughed at by the other kids on the 5G playground:

"In prepared remarks, T-Mobile CEO John Legere ties the proposed merger to “American innovation and national security,” and specifically argues that the merger will be necessary to make the United States a leader on next-generation 5G network technology. “The stakes are high — nothing less than preserving our edge in innovation and maintaining our security,” he plans to say.

The CEO plans to say that the US is “falling behind” China on 5G, which he says “has taken a global lead in the race.” He says in the remarks that only a newly merged T-Mobile will be able to compete.

Of course this is all bullshit. As we've noted previously, the "race to 5G" rhetoric is largely nonsense crafted by hardware vendors looking to sell more network hardware and wireless carriers looking to justify high US mobile data prices and spur lagging phone and tablet sales. It's not a race, there's no way to measure a winner (especially given our broadband maps are hot garbage due to regulatory capture), and the only folks likely to win this particular game are the companies selling the hype and related products.

5G is important, but it's not paradigm-rattling important.

5G will be a very useful evolution in wireless in that it will provide faster, lower latency networks that are more easily managed (in large part due to virtualization technology). But 5G is not some mystical fucking panacea. It can't, for example, magically compensate for the reduction in competition in the wake of the T-Mobile deal, a bit of mathematics that never ends well for consumers (go ask a Canadian or the Irish). It won't miraculously compensate for regulatory capture at the Ajit Pai FCC. Given these and other broken market realities, it's unlikely to result in what consumers really want: lower prices.

In tech policy circles, 5G has become the equivalent of lobbying and policy mysticism, entirely untethered from factual reality. You just sprinkle a little bit on your argument and you can use it to justify pretty much anything. Blake Reid, a Professor at Colorado Law, probably put it best:

Again, it's perfectly fine if you're realistically enthusiastic about the modest but important improvements 5G networks are going to bring. But carriers have been trying to pass the technology off as the next industrial revolution and some kind of deus ex machina. Not just because they want to sell product, but because they're using it as a regulatory carrot on a stick, claiming that unless you give big telecom "X" (X=less oversight, more subsidies, merger approval, the death of net neutrality), America will somehow fall behind an arbitrary measurement they've entirely pulled out of their collective ass.

If we follow down the rabbit hole hyping 5G without addressing the massive problems in both the fixed and wireless US broadband markets, this race ends with all of us crying and nursing a pulled hamstring.

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Posted on Techdirt - 14 February 2019 @ 6:10am

In Wake Of Verizon Flub, New Law Would Ban Wireless Throttling Of First Responders

from the ill-communication dept

Last summer Verizon got caught in a PR shitstorm after it throttled the wireless data connection of a California fire department -- just as they were fighting one of the biggest forest fires in California history. When the firefighters complained to Verizon about the throttling (which occurs on all of Verizon's "unlimited but not really" data plans), instead of fixing the issue Verizon tried to upsell the department to a more expensive plan. While some responsibility lies with the department for not understanding the data connection they'd bought, Verizon ultimately admitted that throttling any first responders violated the company's policies and should have never happened.

In the months since, Verizon has been running ads (including one during the Super Bowl) in a bid to burn the PR kerfuffle out of the public consciousness.

But the damage had already been done. The incident has now been a cornerstone of net neutrality activist arguments as to why some basic rules on this front are necessary, and it was brought up repeatedly during the recent opening arguments in the latest net neutrality court battle. And now Texas Representative Bobby Guerra is pushing for new legislation (HB1426) that would prohibit the throttling of first responders in areas deemed a national emergency:

"When the Federal Communications Commission ended net neutrality, it essentially allowed internet providers to throttle, or block access, to certain internet services or websites. HB 1426 joins more than 100 other bills introduced in state legislatures around the country aimed at protecting internet access.

The FCC vote raised broader concerns over who should have control of internet access. But it also came as more and more first responders are using online platforms and apps."

Granted, laws like this wouldn't be necessary if the Ajit Pai FCC was interested in actually doing its job. Whether we're talking about AT&T using usage caps to hinder streaming competitors or CenturyLink blocking internet access until users click on an ad, the FCC has remained largely mute and toothless in the wake of any and all bad ISP behavior, including the firefighter throttling incident. And many still don't understand that carrier lobbyists didn't just dismantle net neutrality, they're gunning to dismantle most if not all meaningful oversight of large ISPs.

As we've covered ad nauseum, Verizon and other giant ISPs just got done effectively convincing the Trump FCC to neuter itself at the behest of natural telecom monopolies, leaving oversight in the hands of an FTC ill-equipped to police telecom (the entire plan). At the same time, ISPs like Verizon and Comcast convinced the FCC to declare that states are also prohibited from holding them accountable for false statements or poor service. At the same time, ISP lawyers have been busy leaning on the argument that any attempt to hold them accountable on the state or federal level violates their First Amendment rights.

It's been a bold lobbying gambit that has seen incredible success in the Trump era, largely while the general public (and even many in the tech press) remain oblivious to the full scope. And it's a gambit ISPs like Verizon are desperately hoping will be upheld by Brett Kavanaugh should it wind its way to the Supreme Court.

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Posted on Techdirt - 13 February 2019 @ 6:47am

As Trump Prepares Ban On Huawei, Few Notice The Major Holes In The Underlying Logic

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

During the Trump era, the government has dramatically ramped up claims that Chinese hardware vendor Huawei is a nefarious spy for the Chinese government, blackballing it from the U.S. telecom market. From pressuring U.S. carriers to drop plans to sell Huawei phones to the FCC's decision to ban companies from using Huawei gear if they want to receive federal subsidies, this effort hasn't been subtle.

This week, there are rumblings that the Trump administration is about to take things further with a total ban on Huawei gear anywhere inside of the United States. The news is to be formally announced ahead of the Mobile World Congress trade show in Barcelona, likely with a heavy emphasis on how the move will cement U.S. dominance in the "race to 5G," a largely nonsensical concept drummed up by networking hardware vendor marketing departments.

The problem: there's still no public evidence Huawei uses its network gear to spy on Americans, and much of the motivation for this assault on Huawei has been proven to be largely about protectionism, not national security.

There's no doubt that Huawei, like AT&T here in the states, isn't a shining beacon of ethical behavior. At the same time, the dulcet undertones justifying much of the blacklisting is based on the premise that the company spies on Americans. Yet nobody has provided evidence of that. In fact, one 18-month investigation into Huawei in 2011 (the last time we had a flare of up this hysteria) found that there was no evidence supporting that claim:

"We knew certain parts of government really wanted” evidence of active spying, said one of the people, who requested anonymity. “We would have found it if it were there."

Also ignored is that U.S. hardware vendors like Cisco have a very long history of trying to gin up hysteria on Capital Hill on this front among lawmakers who aren't too keen on, well, facts:

"What happens is you get competitors who are able to gin up lawmakers who are already wound up about China,” said one Hill staffer who was not authorized to speak publicly about the matter. “What they do is pull the string and see where the top spins."

Also ignored in most tech press coverage of the moves against Huawei is the fact that the United States is guilty of most of the stuff we accuse Huawei of. In fact, Snowden docs revealed that the NSA (aka the United States) had broken into Huawei as early as 2007 in a bid to steal source code and covertly implant backdoors into Huawei products. Similarly you'll recall how the NSA was also busted intercepting Cisco hardware in transit, taking that gear to a special facility, then outfitting it with backdoors. That sends a pretty clear message: unethical behavior is okay when we do it.

Also ignored is the fact that our own telecom operators don't have stellar backgrounds on this subject either. AT&T, for example, is effectively bone-grafted to our nationwide intelligence apparatus, and almost certainly helps the United States spy on citizens all over the world. AT&T, a company just busted paying $600K to a dubious NYC fixer and confessed criminal, has a long history of turning a blind eye to all manner of frauds and cons being perpetrated on its own customers. Again, the message sent is: unethical behavior is okay when we do it.

Look, Huawei is no pillar of virtue, having been caught copying code and (depending on how the court battle goes) potentially violating sanctions. But a large portion of the justification for blacklisting them (in turn escalating an already troubling and costly trade war) is based on the idea that Huawei has been caught spying on Americans, something that hasn't been publicly proven. And in filings with the FCC (pdf), small carriers say they'll actively be harmed by a ban on this cheaper Huawei hardware, since the lower costs help them better compete with larger U.S. rivals.

In short, this subject is far more complicated than most press coverage suggests, and a little fuller context when it comes to discussing these moves doesn't seem like too much to ask. Especially given that the American press and government would be positively apoplectic were foreign countries to ban our own network gear as punishment for our own, well-documented sins. Patriotism oddly blinds us to our own hypocrisy on this subject, lending some wonderful cover to U.S. companies who've been pressing all the right buttons in DC in a protectionist bid to avoid having to compete with cheaper Chinese gear.

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Posted on Techdirt - 12 February 2019 @ 12:04pm

Google Fiber Leaves Louisville As Alphabet Retreats From Telecom

from the not-the-revolution-that-was-advertised dept

When Google Fiber launched in 2010, it was lauded as a game changer for the broadband industry. Google Fiber would, we were told, revolutionize the industry by taking Silicon Valley money and disrupting the viciously uncompetitive and anti-competitive telecom sector. Initially things worked out well; cities tripped over themselves offering all manner of perks to the company in the hopes of breaking free from the broadband duopoly logjam. And in markets where Google Fiber was deployed, prices certainly dropped thanks to Google Fiber market pressure. The free marketing courtesy of press coverage was endless.

That was then, this is now.

In late 2016 Alphabet began getting cold feet about the high costs and slow return of the project, and effectively mothballed the entire thing -- without admitting that's what they were doing. The company blew through several CEOs in just a few months, laid off hundreds of employees, froze any real expansion, and cancelled countless installations for users who had been waiting years. And while Google made a lot of noise about how it would be shifting from fiber to wireless to possibly cut costs, those promises so far appear stuck in neutral as well.

Meanwhile, Google Fiber's fiber network continues to shrink. Last week, the company penned a blog post stating it would be cancelling its entire build in Louisville, Kentucky. According to the post, the company experienced what it's calling some "challenges" that have forced it to retreat from the city after spending the last two years deploying fiber:

"When we launched Fiber service in Louisville in October 2017, we noted at the time that it was the fastest we’ve ever moved from construction announcement to signing up customers. That’s because we were trialing a lot of things in Louisville, including a different type of construction method — namely, placing fiber in much shallower trenches than we’ve done elsewhere. Innovating means learning, and sometimes, unfortunately, you learn by failing. In Louisville, we’ve encountered challenges that have been disruptive to residents and caused service issues for our customers."

Google Fiber doesn't come out and say this in its blog post, but part of the company's challenges in Louisville were thanks to AT&T, which sued Louisville in a bid to prevent it from using city utility poles, about 40% of which are owned by AT&T. The city passed an ordinance requested by Google that would have sped up utility-pole attachment, then had to spend $300K to defend itself from AT&T. AT&T ultimately lost that suit, but not before Google Fiber was forced to shift tactics and embrace a practice called "microtrenching," which involves burying fiber a few inches below the road.

If you check out the link Google Fiber links to, you'll notice that this didn't go particularly well in Louisville, either because of substandard contractors or substandard sealant materials used to cover up the fiber post burial. Normally, a company dedicated to a business model and a community would just go back in and pony up the cost to repair the flawed installations. But given Alphabet and Google Fiber's clear disinterest in their once-promising business, Google Fiber instead chose to simply give up:

"We’re not living up to the high standards we set for ourselves, or the standards we’ve demonstrated in other Fiber cities. We would need to essentially rebuild our entire network in Louisville to provide the great service that Google Fiber is known for, and that's just not the right business decision for us."

To be clear, Alphabet executives knew very well that disrupting an entrenched monopoly-dominated business model and building a nationwide fiber network would be expensive and time consuming. But to also be clear, the Alphabet and Google of 2019 is far from the Google of a decade ago that first built this plan. Modern Google/Alphabet is far less interested in disruption and far more interested in legacy turf protection (witness its abrupt about face on net neutrality, for example). As we've seen on countless fronts, this simply isn't the same Google it once was.

And while it's perfectly fine that the company lost its nerve to fund a toe to toe battle with the entrenched and broken broadband industry, its refusal to simply admit as much is annoying impacted communities. Google Fiber PR folks are engaged in a lot of language about how they're "still dedicated" to the project, despite the fact it has been effectively mothballed. And while Google may eventually successfully pivot to wireless, it seems just as likely that the entire project is chopped up and sold in a few years. Likely to one of the incumbent providers Google Fiber and Alphabet once promised to disrupt.

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Posted on Net Neutrality Special Edition - 12 February 2019 @ 6:49am

Zero Rating Actually Costs Broadband Customers More, EU Study Finds

from the ill-communication dept

For years now we've discussed how large ISPs have (ab)used the lack of competition in the broadband market by imposing completely arbitrary and unnecessary monthly usage caps and overage fees. ISPs have also taken to exempting their own content from these arbitrary limits while still penalizing competitors -- allowing them to use these restrictions to tilt the playing field in their favor. For example an AT&T broadband customer who uses AT&T's own streaming service faces no penalties. If that same customer uses Netflix or a competitor they're socked with surcharges.

The anti-competitive impact of this should be obvious.

But large ISPs have muddied the water by claiming that zero rating is the bits and bytes equivalent of a 1-800 number for data or free shipping. Customers who don't understand that usage caps are arbitrary nonsense from the get go often buy into this idea that they're getting something for free. And Ajit Pai's FCC has helped confuse the public as well by trying to claim that this model is somehow of immense benefit to low income communities.

Guess what: it's not. Studies from Mozilla have shown that zero rating isn't some mystical panacea. You might recall that Facebook has spent years trying to offer a walled-garden internet service to developed nations where select content is "zero rated," something that was banned in India when regulators realized that letting Facebook determine which content was most widely accessed was a decidedly stupid idea. Facebook's altruism on this subject was ultimately revealed to be a ham-handed attempt to dominate advertising in developing nations.

Now a new study (pdf) by the non-profit Epicenter.works has shown that zero rating models actually increase costs for the end user, the exact opposite of what incumbent carriers and Ajit Pai's FCC have claimed.

While the EU passed net neutrality guidelines back in 2016, it left actual enforcement to each country. Mirroring efforts in India and Japan, some EU countries prohibited zero rating entirely. Others took a more hands off approach and allowed such models (usually based on ISP promises that such practices aided low-income users). The study took a look at 30 EU nations and found that those that prohibited zero rating saw a double-digit drop in the cost of wireless data plans compared to countries that embraced the concept.

The study theorizes the higher costs are due to carriers being incentivized to jack up the cost of accessing normal, "non-zero rated" content in a bid to make zero-rated content seem more attractive. The EFF has been noting for years how this kind of gamesmanship distorts the market, putting natural telecom monopolies in a troubling position of determining which content and services will be cap-exempt (usually their own or whoever can afford to pay them). The EFF was particularly concerned this would be a cornerstone in the wake of AT&T's $86 billion acquisition of Time Warner. Its concerns proved well founded.

The EFF continued to make that same point on the heels of this latest study's findings:

"Zero rating by wireless carriers has effectively become a tool for them to direct their user traffic under the guise of giving consumers a benefit,” EFF lawyer Ernesto Falcon told Motherboard in an email.

“This EU study reveals that it actually is a more covert way to raise prices and increase their profits with the added benefit of anti-competitive self dealing,” he added. “This is particularly problematic with low-income users, which tend to be people of color, because they can only afford wireless broadband services and forgo wireline connections where zero rating is not a predominant practice."

You might recall that the FCC's 2015 net neutrality rules didn't specifically ban zero rating, but left the door open to thwarting such efforts if they were found to be clearly anti-competitive. But the FCC figured out too late that ISPs were already using zero rating to favor their own streaming services, and just as the former Wheeler FCC was about to crack down on the practice, Trump was elected, Ajit Pai was appointed to head the FCC, and the agency dismantled the country's first meaningful net neutrality rules entirely. AT&T's now doing exactly what critics predicted, and few seem to care.

Net neutrality supporters have since come to realize that any real net neutrality rules that don't thwart anti-competitive use of zero rating are useless. California's looming net neutrality rules, for example, allow zero rating if it applies to all classes of traffic (games, video, music), but prohibits it if it's used to specifically favor one company's content. Should Congress ever get its act together and pass a real net neutrality law (which still seems like long odds given telecom's lobbying grip), the patently obvious anti-competitive and cost impact of selective zero rating is something that shouldn't be forgotten.

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Posted on Techdirt Wireless - 11 February 2019 @ 11:59am

Sprint Sues AT&T Over Its Fake 5G, Says AT&T's Tricking Consumers

from the false-and-deceptive dept

Big telecom operators haven't been exactly honest when it comes to the looming fifth-generation wireless standard (5G). Eager to use the improvements to charge higher rates and sell new gear, carriers and network vendors are already dramatically over-hyping where the service is actually available, and what it can actually do. Some, like AT&T, have gone so far as to actively mislead customers by pretending that its existing 4G networks are actually 5G. AT&T took this to the next level recently by issuing phone updates that change the 4G icon to "5GE" on customer phones, despite the fact that actual 5G isn't really available.

In a country with functioning regulatory oversight, a competent regulator would at least issue a statement pointing out that misleading consumers in this fashion is false advertising. Instead, AT&T executives, FCC regulatory capture in tow, have quite literally expressed glee at the consternation their 5G head fake is creating among consumers and competitors alike:

"Every company is guilty of building a narrative of how you want the world to work, and I love the fact that we broke our industry's narrative two days ago, and so they're frustrated and they're going to do what they do," Donovan said.

"I think the result of last month, beating the industry out [with the 5G hotspot], and this 5G E launch a couple of days ago, our competitors are frustrated," Donovan said. "if I have now occupied beachfront real estate in my competitors' heads, that makes me smile."

Late last week Sprint decided to respond by filing a lawsuit against AT&T in US District Court for the Southern District of New York, arguing that the "significance of AT&T’s deception cannot be overstated." AT&T's practice likely qualifies as "unfair and deceptive" under the FTC Act, and Sprint argues that the head fake is potentially costing it customers as consumer buy into the fact than AT&T's ahead of the curve on 5G upgrades:

"AT&T has sought to gain an unfair advantage in the race to 5G by embarking on a nationwide advertising campaign to deceive consumers into believing that its existing 4G LTE Advanced network is now a 5G network...But calling its network “5GE” does not make it a 5G network and instead deceives customers into believing it is something that it is not...AT&T's false and misleading statements deceive consumers into believing that AT&T now operates a 5G wireless network and, through this deception, AT&T seeks to induce consumers to purchase or renew AT&T's services when they might otherwise have purchased Sprint's services."

AT&T's likely to argue that its "5G E" or 5G Evolution technology really does offer faster speeds and better range than traditional 4G by incorporating 4x4 MIMO (multiple input, multiple output) antennas and 256 QAM technologies. Still, that's just an "enhanced" version of 4G, something AT&T tries to tap dance around by using the "E."

However AT&T lawyers frame the company's defense, it's very clear AT&T's still being misleading. Companies that think they're building consumer excitement by misrepresenting what 5G is or where it's available may find this kind of marketing is having the exact opposite impact (frustration, skepticism, distrust) their marketing departments originally hoped for.

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Posted on Techdirt - 11 February 2019 @ 6:26am

SS7 Cellular Network Flaw Nobody Wants To Fix Now Being Exploited To Drain Bank Accounts

from the whoops-a-daisy dept

Back in 2017, you might recall how hackers and security researchers highlighted long-standing vulnerabilities in Signaling System 7 (SS7, or Common Channel Signalling System 7 in the US), a series of protocols first built in 1975 to help connect phone carriers around the world. While the problem isn't new, a 2016 60 minutes report brought wider attention to the fact that the flaw can allow a hacker to track user location, dodge encryption, and even record private conversations. All while the intrusion looks like ordinary carrier to carrier chatter among a sea of other, "privileged peering relationships."

Telecom lobbyists have routinely tried to downplay the flaw after carriers have failed to do enough to stop hackers from exploiting it. In Canada for example, the CBC recently noted how Bell and Rogers weren't even willing to talk about the flaw after the news outlet published an investigation showing how, using only the number of his mobile phone, it was possible to intercept the calls and movements of Quebec NDP MP Matthew Dubé.

But while major telecom carriers try to downplay the scale of the problem, news reports keep indicating how the flaw is abused far more widely than previously believed. This Motherboard investigation by Joseph Cox, for example, showed how, while the attacks were originally only surmised to be within the reach of intelligence operators (perhaps part of the reason intelligence-tied telcos have been so slow to address the issue), hackers have increasingly been using the flaw to siphon money out of targets' bank accounts, thus far predominately in Europe:

"In the case of stealing money from bank accounts, a hacker would typically first need a target’s online banking username and password. Perhaps they could obtain this by phishing the target. Then, once logged in, the bank may ask for confirmation of the transfer by sending the account owner a verification code in a text message. With SS7, the hackers can intercept this text and enter it themselves. Exploiting SS7 in this way is a way to circumvent the protections of two-factor authentication, where a system not only requires a password, but something else too, such as an extra code."

Again the flaw isn't new; a group of German hackers widely demonstrated the vulnerability in 2008 and again in 2014. It's believed that the intelligence community has known about the vulnerability even earlier, and the hackers note that only modest headway has been made since German hacker Karsten Nohl first demonstrated it. Some mitigation efforts have been put into place, but not quickly or uniformly enough to constrain the exploitation of the flaw:

"The fundamental issue with the SS7 network is that it does not authenticate who sent a request. So if someone gains access to the network—a government agency, a surveillance company, or a criminal—SS7 will treat their commands to reroute text messages or calls just as legitimately as anyone else’s. There are protections that can be put in place, such as SS7 firewalls, and ways to detect certain attacks, but room for exploitation remains."

Senator Ron Wyden wrote to the FCC (pdf) in May of last year stating the agency hadn't done enough to pressure carriers into fixing the problem, but nothing much appears to have happened in the wake of that letter. Much like the cellular industry's location data scandals, it's likely going to take a few more high profile scandals to create enough momentum to drive actual change.

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Posted on Techdirt - 8 February 2019 @ 10:43am

Hawaii The Latest To Push Bullshit Porn Filter Law Pushed By Sketchy Backers

from the round-and-round-we-go dept

For several years a man by the name of Chris Sevier has been waging a fairly facts-optional war on porn. Sevier first became famous for trying to marry his computer to protest same sex marriage a few years ago. He also tried to sue Apple after blaming the Cupertino giant for his own past porn addiction, and has gotten into trouble for allegedly stalking country star John Rich and a 17-year-old girl. Sevier has since been a cornerstone of an effort to pass truly awful porn filter legislation in nearly two dozen states under the disingenuous guise of combating human trafficking.

Dubbed the "Human Trafficking Prevention Act," all of the incarnations of the law would force ISPs to filter pornography and other "patently offensive material." The legislation would then force state residents interested in viewing porn to pony up a one-time $20 "digital access fee" to whitelist the internet's naughty bits for each internet-connected device in the home. The proposal is patently absurd, technically impossible to implement, and yet somehow these bills continue to get further than they ever should across a huge swath of the boob-phobic country.

Hawaii this week was the latest to take Sevier's unworkable draft legislation and turn it into unworkable real legislation. According to CNN, several incarnations of the bill have been proposed in the Hawaii legislature, after a similar measure failed to pass last year:

"It doesn't make sense for children to have to access to X-rated material on their cell phones," said Hawaiian State Sen. Mike Gabbard, who sponsored the Senate bill. He also introduced a similar bill during last year's legislative session. "By making it harder for people to access these porn sites, we can make prostitution hubs harder to access which will reduce sex trafficking," Gabbard said in an email to CNN."

Except the proposed legislation has nothing to do with human trafficking, something other states (like Rhode Island) discovered after they realized that the folks pushing these bills may not be, well, ethical. CNN doesn't even mention Sevier's checkered past, and also floats over the fact that these filters don't work, something anybody who actually understands technology already knows. Porn filters routinely not only wind up censoring legitimate content, but, when they work at all, they're usually easily bypassed by any nitwit with even a fraction of technical knowledge. That's oddly omitted from most of these stories.

Journalists writing about these porn filters often lose the forest for the trees in their coverage. The story isn't really about porn filters, though pointing out that porn filters don't work is certainly important. These stories are about how somebody with a terrible track record and zero meaningful expertise in either technology or law has been able to convince countless states to push ridiculous, unworkable, speech-stifling legislation in a country facing an ocean of more pressing problems.

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Posted on Techdirt - 8 February 2019 @ 6:26am

Wireless Carriers Busted Sharing User 911 Location Data

from the bottomless-well-of-dysfunction dept

Recent scandals involving companies like Securus and LocationSmart made it clear that cellular carriers are collecting and selling an ocean of user location data without any meaningful oversight. Several reports have highlighted how that data is then being routinely abused by everybody from ethically dubious local Sheriffs to bounty hunters. Subsequent investigations have shown how easy it is for bounty hunters and others to access this data, and how the FCC under several administrations has failed utterly to hold cellular carriers and data brokers accountable for any of it.

This week, Motherboard exposed another location data scandal with a report highlighting how cellular carriers are also selling private user A-GPS data with companies that aren't supposed to have access to it. A-GPS, or assisted GPS, involves using a device's onboard GPS chip as well as cellular network data to more quickly and precisely determine a user's location. Wireless industry filings with the government indicate this data can pinpoint a user's location indoors up to 50 meters; more precisely if a device's MAC and Bluetooth data are also utilized.

Motherboard's investigation focused specifically on a now-defunct location data broker by the name of CerCareOne, which had been selling cellular user location data -- including A-GPS data-- as recently as 2017. As with the other scandals, this scandal involves a universe of shady middlemen who buy and sell an ocean of such data, often without carriers understanding (or bothering to understand) how widespread the practice had become:

"Like with the companies involved in Motherboard’s previous investigation, CerCareOne’s real-time location data trickled down first from telecom companies, and then to a so-called location aggregator called Locaid. From there, Locaid sold that data access to a number of different companies, including CerCareOne, which in turn sold it to its own clients. Locaid was purchased by a company called LocationSmart in 2015 . The documents Motherboard obtained indicate that LocationSmart continued to sell data to CerCareOne after it obtained Locaid, and LocationSmart confirmed that to Motherboard."

The scale of the data collection was... not subtle:

"CerCareOne’s phone tracking service was not a one-off tool for bounty hunters and bail agents. A list of a particular customer’s phone pings obtained by Motherboard stretches on for around 450 pages, with more than 18,000 individual phone location requests in just over a year of activity. The bail bonds firm that initiated the pings did not respond to questions asking whether they obtained consent for locating the phones, or what the pings were for.

Another set of data is more than 250 pages long and covers around 10,000 phone pings. Another list of a different bounty hunter’s activity includes nearly 1,000 phone location requests in less than a year; a third details more than 4,500 pings."

The irony in this instance is that the FCC had crafted rules to specifically address this problem. Back in 2015 as the FCC was contemplating some new rules for enhanced 911 services, a coalition of privacy and consumer groups (including Public Knowledge, the EFF, and the ACLU) had written the agency warning that A-GPS and other granular data specifically used to aid in pinpointing 911 caller location (especially indoors) created the potential for some major privacy issues:

"The development of highly-precise location technologies designed to comply with the new regulations will raise a host of privacy concerns that have not been sufficiently addressed in the E911 proceeding. Public safety should not come at the expense of consumer privacy—nor should it have to."

The FCC obliged, and in 2017 finalized rules with carrier approval that specifically stated that this kind of A-GPS data should never be used for any purpose other than tracking user location for emergency services:

"CMRS providers must certify that they will not use the NEAD or associated data for any non-911 purpose, except as otherwise required by law."

Many carriers claim to have completely stopped sharing this and other forms of location data entirely with data brokers or anybody else. But it's going to take a comprehensive investigation to not only confirm that, but also to confirm that they're not currently engaging in even worse behavior. Especially since every time we think we've gotten to the bottom of this scandal, the floor drops out revealing countless additional layers beneath.

Even with Ajit Pai's efforts to neuter FCC authority over ISPs, I've spoken to at least four telecom and privacy experts who say the FCC very clearly has the authority and responsibility to stop this sharing of private data, they've just chosen not to -- despite the fact the agency had the foresight to craft rules specifically designed to stop this from happening.

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Posted on Techdirt Wireless - 7 February 2019 @ 10:50am

A Deeper Look At Verizon's Early 5G 'Launch' Finds It's Barely Available

from the aggressively-overhyped dept

Wireless carriers haven't quite gotten the message that their relentless hype surrounding 5G may result in consumers being more annoyed than excited, potentially undermining the entire point.

While 5G is certainly going to be a good thing in that it will provide faster, more resilient connectivity, we've discussed at length how the talk about a "race to 5G" is largely just marketing nonsense pushed by cell carriers and network hardware vendors. As are claims that 5G is going to fundamentally transform the universe in some mystical capacity (like this piece claiming 5G will soon have us all working four day workweeks). 5G is good in that it will provide lower latency, faster connections, but it should be seen more as a modest evolution than some kind of dramatic revolution.

From claims that 5G will magically build the smart cities of tomorrow to lobbying org proclamations of 5G as a job creator, 5G is routinely heralded as something far grander than it actually is by industry. Much of this is tactical; carriers have been using 5G for several years now as a carrot on a stick for gullible regulators, informing them that unless they do everything the industry wants (like, say, gut all meaningful government authority over predatory natural monopolies), the United States will be the laughing stock of the world.

But the fact that over-hyping the tech could cause brand damage is something these companies don't seem particularly concerned about. AT&T, for example, has been widely ridiculed for simply changing the 4G logo on peoples' phones to 5G in the hopes that the press and public were too stupid to know the difference. And AT&T's early 5G offerings have been similarly over-hyped, promising availability in "12 cities" that barely exists if you take a closer look. Pricing isn't so great either, AT&T's initial product delivering just 15 gigabytes of usage for $70, not including network access fees, a $500 hotspot, and usage surcharges.

Verizon's initial 5G offerings are being similarly over-hyped. Despite Verizon's claims last fall that its shiny new 300 Mbps, $50 home 5G service ($70 if you don't bundle Verizon mobile wireless) would be widely available in parts of Houston, Indianapolis, Los Angeles and Sacramento, folks who have actually measured availability say they're not particularly impressed:

"This is not what I expected," Lum said.

Instead of a city covered with 5G signals, and a network geared for mobile services, Lum said he instead found select locations in Sacramento where Verizon built a network that seems exclusively designed to offer fixed wireless services to a handful of potential customers.

Basically, Lum's big takeaway from his work is that, if Verizon wants to cover all of Sacramento with mobile 5G at 28GHz, "you're talking about a crapload of poles."

"I don't think there's enough people in the industry to deploy these," Lum added, noting that antennas would need to be installed every 1,000 feet or so, and each would need the requisite permits, power, backhaul and technicians capable of doing the work. And that labor would have to be replicated at each street corner across Sacramento and, ultimately, across every major and minor city in the country. "I think there's a long way to go," Lum concluded, estimating a ten-year buildout timeline for such an endeavor.

In other words Verizon, fresh off its promise not to over-hype 5G, launched a tiny market trial that can't be replicated at scale, but disguised it as a major industry milestone. This is, of course, well on par with Verizon's past hype efforts, which have included calling the technology the "fourth industrial revolution," and insisting it is "going to change everything."

Again, 5G certainly isn't a bad thing, in that network advancements are always good. 5G, whenever it launches at scale (likely 2021 or later for many), will offer faster, lower latency networks, assuming it's available in your neck of the woods. The virtualization tech accompanying much of the standard will make these networks easier to manage. But 5G isn't some mystical panacea that's going to fix everything wrong with the broadband sector (especially, say, the monopoly over cell tower backhaul, waning competition in light of mindless merger mania, or the glaring regulatory capture we do nothing about).

By overstating what 5G is carriers risk setting consumer expectations too high, and carriers may just be cementing a backlash as consumers realize that 5G (especially 5G pricing) isn't anything close to an actual miracle, assuming it's even actually available. And given the damage the sector has done to its brand during the recent games of regulatory patty cake with Ajit Pai, good will towards this telecom industry was already arguably in short supply.

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Posted on Techdirt Wireless - 7 February 2019 @ 6:49am

Apple Helps AT&T Mislead Consumers With Fake 5G

from the double-head-fake dept

Last month we noted how AT&T had pissed off competitors and consumers alike by pretending its existing fourth generation wireless network (4G) was actually 5G. More specifically, AT&T has been changing the "4G" icon on its customers phones to say "5G E," despite the fact that actual 5G service at scale is still probably several years away. Technically, AT&T simply took some of the improvements it recently added to its 4G networks (like better MIMO antennas and more efficient 256 QAM technologies), and decided to call this "5G Evolution" in a bid to pretend it was the first to launch actual 5G.

Over-hyping your product's capabilities and availability isn't a particularly bright idea, since you're only associating your brand and the 5G standard with disappointment. Despite being widely criticized for the practice, AT&T appears to have learned very little from the process, only responding by expressing glee at the amount of consternation created among consumers and competitors alike:

"Every company is guilty of building a narrative of how you want the world to work, and I love the fact that we broke our industry's narrative two days ago, and so they're frustrated and they're going to do what they do," Donovan said.

I think the result of last month, beating the industry out [with the 5G hotspot], and this 5G E launch a couple of days ago, our competitors are frustrated," Donovan said. "if I have now occupied beachfront real estate in my competitors' heads, that makes me smile."

The problem for AT&T is its launch of actual 5G was just as misleading. The company proclaimed it was the first carrier to "launch" 5G in 12 cities as of last December, but a closer examination finds the service is only available in a few areas, and at pricing that fails to impress ($500 for a mobile hotspot that's not widely available, $70 for just 15 GB of usage, plus network access fees).

Meanwhile, AT&T's seeing no real market or regulatory punishment for misleading customers about that fake 5G E label popping up on phones. The company had already made the change on Android, and last week Apple was happy to roll out an update that applied the inaccurate label on iPhones as well.

"Multiple users on Twitter are now reporting that they’re seeing the new 5G E icon on devices running the latest iOS 12.2 beta 2, which was released earlier today. The new icon isn’t there for everyone, presumably because it will only appear in cities where AT&T’s 5G Evolution network — the company’s intentionally misleading name for its LTE network that it seems to hope customers will confuse for actual, next-generation 5G networks — is active."

Nifty. Of course Apple isn't even planning to offer a real 5G-capable phone until at least 2020, so they similarly have an incentive to try and fool customers into thinking their phone has suddenly received an incredible new upgrade. Cumulatively there are a lot of companies busy overstating the availability and capability of a technology that, in reality, barely even exists. That's going to operate in the exact opposite way as it's intended, since it teaches customers to see 5G itself (which really does deliver some modest evolutionary improvements in both speed, reliability, and latency) as little more than another empty promise.

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Posted on Techdirt - 6 February 2019 @ 11:56am

The Revolving Door Spins Hard: FCC's Clyburn Now Lobbying For T-Mobile

from the pivot-on-a-dime dept

If you hadn't noticed by now, U.S. lobbying restrictions are the legislative and police equivalent of damp, musty cardboard. While there are some basic guidelines in place, they're so filled with loopholes as to be largely useless. One of the bigger problems is the far-too-generous definition of lobbyist we currently employ, which lets lobbyists tap dance around disclosure rules if they just... pretend they're doing something else.

One case in point is Comcast's top lobbyist David Cohen, who routinely lobbies the government, but tap dances around the rules by calling himself the company's Chief Diversity Officer. Lobbying rules updated in 2007 require that if an employee spends more than 20% of their time lobbying in DC, they have to register with the government as a lobbyist. As such, folks like Cohen just call what they're doing something else, usually obfuscating their lobbying under what superficially appear to be more altruistic endeavors that often involve lobbying state and more local officials outside of DC.

Since US rules prevent regulators and Senators from immediately jumping into direct lobbying for the first year or two post-government, they'll often just call themselves "consultants" or "advisors" as they help their new clients lobby the government. Case in point: recently departed FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn this week announced that she'd be "advising" T-Mobile as the company tries to gain regulatory approval for its job and competition-eroding megamerger with Sprint:

"I’m advising T-Mobile and Sprint as it seeks to accelerate the creation of an inclusive nationwide 5G network on how to best build a bridge across the digital divide,” Clyburn told Politico.

Clyburn left her post last year, telling media outlets at the time she would “be a better public servant not serving on the FCC."

The move caught the consumer advocacy and activist community by surprise, given Clyburn's support of net neutrality (which T-Mobile opposed), and the solid work she did at the FCC trying to rein in an utterly broken prison telco monopoly. While T-Mobile and Sprint have tried to claim that the merger will somehow speed up America's quest for faster 5G networks (a claim Clyburn's clearly piggybacking on), they themselves have even acknowledged that's not really true.

Let's be real: Clyburn's there to help T-Mobile seal the deal via concessions. Concessions that aren't likely to actually thwart the most harmful impacts of the deal, particularly the 10,000 to 30,000 jobs that are expected to be cut as the combined company streamlines operations and inevitably eliminates redundant retail, support, and middle management positions. And concessions that the FCC probably won't enforce anyway, especially in the wake of the telecom lobby and T-Mobile having successfully convinced the Pai FCC to effectively neuter its oversight authority over the broken telecom sector.

Here in reality, T-Mobile's quest for regulatory approval for its merger hasn't been going particularly well. Every single consumer group has warned that the deal will consolidate an already troubled wireless sector, reducing the number of major wireless carriers from four to three -- dramatically reducing an already muted incentive to actually compete on price. Americans already pay some of the highest prices for wireless and fixed broadband among all developed nations, and the idea that more consolidation and fewer competitors will somehow fix this is simply not supported by factual data or reality:

"“This is not that complicated,” Fight For the Future Executive Director Evan Greer told Motherboard.

“More centralization and less competition isn't good for anyone except wealthy CEOs of telecom companies,” Greer said. “Telecom lobbyists have a long history of pretending that their policy goals are somehow magically aligned with helping the downtrodden, but it's a lie. This merger will mean more expensive, crappier cell phone plans, and hit the people who can least afford it the hardest."

Clyburn may have done some important work while at the FCC, but that doesn't mitigate the fact that revolving door regulation is highly corrosive.

FCC Commissioners have a long proud history of claiming to represent the public (once in a great while even actually doing so!), then shuffling off to lobby for telecom operators who'll actively make the problem (limited competition, high prices, terrible customer service) worse. Former FCC Commissioner Robert McDowell was already on T-Mobile's payroll, telling anybody who'll listen this merger will be "great for America." Former FCC Commissioner Meredith Attwell Baker quickly hopped from the FCC to lobbyist spots in both the wireless sector and at Comcast. Former FCC boss Mike Powell is now the chief of the cable industry's biggest lobbying operation, the NCTA.

Efforts to actually fix the very broken US broadband sector are routinely derailed by revolving door lobbyists. And any efforts to shore up our flimsy lobbying guidelines are quickly derailed by those same dollar per holler influence peddlers. Across countless sectors we're stuck in a catch 22 where meaningful progress is routinely thwarted until public anger finally boils over, and the United States finally acknowledges it has a very real problem that will require more than just routine grumbling to resolve.

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Posted on Techdirt - 6 February 2019 @ 6:52am

T-Mobile Tries To Save Its Unpopular Merger With A Few Concessions, But Nobody's Buying

from the ill-communication dept

Sprint and T-Mobile have been facing some increased scrutiny of their claim that merging and reducing the total number of major wireless competitors from four to three will be a wonderful thing for both consumers and the wireless market. New York and California regulators in particular have apparently been pushing back a little at the idea that more consolidation is what's needed in a largely consolidated and anti-competitive telecom sector:

You might recall that the companies' previous merger attempt was blocked in 2014 after regulators noted that removing one of just four major carriers would result in a proportionally-lower incentive to actually compete on price. That's really not debatable if you've paid attention to telecom and broadband industry history (it's a major reason why we all loathe Comcast). That's especially true in Canada, where consolidation to just three players has resulted in the highest mobile data prices in the developed world. AT&T's attempt to acquire T-Mobile in 2011 was blocked for the same reason, a move that many forget (some intentionally) resulted in T-mobile being more competitive than ever.

This week, T-Mobile attempted to salvage the deal by offering up a few concessions. In a letter to FCC boss Ajit Pai (pdf), T-Mobile CEO John Legere proclaimed that the agency should ignore critics of the deal, since they're "largely" employed by "big cable and big telco":

"Critics of our merger, largely employed by Big Telco and Big Cable, have principally argued that we are going to raise rates right after the merger closes. I want to reiterate, unequivocally, that New T-Mobile rates are NOT going to go up. Rather, our merger will ensure that American consumers will pay less and get more.

Of course that's nonsense. Every major consumer group (you know, the people paid very little to actually try and represent consumers) oppose the deal. And it's not just critics saying that greater consolidation in wireless will raise rates. It's history. You can, if the option is available to you, ask a Canadian how reducing the wireless sector's total carriers from four to three works out for both competition and the end user. This kind of rhetoric only exemplifies how T-Mobile's hip Millennial consumer advocate branding schtick only goes so far -- assuming T-Mobile's opposition to net neutrality and weird attacks on the EFF hadn't clued you into that fact already.

Legere goes on to promise Pai that the newly merged T-Mobile won't raise rates for a period of three years as a condition affixed to the deal:

"To remove any remaining doubt or concerns about New T-Mobile’s prices while we are combining our networks over the next three years, T-Mobile today is submitting to the Commission a commitment that I stand behind – a commitment that New T-Mobile will make available the same or better rate plans for our services as those offered today by T-Mobile or Sprint."

Right, but this is the same FCC that just had its authority over telecom operators completely gutted by a massive telecom industry lobbying campaign Legere supported. There's also zero indication coming from the Pai end that he'd have any interest in holding T-Mobile accountable were they to violate this agreement. Regulatory apathy is extremely common when it comes to actually enforcing merger conditions, and Pai worships at the altar of the (false) belief that mindlessly deregulating the broken telecom sector will somehow miraculously create more competition than ever.

Needless to say, critics of the deal aren't calmed much by a three year promise not to raise rates. The 4Competition Coalition, comprised of consumer groups and smaller mobile carriers (not a "big telco" or "big cableco" among them), was quick to issue a statement proclaiming that the promise meant less than nothing:

"Committing to not raise ‘rate plans’ for three years is an empty promise that does not provide any real price protection for consumers. In fact, T-Mobile’s announcement has confirmed exactly what their own data shows: The merger will eliminate wireless competition and increase prices for consumers. The company’s pledge is riddled with loopholes and ensures that any network improvements will allow them to justify higher monthly bills, effectively rendering the pledge meaningless."

Wall Street analysts, meanwhile, saw the Legere concessions as a sign of desperation. From a research note circulated by Wall Street firm New Street Research:

"The question for investors is whether this commitment is in indication that the deal is more likely or less likely to be approved. Count us in the less likely camp. We admit the clarified commitment could represent a concession that DOJ and/or FCC staff (or the White House) asked for in exchange for agreeing to support the deal. But we think that is unlikely for a number of reasons.

First, generally when it comes to mergers, the first side to offer concessions is likely to be the side that is losing."

John Legere is entertaining enough that many have been willing to overlook the historical evidence that these kinds of deals are almost always bad for employees and consumers. If they value the health of the telecom sector and their wallet, they really shouldn't.

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Posted on Techdirt - 5 February 2019 @ 6:26am

Court Tells FCC Its Attack On Tribal Broadband Subsidies Wasn't Based On The Facts

from the back-to-the-drawing-board dept

While FCC boss Ajit Pai is best known for ignoring the public and making shit up to dismantle net neutrality, his other policies have proven to be less sexy but just as terrible. From neutering plans to improve cable box competition to a wide variety of what are often senseless handouts to the industry's biggest players, most of Pai's policies are driving up costs for the rural Americans and small entrepreneurs he so breathlessly pledges fealty to.

One of Pai's biggest targets has been the FCC's Lifeline program, an effort started by Reagan and expanded by Bush that long enjoyed bipartisan support until the post-truth era rolled into town. Lifeline doles out a measly $9.25 per month subsidy that low-income homes can use to help pay a tiny fraction of their wireless, phone, or broadband bills (enrolled participants have to chose one). The FCC under former FCC boss Tom Wheeler had voted to expand the service to cover broadband connections, something Pai (ever a champion to the poor) voted down.

Some of the most frequently ignored in the battle for better connectivity are native populations and tribal areas. Under Chairman Ajit Pai's "leadership," the FCC voted 3-2 in late 2017 to eliminate a $25 additional Lifeline subsidy for low-income native populations on tribal land. As part of Pai's effort he also banned smaller mobile carriers from participating in the Lifeline program, a move opposed by even the larger companies (Verizon, AT&T) that stood to benefit.

The courts didn't much like Pai's attack on what, by any measure, was a pretty modest subsidy with historically bipartisan support. Back in August of 2018, the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit stayed the FCC decision pending an appeal. That same court late last week issued a ruling (pdf, hat tip Ars Technica) reversing the FCC's decision, shoveling the entire affair back to the FCC to try again. The court ruling rather politely points out that the lion's share of the FCC's justifications for its attack on Lifeline appear to have been, for lack of a more technical term, pulled straight from the FCC's ass:

"The Commission's adoption of these two limitations was arbitrary and capricious by not providing a reasoned explanation for its change of policy that is supported by record evidence. In adopting the Tribal Facilities Requirement, the Commission's decision evinces no consideration of the exodus of facilities-based providers from the Tribal Lifeline program. Neither does it point to evidence that banning resellers from the Tribal Lifeline program would promote network buildout.

Nor does it analyze the impact of the facilities requirement on Tribal residents who currently rely on wireless resellers. Further, the Commission ignored that its decision is a fundamental change that adversely affects the access and affordability of service for residents of Tribal lands. Similarly, in adopting the Tribal Rural Limitation, the Commission's decision evinces no consideration of the impact on service access and affordability. Its decision does not examine wireless deployment data related to services to which most Tribal Lifeline recipients subscribe."

Again, that's the court effectively telling the FCC that it made a sweeping policy decision without looking at the actual evidence or listening to contrasting viewpoints. If you've followed along with the agency's facts-optional attacks on net neutrality, much of which is based on completely fabricated telecom sector lobbyist nonsense, none of this should be particularly surprising. Consumer advocates like the EFF were quick to wonder if other Pai-era FCC policy choices will come to be dismissed as similarly lacking in the actual evidence department:

Given the net neutrality fight (opening arguments for which began last Friday) hinges heavily on whether the FCC supported the repeal with hard data (it didn't), the courts may similarly find the FCC there too acted in ways that were "arbitrary and capricious" and detached from objective reality.

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Posted on Techdirt Wireless - 4 February 2019 @ 6:30am

FCC Accused Of Colluding With Big Carriers On 5G Policy

from the ill-communication dept

So we recently noted how the FCC pushed through some policy changes it proclaimed would dramatically speed up the deployment of fifth-generation (5G) wireless technology. According to the new guidance, cities will be limited in terms of how much money they can charge carriers to place cell technology like small cells on government property in public rights of way (traffic lights, utility poles). The policy changes also impose strict new timelines and operational restrictions making it harder for localities to stand up to giant nationwide cellular carriers.

But cities like Philadelphia, numerous small counties, and consumer groups disagreed, stating that the FCC's policy changes were little more than a hand out to large carriers, with the price caps barely covering local government costs to study, support and maintain the numerous small cell placements needed to fuel 5G. In some instances, the FCC's new order invalidated existing contracts local governments had already taken months or years to negotiate with wireless carriers.

Consumer groups say the FCC's order also ties local governments' hands in instances where they might need to actually hold AT&T, Verizon, or T-Mobile accountable for doing something wrong.

While the FCC's decision was already being criticized as an over-reach, that controversy just got much louder. This week, the heads of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, and the Subcommittee on Communications and Technology (Frank Pallone and Mike Doyle) fired off a letter to the FCC effectively accusing the agency of colluding with carriers to help ensure the industry's favored policies had a better shot surviving a court challenge. The letter strongly implies that the Representatives already have whistleblower evidence of said collusion:

"It has come to our attention that certain individuals at the FCC may have urged companies to challenge the order the commission adopted in order to game the judicial lottery procedure and intimated the agency would look unfavorably towards entities that were not helpful. If true, it would be inappropriate for the FCC to leverage its power as a regulator to influence regulated companies to further its agenda in seeking a more friendly court. To date, four FCC licensees have petitioned the federal judiciary for review of the order in separate filings and separate circuits."

Municipalities have been grumbling about something fishy at the FCC on this subject for a while. They've pointed out that when the FCC passed what's effectively wish-list policy aiding incumbent wireless carriers, the carriers mysteriously and collectively sued to challenge the order. Why? It appears they, at the FCC's guidance, challenged the order itself as part of a gambit to keep the challenge from being heard by The Ninth Circuit, which has historically liked giving the FCC a wrist slap for over-reach, especially when it tries to pre-empt more local government authority.

Short version: the lawmakers are alleging the FCC actively worked hand in hand with carrier lawyers to hamstring court challenges to the FCC's latest 5G order, an allegation that's not particularly outlandish if you've actually watched the Ajit Pai FCC do business. And again, the letter's phrased in such a way to suggest the lawmakers already have this information and are just waiting for the FCC to try and mislead them about it or withhold evidence the staffers know the FCC has. It's just one of a growing roster of challenges facing Ajit Pai's FCC under new House leadership.

We've talked at length about how the solution for the terrible state of US broadband needs to be a creative, comprehensive solution that involves both the industry and local governments -- since private industry alone is turned off by the low return on investment into rural markets and less affluent city centers.

But wary this could result in actual competition, the telecom industry's incumbent players (and the politicians and revolving door regulators who adore them) go out of their way to instead demonize local towns and cities, pass protectionist laws preventing the exploration of creative solutions, and gut state and federal oversight of big telecom wherever possible in the false belief this will magically fix a very, very broken market. When critics point out that mindless fealty won't fix American broadband, the Trump FCC simply dismisses said criticism as unfair partisanship.

Ajit Pai is already facing a pretty ugly 2019 thanks to the challenge of his historically unpopular repeal of net neutrality rules, and if this allegation has wait, things just got even more complicated for the "internet freedom" lovin' agency boss.

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Posted on Net Neutrality Special Edition - 1 February 2019 @ 9:41am

Bogus Net Neutrality Comments Linked To Trumpland

from the flood-the-zone-with-bullshit dept

As we mentioned last October, there's several state AGs now investigating who was behind those bogus comments that flooded the FCC's website during its controversial net neutrality repeal. Millions of those fake comments used the identities of dead or otherwise oblivious people, and were posted by a bot pulling from a hacked database of some kind. The goal appears to have been to flood the zone with bullshit, undermining trust in the public's only chance to comment on what may just be the least-popular tech policy decision in modern internet history (though SOPA/PIPA got pretty damn close).

Gizmodo's Dell Cameron, who has been an absolute marvel at digging through this bog, has dropped an impressive bombshell that fills in a lot of longstanding gaps in identifying who was behind this astroturfing effort. The subject is weedy, so here's the pertinent bit:

"An organization run by a former Trump campaign statewide director is being investigated by the New York attorney general’s office for its role in submitting potentially hundreds of thousands of fraudulent comments to the Federal Communications Commission during the agency’s 2017 efforts to rollback Obama-era net neutrality rules."

NY's AG had subpoenaed all of the companies that submitted bulk comments to the FCC during the repeal, including consumer groups. Groups on both sides of the debate used what I affectionately like to refer to as "outrage-o-matic" form letter systems, which simply let real people send a form letter comment of complaint or support to government. That's perfectly legal.

What may not be legal is identity fraud, as well as a lot of this murkier, coordinated behavior Gizmodo uncovered by astroturfing organizations like "Free Our Internet," a fake consumer-advocacy firm specifically built to apparently con the gullible into thinking net neutrality was some sordid "globalist" cabal:

"What’s remained unreported until now is the source of the 37 identical Sharpsburg comments, which match those submitted on behalf of more than 300,000 Americans nationwide. That comment, which rails against Google, its former chairman Eric Schmidt, and “global billionaires like George Soros,” was authored by a group known as Free Our Internet, according to a page on its website, which has since been deleted.

Free Our Internet’s campaign against net neutrality, which it presents as a conspiracy by “liberal globalists to take over our Internet,” was first announced in a now-deleted press release on the website of Raven Strategies, a political consultancy whose client list includes, among others, Donald Trump for President."

Christie-Lee McNally, the president of Raven Strategies and the executive director of Free Our Internet, was tapped by Trump two years ago to become his statewide director in Maine, where she formerly served as executive director for the Republican Party. According to the bio on her firm’s website, she also served on the 58th presidential inaugural committee, working with cabinet-level nominees on the day of Trump’s swearing-in.

Free Our Internet was just one of several Trump-linked organizations Gizmodo discovered flooded the FCC comment system, social media, and the newswires with bogus support for the FCC's historically-unpopular handout to big telecom. The utter nonsensical claim that protecting the health of the internet from Comcast and AT&T is a Soros-fueled globalist cabal to "silence Conservative thought" was then in turn parroted by none other than Roger Stone:

Who had also been seeding the field with intellectually incontinent editorials on the subject:

"The Tech Left, funded largely by George Soros, had decided to champion under the banner of a benign-sounding “Net Neutrality” campaign and seize a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to grab the moral high ground in their determination to allow the giant edge providers to censor the Internet to suit their ideological preferences — ridding the Internet of conservative and libertarian content."

This claim is, as you know if you have even a fleeting understanding of net neutrality, complete and total dog shit.

Here in reality, giant ISPs like AT&T, Comcast, and Verizon have spent years abusing the lack of broadband competition to hamstring competitors and drive up your monthly bill in a variety of obnoxious ways. Net neutrality rules were just a stopgap measure to prevent this from happening until somebody in either party grows a spine, stands up to AT&T, Comcast, and Verizon, and embraces policies that actually drive more competition to a clearly broken market (no, this doesn't magically occur on its own if you gut overight of natural telecom monopolies).

Because nobody likes Comcast, Trumpland and the telecom sector needed to figure out some alternative messaging to confuse folks who likely didn't fully understand this complicated subject. It should be clear by now that one of the more favored tactics of Trumpland is to flood the zone with absolute bullshit in a bid to shake the very foundations of truth itself, distracting the easily distracted from what, more often than not, winds up being a ham-handed handout to giant, unpopular corporations. In this case, some of the least popular corporations in America (which is truly saying something).

Flooding the zone with nonsense to disorient those looking for true north is an effective disinformation tactic, especially in a country long-ago rendered intellectually mute by decades of facts-optional, intentionally-divisive partisan infighting. In this instance, Trumplanders (and likely ISP lobbyists) knew that killing net neutrality would result in a massive wave of anger by the bipartisan majority of Americans who (quite correctly) understand the move was little more than a grotesque handout to predatory telecom monopolies.

So Trumpland crafted "alternative" messaging, completely unhinged from the truth, and flooded the internet with it in the hopes this would diminish the impact of the real public backlash. It's not clear it worked, but it likely did achieve its primary goal: creating questions about the validity of user complaints to the FCC, thereby diminishing their importance as a permanent record of consumer anger. It seems that may have been the motivation for the FCC's decision to make up that fake DDOS attack (which you'll note tried to claim angry John Oliver viewers were "attacking" the FCC website) as well.

What's very clear is there's still a lot of information to come on this as numerous state AGs and the GAO continue their investigation into this ouroborus of bullshit, and a lot of these policy shops and lobbying outfits should be very nervous right now. What's also clear is FCC boss Ajit Pai, with his own links to many of these Trumpland allies, went well out of his way to stop law enforcement from learning more. How much coordination occurred between the Pai FCC, incumbent ISPs, and this tangled web of news outlets, lobbying firms, and policy shops is going to be the million dollar question.

None of this is going to be a great look for Pai's FCC as more details are uncovered, and the court system tries to determine whether his agency's hand out to big telecom, propped up by mountains of bogus telecom lobbyist claims, violated federal law or FCC rules.

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Posted on Techdirt - 1 February 2019 @ 6:23am

Canada's Bell Tried To Have VPNs Banned During NAFTA Negotiations

from the missing-the-point dept

Countries around the world continue to wage a not particularly subtle war on the use of virtual private networks (VPNs) and encryption. In Russia, the government has all but banned the use of VPNs by layering all manner of obnoxious restrictions and caveats on VPN operators. The goal, as we've seen in China and countless other countries, is to ban VPN use without making it explicitly clear you're banning VPN use. The deeper goal is always the same: less privacy and online freedom for users who use such tools to dodge surveillance or other, even dumber government policies.

Of course there's plenty of companies eager to see VPN use banned as well, whether it's the entertainment industry hoping to thwart piracy, or broadcasters trying to hinder those looking to dance around geographical viewing restrictions. Lost in the hysteria is usually the fact that VPNs are just another security tool with a myriad of purposes, most of which aren't remotely nefarious and shouldn't be treated as such.

Apparently, you can count Canadian telecom incumbent Bell among the companies hoping to ban VPN use. Anja Karadeglija, the editor of paywalled telecom news outlet the Wire Report, obtained documents this week highlighting how Bell had been pushing Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland for a VPN ban to be included in NAFTA negotiations. Why? It doesn't want users using VPNs to watch the US Netflix catalog:

"In its submission, Bell argued that Canadians accessing content from a US service with a VPN “unjustly enriches the US service, which has not paid for the Canadian rights” but nonetheless makes that content available to Canadians. Bell’s media arm reportedly spends millions on content for it streaming service, Crave TV, which allows Canadians to stream content from American networks such as HBO and Showtime."

Again though, it's not the VPN doing that. And if you want to stop users from flocking to better content catalogs elsewhere on the continent, you should focus your ire on the things causing that to happen -- like increasingly dated and absurd geo-viewing restrictions, and your own substandard content offerings that fail to adequately match up. That message was lost on Bell, however:

“Canada should seek rules in NAFTA that require each party to explicitly make it unlawful to offer a VPN service used for the purpose of circumventing copyright, to allow rightsholders to enforce this rule, and to confirm that it is a violation of copyright if a service effectively makes content widely available in territories in which it does not own the copyright due to an ineffective or insufficiently robust geo-targeting system,” the submission stated."

How exactly you're supposed to determine that somebody is using a VPN to not watch Bell's own television services isn't really explained, and the fact that enforcement would likely be technically impossible appears to have been an afterthought. As Canadian Law Professor Michael Geist was quick to note, trying to ban VPNs just as they're reaching critical mass as a partial solution to raging North American privacy scandals suggests Bell may not exactly have its finger on the pulse of common sense on this particular subject.

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Posted on Techdirt - 31 January 2019 @ 10:44am

New Japanese Law Lets Government Hack IOT Devices, Warn Owners They're Vulnerable

from the internet-of-broken-things dept

By now we've established pretty clearly that the well-hyped "internet of things" sector couldn't actually care less about security or privacy. Companies are in such a rush to cash in on our collective thirst for internet connected tea kettles and not-so-smart televisions, they don't much care if your new gadget was easily hacked or integrated into a DDoS botnet. And by the time security and privacy flaws have been discovered, companies and consumers alike are off to hyperventilate about the next must-have gadget, leaving untold millions of devices in the wild as new potential points of entry into home and business networks.

While most countries hem and haw without doing much of anything about the problem, Japan's government this week proposed a unique legislative solution. A new Japanese law (pdf) passed this week authorizes the Japanese government to actually hack into poorly-secured internet of things devices as part of the country's attempt to conduct a survey measuring the real scale of the problem:

"The survey will be carried out by employees of the National Institute of Information and Communications Technology (NICT) under the supervision of the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications. NICT employees will be allowed to use default passwords and password dictionaries to attempt to log into Japanese consumers' IoT devices.

Devices shipped with default username and passwords that users are too lazy (or technically incompetent) to change continue to be a huge problem in IOT devices and routers alike. Once the Japanese government has confirmed the vulnerability, it intends to send notices to impacted users in a bid to try and scare them into actually securing the devices. A Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications report (pdf) was quick to note that attacks targeting poorly-secured IOT devices comprised two-thirds of all cyberattacks in 2016.

Obviously letting the government hack into consumer and business devices isn't being welcomed warmly in Japan, where many understandably don't trust government with such a task. But it's worth noting these kinds of "solutions" are only emerging in the wake of years of apathy contributing to a global crisis. A crisis many experts say will, inevitably, result in potential mass casualties as essential infrastructure becomes increasingly vulnerable. Collectively we've largely yawned at the problem since much of its impact is what security expert Bruce Schneier calls "invisible pollution:

"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."

While other solutions for this problem are being explored (like mandating the inclusion of privacy and security issues in product reviews), they've been few and far between in actually materializing, since giving a damn will actually cost money. Experts like Schneier have long argued that given this market and consumer failure, government needs to play some role in coordinating some rules of the road for flimsy IOT security. Perhaps letting government itself hack into your poorly secured Barbie is a bridge too far (who'd follow up to confirm government didn't abuse the privilege?). But if that's the case, what's the solution?

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Posted on Techdirt - 31 January 2019 @ 6:27am

Wisconsin's Overhyped Foxconn Deal Keeps Getting Lamer By The Week

from the pray-I-don't-alter-the-deal-further dept

Last year, you probably recall that former Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker signed a "revolutionary" deal: the state promised Taiwan-based Foxconn a $3 billion state subsidy if the company invested $10 billion in a Wisconsin plant that would create 13,000 jobs. Walker hoped the deal would finally help cement job growth that he had been promising supporters for years, and the press was quick to hype the plan without really focusing too much on the math, or Foxconn's history of not really living up to similar promises in countries like Vietnam, India, and Brazil.

Quietly buried under the blistering hype (greatly fueled by the Trump administration), groups like Wisconsin’s non-partisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau began to point out that it would take until 2043 for taxpayers to recoup the subsidy. And as the finer details of the plan began to emerge late last year, the $3 billion subsidy quickly ballooned to $4.1 billion, leading some to point out that the math no longer made sense at all and, with an unemployment rate of 3.2% and a $100,000 per job subsidy, it was technically impossible for the massive subsidy to ever be repaid (in jobs, walnuts, or anything else).

Worse, as the project moved along and subsidies ballooned, the scale of the project began to shrink. An excellent report at The Verge last October noted how the original plan for a 20 million square foot factory that would build 10-foot by 11-foot panels for 75-inch TV screens, slowly shrunk to a Generation 6 plant that only produces 5-foot by 6-foot glass panels, and with original plans for $10 billion worth of investment (Foxconn's original promise) also shrinking to a $2.5 billion investment. Walkers response to the dubious deal was, it should be noted, that critics should "suck lemons":

"There’s a whole lot of people out there scrambling to try and come up with a reason not to like this,” he said in July of last year. “They can go suck lemons. The rest of us are going to cheer and figure out how we are going to get this thing going forward.” Several weeks later, he called the deal a “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity” that will be “transformational” for the state. “These LCD displays will be made in America for the very first time, right here in the state of Wisconsin."

About that. This week, a Reuters report revealed that the original plan for a massive factory bringing 13,000 jobs to the region had changed yet again. Now, Foxconn executives claim, there will be no factory or manufacturing jobs at all. While Wisconsin might get an engineering office, even that doesn't sound all that certain according to Foxconn executives:

"Now, those plans may be scaled back or even shelved, Louis Woo, special assistant to Foxconn Chief Executive Terry Gou, told Reuters. He said the company was still evaluating options for Wisconsin, but cited the steep cost of making advanced TV screens in the United States, where labor expenses are comparatively high.

“In terms of TV, we have no place in the U.S.,” he said in an interview. “We can’t compete."

Rather than a focus on LCD manufacturing, Foxconn wants to create a "technology hub" in Wisconsin that would largely consist of research facilities along with packaging and assembly operations, Woo said. It would also produce specialized tech products for industrial, healthcare, and professional applications, he added.

“In Wisconsin we’re not building a factory. You can’t use a factory to view our Wisconsin investment,” Woo said.

And instead of the 5,200 new jobs that were supposed to arrive before the end of 2020, the Reuters report is now saying those numbers will be closer to 1,000. Maybe? Who knows. Given its expertise in this subject, it's hard to believe Foxconn didn't realize all of this from the start, since the market hasn't magically shifted in just a year or two. Also keep in mind that while the project shrinks, taxpayer money has already been spent preparing for the factory's construction, including the demolition of some homes previously on the target site.

Given the incredible shrinking nature of this project it's also unclear (especially if you've listened to the excellent Reply All podcast on this subject) why anybody would believe anything being said now about this ever-devolving boondoggle.

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Posted on Techdirt Wireless - 30 January 2019 @ 6:32am

Anna Eshoo, Other Lawmakers Offer Gushing, Facts-Optional Support For T-Mobile Sprint Merger

from the ill-communication dept

We've repeatedly explained how T-Mobile and Sprint's latest attempt to merge will be terrible for both jobs and competition. Despite what T-Mobile and Sprint executives have claimed, history suggests the reduction of total wireless carriers from four to three will likely result in less incentive than ever to seriously compete on price. Similarly, while T-Mobile and Sprint have told regulators that the deal will somehow create an explosion in new jobs, Wall Street analysts have predicted that the deal could kill off tens of thousands of US jobs as the new company inevitably eliminates redundant positions.

This was the same Sprint, T-Mobile merger that had been blocked previously by lawmakers. And it's not a far cry from AT&T's attempted takeover of T-Mobile, which was also blocked back in 2011. Generally speaking, people have recognized that reducing overall competitors in a telecom market never quite works out well for anybody other than executives and investors. Yet here we are, once again, with folks oddly not quite understanding that reality.

Case in point, Anna Eshoo and numerous other House lawmakers fired off a letter (pdf) this week to both the DOJ and FCC urging both agencies to approve the merger post-haste. One of the cornerstones of the letter is that the merger is essential for the US quest to deploy 5G networks, something the carriers themselves at various points have admitted is not actually true. It also repeats the claim that eliminating one of just four competitors will somehow increase competition, something disproven by any economics 101 textbook (and 50 years of telecom history, including Canada's).

But, as is usually the case when it comes to breathless support for harmful megamergers, the letter's primary claim is that the deal will somehow create all manner of new jobs:

"We anticipate that the combination of T-Mobile and Sprint, compete with the respective resources and strengths of each, will help to preserve the jobs of workers at each company. This holds the potential demand for new workers as a result of a more broadly robust, innovative, and thriving wireless telecommunications sector."

Again though, that's not what the actual data (or history) suggests. In fact, Wall Street analysts have been noting for two damn years now that the deal has the potential to cost anywhere between 10,000 and 30,000 jobs, particularly as redundant retail operations and duplicative HQs are streamlined:

"Direct payroll savings have been a big part of each analysis of a merger between the nation’s third- and fourth-largest wireless carriers. Few of those reports, however, have put a number on the headcount reductions. One that did was by Craig Moffett of MoffettNathanson Research. Last August, he put pen to paper and found reason to expect 20,000 job cuts from a merger.

Moffett’s report showed most of those would be retail workers. Sprint and T-Mobile each want more retail outlets, but a combined company wouldn’t need as many stores as both have currently. It would make business sense to close stores near each other. “We conservatively estimate that a total of 3,000 of Sprint and T-Mobile’s branded stores (or branded-equivalent stores) would eventually close,” Moffett’s report said. Each of those, he said, would mean the loss of five full time jobs, or 15,000 jobs in total.

Some analysts peg the losses closer to 10,000, while others believe 30,000 lost jobs is possible over time (more than Sprint even currently employs). Unions have argued that the number of total lost positions could be somewhere around 28,000, including 4,500 from the inevitable closure of Sprint's current Overland, Kansas HQ (which T-Mobile is telling everyone will remain open). If you've tracked megamergers at companies like Comcast, AT&T, and Verizon, these kinds of projections aren't really that outlandish, they just tend to get lost in the shuffle since only academics and consumer advocates tend to care about the reality post-merger.

The fact that T-Mobile CEO John Legere is kind of a fun dudebro has netted T-Mobile a lot of benefit of the doubt where it probably shouldn't exist, overshadowing how despite being a company with pro-consumer branding, much of the company's behaviors (like opposing net neutrality or pandering to Trump) aren't all that different from the companies (AT&T, Verizon) T-Mobile claims to be so much better than. Given more than a few of these Representatives have spent significant time insisting they're consumer allies on telecom issues, their breathless support of a bad deal is somewhat disappointing.

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