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About Karl Bode

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


Posted on Techdirt - 27 September 2016 @ 9:38am

The Internet Of Poorly Secured Things Is Fueling Unprecedented, Massive New DDoS Attacks

from the build-it-poorly-and-they-will-come dept

Last week, an absolutely mammoth distributed denial of service (DDoS) attack brought down the website of security researcher Brian Krebs. His website, hosted by Akamai pro bono, was pulled offline after it was inundated with 620Gbps of malicious traffic, nearly double the size of the biggest attack Akamai (which tracks such things via their quarterly state of the internet report) has ever recorded. Krebs was ultimately able to get his website back online after Google stepped in to provide DDoS mitigation through its Project Shield service.

According to Krebs, the attack came, he believes, after he began digging more deeply into various gangs that deliver DDoS attacks on-demand. And according to Krebs, this time they had the help of the hystercially piss poor security of the internet of things (IoT) industry:

"There are some indications that this attack was launched with the help of a botnet that has enslaved a large number of hacked so-called “Internet of Things,” (IoT) devices — routers, IP cameras and digital video recorders (DVRs) that are exposed to the Internet and protected with weak or hard-coded passwords."
So not only are "smart" refrigerators, TVs, tea kettles and power outlets leaking your unencrypted data to any nitwit with a modicum of technical knowledge, they're being utilized to amplify existing attacks on security researchers who are actually trying to make things better. The attack comes directly on the heels of Bruce Schneier warning us the check is about to come due -- after IoT companies and evangelists that prioritized hype and sales over security fundamentals helped introduce millions of new network attack vectors into the wild over the last five years or so.

In a recent blog post, Schneier also noted that these larger DDoS attacks come as multiple groups and individuals (likely nation state sponsored hackers) have begun probing for vulnerabilities on an unprecedented scale:
"Recently, some of the major companies that provide the basic infrastructure that makes the Internet work have seen an increase in DDoS attacks against them. Moreover, they have seen a certain profile of attacks. These attacks are significantly larger than the ones they're used to seeing. They last longer. They're more sophisticated. And they look like probing. One week, the attack would start at a particular level of attack and slowly ramp up before stopping. The next week, it would start at that higher point and continue. And so on, along those lines, as if the attacker were looking for the exact point of failure."
And they're finding, as many have warned, millions of poorly secured Internet of Things "smart" devices with stupid default passwords -- or in many instances no security at all. In most instances the buyers of these products are utterly clueless of their participation in these botnets, and very frequently these devices don't give the end user transparent end control over what's being sent over the network anyway.

In a follow-up blog post by Krebs, he makes it clear that in addition to being immensely dangerous (potentially fatal if the right systems are targeted), these larger scale DDoS attacks propped up by the IoT should also be seen as a growing assault on free speech. After all, few independent journalists would be able to afford the kind of DDoS mitigation technologies necessary to truly stop these new, larger attacks:
"In an interview with The Boston Globe, Akamai executives said the attack — if sustained — likely would have cost the company millions of dollars. In the hours and days following my site going offline, I spoke with multiple DDoS mitigation firms. One offered to host KrebsOnSecurity for two weeks at no charge, but after that they said the same kind of protection I had under Akamai would cost between $150,000 and $200,000 per year.
For a country that likes to talk a lot about cybersecurity (mostly to justify awful government policy like backdoors that make us less secure than ever), the United States isn't doing all that much to mitigate the looming threat. Much like Schneier, Krebs calls for a more coordinated effort by industry and government to wake up and begin greater institutional-grade collaborative efforts to shore up our collective security before things spiral out of control:
"I don’t know what it will take to wake the larger Internet community out of its slumber to address this growing threat to free speech and ecommerce. My guess is it will take an attack that endangers human lives, shuts down critical national infrastructure systems, or disrupts national elections."
And it probably goes without saying that this threat looms as we ponder electing two of the least technically sophisticated Presidential candidates in recent memory. These are two researchers who aren't prone to hyperbole, so it seems like we might just want to take their advice before the Internet of Things devolves from a running gag into a potentially fatal shitshow.

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Posted on Techdirt Wireless - 27 September 2016 @ 6:22am

Verizon Claims Nobody Wants Unlimited Data, Wouldn't Be Profitable Anyway

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

Back in 2011, Verizon and AT&T eliminated unlimited wireless data plans, instead pushing users toward share data allotments and overage fees as high as $15 per gigabyte. And while the companies did "grandfather" many of these unlimited users at the time, both companies have made at art form out of harassing or otherwise annoying these customers until they convert to costlier shared plans. And despite the fact that such overage-fee-based plans confuse the living hell out of most customers (who have no idea what a gigabyte is), both companies continue to insist that customers don't actually want unlimited data.

Speaking at an investor conference last week, Verizon CFO Fram Shammo once again declared that Verizon knows what consumers want, and it isn't unlimited data:

"At the end of the day, people don't need unlimited plans," Verizon Chief Financial Officer Fran Shammo said at an investor conference Thursday."
And despite the fact that plenty of companies (like T-Mobile) have seen explosive growth of late selling unlimited data plans, Shammo proclaimed making money off of unlimited just isn't possible:
"T-Mobile and Sprint have introduced cheaper unlimited data plans -- in exchange for slowing the connection for lower-resolution video -- and AT&T has been trumpeting its own unlimited data bundle with DirecTV video service. The push to unlimited data marks a reversal of the last few years of rhetoric about the costs of delivering service. For Verizon, that remains the biggest argument against unlimited. "You cannot make money on an unlimited video world," he said
Of course what Shammo means is that Verizon won't see the same generous profit margins it's currently seeing if it were to actually give consumers what they want. Verizon saw $8.0 billion in profit on $21.7 billion in second-quarter revenues in large part thanks to shared data plans (though Verizon Wireless' earnings were perfectly healthy under unlimited data plans as well). Since most users don't know what a gigabyte even is, they tend to sign up for bigger plans than they actually need for fear of hitting the overage wall.

Those fears pay huge dividends for the mobile carrier, whose wireless plans are constructed like a giant funnel that constantly pushes users to more and more expensive levels of service once in the door.

Verizon for years has justified some of the highest rates in the industry as reflective of the overall quality of its wireless network. But as competitors like T-Mobile begin to catch up, Verizon's running out of marketing ideas to justify its service's higher price point. Enter last week, when Verizon responded to new unlimited data promotions from Sprint and T-Mobile with new ads proclaiming that the company doesn't sell unlimited data, it sells "limitless data." When asked how you can call a gigabyte-capped shared data plan limitless, Verizon PR trots out its very finest dancing shoes:
"Limitless refers to how you can use your data and unlimited refers to the amount of data,” said Kelly Crummey, director of corporate communications at Verizon...Our competitors claim they offer ‘unlimited plans’ but if you really look at them, they are full of limits on how you use your data with thinks (sic) like SD (not HD) and automatically slowing down your speeds. The way our plans are structured, you can use your data however you want – there are no limits.
Well, no limits except the very clear limits. Apparently, Verizon thinks that you compete by telling customers what they want while abusing the hell out of the dictionary. It should be interesting to see how that tactic plays out as T-Mobile continues to erode Verizon's wireless market share.

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Posted on Net Neutrality Special Edition - 22 September 2016 @ 6:22am

AT&T Will Zero Rate its Upcoming Streaming TV Service, Doesn't Think FCC Will Act

from the one-for-you,-three-for-me dept

We've long noted how the FCC's decision to avoid prohibiting zero rating (exempting your own or a paid partner's content from usage caps) opened the door to letting incumbent ISPs trample net neutrality -- if they're just creative enough about it. And that's precisely what has happened, with Comcast and Verizon now exempting their own content from usage caps, while T-Mobile and Sprint explore throttling all video, games and music unless users pay a $20 to $25 leave me the hell alone fee.

The FCC's total inaction on this front has also emboldened AT&T, which recently began exempting its own DirecTV streaming video app from the company's usage caps while still penalizing customers that use competitors like Netflix, Hulu or Amazon. But as we warned then -- AT&T isn't done. This week it confirmed that it will also zero rate its upcoming DirecTV Now streaming video service, which is AT&T's massive new entry into the streaming video market:

“We’ll be rolling it out in a couple of months,” Stephenson told attendees at an investors conference. “We’re talking 100-plus channels at a very, very aggressive price point. And when you buy this content, the data required to stream it onto your mobile device is incorporated into the price of the content…. If you choose to use that in a mobile environment on AT&T, your data cost is incorporated into your content cost."
That's a pretty clever logical tap dance. AT&T isn't unfairly giving its own content a leg up in the streaming video market, you see, it's just "incorporating" the cost of wireless data into your content costs. Either way you slice it, AT&T is using its stranglehold over the fixed and wireless markets to give its own content an unfair advantage, and you'd be pretty hard pressed to find too many tech beat writers, customers, or regulators that seem to give much of a damn. Why? Because under superficial inspection it looks like customers are getting something for free, even if usage caps are artificial and arbitrary constructs to begin with.

That said, AT&T is making it pretty clear it doesn't think regulators will do much about its latest anti-competitive gambit. Speaking at the recent CTIA wireless trade show in Las Vegas, AT&T Mobility President Glenn Lurie proclaimed that the company isn't worried about a regulatory crackdown:
“We have no regulatory concerns about it. We feel very good about it from that aspect. We’re not prioritizing [data], we’re treating it all the same,” Lurie told FierceWireless here on the sidelines of the CTIA Super Mobility trade show. Lurie is president and CEO of AT&T’s mobility and consumer operations. “So we’re not worried about that.”
Even though AT&T's tactic here is to basically lie and say it's treating "all data the same," it doesn't think the FCC will act. That means it's either emboldened by the FCC's apathy on this front, or it has received private indications from the agency that it doesn't intend to tread into the zero rating waters. But with large, incumbent broadband providers now using their monopoly over the last mile (and spectrum) to give their own content a leg up, you'll soon find many consumers wondering why the hell we have net neutrality rules in the first place.

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Posted on Techdirt - 21 September 2016 @ 11:23pm

Hackers Able To Control Tesla S Systems From Twelve Miles Away

from the welcome-to-the-new-normal dept

Over the last few years, we've well documented the abysmal security in the internet of things space. And while refrigerators that leak your Gmail credentials are certainly problematic, the rise in exploitable vehicle network security is exponentially more worrying. Reports emerge almost monthly detailing how easy it is for hackers to bypass vehicle security, allowing them to at best fiddle with in-car systems like air conditioning, and at worst take total control of a compromised vehicle. It's particularly problematic given these exploits may take years to identify and patch.

Enter Tesla, which, while indisputably more flexible in terms of technology, finds itself no less vulnerable to being embarrassed. Reports this week emerged that Chinese white hat hackers discovered a vulnerability in the Tesla S series that allowed an intruder to interfere with the car’s brakes, door locks, dashboard computer screen and other electronically controlled systems in the vehicle. In a video, the hackers demonstrated how they were able to target the vehicle's controller area network, or CAN bus, from up to twelve miles away:

Fortunately in this instance, the attack required a fairly strict set of circumstances, including fooling the car's owner into first connecting the vehicle to a malicious hotspot -- while the car's internet browser was in use. Also, unlike some vulnerabilities, which have taken traditional automakers up to five years to patch in the past, the researchers said in a blog post that Tesla was quick to update the car's firmware and fix the vulnerability:
"Keen Security Lab appreciates the proactive attitude and efforts of Tesla Security Team, leading by Chris Evans, on responding our vulnerability report and taking actions to fix the issues efficiently. Keen Security Lab is coordinating with Tesla on issue fixing to ensure the driving safety of Tesla users."
That said, this isn't the first time that hackers have highlighted vulnerabilities in Tesla vehicles. A group of hackers earlier this year demonstrated how they were able to use about $100,000 in radio equipment to fool the Tesla S model's autopilot feature into perceiving obstacles that technically didn't exist, or obscuring obstacles the car would normally avoid:
"A group of researchers at the University of South Carolina, China’s Zhejiang University and the Chinese security firm Qihoo 360 says it’s done just that. In a series of tests they plan to detail in a talk later this week at the Defcon hacker conference, they found that they could use off-the-shelf radio-, sound- and light-emitting tools to deceive Tesla’s autopilot sensors, in some cases causing the car’s computers to perceive an object where none existed, and in others to miss a real object in the Tesla’s path."
Comforting! Obviously these are just the vulnerabilities we know of, and there's likely a very hot zero day market for car vulnerabilities, with state actors willing to pay top dollar for exploits allowing the staging of "accidents" local yokel investigators aren't likely to ferret out as malicious. Alongside the even worse security in many "smart" (read: wholly idiotic) internet of things appliances, we've been happily introducing tens of thousands of new network attack vectors annually. As we rush unpatched toward the driverless future of tomorrow, what could possibly go wrong?

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Posted on Techdirt - 21 September 2016 @ 10:44am

Cable Lobbyists Stop Using The Word Cable In Hopes You'll Think Industry Has Evolved

from the song-remains-the-same dept

It often seems like the modern cable industry often goes out of its way to remain decidedly un-modern. Thanks to regulatory capture and limited competition, the sector consistently ranks among the very worst industries in terms of customer satisfaction and support. And whether it's opposing net neutrality or fighting efforts to bring competition to the cable box, you'll often find the industry's top lobbying organization -- the National Cable and Telecommunications Association at the forefront of fighting nearly every pro-consumer initiative that comes down the pike.

That's why it's more than a little amusing to see the NCTA announce this week that it's eliminating the word "cable" from its branding and overall vernacular, apparently as an attempt to modernize the cable sector's image in the Netflix age. According to a statement by the NCTA, the migration away from even using the word cable (despite coaxial very much remaining in use) is a reflection of "how the marketplace is no longer defined by silos of the past." This is how former FCC boss turned top cable lobbyist Michael Powell explained the shift:

"Just as our industry is witnessing an exciting transformation driven by technology and connectivity, NCTA’s brand must reflect the vibrancy and diversity of our members,” Powell said. “While our mission to drive the industry forward remains the same, our look now reflects a renewed proactive and energized spirit."
And by "driving the industry forward," Powell of course means supporting initiatives that do the exact opposite.

Most recently that has included using a massive sound wall of disinformation (including some help from the US Copyright Office and the likes of Jesse Jackson) to demonize attempts to bring competition to the cable box. The NCTA has also been busy working overtime to derail the FCC's attempt to apply some relatively basic privacy protections to the cable sector, has also supported protectionist state laws that hinder broadband competition, and has even fought raising the base definition of broadband to 25 Mbps. "Proactive and energized," indeed.

And while the cable industry is quick to argue it's facing more direct competition than ever before, the reality is notably different. As AT&T and Verizon give up on unwanted DSL customers, it's creating a stronger cable monopoly than ever before in many areas. As cable providers consolidate and their telco competitors crumble, cable is seeing 99% of the broadband net additions each quarter. The end result is a cable industry that intends to take full advantage of this lack of competition to impose draconian usage caps on consumer broadband connections in the hopes of thwarting Internet video competitors like Netflix.

All told it's going to take a lot more than a vernacular change to shift consumer and cross industry perception away from the reality that the cable industry -- and specifically the NCTA -- is an anti-consumer, anti-innovation, antiquated turf protection machine.

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Posted on Techdirt - 20 September 2016 @ 11:47am

Nashville Council Member Admits AT&T & Comcast Wrote The Anti-Google Fiber Bill She Submitted

from the hired-marionettes dept

We've been talking about how the next great battlefield in broadband is utility pole attachment reform. In many cities, the incumbent broadband provider owns the utility poles, giving them a perfect opportunity to hinder competitors. In other cities, the local utility or city itself owns the poles, but incumbent ISPs have lobbied for laws making it more difficult for competitors to access them quickly and inexpensively. Google Fiber has been pushing "one touch make ready" rules in several cities aimed at streamlining this bureaucracy by letting a licensed, third-party installer move any ISP's gear (often a matter of inches).

And while incumbents like AT&T and Comcast will often breathlessly proclaim they're all for streamlining regulations, in this instance they're actively preventing the streamlining of these rules in a feeble attempt to slow Google Fiber down. In Louisville, AT&T sued the city after it passed one touch make ready rules. And in Nashville, both Comcast and AT&T have been actively working to prevent Google Fiber from getting similar rules passed. In a recent blog post explaining the stand off, Google Fiber highlights just what this entrenched, anti-competitive regulatory capture looks like in graphical form:

This week Nashville's city council is planning the final in a series of votes to approve Google Fiber's one touch make ready rules. But AT&T has already promised to sue the city if Nashville passes the ordinance. Meanwhile AT&T and Comcast have taken another route to try and delay Google Fiber; they've urged a Nashville city council member to propose an alternative city resolution that would supplant Google Fiber's plan with a plan that doesn't appear to actually do anything outside of stalling the Google Fiber proposal.

Under this alternative "right touch" proposal, pole attachment would see only modest changes, leading Nashville city councilman Jeremy Elrod to deride the move as little more than a last gasp effort by AT&T and Comcast to protect their duopoly fiefdom:
"Google Fiber service and other competitors will be forced to rolling out their service at a trickle, when under the One Touch ordinance it will be like opening the floodgates," Elrod said in an emailed statement.

"This resolution coming at the last minute, to be considered the same night as third reading of the One Touch bill, just shows it’s the last gasp of Comcast and AT&T, desperately trying to hold on to their top place on the utility pole. "These two companies should not be the gatekeepers that get to decide when and where their customers get access to a competitor, but (a Memorandum of Understanding) like this one enshrines that they stay that way. Comcast and AT&T would win, and competition and consumers would lose."
AT&T and Comcast's competing resolution was proposed by Nashville council member Sheri Weiner, who amusingly admits to Ars Technica that the incumbent ISPs wrote the proposal, and while she intended to edit some of it herself, that just didn't happen:
"I told them that I would file a resolution if they had something that made sense and wasn’t as drastic as OTMR,” Weiner told Ars in an e-mail today, when we asked her what role AT&T and Comcast played in drafting the resolution. Weiner said she is insisting on some changes to the resolution, but the proposal (full text) was submitted without those changes.

When asked why she didn't put her suggested changes in the version of the resolution published on the council website, Weiner said, “I had them [AT&T and Comcast] submit it for me as I was out of town all last week on business (my day job)." Weiner said an edited resolution will be considered by the council during its next meeting.
Yeah, whoops-a-daisy. If the AT&T and Comcast proposal passes, it will likely delay Google Fiber's market entry by a notable margin. If it doesn't, AT&T will simply sue the city of Nashville, insisting the city council overstepped its authority. Either way, Google Fiber gets delayed thanks to regulatory capture. And note this is all occurring while AT&T lobbyists happily mock Google Fiber for receiving "government favoritism."

Again, this is all par for the course for American broadband, where beholden lawmakers on every level from city council to state legislature work tirelessly to make sure incumbent ISPs like Verizon, Comcast, AT&T and Charter never have to work too hard, lest the campaign contributions stop flowing. And again, while any day of the week you'll find these companies' executives and lobbyists prattling on at length about how they despise "onerous regulation," when push comes to shove you'll repeatedly find them aggressively supporting just such regulation -- if it protects them from having to actually compete.

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Posted on Techdirt - 20 September 2016 @ 9:39am

HP Launched Delayed DRM Time Bomb To Disable Competing Printer Cartridges

from the innovation! dept

For decades now, consumers have been lured into a sour deal: pay for a relatively inexpensive printer, then spend a lifetime paying an arm and a leg for viciously overpriced printer cartridges. As most have learned first-hand, any attempt to disrupt this obnoxious paradigm via third-party printer cartridges has been met with a swift DRM roundhouse kick to the solar plexus. In fact if there's an area where the printer industry actually innovates, it's most frequently in finding new, creative and obnoxious methods of preventing cartridge competition.

Hoping to bring this parade of awfulness to its customers at scale, HP this week unearthed the atomic bomb of printer cartridge shenanigans. HP Printer owners collectively discovered on September 13 that their printers would no longer even accept budget cartridges. Why? A firmware update pushed by the company effectively prevented HP printers from even detecting alternative cartridges, resulting in HP printer owners getting messages about a "cartridge problem," or errors stating "one or more cartridges are missing or damaged," or that the user was using an "older generation cartridge."

As Cory Doctorow over at Boing Boing notes, this behavior is simply par for the course, with Lexmark engaging in similar behavior back in 2003. By embedding an "I am empty" bit in their cartridges, they were similarly able to ensure that users couldn't use third-party cartridges or they'd be told the cartridge lacked ink. Lexmark leaned heavily on Section 1201 of the DMCA to support its behavior, a tactic HP is likely to mirror but evolve:

"Lexmark invoked Section 1201 of the DMCA, which makes it a criminal and civil offense to bypass an "effective means of access control" for a copyrighted work. The DC Circuit court asked Lexmark which copyrighted work was being protected by its access control, and it argued that the checking routine itself was copyrighted, as well as the "Empty" bit. The court found that the DMCA could only be invoked where there was a copyrighted work apart from the access control, and that a single bit didn't qualify as a copyrightable work. Lexmark lost."
In this case, HP's DRM time bomb firmware update was apparently deployed back in March, but HP didn't activate the "improvement" until this month. And as is usually the case in this space, HP isn't saying much outside of a misleading quote proclaiming the company was simply protecting its "innovations" and intellectual property:
"HP said such updates were rolled out "periodically" but did not comment on the timing of the last instalment.

"The purpose of this update is to protect HP's innovations and intellectual property," it said in a statement."
But rejoice! HP claims that users can still refill cartridges, as long as those cartridges contain an HP-approved security chip:
"These printers will continue to work with refilled or remanufactured cartridges with an original HP security chip. Other cartridges may not function."
Well, at least until HP figures out a way to DRM the printer fluid itself, which surely can't be too far along on the horizon.

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Posted on Techdirt - 19 September 2016 @ 10:40am

Town Loses Gigabit Connections After FCC Municipal Broadband Court Loss

from the don't-build-it-and-they-won't-come dept

Back in February the FCC voted to use its Congressional mandate to ensure speedy broadband deployment to dismantle protectionist state laws intentionally designed to hinder broadband competition. But the FCC recently found itself swatted down by the courts, which argued the agency lacks the authority to pre-empt even the worst portions of these laws. As a result municipal broadband providers continue to run face first into protectionist provisions written by incumbent ISP lawyers and lobbyists solely concerned about protecting the current broken broadband market.

The impact of the FCC's loss is very real. Ars Technica notes that one of the broadband ISPs that originally asked for help from the FCC, Wilson North Carolina's Greenlight, has had to disconnect one neighboring town or face violating state law. With state leaders tone deaf to the problem of letting incumbent ISPs write such laws, and the FCC flummoxed in its attempt to help, about 200 home Internet customers in Pinetops will thus lose access to gigabit broadband service as of October 28:

"We must comply with our state law," Agner said. But city council members were very vocal in their opposition to the law and regret having to disconnect the service, she said. "We have not identified a solution where Greenlight can serve customers outside of our county," Wilson City Manager Grant Goings told The Wilson Times earlier this week before the city council vote. "While we are very passionate about reaching underserved areas and we think the laws are atrocious to prevent people from having service, we’re not going to jeopardize our ability to serve Wilson residents."
Greenlight's fiber network provides speeds of 40Mbps to 1Gbps at prices ranging from $40 to $100 a month, service that's unheard of from any of the regional incumbent providers (AT&T, CenturyLink, Time Warner Cable) that lobbied for the protectionist law. Previously, the community of Pinetops only had access to sluggish DSL Service from CenturyLink:
Wilson already had fiber in Pinetops, which has been an electric customer of Wilson's for more than 40 years. Before deploying Internet access to Pinetops, Wilson was laying fiber in the town to support smart grid initiatives. After the FCC voted to let city Internet services expand outside their boundaries, Wilson extended the fiber network to pass the roughly 700 homes in Pinetops, Agner said. Prior to this, Pinetops residents' only option was CenturyLink DSL, she said.
That's the same CenturyLink that's currently using the lack of competition in its markets to begin saddling already slow and expensive DSL service with usage caps and overage fees. ISPs have been very successful in sowing partisan discord by framing municipal broadband as a partisan issue (pesky government interfering in private enterprise!). In reality, most municipal broadband networks have been built in Conservative areas and see broad, bi-partisan support. Disliking the local phone and cable company (and the market failure that built them) is actually something that tends to bring bickering partisans together.

Still, with the FCC's loss there's nothing really stopping ISPs from continuing to use state legislatures as their personal playthings. Currently there's twenty such laws protecting broadband duopolies in place, and despite growing attention to the practice, new protectionist laws are being passed each year.

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Posted on Techdirt - 16 September 2016 @ 8:24am

NYC Kills Internet Browsing At Free WiFi Kiosks After The City's Homeless Actually Use It

from the better-neither-seen-nor-heard dept

Earlier this year, New York City undertook one of the biggest free city WiFi efforts ever conceived. Under the plan, an outfit by the name of LinkNYC is slated to install some 7,500 WiFi kiosks scattered around the five boroughs that will provide free gigabit WiFi (well, closer to 300 Mbps or so), free phone calls to anywhere in the country (via Vonage), as well as access to a device recharging station, 311, 911, 411 and city services (via an integrated Android tablet). The connectivity and services are supported by a rotating crop of ads displayed on the kiosks themselves.

The only problem? As part of the initiative, the city and LinkNYC attached an Android-powered tablet that lets anyone browse the internet for as long as they wanted. This, as you might expect, has resulted in some people camping out for long periods of time actually using the free service. That includes, unsurprisingly, New York City's ample homeless population. As Motherboard notes in a report, after spending much of August tracking usage of the kiosks, a snapshot view of daily use doesn't make for shiny marketing fodder:

"My small sample of Link users that Saturday afternoon suggests these kiosks are indeed mostly used by the city’s least privileged. Of the 15 people I saw using a Link, only two or three of them would be likely to appear on LinkNYC promotional materials (i.e., one well-dressed woman making a phone call, or one middle aged, casually-dressed tourist waiting for his phone to finish charging).
Again, this shouldn't really be surprising, especially since the city has consistently claimed that one of its goals is to close the digital divide. Since June there has also been a lot of breathless hysteria about the fact that some of the homeless users have been using the tablets to watch porn. In response, LinkNYC began implementing internet filters that, as internet filters tend to do, didn't seem to work.

Responding to public complaints, LinkNYC announced this week that it would be discontinuing tablet browsing functionality at the kiosks:
"...Some users have been monopolizing the Link tablets and using them inappropriately, preventing others from being able to use them while frustrating the residents and businesses around them. The kiosks were never intended for anyone’s extended, personal use and we want to ensure that Links are accessible and a welcome addition to New York City neighborhoods.
The announcement notes that the internet browsing will be disabled, but other services will still work:
"Starting today, we will be removing web browsing on all Link tablets while we work with the City and community to explore potential solutions, like time limits. Other tablet features—free phone calls, maps, device charging, and access to 311 and 911—will continue to work as they did before, and nothing is changing about LinkNYC’s superfast Wi-Fi. As planned, we will continue to improve the Link experience and add new features for people to enjoy while they’re on the go."
While countless news stories suggest that the move was primarily in response to overwhelming porn consumption, there's no real evidence that this was an epidemic of any real scale. While there have certainly been documented instances of public masterbation at the kiosks (this is NYC after all, and occasionally viewing a homeless person's gentials is not a new concept), LinkNYC has suggested that people camping out around the kiosks (sometimes bringing chairs, couches and crates with them) was the larger source of complaints by locals.

The real problem appears to be that the service put the city's homeless population on stark display, making them more difficult for city residents to ignore. On one hand it's understandable that homeless populations camping around the kiosks isn't great "optics" or olfactory ambiance for the city and local business owners, but at the same time it's not clear what one expects to happen when you provide the city's 60,000 homeless residents with free access to technology they otherwise lack access to. LinkNYC says it's working with the city on a solution, and may restore public browsing at a later date with tougher filters and access limitations in place. Given the fact that filters historically don't work, it seems more likely that the free browsing will be gone for good.

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Posted on Techdirt - 15 September 2016 @ 10:40am

This Bill Could Stop Protectionist State Broadband Laws, But ISP Control Over Congress Means It Won't Pass

from the get-the-hell-out-of-the-way dept

We've noted for years that one way incumbent broadband providers protect their duopoly kingdoms is by quite literally buying state laws that protect the status quo. These laws, passed in roughly twenty different states, prevent towns and cities from building their own broadband networks or in some instances from partnering with a private company like Google Fiber. Usually misleadingly presented by incumbent lobbyists and lawmakers as grounded in altruistic concern for taxpayer welfare, the laws are little more than pure protectionism designed to maintain the current level of broadband dysfunction -- for financial gain.

Earlier this year, the FCC tried to use its Congressional mandate under the Communications Act to eliminate the restrictive portions of these laws in two states. But the FCC's effort was shot down as an overreach by the courts earlier this month, and the FCC has stated it has no intention of continuing the fight. That leaves the hope of ending these protectionist laws either in the hands of voters (most of whom don't have the slightest idea what's happening) or Congress (most of whom don't want the telecom campaign contributions to stop flowing).

Undaunted, Representative Anna Eshoo this week introduced the Community Broadband Act of 2016 in the House, which is intended to be a companion bill to the existing bill of the same name already introduced in the Senate by Senators Cory Booker and Ron Wyden. Both bills would ban states from passing any law that prohibits a city, municipality or public utility from providing "advanced telecommunications capabilities" to state communities. In a statement, Eshoo expressed her displeasure at the ongoing efforts to thwart alternative broadband options:

"I’m disappointed that a recent court ruling blocked the FCC’s efforts to allow local communities to decide for themselves how best to ensure that their residents have broadband access,” Eshoo said. “This legislation clears the way for local communities to make their own decisions instead of powerful special interests in state capitals."

"Rather than restricting local communities in need of broadband, we should be empowering them to make the decisions they determine are in the best interests of their constituents. Too many Americans still lack access to quality, affordable broadband and community broadband projects are an important way to bring this critical service to more citizens."
Which is all true, though both bills have virtually no chance at passing. Incumbent ISPs have been very successful in paying lawmakers to argue that any attempt to eliminate these protectionist laws is an "assault on states' rights," as argued by the likes of Marsha Blackburn. Of absolutely no concern to these critics is the fact that large companies are writing and buying the passage of state laws that ensure many states remain broadband backwaters solely to protect incumbent ISP revenues.

On the bright side, the rise of alternative (though limited) options like Google Fiber -- and the FCC's fight -- have shined a very bright spotlight on a practice that has been ongoing for fifteen years with little to no public and press attention. As such, ISPs (and the politicians that love them) are having a much harder time than ever convincing locals that laws keeping them on expensive, sluggish broadband are in their collective best self-interest.

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Posted on Techdirt - 15 September 2016 @ 6:21am

New York City Threatens To Sue Verizon For Failure To Meet Fiber Deployment Promises

from the fool-me-twice dept

We've noted for years now how Verizon's modus operandi is to promise uniform fiber deployment to a city or state in exchange for all manner of subsidies and tax breaks, then walk away giggling to itself with the job only partially complete. This story has played out time and time again thanks to city and state contracts struck behind closed doors without public transparency, allowing Verizon to bury numerous loopholes in the contract language. Other times, Verizon can lobby to weaken oversight so that there's simply nobody left to hold Verizon accountable when it decides to laugh off the contract requirements.

In 2008, New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg struck a closed-door deal with Verizon delivering all manner of tax breaks and incentives in exchange for what the city thought would be 100% deployment of Verizon's FiOS fiber optic service by 2014. Fast forward to last year, when the new city administration realized that Verizon had absolutely no intention of seriously deploying fiber uniformly across the city. This week, the city released the results of a survey it conducted that found that fiber is unsurprisingly still hard to come by:

"The city recently sampled 52,000 addresses for Fios availability, and found that outer boroughs were more likely to have access than Manhattan. For instance, 90% of Staten Island residents could likely get Fios within seven days, while the same is true for just 19% of people in central Brooklyn and 11% in upper Manhattan. About two-thirds of the more than 300 public-housing developments, which are home to more than 400,000 people, have no access to Fios, the city says.
Meanwhile, a letter from the city to the telco (pdf) complains that Verizon is in violation of at least three parts of the original agreement, failed repeatedly to deliver documentation requested during an audit of Verizon's progress, and cites at least 38,551 addresses where Verizon failed to deliver service despite order requests that are more than a year old.

Verizon, as it is wont to do, tries to spin the narrative on its head by claiming that New York City is being "adversarial":
"It is unfortunate and disappointing that the City is taking an adversarial approach to the only company that has challenged New York City’s cable monopolies,” Mr. McConville said. "The City should be working with Verizon to make choice available to more residents, not discouraging competition.”
Except Cities have every right to be adversarial with a company that has shown repeatedly that it doesn't deliver on its promises. Verizon has tried to claim that grumpy landlords are to blame for its failure to deliver FiOS evenly across the city. And while landlords can play a role in delaying some installations, reporters have subsequently discovered that the excuse just doesn't hold water and Verizon's simply not doing the work.

While it was a contract signed under a previous administration, New York City isn't blameless. Reporters at the time pointed out that the city's contract had ample loopholes and should have been negotiated in the full light of public transparency, but nobody listened. So while New York City says it's mulling a lawsuit against Verizon, that suit may run repeatedly into contract caveats carefully crafted by a company that never had any intention of uniform fiber deployment. The contract reflected this had anybody actually bothered to read it.

The amusing (or annoying) thing is that cities keep making the same deals with the proverbial devil over and over again. Philadelphia recently complained that Verizon failed to meet its obligations there as well. And While Verizon's overall FiOS deployment has been frozen, the city just struck a similar deal with Boston -- with few if any in the press bothering to note the tail of frustration and broken promises trailing miles behind the telco and its lawyers.

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Posted on Techdirt - 14 September 2016 @ 9:36am

Pressure Mounts to Punish Russia For Hacking Without Evidence And Before Investigations Are Concluded

from the evidence-is-for-sissies dept

While it's certainly possible Russia has been busy using hackers to meddle in (or at least stoke the idiot pyres burning beneath) the U.S. elections, we've noted how actual evidence of this is hard to come by. At the moment, most of this evidence consists of either comments by anonymous government officials, or murky proclamations from security firms that have everything to gain financially from stoking cybersecurity tensions. Of course, transparent evidence is hard to come by when talking about hackers capable of false flag operations while obfuscating their footprints completely.

Granted that hasn't stopped people from demanding a cyber or real world attack on Russia, both idiotic ideas for what should be obvious reasons. But with no hard evidence forthcoming, those looking for perceived justice are apparently getting a little punchy. The Washington Post notes that the government continues to conduct an investigation into the DNC hacks, but the whole "obtaining actual evidence before doing anything stupid" thing is clearly frustrating the 1980's action movie sect of the intelligence community:

"The White House’s and some Cabinet officials’ insistence on awaiting the probe’s results has frustrated some officials at the FBI, the Justice Department and within the intelligence community, who favor holding Moscow accountable. The White House’s continued requests for more evidence, said one official, is “to delay — purposely delay” a public attribution."
Again, it's not like you're going to find a goddamned memo linking Russia to the DNC hacks, and any hacker worth his or her salt isn't going to leave evidence of the hack or their ties to a nation state. There's also the ongoing reality that the leading country when it comes to nation state hacking has generally been the United States, making any vocal moral repudiation kind of laughable. Still, that doesn't seem to be stopping folks like Senator Ben Sasse, who insists that we should just skip the whole actual evidence thing and proceed to lambasting Russia for doing what the United States has done for decades:
"Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.), a member of the Homeland Security committee, said President Obama should publicly name Russia and do so before the November election. A failure to do so will only encourage further cyber intrusions and meddling in the U.S. election, he said.

“If the Obama administration has a reason for not clearly attributing these hacks to Russia, it contradicts their own cyber strategy,” Sasse said. “If they’re silent because it would invite response, that suggests that we’re operating from a position of weakness — in other words, we know that we need to aggressively deter cyberattacks, but we are too vulnerable to do it. Neither scenario is reassuring."
But again, what good is publicly shaming Russia for hacking when you've spent decades doing the same thing -- or worse? The only net outcome is you wind up looking like a giant, blithering hypocrite to the global community. The entire article stumbles on like this, quoting various officials on and off the record demanding we do everything from impose sanctions to start leaking Putin's dirty laundry:
"The National Security Agency, for instance, could disrupt a Russian computer system in a way that leaves no doubt who did it and that warns the Russians “to knock it off,” one former intelligence official said. Or the CIA could leak documents that are embarrassing in some way to Russian President Vladi­mir Putin."
Attack! Attack! Who needs evidence? Who needs the moral high ground? Generally, the press-driven public dialogue on cybersecurity and intelligence is so far from what's actually happening in the wild (as intelligence whistleblowers illustrate every few years) that one really should treat press reports on the subject as creative fiction. Combine that with the way nationalism leads to hypocrisy and the fact that most of these "former intelligence officials" don't even know what a gigabyte is, and you've got a recipe for keystone-cops-esque high comedy.

Again, none of this is to suggest that Russia isn't hacking the United States. But to ignore that all nation states are hacking each other all the time is myopic, and suggesting the DNC attack constitutes some rare breach of international ethics is hysterically naive given what we know about the States' own hacking attacks. The real danger here remains the threat of false flag hacking attacks and misinformation campaigns designed to prompt countries to dramatic action without substantive proof. The smarter path is to focus this energy on securing, upgrading and patching government systems to protect against intrusion, even though that's certainly a lot less fun than starting a new world war just because you think hard evidence is for sissies.

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Posted on Techdirt - 14 September 2016 @ 6:19am

Gizmodo Completely Misses The Point Of Cord Cutting

from the missing-the-forest-for-the-trees dept

Roughly every month or so I'll see a story proclaiming that cord cutting is a bad idea because you need to subscribe to multiple services to mirror the same overall volume of content you receive from pay TV. There are a few problems with that logic, first being that cord cutters aren't looking to precisely duplicate cable TV. They're looking to get away from paying a small fortune for hundreds of unwatched channels, including an ocean of religious programming, infomercials, whatever the Weather Channel is up to these days, and C-grade channels focused on inherently inane prattle.

Writers of these pieces always seem to forget that broadcasters dictate the pricing of content on both platforms, so any surprise that the pricing of television remains somewhat high (when you pile on multiple streaming services) is just kind of silly. All told, "cord cutting is really expensive when I subscribe to every streaming service in the known universe" is just a weird narrative that just keeps bubbling up across various media outlets despite not really making much sense.

The latest example is a recent piece over at Gizmodo by Matt Novak that proudly proclaims that "cord cutting isn't a bargain any more" when you sign up for a pile of different streaming services:

"So, let’s see, if you pay for Hulu Plus (which is now just Hulu, since they’re dropping their free tier) that sets you back about $8 per month. And if you go subscription free that’s $12 per month. And Netflix is another $10. And HBO Now is another $15. And obviously you’re going to get the new commercial free CBS, so that’s $10 per month. What are we up to? About $47 before tax? And then you toss on your high-speed internet bill, which you’re probably paying to the cable company anyway. Yeah, this whole cordcutter thing sounds like it liberated consumers alright, doesn’t it?

So............................................. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯"
And that's it. Pretty much Gizmodo's entire argument is that because the author had to pay $47 for four streaming services, cord cutting isn't a bargain and can't be taken seriously. But compared to traditional cable, that's not really a bad deal. Novak also appears to ignore that countless people save a significant amount of money when they decide to trim back their programming lineup or cut the cord entirely. As such, it was entertaining to watch users over at Reddit quickly and repeatedly point out how much money they've saved by moving on from traditional cable:
And it's worth pointing out that these consumers are still saving money despite every effort by the broadcast and cable industry to make cord cutting as difficult as possible, whether that's via restrictive licensing agreements, lawsuits intended to deter innovation, or the use of usage caps to otherwise penalize users who try and leave the legacy TV pasture. The entire point of cord cutting is the flexibility to mix and match various services to craft the precise lineup of content you want, something the cable industry continues to pay empty lip service to via "skinny bundles" saddled with obnoxious fees and caveats.

The cable industry has a long, proud history of advertising one rate, then socking consumers with a significantly higher bill thanks to hardware rental costs and various other fees. That's something correctly pointed out by Jared Newman, who apparently found Gizmodo's narrative as tiring as I did:
"Cable TV might seem cheap when you first sign up, but that’s only because you’re getting a short-term promotional deal, and the advertised price rarely factors in hardware rental and other hidden costs, such as regional sports fees and broadcast retransmission fees. Keeping your payments down requires constant vigilance, and you’ll never actually pay the advertised rate anyway."
There's also a weird tendency among TV beat writers to act as if piracy doesn't exist just because it's not formally sanctioned by the United Nations or Homeland Security as a legal and accepted way to obtain content. But reality doesn't work that way. You don't get to magically eliminate discussing piracy as an avenue for consumer cost savings when discussing the pay TV landscape just because it's naughty. Many cord cutters pirate because the cable industry refuses to give them the flexibility and pricing they want. That doesn't somehow mean piracy isn't a legitimate competitor for consumer affections and shouldn't be discussed when analyzing cost savings.

If there's a problem with the streaming model, it's one that Gizmodo almost accidentally stumbles into. Namely that broadcaster licensing has increasingly fractured streaming content availability, forcing users to hunt and peck between multiple services to find the content they're looking for, something that's only going to increase as broadcasters exclusively offer their own content via their own services. That's incredibly confusing for the consumer, especially given the frequency with which content disappears as licensing periods expire. Ultimately this confusion will only make piracy more attractive.

And yes, consumers in the future will likely have to pay even more as more and more ISPs turn to usage caps to simultaneously cash in on a lack of competition while protecting legacy TV revenues. But that's not somehow the fault of cord cutting as a concept. Cord cutting may not be for everybody (especially sports viewers), but it's a very organic response to an aggressively inflexible pay TV sector that absolutely refuses to compete on price despite the obvious writing on the wall. So yes, ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ indeed.

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Posted on Techdirt - 13 September 2016 @ 4:20pm

Cuba's Telecom Monopoly Banning Text Messages Containing Words Like 'Democracy'

from the that'll-work dept

The door to modernizing Cuba's communications networks opened slightly wider recently after the FCC removed the country from the agency's banned nation list. That allows fixed and wireless companies alike to begin doing business in Cuba as part of an overall attempt to ease tensions between the States and the island nation. And while Cuba has been justly concerned about opening the door to NSA bosom buddies like AT&T and Verizon, it's still apparently not quite ready to give up some of its own, decidedly ham-fisted attempts to crack down on free speech over telecom networks.

A recent investigative report by blogger Yoani Sanchez and journalist Reinaldo Escobar found that the nation has been banning certain words sent via text message with the help of state-owned telecom monopoly ETECSA. The report, confirmed in an additional investigation by Reuters, found that roughly 30 different keywords are being banned by Cuba's government, including "democracy," "human rights," and the name of several activists and human rights groups. Words containing such keywords simply aren't delivered, with no indication given to the sender of the delivery failure.

Initially, the researchers thought this was just incompetence on the part of ETECSA:

"Eliecer Avila, head of opposition youth group Somos Mas, which participated in the investigation, said 30 key words that triggered the blocking had been identified but there could be more.

"We always thought texts were vanishing because the provider is so incompetent, then we decided to check using words that bothered the government," he said. "We discovered not just us but the entire country is being censored," he said. "It just shows how insecure and paranoid the government is."
You can understand some degree of paranoia when you've got the United States and Russia battling over who gets to bone graft surveillance technology into your fledgling communications networks, but the clumsy censorship also isn't too surprising for a nation that still bans advertising across the island.

That said, the real problem for most Cubans remains that broadband and wireless communications is a luxury commodity well out of reach of most residents. Only between 5 and 25% of Cubans even have access to the internet, and while many can access Wi-Fi via hotspots opened just last year, the cost of connection is roughly $2 an hour, or around a tenth of the average monthly Cuban salary. As such, Cubans are "fortunate" in that they can't yet even afford to be comprehensively spied on.

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Posted on Techdirt - 13 September 2016 @ 6:28am

Netflix Urges FCC To Crack Down On Broadband Usage Caps

from the pay-more,-get-less dept

We've long pointed how how broadband usage caps (especially on fixed-line networks) are arbitrary, punitive and confusing. In addition to being totally unnecessary, broadband caps open the door to anti-competitive behavior (like zero rating a company's own content but not a competitor's). The idea that caps are necessary to manage the network has long been debunked, and even the ISPs themselves have admitted that caps have nothing to do with congestion. Broadband caps are little more than glorified price hikes on captive markets, useful to protect legacy TV revenues from streaming video.

Despite the profoundly negative impact of usage caps, most Silicon Valley companies remain mute on the subject. One of the few exceptions is Netflix, which not only has been a vocal opponent of caps, but has often taken steps to try and help consumers navigate them. Now the company is once again pushing the FCC to take action in a new filing (pdf), urging the agency to use its authority under Section 706 of the Communications Act to crack down on caps and overage fees:

Data caps (especially low data caps) and usage based pricing ("UBP") discourage a consumer's consumption of broadband, and may impede the ability of some households to watch Internet television in a manner and amount that they would like. For this reason, the Commission should hold that data caps on fixed line networks and low data caps on mobile networks may unreasonably limit television viewing and are inconsistent with Section 706.
From there, Netflix is quick to reiterate that even ISPs have admitted that caps have no actual technical purpose when it comes to managing the network:
"Data caps on fixed line networks do not appear to serve a legitimate purpose: they are an ineffective network management tool. Fixed line BIAS providers have stated that data caps on fixed line networks to not serve a traffic management function. They have been described alternatively as a way to align customers' use of the network with what they pay. As a method of price discrimination however, data caps and UBP are redundant to the speed tiers that consumers are used to. Data caps and UBP raise the cost of using the connections that consumers have paid for, making it more expensive to watch Internet television. The Commission should recognize that data caps and UBP on fixed line networks are an unnecessary constraint on advanced telecommunications capability.
Netflix (now technically the world's biggest pay TV company) notes that in addition to being unnecessary, punitive, and potentially anti-competitive, usage caps are simply confusing. The majority of consumers don't know what a gigabyte even is, and by nature will tend to pay for higher tiers of service they don't need just to avoid being penalized (something that's quite easy by ISP design). Netflix is also quick to note that even higher caps may not be sufficient as consumers slowly shift to 4K streaming (not to mention other bandwidth-intensive applications we haven't even invented yet).

The problem for Netflix (and any consumer who cares about usage caps) is that the FCC's enforcement or interest in this subject has historically been inconsistent at best. While the agency did manage to prevent Charter from imposing caps for seven years as a recent merger condition, the agency has consistently turned a blind eye while companies like AT&T and Comcast expand their own usage restrictions and overage fees. And while Comcast and AT&T may have recently raised their own caps to 1 terabyte to fend off possible regulatory action, there's no real indication that any broader FCC action is forthcoming.

While the FCC has hinted that it may include usage caps as part of a voluntary push for broadband "nutrition labels", it's not likely the commission will do much more than that (even though nobody is confirming meter accuracy). Whether it's the FCC's $300 million broadband availability map that intentionally omits price data, or the agency's failure to even mention the ISP practice of using bogus fees to covertly jack up advertised broadband rates, punishing or even highlighting the price gouging that goes on in the broadband industry on a daily basis has never been the FCC's strong suit.

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Posted on Techdirt - 9 September 2016 @ 6:30am

Comcast Already Whining About New FCC Cable Box Plan, Despite It Being The Cable Industry's Idea

from the ignore-the-man-behind-the-curtain dept

We've noted how the FCC's plan to bring competition to the cable box fell apart over the last few months, thanks to a massive disinformation effort by the cable industry involving a flood of hugely misleading editorials and some help from the US Copyright Office. In short the cable industry used a sound wall of hired voices to claim that cable box competition would hurt consumer privacy, violate copyright, result in a huge spike in piracy, and was even racist. Despite these claims being nonsense, the unprecedented PR campaign managed to sway several FCC Commissioners that had originally voted yes on the proposal.

With his ally commissioners waffling on the original plan, FCC boss Tom Wheeler was forced to offer up a new watered down proposal (pdf). Under the new plan, cable operators would have two years to develop apps that let all cable customers access content (small cable ops are exempt) on the streaming hardware of their choice. In an editorial defending the plan being circulated to numerous websites, Wheeler makes it abundantly clear that cable providers can use any standard of their choice to develop the app, and have control of their content from end to end:

"While our primary focus during this proceeding was to promote consumer choice and fulfill our congressional mandate, we recognize that protecting the legitimate copyright interests of content creators is also key to serving the public interest. To ensure that all copyright and licensing agreements will remain intact, the delivery of pay-TV programming will continue to be overseen by pay-TV providers from end-to-end. The proposed rules also maintain important protections regarding emergency alerting, accessibility and privacy."
Except the copyright concerns weren't legitimate, because cable box competition has nothing to do with copyright. The cable industry's opposition to real cable box competition is driven by two simple things: a desire to retain control as users flee legacy TV (or more accurately the illusion of control), and a desire to protect $20 billion in annual revenue from cable box rental fees. But the sector obviously can't just come out and say this, so instead they've hidden their motivation behind a litany of hyperbole and bloviation.

Amusingly, it was the cable industry that originally approached an "app based" alternative to Wheeler's initial plan (the flaws in which we've previously dissected here). Yet it didn't take Comcast long to circulate a statement to various press outlets stating that it didn't like this new proposal, either:
"While we appreciate that Chairman Wheeler has abandoned his discredited proposal to break apart cable and satellite services, his latest tortured approach is equally flawed. He claims that his new proposal builds on the marketplace success of apps, but in reality, it would stop the apps revolution dead in its tracks by imposing an overly complicated government licensing regime and heavy-handed regulation in a fast-moving technological space.
By "discredited" proposal, Comcast means that it paid an ocean of think tankers, academics, lobbyists, consultants and others to lambaste the plan at every conceivable opportunity (with news outlets rarely disclosing the financial ties). And by "fast moving technological space" Comcast means a sector historically known for doing everything in its power to not only cripple consumer choice, but punish consumers for seeking out better alternatives to legacy TV. And again, the FCC effectively gave the cable sector the app-based approach its own lobbyists pushed for, and Comcast's still not happy:
"It perpetuates many of the concerns that led hundreds of Members of Congress, content creators, diversity and civil rights organizations, labor unions, and over 300,000 individuals to object to his original flawed approach, including problems with privacy, copyright protection, content security, and innovation. Heavy-handed government technology mandates have a long history of failure. The Chairman’s approach would likely meet the same fate, while causing real damage to the thriving apps marketplace and real harm to consumers."
Again, it's wise of Comcast to avoid mentioning that Comcast paid for, either overtly or covertly, the lion's share of opposition to the FCC's plan. It's also probably smart of Comcast to avoid mentioning that the FCC's counter proposal is almost exactly what cable industry lobbyists asked for. The FCC says it will vote (again) on its cable box proposal at its meeting on September 29, meaning the next few weeks you'll see a barrage of new editorials trying to claim that cable box competition will hurt the children, frighten puppies, and almost certainly rip a giant hole in the time-space continuum.

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Posted on Techdirt - 8 September 2016 @ 9:35am

AT&T's Already Happily Tap Dancing Around Its DirecTV Merger Obligations

from the ye-olde-merger-condition-two-step dept

If you've followed the telecom sector for any amount of time, you've probably noticed that the merger conditions affixed to its rotating crop of mega-mergers are usually hot garbage. Frequently the ankle-height goals are proposed by the companies themselves, and are usually something the companies planned on doing anyway. Telecom companies also know full well that regulators historically can't be bothered to check their math on such promises, letting them essentially trot out a rotating crop of feel good, but totally hollow "obligations" before they get to work laying off redundant employees and raising rates.

It's a win-win relationship of dysfunction, where giant companies get to grow ever larger, and regulators score cheap political points for "toughness" thanks to a media that can't be bothered to actually read the fine print of such deals, lest readership get bored.

When Comcast was pushing for its 2011 acquisition of NBC Universal it crafted a new wrinkle in this old story. It proposed offering $10, 5 Mbps broadband to low-income homes if regulators signed off on the deal. And while regulators were happy to promote this as yeoman's work in bridging the digital divide, it didn't take long before low-income families began protesting in the streets, pointing out the plan was hard to find, hard to qualify for, and difficult to sign up for. Still, Comcast's "Internet Essentials" plan has been a PR bonanza, with the cable giant holding an endless barrage of PR junkets advertising its selfless altruism.

To get regulators to sign off on its $69 billion DirecTV acquisition, AT&T proposed a similar $10 low-income broadband program it calls "Access." Under Access, low-income homes can get discounted, slow DSL service for an unspecified limited time -- provided they are in AT&T territory, have no outstanding debt with AT&T, and have at least one resident who participates in the US Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). Under the program, users can get 5 Mbps or 10 Mbps DSL for the $10 price point, or 3 Mbps for $5 a month, which certainly sounds promising.

But the National Digital Inclusion Alliance this week issued a report noting that the company oddly omitted homes that can only get speeds of 1.5 Mbps. Given ISPs' tendency to refuse to upgrade many low-income areas, this naturally exempted a significant number of inner city applicants that might otherwise qualify for the service:

"You might think we're talking about a few isolated rural areas here. Think again. According to data published by the FCC from its Form 477 surveys of providers, AT&T's fastest reported download connection for VDSL (its current version of Digital Subscriber Line service) was 1.5 mbps or less for households in about 21% of all Census blocks in the cities of Cleveland and Detroit. Those blocks are mostly in inner-city neighborhoods with many low income households."
In a city like Cleveland, where AT&T has had little competitive incentive to upgrade its low-income urban networks, you're ultimately talking about a significant number of the poorest communities being unable to get speeds much faster than 1.5 Mbps:
So the group asked AT&T if they wouldn't mind, you know, actually offering the discounted service to these slower-lines, and found their request flatly refused:
"About two months ago, NDIA contacted senior management at AT&T and proposed a change in the program to allow SNAP participants living at addresses with 1.5 Mbps to qualify for Access service at $5/mo. Yes, we know we were asking for the minimum speed to be lower than it should be, but paying $5/mo is better than paying full price and in many neighborhoods, both urban and rural, Access is the only low-cost broadband service option.

I'm sorry to report that, after considering NDIA's proposal for over a month, AT&T said no. “AT&T is not prepared to expand the low income offer to additional speed tiers beyond those established as a condition of the merger approval."
That shouldn't be too surprising. These low-income programs sound great upon shallow inspection, but once you've weeded out consumers that already have service, or owe their phone or cable company money (kind of common when you're struggling to pay the bills), you've already eliminated a huge swath of qualified applicants. AT&T apparently thought they could shave off another few million qualified households countrywide by refusing to provide service to its slower 1.5 Mbps DSL customers, hoping nobody would notice.

Of course, it's possible that AT&T will buckle should this story gain some mainstream media attention (unlikely), and promote its inclusion of 1.5 Mbps as just another generous act of altruism in the company's neverending quest to protect the poor.

AT&T's other "major" DirecTV merger condition was that it would deploy fiber to millions of additional homes, but as we've long noted, the company has a long history of fiddling with numbers to falsely inflate its deployment projections for such services. When it comes to fiber deployments, AT&T's often just lighting up some existing, already buried fiber at high-end housing developments, then crowing in a rotating crop of press releases that it has "launched" yet another market -- despite the fact that few can actually get the service.

After more than a generation, AT&T is the master of the merger condition two-step, having effectively tap danced around conditions affixed to most of its previous acquisitions, including BellSouth. For that deal, AT&T promised stand alone DSL at a discounted rate, then went out of its way to hide the offer from consumers. Regulators often don't bother to fact check or enforce such flagrant middle fingers after the fact since it would be an admission that the conditions -- and the mega-mergers they help prop up -- quite often actively harm the consumers regulators are supposed to be looking out for.

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Posted on Techdirt - 8 September 2016 @ 6:23am

After Massive Cable Industry Lobbying And Disinformation Effort, The FCC Is Forced To Weaken Its Cable Box Reform Plan

from the disinformation-nation dept

Back in February, the FCC approved a new plan to bring some much-needed competition to the old cable box, resulting in better, cheaper, and more open hardware. But fearing a loss of control (and $21 billion in annual cable box rental fees) the cable industry launched an unprecedented lobbying campaign featuring an endless barrage of editorials attacking the plan for encouraging piracy and even being racist. The cable industry even managed to get the Copyright Office to fight on its behalf, spreading false claims that the plan would "harm copyright" despite having really nothing to do with the subject.

This lobbying and disinformation plan caused several of the Commissioners who voted yes on the plan to unfortunately waffle on the original proposal. As such, FCC boss Tom Wheeler had to return to the drawing board, and is cooking up a heavily modified "compromise" plan that would focus on forcing cable providers to provide their content via an app:

The purpose of the proposal would be to make apps more ubiquitous across streaming devices, and allow subscribers to forgo the cable box altogether. Wheeler has criticized the industry for collecting monthly rental fees for their set-top boxes from consumers, even after the cost of the devices have been recouped.

The proposal would require that cable companies make their apps available to other devices, such as smart TVs and gaming consoles, according to sources familiar with the plan and filings from industry representatives.
Wheeler appears to be cooking up a plan that looks a lot like an underwhelming cable industry counterproposal circulated back in June. But as we noted at the time, providing content via tightly-controlled apps isn't the same thing as open hardware, and isn't all that different from what the cable sector offers today. Such apps usually are just as tightly controlled and restrictive as the cable boxes they're meant to supplement or ultimately replace.

The cable industry has also strongly hinted that if it's forced to offer programming via app, it will just seek its pound of flesh in other ways -- such as charging consumers a new fee if they want to record and store content via cloud DVR. And while the FCC's plan hasn't been released yet, consumer groups and hardware vendor groups like INCOMPAS worry that an "app-based" proposal could simply swap out one ham-fisted attempt at control with another.

Given the cable industry spent millions to successfully manipulate the press, public, politicians and The Copyright Office to protect its anti-competitive cable box fiefdom, you'd think it would be happy about its success in weakening the FCC proposal. But the sector is still complaining, and is worried that the FCC would still be able to dictate terms of their license agreements with streaming box manufacturers like TiVO or Google:
"Cable operators and media companies also are suspicious of a proposed new FCC process for licensing their apps to device makers, viewing it as a chance for the FCC to meddle in their contracts. The FCC’s “updated proposal will unequivocally fail if there is a possibility of governmental or other third-party intervention in the programming rights, obligations and restrictions negotiated by program suppliers, broadcasters and [cable firms],” the National Association of Broadcasters said in written comments to the agency Friday."
Again, if the cable industry is forced to kill the cable box and shift its content to apps, it's going to want to develop all manner of creative new ways to recoup that $21 billion in lost cable box rental fees. Whether that takes the shape of a $20 per month DVR recording fee or a $10 per month "because we said so" fee isn't clear, but it is very clear the cable sector doesn't want the FCC policing how these apps are licensed and presented. It took no time at all for stories to pop up online proclaiming that the FCC was on a power-hungry quest to create a "copyright licensing office within the FCC":
"Instead, FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler is now considering the creation of a copyright licensing office within the FCC, replacing complex separate arrangements with device manufacturers with a single contract overseen and possibly written by the Commission’s staff....It would also unilaterally substitute the FCC for the Copyright Office in establishing and enforcing compulsory licenses for programming, without any indication–let alone legislation–from Congress authorizing such a radical shift.
But like so much said about the FCC's plan over the last seven months, that's simply not true. The FCC would primarily act to ensure the cable industry didn't just supplement one bad idea (the locked down cable box) with another (apps saddled with onerous restrictions and fees), which is a pretty far cry from an entirely new copyright apparatus being forged in the belly of the FCC. And again, contrary to the Copyright Office's claim, this debate has absolutely nothing to do with copyright, and everything to do with control.

If the FCC can't get its own commissioners to support a meaningful cable box reform plan, it may not be worth the fight. A regulator-mandated attempt to replace the cable box with a half-cooked app-based approach may just deliver more of the same shenanigans in a different hat. An easier path may be for the FCC to give up on cable box reform, let the pay TV sector evolve or die organically, and focus its efforts on the biggest problem of the streaming video age: the lack of broadband competition and all of the anti-competitive chicanery (usage caps, net neutrality violations, zero rating) such dysfunction enables.

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Posted on Net Neutrality Special Edition - 7 September 2016 @ 10:49am

What Net Neutrality? While The FCC Naps, AT&T Now Exempting DirecTV Content From Wireless Usage Caps

from the slippery-slopes dept

When the FCC crafted its new net neutrality rules, we noted that the agency's failure to ban "zero rating" (exempting your own company's content from usage caps) was going to be a problem. And lo and behold, with the FCC AWOL on the subject, companies are starting to take full advantage. Verizon and Comcast now exempt their own streaming video services from usage caps without penalty, while companies like T-Mobile and Sprint have launched new confusing and punitive data plans that throttle games, music and video content -- unless users pay a premium.

These were all concepts net neutrality rules were supposed to prevent. But because the FCC's rules didn't go quite far enough, we're effectively looking at rules that make net neutrality violations ok -- provided you're just a little bit creative about it.

Outside of the vague promise of an "information inquiry" that began last January, the FCC hasn't said much of anything as ISPs test the limits of the existing rules and pretty much finds that so far -- there really aren't any. Encouraged by the FCC's apathy on the subject, AT&T this week quietly began exempting DirecTV video content from its usage caps after buying the satellite TV provider last year for $69 billion. A quiet update to the DirecTV app indicates that the company is now pushing this as a new "data free TV" option":

AT&T is getting into the messy business of zero-rating, offering wireless data subscribers the opportunity to stream video from the DirecTV mobile app with no data costs at all. According to update notes from the latest version of the app released today, users can "stream DirecTV on your devices, anywhere — without using your data."

This promise was tested by Verge staff this morning, who were able to play DirecTV content on their mobile without any noticeable impact to their data allowance. However, the release notes for the app warn that there are restrictions. Under some unspecified circumstances users may still "incur data charges," says DirecTV, and any free video streaming is subject to "network management, including speed reduction."
Much like T-Mobile's Binge On efforts (which zero rate only the biggest video services) the idea of getting something for "free" sounds wonderful upon superficial inspection. At least until you realize that AT&T's decision to give its own content an unfair leg up in this fashion puts its competitors, like Netflix and Amazon, at a distinct disadvantage. That's why so many people had urged the FCC to follow India, Japan, Finland, Iceland, Estonia, Latvia, Norway, The Netherlands, and Chile's approach to net neutrality rules and ban zero rating entirely.

The FCC didn't, and thanks to its failure, we now face a scenario where net neutrality can be trampled without repercussion -- and may even be celebrated by the press and public -- provided you just use the right shade of public relations paint.

And there's every indication AT&T's just getting started. This particular announcement (made on Apple product announcement day to capitalize on the tech media's distraction) was just AT&T dipping its toe into the zero rating water. The company plans to launch three different streaming services under the DirecTV brand later this year, and you can be fairly sure that AT&T intends to use zero rating to give all of them a distinct, and notably unfair, market advantage.

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Posted on Techdirt - 7 September 2016 @ 6:30am

Hillary Clinton Thinks Real-World Military Responses To Hacking Attacks Are A Nifty Idea

from the bombing-for-the-lulz dept

While hacking and "cybersecurity" threats have long been used to justify awful government policy, the entire concept is clearly about to be turbocharged. With the rise in hacking attacks on the DNC, many were quick to call for renewed cyberattacks on Russia despite the fact that hard, transparent proof of Russian nation state involvement remains hard to come by (the idea being unsound either way). But in a speech last week, Presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton took things one step further by suggesting that she'll make it an administration goal to respond to cyberattacks with real-world military force:

"As President, I will make it clear that the United States will treat cyberattacks just like any other attack. We will be ready with serious political, economic, and military responses," she told the attendees, largely made up of veterans and their supporters. "We are going to invest in protecting our governmental networks and our national infrastructure," she continued. "I want us to lead the world in setting the rules in cyberspace. If America doesn't, others will."
There are several things wrong with this narrative. The US government and Western media seem to frequently go out of their way to imply that the United States is an innocent little hacking daisy, nobly defending itself from a wide variety of evil international threats. But as we saw with Stuxnet, the United States is very often the country doing the attacking, often with major negative impact on countries, companies and civilians worldwide. That the US has the moral high ground on cybersecurity is little more than a stale meme, and it needs to be put out of its misery.

And granted, while Clinton was clearly trying to appeal to her veteran audience at the American Legion National Conference (most of whom likely can't tell a terabyte from T-Mobile), America's moral cybersecurity superiority was on proud display all the same:
"We need to respond to evolving threats from states like Russia, China, Iran and North Korea," Clinton said in the speech. "We need a military that is ready and agile so it can meet the full range of threats and operate on short notice across every domain – not just land, sea, air and space but also cyberspace. "You've seen reports. Russia's hacked into a lot of things, China has hacked into a lot of things. Russia even hacked into the Democratic National Committee, maybe even some state election systems. So we have got to step up our game. Make sure we are well defended and able to take the fight to those who go after us."
Again, you'll note that the United States is portrayed as an innocent and noble defender of cybersecurity freedom, when it's the one often engaging in frequently-unprovoked attacks the world over. Of course, Clinton and friends are well aware that the vast majority of the time it's impossible to know where an attack came from, and any hacker worth his or her salt simply doesn't leave footprints. That makes a real-world military or economic response to a nebulous, usually-unprovable threat simply idiotic. You'd assume Clinton knows this and was just doing some light pandering to the audience.

But this rhetoric alone is still dangerous in that it opens the door wide to using hacking -- much like communism and Islamic extremism and numerous "isms" before them -- as a nebulous, endlessly mutable justification for a litany of bad US behavior. You could, for example, covertly hack a government, publicize its hacking response to your hack, using the press to help you justify military action. Given the US and global media's historical complicity in helping governments begin wars with jack shit for evidence, it shouldn't be hard to see how hacking is going to be a useful bad policy bogeyman du jour for decades to come.

Despite some repeated, painful lessons on this front stretching back generations, forcing the government to show its math before it resorts to violence is simply not the US media's strong suit. And with hacking and cybersecurity being subjects the press and public are extra-violently ignorant about, we've created the opportunity for some incredible new sleight of hand when it comes to framing and justifying US domestic and international policy. If history is any indication, by next time this year we'll be blaming everything under the sun on Russian hackers because after all, two anonymous senior government officials said so.

Healthy skepticism will be our ally as we stumble down the rabbit hole. While it's no surprise that Russia, like the United States is deeply-involved in nation state hacking, you'll note that actual evidence linking the Putin Administration to the recent rise in US hacking attacks remains fleeting. Most reports simply cite a single anonymous US government source, or security firms with a vested interest in selling services and products. That's not to say Putin and friends aren't busy hacking the US, but whether a country is responding to similar attacks by the United States (pdf) -- or is actually involved at all -- is rather important to transparently document before you begin trotting out awful new policies or worse, real world bombs.

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