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Posted on Techdirt - 15 October 2021 @ 12:07pm

GOP Very Excited To Be Handed An FCC Voting Majority By Joe Biden

from the own-goal dept

Consumer groups have grown all-too-politely annoyed at the Biden administration's failure to pick a third Democratic Commissioner and permanent FCC boss nearly eight months into his term. After the rushed Trump appointment of unqualified Trump ally Nathan Simington to the agency (as part of that dumb and now deceased plan to have the FCC regulate social media), the agency now sits gridlocked at 2-2 commissioners under interim FCC head Jessica Rosenworcel.

While the FCC can still putter along tackling its usual work on spectrum and device management, the gridlock means it can't do much of anything controversial, like reversing Trump-era attacks on basic telecom consumer protections, media consolidation rules, or the FCC's authority to hold telecom giants accountable for much of, well, anything. If you're a telecom giant like AT&T or Comcast, that's the gift that just keeps on giving.

More interesting perhaps is the fact that interim FCC boss Jessica Rosenworcel, whose term expires at the end of the year, hasn't had her term renewed either. That means there's an increasingly real chance the GOP enjoys a 2-1 voting majority at Biden's FCC in the new year:

"Biden’s delay is historic: No previous president has waited this long to name a chair of the five-member body. The closest parallels are Jimmy Carter and Richard Nixon, who waited until mid-September to name their agency chiefs. But Biden has blown past that deadline, alarming Capitol Hill Democrats who have few legislative days remaining this year for confirming any nominees the president might offer."

By the time a permanent FCC boss is appointed and confirmed, it's likely a full year and a half of policy making time will have been wasted. That's a punch in the face to those who were looking for a Biden FCC to do popular things like restore net neutrality, meaningfully stand up to telecom mono/duopolies, or restore bipartisan media consolidation rules stripped away under Trump. It's also a weird contrast to the Biden administration's treatment of the FTC, which has been aggressively stocked with popular choices among folks looking for meaningful reform.

Politico, with some uncharacteristic nuance and accuracy, correctly does point out there's some hesitation about appointing current interim FCC boss Rosenworcel permanent boss because she's historically been an unreliable vote on major consumer advocacy issues. Like that time she killed an FCC attempt to bring competition to cable boxes because the cable industry (falsely) claimed it would kill copyright:

"Rosenworcel has alienated some Democrats in the past. During the Obama years, she proved a fickle deciding vote on the FCC’s Democratic majority, and progressives blamed her for spiking an attempted overhaul of the cable set-top box marketplace. Democratic Sens. Ed Markey of Massachusetts and Ron Wyden of Oregon even briefly blocked her renomination in late 2016 over their ire."

Regardless, telecom giants and the GOP allies who love them are pleased as punch about the delay. Agency Republicans are quick to downplay the fact that the agency currently can't do anything even remotely controversial (read: all the stuff they don't like) without a functional voting majority:

"Republicans, meanwhile, see the status quo as an unexpected gift. They hope they can keep delaying partisan fights that would probably override their views, touting what they see as a productive bipartisan agenda under Rosenworcel’s 2-2 split."

I've spent months picking the brains of DC folks for a reasonable explanation of the delay, and there really aren't any. Some argue that it's just a matter of staffing and resources (which again, hasn't been a problem elsewhere like the FTC, nor is that historically ever much a problem for the GOP, which rushed to get Simington appointed in under 30 days). Some argue it's because the top picks might be unable to pass a vote in Congress because they're too consumer-centric (a case that you should probably be making to the public, not shying away from in fear).

My sense is the real culprit is two-fold. One, when the telecom industry saw antitrust buster Lina Khan appointed to the FTC and then quickly promoted to agency boss, they began pouring money and resources into trying to ensure the same thing didn't happen at the FCC. I'd also argue that the myopic focus on "big tech" continues to suck most of the policy oxygen out of the room (something also actively encouraged by telecom lobbyists), consistently shifting attention away from media and telecom policy issues that are every bit as important.

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Posted on Techdirt - 14 October 2021 @ 6:34am

Broadband Data Caps Mysteriously Disappear When Competition Comes Knocking

from the funny-how-that-works dept

We've noted for years how broadband data caps (and monthly overage fees) are complete bullshit. They serve absolutely no technical function, and despite years of ISPs trying to claim they "help manage network congestion," that's never been remotely true. Instead they exist exclusively as a byproduct of limited competition. They're a glorified price hike by regional monopolies who know they'll see little (or no!) competitive or regulatory pressure to stop nickel and diming captive customers.

The latest case in point: Cox Communications employs a 1,280 GB data cap, which, if you go over, requires you either pay $30 per month more for an additional 500 GB, or upgrade your plan to an unlimited data offering for $50 more per month. While Cox's terabyte-plus plan is more generous than some U.S. offerings (which can be as low as a few gigabytes), getting caught up in whether the cap is "fair" is beside the point. Because, again, it serves absolutely no function other than to impose arbitrary penalties and additional monthly costs for crossing the technically unnecessary boundaries.

And, mysteriously, when wireless broadband providers begin offering fixed wireless services over 5G services in limited areas, Cox lifts the restrictions completely to compete:

"With unlimited home wireless broadband from T-Mobile and Verizon starting to take a dent out of Cox Communications’ customer base, the cable operator is shoring up a defensive position by waiving its arbitrary data cap for existing customers signed up for gigabit speed service in select areas...The fact Cox is willing to waive its own arbitrary data cap for marketing and competition reasons further demonstrates that artificial limits imposed on internet service have nothing to do with congestion, “fairness,” or network management."

The problem, of course, is that 5G wireless competition isn't consistently available, and won't be for millions of Americans deemed too unprofitable to adequately serve. 83 million Americans live under a broadband monopoly that sees no competitive pressure. And whereas in a functioning market regulators would then step in to either regulate prices or embrace policies that drive more competition to market, the U.S. generally suffers from regulatory capture (aka doing whatever the regional and politically powerful telecom monopolies want). As a result, the U.S. remains mired in mediocrity in nearly every meaningful broadband metric except one: we exceed at charging U.S. consumers way more than the global developed nation average.

Like net neutrality violations, privacy violations, high prices, and terrible customer service, arbitrary, confusing, and punitive broadband usage caps are just another symptom of limited competition. But the majority of both U.S. political parties not only haven't been doing anything to fix that problem, it's fairly rare you can get anyone to admit the very obvious problem is even real. Instead, we get some nebulous hand waving about the "digital divide," billions more in tax breaks, subsidies, and regulatory favors thrown at entrenched regional monopolies, and little substantive change.

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Posted on Techdirt - 13 October 2021 @ 6:30am

Charter Spectrum Threatens To Ruin Potential Customers Over Debt They Don't Owe

from the class-act dept

There's a reason U.S. cable and broadband companies have some of the worst customer satisfaction ratings of any companies, in any industry in America. The one/two punch of lagging broadband competition and captured regulators generally mean there's little to no meaningful penalty for overcharging users, providing lackluster services and support, and generally just being an obnoxious ass.

Case in point: a new Charter (which operates under the Spectrum brand) marketing effort apparently involves threatening to ruin the credit scores of ex-customers unless they re-subscribe to the company's services. It basically begins with a letter that threatens ex-users that they'll be reported to debt collectors unless they sign up for service. It proceeds to inform them the letter is a "one-time courtesy" allowing them to sign up for cable or broadband service before the debt collector comes calling:

"A well-established credit history will more likely allow you to qualify for lower mortgage rates, better chances for obtaining credit cards and approvals for home rentals,” the letter says, suggesting that Schklair’s finances could be in serious trouble unless he returns to the Spectrum fold. "You have worked hard to build a great future for yourself and your family,” it says. “We look forward to welcoming you back.”

Maybe it’s just me, but that has a Sopranos-like ring of “You’ve made a nice life for yourself. Be a shame if something happened to it.”

The catch: the people being targeted with this latest dumb marketing ploy say they don't owe Spectrum any money:

"I asked if he owes Spectrum any money.

“No,” Schklair replied. “It’s been years since I was their customer, and they’ve never said anything about my not paying any bills.”

No notices of missed payments?


No warnings about adverse reports to credit agencies?

“No, nothing like that.”

Leave it to a U.S. cable company to think up a marketing strategy that involves threatening the livelihoods of folks who don't actually owe it any money. My assumption is this kind of threat is levied heavily against lower-income communities where the constant fear of debt collection prods folks who may not even owe Spectrum to re-subscribe for fear of getting into trouble. Charter being Charter, of course, it tried to frame this as an "effort to reconnect":

"A Spectrum spokesperson confirmed the letter’s authenticity and called it “an opportunity to reconnect” with the cable company."

83 million Americans currently live under a broadband monopoly, usually Comcast and Charter. Between a lack of competition and captured regulators there's fairly consistently zero real repercussions for idiotic behavior like this, which is why historically things don't really change much. Increased competition in streaming TV has helped drive some improvements on that side of the coin, but the largely broken U.S. broadband market is a problem we don't seem intent on seriously addressing anytime soon--in part because we refuse to even acknowledge the core problem (monopolization and the corruption that protects it).

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Posted on Techdirt - 12 October 2021 @ 4:37am

Most People Probably Don't Need A VPN, Experts Now Advise

from the first-do-no-harm dept

Given the seemingly endless privacy scandals that now engulf the tech and telecom sectors on a near-daily basis, many consumers have flocked to virtual private networks (VPN) to protect and encrypt their data. One study found that VPN use quadrupled between 2016 and 2018 as consumers rushed to protect data in the wake of scandals, breaches, and hacks.

Unfortunately, many consumers are flocking to VPNs under the mistaken impression that such tools are a near-mystical panacea, acting as a sort of bulletproof shield that protects them from any potential privacy violations on the internet. Not only is that not true (ISPs, for example, have a universe of ways to track you anyway), many VPN providers are even less ethical than privacy-scandal-plagued companies or ISPs.

After a repeated few years where VPN providers were found to be dodgy or tracked user data when they claimed they didn't, professionals have shifted their thinking on recommending even using one. While folks requiring strict security over wireless may still benefit from using a reputable VPN provider, experts say the landscape has changed. Improvements in the overall security of ordinary browsing (bank logins, etc.), plus the risk of choosing the wrong VPN provider, means that many people may just be better off without one:

"It’s time we retire the stock advice to get a personal VPN," Bob Lord, former chief security officer at the Democratic National Committee, told Motherboard in an email. "Most people do not need personal VPNs today because the internet is much safer than it was in 2010. Personal VPNs create additional risks. Giving everyone advice that only pertains to some people misdirects them from the steps that will actually help them secure their digital lives."

Granted there are plenty of journalists, government officials, or folks researching dangerous or volatile people who probably still benefit from using a quality VPN. There are also instances where using a VPN can help thwart invasive advertising data tracking:

"There is at least one thing that some VPNs could help with: blocking malicious ads. The online advertising ecosystem is so dangerous that the U.S. Intelligence Community has blocked advertisements on a network-level, Motherboard reported recently. But online ads are not just a threat to intelligence agencies; Motherboard has repeatedly shown how data brokers harvest 'bidstream' data by participating in the online advertising process. This sort of information can include location data."

But as the VPN field has become crowded by dodgy players, just injecting an entirely new dodgy player into your traffic flow isn't really helping anybody. Especially if you lack the capacity to ferret out which VPN provider is keeping its word, and which is just another shady business collecting, storing, and monetizing your data (while breathlessly insisting they don't do that).

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Posted on Techdirt - 8 October 2021 @ 3:39pm

Texas Pols Shocked To Learn Their Bill Let Gas Companies Off The Hook For Climate Change Preparedness

from the you're-not-helping dept

Having covered telecom for a long time, I've lost track of the times I've watched some befuddled lawmaker shocked by the content of their own bill. Usually, that's because they outsourced the writing of it to their primary campaign contributors, which in telecom is usually AT&T, Verizon, Comcast, and Charter. Sometimes they're so clueless to what their "own" bill includes they'll turn to lobbyists in the middle of a hearing to seek clarity. This is, of course, outright corruption. But we tend to laugh it off and normalize it, and the press generally refuses to accurately label it corruption.

There are endless parallels when it comes to the energy sector. Like this week, when Texas lawmakers were shocked to realize their recent state energy bill failed to require that Texas natural gas companies harden their infrastructure for climate change--despite the fact their own bill included giant loopholes to that effect.

In the wake of the disastrous and deadly climate-related crisis in Texas last winter, the state passed several bills purporting to fix the problem. Many, like Senate Bill 3, largely just punted the can down the road, urging for a mapping of Texas's existing energy infrastructure, and giving the Texas Railroad Commission 180 days to finalize its weatherization rules. None of the solutions, of course, challenged entrenched energy providers, or tackled the core of the problem in Texas: an almost mindless deference to wealthy local energy executives.

At a recent hearing in Texas, lawmakers blasted both the Texas Railroad Commission and local natural gas companies when they realized the latter had failed to weatherize their infrastructure with winter looming. The problem was that their own legislation provided the loopholes that made this possible:

"In a committee hearing Tuesday, Texas senators were furious that natural gas companies won’t have to better prepare their facilities for extreme weather before this winter and rebuked the Texas Railroad Commission, which regulates the state’s massive oil and gas industry, for not fixing the problem sooner.

“Wait a minute,” state Sen. Robert Nichols, R-Jacksonville, told Wei Wang, executive director of the Railroad Commission. “You haven’t done it yet?”

But the “loophole” that lawmakers spent the hearing condemning and the slow timetable for winterizing the state power grid were part of legislation they approved during the regular legislative session in the spring."

Basically the bill in question lets natural gas companies opt out of system hardening requirements if they simply don’t voluntarily declare themselves to be “critical infrastructure” with the state. This was all but certainly a provision included by the companies themselves and rubber stamped by the politicians paid to love them. More often than not, a politician's only understanding of their own bill comes from a .pdf provided by the companies that actually wrote the legislation (usually via some sort of proxy organization like ALEC to give it a thin veneer of faux legitimacy), resulting in obvious outcomes like this one.

Reports continue to illustrate the grotesque cronyism and corruption that resulted in countless deaths in Texas last winter. And of course it's not only a Texas problem. Our mindless tendency to throw billions of dollars in tax breaks, subsidies, and regulatory favors at industry giants while ignoring infrastructure needs in the face of climate change is a country-wide affair. And the wholesale corruption that makes all of this possible continues to be normalized in most press coverage as a growing array of terrible climate catastrophes bear down on a dysfunctional nation.

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Posted on Techdirt Greenhouse - 8 October 2021 @ 12:00pm

Winding Down Our Latest Greenhouse Panel: Content Moderation At The Infrastructure Layer

from the the-slickest-of-all-slippery-slopes dept

When Mike introduced our latest Greenhouse series on content moderation at the infrastructure layer, he made it abundantly clear this was a particularly thorny and complicated issue. While there's been a relentless focus on content moderation at the so-called "edge" of the internet (Google, Facebook, and Twitter), less talked about is content moderation at the "infrastructure" layers deeper in the stack. That can include anything from hosting companies and domain registrars, to ad networks, payment processors, telecom providers, and app stores.

If and how many of these operations should be engaged in moderating content, and the peril of that participation being exploited and abused by bad actors and governments the world over, made this Greenhouse series notably more complicated than our past discussions on privacy, more traditional forms of content moderation, or broadband in the COVID era.

We'd like to extend a big thank you to our diverse array of wonderful contributors to this panel, who we think did an amazing job outlining the complexities and risks awaiting policymakers on what's sure to be a long road forward:

  • The EFF's Corynne McSherry took a useful bird's eye view of the problem, highlighting how the well-documented and sometimes painful content moderation failures on the edge could prove utterly catastrophic when applied to the infrastructure layer.
  • Jonathan Zittrain examined the blurry lines when it comes to defining what infrastructure even is, and the need for reflective consensus as the infrastructure layer inevitably gets dragged into the politics of change.
  • Will Duffield took an excellent look at the particular risks involved with expecting the world's bankers and financial systems to be impartial arbiters of online content, especially given their history of bungled and problematic decisions to date.
  • Austin Ruckstuhl took a look at the complicated can of worms that is infrastructure-layer content moderation, while arguing that putting infrastructure players in such a position is akin to putting plumbers in charge of water quality.
  • Christian Dawson took a compelling look at Section 230, and deflated many of the myths currently propping up bad faith efforts to implement dubious "reform" of a law that helped make the internet the robust participation engine it is today.
  • Tomiwa Ilori took a more global, bird's eye view of the debate, specifically the collision between government ambition and the fundamental quest for basic human rights.
  • Niels ten Oever discussed the perils of concentrated power, and how the development, standardization, and implementation of Internet infrastructure is always inherently political.
  • Konstantinos Komaitis argued that if content moderation at the infrastructure layer is inevitable, a transparent framework based on certainty and consistency, crafted via informed consensus, will prove essential to avoiding potentially disastrous outcomes.
  • Alex Feerst offered an informative primer on the history of the social internet's evolution, arguing that more of everything (from transparency to competitors) will be essential as we craft and nurture the participatory internet of tomorrow.
  • Emma Llanso ably documented the perils of putting content moderation decisions into the hands of financial intermediaries, helpfully framed via the recent headaches experienced at OnlyFans.
  • Mike Masnick also discussed the rampant confusion of even defining what constitutes the "infrastructure" layer, the edge-confined narrowness of the content moderation debate so far, and the problem with expecting regulators to understand any of the nuances of either.
  • From the BBS' of old to Facebook's sprawling global advertainment ecosystem, digital connectivity has witnessed preposterous levels of growth in the blink of an eye. That growth has come hand-in-hand with immense new challenges in policy making, regulatory oversight, antitrust enforcement, and so much more. One recurrent them of both our contributions and live panel was that whatever the future looks like, transparency, healthy competition, informed consensus, and education must all be at the heart of building the healthy, resilient, efficient, and inclusive internet of tomorrow.

    Again, we'd like to extend our immense appreciation to contributors of our latest roundtable, live panel participants, and Techdirt readers, and we hope these conversations have provided value to internet policymakers and everyday internet users alike.

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    Posted on Techdirt - 8 October 2021 @ 6:31am

    FCC's 'New' Robocall Plan Isn't Particularly New, Won't Seriously Reduce Robocalls

    from the half-measures-and-good-intent dept

    So for a long time the FCC has made "fighting robocalls" one of their top priorities. Though with Americans still receiving 132 million Robocalls every single day, you may have noticed that these efforts don't usually have the impact they claim. Headlines about "historic" or "record" FCC robocall fines usually overshadow the agency's pathetic failure to collect on those fines, or the fact that thanks to recent Supreme Court rulings, the agency is boxed in as to which kind of annoying calls and spam texts it can actually police.

    Which brings us to last week, when the agency announced yet another major action, this time proposed rule updates that would make it harder on the "gateway" companies (which connected overseas callers to U.S. phone networks) and the smaller phone operators that are the origins of so much of the problem. While the FCC's plan made a lot of headlines, experts were quick to note that most of the improvements were still far from being implemented:

    "The plan as-is consists of good ideas, but I don't think it's going to make a big difference in the next couple of years,” Brad Reaves, an Assistant Professor of Computer Science at NC State University told Motherboard.

    The proposal is just a proposal for now, and “gateway providers” still aren’t covered by existing rules. Neither are smaller providers with less than 100,000 customers, who’ve been exempted from the rules until 2023. “These two types are the providers that most in the industry believe are serving the robocallers,” he said."

    In short, the FCC's big plan for robocalls was really just a plan to consider doing something about robocalls, eventually. To be fair, the FCC is doing something relatively good: it's forcing wireless carriers of all sizes to implement SHAKEN/STIR call authentication tech, which helps combat robocall spoofing. It's also requiring companies that haven't implemented this caller verification tech to track their progress in an FCC Robocall Mitigation Database.

    But there are two other reasons that the FCC's well-hyped "solution" to robocalls isn't much of one. For one, the agency is boxed in thanks to a recent Supreme Court Facebook ruling (Facebook, Inc. v. Duguid) that left it hamstrung when it comes to policing spam texts or live-person marketing and scam calls made with an autodialier:

    "The rules were, until April 1st of this year, that our cellphones were protected not only from pre-recorded calls, but unwanted texts, and unwanted live calls made by an autodialer,” Saunders said, referring to the Telephone Consumer Protection Act (TCPA). But in April a Supreme Court ruling (Facebook, Inc. v. Duguid) effectively nullified the TCPA’s ban on autodialed calls and texts to cell phones without your consent. So while there are growing but sometimes inconsistent restrictions on pre-recorded robocalls, annoying spam texts and many live calls made with auto dialers remain perfectly legal."

    The other major problem is that the existing U.S. rules about robocallers are heavily influenced by the lobbying of numerous industries and telemarketing interests. That has historically resulted in rules and enforcement that fixate exclusively on "scam" callers, while providing big loopholes for "legitimate" telemarketers, spammers, and debt collecting robocalls who can be every bit as unwanted, and who often use the same exact tactics:

    "Saunders’ Congressional testimony has highlighted how scammers often comprise the minority of overall robocalls. Many are debt collectors working for banks or telecom providers, who relentlessly harass consumers they know can’t pay their bills. Efforts to rein in those types of calls have often taken a backseat thanks to lobbying pressure."

    So yes, some of what the FCC is doing is helping. Authentication tech helped trigger an 8% reduction in overall robocalls in August, though with this kind of cat and mouse game it's not clear if that reduction will last. But the bigger problem remains that the FCC's authority has been boxed in by the Supreme Court, and lobbying has resulted in existing rules often being a little too friendly to equally obnoxious, "legitimate" telemarketers. The reality is that Americans receive 5.5 million robocalls every hour. That's an absolute tidal wave that's not slowing down without significant changes on multiple fronts.

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    Posted on Techdirt - 7 October 2021 @ 6:18am

    Neiman Marcus Breach Exposes Data Of 4.6 Million Users

    from the let's-make-sure-we-do-absolutely-nothing-about-this dept

    Another day, another massive privacy breach nobody will do much about. This time it's Neiman Marcus, which issued a statement indicating that the personal data of roughly 4.6 million U.S. consumers was exposed thanks to a previously undisclosed data breach that occurred last year. According to the company, the data exposed included login in information, credit card payment information, virtual gift card numbers, names, addresses, and the security questions attached to Neiman Marcus accounts. The company is, as they always are in the wake of such breaches, very, very sorry:

    "At Neiman Marcus Group, customers are our top priority," said Geoffroy van Raemdonck, Chief Executive Officer. "We are working hard to support our customers and answer questions about their online accounts. We will continue to take actions to enhance our system security and safeguard information."

    As is par for the course for this kind of stuff, the actual breach is likely much worse than what's first being reported here. And by the time the full scope of the breach becomes clear, the press will have largely lost interest. The company set up a website for those impacted to get more information. In this case, impacted consumers didn't even get free credit reporting, the standard mea culpa hand out after these kinds of events (which is worthless since consumers have received free credit reporting for countless hacks and leaks over the last five to ten years).

    Of course absolutely nothing will actually happen in the wake of this latest breach, and the company will face no meaningful penalty for failing to adequately secure its systems (another 1.1 million customers had gift card data leaked in a 2014 breach). In large part because we still don't have an effective, or even basic, privacy law for the internet era because the nation's wealthy don't want one. And because we've actively underfunded, understaffed, and routinely undermined our privacy regulators, who, even when they can be bothered to step in, do little more than dole out wrist slaps.

    At some point you'd think the country's top policy leaders would get tired of this dysfunctional paradigm and start crafting basic, intelligent federal privacy solutions, but it's apparently not going to be anytime soon. Our apathy to the impact that lax security and privacy standards have on consumers and markets isn't an accident; it's an active policy choice.

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    Posted on Techdirt - 6 October 2021 @ 1:37pm

    AT&T Set Up And Paid For OAN Propaganda Network; Yet Everyone Wants To Scream About Facebook

    from the ill-communication dept

    We've noted for a while there's a weird myopia occurring in internet policy. As in, "big tech" (namely Facebook, Google, and Amazon) get a relentless amount of Congressional and policy wonk attention for their various, and sometimes painfully idiotic behaviors. At the same time, just an adorable smattering of serious policy attention is being given to a wide array of equally problematic but clearly monopolized industries (banking, airlines, insurance, energy), or internet-connected sectors that engage in many of the same (or sometimes worse) behaviors, be they adtech or U.S. telecom.

    Case in point: while the entirety of U.S. policy experts, lawmakers, journalists, and academics (justifiably) fixated on the Facebook whistleblower train wreck, a story popped up about AT&T. Basically, it showcased how AT&T not only provided the lion's share of funding for the propaganda-laden OAN cable TV "news" network, the entire thing was AT&T's idea in the first place, and simply wouldn't exist without AT&T's consistent support:

    "They told us they wanted a conservative network,” Herring said during a 2019 deposition seen by Reuters. "They only had one, which was Fox News, and they had seven others on the other [leftwing] side. When they said that, I jumped to it and built one."

    It was previously known that AT&T was one of the few major cable TV distributors to carry OAN, therefore providing 90% of the channel's revenue (even Comcast long refused to carry the network). That's not surprising, given how well inflammatory bullshit sells. But it wasn't previously known how closely linked the two companies were, with OAN claiming AT&T even utilized the network to help put a positive shine on the company's disastrous, $200 billion, job-killing megamerger spree:

    "[AT&T told OAN's owner AT&T] needed help to allay FCC and other officials’ concern that the DirecTV deal – a consolidation of providers – might make it harder for independent networks to get on the air, Charles Herring said.

    So, he said in the affidavit, Slator proposed a new deal: If the Herrings lobbied on AT&T’s behalf, AT&T would air OAN and WealthTV on both U-verse and DirecTV. The Herrings would be paid one-third less per subscriber, but because DirecTV had so many more subscribers, the deal could be worth $100 million over five years...The court filings also cite a promise by OAN to “cast a positive light” on AT&T during newscasts."

    Given the sheer scope of the propaganda being funneled through online platforms, cable TV news channels like OAN are often dismissed as less relevant. But in a nation where elections are often decided by a few hundred votes, a dedicated propaganda network (one at the direct beck and call of Donald Trump) really can make all the difference, media experts say:

    "If you have 12 Americans being fed a diet of untruth, that’s 12 too many – and here, it’s literally millions,” Watson said of the OAN audience. “When you have that sort of poisonous influence on mass media, it’s a problem; because elections in the United States tend to be so close, a few percentage points here or there can really make a difference."

    The story saw a tiny fraction of the mind-space usually reserved for modern day issues surrounding "big tech." While Facebook certainly deserves intense scrutiny for very serious screw ups, there's an obvious asymmetry in policy and media attention when it comes to "big telecom." That apathy extends to the Biden government, which rushed to appoint a big tech critic at the FTC in Lina Khan, but still hasn't been bothered to staff the nation's two top telecom and media regulators, the NTIA and FCC. This despite the fact COVID has highlighted broadband's importance, and issues like media consolidation are more important than ever in the face of a struggling news industry and soaring propaganda.

    However bad Facebook is (and I 100% agree with complaints that its executives are monumentally terrible), think about this: in just the last few years AT&T has been: fined $18.6 million for helping rip off programs for the hearing impaired; fined $10.4 million for ripping off a program for low-income families; fined $105 million for helping "crammers" by intentionally making such bogus charges more difficult to see on customer bills; fined $60 million for lying to customers about the definition of "unlimited" data; caught in a scandal in which the company paid Trump's fixer $600,000 for closer access to the President; fined $7.7 million for turning a blind eye to drug dealers running directory assistance scams; caught lying about its claims it stopped funding politicians supporting January 6 insurrectionists; and was accused of ripping off the nations school systems for years by one of its own, former lawyers. I'm sure I missed some.

    Now AT&T has been found to be not only the primary backer, but the brain child of an outright propaganda network that's so extreme, it's to the far right of Fox News. A network that routinely promotes anti-democratic election conspiracy theories, as well as anti-science COVID hysteria.

    The occasional, piddly fine is laughable to a company that enjoys not only a regional broadband monopoly in many parts of the country, but received a $42 billion tax break from the Trump administration for doing absolutely nothing (technically less than nothing, given it has laid off roughly 50,000 employees since the 2017 cut). Tethered to both our domestic surveillance and first responder systems, AT&T is largely immune to serious government accountability because it's effectively now a patriotic part of government. It shouldn't be.

    Where's the week long hearing about AT&T getting billions in subsidies and tax breaks in exchange for nothing? Where's the several-year exclusive media focus on the shoddy state of U.S. telecom and media? Where's the Congressional hearing about how cable and telecom giants are funding and promoting outright, blatant propaganda? Where's the endless parade of think pieces and deep dives into these problems? Why has Facebook, and big tech, completely dominated the policy discourse? Why are we seemingly incapable of chewing gum and walking at the same time?

    We haven't seemed to figure out yet that it's all one, over-arching problem tethered to consolidation, monopolization, antitrust apathy, regulatory dysfunction, and corruption. "Big telecom" is seeing a tiny fraction of the scrutiny of "big tech," something the telecom sector is actively encouraging. Similarly, countless U.S. industries are filled with sectors dominated by heavily consolidated giants, created by the mindless rubber stamping of terrible mergers. Not a one is seeing equal levels of scrutiny. I'm not saying we shouldn't be heavily scrutinizing Facebook and technology giants, whose failures are clearly established. I'm just saying that the bizarre asymmetrical policy myopia -- where "big tech" is seemingly all that matters -- is starting to drive me a little batshit.

    92 Comments | Leave a Comment..

    Posted on Techdirt - 6 October 2021 @ 6:29am

    FCC Finally Gets Off Its Ass To Combat SIM Hijacking

    from the better-late-than-never dept

    So for years we've talked about the growing threat of SIM hijacking, which involves an attacker covertly porting out your phone number from right underneath your nose (sometimes with the help of bribed or conned wireless carrier employees). Once they have your phone identity, they have access to most of your personal accounts secured by two-factor SMS authentication, opening the door to the theft of social media accounts or the draining of your cryptocurrency account. If you're really unlucky, the hackers will harrass the hell out of you in a bid to extort you even further.

    It's a huge mess, and the both the criminal complaints -- and lawsuits against wireless carriers for not doing more to protect their users -- have been piling up for several years. For several years, Senators like Ron Wyden have been sending letters to the FCC asking the nation's top telecom regulator to, you know, do something. After years of inaction the agency appears to have gotten the message, announcing a new plan to at least consider some new rules to make SIM hijacking more difficult.

    Most of the proposal involves nudging wireless carriers to do things they should have done long ago. Such as updating FCC Customer Proprietary Network Information (CPNI) and Local Number Portability rules to require wireless carriers adopt secure methods of confirming the customer’s identity before porting out a customer’s phone number to a new device or carrier (duh). As well as requiring that wireless carriers immediately notify you when somebody tries to port out your phone number without your permission (double duh):

    "The FCC’s proposal would also require that wireless providers immediately notify customers whenever a SIM change or port request is made on customers’ accounts. That this wasn’t yet industry standard practice—or covered by FCC rules—speaks to the sluggishness with which the government and industry have responded to the problem."

    Again, this lack of action until now was fairly reflective of the Ajit Pai school of thought on telecom policy, which basically involved coddling major telecom companies in the misguided belief that this regulatory apathy somehow results in free market utopia. But as we've established for years, while deregulation can help improve functional, competitive, healthy markets, that's not what U.S. telecom is. It's a bunch of government-coddled regional monopolies and duopolies, that, thanks to increased consolidation, face increasingly less meaningful competition. When you remove both competition (and pro-competitive policies) and regulatory oversight, you don't get a miraculous free market, you usually get... a bigger, fatter Comcast.

    Note these aren't actual rules yet, it's just the beginning of new rules. The Rosenworcel FCC is basically doing the bare minimum here to start the ball rolling, launching a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) to begin discussing the path forward. That this wasn't even contemplated until now speaks volumes as to the state of U.S. telecom regulatory oversight. Folks have been having vast fortunes stolen from under their noses for several years (seriously read this story) because wireless carriers failed to secure their own services, and the response from the U.S. government until now had been a giant, collective yawn.

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    Posted on Techdirt - 5 October 2021 @ 6:47am

    Company That Handles Billions Of Text Messages Quietly Admits It Was Hacked Years Ago

    from the whoops-a-daisy dept

    We've noted for a long time that the wireless industry is prone to being fairly lax on security and consumer privacy. One example is the recent rabbit hole of a scandal related to the industry's treatment of user location data, which carriers have long sold to a wide array of middlemen without much thought as to how this data could be (and routinely is) abused. Another example is the industry's refusal to address the longstanding flaws in Signaling System 7 (SS7, or Common Channel Signaling System 7 in the US), a series of protocols hackers can exploit to track user location, dodge encryption, and even record private conversations.

    Now this week, a wireless industry middleman that handles billions of texts every year has acknowledged its security isn't much to write home about either. A company by the name of Syniverse revealed that it was the target of a major attack in a September SEC filing, first noted by Motherboard. The filing reveals that an "individual or organization" gained unauthorized access to the company's databases "on several occasions." That in turn provided the intruder repeated access to the company's Electronic Data Transfer (EDT) environment compromising 235 of its corporate telecom clients.

    The scope of the potentially revealed data is, well, massive:

    "Syniverse repeatedly declined to answer specific questions from Motherboard about the scale of the breach and what specific data was affected, but according to a person who works at a telephone carrier, whoever hacked Syniverse could have had access to metadata such as length and cost, caller and receiver's numbers, the location of the parties in the call, as well as the content of SMS text messages."

    Amazingly enough the hack began in 2016 but was only discovered this year. How much data was accessed? Why did it take so long? Was it a Chinese or Russian sponsored attack? Why was there absolutely no transparency about the breach until now? Why aren't Syniverse or any wireless carriers being clear about what happened? Have government officials been compromised? Have those officials been notified by anybody? Good questions!:

    "The information flowing through Syniverse’s systems is espionage gold," Sen. Ron Wyden told Motherboard in an emailed statement. "That this breach went undiscovered for five years raises serious questions about Syniverse’s cybersecurity practices. The FCC needs to get to the bottom of what happened, determine whether Syniverse's cybersecurity practices were negligent, identify whether Syniverse's competitors have experienced similar breaches, and then set mandatory cybersecurity standards for this industry."

    Between this and the SS7 flaw alone you have to inherently assume that most global wireless communications has been significantly compromised for a long while in some fashion. And like most hacks, the scale of this will only get worse as time goes by. Security and privacy at massive international scale isn't easy, but these kinds of repeated scandals don't have to happen. They're made immeasurably worse by our lack of even a basic internet-era privacy law, intentionally underfunded and understaffed U.S. privacy regulators, and our failure to hold companies accountable in any meaningful way for repeated and massive screw ups. Mostly because doing any of these things might put a dent in quarterly revenues.

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    Posted on Techdirt - 4 October 2021 @ 3:37pm

    Tesla 'Self-Driving' NDA Hopes To Hide The Reality Of An Unfinished Product

    from the I'm-sorry-Dave-I-can't-do-that dept

    There isn't a day that goes by where Tesla hasn't found itself in the news for all the wrong reasons. Like last week, when Texas police sued Tesla because one of the company's vehicles going 70 miles per hour in self-driving mode failed to function properly, injuring five officers.

    If you hadn't been paying attention, Teslas in self-driving mode crashing into emergency vehicles is kind of a thing that happens more than it should. In this latest episode of "let's test unfinished products on public streets," the Tesla vehicle in "self-driving" mode's systems failed completely to detect not only the five officers, but their dog, according to the lawsuit filed against Tesla:

    “The Tesla was completely unable to detect the existence of at least four vehicles, six people and a German Shepherd fully stopped in the lane of traffic,” reads the suit. “The Tahoes were declared a total loss. The police officers and the civilian were taken to the hospital, and Canine Officer Kodiak had to visit the vet."

    Of course for Musk fans, a persecution complex is required for club membership, resulting in the belief that this is all one elaborate plot to ruin their good time. That belief structure extends to Musk himself, who can't fathom that public criticism and media scrutiny in the wake of repeated self-driving scandals is his own fault. It's also extended to the NDAs the company apparently forces Tesla owners to sign if they want to be included in the Early Access Program (EAP), a community of Tesla fans the company selects to beta test the company's unfinished self-driving (technically "Level 2" driver-assistance system) on public city streets.

    The NDA frames the press and transparency as enemies, and urges participants not to share any content online that could make the company look bad, even if it's, you know, true:

    "This NDA, the language of which Motherboard confirmed with multiple beta testers, specifically prohibits EAP members from speaking to the media or giving test rides to the media. It also says: "Do remember that there are a lot of people that want Tesla to fail; Don't let them mischaracterize your feedback and media posts." It also encourages EAP members to "share on social media responsibly and selectively...consider sharing fewer videos, and only the ones that you think are interesting or worthy of being shared."

    Here's the thing: you don't need to worry about this kind of stuff if you're fielding a quality, finished product. And contrary to what Musk fans think, people concerned about letting fanboys test 5,000 pound automated robots that clearly don't work very well are coming from a valid place of concern. Clips like this one, for example, which show the Tesla self-driving system failing to perform basic navigational functions while in self-driving mode, aren't part of some elaborate conspiracy to make Tesla self-driving look bad and dangerous. There's plenty of evidence now clearly showing that Tesla self-driving, at least in its current incarnation, often is bad and dangerous:

    Ever since the 2018 Uber fatality in Arizona (which revealed the company had few if any meaningful safety protocols in place) it's been clear that current "self-driving" technology is extremely undercooked. It's also become increasingly clear that widely testing it on public streets (where other human beings have not consented to being used as Guinea pigs) is not a great idea. Especially if you're going to replace trained testers with criticism-averse fanboys you've carefully selected in the hopes they'll showcase only the most positive aspects of your products.

    We've been so bedazzled by purported innovation we've buried common sense deep in the back yard. Wanting products to work, and executives to behave ethically, is not some grand conspiracy. It's a reasonable reaction to the reckless public testing of an unfinished, over-marketed product on public streets.

    46 Comments | Leave a Comment..

    Posted on Techdirt - 4 October 2021 @ 5:37am

    South Korean ISP Somehow Thinks Netflix Owes It Money Because Squid Game Is Popular

    from the troll-tolls dept

    We've noted for a while how the world's telecom executives have a fairly entrenched entitlement mindset. As in, they often tend to jealously eye streaming and online ad revenues and assume they're inherently owed a cut of those revenues just because at some point they traveled on their networks. You saw this hubris at play during AT&T's claims that "big tech" gets a "free ride" on their networks, which insisted that companies like Google should pay them significant, additional troll tolls "just because" (which triggered the entire net neutrality fight in the States).

    AT&T pretty solidly established this entitlement mindset domestically, and I've watched it slowly exported overseas. Like this week in South Korea, where South Korean broadband provider SK Broadband sued Netflix simply because its new TV show, Squid Game, is popular. Basically, the lawsuit argues, because the show is so popular and is driving a surge in bandwidth consumption among South Koreans watching it, Netflix is somehow obligated to pay the ISP more money:

    "South Korean Internet service provider SK Broadband has sued Netflix to pay for costs from increased network traffic and maintenance work because of a surge of viewers to the U.S. firm's content, an SK spokesperson said on Friday.

    The move comes after a Seoul court said Netflix should "reasonably" give something in return to the internet service provider for network usage, and multiple South Korean lawmakers have spoken out against content providers who do not pay for network usage despite generating explosive traffic.

    Except that's not how any of this works. ISPs design their networks for maximum potential peak load. It's completely irrelevant how popular some content traveling over your network is. Your job as a telecom operator is to design networks that easily flex to handle a surge in capacity, regardless of traffic type. If you're failing to do that, it's because you're not designing your network and investing in capacity properly. It's not suddenly the content company's job to pay you more money to fix a problem you created.

    Notice how SK Broadband also trots out the "Netflix doesn't pay for bandwidth" trope, which is a deeply entrenched talking point in telecom lobbyist circles and also... simply isn't true. Consumers pay ISPs for bandwidth. Streaming companies like Netflix pay ISPs for bandwidth. The idea that Netflix is somehow getting a "free ride" on telecom networks is just not based on any factual or technical reality. That hasn't mattered to the South Korean courts, which have been leaning toward the telecom point of view in rulings the last few years:

    "the Seoul Central District Court ruled against Netflix in June, saying that SK is seen as providing "a service provided at a cost" and it is "reasonable" for Netflix to be "obligated to provide something in return for the service".

    SK estimated the network usage fee Netflix needed to pay was about 27.2 billion won ($22.9 million) in 2020 alone, the court document said.

    Netflix has appealed against the ruling, court records showed, with fresh proceedings to start in late December.

    The South Korean courts, shockingly, are wrong. South Korean telecoms have convinced some in the South Korean legal system that content companies should pony up additional cash if something is popular "just because," even if that makes no technical sense from a network design standpoint. It's the kind of bizarre legal outlook AT&T dreams of here in the U.S., and the "big tech is getting a free ride" concept is the foundation of the argument, despite not actually being true.

    In addition to paying for bandwidth, companies like Netflix and Google also spend massive fortunes on their own transit networks, underseas cables, and in some cases (Google Fiber) their own residential ISPs. In Netflix's case, the company also operates a Content Delivery Network which helps greatly improve streaming efficiency and overall load, the hardware for which is provided to ISPs around the world, for free. Netflix has also been pretty flexible when it comes to designing adjustable tiers of service to help users on bandwidth caps (which, to be clear, are also bullshit cash grabs) avoid additional bandwidth fees.

    So when you see a telecom (or one of their captured regulators, consultants, think tankers, or policy wonks) arguing that somebody is getting a free ride and should be throwing more money at them, what they're really saying is "we're too cheap to adequately invest in our networks and want you (Netflix, whoever) to give us money for no reason." That the South Korean courts have bought into this argument (largely because the content companies in question are U.S. based), is unfortunate.

    Again, this whole bumbling, bad faith argument was a cornerstone of the origins of net neutrality, a battle that was (in part) about preventing regional telecom giants from exploiting their gatekeeper power to demand obnoxious, arbitrary troll tolls. Pushed by AT&T, some U.S. regulators (most notably and recently the FCC's Brendan Carr) are still pushing some variation of this dumb argument today. And the folks pushing it are generally hopeful you're too dumb to realize that it makes absolutely no technical sense.

    29 Comments | Leave a Comment..

    Posted on Techdirt - 1 October 2021 @ 6:14am

    The 'Digital Divide' Didn't Just Show Up One Day. It's The Direct Result Of Telecom Monopolization

    from the can't-fix-what-you-don't-acknowledge dept

    We've noted for a while that the entirety of DC has a blind spot when it comes to discussing the U.S. broadband problem. As in, U.S. broadband is plagued by regional monopolies that literally pay Congress to pretend the problem isn't happening. That's not an opinion. U.S. broadband is slow, expensive, patchy, with terrible customer service due to two clear things: regional monopolization (aka market failure), and state and federal regulatory capture (aka corruption). That the telecom industry employs an entire cottage industry of think tankers, consultants, and policy wonks to pretend this isn't true doesn't change reality.

    But notice when regulators, politicians, and many news outlets discuss the problem, it's usually framed in this nebulous, causation free way. About 90% of the time, the problem is dubbed the "digital divide." But the cause of this broadband divide is always left utterly nebulous and causation free. It's almost pathological. Seriously, look at any news story about the "digital divide" in the last three months and try to find one that clearly points out that the direct cause of the problem is regional telecom monopolies and the corruption that protects them. You won't find it.

    This phenomenon again showed up this week in a CNET interview with Jessica Rosenworcel, who appears to be the top candidate in the Biden Administration's glacial pursuit of a permanent FCC boss. In the article, CNET talks repeatedly about the U.S. broadband problem without once mentioning that telecom monopolies exist, and are the primary reason U.S. broadband is painfully mediocre:

    "According to a study last year by the New America Foundation's Open Technology Institute, the US has the highest average monthly internet prices when compared to other countries in North America, Europe and Asia. On average, the monthly bill in the US is $84.37, which includes $68.38 for internet service and $15.99 for equipment rental fees.

    "What's become clear is that affordability is a really big issue in the digital divide," she said. "And we're going to need programs like the EBB to help solve it."

    Again, please notice how expensive, shitty broadband is just this thing that exists for some nebulous reason. That Comcast, Charter, Verizon, and AT&T have lobbied for thirty years to create a favorable policy environment that harms competition and prioritizes their bloated revenues doesn't even get a sentence. It's just this bizarre act of omission driven by, you'd have to imagine, a fear of upsetting sources and advertisers. Or in the case of politicians and regulators, powerful telecom lobbyists that can make or break your career.

    Please notice the word "competition" isn't even used once in an interview with a top U.S. telecom regulator about the state of U.S. broadband, where the primary issue remains a lack of competition. The article almost acknowledges the U.S. telecom monopoly problem when it discusses "digital redlining," or the documented tendency of regional telecom monopolies like AT&T to refuse to upgrade low income or minority neighborhoods (while simultaneously lobbying for laws preventing them from building their own broadband networks). But even here the problem is addressed in this causation-free, nebulous way:

    I think the fact that we're having a conversation about digital redlining is a good thing. We've got communities in this country that for too long have been overserved or underserved and overlooked. We've got to figure out how to address that.

    Clearly and accurately calling out regional telecom monopolies is just viewed as...impolite in DC and much of the "he said, she said," access-motivated U.S. press. But you can't fix a problem you refuse to even acknowledge. And when it comes to regional telecom monopolization and the corruption that protects it, we're not even beginning to ask the right questions, much less acknowledge the real origins of the problem.

    11 Comments | Leave a Comment..

    Posted on Techdirt - 30 September 2021 @ 10:47am

    Google, NBC Bring Dumb Cable TV Blackout Feuds To Streaming

    from the consumers-lose dept

    For years cable TV has been plagued by retrans feuds and carriage disputes that routinely end with users losing access to TV programming they pay for. Basically, broadcasters will demand a rate hike in new content negotiations, the cable TV provider will balk, and then each side blames the other for failing to strike a new agreement on time like reasonable adults. That repeatedly results in content being blacked out for months, without consumers ever getting a refund. After a few months, the two sides strike a new confidential deal, your bill goes up, and nobody much cares how that impacts the end user. Rinse, wash, repeat.

    And while the shift to streaming TV has improved a lot about cable TV in general, these annoying feuds have remained. The latest case in point: Comcast NBC Universal is demanding more money from Google for the 14+ channels currently on the company's YouTube TV live streaming platform. Google appears to be balking, resulting in NBC running a bunch of annoying banners on its channels warning about a looming blackout, and directing people to this website blaming Google for not wanting to pay more money for the same content:

    In a blog post, Google notes that negotiations are ongoing, but suggests that Comcast isn't being reasonable in negotiations:

    "Our ask is that NBCU treats YouTube TV like any other TV provider. In other words, for the duration of our agreement, YouTube TV seeks the same rates that services of a similar size get from NBCU so we can continue offering YouTube TV to members at a competitive and fair price."

    As far as annoying corporate feuds go, this one isn't all that bad. Google says it will reduce the cost of its overall service by $10 should users lose access to NBC content after September 30 (traditionally, cable providers haven't been willing to lower their rates at all). Still, you're going to be seeing a lot more of these kinds of feuds as telecoms, cable TV companies, app makers, "big tech," and even hardware vendors like Roku all attempt to battle for not only viewership eyeballs, but access to user data collection revenues.

    The problem is, consumers shouldn't be the ones paying the price for two companies' failure to negotiate new contracts like adults. For a moment there it looked like the FCC might update its rules to force companies to negotiate in good faith (and more importantly penalize companies that take out out their negotiating incompetence on paying subscribers) but as a movement it generally went nowhere. U.S. regulators genuinely view these feuds as just "boys being boys," and routinely don't care whether it results in paying subscribers losing access to content they have, in many cases, already paid for.

    21 Comments | Leave a Comment..

    Posted on Techdirt - 29 September 2021 @ 10:54am

    Microsoft CEO Politely Confirms Trump TikTok Fracas Was Dumb, Performative, Nonsense

    from the not-helping dept

    Last year we noted how the calls to ban TikTok didn't make a whole lot of sense. For one thing, a flood of researchers have shown that TikTok is doing all the same things as many other foreign and domestic adtech-linked services we seem intent to...do absolutely nothing about.

    Secondly, the majority of the most vocal pearl-clutchers over the app (Josh Hawley, etc.) haven't cared a whit about things like consumer privacy or internet security, highlighting how the yearlong TikTok freak out was more about performative politics than policy. The wireless industry SS7 flaw? US cellular location data scandals? The rampant lack of any privacy or security standards in the internet of things? The need for election security funding?

    Most of the folks who spent last year hyperventilating about TikTok haven't made so much as a peep on these other subjects. Either you actually care about consumer privacy and internet security or you don't, and a huge swath of those hyperventilating about TikTok have been utterly absent from the broader conversation. In fact, many of them have done everything in their power to scuttle any effort to have even modest privacy guidelines for the internet era, and fought every effort to improve and properly fund election security. Again, that's because for many it's more about politics than serious, adult tech policy.

    After Trump Inc proposed banning TikTok, you'll recall the administration came up with another dumb idea. Basically, they suggested selling ByteDance-owned TikTok to Trump allies over at Oracle and Walmart. It was just glorified cronyism, though for whatever reason a lot of the press and policy circles seriously and meaningfully analyzed the move as if it was anything else. It wasn't, and quickly fell apart like the dumb house of cards it was.

    At one point Microsoft was tossed around as a potential suitor for TikTok as well. And in conversations this week with Kara Swisher, Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella confirmed the whole TikTok tapdance last year was every bit as stupid as we assumed it was. He's diplomatic about it, but Nadella notes how Trump's public posturing about TikTok wasn't backed by, well, anything:

    "President Trump, I think had sort of a particular point of view on what he was trying to get done there, and then just dropped off,” Nadella said. “I mean, it was interesting. There was a period of time when I felt that the [U.S. government] had some particular set of requirements, and then they just disappeared."

    Of course that "particular point of view" was performative political populism, exploiting racism and insincere "privacy concerns" to try to transfer a popular overseas company to U.S. control in an obviously cronyistic way. The press and some policy wonks spent a lot of time trying to dress it up as something more grandiose than that, but that's what it was.

    Of course if you're genuinely concerned about U.S. privacy and security, there's plenty policymakers can do. Support the passage of a real, simple, and clearly written U.S. privacy law for the internet era to help bring accountability to bad actors. Support actually funding and staffing intentionally-handcuffed U.S. privacy regulators. Put your support behind genuine election security reform (not to be conflated with voter suppression). Work on encouraging transparency in security research. Back some standards for the internet of things. Start pondering meaningful reform of the largely unaccountable adtech sector in general.

    Specifically hyperventilating about Tiktok and Tiktok only because it's (gasp) owned by the Chinese and (gasp) successful was an easy way to score political points with nationalists and Trump's buddies at Oracle, but it didn't actually solve anything whatever. It was dumb, performative nonsense that should have been called out as dumb, performative nonsense from the outset. Instead, a sizeable chunk of reporters and wonks treated it like serious policy.

    5 Comments | Leave a Comment..

    Posted on Techdirt - 28 September 2021 @ 6:32am

    Research Shows Apple's New Do Not Track App Button Is Privacy Theater

    from the privacy-theater dept

    While Apple may be attempting to make being marginally competent at privacy a marketing advantage in recent years, that hasn't always gone particularly smoothly. Case in point: the company's new "ask app not to track" button included in iOS 14.5 is supposed to provide iOS users with some protection from apps that get a little too aggressive in hoovering up your usage, location, and other data. In short, the button functions as a more obvious opt out mechanism that's supposed to let you avoid the tangled web of privacy abuses that is the adtech behavioral ad ecosystem.

    But of course it's not working out all that well in practice, at least so far. A new study by the Washington Post and software maker Lockdown indicates that many app makers are just...ignoring the request entirely. In reality, Apple's function doesn't really do all that much, simply blocking app makers from accessing one bit of data: your phone's ID for Advertisers, or IDFA. But most apps have continued to track a wide swath of other usage and location data, and the overall impact on user privacy has proven to be negligible:

    "Among the apps Lockdown investigated, tapping the don’t track button made no difference at all to the total number of third-party trackers the apps reached out to. And the number of times the apps attempted to send out data to these companies declined just 13 percent."

    Researchers found the new system actually provided users with a false sense of security and privacy when very little had actually changed.

    Even when consumers "opted out," most of the apps were still collecting data metrics like volume level, IP address, battery level, browser, cellular carrier, and a long list of other data points, allowing companies to craft elaborate profiles of individual consumers. And little to none of this is being meaningfully disclosed to actual users. Perpetually, the adtech industry tries to argue that none of this is a big deal because much of this data is "anonymized," but that's long been nonsense. Studies repeatedly show that when there are enough data points floating about in the wild, nobody on the internet is truly anonymous.

    The fact gets buried in conversations on this subject, but the entire adtech tracking ecosystem, from app makers and "big tech" to telecom and every data broker in between, is a largely unaccountable mess. All operating in a country with no meaningful internet-era privacy law, and privacy regulators that intentionally have a tiny fraction of the resources and funding as their overseas contemporaries. So when you see privacy scandal after privacy scandal emerge, it's important to understand that this is a conscious policy choice driven by greed, not just some organic dysfunction that showed up one random Tuesday.

    And unfortunately, so far, most of the big pronouncements by major tech giants about consumer privacy, whether it's Apple's shiny new app privacy button or Google's FLOC technology, aren't doing much to actually fix the problem. And, in some cases, they have the potential to make a bad problem worse. Actually fixing this problem would cost a whole lot of people a whole lot of money, so instead we get (waves hands around at a wide variety of privacy theater) whatever the hell this is supposed to be.

    5 Comments | Leave a Comment..

    Posted on Techdirt - 27 September 2021 @ 3:44pm

    The Future Of Streaming TV Looks Increasingly Like Cable, But Free

    from the the-more-things-change... dept

    There's been little doubt that the streaming TV revolution has been a decidedly good thing. Competition from streaming has resulted in more options, for less money, and greater programming flexibility than ever before. Streaming customer satisfaction is consistently higher than traditional cable TV as a result, and lumbering giants that fought against evolution for years (at times denying that cord cutting even existing) have been forced to actually try a little harder if they want to retain TV subscribers.

    Of course the more things change, the more they stay the same. And a lot of the problems that plagued the traditional TV experience have made their way to streaming. For example, since broadcasters (which were primarily responsible for the unsustainable cost of traditional cable TV) must have their pound of flesh to satiate investor needs for quarterly returns, price hikes in live streaming service have been arriving fast and furiously. And the more the industry attempts to innovate, the more it finds itself retreading fairly familiar territory.

    Case in point: to lure more users to its platforms and streaming hardware, Google is in talks with multiple companies to offer users free streaming TV channels, complete with ads:

    "Google has held talks with companies distributing so-called FAST (free, ad-supported streaming television) channels, according to multiple industry insiders. These channels have the look and feel of traditional linear TV networks, complete with ad breaks and on-screen graphics. Free streaming channels could launch on Google TV as early as this fall, but the company may also wait to announce the initiative in conjunction with its smart TV partners in early 2022."

    Some TV vendors, like LG, have taken to partnering with services like Pluto TV so when you get your new TV, and if you don't have cable, you get a viewing guide that sort of looks like cable. Namely a bunch of channels that usually offer (usually) dated content loaded with ads. This is usually tethered to on demand options in the hopes you'll pony up money for better content. As a result, the hot trend du jour in streaming right now involves offering users something that looks an awful lot like traditional cable:

    "That approach mirrors the way TV makers like LG and Samsung have integrated free streaming channels into their platforms. For these TV makers, free channels have become an overnight success story. Samsung alone streams "billions of minutes" of linear programming via its TV Plus service every month, Samsung Electronics SVP Sang Kim told Protocol last year."

    The difference, of course, is that this is all free. The money is made both off of ads, and off of collecting and selling access to your daily behavioral and viewing data, without telling consumers or letting them opt out (see the 2017 Vizio settlement with the FTC). Selling access to this data is so profitable, companies have made it clear that revenue from selling TVs themselves have become almost secondary. As with most "smart" devices there are often tradeoffs to this model, including the fact that not a whole lot of thought has gone toward security and privacy. And as hardware makers, streaming companies, telecoms, and big tech platforms all attempt to battle for control of this data flow, I can foresee more than a few unforseen potholes and shenanigans.

    Still, it's amazing to see a sector that was so obstinately resistant to evolution finally evolve and try new things, even if many of these new ideas look more familiar than you would have suspected.

    24 Comments | Leave a Comment..

    Posted on Techdirt - 24 September 2021 @ 6:11am

    Apple, John Deere Investors Pressure Companies On Their Backwards Repair Policies

    from the get-out-ahead-of-this dept

    For years we've noted how both Apple and John Deere have become the face of the kind of obnoxious repair restrictions that have fueled the growing "right to repair" movement. Apple has long been criticized for bullying independent repair shop owners, attempting to monopolize repair, and generally being terrible from an environmental standpoint when it comes to waste and repair. John Deere has been equally criticized for obnoxious DRM and draconian repair policies that force many rural tractor owners to spend thousands of dollars, and sometimes drive thousands of miles, just to get essential agricultural equipment repaired.

    US PIRG is now attempting to pressure both companies via their investors, and alongside a "socially responsible mutual fund company," Green Century Funds, has filed shareholder resolutions with both Apple and John Deere asking them to account for “anti-competitive repair policies." The mutual fund argues that Apple is harming the company's brand value by insisting it's socially responsible, then routinely embracing policies that, well, aren't:

    "Investors are extremely concerned about Apple’s disingenuous combination of promoting environmental sustainability while inhibiting product repair,” said Green Century President Leslie Samuelrich. “The company risks losing its reputation as a climate leader if it does not cease its anti-repair practices."

    Despite growing its independent repair network, Apple continues to earn criticism not only for denying consumers and independent repair shops access to repair materials but also designing products in such a way that hinders repair. Equally troubling, the company has doubled down on this approach by lobbying extensively against Right to Repair laws, which would require electronics manufacturers to provide access to parts and service information to consumers."

    In a statement of its own, US PIRG suggested that improving both companies' repair policies just made decent business sense:

    "Providing more freedom to repair products saves money and cuts waste. It’s common sense. But manufacturers like Deere and Apple commonly refuse to provide the software, parts or information needed to do certain repairs. It’s time for all manufacturers to stop fighting against opening up repair choices and realize that the call for reform isn’t going away. The wise thing to do is to get in front of pending regulatory changes. So far, however, both companies have attempted to appease repair advocates with half measures -- and even their own shareholders appear to see through those schemes. Just let us fix our stuff."

    It's not likely this pressure alone is likely to work. Most investors care little about the broader impact of bad business policies if said policies are providing meaningful quarter over quarter returns. And on the shorter term, being an obnoxious bully in a bid to monopolize repair over your own products potentially generates more money. But the more both companies engage in obnoxious anti-repair behaviors, the louder opposition grows, resulting in a massive push for some sort of state or federal legislation forcing them to do the right thing.

    For now, Apple and John Deere lobbyists have managed to stall any legislative reform, but the more they persist in this kind of behavior, and the more attention the right to repair movement gets, the more difficult that's going to be. As such there's an argument to be made that both companies could do wonders for their brands, the environment, markets, and consumer welfare by getting out ahead of calls for reform, before they're forced to.

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    Posted on Techdirt - 23 September 2021 @ 3:37pm

    Survey Suggests Eager Starlink Users Don't Understand Service Will Have Limited Reach

    from the good-luck-with-that dept

    So we've noted more than a few times that while Elon Musk's Starlink will be a good thing if you can actually get and afford the service, it's going to have a decidedly small impact on the broadband industry as a whole. Between 20 and 42 million Americans lack access to broadband entirely, 83 million live under a monopoly, and tens of millions more are stuck under a duopoly (usually your local cable company and a regional, apathetic phone company). In turn, Starlink is going to reach somewhere between 300,000 to 800,000 subscribers in its first few years, a drop in the overall bucket.

    Thanks to massive frustration with broadband market failure (and the high prices, dubious quality, and poor customer service that results), users are decidedly excited about something new. But not only are there limited slots due to limited capacity and physics, a lot of those slots are going to get gobbled up by die-hard Elon Musk fans excited to affix Starlink dishes to their boats, RVs, and Cybertrucks. As a result it will be extremely unlikely that most users who truly need the improved option will absolutely be able to get it.

    But a new PC Magazine survey continues to make it clear that most consumers don't quite understand they'll never actually have the option (especially if they live in a major metro market):

    Starlink is expected to come out of beta next month for a broader commercial launch, and has seen 600,000 orders so far. But many of the customers who have signed up say getting a status update from Starlink customer service is effectively impossible. While major Wall Street analysts like Craig Moffett estimate the service may be able to scale to 6 million users over a period of many years, he also notes that guess is extremely optimistic, and will require a significantly updated fleet of 42,000 satellites to achieve.

    This all assumes that Starlink will remain financially viable as it works toward that goal, something that's not really guaranteed in a low-orbit satellite industry that has a history of major failures. And there will be questions about throttling and other restrictions once the network gets fully loaded with hungry users. Again, Starlink will be great for off the grid folks if they can get -- and afford -- it, but I suspect there's going to be some heartache when folks excited about the service realize the limitations of its actual reach. And this scarcity is only going to drive even greater interest in a service you probably won't be able to get anytime soon.

    59 Comments | Leave a Comment..

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