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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

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Posted on Techdirt - 24 March 2017 @ 6:01am

AT&T, Verizon Feign Ethical Outrage, Pile On Google's 'Extremist' Ad Woes

from the manufactured-outrage dept

So you may have noticed that Google has been caught up in a bit of a stink in the UK over the company's YouTube ads being presented near "extremist" content. The fracas began after a report by the Times pointed out that advertisements for a rotating crop of brands were appearing next to videos uploaded to YouTube by a variety of hateful extremists. It didn't take long for the UK government -- and a number of companies including McDonald's, BBC, Channel 4, and Lloyd's -- to engage in some extended pearl-clutching, proclaiming they'd be suspending their ad buys until Google resolved the issue.

Of course, much like the conversation surrounding "fake news," most of the news coverage was bizarrely superficial and frequently teetering toward the naive. Most outlets were quick to malign Google for purposely letting extremist content get posted, ignoring the fact that the sheer volume of video content uploaded to YouTube on a daily basis makes hateful-idiot policing a Sisyphean task. Most of the reports also severely understate the complexity of modern internet advertising, where real-time bidding and programmatic placement means companies may not always know what brand ads show up where, or when.

Regardless, Google wound up issuing a mea culpa stating they'd try to do a better job at keeping ads for the McRib sandwich far away from hateful idiocy:

"We know advertisers don't want their ads next to content that doesn’t align with their values. So starting today, we’re taking a tougher stance on hateful, offensive and derogatory content. This includes removing ads more effectively from content that is attacking or harassing people based on their race, religion, gender or similar categories. This change will enable us to take action, where appropriate, on a larger set of ads and sites."

As we've noted countless times, policing hate speech is a complicated subject, where the well-intentioned often stumble down the rabbit hole into hysteria and overreach. Amusingly though, AT&T and Verizon -- two U.S. brands not exactly synonymous with ethical behavior -- were quick to take advantage of the situation, issuing statements that they too were simply outraged -- and would be pulling their advertising from some Google properties post haste. This resulted in a large number of websites regurgitating said outrage with a decidedly straight face:

"We are deeply concerned that our ads may have appeared alongside YouTube content promoting terrorism and hate," an AT&T spokesperson told Business Insider in a written statement. "Until Google can ensure this won’t happen again, we are removing our ads from Google’s non-search platforms."

"Once we were notified that our ads were appearing on non-sanctioned websites, we took immediate action to suspend this type of ad placement and launched an investigation," a Verizon spokesperson told Business Insider. "We are working with all of our digital advertising partners to understand the weak links so we can prevent this from happening in the future."

Of course, if you know the history of either company, you should find this pearl-clutching a little entertaining. In just the last few years, AT&T has been busted for turning a blind eye to drug dealer directory assistance scams, ripping off programs for the hearing impaired, defrauding government programs designed to shore up low-income connectivity, and actively helping "crammers" by making scam charges on consumer bills harder to detect. Verizon, recently busted for covertly spying on internet users and defrauding cities via bogus broadband deployment promises isn't a whole lot better.

That's not to say that all of the companies involved in the Google fracas are engaged in superficial posturing for competitive advantage. Nor is it to say that Google can't do more to police the global hatred brigades. But as somebody who has spent twenty years writing about these two companies specifically, the idea that either gives much of a shit about their ads showing up next to hateful ignoramuses is laughable. And it was bizarre to see an ocean of news outlets just skip over the fact that both companies are pushing hard into advertising themselves with completed or looming acquisitions of Time Warner, AOL and Yahoo.

Again, policing hateful idiocy is absolutely important. But overreach historically doesn't serve anybody. And neither does pretentious face fanning by companies looking to use the resulting hysteria to competitive advantage.

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Posted on Techdirt - 23 March 2017 @ 4:24pm

Confidence Wavers In Google Fiber As ISP Cancels Installs, Refuses To Explain Why

from the nothing-to-see-here dept

Late last year Google Fiber announced it would be pausing expansion into several new markets, axing its CEO, and shuffling a number of employees around. Reports subsequently emerged suggesting that Alphabet higher ups were growing frustrated with the high cost and slow pace of fiber deployment, and were contemplating an overall larger shift to wireless. While the company continues to insist that there's nothing to see here and that everything is continuing as normal, signs continue to emerge that the ground Google Fiber is built on may not be particularly sturdy.

This week numerous Kansas City residents say they were told that the company was cancelling their installations after waiting eighteen months for service. Users there are frustrated by Google's complete lack of explanation for the rash of cancellations:

"About April, May, I saw sometimes as many as four to five Fiber trucks in the neighborhood. I kept watching my email but never got anything in the mail to schedule my appointment or anything,” Muerer told 41 Action News.

That was back in October 2015.

Eighteen months later, Meurer still doesn’t have Google Fiber. He recently received an email saying the company had canceled his installation.

"I’m left wondering what is going on,” said Meurer.

Kansas City residents aren't alone. Portland was one of the cities Google Fiber was supposed to launch in, but locals there are similarly frustrated by Google's about face. Especially since the city had shuffled around city ordinances, laid the groundwork for the placement of Google Fiber "huts," and convinced state legislatures to pass a new state law providing notable tax incentives for Google Fiber. Chicago, Jacksonville, Los Angeles, Oklahoma City, Phoenix, San Diego, San Jose, and Tampa were also in various states of contact with Google Fiber about potential builds that apparently will no longer be happening.

And while Google Fiber still exists, Google/Alphabet isn't helping restore confidence it the disruptive potential of the service. By and large the company continues to insist that everything is fine and there's nothing to see here despite ongoing evidence of cold feet at the executive level. Whenever press outlets inquire about last fall's decision, reporters are given a calorie-free rosy statement that tells people absolutely nothing substantive about what's going on. This statement, for example, is what I was given when I asked the company specifically why it was cancelling fiber installations in Kansas City:

"Google Fiber loves Kansas City and is here to stay. We’ve been grateful to be part of your community since 2011, and for the opportunity to provide superfast Internet to residents. We recently announced our expansion into Raymore, we are continuing to build in Overland Park, and we can’t wait for even more customers in Kansas City to experience what’s possible with Google Fiber."

Ars Technica received a similar non-answer from the company.

Granted Google's pivot to wireless could certainly work. The company is conducting wireless trials in the 71-76 GHz and 81-86 GHz millimeter wave bands, as well as the 3.5 GHz band, the 5.8 GHz band and the 24 GHz band. It seems fairly clear that Alphabet executives really don't know what they want to do just yet, but don't want to admit that to anybody. But confidence that Google Fiber would be the answer to solving the broadband mono/duopoly log jam is quickly wavering, something unaided by Google's bizarre refusal to be clear about the direction the project is headed.

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Posted on Techdirt - 23 March 2017 @ 11:17am

Congress Just Voted To Kill Consumer Broadband Privacy Protections

from the the-almighty-dollar dept

Despite a last-ditch effort by the EFF and other consumer and privacy groups, Congress today voted to dismantle privacy protections for broadband subscribers in a 50-48 vote. The rules, passed last October by the FCC, simply required that ISPs clearly disclose what subscriber data is being collected and sold by ISPs. It also required that ISPs provide working opt out tools, and required that consumers had to opt in (the dirtiest phrase imaginable to the ad industry) to the collection of more sensitive data like financial info or browsing histories.

Another part of the rules, which simply required that ISPs were transparent about hacking intrusions and data theft, had already been killed off quietly by new FCC boss Ajit Pai.

The rules were seen as important in the face of greater consolidation in an already uncompetitive broadband market, where said lack of competition eliminates any organic market punishment for bad behavior on the privacy front (unlike the content or other industries). Now, with neither broadband competition -- nor meaningful regulatory oversight -- privacy advocates are justifiably worried about the repercussions to come.

The rules were killed by using the Congressional Review Act, which allows Congress to dismantle recently approved regulations with a simple majority vote. While the rules really were relatively straightforward, telecom lobbyists spent months deriding the rules as "onerous regulations" that would be "too confusing" for consumers, potentially stifling sector "innovation." Industry lobbyists also consistently pushed "studies" proclaiming that ISPs really don't collect much consumer data, in stark contrast to, you know, the truth.

One of the proposals sponsors, Arizona Senator Jeff Flake, went so far in a speech Wednesday night to suggest that the rules somehow "restricted constitutional rights" (of giant ISPs like Comcast, apparently):

"In a speech on the Senate floor Wednesday night, Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), who introduced the bill, said the FCC regulations were an example of a “bureaucratic power grab.” "Passing this CRA will send a powerful message that federal agencies can’t unilaterally restrict constitutional rights and expect to get away with it,” Flake said."

ISP lobbyists had spent countless hours trying to convince lawmakers that FCC oversight of privacy was unnecessary, and that the FTC alone was well-equipped to handle consumer privacy complaints in the broadband sector. But in a recent interview, former FCC boss Tom Wheeler made it abundantly clear that this was largely bullshit -- and the goal is to shovel off privacy oversight to an FTC without rule making abilities, already overloaded by other enforcement obligations:

"It’s a fraud. The FTC doesn’t have rule-making authority. They’ve got enforcement authority and their enforcement authority is whether or not something is unfair or deceptive. And the FTC has to worry about everything from computer chips to bleach labeling. Of course, carriers want [telecom issues] to get lost in that morass. This was the strategy all along.

So it doesn’t surprise me that the Trump transition team — who were with the American Enterprise Institute and basically longtime supporters of this concept — comes in and says, “Oh, we oughta do away with this.” It makes no sense to get rid of an expert agency and to throw these issues to an agency with no rule-making power that has to compete with everything else that’s going on in the economy, and can only deal with unfair or deceptive practices."

In other words, the goal is quite simply to gut oversight of one of the least competitive (and most anti-competitive) sectors in American industry. First by hamstringing the FCC's oversight of the sector, then by inevitably pushing bills that hinder the FTC's oversight as well. All told, today's vote is one of the more embarrassing examples of our broken, cash-compromised legislative process in recent memory.

Update: Here's the roll call breakdown of who voted for or against the measure, in case you're the type that actually likes accountability.

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Posted on Net Neutrality Special Edition - 23 March 2017 @ 6:22am

Netflix Is No Longer Worried About Net Neutrality Now That It's Massive And Successful

from the sorry,-I-got-mine dept

Once upon a time, Netflix was among the fiercest supporters of net neutrality, and a consistent critic of arbitrary and unnecessary broadband usage caps. So much so that the company effectively became public enemy number one at many of the nation's broadband providers, resulting in a steady stream of bizarre policy and lobbying attacks on the company. Netflix, we were told by a rotating crop of ISP-tied mouthpieces (even by current FCC boss Ajit Pai), was a dirty freeloader, and a nasty company responsible for most of the internet's ills.

But as Netflix has grown larger and more powerful, the company's positions on usage caps and net neutrality has, well, softened.

Back in January, a company letter to shareholders downplayed the looming death of net neutrality, suggesting that Netflix was so popular -- any attack on it would be seppuku:

"Weakening of US net neutrality laws, should that occur, is unlikely to materially affect our domestic margins or service quality because we are now popular enough with consumers to keep our relationships with ISPs stable."

Of course, what Netflix actually meant was that it's now powerful and wealthy enough to go toe to toe with giant ISPs on interconnection and other disputes. The problem: while Netflix may now be strong enough to survive a world without net neutrality, that's not necessarily going to be true for the next Netflix. Smaller companies will absolutely be hampered by the rising spread of usage caps and zero rating, which as we've long noted are increasingly being used as anti-competitive weapons against them. And the current government has made it very clear that's perfectly ok.

Netflix CEO Reed Hastings reiterated the company's confidence on this subject in a meeting with reporters last week at the company's headquarters, where he insisted the company was "not too worried" about the government's plans to gut net neutrality:

"Netflix CEO Reed Hastings says he’s “not too worried” about what will happen if new FCC chairman Ajit Pai eliminates the Title II regulations that have guaranteed a neutral internet experience for US consumers in recent years.

Speaking to a group of journalists at Netflix’s headquarters in Los Gatos, California, earlier today, Hastings said he believes “the culture around net neutrality is very strong. The expectations of consumers are very strong. So even if the formal framework gets weakened,” he continued, “we don’t see a big risk actualizing, because consumers know they’re entitled to getting all of the web services."

Hastings believes that Netflix is just so damn popular, consumer outrage will magically keep ISPs on their best behavior even if Pai, Trump and the GOP kill all telecom consumer protections. But as we saw during recent interconnection feuds, ISPs have become clever at dodging blame for the congestion they intentionally caused in order to kill settlement-free peering and extract additional funds from transit and content companies (detailed in the New York AG's recent lawsuit against Charter). You'd be hard pressed to think that 10% of the population actually understood what was happening during these feuds.

That said, consumers, startups and people that care about a healthy, open internet should worry.

The new FCC has already killed an inquiry into zero rating, which means incumbent ISPs are now free to use caps to hamper competing streaming services. And with AT&T, Verizon, Comcast and Charter now effectively dictating government internet policy, you can be sure broadband competition issues will be placed on a far back burner -- resulting in a steady expansion of usage caps and overage fees. And Congress is cooking up one or more bills that will not only kill net neutrality and consumer privacy protections, but gut regulatory oversight of one of the least competitive industries in America.

But gosh, now that Netflix is large and successful (with 94 million subscribers worldwide), this is all just something that's apparently going to work itself out. We've tracked a similar trajectory at Google, where net neutrality principles slowly but surely disappeared as the company jumped into the wireless industry. With net neutrality's two biggest and wealthiest proponents wavering on net neutrality now that they've got theirs, the idea of an internet free of incumbent ISP control needs all the help it can damn well get.

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Posted on Techdirt - 22 March 2017 @ 1:14pm

Charter's Trying To Kill Recent Merger Conditions Banning Usage Caps, Net Neutrality Violations

from the pay-more-money-for-the-same-product dept

For decades now the FCC has been an expert at imposing utterly meaningless merger conditions. Usually these conditions are proposed by the companies' themselves, knowing full well these "demands" are utterly hollow -- and FCC punishment for ignoring them will be virtually non-existent. The end result has been a rotating tap dance of merger conditions that sound good upon superficial press inspection, but wind up being little more than hot air. It's a symbiotic relationship where as the telecom sector consolidates (often at the cost of less competition) the FCC gets to pretend it's not selling consumer welfare down river.

But last year something weird happened.

When Charter proposed its $79 billion acquisition of Time Warner Cable and Bright House Networks, former FCC boss Tom Wheeler brought in net neutrality advocate Marvin Ammori to help hammer out conditions that wound up actually being meaningful. Under the deal, Charter was banned from imposing usage caps, engaging in interconnection shenanigans with content providers like Netflix, or violating net neutrality (even if the rules themselves were killed) for a period of seven years. Charter was also required to expand broadband to 2 million additional locations.

Not too surprisingly, broadband providers and the new incumbent-cozy FCC are getting right to work trying to eliminate those conditions entirely. New FCC boss Ajit Pai is circulating an order that would kill requirements that Charter overbuild into competing ISP territories, something demanded recently in a letter to the FCC by the American Cable Association. As is kind of telecom sector status quo, smaller cable companies say they'll take their investment ball and go home if the threat of additional, regulator-mandated competition isn't eliminated:

"To respond to growing consumer demand for increased bandwidth, all of us have been planning to upgrade the electronics on our networks and to deploy more fiber closer to customer locations over the next five years (the lifespan of the overbuild condition). Many of us have been planning to extend our networks to serve communities adjacent to our current service territories. But we have been forced to reconsider, scale back, or halt these investments in the wake of the Commission’s order."

Of course that's not how competition works, and companies believing they get to choose when you upgrade their networks speaks to the level of competition these companies already see. Elsewhere, broadband industry-funded think tanks like the Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI) are also pushing Pai to kill off the usage cap ban, trotting out the long-standing industry claim that usage caps are all about fairness:

"...the Order requires New Charter to refrain from imposing “data caps” or setting "usage-based prices" for its residential broadband Internet access services for seven years after the transaction closes. Given that “the record makes clear that online video places enormous demands upon the networks of Charter and Time Warner Cable and increases their capital costs,” Commissioner Pai asked a simple question in his dissent: “Who should bear those costs?" Because the Order concludes that “all customers must do so equally,” New Charter’s natural response to this condition “will be to increase prices on all consumers in order to amortize the cost of serving a bandwidth-hungry few."

Granted if you've been paying attention to the usage cap debate, you realize this is a stale canard. Industry executives have acknowledged that caps have nothing to do with network management, and aren't an effective way to police network congestion anyway. As any earnings report highlights, caps aren't a financial necessity either, since flat-rate broadband has been incredibly profitable for the industry for years.

What usage caps are is a price hike imposed on uncompetitive markets. Granted they also help ISPs protect their TV revenues from the rise of internet video by penalizing competing streaming services, while letting the incumbent's own services sail through without penalty (aka zero rating). Anybody believing that imposing caps and overage fees on all users is really about making sure a few people "pay their fair share" should steer clear of swampland and bridge salesmen.

Granted Charter's latest merger has still proven harmful for consumers, who say the company has frozen broadband upgrades and raised rates dramatically in the wake of the megamerger. If consumer welfare were truly a U.S. telecom regulatory criteria the deal likely would have never been approved at all, but the cap condition specifically at least kept things from being arguably worse in the face of limited competition. If the FCC's looking to give a middle finger to the millions of customers impacted by this deal, killing the conditions -- and requiring these users pay even more money for the same service -- is a fantastic way to do so.

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Posted on Techdirt - 22 March 2017 @ 6:23am

The Ad Industry Is Really Excited About Plans To Gut Broadband Privacy Protections

from the an-informed,-empowered-consumer-costs-us-money dept

The broadband, advertising and marketing industries are absolutely thrilled about plans to kill the FCC's new broadband privacy protections for consumers. Passed last year, the rules simply require that ISPs provide working opt-out tools, go to reasonable lengths to protect data and notify users of hack attacks, and be transparent about what data they collect and who they sell to. The rules also require that ISPs obtain opt-in consent (public enemy number one for marketing folks) for the collection and sale of more personal data like financial details or browsing histories.

Given that empowered, informed consumers cost the marketing and broadband industry billions, they've been waging a massive campaign to have the rules killed -- and they're about to succeed. New FCC boss Ajit Pai quickly and covertly set about killing the rules' hacking-related requirements. Meanwhile Senator Jeff Flake and Rep. Marsha Blackburn have gotten quickly to work introducing Congressional Review Act resolutions that would kill the rest of the new rules before they're even allowed to take effect.

Needless to say, the marketing industry is pretty excited. In a joint statement by numerous ad policy and lobbying groups including the Association of National Advertisers and American Advertising Federation, the ad industry went so far as to try and claim that protecting consumer privacy was somehow "anti-consumer":

"Without prompt action in Congress or at the FCC, the FCC's regulations would break with well-accepted and functioning industry practices, chilling innovation and hurting the consumers the regulation was supposed to protect. The Congressional Review Act was designed as a common-sense check on anti-consumer regulations like this, and we are pleased that Senator Flake, Congressman Blackburn, and their colleagues are using it to such positive effect. We strongly urge Congress to support and quickly act on these Joint Resolutions."

Granted the ad and broadband industries would have you forget why the FCC crafted these "anti-consumer" rules in the first place. They were only pushed after Verizon was caught covertly modifying user wireless packets in order to track users around the internet without telling them. The FCC was similarly motivated by the fact that AT&T and Comcast were starting to show interest in charging users a premium for privacy, and the fact that companies like CableONE were proudly crowing about how they use financial data to provide worse customer service to bad credit customers.

The lack of last mile competition ensures that these companies face no organic, market-based punishment for these behaviors. And now regulatory oversight will be hamstrung as well, much to the joy of large ISPs looking to jump more heavily into the Millennial advertising business.

ISP-loyal lawmakers are selling the push by claiming that eliminating FCC oversight -- and leaving privacy in the hands of the FTC only -- will result in "more efficient" and "symmetrical" regulations in line with what Google and Facebook face (ignoring the vast, obvious differences in the internet content and broadband industries). That's something former FCC boss (and dingo) Tom Wheeler called a "fraud," specifically designed to saddle the already overextended FTC with work ISPs know will fall through the cracks. The EFF was also quick to recently debunk this and other claims over at its website:

"Unfortunately, recent court decisions have limited the FTC’s ability to enforce privacy rules on ISPs. Plus, relying on each state to enforce its own laws to protect privacy would create a terrible patchwork of mismatched regulations. You’d think with all the uncertainty and bureaucracy that would create, the ISPs would actually prefer clear, bright-line rules at the national level. But you’d be wrong: at this point, they’ll say anything to block the FCC’s privacy-protective rules."

The EFF has penned a second post discussing all of the fun things ISPs have done -- and will do -- with neither regulators nor free market competition keeping them in line. These efforts are being rushed through under the belief that bigger debates (like the Affordable Care Act) will overshadow how quickly Congress mindlessly rushed to do the bidding of companies like AT&T, Comcast, Verizon and Charter. A vote on the repeal of the rules is expected to happen as soon as Thursday, and consumer advocacy groups like Public Knowledge and the EFF are urging concerned citizens to contact their representatives.

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Posted on Techdirt - 21 March 2017 @ 6:29am

Despite Gigabit Hype, Comcast Is Facing Less Broadband Competition Than Ever

from the ma-bell,-ill-communication dept

Despite the rise of heavily-hyped-but-highly-scattered gigabit deployments, the broadband industry is actually seeing less competition than ever before across huge swaths of the country. Once upon a time, broadband "competition" consisted of an equally matched telco going head to head with the incumbent cable provider (if you were lucky). These days, most phone companies lack the finances or competitive motivation to improve lagging DSL speeds across their footprints -- speeds that don't even meet the FCC's base definition of broadband (25 mbps).

That's resulting in a growing monopoly for the nation's cable broadband providers, who have quietly been absolutely butchering phone companies over the last several years. Just take a look at the latest data from Leichtman Research, which notes that while cable broadband providers collectively added 2.7 million net additional high-speed Internet subscribers last year, phone companies collectively shed roughly 600,000 broadband users.

That's the most net additions the cable sector has seen in any year since 2007. And the 122% 2016 net additions are a notable bump up from the 106% of net additions seen by cable providers in 2015, and 89% of net additions seen in 2014. It paints a rather clear picture of a broadband industry that, frankly, is even less competitive than public wisdom dictates (and most of us already knew it's one of the least competitive sectors in technology):

In countless markets, phone companies like AT&T and Verizon are simply giving up on unwanted DSL users, quite happily driving them to cable via the one-two punch of price hikes or apathy (their focus now is more expensive wireless, and gobbling up various media companies). Elsewhere, smaller telcos (Windstream, Centurylink, Frontier) have saddled themselves with so much debt by gobbling up AT&T and Verizon's aging copper customers, they're incapable (or unwilling) to invest in necessary broadband upgrades en masse.

Many of these companies quite simply don't even want to be in the residential broadband business, resulting in a palpable, active disdain by many of these phone companies for their own paying customers. The residential broadband industry simply isn't profitable enough, quickly enough for modern investors, so most of these companies have shifted their entire focus elsewhere. For smaller telcos like Windstream, it's gobbling up companies like Earthlink to expand a focus on enterprise customers. For AT&T and Verizon, it's gobbling up media empires in the quest to be millennial ad juggernauts.

All of this is wonderful news for companies like Charter and Comcast. This reduction in overall competition is eroding the resistance to the rise of completely unnecessary and arbitrary usage caps, meaning broadband (and competing streaming) services are getting more expensive than ever before. And remember, most of these companies have written and successfully lobbied for state bills preventing your town or city from doing much about it. As icing on the cable cake, new Ajit Pai-run FCC has made it clear that nibbling these companies' earlobes is going to pass for regulatory policy for the foreseeable future.

All of this tends to get overshadowed each time an ISP proudly announces the expansion of expensive gigabit broadband lines in highly-selective areas. But for the countless markets in the States, phone companies have effectively given up -- resigning consumers to at least a decade of higher prices and the cable industry's particular knack for atrocious customer service.

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Posted on Techdirt - 20 March 2017 @ 1:17pm

San Francisco Ponders The Largest Community Broadband Network Ever Built

from the if-you-build-it-they-will-come dept

Despite being considered one of the technology capitals of the country, San Francisco and the Bay Area continue to suffer from a lack of broadband options -- just like the rest of us sorry sods. If they're lucky, most locals there still only have the option of one of two large ISPs: AT&T and Comcast. Both companies have a long, proud history of fighting competition tooth and nail, often by quite literally writing shitty state telecom law that ensures the status quo remains intact. Attempts to break through this logjam and bring faster, better broadband service to the city have seen decidedly mixed results.

Like most areas, ultra-fast next-generation broadband in particular is notably lacking. Some estimates suggest that just 2.6% of San Francisco residents have access to gigabit broadband service. Sonic CEO Dane Jasper, whose company is also busy deploying gigabit services to the Bay Area, tells me he believes those figures are stale and gigabit penetration rates in the city are closer to 17%. And while Google Fiber had tinkered with the idea of bringing fiber to the city, the company's pivot to wireless has left that added avenue of competition up in the air.

Last week, numerous Mayors and city officials in California and Arizona penned a letter to AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson, complaining that not only is AT&T not upgrading many DSL customers to fiber, they're not adequately maintaining existing copper (now that AT&T's primary focus appears to be media, and acquiring Time Warner):

"All too many Californians and Nevadans have waited far too long for AT&T to build the high-speed broadband infrastructure promised to them," the officials said in a letter to AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson. "Not only is AT&T failing to provide access to 21st-century high-speed connections to many communities, but it is also not maintaining the copper lines that are vital to landline phone access, 911 and emergency services and basic Internet service."

For most of the last fifteen years, bubbling under the surface of this dysfunction, a growing number of cities have decided to bypass broadband's duopoly and just build next-generation, citywide broadband networks from scratch. That effort received renewed attention this week in San Francisco when the city announced it was convening a panel of "business, privacy and academic experts" to debate and discuss just what such a network would look like. On that panel will be Harvard Law School Professor Susan Crawford, who has been consistently at the forefront of criticizing this country's broken broadband market.

The panel has been tasked with how best to build a network capable of delivering gigabit speeds at more reasonable prices:

In the coming months, the San Francisco Municipal Fiber Blue Ribbon Panel will conduct research and provide recommendations on the most efficient and effective ways to blanket the city with broadband, an effort that could cost up to $1 billion.

If it becomes reality, San Francisco would be the largest city in the country to implement citywide high-speed Internet. City officials are currently targeting speeds of 1 gigabit per second. The average Internet speed in the U.S. is 31 megabits per second according to the most recent data published by the Federal Communications Commission, so this could be about 30 times faster.

The problem is convincing people to pay for it. Seattle has spent the better part of the last fifteen years pondering its own network after being historically disappointed by ISPs like Comcast and CenturyLink. But locals have consistently shied away from funding such a massive project -- especially given the city's current focus on shoring up mass transit ahead of an ongoing population boom. Incumbent ISP lobbying also consistently tangles these efforts with disinformation and legal shenanigans, usually adding additional costs as the cities have to deal with lawsuits and other pay-to-play regulatory headaches.

We've long noted how while municipal broadband is often demonized, it's a perfectly organic reaction to market failure -- and if companies truly want to keep towns and cities from getting into the broadband business, the solution should be fairly obvious: provide better, cheaper broadband.

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Posted on Techdirt - 17 March 2017 @ 1:37pm

Charter Tries To Tap Dance Out Of Lawsuit Over Substandard Broadband

from the we-don't-have-to-care----we're-the-cable-company dept

Last month, we noted how New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman sued Charter Communications for knowingly providing broadband service well below advertised speeds. After an initial first read I didn't think much of the lawsuit (pdf), but upon closer inspection it provides some pretty damning evidence that Charter not only knowingly failed to provide decent service (and just didn't care, since this is the uncompetitive broadband industry), but in some instances actively made connections worse for its own competitive advantage.

The AG's suit highlights how Charter manipulated data for a program run by the FCC to monitor consumer connection speeds. This program, co-operated by a UK outfit dubbed SamKnows, gives volunteers custom-firmware embedded routers to monitor connection quality and speed. The FCC was then using this data to name and shame ISPs that failed to deliver advertised speeds. The lawsuit highlights how Charter executives worked to intentionally deliver faster speeds to just these customers in order to trick the FCC into believing its network was performing better than it actually was.

The suit also seemed to confirm something that content and transit operators have been complaining about for a few years -- namely that large incumbent ISPs were intentionally letting interconnection points get saturated to extract additional fees from backbone and content providers like Netflix. This behavior quickly ended thanks in large part to the FCC's new net neutrality rules, which currently protect such interconnection relationships from abuse by incumbent telecom mono/duopolies. With these rules possibly dying this year, it's a problem you can be sure will re-emerge.

Not too surprisingly, Charter is trying to have this case thrown out. Recent court filings (pdf) indicate that the company successfully had the case moved from state to federal court, with Charter lawyers arguing that the Communications Act completely preempted claims under state law. Charter lawyers even went so far as to justify this position using the exact same 2015 FCC net neutrality rules ISPs lobbied, repeatedly, to destroy:

"Charter even went so far as quoting language from the FCC's 2015 Open Internet Order (aka the net neutrality regulations) to support the proposition that states are precluded from imposing obligations inconsistent with the FCC's regulatory regime.

According to defendants' court papers providing notice of removal, "Given the State’s distortion of the speed tests approved by the FCC and its reliance on other tests that the FCC does not require or endorse, if the 'state court vindicate[s] [the State’s claim], the relief granted would necessarily force [Defendants] to do more than required by the FCC.' The State is, in effect, 'trying to invalidate' disclosures made pursuant to the FCC’s reporting regime; its claim thus is necessarily federal."

With the new Trump FCC making it very clear that incumbent ISPs are going to get a free pass on the consumer protection front, the states (with an even more inconsistent track record on consumer protection than the federal government) may wind up being the only thing standing between you and the dubious ethics of companies like AT&T, Charter and Comcast:

"On Monday, the NY AG's office filed a motion to remand the case back to state court. The forthcoming decision could be an important one if other top legal officials in states across the nation attempt to fill the void of whatever the FCC is not doing....Schneiderman's attorneys argue that the lawsuit is "rooted entirely in the kind of consumer deception that is within the traditional purview of state law and is historically subject to enforcement in state court."

Charter's in a somewhat unique position due to conditions attached to the company's recent acquisition of Time Warner Cable and Bright House Networks. Those conditions banned the company from not only imposing usage caps, but also require it to continue to adhere to the FCC's net neutrality rules (including the interconnection provisions) for seven years -- even if they're dismantled by ISPs and loyal politicians this year. Other ISPs face no such restrictions, and depending on Charter's success here, incumbent ISPs may soon find themselves in a new golden era for anti-competitive behavior.

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Posted on Techdirt - 17 March 2017 @ 6:37am

Smart Vibrator Company To Pay $3.75 Million For Private Data Collection

from the masturbatory-metadata dept

Given the often-comedic "security" featured on "smart" tea kettles, televisions, refrigerators and light bulbs -- was there any question that your sex toys would suffer from the same problems plaguing other Internet of Things devices?

Last fall, a company named Standard Innovation was sued because its We-Vibe vibrator collected sensitive data about customer usage. Specifically, the device and its corresponding Bluetooth-tethered smartphone app collected data on how frequently (and for how long) users enjoyed the toy, the "selected vibration settings," the device's battery life, and even the vibrator's "temperature." All of this rather personal data was collected and sent off to the company's Canadian servers, where the company claims it's used to conduct research for future products and product updates.

Unlike many IoT products, Standard Innovation does fortunately encrypt this data in transit, but like most IoT companies, it failed to fully and clearly disclose the scope of data collection to customers, what was being done with that data, and how to opt out (or preferably, opt in).

The end result was a lawsuit by one of the device's users (pdf) claiming this improperly-disclosed data collection violated Illinois privacy laws. This week, Standard Innovation struck a $3.75 million settlement (pdf). Under the terms of the deal, Standard Innovation will designate $3 million of the total for customers who downloaded the app and used it with the We-Vibe device, each individual receiving about $10,000 each. The remaining $750,000 is then destined to be divided between customers who purchased the devices alone, with each individual in that instance receiving roughly $200 each.

The company tells the Chicago Tribune it had learned its lesson about the collection of masturbatory metadata:

"Standard Innovation denied any wrongdoing in the settlement, which spokesman Denny Alexander called "fair and reasonable." Some changes agreed to in the settlement have been in place since We-Vibe updated its We-Connect app and privacy notice in September, he said.

"At Standard Innovation we take customer privacy and data security seriously. We have enhanced our privacy notice, increased app security, provided customers more choice in the data they share, and we continue to work with leading privacy and security experts to improve the app," he said."

Of course the real lesson here continues to be: if you want to be smart about device security in the internet of broken things era, you're almost always better off with the dumb alternative.

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Posted on Techdirt - 16 March 2017 @ 6:27am

Google Fiber's About-Face Provides Useful Lessons For A Broken Broadband Industry

from the don't-build-your-house-on-a-swamp dept

Last fall, Alphabet/Google announced that the company would be notably scaling back its Google Fiber ambitions. The company axed its CEO, laid off a small number of employees, and froze a number of anticipated fiber builds (in Portland and a few other locations). Numerous reports indicated that there were growing concerns among many executives about the high costs and slow pace of deploying fiber, so the company was considering an overall pivot to next-generation gigabit wireless while it continued building out most already-announced markets.

While it's hard to call this pivot a failure until we see a real wireless product, ISPs like AT&T were of course quick to suggest Google Fiber was little more than folly (ignoring that AT&T's anti-competitive behavior played a starring role in Google Fiber's struggles in many cities). This has contributed to an overall air of "we told you so" smugness emanating from numerous quadrants of the telecom status quo.

That take, however, is short-sighted. One, the launch of Google Fiber put an unrelenting spotlight on the lack of broadband competition in countless markets, driving many large ISPs (like AT&T) to deploy gigabit broadband service that had previously been unheard of. Google Fiber also managed to shine a bright spotlight on the way many large ISPs use our broken legislative and regulatory systems to keep things broken, whether that's by using utility pole beaurocracy to slow competitors' installs, or writing awful state protectionist law hamstringing what your local town and city can do about it.

Over at Backchannel, long-standing duopoly critic and Harvard Law Professor Susan Crawford notes that there are a lot of useful lessons from Google Fiber, most notably that the system Google Fiber is operating in is effectively rotten to the core:

"The fundamental lesson of Google Fiber is that, in the end, its business model was just like that of another cable actor. It was playing within the existing sandbox, using the right technology but the wrong business model.

That sandbox has been left to the vagaries of the marketplace, in which existing monopolies have built moats around their businesses in the form of rights to programming, rights of way, bundled products, relationships with credulous legislators, and a million other barriers to entry that make competing — even for Google — just too expensive for shareholders looking for immediate, media company-like returns, quarter after quarter."

The solution, Crawford insists, is a shift toward local, municipal, open access networks via which ISPs come in and compete:

"The only business model for fiber that will work to produce the competition, low prices, and world-class data transport we need — certainly in urban areas — is to get local governments involved in overseeing basic, street grid-like “dark” (passive, unlit with electronics) fiber available at a set, wholesale price to a zillion retail providers of access and services. There’s plenty of patient capital sloshing around the US that would be attracted to the steady, reliable returns this kind of investment will return. That investment could be made in the form of private lending or government bonds; the important element is that the resulting basic network be a wholesale facility that any retail actor can use at a reasonable, fair cost.

The result: Instead of different wires competing side by side with one another, there would be one great basic facility available neutrally to every form of business. Your ISP could use that fiber in competition with 10 others; your traffic lights could use it to govern congestion; your energy grid could use it to measure and regulate consumption and use of renewables. (Here comes the much-touted Internet of Things, which, without fiber everywhere, is being built on sand.) At the same time, the government would stay out of providing and inventing retail services itself."

Data, including data from the FCC (promptly ignored by the agency) does support the argument that such open access networks result in better broadband, better customer service, and lower prices thanks to real competition. In fact, Google Fiber initially insisted it would support the open access model -- before promptly backing away from it. And some areas, like Huntsville, Alabama, are following through on building an open network, then inviting multiple ISPs (including Google Fiber) to come in and compete.

More competition means organic punishment for high prices, bad service, and net neutrality violations -- which in turn means fewer attempts to fix this issue using often ham-fisted attempts at regulating a moving train.

The problem: incumbent ISPs effectively run massive chunks of our government, to the point where they quite-literally write telecom law (usually via ALEC or some other third-party, legislation ghostwriting apparatus). That includes the twenty-some odd state laws preventing towns and cities from making telecom infrastructure decisions for themselves, lest they might upset somebody at AT&T, Verizon, Charter or Comcast.

Like so many sectors, you can't really fix what ails the broadband industry until you fix the underlying legislative rot that lets companies use campaign contributions and disinformation to dictate garbage technology policy in the first place. So sure, open access networks should absolutely be pursued where possible, but voting out politicians whose entire function appears to be to protect broken mono/duopoly markets (looking at you, Marsha Blackburn) would need to be the very first step in what's an achievable but Sisyphean climb toward better broadband.

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Posted on Techdirt - 15 March 2017 @ 6:30am

USAToday Latest News Outlet To Completely Miss The Point Of Cord Cutting

from the if-I-buy-ALL-the-things-I-have-less-money...news-at-11 dept

So we've noted a few times now how every month or so there's a media report proclaiming that you can't save any money via cord cutting. The logic in these reports almost always goes something like this: "Once I got done signing up for every damn streaming video service under the sun, I found that I wasn't really saving much money over traditional cable."

Authors leaning on this lazy take almost always tend to forget a few things. One, the same people dictating cable TV rates dictate streaming video rates. Two, adding a dozen streaming services to exactly match your bloated, 300 channel cable subscription misses the entire point of cord cutting. The benefit of streaming is you can pick and choose the content you prefer. And yes, if you prefer a massive bundle of religious programming, horrible reality television, and infomercials, then yes -- you may want to stick to paying an arm and a leg for cable.

Just like clockwork, USAToday rushed to meet this month's invisible quota for "cord cutting doesn't save me money" stories. In their version, the author desperately tries to include the cost of broadband service just to try and make an inaccurate point:

"Sure, if we only pared ourselves down to free TV with an antenna and Netflix, then we’d be in great shape, at $10 a month.

I would argue that we'd also have to add in the high-speed Internet charge to watch the stuff, and that would add another $40-$50.

(Serious cord-cutters disagree with me on this—they say we'd all be paying for the Internet anyway, and the charge shouldn't be counted.)

Yeah, they're telling you that because they're right. Your broadband connection would be a cost whether you cut the cord or not. Now, ISPs use usage caps to exempt their own content while driving up the cost of using streaming services, but that would be the fault of cable companies (and a lack of competition in the broadband sector) -- not the fault of cord cutting or streaming services. In fact: how a lack of broadband competition allows this abuse of the last mile is actually a more worthy story for this type of -- regurgitation and repetition.

Undaunted, the USAToday author continues:

"In a debate Thursday on Facebook Live, Luke Bouma, the owner of Cordcutternews.com, argued that the average person who ditched their cable was saving $100 monthly on their bill. I don't disagree. But looking into the future, my point is, if you add many new streaming services, your bill could get just as high as cable.

On the entertainment front, is Netflix really enough? With Hulu, you get access to the latest network TV shows from NBC, ABC and Fox, for $12 monthly, without commercials. And many of us love the idea of HBO Now on-demand, with access to the entire library of HBO shows, from the Sopranos to Games of Thrones.

Add another $15 monthly for HBO.

So now we’re just at $90 a month. Which is about on par with what we currently pay for cable."

So yes, when you buy all the toys in the store window things do tend to get expensive. But when you actually bother to talk to real people you'll find that time and time again they'll tell you that cord cutting saved them considerable money from the $130 or so (more depending on fees and packages) most people pay for traditional cable. If their bill gets too high, cord cutters can always trim back a service or buy a service elsewhere (AT&T sells HBO streaming as part of DirecTV Now for $5). There's also piracy, which for some reason writers at major outlets like to refuse to admit is an option because it's naughty.

This kind of competition and choice flexibility puts the onus on you to find -- and get -- the better deal. That this kind of flexibility on price and options has long been lacking from traditional cable is the entire damn point. If you're missing that, you're not really understanding the cord cutting phenomenon at all.

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Posted on Techdirt - 14 March 2017 @ 11:53am

New York City Sues Verizon For Fiber Optic Bait And Switch

from the a-sucker-born-every-minute dept

For years now, we've highlighted Verizon's tendency to grab all manner of tax breaks and subsidies from a town or city -- in exchange for fiber optic upgrades that are often never delivered. All up and down the eastern seaboard, Verizon was given the keys to the kingdom in franchise and other agreements filled with loopholes that let the telco, time and time again, promise one thing, then deliver another. And because the company enjoys immense lobbying power over regional regulators and state legislatures, Verizon has never really been held accountable for this behavior.

New York City has been a particular point of contention. In 2008, former mayor Mike Bloomberg and Verizon signed (behind closed doors) a new franchise agreement promising "100% coverage" of FiOS across the city by 2014. As some local reporters had warned at the time (and were promptly ignored), the city's deal with Verizon contained all manner of loopholes allowing Verizon to wiggle over, under and around its obligations. And wiggle Verizon did; a 2015 city report found huge gaps in deployment coverage -- particularly in many of the less affluent, outer city boroughs.

New York City had long promised to sue Verizon over its failures, and this week made good on that promise. A lawsuit filed by the city (pdf) says that Verizon only ultimately reached 2.2 million out of the city's 3.3 million residences with FiOS. The city is seeking a declaration that Verizon is in breach of its deployment obligations, as well as an order to complete the project as promised. The contract required that Verizon "pass" nearby apartments and buildings with fiber. But according to the city, Verizon's definition of "pass" meant "getting the fiber line somewhere close to the building, maybe":

"Verizon's current position, as stated in correspondence and meetings with the City, is that fulfilling the "premises passed" obligation does not, with respect to a given premises, necessarily involve running fiber immediately in front of or behind the premises. Rather, Verizon has asserted, it should be deemed to have'þassed" an individual building if it has run fiber to a nearby intersection and could access the building with further deployment of fiber."

This is pretty much the standard MO for Verizon, and any city surprised by it hasn't been paying attention. In addition to the flaky definition of "passed" (long a fluctuating, morphing determination in telecom for just this purpose), Verizon's agreement contained numerous provisions allowing it to buy or wiggle its way out of deployment obligations if certain television adoption metrics weren't met. All told, countless cities have signed contracts just like this one without really reading them. They then turn around in a few years feeling swindled (like Philadelphia just did).

As such, it's not entirely clear how much luck New York City will have in the courts, but Mayor Bill De Blasio's office has apparently had enough of playing deployment patty cake with the company:

"Verizon must face the consequences for breaking the trust of 8.5 million New Yorkers. Verizon promised that every household in the city would have access to its fiber-optic FiOS service by 2014. It's 2017 and we're done waiting. No corporation - no matter how large or powerful - can break a promise to New Yorkers and get away with it."

The problem is Verizon has "gotten away with it" pretty much constantly -- across a wide swath of its territory -- with zero repercussions, for the better part of a generation. In town after town, state after state, the most "punishment" Verizon tends to see is belated, toothless public hearings that serve little purpose other than to let swindled residents vent. That's because while Verizon's known for building networks, its expertise is really legacy turf protection and lobbying, and those campaign contributions go a very, very long way.

Ideally, cities could avoid all of this by actually reading contracts before they sign them (and making negotiations public and transparent, which didn't happen in New York). On a "positive" note, now that Verizon's busy gobbling up failed 90s internet brands in an apparent quest to pivot to slinging ads at Millennials -- it has largely given up on fixed-line broadband entirely, meaning that its bunk FiOS deployment promises are also taking an extended hiatus.

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Posted on Techdirt - 14 March 2017 @ 6:29am

DirecTV's 'Regional Sports Fees' Make No Coherent Sense, Company Won't Explain Why

from the because-we-can dept

For several years now, the cable and broadband industry has, like so many industries, turned to obnoxious, misleading fees to help pad their already healthy revenues. The fees, usually tacked on below the line post-sale, aren't just a great way to covertly raise rates -- but they allow companies to advertise one rate -- then charge something decidedly different. Despite effectively being false advertising, this practice has long been ignored by regulators. Companies like Comcast and Charter have, however, been repeatedly sued for the practice.

Two major fees in the last few years have received the brunt of the attention. One being the "broadcast TV fee." The broadcast TV fee is simply your cable operator taking a part of the cost of programming and burying it below the line to help them falsely advertise a lower rate. Comcast and Charter have both insisted this is simply them being transparent with their customers.

Another contentious fee is the "regional sports fee," which functions in just the same way, and as the name implies is just the cost companies pay to broadcast sports content. On its face, this fee was already contentious (given that many cable providers own the local sports broadcaster). But one DirecTV customer actually discovered that you could use a tool on the DirecTV website to determine how much each zip code pays in regards to this fee.

What she found is that there appears to be no rhyme or reason for how this fee is assessed. Users just a few feet apart could pay $0, $2.47, $5.83, or $7.29 in regional sports fees -- despite all having access to the same content. The user even broke down this in practice in Arizona via a handy map:

The Consumerist then went city by city and found the same thing in Chicago, New York, and multiple cities in California. And in places like Philadelphia, the website found that people paying absolutely nothing in fees are often saddled right next to people paying up to $7.29 more per month:

There's no coherent reason for this. It's not because of regional franchise agreements, most of which were demolished when companies like AT&T and Verizon convinced state legislatures to pass state-level agreements when they got into the business a decade ago. Similarly, DirecTV doesn't even offer a regional sports offering in many of the markets with varying rates. What is for certain is that both the broadcast TV fee and these regional sports fees have skyrocketed in very short order. The regional sports fee has jumped from $1 to nearly $10 for some carriers in just the last few years.

Hoping to find out why different people pay such dramatically different rates, the website asked DirecTV and got a complete and total non (and frankly false) answer:

"We sent all these maps to DirecTV, hoping to get a better explanation than the non-answer given to Connie. After more than two days of waiting, the best the company has been willing to provide is “[Regional sports network] content and thus the costs charged by providers vary significantly by ZIP code.”

Yet that’s simply not true. The examples we provided to DirecTV all involve relatively small areas where any regional channels would be the same. For instance, we could find no evidence of any special regional sports channel being beamed only to residents of Chicago’s Logan Square neighborhood."

If the cost fluctuation had a legitimate, above-board reason, you'd have to think DirecTV wouldn't shy away from explaining it. Given that this is the least liked industry in America, the other possible explanation is that there's nothing to explain because the entire fee is bullshit -- and therefore so is its implementation. In that case, why not charge everybody the same, uniform rate? Are some neighborhoods not being charged the fee to improve overall subscription rates? Follow up questions to DirecTV were subsequently ignored, suggesting there certainly is a reason -- just not one DirecTV wants to share with you.

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Posted on Techdirt - 10 March 2017 @ 4:33pm

Consumer Reports Proposes Open Source Security Standard To Keep The Internet Of Things From Sucking

from the Russians-hacked-my-toaster.-Again. dept

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

Hoping to, you know, help prevent that, the folks at Consumer Reports this week unveiled a new open source digital consumer-protection standard that safeguards consumers’ security and privacy in the internet-of-broken things era. According to the non-profit's explanation of the new standard, it's working with privacy software firm Disconnect, non-profit privacy research firm Ranking Digital Rights (RDR), and nonprofit software security-testing organization Cyber Independent Testing Lab (CITL) on the new effort, which it acknowledges is early and requires public and expert assistance.

As it stands, most of the proposals are common sense and take aim at most of the common issues in the IOT space. For example, encouraging companies to spend a few minutes engaged in "penetration testing" of their products before shipping (a novel idea!). The standard also hopes to ensure companies notify consumers of what's being collected and who it's being shared with, and that devices aren't using default login credentials. But Consumer Reports also notes that it hopes to develop these standards with an eye on more broadly incorporating them into product reviews:

"The standard should be easy enough for consumers without a technical background to understand, yet sophisticated enough to guide testing organizations such as Consumer Reports as we develop precise testing protocols. We want to rate products on measures such as security, in much the same the way we currently assess products for physical safety and performance."

This isn't the first effort of this type. Both the Department of Homeland Security and the FCC have started pushing for some voluntary sort of consistent standards. Of course the problem is that these standards are voluntary, meaning that the kind of companies that cut corners in the first place to sell unsecured products, aren't likely to give much of a damn. It's why folks like Bruce Schneier have advocated for stronger regulations. But with government agencies already walking back even existing consumer privacy protections under Trump, that doesn't seem likely anytime soon. And even if they were open to it, does anyone actually think that federal bureaucrats would come up with reasonable, workable standards that didn't do more harm than good? Having prominent reviewers, such as Consumer Reports take this on through an open standard and reviews seems like a pretty good way of shaming companies into better behavior.

Consumer Reports is quick to acknowledge this is just the beginning of what they hope evolves into a more comprehensive standard:

"The standard as it’s now written is a first draft. We hope that everyone from engineers to industry groups to concerned parents will get involved in shaping future versions of it. We’ve placed the standards on GitHub, a website that’s widely used by software developers to share ideas and work on group projects. Because GitHub can be hard for newcomers to navigate, we’ve also built a website that has the same information."

Folks that are curious or want to lend their assistance can check out the full standard here.

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Posted on Techdirt - 9 March 2017 @ 6:20am

The Cord Cutting The Cable Industry Says Isn't Happening, Keeps Happening

from the not-just-a-river-in-Egypt dept

For years, we've noted how many cable and broadcast executives have decided that their best reaction to the growing threat of cord cutting is to bury their head in the sand and pretend it isn't happening. Some industry executives like to insist that cord cutting remains an unimportant trend that will magically disappear once more Millennials begin procreating. Others -- often with help from the press -- like to insist the idea of cord cutting is some kind of myth perpetrated by mean bloggers, just to ruin everybody's good time.

As a result, too many in the cable and broadcast industry have decided that the best response to a changing TV marketplace is more of the same: more rate hikes, more advertisements, more tone deafness, and more denial.

You may be shocked to realize that this isn't working. In fact, MoffettNathanson analyst Craig Moffett, the telecom industry's top media quote machine, pointed out this week that 2016's 1.7% decline in traditional cable TV viewers was the biggest cord cutting acceleration on record thus far:

"With the results now in from all of the largest operators, it is clear that cord-cutting of legacy distribution services—that is, without including OTT-delivered virtual MVPD bundles like Sling TV and DirecTV Now (and soon, YouTube TV)—has at last meaningfully accelerated,” Moffett said. “While there admittedly remain a few smaller operators left to report, the pay-TV business (as defined by traditional providers) ended 2016 shrinking at 1.7% per year, its fastest quarterly acceleration on record."

Companies like AT&T and DirecTV have "solved" the problem of cord cutting by rolling subscribers of their streaming TV services (DirecTV Now and Sling TV) into their TV subscriber totals, hoping you'll ignore that these users pay significantly less for service than their traditional TV counterparts. Other companies, like Comcast, have actually managed to eke out small quarterly gains in cable TV customers by leveraging their broadband monopoly and effectively giving TV services away on promotion -- a short-term fix.

But the train is rolling all the same. ESPN, the poster child of industry cord cutting denial, only just recently acknowledged it will finally crack and offer the kind of stand alone streaming services it spent years claiming weren't viable. The company's also gearing up for a new round of layoffs to help counter the millions of lost subscribers (due to cord cutting and the rise of pared-down "skinny bundles"). It's estimated that, at this juncture, ESPN's losing around 10,000 subscribers per day -- the lion's share of which are paying too much money for content they don't watch.

As always, you'll have a good idea that the era of cord cutting denial is over when cable providers truly begin competing on price when it comes to their traditional cable TV offerings. Right now, however, the overarching name of the game for the sector is to insist that this cataclysmic shift the industry is experiencing is just a temporary phenomenon that needs riding out -- and not, as the truth should make clear, genuine adaptation.

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Posted on Techdirt - 8 March 2017 @ 11:46am

CIA Leaks Unsurprisingly Show The Internet Of Broken Things Is A Spy's Best Friend

from the watching-you-watching-me dept

So if you've spent any amount of time around here, you probably already know that the security and privacy standards surrounding the internet of (broken) things sit somewhere between high comedy and dogshit. Whether it's your refrigerator leaking your gmail credentials or your children's toys leaking kids' conversations, putting a microphone and camera on everything that isn't nailed down -- then connecting those devices to the internet without thinking about security and privacy -- hasn't been quite the revolution we were promised.

Obviously for the NSA and CIA, the internet of broken things is a field day, and the fact that the intelligence community would exploit this paper-mache grade security should surprise nobody. In fact, James Clapper made it abundantly clear last year that the internet of not-so-smart things was a massive target for surveillance:

"In the future, intelligence services might use the [internet of things] for identification, surveillance, monitoring, location tracking, and targeting for recruitment, or to gain access to networks or user credentials,” Clapper said."

As Mike already noted, most of what's contained in this week's Wikileaks Vault 7 CIA Document Dump isn't all that surprising. It includes stockpiled Android and iOS vulnerabilities, revelations that the US government covertly pays to keep US software unsafe and vulnerable (long suspected, now proven), and the fact that the government routinely exploits weak security in the Internet of Things to spy on targets. That includes turning Samsung "smart" televisions, long in the news for poor security and privacy violations, as an on-demand spying apparatus.

The documents highlight a CIA program named "Weeping Angel," which allows a CIA hacker to use the Samsung smart TV's microphone to listen in on a target, while the television appears to be off (aka a "fake off mode"). The documents only detail one TV model (the Samsung F8000), and seem to indicate that at least this particular exploit required someone to use an infected USB drive on the television in question:

Given the all-too-frequent lack of encryption (or hey, much security at all when it comes to collecting and transmitting data), it's still reasonable to surmise that a remote attack is perfectly possible on a laundry list of IoT devices, including televisions. Also, as the Intercept notes, given the problems we've repeatedly documented with smart televisions, it would be naive to think other sets aren't impacted:

"Security and cryptography researcher Kenneth White told The Intercept that smart TVs are “historically a pretty easy target” and “a pretty great attack platform,” given that TVs are typically located in a living room or bedroom.” White added that “there is zero chance the [CIA has] only targeted Samsung. It’s just too easy to mod other embedded OSes” found in the smart TVs sold by every other manufacturer."

Again, not particularly surprising for a tech segment repeatedly facing lawsuits for failing to disclose that TVs collect user data, or scandals involving sending this collected data unencrypted over the internet. In 2015, Samsung was forced to issue a lengthy mea culpa after users actually bothered to read the company's privacy policy, revealing that user TVs were watching them watching it. Samsung assured users the company takes "consumer privacy very seriously and our products are designed with privacy in mind," a FAQ also reassuring users that if there's no notification, your TV isn't listening:

How do I know it’s listening or not?

  • If the TV’s voice recognition feature is turned on for a command, an icon of a microphone will appear on the screen.
  • If no icon appears on the screen, the voice recognition feature is off."
  • Apparently not. Again, this might be less of a threat if TV vendors actually took user privacy seriously, utilized system settings that made device functionality transparent, or made it easy to disable functionality of dubious value on demand. But like the rest of the Internet of Things industry, companies were so hyped to use connectivity to hoover up private user data non-transparently, their ethical apathy left the door wide open to intruders (state sponsored or otherwise).

    But hey, know that the intelligence community doesn't think you should be worried. Ex-CIA Director Gen. Michael Hayden went on The Late Show with Steven Colbert to insist that the CIA certainly doesn't use smart TVs to spy on people (something he called a "wonderful capability"), and certainly not to spy on American citizens:

    Feel better?

    64 Comments | Leave a Comment..

    Posted on Techdirt - 8 March 2017 @ 6:18am

    In Dodging FCC Review, AT&T's Time Warner Mega-Merger Just Got Much Easier Under Trump

    from the merge-ALL-the-things! dept

    There are about 100 AT&T lobbyists currently making the rounds in Washington, trying to convince regulators and the press that the deal will provide an incredible boon to consumers. The folks who actually try to protect consumers aren't so sure, arguing that a larger combined company could make it harder than ever for streaming competitors to license the content they need to compete with AT&T (and its own streaming service, DirecTV Now). And that's before you even get to the fact that AT&T's using usage caps to give its own services an unfair leg up in the market (aka zero rating).

    But AT&T's path toward deal approval just got notably easier. While the deal will be reviewed by the DOJ, AT&T and Time Warner are configuring the deal so that it doesn't trigger any of the requirements for FCC review. As it stands, the FCC's jurisdiction would only extend to the deal with the transfer of certain spectrum licenses, or one of Time Warner's TV stations in Atlanta. But Time Warner just got done stating they'd be selling that station ahead of the merger. And new FCC boss Ajit Pai says he doesn't see the need for FCC involvement in the review process:

    "Pai said that because the transaction will involve no license transfers, the merger would not come before the FCC. Last week, Time Warner said that it would sell its sole broadcast station, WPCH in Atlanta, to Meredith Broadcasting for $70 million. "That is the regulatory hook for FCC review. My understanding is that the deal won’t be presented to the commission.” Pai’s remarks came at the Mobile World Congress on Monday."

    That, of course, leaves whether AT&T's latest mega-merger gets approved solely in the hands of the DOJ, with Trump as the wildcard. There's a certain segment of analysts that still thinks that Trump's disdain for Time Warner-owned CNN's news coverage could kill the deal (the President repeatedly promised to reject the deal on the campaign trail). But it's not clear these analysts quite understand the "synergies" this merger will provide AT&T (historically a pro at making bogus merger promises) and Trump (also an apparent expert at taking credit for job creation he had nothing to do with).

    Trump and AT&T would be like a 70s supergroup -- with bullshitters instead of musicians. As such, I'd imagine the deal gets approved by the DOJ, but under an absolute cavalcade of public relation bloviation the likes of which we've never seen before -- all promising that the deal will create jobs, protect the nation's children, expand broadband deployment, and save the planet from potential alien invasion. AT&T, for its part, continues to promise in letters to concerned Senators (pdf) that this latest mega-merger is all "about giving consumers what they want":

    "Put simply, this merger is about giving consumers what they want. Together, AT&T and Time Warner will create exciting new ways for consumers to enjoy video anytime, anywhere, and on any device, with unprecedented levels of customization and interactivity. The merger will allow us to offer customers more attractive bundles of broadband and video services, prodding cable companies and other competitors to respond by improving their own services. And the merger will further incentivize AT&T and other wireless carriers to deploy lightning-fast 5G wireless technology faster and deeper in their networks. As a result, this deal will increase competition and accelerate the innovation/investment cycle, all to the benefit of American consumers."

    Doesn't that sound lovely? While reports still seem to suggest Trump personally opposes the deal, he's been appointing regulator chiefs at most key agencies that pride themselves on a "light regulatory touch," and for whom blocking such a deal would be dramatically out of character. Ultimately, it's likely that the opportunity for bogus job creation claims will be too hard for Trump to ignore, resulting in some cognitive dissonance gymnastics among those Trump supporters who actually took his campaign pledges to thwart harmful media consolidation seriously.

    24 Comments | Leave a Comment..

    Posted on Techdirt - 7 March 2017 @ 6:30am

    Senator Thune Begins Pushing A 'Net Neutrality' Bill That's Likely To Kill Net Neutrality

    from the with-friends-like-these dept

    While Trump, the GOP and new FCC boss Ajit Pai really want to kill net neutrality protections for AT&T, Comcast and Verizon, it likely won't happen at the FCC. As it stands, rolling back the rules via the same FCC process that birthed them would require showing the courts that things have dramatically changed since the FCC's major court win last year. Such a process would also involve another lengthy public comment period, during which the record-setting four million public comments filed during the rule creation could appear diminutive.

    So if you're an ISP lobbyist looking to kill net neutrality rules, how do you accomplish this without causing a massive public shitstorm? Why you table ghost write (corrected, thanks commenters) a bill that pretends to save and protect net neutrality, while wording it to do the exact opposite, of course!

    It's widely believed that the GOP intends to table a net neutrality bill sometime this year, either as a standalone bill or part of a Communications Act rewrite (with a heavy emphasis on killing the FCC's consumer-protection authority). The man likely to lead that effort is Senator John Thune, who last week took to the op-ed pages of Ars Technica to begin making his public case for such a proposal. Thune begins his sales pitch with, unfortunately, a lie:

    "I am quite confident that the online experience for the overwhelming majority of users has not really changed for better or worse because of the new regulations. The Internet’s future, however, is uncertain because of ideological bureaucrats at the FCC who adopted a misguided regulatory approach that has chilled investment and offers no protections against excessive bureaucratic interference in the years ahead.

    ...These regulations are already having a negative impact on Internet infrastructure. While not a problem in places like Silicon Valley or New York City, 34 million Americans today lack access to broadband services at home, and there is evidence that the FCC’s onerous regulations have chilled the capital investments that are needed to deploy broadband throughout the country."

    As we just got done saying, the claim that net neutrality "chilled investment" simply isn't true, no matter how many times large ISPs (and the politicians that love them) claim otherwise. Data showing growing CAPEX and earnings are all public, so it's not really particularly debatable (The Consumerist just got done doing a fantastic job once again debunking this canard). After starting with a repeatedly-debunked lie, Thune proceeds to his real goal, selling people on the idea of a new net neutrality law built by Congress:

    "While the FCC’s 2015 rules may soon be consigned to the dustbin of history, the last few months have shown us all that political winds can and often do shift suddenly. The only way to truly provide certainty for open Internet protections is for Congress to pass bipartisan legislation. Rather than heavy-handed and open-ended regulations that stifle the Internet, we need a statute offering clear and enduring rules that balance innovation and investment for all parts of the Internet ecosystem."

    So yes... in a perfect world, Congress would simply pass a net neutrality bill and enshrine the concept into law, avoiding the partisan pattycake that plagues the FCC with every administrative shift. But this world not being ideal, and one where companies like Comcast, AT&T and Verizon have incredible power over lawmakers, the chance of Congress passing useful net neutrality protections is virtually non-existent. Thune, as a major recipient of telecom industry cash, of course knows this. But Thune dismisses this reality to insist he's nobly prepared to spearhead a legislative effort to save neutrality once and for all:

    "The certainty of bipartisan law transcends administrations. Over the past few months, many of my Democrat colleagues have grown to appreciate this more. Regardless of what happens at the FCC with the 2015 rules, I again stand ready to work on legislation protecting the open Internet that sets forth clear digital rules of the road for both the Internet community and government regulators."

    You shouldn't buy it. Thune previously tried to kill the FCC's tougher rules with a similar proposal last year -- one that professed to "enshrine net neutrality into law," but which was so intentionally saddled with loopholes as to be useless. In fact such proposals are worse than useless in that they pre-empt the existing, more effective rules, cover only some net neutrality violations (outright blocking of entire websites, something no ISP intends or wants to do anyway), while ignoring the myriad of fronts where the real neutrality fights are happening now (zero rating, interconnection, usage caps and overage fees).

    The plan is to introduce a new net neutrality law that kills net neutrality while professing to save it. When lawmakers point out that the bill does more harm than good, they'll likely be derided for refusing to "compromise." Granted with the ACA and other Congressional kerfuffles currently taking priority, this bill may take some time before large ISP lobbyists and lawmakers can finally table such legislation. But those of you that care about net neutrality need to understand one thing: net neutrality's death will come disguised as a 2017 bill pretending to save it. Likely with Thune leading the parade.

    29 Comments | Leave a Comment..

    Posted on Techdirt - 6 March 2017 @ 2:48pm

    Vizio Fails To Dodge Class Action Over Its Spying 'Smart' Televisions

    from the watching-you-watching-me dept

    So if you hadn't been paying attention, most of the "smart" products you buy are anything but intelligent when it comes to your privacy and security. Whether it's your refrigerator leaking your gmail credentials or your new webcam being hacked in minutes for use in massive new DDoS attacks, the so-called "smart" home is actually quite idiotic. So-called smart-televisions have been particularly problematic, whether that has involved companies failing to encrypt sensitive data, to removing features if you refuse to have your daily viewing habits measured and monetized.

    Last month Vizio joined this not-so-distinguished club when it was discovered that the company's TVs had been spying on users for the last several years. Vizio's $2.2 million settlement with the FTC indicates that the company at no time thought it might be a good idea to inform customers this was happening. The snooping was part of a supposed "Smart Interactivity" feature deployed in 2014 that claimed to provide users with programming recommendations, but never actually did so. In short, it wasn't so much what Vizio was doing, it was the fact the company tried to bullshit its way around it.

    And while Vizio may have settled the FTC investigation into its snooping televisions, the company now faces an additional class action after a California federal judge late last week denied the company's motion to dismiss. The court ruled that Vizio customers' claimed injuries were "sufficiently concrete" to bring suit under the Video Privacy Protection and Wiretap Acts:

    "Congress has determined that the interception of a person’s electronic communications and the unauthorized disclosure of a person’s video viewing history are sufficiently harmful to warrant private causes of action," and in response to Vizio's contention that the information it allegedly discloses is not personally identifiable, adds, "Taken to its logical conclusion, Defendants’ argument absurdly implies that a court could never enter judgment against a plaintiff on a VPPA claim if it found that the disclosed information was not within the statutory definition of personally identifiable information; instead, it would have to remand or dismiss the action for lack of jurisdiction."

    U.S. District Court judge Josephine Staton also supported the lawsuit's claim of "highly offensive" conduct by Vizio by reiterating that the "Smart Interactivity" feature that did the spying was difficult to disable (impossible, initially), and was often reset after every Vizio firmware update:

    "Plaintiffs point to a report by the security software company Avast, which concluded that Smart Interactivity’s “off” function was not operational “for months, if not years.” So, even if consumers believed they had opted out of Vizio’s data collection practices, Vizio was still collecting their data for a considerable period. In addition, Vizio’s...Smart Interactivity software switches back on without warning if the Smart TV ever reverts to the factory settings—as can occur through Vizio’s software updates. Consumers would likely not realize for a significant period that Vizio’s collection and disclosure software has been re-enabled because the opt-out feature is allegedly buried in an obscure settings menu."

    So many of these companies wouldn't be facing settlements and lawsuits if they'd simply been transparent about what they were collecting in the first place. But time and time again we see "smart" IOT vendors trying to bullshit their way around what they're doing, bury settings that control privacy settings under layers of intentionally intimidating menus, or simply refuse outright to offer consumers working opt out tools in the first place.

    13 Comments | Leave a Comment..

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