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Posted on Techdirt - 16 January 2019 @ 2:28pm

2019: The Push For Bad Faith, Loophole-Filled Privacy Legislation Begins

from the head-fake dept

We've talked at length about how the telecom industry has spent the last few years pushing phony, loophole-filled net neutrality legislation.

Why would the telecom sector do that? They know their successful lobbying assault on net neutrality rules rests on shaky ground. Next month's court battle could easily reverse the FCC repeal, highlighting how the agency engaged in all manner of dubious behavior to kowtow to the telecom sector. They also know that thanks to the shifting winds in Congress and rising public anger, there could soon be growing support for a net neutrality law. Therefore, they want to pass their own, shitty, loophole-filled law to pre-empt tougher, better, state or federal protections.

The same thing is happening on the privacy front. Like the successful lobbyist attack on net neutrality, the cross-industry assault on the FCC's fairly modest broadband privacy rules back in 2017 pissed off those who were actually paying attention to it. Especially because those rules could have helped mitigate the growing roster of location data scandals by giving consumers greater control over how their location data is collected and sold.

As a result, we're starting to see a flood of cross-industry-backed legislation that pretends to fix the nation's lack of meaningful privacy guard rails, but whose real goal is to pre-empt any real state or federal efforts on that front. Case in point: the Google, Facebook, and Amazon-backed Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (ITIF) has been circulating a proposal it has been calling a "grand bargain." Said bargain proposes some fairly basic guidelines, but again the main goal appears to be to pre-empt some of the tougher laws already on the state and federal books, something COPPA backers like Senator Ed Markey aren't particularly impressed by:

"As Congress works to provide the American people with a comprehensive federal privacy law, we should build upon—not dismantle—existing safeguards,” Markey said, responding to ITIF’s proposal. “Getting rid of COPPA is literally like throwing the baby out with the bath water."

To be clear, COPPA (the country's only real federal privacy guidelines largely governing children) is certainly a mixed bag. On the one hand, it's been the source of some of the only punishment the telecom sector has seen for its longstanding mistreatment of consumer privacy. On the other hand, we've long noted that the law has plenty of problems including inconsistent FTC enforcement, and terrible language that often creates idiotic hurdles websites have to overcome. That said, you're not really fixing the problem if the industry's preferred legislation is just as bad.

State-level solutions to both net neutrality and privacy have similarly been a mixed bag. California's proposed net neutrality solution, for example, largely does things right, copying the FCC's discarded net neutrality rules and even adding some useful things (like rules governing the anti-competitive abuse of usage caps). California's state-level privacy law, however, has been widely mocked for being a ham-fisted, rushed solution that fails to remotely understand the problem at hand.

But while groups like the ITIF (also backed by telecom companies, some of the worst offenders on privacy violations) complain that the rise of multiple, discordant state-level privacy protections could create a confusing, fractured landscape of oversight, they brush over the fact that it was their clients that helped create that environment by lobbying to kill what really were some fairly modest FCC privacy and net neutrality rules. As such, maybe they're not the folks we should be leaning on to create new, pre-emptive federal guidelines on either front.

Enter Marco Rubio, who has also started pushing industry backed backed privacy legislation. But again, it's pretty clear that the focus is more on pre-empting tougher state and federal laws than trying to actually build some truly meaningful federal guidelines:

"But the bill would also require any new rules to preempt stronger state laws, like California’s landmark consumer privacy act that was approved last year and is anticipated to go into effect in 2020. Industry groups have been calling for a preemption clause in any federal legislation, saying that one federal law would be easier for companies to navigate rather than being faced with a “patchwork” of state and federal rules.

"It is critical that we do not create a regulatory environment that entrenches big tech corporations,” Rubio said in a statement to Axios. “Congress must act, but it is even more important that Congress act responsibly to create a transparent, digital environment that maximizes consumer welfare over corporate welfare."

While it's true that we need to be careful to avoid shitty federal privacy legislation, that last bit in particular is pretty disingenuous. These bills are being pushed by (and more than likely directly written by) the corporations Rubio is pretending to stand up to. Corporations that know full well that real oversight and informed, educated consumers with the right to opt out of mindless data collection and sales is going to cost the industry billions.

They can pretend they're cool with that all they'd like, but it's pretty clear that's a future they'd like to avoid, preferably by getting their own legislation passed first with an eye on formally legalizing many of these companies worst (and most profitable) ambitions.

Again, if we're going to finally build some meaningful legislative privacy guidelines, the foundation should be the result of a collective conversation among academics, legal experts, industry, consumer groups, and government. Given the high potential for a shitty law due to Congressional dysfunction, that's not going to be a pretty process, but if you've watched the percussive series of total privacy failures in recent years, it's fairly obvious it's a conversation we need to have.

While industry giants obviously have a large role to play in this looming conversation, the entire foundation of any proposed solution should not be built by giant companies with comically-terrible track records on this subject, whose primary motivation is making those protections as flimsy and loophole-filled as possible.

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Posted on Techdirt - 16 January 2019 @ 6:22am

Ajit Pai Refuses To Brief Congress On What He Plans To Do About Wireless Location Data Scandals

from the thanks-but-no-thanks dept

So last week yet another location data scandal emerged for the wireless industry, highlighting once again how carriers are collecting your location data, then selling it to a universe of sometimes shady partners with little to no oversight or accountability. Like the Securus and LocationSmart scandals before it, last week's Motherboard report highlighted how all manner of dubious dudebros (and law enforcement officers) have been abusing this data for years, and the Ajit Pai FCC has yet to so much as mention the problem, much less spend a single calorie addressing it in any meaningful way.

Shortly after the scandal broke last week, Frank Pallone, the Chair of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, asked Pai (pdf) to brief Congress on the steps the agency was taking to address the wireless sector's long-standing failure to adequately address location data abuse. Pai's response? Yeah, no thanks.

In a statement issued by Pallone, he says Pai's office claimed that since the location data scandal wasn't putting lives at risk, Pai could not attend such a briefing during the government shutdown:

"Today, FCC Chairman Ajit Pai refused to brief Energy and Commerce Committee staff on the real-time tracking of cell phone location, as reported by Motherboard last week. In a phone conversation today, his staff asserted that these egregious actions are not a threat to the safety of human life or property that the FCC will address during the Trump shutdown.

While the FCC's working on a skeleton crew right now due to the shut down, there's nothing actually stopping Pai from wandering down the road to answer a few questions, something Pallone was quick to highlight in his statement:

"There’s nothing in the law that should stop the Chairman personally from meeting about this serious threat that could allow criminals to track the location of police officers on patrol, victims of domestic abuse, or foreign adversaries to track military personnel on American soil. The Committee will continue to press the FCC to prioritize public safety, national security, and protecting consumers."

Granted Pai wasn't doing much about this problem when the government was open, either.

Academics and other privacy experts have told me this could easily be addressed using the FCC and FTC authority we already have (read: we don't even need a new privacy law), we've just chosen to kowtow to telecom lobbyists instead. In fact the FCC's privacy rules would have addressed the issue by giving consumers more control of how their location data is shared and sold, but sector lobbyists made quick work of those rules back in 2017. Even having Pai publicly state that this behavior is unacceptable might go a long way toward addressing the issue, though he's yet to do even that.

Pai has made it fairly clear by now that he sees government consumer protection oversight as largely unnecessary, and all criticism of his unpopular policies as entirely political in nature, therefore making it OK to ignore (the myopia of that belief system most obviously exemplified by his attacks on net neutrality). As a result, you should expect the FCC to continue to do little to nothing about location data scandals. At least until there's enough scandals of this type to push public outrage past the breaking point, finally making it clear that doing absolutely nothing is no longer an option. So, 2025 or so?

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Posted on Techdirt - 15 January 2019 @ 12:04pm

Vizio Admits Modern TV Sets Are Cheaper Because They're Spying On You

from the watching-you-watching-me dept

If you've shopped for a TV recently, you may have noticed that it's largely impossible to just buy a "dumb" TV set without all of the "smart" internals. More specifically, most TV vendors don't want to sell you a bare-bones set because they want you to use their streaming services. Even more specifically, they want you to buy their sets with their specific streaming functionality because they want to spy on you. Poorly.

That's always been fairly obvious to most folks, but it was nice to see Vizio CTO Bill Baxter acknowledge that the reason you pay a discount is because your viewing habits are being collected and sold to the highest bidder:

"Q. One sort of Verge-nerd meme that I hear in our comments or on Twitter is “I just want a dumb TV. I just want a panel with no smarts and I’ll figure it out on my own.” But it sounds like that lifetime monetization problem would prevent you from just making a dumb panel that you can sell to somebody.

A. Well, it wouldn’t prevent us, to be honest with you. What it would do is, we’d collect a little bit more margin at retail to offset it. Again, it may be an aspirational goal to not have high margins on our TV business because I can make it up downstream. On the other hand, I’m actually aggregating that monetization across a large number of users, some of which opt out.

It’s a blended revenue model where, in the end, Vizio succeeds, but you know, it’s not wholly dependent on things like data collection.

The problem is that this trade off isn't really providing value to the end user, in large part thanks to the TV sector's terrible security and privacy practices. For one, navigating the TV sector's historically terrible GUIs to actually find and opt out of this data collection is often a nightmare. Usually opting out is first intentionally named something nebulous, then buried deep in a sea of terribly-designed menus. And even then, opting out can often result in you losing access to some core set features you might actually use. That's only a good deal if you enjoy annoyance.

Then there's the fact that the TV sector routinely does an absolutely terrible job at the security and privacy practices needed to protect this data. We've seen vendors like Samsung get busted hoovering up and collecting living room conversations, then shoveling this data off to a nebulous assortment of third-party clients. Numerous set vendors have similarly been busted collecting this data then transmitting it to the cloud without adequate encryption. Vizio itself just struck a $2.2 million settlement with the FTC for secretly tracking and selling the usage habits of around sixteen million Vizio owners for around three years.

So yes you're maybe paying a bit less up front for a cheaper set, but you're paying for the deal out the other side of the equation in a way that's not even entirely calculable. Even then, higher-end TV set vendors do this same thing, kind of deflating the claim that this is only being done by necessity among lower-end vendors trapped by tight margins. In reality, the same disregard for privacy and security that has infected the internet of broken things space is on proud display in the TV business, resulting in hardware that's easily exploitable by everyone from run of the mill hackers to intelligence services. Is that a bargain, really?

With so many streaming hardware platforms to choose from (game consoles, your phone, home-built PCs, Roku, Apple TV, etc.), many users just want a dumb TV with ample HDMI ports that simply does one job, really well. Instead, like so many sectors (telecom comes quickly to mind) the priority appears to be focused on treating user data like a harvestable resource, with security, privacy, and transparency a very distant afterthought.

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Posted on Techdirt Wireless - 15 January 2019 @ 6:24am

AT&T Execs Think It's Really Funny They Misled Consumers About 5G Availability

from the too-clever-by-half dept

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

Competitors and consumers noticed.

Competitors like T-Mobile have been having fun making fun of AT&T's head fake on Twitter:

Here's where a normal company would acknowledge it had been overly creative and announce that in a bid to avoid confusing customers, it would walk back what was fairly obviously a bad, misleading idea. But that's not how AT&T rolls. When pressed for comment, AT&T Communications CEO John Donovan decided instead to double down, and expressed glee at the level of consternation AT&T's fake 5G created:

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

Except it's not just AT&T's competitors that are frustrated. Customers also think AT&T's moves are misleading, something that harms AT&T since consumers are being trained to see AT&T's 5G promises as horse shit at this juncture. Donovan though remained undaunted in his excitement over the confusion his marketing gambit sowed:

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

Granted if you've watched AT&T mislead the press, public, and government on subjects like net neutrality or misleading billing, this is certainly well in character for the telecom giant. AT&T's not likely to learn the underlying lesson here: instead of getting consumers excited about the real potential for 5G, they've fixated consumers and the press on the fact that AT&T's promises surrounding this technology shouldn't be believed.

Customers were already skeptical of wireless carrier claims given years of misleading coverage maps, and this sort of behavior will only support the belief that, for lack of a more technical term, the wireless sector is often aggressively full of shit.

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Posted on Techdirt - 14 January 2019 @ 6:30am

Frontier Hammered By Minnesota AG For Its Refusal To Repair Its Broadband Network

from the don't-try-too-hard dept

For years we've explored how the nation's phone companies don't really even want to be in the broadband business. They routinely refuse to upgrade their networks, yet often lobby to ensure nobody else can deliver broadband in these neglected footprints either. Telcos in particular have a bizarre disdain for their paying customers, delivering the bare minimum (slow DSL) at the highest rates they can possibly charge without a full-scale consumer revolt. It's not surprising then that many telco DSL customers are fleeing to cable, assuming they even have a second option for broadband.

This dynamic often results in some absurd dysfunction. Like in West Virginia, where incumbent telco Frontier has repeatedly been busted in a series of scandals involving substandard service and the misuse of taxpayer money. The graft and corruption in the state is so severe, state leaders have buried reports, and, until recently, a Frontier executive did double duty as a state representative without anybody in the state thinking that was a conflict of interest.

Things aren't going any better for Frontier in Minnesota, where the state AG just issued a scathing 133 page report accusing the company of all manner of dubious behavior, including letting outages go on for months on end without repairs. The report doesn't pull punches in accusing Frontier of violating at least 35 state laws and state guidelines, and routinely neglecting paying customers, putting some customers with medical conditions at risk:

The findings of this investigation detail an extraordinary situation, where customers have suffered with outages of months, or more, when the law requires telephone utilities to make all reasonable efforts to prevent interruptions of service. When interruptions occur, telephone utilities are to restore service “with the shortest possible delay.” Frontier customers with these outages include those with family members with urgent medical needs, such as pacemakers monitored by their medical teams via the customer’s landline.

This report, which was based on 1,000 customer complaints and seven different public hearings, paints a picture of a company that consistently let its networks fall apart, refused to upgrade or repair customer equipment on a timely basis, routinely and aggressively engaged in fraudulent billing practices, and repeatedly ignored customer complaints about all of it. The report includes photos showing Frontier's network gear in various states of neglect:

Or installs where company lines were draped casually through yards, over fences, and even over propane tanks:

Again, if you've followed similar stories focused on Verizon, this kind of behavior is the norm, not some errant exception for the nation's phone companies. And while some states actually hold telcos feet to the fire occasionally, there's a long roster of states (Tennessee and West Virginia quickly come to mind) where the "solution" to these problems has been to completely neuter local regulatory oversight at incumbent monopoly request. This kind of blind deregulation, as you may have noticed, doesn't actually fix anything when dealing with natural, apathetic monopolies.

Again, this kind of apathy hurts the customers of these companies, who've made it pretty clear they no longer really want to be in the residential broadband business. As apathetic telcos hang up on unwanted customers, it's creating a bigger monopoly for cable operators across huge swaths of the country. That, in turn, only ensures that prices remain high and customer service remains an afterthought. And again, the Ajit Pai FCC's tendency to rubber stamp every and all industry desires without holding anybody accountable for anything pretty clearly isn't helping.

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Posted on Techdirt Wireless - 11 January 2019 @ 6:18am

Verizon Promises Not To Over-Hype 5G, Immediately Proceeds To Over-Hype 5G

from the ill-communication dept

We've talked a lot about how while fifth-generation wireless is a good thing (in that faster, more reliable networks are always good), it's been comically over-hyped by cellular carriers and network hardware vendors. It has also been accompanied by what appears to be a race between cellular carriers to broadly misrepresent what 5G is capable of, and where and when it will actually be available. AT&T, for example, began changing the 4G icons on user phones to "5GE," despite the fact actual 5G isn't even out of the oven yet.

Hoping to apparently cash in on AT&T's well-mocked decision while at CES, Verizon subsequently penned this blog post trying to proclaim itself as the more measured of the wired carriers when it comes to 5G:

"The potential for 5G is awesome, but the potential to over-hype and under-deliver on the 5G promise is a temptation that the wireless industry must resist. If network providers, equipment manufacturers, handset makers, app developers and others in the wireless ecosystem engage in behavior designed to purposefully confuse consumers, public officials and the investment community about what 5G really is, we risk alienating the very people we want most to join in developing and harnessing this exciting new technology."

The problem is that Verizon has been at the very forefront of over-hyping 5G for years now. When I went to go dig up numerous past CES appearances where Verizon insisted that 5G would "transform society," I'd noticed they'd disappeared from the CES website. That said, Verizon's own website is filled with examples where the company insists that only 5G can really help us build the smart cities of tomorrow, helping to "spur economic growth," and "improve the quality of life" for city residents. And Verizon's CES appearance by CEO Hans Vesterberg was packed with what most certainly smelled like misleading hype to me:

"It’s going to change everything,” said Vestberg, athletically clad in a tight Verizon-branded T-shirt that wouldn’t be out of place at an Apple or Google product launch.

"It’s quantum leap over 4G,” Vestberg added, in a statement he repeated no less than four times.

Did he also use the term “fourth industrial revolution,” another favorite of 5G marketers? Yup. At least three times.

This idea that a universe of smart city and smart car innovation is only possible via 5G has always been misleading in and of itself. Yes, faster, more resilient networks are good, but there's nothing inherently magical about 5G that will make it somehow forge innovation out of whole cloth. Most existing 4G networks can generally do most of what 5G can (especially with the latest MIMO antenna or other upgrades), 5G networks will just be faster and more resilient with lower latency. 5G is not some mystical panacea. It will, however, probably be used to justify Verizon's higher prices, to be sure.

Verizon has also been accused by competitors like T-Mobile of being misleading on timelines for 5G delivery:

That said not everybody was all that impressed by Verizon's CES demonstration of the "5G revolution":

Again: 5G will ultimately be a good thing whenever it arrives at any real scale (likely 2020 and later), offering faster speeds, lower latency, and greater reliability. But it's not going to magically fix the wireless sector's nastier problems, like high prices due to regional cell tower backhaul monopolies, the waning competition caused by merger mania, or the slow but steady erosion of internet equality and consumer protections thanks to the industry's lobbying stranglehold over government.

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Posted on Techdirt - 10 January 2019 @ 6:22am

AT&T's Planning Yet More Layoffs Despite Tens Of Billions In Tax Breaks And Government Favors

from the Charlie-Brown-and-Lucy-football dept

Telecom monopolies have a pretty good racket going. They'll consistently demand all manner of tax cuts, subsidies, and other government perks in exchange for A: jobs that never actually materialize, or B: broadband network expansions that somehow never actually arrive. The nation's telcos in particular have received countless billions in taxpayer subsidies to expand their broadband networks, yet time and time again we've shown how they've wiggled out of these obligations, leaving huge swaths of America left outside of the reach of fast, inexpensive, competitive broadband (that's particularly true in poor urban and rural areas).

Yet somehow, we here in America never quite learn the lesson. Case in point: you might recall that in late 2017 AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson told anybody who'd listen that the Trump era tax cuts (which granted AT&T a $20 billion one-time windfall and $3 billion in extra cash every year thereafter) would create upwards of 7,000 new high-paying jobs paying $70-$80k. The CEO also tried to claim that as a direct result of the tax cuts it would be doling out $1000 bonuses to roughly 200,000 employees.

Funny story, but those promised jobs never arrived. AT&T did technically add some jobs, but they were of the dirt cheap, off-shored labor variety. In reality, union data suggests the company cut 10,700 US jobs in the year since Stephenson made his statement. This was on the heels of the 44 call centers and 16,000 jobs AT&T had already cut since 2011. And those bonuses? While employees did receive them, it was later revealed they had already been arranged as part of union negotiations, and had nothing to do with the Trump tax cuts. Even then, they accounted for about 7% of just one year of AT&T's new tax benefits.

Fast forward to this week, when insiders at AT&T informed me that the company is planning yet another round of significant layoffs at the company as it attempts to pivot from grumpy old telco to sexy new Millennial advertising company:

"A source at AT&T who asked to remain anonymous because they were not authorized to speak publicly told Motherboard that company leadership is planning what it’s calling a “geographic rationalization” and employment “surplus” reduction that will consolidate some aspects of AT&T operations in 10 major operational hubs in New York, California, Texas, New Jersey, Washington State, Colorado, Georgia, Illinois, Missouri, and Washington, DC. A spokesperson for AT&T confirmed to Motherboard that it is planning to “adjust” its workforce."

AT&T downplayed the scope of the layoffs in my conversations with the company, but employees tell me they believe that as AT&T consolidates its network workforce in these key cities, a significant number of employees will lose their jobs if they're outside of this footprint and unwilling or unable to relocate. While AT&T informed me the layoffs would only impact a "very small" number of employees, we should be able to fact check that claim in a few weeks or months when the cuts are made official.

On one hand, you can understand that a company flush with antiquated copper landlines might need to streamline its roster as it refocuses on streaming video over wireless. On the other hand, this is not the future AT&T promised in the wake of not only receiving tens-of-millions in tax breaks, but the incalculable billions it stands to make courtesy of the attack on net neutrality and FCC authority. The moves closely mirror similar ones made by Verizon, which responded to the huge cash influx not with hiring or raises, but with a massive, 10,000 employee workforce reduction.

About five years ago even the Wall Street Journal was forced to concede that throwing tax cuts at giant telecom monopolies never actually nets the job and investment promises the companies and their well-lobbied lawmaker pals claim they will. Everybody knows these kinds of perks go right into executive and investor pockets, yet every few years we engage in this adorable little stage play where we pretend these kinds of telecom subsidies, tax breaks, and deregulatory favors actually aid the common good, despite the fact history repeatedly shows us that's never been, nor will ever be, actually true.

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Posted on Techdirt - 9 January 2019 @ 10:49am

Another Day, Another Massive Cellular Location Data Privacy Scandal We'll Probably Do Nothing About

from the ill-communication dept

We've noted a few times now that while Facebook gets a lot of justified heat for its privacy scandals, the stuff going on in the cellular data and app market in regards to location data makes many of Facebook's privacy issues seem like a grade-school picnic. That's something that was pretty well highlighted by the recent Securus and LocationSmart scandals, which showcased perfectly how cellular carriers and location data brokers routinely buy and sell your daily travel habits with only a fleeting effort to ensure all of the subsequent buyers and sellers of that data adhere to basic privacy and security standards.

This week, Joseph Cox at Motherboard dropped yet another bombshell report on this subject, noting how he was easily able to pay a bounty hunter $300 to obtain the (supposedly) private location data collected by his cellular provider (T-Mobile). Much like the Securus scandal, the problem once again is the countless location data brokers and third party vendors which are being sold this data, then doing pretty much whatever they'd like with it. In this instance, his data was collected by T-Mobile, shared with brokers and aggregators like Microbilt and Zumingo, then in turn shared with bail bond outfits and private investigators:

"Microbilt buys access to location data from an aggregator called Zumigo and then sells it to a dizzying number of sectors, including landlords to scope out potential renters; motor vehicle salesmen, and others who are conducting credit checks. Armed with just a phone number, Microbilt’s “Mobile Device Verify” product can return a target’s full name and address, geolocate a phone in an individual instance, or operate as a continuous tracking service."

Cellular carriers make a small fortune collecting and selling this data, and there's virtually no oversight of the practice. Consumers often sign one privacy agreement with their cellular provider, which in turn is then broadly interpreted as a green light down a long road of companies which then collect and sell that data in turn. As we saw with the Securus scandal (when a local Sheriff was busted snooping on the private cellular location data of Judges and fellow law enforcement officers), everybody in this chain of dysfunction likes to play stupid when the problem repeatedly comes to light. The same thing occurred here:

“We take the privacy and security of our customers’ information very seriously and will not tolerate any misuse of our customers’ data,” A T-Mobile spokesperson told Motherboard in an emailed statement. “While T-Mobile does not have a direct relationship with Microbilt, our vendor Zumigo was working with them and has confirmed with us that they have already shut down all transmission of T-Mobile data. T-Mobile has also blocked access to device location data for any request submitted by Zumigo on behalf of Microbilt as an additional precaution.”

When the NY Times broke the Securus scandal story last year, cellular carriers all played stupid, insisted they'd ceased the sale of such data, and breathlessly assured everybody that this behavior wouldn't happen again. When Senator Ron Wyden complained, you might recall that T-Mobile CEO John Legere took to Twitter at the time to insist he'd learned the error of his ways:

Apparently not.

Needless to say, Wyden, who has been pushing new privacy legislation, isn't particularly impressed:

If you were an industry hoping to avoid government regulation of your business, you'd think you'd be a little more cautious in the way you treat private data. But as we've noted countless times, this kind of cavalier treatment of private data is the norm for telecom. From hoovering up your clickstream data to covertly modifying data packets to track you around the internet, telecom has long played fast and loose with consumers' private data. Some have even flirted with the idea of only seriously respecting your privacy if you pay an additional fee, effectively making consumer privacy a luxury feature.

So while broadband giants will surely whine incessantly during the looming quest to pass some meaningful rules of the road, it's worth remembering they had ample opportunities, over decades, to avoid stricter government intervention by adopting better, more ethical business practices. It's also worth reminding folks that ISPs lobbied furiously to convince the GOP to kill some fairly basic privacy protections at the FCC that would have required ISPs clearly inform users who is buying and selling this data, giving users a little more control over how it was shared.

And it's also worth noting that even without legislation or those rules, the FCC still has Section 222 authority to police this kind of behavior. While the FCC's privacy rules were killed, mobile carriers are still subject to CPNI rules for voice calls, which were expanded in 2005 to include subscriber location information. The bottom line is that the Ajit Pai FCC could easily address this problem using the authority it has now, they've just chosen not to because it might just hurt telecom revenues. The FTC could also probably ding T-Mobile for being "unfair and deceptive" under Section 5 of the FTC act, yet has been similarly mute as carriers bullshit their way around their failures on this front.

All of that said, there's countless folks who think they're taking meaningful steps to protect their privacy by deleting Facebook (or on-phone apps), yet are oblivious to the perils of walking around with a stock carrier phone in their pocket. It might be time to stop being quite so collectively naive about US privacy practices if we're going to have a serious (and undeniably difficult) adult conversation on what privacy rules of the road should look like. One thing we can probably mostly agree upon: this practice of hoovering up your every move and selling it to an ocean of companies with little to no real attempt to protect it is behavior we need to change, one way or another.

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Posted on Techdirt - 9 January 2019 @ 6:26am

Cable Industry Hypes Phony '10G' When 5G Isn't Even Available Yet

from the fluff-and-nonsense dept

We've repeatedly noted how while fifth-generation (5G) wireless should someday deliver faster, more efficient wireless networks, the technology itself has been embarrassingly over-hyped, largely thanks to network vendor and cellular carrier marketing departments. It's going to take years before users actually see a healthy selection of actual 5G devices in the wild (Apple's 5G iPhone won't launch until 2020 or later). And despite carrier promises, deploying these upgrades to traditionally ignored rural and less affluent urban markets will take years. 5G also won't magically fix the vast dysfunction in the telecom sector.

With 5G hype running amok, the cable industry thought it might be a good idea to inject another entire layer of confusion into the proceedings. At CES, cable operators have started marketing something they're calling 10G, despite the fact that 10G isn't actually a thing. The cable industry's top lobbying and policy organization, the NCTA, announced the not-really-a-thing advancement over at their website, where former FCC boss turned cable lobbyist Mike Powell proclaimed that the cable industry's 10G network plans would somehow be a game changer:

"With groundbreaking, scalable capacity and speeds, the 10G platform is the wired network of the future that will power the digital experiences and imaginations of consumers for years to come,” said NCTA President and CEO Michael Powell. “As an industry, we are dedicated to delivering an exceptional national infrastructure that will power digital advancement and propel our innovation economy into the future."

In reality, this is not new technology. Cable's simply referring to the ongoing updates to the DOCSIS 3.1 standard the cable industry has used for years. One update in particular, full duplex tech, was unveiled by CableLabs a few years back, and should eventually allow the cable sector to deploy speeds upwards of 10 Gbps to consumer homes (and more importantly, provide faster upstream speeds). But again, this tech isn't new, isn't really "10G," and most consumers are still waiting for 1 Gbps downstream speeds the industry promised years ago.

And while the cable sector is planning trials for this faster cable technology in 2020, there's no truly solid timeline on deployment, and even then, consumer speeds may never actually reach 10 Gbps at any real scale. The current DOCSIS 3.1 standard is already theoretically capable of 10 Gbps downstream, but most users see at best 1 Gbps down, 35 Mbps up in areas its deployed, making it notably less exciting than full, symmetrical fiber broadband. And that's of course before you mention the high prices and unnecessary usage caps that tend to undermine cable sector speed advancements.

Undaunted, cable industry PR folks not only crafted a new logo for this nonexistent standard, it's somehow trying to claim that it will somehow protect an "open internet" and consumer privacy, despite the cable industry having just spent millions upon millions of dollars to crush consumer protections on both fronts:

It appears the cable industry saw all the hype wireless carriers were generating with 5G, and simply decided to try and piggyback on the hype parade by calling its existing, long-standing, and arguably boring cable technology something else. It then tried to claim this nonexistent standard would magically protect net neutrality and privacy. And while some telecom trade mags were quick to parrot the hype, the announcement was otherwise met with justified yawns and skepticism directed at an industry that just can't seem to understand why the majority of Americans don't really like them.

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Posted on Net Neutrality Special Edition - 8 January 2019 @ 12:10pm

No, BitTorrent's Plan for Cryptocurrency-Fueled Speed Boosts Doesn't Violate 'Net Neutrality'

from the ill-communication dept

For a subject we've been collectively discussing ad nauseum for the better part of two decades, it's kind of astounding how many people still don't really understand how net neutrality works.

Case in point: last week, BitTorrent (or what's left of it under new owner TRON) announced yet another business model revision, stating it would be integrating cryptocurrency into their BitTorrent platform. One of the goals of this "Project Atlas" is to develop a system that would financially-reward folks who seed files. TRON put the project plan this way:

"The new token, also called BitTorrent (BTT), will be issued by BitTorrent Foundation, established in Singapore and will enable users to exchange tokens to improve network speed. By providing users with the ability to use BTT tokens for faster downloads, the company aims to accelerate the overall speed of torrents. “BitTorrent token is the first in a series of steps to support a decentralized internet,” said Justin Sun, founder of TRON and CEO of BitTorrent. “In one giant leap, the BitTorrent client can introduce blockchain to hundreds of millions of users around the world and empower a new generation of content creators with the tools to distribute their content directly to others on the web."

Whether the blockchain can magically somehow make BitTorrent a sustainable business (a decade long quest at this point) is a subject for another day. More interesting to me was some of the reaction to TRON's announcement, including this piece over at TorrentFreak attempting to paint BitTorrent as a hypocrite for advocating for net neutrality, then itself embracing "fast lanes" on the internet:

"While details are scarce, it’s clear that with the BTT token users will be able to pay to speed up their downloads. It’s not clear how this will work, but it’s likely that a paying downloader will get priority over others. That sounds a bit like a “fast lane” and paid “prioritization,” albeit on a different scale. Large companies are not paying for faster access in this case, but ‘wealthy’ BitTorrent users are.

TorrentFreak asked both TRON and BitTorrent about their thoughts on this Net Neutrality argument and if it presents a problem. The TRON team said that it couldn’t comment on the matter, while BitTorrent didn’t respond at all.

The difference here is that users can choose to use another BitTorrent client if they're not happy with what BitTorrent is doing. That's not the case for broadband, where the lion's share of Americans only have access to one ISP at speeds of 25 Mbps or greater. Net neutrality violations are just a symptom of this limited competition, which lets giant telecom operators like AT&T or Comcast abuse their roles as natural monopolies. Net neutrality rules were simply a telecom-specific stopgap measure until somebody, anybody, is willing to actually challenge these companies politically and embrace real, pro-competitive policies.

Somehow, people take this telecom-specific paradigm and weirdly try to casually apply it to other sectors, as TorrentFreak does here. You'll often see the same mistake made when folks like Mark Cuban call for "search neutrality" or "app neutrality." Again, you can generally choose to not use a social media website or app store if you're not happy with the business decisions they're making. You can't do that in telecom. That's why net neutrality is a concept specific only to broadband and the lack of competition there that's plagued consumers for the better part of two decades. In broadband, users often have no other choice.

That's not to say there aren't valid criticisms for what TRON is doing here. But again, you can't call this a net neutrality violation because the term applies specifically to core telecom networks, not software platforms where users have the option of numerous other clients. The monopoly-dominated dance of dysfunction in telecom is a very unique animal, resulting in the creation of a very unique term in "net neutrality." It can't just be thrown about casually every time you see someone engaging in dubious behavior. That's not how any of this works.

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Posted on Techdirt - 8 January 2019 @ 6:53am

Cable's Response To Surging Streaming Competition? More Price Hikes

from the unhealthy-markets dept

We've noted for years how when the cable and broadcast industry is faced with new challenges, its very first reaction is almost always to double down on dumb ideas. When consumers began complaining about the volume of ads during prime time, the industry's first response was to try and edit down or speed up programs so they could shovel more ads into every viewing hour. When consumers began using new DVR ad-skipping tech, the industry's first reaction was to sue companies offering such advancements.

In a healthy market, companies respond to the rise in new competition by competing on service quality and price. Not the cable industry. Despite a soaring variety of new, cheaper streaming options, every year the industry's first impulse has been to raise cable TV prices, in turn driving more users than ever to "cut the cord" and embrace these streaming options instead. As a new year rolls in, its a phenomenon that's once again repeating itself as Comcast, Dish, AT&T, and most other pay TV providers once again raise rates for 2019:

"Giants including Comcast, Dish, and DirecTV plan to raise rates again in the new year, a move that could boost revenue but risks alienating subscribers who have been ditching their traditional TV subscriptions in record numbers. Cable and satellite providers are hoping to squeeze more money from consumers who remain loyal to their packages with hundreds of channels, Philip Cusick, a JPMorgan Chase analyst, said in a note this week, even though "this strategy could accelerate video sub declines."

While most cable operators will place the blame for these higher rates exclusively on the shoulders of broadcasters, that's not really always true. Yes, much of the unsustainable rate hikes you'll see in cable TV are due to programmers constantly wanting more money for the same content. That, however, ignores that most cable operators contribute to the rate-hike festivities by also socking consumers with a universe of higher rates for things like DVR and cable box rental, not to mention the universe of fees, many of which are completely made up with no tether to any real-world cost.

So why does a company like Comcast continue to raise rates on traditional cable TV, knowing this is just driving more users to cut the cord? For one, while streaming video is increasingly popular, most TV watchers (around 90 million Americans) still subscribe to traditional TV, making these rate hikes a quick, all-too-tempting source of up front cash they've grown used to. Many cable executives still believe that cord cutting is a temporary storm they'll be able to weather without having to make too many concessions (like lowering rates or improving historically terrible customer support).

Companies like Comcast also have an ace in the hole when it comes to weathering this particular storm: their growing monopoly over broadband. While users may be able to quit Comcast cable TV, it's statistically unlikely they'll have the choice of another broadband provider, especially at speeds over 25 Mbps. As a result, Comcast leverages that monopoly by imposing all manner of unnecessary usage limits should you stream video from competitors, a lovely bit of leverage Comcast will only exploit more fully should net neutrality not be restored.

As a result, the normal response to more competition (actually trying harder) is replaced by a sort of stoic indifference by cable giants, who know their broadband monopolies (not to mention current control over FCC policy in the Trump era) will protect them from having to actually adapt anytime soon.

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Posted on Techdirt - 7 January 2019 @ 1:34pm

Apple Admits The Obvious: User Repairs Harm The Bottom Line

from the well-duh dept

It should probably go without saying, but Apple has never looked too kindly upon users actually repairing their own devices. The company's ham-fisted efforts to shut down, sue, or otherwise imperil third-party repair shops are legendary. As are the company's efforts to force recycling shops to shred Apple products (so they can't be refurbished and re-used), and Apple's often comical attacks on essential right to repair legislation, which only sprung up after companies like Apple, Microsoft, Sony, John Deere, and others created a grass-roots counter-movement via their attempts to monopolize repair.

The motivation for these behaviors is obvious: if users are repairing or recycling their iDevices, that means fewer sales. As such, Apple has increasingly become more and more obnoxious on this front, regardless of the impact on consumer satisfaction, customer rights, or the environment. You know, like that time it claimed that Nebraska would become a "mecca for hackers" (oh no!) if the state embraced legislation protecting a consumer's right to repair their own devices.

Fast forward to last week, when Apple CEO Tim Cook was forced to write a letter to investors announcing that it had to dramatically scale back revenue projections after it sold fewer iPhones than it had hoped. Part of the problem is that, contrary to the traditional gushing mainstream tech press narrative, Apple's products (and smartphones in general) have become arguably more derivative and less innovative than in recent years, slowing the upgrade cycle. Though Cook states the primary culprit was a slowdown in the Chinese economy (caused in part by Trump's "easy to win" trade war), resulting in fewer iPhones being bought.

But buried in the letter is a notable admission Apple has long tried to avoid. That the company's revenue dip was, at least according to Apple, partially due to users repairing and extending the life of their devices:

"While macroeconomic challenges in some markets were a key contributor to this trend, we believe there are other factors broadly impacting our iPhone performance, including consumers adapting to a world with fewer carrier subsidies, US dollar strength-related price increases, and some customers taking advantage of significantly reduced pricing for iPhone battery replacements."

Journalists like Jason Koebler, who has been at the lead of the right to repair beat for years, was quick to appreciate Apple finally admitting the obvious:

"Right to repair advocates have long argued that Apple customers would be able to get a lot more out of their devices if Apple gave them the ability to repair them, but say the company doesn't want to do that because it will hurt its bottom line. Here is evidence that they might be right."

To be clear, Apple appears to simply be talking about its decision to cut its $79 battery replacement fee down to $29 (free, for some) as a way of apologizing for revelations it was intentionally slowing down some older iPhones, something Apple claimed was necessary to protect the integrity of older devices with aging batteries. Still, right to repair advocates like US PIRG, long frustrated by Apple's misdirection on this subject, applauded the otherwise unremarkable admission:

"Over the past year, I’ve spent a lot of time talking to lawmakers and consumers about Right to Repair, and it’s clear that “ThrottleGate” has fundamentally changed the way we think about our smartphones in two key ways. We now know that batteries can be replaced, extending the life of our older phones. We’ve also developed a sense of skepticism about upgrading our smartphones, due to feeling coerced in an underhanded way toward an unnecessary new phone purchase.

“Long-lasting devices are best for consumers, and best for the planet. Which begs the question: Why isn’t Apple out in front of this trend, instead of being caught off-guard by it?"

Granted Apple's arguably minor acknowledgement is not going to stop companies like Apple, Microsoft, Sony, Verizon, or John Deere from continuing their all-out war on a consumer's right to repair, while simultaneously radiating branding that heralds innovation and a breathless adoration of the "user experience." That's particularly obvious in Apple's ongoing assault on the eighteen states currently eyeing right to repair legislation, opposition the company likes to pretend is exclusively driven by Apple's ethical concern about user safety and security.

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Posted on Techdirt - 7 January 2019 @ 6:31am

The Ajit Pai FCC Often Battles FOIA Requests For No Reason, Showcasing Its Hostility To Transparency

from the ill-communication dept

You might recall that FCC boss Ajit Pai promised to operate the "most transparent" FCC ever. Initially, Pai lived up to that promise by changing FCC policy so that FCC orders would be released before they were voted on; a pretty obvious improvement of benefit to both consumers and ISP lobbyists alike. But in the year or two since, Pai has shown that genuine transparency is the very least of the chairman's priorities.

For example, Pai's FCC has actively refused to aid law enforcement inquiries into who was behind the millions of bogus comments that polluted the net neutrality repeal public comment period. Similarly, the Pai FCC's general response to FOIA requests has been to stall, delay, and ignore said requests whenever possible, resulting in numerous lawsuits by media outlets attempting to get to the bottom of all manner of bizarre FCC policy decisions (like that fake DDOS attack emails show they made up to try and downplay public anger over the net neutrality repeal).

This stonewalling extended to more mundane subject matter, like media inquiries into that giant Reeses mug Pai believes is eccentric. Or inquiries into who was behind that aggressively lame Harlem Shake video that featured Pai and some pizzagate conspiracy theorists trolling net neutrality supporters.

Hip, man, yeah.

As with other, more serious inquires, reporters that filed FOIA requests related to this video were met with stonewalling by the FCC, which tried to claim that numerous FOIA exemptions prevented it from complying. In this case, reporters say they were told by Pai's FCC they couldn't release any emails related to the video's creation because of FOIA exemption b(5) (affectionately referred to as the "Withhold It Because You Want To" exemption by FOIA nerds). That is, you might recall, the same exemption the Pai FCC used when people tried to find out if he worked with Verizon on another, similarly lame video making light of his cozy ties to industry.

All of that said, MuckRock Executive Editor JPat Brown persisted, filing numerous appeals stating that the FCC was engaged in a bad faith interpretation of b(5)’s deliberative process privilege. After the FCC spent months denying requests or trying to provide everything but the email bodies, the FCC was finally forced to comply last month, and released at least some internal emails related to the video's creation.

What did they say? Bupkis. Several simply highlighted how the Pai FCC has worked with Trump-friendly outlets like the Daily Caller on the video's production and circulation, which we already knew. Other emails the FCC fought to avoid releasing said nothing of note at all:

Which is all a long way of showcasing how, as Brown notes, the FCC's aggressive hostility to transparency (even if there's nothing actually at stake) is its default mode of operation:

"Look, I’ll be the first to say that Pai dusting off some dated memes is far from the agency’s worst crime, and if the FCC had just released these records when I asked from them last December, I would have struggled to string together a couple of work emails into an article of any substance. But the fact that the agency felt the need to fight me on such a stupid issue, for as long as they did, all the while taking care to make sure they don’t lose any ground to fight stupid fights in the future, is alarming, and an important reminder that some agencies are fundamentally opposed to being held accountable for anything.

Pai's blind fealty to incumbent broadband monopolies like Comcast isn't unique; we saw much of the same behavior during the tenure of former FCC Boss Mike Powell, now the top lobbyist for the cable industry. But Pai's FCC is different in that it doesn't just engage in the normal up is down, black is white rhetoric normally reserved for industry sycophants. Pai's current staffers seem to actively enjoy making critics (often the bipartisan majority of ordinary Americans) angry. They're having fun being misleading and aggressively contentious assholes (for lack of a more apt technical term).

But the Pai FCC also differentiates itself by being aggressively hostile to transparency almost to a comical fault. There was no reason to fight against the release of the above emails so vehemently, and the fact Pai's agency did so shows that, even at the risk of costly lawsuits and wasted taxpayer dollars, this FCC sees truth and transparency as mortal enemies in dire need of conquering, not essential axles in the healthy functioning of a democracy.

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Posted on Techdirt - 4 January 2019 @ 1:43pm

FCC Shuttered, Ajit Pai Forced To Cancel CES Trip Because The US Government Is a Hot Mess

from the dumpster-fire dept

As you've probably noticed, the bickering over a dumb fence most attentive folks realize will never be fully funded or built has resulted in the government partially shutting down, leaving roughly 800,000 government employees furloughed without pay. As garbage and human waste begin to pile up at our under-staffed park system, the FCC this week also announced it would be suspending all but the most essential operations as of last Thursday, with 1,197 of the FCC’s 1,442 employees now left unpaid.

According to the FCC, all investigations into fraud (admittedly few and far between with this FCC), merger review, management of spectrum, and approval and testing of new electronics will grind to a halt. And while the agency's 911 and network outage complaint systems will remain operational, there will be nobody staffing the agency to respond to consumer or company complaints. The agency did note that things like its ongoing spectrum auction would continue, since the auction is funded by spectrum sale proceeds:

"However, work required for the protection of life and property will continue, as will any work related to spectrum auctions, which is funded by auction proceeds. In addition, the Office of the Inspector General will continue operations until further notice."

While he'll obviously be hamstrung by a lack of resources, Ajit Pai will continue to work, though the shutdown forced him to cancel a scheduled appearance at CES in Las Vegas. It's technically the second year in a row the FCC boss has had to cancel his planned CES appearance, since last year's visit was also scuttled after Pai began receiving death threats due to his historically-unpopular attacks on consumer protections like net neutrality.

Worry not though! Pai took to Twitter to joke that he'll still be around to thwart the use of naughty words on television:

While many will likely (and quite correctly) joke that a shuttered Pai FCC isn't likely to be much different from an operational Pai FCC given his apathy toward actually doing anything to help consumers or small businesses, the 1,197 FCC employees currently not getting paid over an idiotic fight over metal slats likely aren't finding this all that funny. And while a shutdown of a few days probably won't be all that big of a deal, a longer shutdown is going to spell trouble not just for Pai's unpopular agenda, but also for the oodles of notably less controversial, frequently mundane but essential tasks the FCC engage in on a daily basis.

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Posted on Techdirt - 4 January 2019 @ 6:52am

2019 Brings Another Wave Of Cable Programming Blackout Feuds Nobody Wants To Address

from the just-cut-the-cord-already dept

We've written for years about how retransmission and carriage fee disputes in the cable industry have grown increasingly common and are only getting worse. The short version: when it comes time to sign a new deal paying for content, broadcasters generally demand huge rate hikes for the same channels. Cable operators then play hardball, and during negotiations one side or the other (usually broadcasters) pulls their content from the cable lineup in a bid to apply the resulting consumer anger against the other guy in negotiations.

According to cable providers, there were 140 such blackouts last year, up from just 8 back in 2010. One of the biggest problems with these feuds: consumers never see refunds, even though they're often left without access to channels they've already paid for, for months. And while regulators from both parties occasionally make some noise about protecting consumers from such tactics, nothing ever actually happens. Generally, these fights are seen by regulators as "boys just being boys," and the consumer impact is routinely ignored.

So as 2019 arrives, so too arrive yet another round of consumers losing access to content they pay for. Millions of Charter (Spectrum) customers in 24 markets this week lost access to local broadcast channels after the cable company couldn't reach an agreement with Tribune Media:

"As many as 24 markets are affected by the TV blackout, including Denver, Houston, New York, Los Angeles and St. Louis. Tribune pulled its signal at 5 p.m. Eastern time after negotiations stalled. The programming outage comes days before sports fans are expected to switch on their cable TV to watch highly anticipated postseason college and professional football games.

The same story is playing out between Verizon (FiOS TV) and Tegna, resulting in Verizon cable TV customers losing access to local broadcast channels just as the NFL playoffs heat up. And while broadcasters often do deserve the blame for the outages for demanding huge and often unreasonable increases, it's fun to watch cable providers (legendary for their own nickel-and-diming) claim they're the ones standing up for consumers:

"The talks stalled because Tegna had demanded a “significant rate increase” for its channels, said Verizon in a statement on its website.

“The rising cost of programming is the single biggest factor in higher TV bills, and we are standing up to broadcasters like Tegna in order to protect you from rate increases,” Verizon said.

Of course it has been made pretty clear that nobody in this dance of dysfunction (including regulators) actually really cares about the impact on consumers. As a result what usually happens is customers get pissed, they're directed by both sides to yell at the other guy, prompting the two sides to strike a confidential new deal. Those costs are then quietly passed on to consumers, and the whole thing repeats itself in a year or two.

The FCC has occasionally pondered rules requiring that the two sides engage in "good faith" negotiations without harming user access to the content they've paid for, but because this is seen as "heavy handed intervention in the markets" in American culture, nothing really gets fixed as we wait, rather uselessly, for "the market" to somehow magically fix itself. But because said market is a coagulation of politically-powerful natural broadband monopolies which avoid genuine price competition (even with the rise of streaming) like the plague, that's not happening anytime soon.

And while consumers can cut the cord and switch to streaming alternatives, we've already seen heavy-handed efforts on the streaming front as well. In its fight with Cablevision in 2010, News Corporation went so far as to get Hulu to block Cablevision broadband customers from accessing all Fox content. Viacom did something similar in 2014 when it blocked all CableONE broadband customers from accessing Viacom content online, even if those broadband users were paying for TV from another provider.

There's ample room for creativity here where broadcasters (increasingly launching their own streaming services) could attempt to ban streaming customers from accessing this as well via IP range blacklists and other absurd, internet-breaking behavior. In the wake of the death of net neutrality and FCC oversight of cable providers, you can expect this particular problem to get notably dumber before we finally, actually decide to impose a simple rule that lets broadcasters bicker and battle all they like over rates, as long as consumers don't lose access to programming they've already paid for.

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Posted on Techdirt - 3 January 2019 @ 12:15pm

Towns And Cities Keep Ditching Comcast To Build Their Own Broadband Networks

from the ill-communication dept

We've long talked about the more than 750 towns, cities, and counties that have responded to US broadband market failure by building their own broadband networks. We've also talked at length about how data has shown these networks often offer better service at lower, more transparent prices than their purely private sector counterparts, whose apathy has only grown in the wake of limited competition. And, of course, we've talked at great length about the 21 state laws giant ISPs have quite literally written and purchased in a bid to try and keep this phenomenon from taking root.

Those protectionist efforts aren't working all that well.

In states like Massachusetts, there are countless towns and cities that either only have the choice of expensive Comcast cable broadband, or antiquated Verizon DSL lines the company simply refuses to upgrade (despite countless billions in subsidies, regulatory perks, and tax breaks). After years of apathy from entrenched incumbents, these towns and cities have slowly but surely peeled off and begun building their own networks.

Like Alford, Massachusetts, population 486, which now has faster speeds than many cities after locals grew tired waiting for local incumbents. After city residents there decided to build their own fiber network, they're enamoured with the fact that the kids aren't angry when they come home for vacation:

"The 20-year-olds were home over the holidays, and we had no problem with the four of us [using the internet]," said Peter Puciloski, who is chairman of the town's Broadband Committee. "In the past, we would get warnings that we hit our monthly 50 gigs or something. But there are no limitations here."

Another town, Charlemont, Massachusetts, has been begging Comcast to deliver broadband for the better part of the last two decades. They too decided to build their own, faster (and uncapped) fiber network, in large part because residents felt that direct ownership would provide them greater control. It's all part of a quest by countless rural towns and cities to avoid the economic and cultural pitfalls of being connectivity backwaters in the information age:

"Part of what you want to conserve in small towns is the fact that there’s families. There’s multigenerational opportunities. That’s going away because of the lack of broadband. Young families aren’t coming out the same way, because they can’t make a living,” she said. “No town should be mostly populated by mostly 65-and-older folks. That’s not the richness of a rural community."

For decades now, ISP lobbyists, think tankers, consultants, and other hired policy tendrils have gone out of their way to demonize community broadband as a "perverse form of socialism," ignoring that this is a purely organic, democratic response to market failure. One that wouldn't be happening if the United States actually cared about fostering competition in broadband, or holding giant lumbering natural monopolies accountable for what should be obvious failures. These areas aren't getting into the broadband business because they think it's fun, they're doing it because the US broadband market is painfully, obviously broken.

You need a combination of competition and adult regulatory oversight to drive solutions to these broken markets. Instead, we've currently embraced federal policies that effectively rubber stamp every idiotic desire of giants like Comcast. We then stand around with a dumb look on our collective faces as US consumers pay some of the highest rates in the developed world for substandard service that is unevenly deployed. Community broadband isn't some mystical panacea that cures everything (and can certainly have pitfalls if business models are poorly designed), but when done properly it's a wonderful way to light a fire under the asses of some of the laziest, government-pampered, natural monopolies America has to offer.

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Posted on Net Neutrality Special Edition - 3 January 2019 @ 6:05am

Ajit Pai Gloats As House Fails To Restore Net Neutrality

from the pendulum-always-swings-back-around dept

While a long shot, we've previously discussed how the outgoing House and Senate could have voted to reverse the FCC's repeal of net neutrality using the Congressional Review Act (CRA). And while the Senate voted 52 to 47 to approve the move last May, efforts to get the 218 votes needed in the House had been stuck in neutral as House Representatives remained blindly loyal to their real constituents: AT&T, Verizon, and Comcast.

As a result the clock ran out, and that route for restoration of the rules has died a whimpering demise. As is his tendency, FCC boss Ajit Pai couldn't just savor the "win." He felt compelled to issue a public statement (pdf) in which he not only gloats over the failure, but packs a large number of false statements into a relatively short paragraph:

"I’m pleased that a strong bipartisan majority of the U.S. House of Representatives declined to reinstate heavy-handed Internet regulation. They did the right thing—especially considering the positive results for American consumers since the adoption of the Restoring Internet Freedom Order. Over the past year, the Internet has remained free and open. Broadband speeds are up, with download speeds in the United States increasing more than 35% in 2018, according to a recent report from Ookla. Internet access is also expanding, and the digital divide is closing. For example, a recent report by the Fiber Broadband Association found that fiber was made available to more new homes in 2018 than in any previous year. In short, the FCC’s light-touch approach is working. In 2019, we’ll continue to pursue our forward-looking agenda to bring digital opportunity to all Americans."

Oh, goody.

One, the FCC's 2015 net neutrality rules weren't "heavy handed." By international standards (Japan, Canada, The Netherlands) they were relatively weak, and were, in reality, pretty much the very least the US government could do to try and rein in natural telecom monopolies in the absence of real competition. Two, while Pai applauds a "strong bipartisan majority" in the House, that majority actively ignored the bipartisan majority of their constituents who support net neutrality and wanted the rules left intact in the first place.

Pai also felt oddly compelled to take credit for fairly marginal speed increases he had little to do with. Broadband speeds being up 35% has more to do with natural evolution (largely relatively cheap DOCSIS 3.1 upgrades on cable networks) than anything else. And at least a healthy portion of that speed increase is thanks to community fiber networks Pai actively opposes. Claiming any of this had anything to do with net neutrality is patently false.

Of course there's plenty of realities Pai would rather not talk about. Like that time Verizon throttled the mobile connections of California firefighters (while they were fighting a wildfire) and Pai did nothing. Or when CenturyLink blocked user internet access until users clicked on an ad, and the FCC said absolutely nothing. Or last week when AT&T quietly began violating net neutrality by only applying broadband usage limits if you use a competitor's streaming service. Not a word from the FCC about any of it, despite ample claims that the perils of non-neutrality are utterly hallucinated.

Nor does Pai much want to talk about the fact that as US telcos refuse to upgrade aging DSL lines, it's letting cable giants like Spectrum and Comcast nab a greater monopoly over fixed-line broadband, resulting in some of the highest prices for broadband in the developed world. Or how anybody with an IQ over 70 can see natural monopolies and media conglomerates like AT&T and Comcast hope to use their massive size and leverage to tilt the playing field and harm smaller streaming competitors in the online video wars to come.

Granted, restoring net neutrality via the CRA was always a long shot. Even if net neutrality advocates had managed to nab the needed House votes, the proposal would have needed to avoid a Trump veto. Still, consumer group efforts to get lawmakers to clearly demonstrate their position on this issue (you can find a breakdown here) served two valuable purposes: it helped illustrate which politicians clearly have no regard for their constituents (who, again, overwhelmingly oppose what Pai's been up to), while also applying pressure for the inevitable legislative battles to come.

That said, it's pretty telling that Pai couldn't just quietly enjoy the policy "win" here. Like the man who appointed him, he felt compelled to troll his opponents, gloat over a victory he had little to do with, and issue a statement packed with numerous falsehoods and distortions in the belief that that now passes for leadership. Unfortunately for Pai, the real battle is only just beginning thanks to next month's looming net neutrality court fight, where his agency's historically-bizarre behaviors (from making up a DDOS attack to turning a blind eye to identity theft and fraud) won't be left quite so open to "creative" interpretation.

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Posted on Techdirt Wireless - 2 January 2019 @ 6:03am

AT&T Attempts A Head Fake With 'Fake 5G'

from the tomato,-tomahto dept

We've already gone over how fifth-generation "5G" wireless, while a notable improvement in network speed and performance, has been obnoxiously over-hyped by hardware vendors and cellular carriers. We've also noted that in reality, broad availability of 5G-capable handsets and networks are still quite a few years away, and when products do arrive, they won't, contrary to some claims, magically fix the myriad of problems deeply woven into the U.S. broadband industry, most of which have to do with lobbyist political power and the monopoly domination of cellular tower backhaul.

AT&T's been among the biggest hype generators for 5G, even though its early offerings on this front, while fast, tend to suffer from high prices and low usage caps (did you expect something else?). In addition to over-hyping 5G's impact, AT&T has been busy both distorting what 5G actually is... and dramatically over-stating actual availability. For example, last year AT&T introduced what it called "5G Evolution" wireless connectivity, which wasn't actually 5G, but a collection of tech (specifically 4x4 MIMO (multiple input, multiple output) antenna and 256 QAM technologies) that simply made existing LTE networks somewhat faster.

AT&T's since taken this head fake to an entirely new level. Last week, for example, AT&T began replacing the "LTE" (4G) notifier on many users phones with a "5G E" symbol, despite its phones and networks not actually being upgraded to 5G yet:

In short, AT&T is taking some modest network improvements to existing 4G LTE networks, and confidently calling them 5G, knowing full well the Pai FCC isn't likely to do much of anything about it. Confusing customers into thinking AT&T's ahead in the 5G "race" (which isn't a race) appears to be the whole point:

"AT&T last year introduced the “5G Evolution” marketing label to cover markets where it offers advanced LTE network technologies like carrier aggregation, 4x4 MIMO, LAA and 256 QAM. Such technologies can dramatically improve the speeds available through LTE, and AT&T has argued that such technologies pave the way for eventual 5G services, though critics have argued that AT&T’s “5G Evolution” marketing moves only serve to sow confusion among consumers."

If you've been around the wireless sector for a while, you might recall that earlier generation standards also played fast and loose with actual definitions. Carrier marketing departments, for example, eventually convinced the UN's International Telecommunication Union that it was fine to pretty much call whatever they wanted "4G", since confusing and misleading customers, or over-stating product availability (as any cellular carrier coverage map will tell you), has never really been considered a bad thing in telecom.

The one-two punch of over-promising what 5G actually delivers (like this story which proclaims it will bring 4 day workweeks to us all) while distorting the very definition of 5G, is likely to leave a sour taste in consumers' mouths once they realize the canyon-esque gap between marketing hype and reality (especially on pricing, which is rarely discussed). And this is, of course, before you tack on the inevitable arbitrary restrictions and limitations AT&T hopes to erect in the wake of the death of real FCC oversight and net neutrality protections.

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Posted on Techdirt - 28 December 2018 @ 6:51am

CBS Eyes Ditching Nielsen As Streaming, Cord Cutting Change The Game

from the adapt-or-perish dept

For years, we've noted how popular TV ratings firm Nielsen has turned a bit of a blind eye to cord cutting and the Internet video revolution, on one hand declaring that the idea of cord cutting was "pure fiction," while on the other hand admitting it wasn't actually bothering to track TV viewing on mobile devices. It's not surprising; Nielsen's bread and butter is paid for by traditional cable executives, and really, who wants to take the time to pull all those collective heads of out of the sand to inform them that their precious pay TV cash cow is dying?

Eventually, the cord cutting trend became too big to ignore, forcing Nielsen to change its tune and start acknowledging the very real trend (though they called it "zero TV households" instead of cordcutters). Broadcasters (especially those hardest hit by cord cutting) didn't much like that, and began bullying the stat firm when it showed data that didn't jive with the view a foot below ground. While Nielsen slowly improved its methodologies, it would occassionally back off on certain data collection and reporting changes if the cable and broadcast industry complained loudly enough.

Ironically, this fealty to wishful thinking may not pay dividends for Nielsen. Nearly every broadcasters in your cable lineup is expected to launch their own streaming service by 2022. Many of these companies (like CBS) are now considering ditching Nielsen because, they claim, it's charging too much money for a user tracking system that hasn't adapted for the streaming era:

"At issue is a long-running complaint from TV networks that Nielsen isn’t measuring the many different audiences for their programming as well as it should. As smartphones, mobile tablets and broadband-connected TV’s gain more consumer acceptance, audiences are increasingly able to stream their TV favorites in on-demand fashion, making the task of counting them exponentially more difficult. TV networks have long based their advertising rates on Nielsen’s measure of linear TV audiences, which have slipped as consumers embraced Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime and other streaming and on-demand options.

In this environment, TV networks believe Nielsen’s overnight ratings are no longer as reliable a barometer of viewership as they once were.

Go figure. It's ironic that Nielsen often went out of its way to show cable and broadcast executives a narrative they desperately wanted to believe, only to find itself (potentially) booted by broadcasters who no longer see Nielsen's measurement systems as an accurate barometer of customer viewing habits in the cord cutting era.

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Posted on Techdirt - 27 December 2018 @ 9:41am

Minnesota AG Just The Latest To Ding Comcast For Shady Fees

from the transparency! dept

How many lawsuits does it take to get Comcast to back off of shady fees designed to falsely inflate the company's advertised prices? Good question.

For several years now cable and broadband providers have been using hidden fees to covertly jack up their advertised rates. These fees, which utilize a rotating crop of bullshit names, help these companies falsely advertise one rate, then sock the consumer with a significantly higher-rate post sale (often when locked into a long-term contract). The practice also allows the company to falsely claim they're not raising rates on consumers. They omit that they're talking about the above-the-line rate being charged, implying that anything below the line (where real fees like taxes are levied) is outside of their control.

Back in 2014, Comcast introduced a new $1.50 per month surcharge it called its "Broadcast TV Fee." Said fee was really just a portion of the cost of doing business for Comcast (programming), busted out of the full bill and hidden below the line -- again to help the company falsely advertise a lower price. Over the last four years Comcast has quietly but quickly pushed this fee skyward, this week informing customers that -- alongside numerous other rate hikes like its "Regional Sports Network" fees -- the company's Broadcast TV fee would now be up to $10 per month for some cable TV customers.

While the federal government (FTC, FCC) routinely turned a blind eye to this practice (regardless of which party was in control), Comcast and other cable ops have been hit by a rotating crop of investigations and lawsuits for the practice. Just before Christmas, Minnesota Attorney General Lori Swanson joined the festivities, announcing that her office had filed suit against Comcast for "charging customers more than it promised for cable television packages, charging for unordered equipment and services, and not delivering prepaid Visa cards promised in its promotions."

The AG's office is quick to point out that Comcast enjoys falsely telling complaining customers that the bogus fees it uses to covertly raise rates are the fault of the federal government:

"Comcast/Xfinity falsely told some consumers who questioned these extra fees that the fees were out of the company’s control. For example, it told one customer that “those fees are actually local fees and correspond to the FCC and we don’t manage those okay? Those aren’t up to Comcast.” It told another customer that “we have no control over the fees.” Comcast is not, however, required by any state or federal law to collect such fees, and does so simply to generate revenue.

When criticized, Comcast has routinely tried to claim that adding these sneaky fees then lying about what they're for is just the company's way of being "transparent" with its customers. Denial appears to be the company's response to these allegations as well, despite the fact the practice has now been well illustrated by countless settlements and lawsuits.

In the streaming video wars to come, Comcast could differentiate itself by being clear with customers about how much its services actually cost, using "zero hidden fees" as a marketing point of pride. This being Comcast, the company is likely to instead move in the opposite direction, and just double down on the practice of misleading and confusing its customers in its relentless quest to nickel and dime the lion's share of America.

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