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About Karl Bode

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

Posted on Techdirt - 25 November 2015 @ 9:32am

Turing Refuses To Lower Cost Of Daraprim, Hides News Ahead Of Thanksgiving Holiday

from the the-absolute-worst dept

When last we checked in with Martin Shkreli -- founder of Turing Pharmaceuticals and the personification of everything that's wrong with the pharmaceutical industry and mankind -- he was feebly defending his company's decision to jack up the price of a 60-year-old medication some 5000%. Shkreli became America's least liked human being after his company increased the price per pill of Daraprim (used by both AIDS and cancer patients) from $13.50 per pill to $750 per pill. After relentless criticism, Shkreli appeared to backpedal, claiming last September the company would lower prices:

"We’ve agreed to lower the price on Daraprim to a point that is more affordable and is able to allow the company to make a profit, but a very small profit,” he told ABC News. “We think these changes will be welcomed."
Yeah, or not.

Hoping to bury any criticism ahead of the Thanksgiving holiday, Turing released a dodgy press release on Wednesday implying the company had finally seen the error of its ways and would be reducing the cost of Daraprim. Except it's not actually doing anything of the sort. While the company will offer hospitals a 50% discount (now only a 2500% mark up) and is engaging in a few superficial efforts most companies already offer via their patient assistance programs, the press release buries the lede in that the core price of Daraprim isn't going anywhere.

And, just to add insult to injury, a company spokesman insists that's a good thing because (I kid you not) lower drug prices don't benefit patients:
"Drug pricing is one of the most complex parts of the healthcare industry. A drug's list price is not the primary factor in determining patient affordability and access. A reduction in Daraprim's list price would not translate into a benefit for patients."
There's nothing complex about being a raging asshole. There's also nothing complex about a former hedge fund manager jacking up the price of an essential drug 5000% (as is happening with many previously-inexpensive generics), pretending he'd seen the error of his ways, then feebly trying to hide his total lack of integrity ahead of a long holiday weekend.

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Posted on Net Neutrality Special Edition - 25 November 2015 @ 8:33am

FCC Makes It Clear It Thinks Some Net Neutrality Abuses Are 'Innovative' And 'Pro Competition'

from the down-the-slippery-slope dept

If you were wondering whether or not the FCC would bless T-Mobile's new controversial zero rating plans, agency boss Tom Wheeler has given a pretty good indication of which way the agency is leaning. As covered previously, T-Mobile's been aggressively experimenting with zero rating -- first by exempting only the biggest music services from its usage caps -- then more recently by announcing Binge On. Binge On exempts video services from T-Mobile's wireless data caps, but "optimizes" those streams, limiting them to 480p.

T-Mobile tap danced around net neutrality rather cleverly, by making the option something users can disable, while stating that any company that wants to participate can join, for free. The problem remains one of precedent: by opening the doors to carriers as middle men in this fashion, you're fundamentally changing the way the internet works. Companies now need to seek special permission from ISPs to ensure their traffic is on a level playing field. A small streaming company in Cleveland, for example, may not even realize it's being discriminated against, or that it needs to contact T-Mobile to stop it.

The pitfalls are nuanced, and consumers have generally been oblivious to the bad precedent thanks to the lure of "free data" (that's not really free, since usage caps are entirely arbitrary constructs to begin with). And now we can add FCC boss Tom Wheeler to the list of folks who apparently think abandoning a truly open internet is just a nifty idea:

"Wheeler, in a press conference following the FCC's November meeting, appeared to endorse the Binge On offering, calling it pro-competitive and innovative. "It is clear in the Open Internet order that we are pro-competition and pro-innovation and clearly, this meets both of those criteria," he said. "It is highly innovative and highly competitive."
But apparently to appease the six of us that see the potential pitfalls here, the FCC boss then turned around and suggested the agency will be keeping an eye on the program:
"He said the FCC would keep an eye on Binge On per the general conduct standard in those new open Internet rules, which allows the FCC to look at such business models on a case-by-case basis.

That rule, he elaborated, says a carrier "should not unreasonably interfere with the access to someone who is trying to get to an edge provider and an edge provider who is trying to get to a consumer. So, what we are going to be doing is watching Binge On, keeping and eye on it, and measure it against the general conduct rule."
Again, T-Mobile's program may not be the most offensive net neutrality violation ever seen, but the precedent remains horrible. While T-Mobile may be more consumer friendly than other carriers, the simple act of allowing zero rating opens the door to carriers like AT&T and Verizon that are decidedly less so. Meanwhile, Wheeler may be replaced by an FCC boss with an even more flexible interpretation of "innovation" (assuming they're not busy trying to dismantle the rules entirely). This potential for preferential discrimination is why Chile, Norway, Netherlands, Finland, Iceland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta and Japan all moved to prohibit zero rating in some fashion.

The FCC did e-mail me to note that the "Commission staff is working to make sure it understands the new offering," but Wheeler's comments (and previous FCC statements) make it pretty clear that the agency sees usage caps and zero rating as little more than creative pricing. In other words, the agency's telling ISPs: violate net neutrality, just be creative about it. As T-Mobile's program took root, the magenta-hued character that is T-Mobile CEO John Legere was quick to applaud himself:
I don't know. The slow but steady erosion of a healthy, neutral internet to the sound of thunderous applause?

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Posted on Techdirt - 24 November 2015 @ 2:07pm

The Anonymous Assault On ISIS Is Hurting More Than It's Helping

from the well-he-sounded-like-a-terrorist dept

In the aftermath of the Paris attacks, portions of Anonymous decided to "launch multiple operations" against the jackass collective that is ISIS/Daesh. Dubbed #OpISIS, the group's self-declared "biggest operation ever" has predominately involved posting what the group claims are ISIS affiliated Twitter accounts to Pastebin. These "ISIS affiliated" users are then reported to Twitter using a "Twatter Reporter" script being circulated among some members of the collective. In a video, Anonymous crows that the group has been responsible for bringing 20,000 ISIS-related social media accounts offline:

Except there's a major problem with the latest Anonymous campaign. A large number of the accounts they're suspending have absolutely nothing to do with ISIS. A review of the banned accounts by Ars Technica found that large number of the accounts were banned simply for using Arabic, with many ordinary Palestinian, Chechan and Kurdish users caught in the crossfire. Similarly, some of the banned accounts were trying to troll the religious cult. And there's indications that many in the group aren't even sure who they're supposed to be targeting:
"Meanwhile, some of the people coming to the IRC chat channel associated with the operation don't seem to really understand what's going on. One person logging into the channel asked, "Who's ISIS?" The people managing the channel also demanded that others only speak English in the chat and not "clutter up the channel with only mandarin or Spanish or something."
Twitter insiders meanwhile have commented off the record that the list Anonymous has compiled is a bit of a joke:
"A spokesperson for Twitter, who asked not to be quoted by name, told the Daily Dot that the lists generated by Anonymous are not being used by the company, saying research has found them to be “wildly inaccurate.”

“Users flag content for us through our standard reporting channels, we review their reports manually, and take action if the content violates our rules,” the spokesperson said, adding: “We don't review anonymous lists posted online, but third party reviews have found them to be wildly inaccurate and full of academics and journalists."
And while the group's behavior has been held up by Presidential candidates like Ben Carson as a "model" of how to deal with terrorist groups, this kind of indiscriminate, misinformed hysteria (like oh, trying to ban all Syrian refugees based on false media reports) arguably aids ISIS more than it hurts it. Well aware of this fact, some splinter Anonymous groups (like GhostSec) have started more quietly forwarding their findings to the U.S. government. Other members of Anonymous find cooperating with the government intolerable for obvious reasons:
"It seems rather foolish to me to be aiding our mortal enemies, who lock up and even torture Anons — in a fight against an evil that they themselves actually created. If the USA and Europe were willing to release our Anon POW's, and agree to stop attacking us - in exchange for our rather ample assistance against ISIS, well - that might be different. Until then, I say let NATO and the USA fight their own monsters. At least the resources they will need to dedicated to hunting ISIS can not be used to hunt Anons."
So as usual, the headlessness that helps keep Anonymous alive as an ideal often winds up being its own worst enemy when it comes to coordination and quality control. That's not to say that Anonymous members can't contribute intel, disrupt some online ISIS capabilities, or act as an occasional propaganda counterweight. The group is, after all, helping things out by rick rolling pro ISIS hashtags:
But beyond that, given the lack of any centralized jihadhist mainframe to be DDoS'd, #OpISIS is limited in what it can actually accomplish. Effective international espionage requires a lot more tactical coordination than the leaderless, mythological meme appears capable of, and the kind of societal problems that are driving angry, disenfranchised young people to join the cult of ISIS go much deeper than the hacktivist amoeba's tendrils reach.

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Posted on Techdirt - 24 November 2015 @ 10:38am

Learning From Lenovo's Compounded Failures, Dell Apologizes For Its Own HTTPS Certificate Screw Up

from the yeah,-whoops dept

Dell this week found itself under fire for embedding a certificate in some PCs that makes it relatively easy for attackers to cryptographically impersonate HTTPS-protected websites. First discovered by a programmer named Joe Nord, Dell's eDellRoot certificate appears to have been preinstalled as a root certificate on several Dell laptop and desktop models. As Nord notes, it's relatively simple to extract the locally-stored key, sign fraudulent TLS certificates for any HTTPS-protected website on the Internet, and trick user browsers to accept these encrypted Web sessions with no security warnings whatsoever.

This is, of course, reminiscent of the Superfish fiasco that plagued Lenovo earlier this year. But in that case the culprit was third-party adware, while Dell's eDellRoot is the company's own abomination. Duo Labs Security says it discovered the same problem, noting that it had even found evidence of the root certificate on some SCADA systems, typically used in places like factories, dams and power stations. Like Nord, Duo's researchers note that it's rather incredible that Dell wouldn't have discovered and fixed this problem after what happened to Lenovo:
"This highlights a disturbing trend among original equipment manufacturer (OEM) hardware vendors. Tampering with certificate stores exposes users to unnecessary, increased risk. Tampering with the certificate store is a questionable practice, and OEM’s need to be careful when adding new trusted certificates, especially root certificates. Sadly, OEM manufacturers seem to not be learning from historical mistakes and keep making them over and over."
However Dell did appear to learn something in terms of their PR response to the vulnerability. Unlike Lenovo, which originally tried to deny any security problem whatsoever, Dell has issued a relatively straight forward blog post addressing the issue. In it, Dell does something downright kooky: it admits that the vulnerability is a vulnerability, and publicly thanks the security researchers that discovered it. According to Dell, the certificate was implemented as part of a support tool "intended to make it faster and easier" for users to service their system.

Dell's quick to remind readers that at least it wasn't adware, and unlike Lenovo's snoopvertising, it won't stealthily hide in the BiOS to reinstall itself at a later date:
"The certificate is not malware or adware. Rather, it was intended to provide the system service tag to Dell online support allowing us to quickly identify the computer model, making it easier and faster to service our customers. This certificate is not being used to collect personal customer information. It’s also important to note that the certificate will not reinstall itself once it is properly removed using the recommended Dell process."
Dell's also posted a word document outlining how to spot and remove the certificate here for those interested. It remains unclear just how many computers are at risk, but given that Dell is expected to ship 10 million computers worldwide in the third quarter of 2015, the footprint likely isn't modest. And while Dell managed the problem better on the PR front than their predecessors, the fact that this keeps happening is no less disturbing.

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Posted on Techdirt - 24 November 2015 @ 9:31am

Happy New Year From Comcast: Price Hikes And Misleading Fees For Everybody

from the more-of-the-same dept

Comcast certainly had quite a year. When it wasn't busy failing to justify its latest attempted mega merger or criticizing bloggers for calling its top lobbyist a lobbyist, the company continued to deliver what's statistically the worst customer service of any company in the United States. This is before you consider the company's latest efforts to expand usage caps, and use those usage caps to give their own streaming services a leg up, while payrolling the industry's attempt to kill net neutrality protections.

As a bow on the shit show that was Comcast in 2015, the company is spreading good cheer for the new year in the only way it knows how: major rate hikes for nearly all of the company's services. The company is not only jacking up the costs of most of its TV services, it's raising the rates on most Comcast installer "services", from installing a new coax jack to the fees charged for upgrading or downgrading your service packages. Also being hiked is the company's relatively-recent (and aggressively misleading) "broadcast TV fee":

"Comcast also will hike a "broadcast TV fee" by 66 percent to $5 a month from $3. This relatively new fee covers the cost of retransmission fees that over-the-air broadcast TV networks - CBS, NBC, ABC, and Fox - charge cable companies for distributing their networks on pay-TV systems. Retransmission fees and sports are the two biggest inflationary-costs pressures in TV bills, according to industry observers and Comcast executives."
Except, as the report fails to note, these programming costs are simply the cost of doing business -- and should be included in the advertised rate. Instead, companies like Comcast tuck this bogus fee below the line to covertly jack up the advertised price post sale. Of course, cable operators are quick to proclaim that programmers are solely responsible for users' soaring cable bills, but as you'll note the cost of everything is going up at Comcast/NBC, from the cost you'll pay for installer service to the $4 (previously $3) you have to pay for digital adapters.

Clinging to one of the stalest and most insulting price hike justifications in the industry, Comcast claimed the cost increases were necessary to provide that amazing "customer experience" its customers consistently complain they don't get:
"Comcast spokesman Jeff Alexander said the company continues to invest in its network and technology "and to give customers more for their money - like faster Internet service and more WiFi hot spots, more video across viewing screens, better technology like X1, and a better customer experience."
Right. That's the same "customer experience" that's so consistently awful, the company's dysfunction goes viral on almost a weekly basis. Some companies are content just aggressively milking the legacy markets they've dominated quietly. Comcast's a different animal entirely, aggressively pushing the barrier on new and amazing anti-competitive ideas with relentless aplomb. The company's political muscle ensured regulators turned a blind eye for much of the last decade, but Comcast's attempt to protect this legacy empire with usage caps, overage fees, and zero rating its own streaming services -- may finally gift the company with a 2016 run in with the FCC.

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Posted on Techdirt - 23 November 2015 @ 2:05pm

Clinging To Relevance, Yahoo Prevents Ad Block Users From Checking Yahoo Mail

from the ingenious-strategy dept

Yahoo's been struggling for some time under the leadership of Marissa Mayer to become as relevant in the advertising and content space as contemporaries like Google and Facebook. By and large these efforts have not been going particularly well, with the mood inside the company supposedly "grim and contentious," employees frustrated with a lack of direction, heavy often-senseless micromanagement, and a "lack of a coherent strategy." A growing movement from both inside and outside of Yahoo to replace Mayer has gained momentum.

So as the company struggles for relevance this week in the face of users, employees and investors, somebody at the company apparently thought it would be a great idea to annoy a huge swath of the company's userbase. According to a growing number of Ad Block users, Yahooers this week were met with a message scolding them for using ad blocking technology and preventing them from accessing their mail through the website:

When I asked the company to confirm that this was indeed a new, ingenious business strategy, I was told it was part of a "test" for the company:
"At Yahoo, we are continually developing and testing new product experiences. This is a test we're running for a small number of Yahoo Mail users in the U.S."
Really? You're barely clinging to relevance and you think it's a great idea to begin alienating the remaining customers that haven't fled to gmail? As we've noted many, many times, there are numerous answers to dealing with ad blocking, from designing less annoying ads, to developing new business models, to giving users more control. Instead, some websites have tried to dictate to consumers what they should do with their own browsers, and in some instances punished site visitors for even talking about ad blocking whatsoever. In Yahoo's case, the decision had the expected result. It started to drive users away:
Perhaps we're all missing some subtle nuance of the plan, and Mayer somehow hopes to make Yahoo more relevant -- via the power of annoyance?

59 Comments | Leave a Comment..

Posted on Net Neutrality Special Edition - 23 November 2015 @ 11:44am

Comcast Tests Net Neutrality By Letting Its Own Streaming Service Bypass Usage Caps

from the special-treatment dept

By now, Comcast's strategy for fighting internet video competition is very clear. For one, the company is slowly but surely expanding usage caps into dozens of new markets. In these ever-expanding areas, Comcast imposes a 300 GB usage cap, then charges users $10 for every 50 GB of extra data they consume. Comcast's also now testing a new wrinkle wherein users have the option of paying another $30 to $35 if they want unlimited data. In short, the option to have the same unlimited connection they had yesterday will cost these users significantly more.

But recently, Comcast's other spoke in this strategy started to reveal itself. The company is slowly but surely expanding a creatively named streaming video service named Stream. Stream provides Comcast broadband-only users a $15 service that includes live TV, video on demand, and HBO, and it's Comcast's way of trying to keep would-be cord cutters in house. Here's the kicker though: Comcast's new streaming service doesn't count against Comcast user usage caps:

"We asked Comcast today if Stream TV usage will count against the 300GB data plans imposed in certain parts of Comcast's territory. "No, Stream is an IP cable service delivered over our managed network to the home," a Comcast spokesperson replied.

Comcast also pointed Ars to an (sic) FAQ that says, "Stream TV is a cable streaming service delivered over Comcast's cable system, not over the Internet. Therefore, Stream TV data usage will not be counted towards your Xfinity Internet monthly data usage."
In short, Comcast's trying to argue that this isn't a net neutrality violation because the service spends significantly more time traveling over Comcast's managed IP infrastructure instead of the public Internet. It's the same excuse Comcast gave back in 2012, when it was criticized for exempting its streaming service via the Xbox 360 from usage caps. The move resulted in some pointed criticism by Netflix CEO Reed Hastings, who declared that Comcast was "no longer following net neutrality principles" and the company "should apply caps equally, or not at all." The FCC, however, did nothing.

Of course since then, Comcast has deployed its usage caps to significantly more households. Its caps now cover an estimated 12% of its userbase, and the company shows no sign of slowing down anytime soon, with dozens more markets slated for caps on December 1. There were some vague rumors the FCC was watching Comcast's cap expansion plans carefully, but so far the FCC has done nothing.

Unlike 2012, we also now have some actual net neutrality rules in place. The problem, as we've noted a few times, is they don't specifically ban zero rating, but insist the FCC will look at examples of bad behavior on a "case by case" basis. That opens the door -- as we're seeing with T-Mobile -- for carriers to violate net neutrality, if they're just clever enough about it.

It's unclear when exactly the FCC intends to step in to actually enforce the rules it fought (and is still fighting in court) so hard for. Consumer groups like Public Knowledge say they already have a complaint pending with the FCC, and are waiting for the FCC to stop napping:
As it stands, our shiny new net neutrality rules may not be worth all that much if regulators aren't willing to use them.

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Posted on Net Neutrality Special Edition - 20 November 2015 @ 2:04pm

T-Mobile And MetroPCS Go All In On The Horrible Precedent Of Zero Rating

from the setting-the-stage-for-disaster dept

Last year we noted that for being such a supposedly cool CEO, T-Mobile's John Legere seemed utterly clueless on the subject of net neutrality. Not only did the CEO claim that Title II and new net neutrality rules would "kill innovation" (tip: that didn't happen), he seemed totally oblivious to the bad precedent set by the company's zero rating efforts. Those efforts began with T-Mobile's decision to let some music services bypass user usage caps, which as we've discussed at great length puts smaller companies and non-profits at a distinct disadvantage.

But since our regulators (and much of the press and public) seem clueless to the harm of zero rating so far, T-Mobile has decided to expand these efforts. Last week the company started cap-exempting video services, and now the company has announced it's bringing zero rating to the company's prepaid wireless brand (MetroPCS) as well. Now the company's prepaid and postpaid (monthly billed) customers both will find that thirty-three of the biggest music stream services no longer count against their usage caps (yeah, sorry, small independent radio streaming stations too little to get on T-Mobile's whitelisted radar).

As usual, the move was framed as a huge boon to consumers:

“Once again we are setting MetroPCS apart from the rest of the pack in ways that no one else will,” said John Legere, president and CEO of T-Mobile US. “MetroPCS is the #1 brand in prepaid because we keep giving customers more of what they want, and today that means adding Music Unlimited and Data Maximizer to the list! Their data will last longer than ever before without ridiculous penalty fees or trickery!"
And like regulators, most of the telecom beat covering T-Mobile has been oblivious to the bad precedent set. They don't quite yet understand that letting a wireless carrier suddenly decide what traffic gets whitelisted from already-arbitrary usage restrictions sets the stage for a total upheaval of how the Internet works now. They also don't understand that if it's ok for T-Mobile to do this, it's ok for a company like AT&T to do something similar -- and AT&T's version is going to be notably worse. The Los Angeles Times, for example, struggles to see where the problem lies:
"Besides, there's nothing in the FCC's neutrality rules that bars data caps, which enable carriers to segment the market and charge higher prices to those who put a higher value on bandwidth. Binge On represents another reduction in the pain caused by data caps, which seems like an unalloyed good thing for consumers."
But you're not reducing a "pain point" by creating an arbitrary data cap, then letting some content bypass that cap -- you're just getting in the way of a healthy Internet ecosystem. And just because the FCC lacked the foresight to prohibit zero rating in our net neutrality rules (unlike Chile, Norway, Netherlands, Finland, Iceland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta and Japan, which all bar zero rating), that doesn't mean this isn't a potentially horrible idea that's going to change the face of the Internet. It's very clear that the perils of zero rating are something we're eager to experience first hand here in the States, applauding our own "great fortune" all the way.

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Posted on Techdirt - 20 November 2015 @ 8:16am

Chipotle Exposes Private Data By Sending HR E-mails Via Unowned Domain, Doesn't See The Problem

from the utterly-oblivious dept

Chipotle has been making headlines lately for all the wrong reasons. While justifiably lauded for its efforts at embracing more sustainable agriculture, the restaurant is currently in the aftermath of a massive E. Coli outbreak in Washington and Oregon that resulted in dozens of illnesses and hospitalizations. And while the CDC's ongoing investigation of that outbreak is grabbing most of the public's attention, the company's quietly been caught up in another, less noticed snafu involving a total lack of fundamental, security common sense.

Apparently, Chipotle’s human resources department has been replying to new job applicants using the "" domain. The problem? This is a domain that the company neither owns nor controls, meaning that anybody could nab it for themselves and, with minimal effort, begin harvesting applicant data while posing as Chipotle. While the messages sent to applicants from this domain urge them not to respond to the e-mail, the fact that an unowned domain is being used for communications still remains obviously problematic:

Noticing this potentially major problem, a security researcher named Michael Kohlman (applying to apparently maintain unemployment benefits while between gigs) grabbed the domain for $30. He then reached out to Chipotle to explain the potential liability of the company's sloppy security and offer the company the domain, for free. Chipotle's response? Utter and total denial that there was any problem whatsoever:
"Kohlman has since offered to freely give over the domain to the restaurant chain. But Chipotle expressed zero interest in acquiring the free domain. In fact, Chipotle’s spokesman Chris Arnold says the company doesn’t see this as a big deal at all.

"The domain is not a functional address and never has been,” Arnold wrote in an emailed statement. “It never had any operational significance, and never served to solicit or accept any kind of response. So there has never been a security risk of any kind associated with this. That address is being changed to (a domain that we do own), but this has never been functional and is really a non-issue.”
That's a $3.5 billion company showing it has zero understanding of security. At all. The fact that it lacked "operational significance" is totally irrelevant. All a hacker would need to do is register the domain, begin replying to recipients, and direct them to even a crude facsimile of a real Chipotle website. From there, it would have been trivial to farm applicants for all manner of personal data, including addresses, phone numbers, and social security numbers. The proper response from Chipotle to somebody highlighting this and offering the domain for free? Thank you.

37 Comments | Leave a Comment..

Posted on Techdirt - 19 November 2015 @ 6:10am

Why Does The Press Have To Keep Fixing All Of Comcast's Screw Ups?

from the sisyphean dept

By now you probably know the drill: Comcast will do something incredibly stupid, and a customer that has been struggling to get the company to fix it for a year (or longer) will have absolutely no luck getting the issue resolved. They'll subsequently contact the media out of frustration and (especially if the screw up goes viral) Comcast will finally resolve the problem -- usually within a day. The company then trots out claims that this is simply an "anecdotal" experience and not representative of the great care and skill with which it manages its beloved customers. Rinse, wash, repeat.

The latest story of this type comes from a Comcast customer of eight years who was incorrectly over-billed for service by the cable company. Not recognizing its own error, the company also sent collection agencies after the customer to obtain money never actually owed them. And, as always, the user attempted for eighteen months to get Comcast to realize its screw up to no avail:

"I called Comcast a total of 10 times beginning 5/31/2014 and wasted at least 10 hours of my life trying to fix a problem that they created,” Mueller told Ars. “In making those calls I was hung up on, transferred, and dismissively told to just wait it out.” The problem was seemingly fixed in November 2014, yet almost exactly one year later Mueller got a letter from another collection agency. More calls to Comcast this month didn’t fix the problem immediately, and Mueller contacted Ars out of frustration."
A problem that never should have happened in the first place? Check. Apathetic and incompetent support? Check. Being forced to contact the press in the hopes somebody can light a fire under Comcast's ass? Check. It's not hyperbole to state that this sort of thing happens weekly in news outlets all over the country, and the negative public sentiment and press generated by this incompetence lambada was a big reason regulators scrapped the company's attempted acquisition of Time Warner Cable. Even magician and top Comcast lobbyist David Cohen couldn't fix what was broken.

Of course, as the story always goes, once the press was contacted it was a trivial problem for Comcast to fix:
"It blows me away that the burden is on me to fix their mistake and that it is taking so much of my resources,” Mueller told us. “I really would like to bill them for my time.” Mueller was also worried the collection agencies' involvement would harm his credit rating. After talking to Mueller, we reached out to our contacts in Comcast’s public relations group on Thursday last week. A Comcast spokesperson researched the issue, and the very next day someone else from Comcast called Mueller to tell him that the problem was fixed for good."
Why, after a decade of stories like this, is the press still responsible for fixing Comcast's screw ups? Because Comcast customers are either too lazy to switch, or don't have an adequate TV or broadband service to switch to. And as the industry continues to consolidate into just a handful of players (AT&T buys DirecTV, Charter buys Time Warner Cable and Bright House), the incentive to compete on both fronts decreases further as geographic dominance grows. These giant, publicly traded companies then usually look to customer service budget cuts first when trying to please Wall Street with relentlessly better quarter over quarter results.

To be fair, after the merger fracas Comcast is trying some new support tricks, though whether they'll ever materialize as wholesale improvements is uncertain. In Portland Comcast is experimenting with a pilot program that tries to reach out to customers before problems are even detected by them. This is all being spearheaded by a "Customer Experience" VP who was hired last year with one, full-time purpose: to stop Comcast from sucking.

The problem is, no matter how many times this pattern has repeated over the last decade, Comcast never seems to get any better at its job. Claims that it recognizes its own dysfunction and promises to improve are now a yearly phenomenon for Comcast, yet customer satisfaction studies never budge. It's pathetic that it takes press intervention to routinely fix fairly basic mistakes that balloon into legendary annoyance; if Comcast can't get its household in order perhaps it can start paying those folks (be it Reddit users or the media) who keep having to play the middle man.

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Posted on Techdirt - 19 November 2015 @ 3:04am

TV Industry Starts Running Fewer Ads To Combat Netflix, Cord Cutting

from the evolving-dinosaurs dept

Historically, the cable and broadcast industry has responded to Internet video competition in the only way a mammoth legacy industry knows how: denial, dirty tricks, price hikes, more dirty tricks, and more denial. And instead of giving customers what they want (lower prices, ad skipping technology, more flexibility in programming packages) they've arguably often made things worse -- like stuffing more ads into every viewing hour.

Nielsen data suggests that ad time per hour on has gone up from 14:27 to 15:38 minutes per hour on cable, and 13:25 to 14:15 minutes per hour on broadcast -- since 2009. When all the ads wouldn't fit, they'd just edit or speed up the programs, or utilize more product placement. All while raising rates on consumers at four times the pace of inflation. But there's a small indication that the cable and broadcast industry may have finally started realizing they can no longer get away with this in the Netflix age.

With ratings in free fall and cord cutting (and "cord never") numbers giving some executives indigestion, Discovery and Fox recently acknowledged they've been running fewer ads during their prime time programming. Time Warner last week also declared it had seen the light, acknowledging it was going to lessen the ad load specifically on its networks aimed at Millennials:

"We know one of the benefits of an ecosystem like Netflix is its lack of advertising,” Howard Shimmel, chief research officer at Time Warner’s Turner Broadcasting, said in an interview. “Consumers are being trained there are places they can go to avoid ads."
Even Viacom, which had been leading the charge to stuff more ads in each hour, appears to have suddenly realized that something has to change:
"Viacom CEO Philippe Dauman talked about cutting ad loads during an investor conference in September. Viacom has been working on non-Nielsen metrics to sell advertising as more of its younger viewers watch on non-traditional platforms..."With those kicking in we’ll be in position—we’ve been talking to a lot of advertisers about it, which they like—to reduce ad load in primetime across our networks, which will improve the consumer experience and drive pricing," Dauman said.
Granted we're not out of the deep, dark denial woods quite yet. These companies may be cutting ad load but they're just charging more for the same ads, hoping they can rebalance the books and ignore the Internet video revolution waiting in the wings. Many other execs still see cord cutting as a bit of a fad, one that will reverse itself once Millennials procreate. The reality is that you'll know the cable and broadcast industry is finally taking Internet video seriously when they do the one thing most of the industry's execs are utterly terrified of: competing on price.

53 Comments | Leave a Comment..

Posted on Techdirt - 18 November 2015 @ 11:33am

After Endless Demonization Of Encryption, Police Find Paris Attackers Coordinated Via Unencrypted SMS

from the anonymous-sources-say dept

In the wake of the tragic events in Paris last week encryption has continued to be a useful bogeyman for those with a voracious appetite for surveillance expansion. Like clockwork, numerous reports were quickly circulated suggesting that the terrorists used incredibly sophisticated encryption techniques, despite no evidence by investigators that this was the case. These reports varied in the amount of hallucination involved, the New York Times even having to pull one such report offline. Other claims the attackers had used encrypted Playstation 4 communications also wound up being bunk.

Yet, pushed by their sources in the government, the media quickly became a sound wall of noise suggesting that encryption was hampering the government's ability to stop these kinds of attacks. NBC was particularly breathless this week over the idea that ISIS was now running a 24 hour help desk aimed at helping its less technically proficient members understand encryption (even cults help each other use technology, who knew?). All of the reports had one central, underlying drum beat implication: Edward Snowden and encryption have made us less safe, and if you disagree the blood is on your hands.

Yet, amazingly enough, as actual investigative details emerge, it appears that most of the communications between the attackers was conducted via unencrypted vanilla SMS:

"...News emerging from Paris — as well as evidence from a Belgian ISIS raid in January — suggests that the ISIS terror networks involved were communicating in the clear, and that the data on their smartphones was not encrypted.

European media outlets are reporting that the location of a raid conducted on a suspected safe house Wednesday morning was extracted from a cellphone, apparently belonging to one of the attackers, found in the trash outside the Bataclan concert hall massacre. Le Monde reported that investigators were able to access the data on the phone, including a detailed map of the concert hall and an SMS messaging saying “we’re off; we’re starting.” Police were also able to trace the phone’s movements.
The reports note that Abdelhamid Abaaoud, the "mastermind" of both the Paris attacks and a thwarted Belgium attack ten months ago, failed to use any encryption whatsoever (read: existing capabilities stopped the Belgium attacks and could have stopped the Paris attacks, but didn't). That's of course not to say batshit religious cults like ISIS don't use encryption, and won't do so going forward. Everybody uses encryption. But the point remains that to use a tragedy to vilify encryption, push for surveillance expansion, and pass backdoor laws that will make everybody less safe -- is nearly as gruesome as the attacks themselves.

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Posted on Techdirt - 18 November 2015 @ 6:44am

Rep. Barton Demands The FCC Filter ISIS From The Internet

from the act-first-think-later dept

There's been a universe of responses to the recent tragedy in Paris, and unfortunately the lion's share of them are incomprehensibly stupid, adding a compounded feeling of inevitable dread to the already heart-breaking ordeal. From punishing all Syrian refugees for the attacks to blaming Edward Snowden and encryption, there's once again far more knee-jerk inanity being generated than reasoned commentary. Joining the fray this week was Rep. Joe Barton, who simply can't seem to understand why we can't start filtering this whole "terrorism" part of the Internet.

Barton was speaking this week at yet another House hearing designed primarily to shame the FCC for standing up to ISPs on net neutrality. These show pony hearings have been going on for much of the year now, and their overarching end goal is to strip the agency's authority and funding under the auspices of reform. Ironic then, that Barton took some time out to urge the FCC to start regulating Internet speech:

"They are really trying to use the Internet and all the social media to intimidate and beat us psychologically," Barton said during a House committee hearing Tuesday. "Isn't there something we can do to shut those Internet sites down?"
Well one, we're beating ourselves psychologically by responding to tragedy by being aggressively stupid. Two, as we've noted time and time and time again, Internet filters just don't work. They're easily bypassed by even the most mentally-stunted toddler, and they open the door to atrocious savaging of free speech rights. When they do "work," they generally result in the filtering of legitimate content. Barton seems to realize this in his statements, but plows forward undeterred:
"Barton conceded that censoring the Web sites might be difficult -- "I know they pop up like weeds" -- but plowed ahead with his proposal, suggesting that the Federal Communications Commission attempt to shut down the sites. "They're using the Internet in an extremely offensive and inappropriate way against us," he continued.
But the real problem isn't the fact that when you censor content it pops right back up it's the censoring of content in the first place. You'd think that an elected official would be at least marginally familiar with the First Amendment that says, you know, that the government can't censor speech. And yet here he is directly advocating outright internet censorship.

Again it's important to understand that Barton, who creatively dubs net neutrality "net nonsense," was attending a hearing with the unspoken intent of gutting FCC authority. And, ironically, it was the FCC that had to remind Barton that regulating website and social media is too far outside of its wheelhouse. Still, it's amusing that Barton believes imposing consumer protections to defend free speech is a horrible, unchecked abuse of the FCC's authority, but dramatically expanding FCC power to restrict free speech somehow makes perfect sense.

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Posted on Techdirt - 16 November 2015 @ 10:38am

FCC Refuses To Force Websites To Adhere To 'Do Not Track,' And That's A Good Thing

from the plate's-already-full dept

If you've followed the saga of "Do Not Track," you know it began with good intentions, labored under squabbling and marketing industry sabotage, and is now seen by some as too little too late in the face of far more sophisticated new snoopvertising technologies. Knowing that many companies will never honor Do Not Track requests voluntarily, Consumer Watchdog had filed a petition (pdf) with the FCC to "initiate a rulemaking proceeding requiring 'edge providers' (like Google, Facebook, YouTube, Pandora, Netflix, and LinkedIn) to honor 'Do Not Track' Requests from consumers."

In short, the faux consumer advocacy group (which is famous for taking extreme positions that would likely do more harm to consumers than help them) wanted the FCC to lean on Title I and Section 706 authority to regulate "information services," forcing content companies to honor DNT requests. While the FCC is planning to begin proceedings examining new privacy policies for broadband companies in the next few months, the group argued this wouldn't be enough to protect consumers from invasive snoopvertising:

"Many consumers are as concerned -- or perhaps even more worried -- about the online tracking and data collection practices of edge providers... edge providers collect the same sensitive personal information that broadband Internet access service providers collect, and that the Commission is committed to protecting. If the Commission does not act to regulate the collection of personal information by edge providers, the Commission will in effect be granting a regulatory advantage to the edge providers, implicating concerns of market distortions."
But the FCC is having none of it. The agency dismissed (pdf) Consumer Watchdog's request, stating that it "has been unequivocal in declaring that it has no intent to regulate edge providers." And indeed, the FCC already has its hands full; it's fighting off ISP lawyers trying to dismantle net neutrality and Title II reclassification, battling ISP-beholden states unhappy with the agency's attack on protectionist broadband state law, and is about to go to war with ISPs on privacy. That's a pretty full plate, with the FCC likely lacking the bandwidth for making any more "friends" at the moment.

And while some telecom industry sockpuppets will surely insist this is a double standard, the FCC's decision may not be a bad thing. The EFF argues the FCC made the "right call, for now," pointing out that consumers can choose not to use Google or Facebook, a luxury they don't enjoy when being held captive by the uncompetitive broadband last mile:
"Why the distinction between websites and ISPs? Because ISPs occupy a much more privileged position on the network. They carry all of a user’s traffic. That gives them the power to act as gatekeepers, deciding what sorts of traffic users can send and receive. It also gives them the opportunity to modify user traffic, adding privacy-destroying tags like Verizon’s UIDH super-cookie.

Edge providers, on the other hand, don’t have quite as much power. It’s a lot easier for users to “vote with their feet” and use a different edge provider for search, social networking, blogging, etc., than it is to change ISPs. Users also have more control over what information they send to edge providers -- that’s why tracker blockers like Privacy Badger work. And of course, there’s the matter of jurisdiction; while ISPs operate in specific geographical areas, websites are accessible (and hosted) all over the world, which would raise all sorts of terrible jurisdictional issues."
In other words, enforcement would be impossible even if the FCC had decided to regulate websites and stumble into the Do Not Track mess. It's a fairly restrained decision for an agency consistently accused of being power mad, and the right call for a regulator that will need every spare calorie for its mammoth battle against the broadband industry duopoly.

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Posted on Techdirt - 12 November 2015 @ 3:23pm

Instead Of Fashionably Killing The News Comment Section, Medium Quietly Tries Giving A Damn Instead

from the try-trying dept

Nearly every week another website shutters its news comment section, breathlessly declaring that comments are an old-fashioned relic of a bygone era, long supplanted by the miracle that is social media. More annoying than the act of shuttering news comments sections perhaps is the disingenuous blather that accompanies these announcements; company after company proudly insisting that they're muzzling entire communities -- because they just really, really value conversation. As we've noted it doesn't actually take much work to fix comments, it just requires actually giving half a damn about the end user.

So with so many sites outsourcing their communities to Facebook and Twitter, it's refreshing to see some sites still actually trying to have a conversation and make commenting better. Medium is one of several websites bucking the trend of taking the easy way out, instead recently launching a new effort called "You Tell Me" that attempts to solicit community and expert input and encourage community interaction. There's nothing really particularly ingenious about the idea; the website's simply fielding input from interesting people and then encouraging people to have an adult conversation:

"You Tell Me is an effort by Medium to remind users of the fact that Medium isn’t just for writing posts, but also for responding. “We haven’t always been good at saying that Medium allows for conversation, debate, and dialogue,” said Medium editor Sophie Moura. “We haven’t been as good at explaining how responses work as we should be. The You Tell Me series is designed to role-model how the platform can be used.” From the top, “Tech Is Eating Media” looks a lot like a straightforward Medium post, with the addition of a You Tell Me logo. At the bottom of the post, though, are bolded questions and featured responses."
It seems inherently absurd to lavish praise on a news outlet simply for giving a shit about conversation, but that's quite an accomplishment in an era when websites are lazily shoveling all on-site interaction over to the wall of noise that is social media because (at least according to ReCode's Kara Swisher) it's "just a better place to engage a smart audience that’s not trolling." Because, you know, there are no trolling nitwits on Facebook and Twitter.

And again, it's not really all that hard to manage said trolling. A recent paper published in the Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication found that all it took to improve civility was someone with the vaguest semblance of authority showing up and treating people like actual human beings. Treat comment sections like unmanageable troll playgrounds, and that's generally what they'll become. And they've only become that because many editors and authors either don't want to see corrections to their stories made quite so visible, or they're too myopic to see the public's role in the fluid conversation that is modern news.

And indeed, the posts where Medium attempts to have an actual conversation (one on ageism in Silicon Valley and another by Awl editor John Herrman on how "tech is eating media") quite shockingly wind up with -- people quite civilly speaking to one another (go figure). That's in contrast to social media, where Herrman highlights users often get to enjoy the illusion of actual discourse, (quite intentionally) cordoned off from public view:
"I’m especially receptive to trying this out because we get a lot of feedback and discussion around our stories, but not the kind that really begs for response,” Herrman told me via Gchat on Monday. “This is a weird thing that has happened in a lot of places, and I think there’s an effort to rein it back in: ‘Interactions’ or whatever have skyrocketed, but they take place out of view, or in such a way that precludes further argument."

And, as noted above, social media has its own limitations when it comes to commenting and responding. “I’ve been writing these manic blogs about CONTENT garbage forever, and I hurl them out onto Twitter and Facebook and they get attention,” Herrman said. “But the sharing behavior, even for something that’s making claim after claim and argument after argument, is either like ‘yea AGREE’ or ‘shut up’…There really isn’t a natural place for the kinds of things we do to unfold into discussion."
Well there actually is, it's in the traditional comment section. It just requires the website giving half a damn.

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Posted on Techdirt - 12 November 2015 @ 6:33am

Time Warner Promises To Adapt To Cord Cutting With Fewer TV Ads, Gets Punished By Wall Street For It

from the (re)volution dept

So far the cable and broadcast industry has had a three pronged approach to the threat of cord cutting and the rise of Internet video. One, remain in stark denial about the changes in its sector, refusing anything more than the most superficial evolution (and if anybody notices, just use the word innovation a lot). Two, a relentless dedication to annoying its customers further at every turn, whether that's blocking ad skipping technology or inserting more ads than ever into every viewing hour. And three, a total refusal to ever, ever compete on price. Ingenious, right?

So it was interesting to see Time Warner admit last week that the company would need to make some changes if it hoped to appeal to younger generations, for many of whom traditional cable is a utterly foreign concept. According to Time Warner, the company says it's actually going to limit the number of ads shown on some of its networks:

"Time Warner’s TruTV is testing a new advertising model: It wants to charge sponsors more money by running fewer commercials. Starting in the fourth quarter of 2016, the network, which is devoted to comedic reality programming, will fill less of its time with advertising and promos and more of its air with actual programming. In all, TruTV should run just 10 minutes to 11 minutes of national commercials and promos, compared to 18 minutes to 19 minutes at present..As a result, episodes of shows that air under the new model could run as long as 25 minutes.

“We have a generation that has grown up with access to content that does not have commercials,” said Chris Linn, president and head of programming at TruTV, in an interview. “In order for us to remain relevant to them, we have to deliver the most premium experience possible.”
And while that's only half the battle, it's at least a step forward for an industry that's been comically in denial. Time Warner basically admitted the company needed to address the quality of its product and the delivery of it, accept that the existing TV cash cow is not immortal, and push harder into online streaming. But after Time Warner CEO Jeff Bewkes made the mistake of admitting this on the company's earnings conference call last week, near-sighted Wall Street was sent into absolute hysterics:
"Media stocks faltered during Time Warner's call with analysts to discuss its third-quarter earnings. Chief Executive Jeff Bewkes said his company -- which owns HBO, CNN, TBS, TNT and Warner Bros. -- expects adjusted earnings of about $5.25 a share next year, well below the $5.60 a share forecast by analysts.

One reason for the lower earnings, Bewkes said, was because the company is investing more in new programming for its streaming service, HBO Now, and other digital initiatives. He cited HBO's recent deals with Jon Stewart and "Sesame Street" as well as Turner Broadcasting System's plans to launch a new digital studio, Super Deluxe.
The problem is that offering a better experience is only half the battle. In the face of inexpensive streaming and skinny bundles, the cable and broadcast industry is also going to have to compete on price, something that cable operators and broadcasters alike have treated like the Bubonic plague. So far the cable industry hasn't quite realized that its precious cash cow is dead and current profits are unsustainable. And those that do have this revelation (and begin the much-needed process of adaptation) are punished by Wall Street's total and often painful obsession with the six inches in front of its collective nose.

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Posted on Techdirt - 11 November 2015 @ 11:44am

Hacked Data Obtained By The Intercept Highlights Wholesale Spying On Inmate, Attorney Privileged Communications

from the institutional-apathy dept

A few months ago the FCC voted to crack down on the ripping off of inmates and their families by prison telecom companies, which for decades now have charged upwards of $14 per minute for services that cost little to nothing to provide. At the time, prison telecom companies like Securus complained hysterically about the FCC's decision, CEO Richard Smith declaring the new price caps would have a "devastating effect" on its business, potentially ending its participation in "services and continuing inmate related programs."

According to a massive new trove of data obtained by the Intercept, one of the "services" Securus was apparently providing was of the wholesale spying variety. Hacker-obtained data examined by The Intercept includes 70 million records of phone calls (and recordings of the phone calls themselves), placed by prisoners in at least 37 different states over a two-and-a-half year period. Of particular note are the estimated 14,000 recordings of privileged conversations between inmates and their lawyers:

"This may be the most massive breach of the attorney-client privilege in modern U.S. history, and that’s certainly something to be concerned about,” said David Fathi, director of the ACLU’s National Prison Project. “A lot of prisoner rights are limited because of their conviction and incarceration, but their protection by the attorney-client privilege is not."
Securus alone provides telecom services and "secure" storage of communications for 2,200 prisons around the United States, processing a million or so calls each day. Securus and other such companies serve a relatively captive and unregulated market, where prisons are paid upwards of $460 million annually in "concession fees" (read: kickbacks) to win exclusive telecom-related prison contracts. Part of Securus' pitch to prisons is that it will offer cutting edge secure storage for these communications, though the Intercept notes this latest hack wasn't the first.

Prisoners obviously don't expect the full historical right to privacy; indeed Securus makes sure to include a message warning inmates that "this call is from a correctional facility and may be monitored and recorded" at the beginning of each call. Waivers of rights and the monitoring and securing of phone communications was originally pushed as a way to prevent riots, witness tampering and generally secure the prison back in the 90s. But as the Intercept points out, that doesn't make the long-term storage of this data any less problematic, and securing the facility certainly shouldn't include recording secure communications between inmates and their lawyers. A behavior, it should be noted, Securus itself claimed it didn't do:
"A review of contracts and proposals completed by Securus in a handful of states reflects the company’s understanding of this right. In a 2011 bid to provide phone service to inmates in Missouri’s state prisons, Securus promised that each “call will be recorded and monitored, with the exception of privileged calls.” But the database provided to The Intercept shows that over 12,000 recordings of inmate-attorney communications, placed to attorneys in Missouri, were collected, stored, and ultimately hacked."
The Intercept's findings are particularly problematic for Securus, since the company is the target of a federal civil rights suit filed in Texas in 2014. That suit, by the Austin Lawyers Guild and a prisoners' advocacy group, alleges that Securus had been recording privileged conversations, and that intrusion into this communications (and the prosecutors' failure to disclose this information during discovery) undermines the legal ability to defend them. This despite Securus contracts explicitly stating that phone calls "to telephone numbers known to belong [to] attorneys are NOT recorded," and that "if any call to an attorney is inadvertently recorded, the recording is destroyed as soon as it is discovered." Or not.

The Intercept's latest findings not only stumble into yet another expansion of our wholesale surveillance state, but exemplify the kind of apathy about the prison industrial complex that allowed Securus to aggressively rip off inmates and families in the first place. "They're in prison so they deserve it" is a common refrain from the apathetic to the rights trampling of the guilty, the innocent, and the millions of Americans serving massive prison sentences for relatively innocuous marijuana offenses. On a positive note the Intercept's latest leak was courtesy of The Intercept's Tor-enabled SecureDrop platform, another sign we're (hopefully) moving past the Assange middleman era into one where the traditional media -- with a little help -- actually does its job.

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Posted on Techdirt - 11 November 2015 @ 9:39am

Comcast Keeps Scolding Me For Calling Its Top Lobbyist A Lobbyist

from the a-rose-by-any-other-name dept

Last summer I noted that Comcast's PR department pretty consistently now sends me snotty e-mail "corrections." Not about any of the thousands of articles Techdirt or I have written about the company's abysmal customer service, punitive usage caps, ridiculously high prices, or obnoxiously anti-competitive behavior mind you, but to scold me for one and only one thing: calling the company's top lobbyist a lobbyist.

You see, despite the fact that Comcast Executive Vice President David Cohen spends the majority of his time trying to influence state and federal regulators (he was the lead salesman of the NBC and Time Warner Cable mergers), Comcast calls him the company's "Chief Diversity Officer." That's because updated 2007 lobbying reporting rules require that if an employee spends more than 20% of their time lobbying in DC, they have to register with the government as a lobbyist, detail their travel with lawmakers, and more fully outline their contributions to politicians and their myriad foundations.

As a result, Cohen -- and thousands of other lobbyists -- simply started calling themselves something else. And ever since Comcast started complaining, I've of course felt compelled to refer to him as a lobbyist as often as possible. I did so again last week when I wrote a blog entry noting that Cohen saw a notable contract extension and pay raise despite his failure to get the company's Time Warner Cable deal approved. Not too surprisingly, Comcast spokesperson Sena Fitzmaurice was quick to reach out and scold me, for what I believe is now the third time:

"I know I may be not worth asking, but could you use factual information in your pieces? It is factually incorrect to say that “David Cohen spend the lion’s share of his time pushing Comcast in policy circles just like any other lobbyist.” That is just not true. To be true, David would have to spend the lion’s share of his time in Washington, DC – which he doesn’t. It would have the be the lion’s share of his responsibilities which it isn’t. Your belittling of the serious time he devotes to his Chief Diversity Officer duties is insulting, it isn’t tap dancing around a legal rule. Our workforce is 59% diverse, our 2014 hires were 69% diverse, and David expends considerable time to his commitment as Chief Diversity officer."
And while the Comcast HR department's dedication to diversity is admirable, Cohen's primary claim to "diversity" fame is his creation of "Internet Essentials," a piece of regulator bait Cohen used to seal the NBC Universal deal to the FCC and DOJ. Crafted as a merger condition by Comcast itself, Internet Essentials is supposed to offer low-income users who qualify for the nation's school lunch program $10 broadband for a limited time. Of course when initially released, the poor people Cohen so adores actually protested on the streets of Philadelphia, arguing that the project was a PR stunt that, in reality, was hard to qualify and sign up for.

Cohen and Comcast use Internet Essentials as a public relations and lobbying weapon to highlight the company's incredible altruism at every conceivable opportunity. Cohen's cherub-esque visage can often be seen standing among smiling children at what's an endless series of PR junkets. That I doubt the purity of these efforts by arguably the least-liked company in America is most likely some kind of defect in my character, I'll be the first to admit.

But Fitzmaurice continued, lecturing me on the fact that Comcast actually did a wonderful job at adhering to the more than 150 flimsy NBC merger conditions, most of which Comcast itself created:
"Further, your continued insistence that Comcast hasn’t adhered to the more than 150 conditions of the NBCUniversal transaction by the FCC and the DOJ consent decree belies the facts. In the nearly 5 years since the transaction was concluded, the FCC has taken 1 action on a merger condition, and that was over 3 years ago. That means the FCC has not had enforcement issues with about 150 other conditions. That hardly seems like “failed utterly to adhere to merger conditions.” Other than on that one issue of standalone broadband marketing, which was resolved and the consent decree on that issue itself has expired, the FCC and the DOJ have not taken actions on violations of conditions or the consent decree."
And that's technically true. The only wrist slap Comcast got was a $600 million fine from the FCC for hiding a $50 a month standalone broadband option it had promised to offer. But the fact that the FCC couldn't be bothered to enforce the NBC merger conditions says more about the FCC than anything else. And indeed, the lion's share of the conditions Comcast pats itself on its back for adhering to were utterly hollow, including things like adding "1,500 more titles to Comcast’s on-demand offerings for children." Most of these show pony suggestions were suggested by Comcast because the company had already planned to accomplish them anyway as a matter of course, like expanding its broadband network to 400,000 additional homes.

Subsequent investigations found that Comcast violated the most meaningful conditions and was never held accountable for them, including promises not to meddle in the management of co-owned Hulu. And to reiterate, the company's star NBC merger condition was so "successful" it resulted in public protests in the streets of Philadelphia. And indeed, numerous news outlets reported that Comcast's failure to adhere to NBC Universal deal conditions played a major role in their rejection of the Time Warner Cable merger, causing regulators to even consider additional punishment beyond deal rejection. So yeah, factual information and all that.

After explaining this all to Comcast (again) I reminded the company I'm using the dictionary definition of the word lobbyist, and it may want to contact Random House and Merriam Webster with any future concerns. Still, I'm happy to use the powers of the Streisand effect and pen a blog post each and every time the company's PR representatives feel like scolding me for semantic bullshit. There's certainly a lot more to be said about the nation's utterly pathetic lobbying rules that let most lobbyists like Cohen tap dance over, under, and around political influence reporting requirements.

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Posted on Techdirt - 10 November 2015 @ 11:18pm

Colorado Residents Vote Overwhelmingly In Favor Of Municipal Broadband

from the deconstructing-protectionism dept

Colorado is one of roughly twenty states where incumbent ISPs like Comcast, Time Warner Cable, CenturyLink, and AT&T have quite literally purchased protectionist state telecom laws that prohibit towns and cities from building their own broadband networks, or in some cases even partnering with private industry to improve existing ones. Only after a fifteen year nap did the FCC recently announce it was going to pre-empt such laws in Tennessee and North Carolina, something that was immediately met with hand-wringing and lawsuits from the broadband industry and its allies.

In Colorado last week voters got the chance to side step that state's awful protectionist state law, SB 152. SB 152 was a 2005 product of lobbying from Comcast and CenturyLink, and required communities jump through numerous hoops should they want to simply make decisions regarding their own, local infrastructure. Like all such laws the ISP pretense was that they were simply looking to protect taxpayers from financial irresponsibility, though it's abundantly clear the real goal was to prop up and protect the dysfunctional broadband duopoly status quo.

Over the last few years ballot initiatives have allowed several Colorado communities like Boulder, Montrose, and Centennial to take back their right to determine their infrastructure needs for themselves. Last week 43 Colorado communities - 26 cities and towns; 17 counties -- all voted overwhelmingly to also ignore Comcast and CenturyLink's law moving forward. And in all of them, the vote wasn't even close:

"This year, results were similar as the majority of voters supported local measures with over 70 percent of ballots cast. In Durango, over 90 percent of voters chose to opt out of restrictive SB 152; Telluride voters affirmed their commitment to local authority when over 93 percent of votes supported measure 2B. Many communities showed support in the mid- and upper- 80th percentile."
ISPs were able to pass twenty such laws in large part because, by framing community broadband efforts as "socialism run amok" and a dangerous infringement on free enterprise, they were able to distract the public with its own partisan bickering. But the reality is that there's nothing partisan about letting communities decide for themselves their best path forward. Similarly, most municipal broadband networks have been built in Conservative cities, suggesting that wanting next-generation networks in the face of market failure has pretty sensible bipartisan support.

Again, these networks wouldn't be getting built if locals were happy with their broadband options. But instead of competing and improving their networks, mega-ISPs threw campaign contributions at state legislatures, who were more than happy to help protect these uncompetitive broadband fiefdoms and ensure these contributions kept flowing. Fortunately, with the rise of Google Fiber and other ad-hoc deployments (like from Tucows) these bills have seen renewed attention, thanks to the fact that low ROI areas need public/private cooperation if they're even to be updated.

Of course Colorado's awful state law still exists, and it's absurd that Colorado towns and cities have to head to the ballot box (and spend additional money on referenda) simply to reclaim their local rights. Still, between the FCC's attempt to set precedent in North Carolina and Tennessee, and Colorado's decision to stand up to the mega-ISPs, it looks like fifteen years of apathy to this kind of broadband protectionism is finally coming to an end. If you're curious, check out this great map by Community Networks -- detailing which towns have embraced community broadband, and which states have passed protectionist laws.

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Posted on Techdirt Wireless - 10 November 2015 @ 3:30pm

T-Mobile Exempts Video Streams From Wireless Data Caps, Sets A Horrible Precedent

from the tap-dancing-around-neutrality dept

As rumored, T-Mobile has unveiled its latest attempt to kick the nation's wireless duopoly in the shins: exempting video services from the company's wireless broadband usage caps. According to the company's latest press release, T-Mobile customers will soon be able to stream video from 24 participating partners without it counting against user usage allotments. The initial list of participating companies includes most of the usual suspects, with T-Mobile stating any notable omissions (like YouTube and Amazon Prime Streaming) will be added in time.

It's an obvious extension of the company's existing Music Freedom effort, which makes select music services cap exempt. That effort caused a bit of a net neutrality kerfuffle at launch, given that initially only the most popular music services (dictated by T-Mobile customer votes) were cap exempt. As is the problem with most zero rating programs, that immediately creates an unlevel playing field for smaller nonprofits and independents that aren't big enough to get onto T-Mobile's radar and be whitelisted.

But with Binge On, T-Mobile was obviously more prepared for the inevitable net neutrality criticism that somehow caught the company off guard last time.

This is "not a net neutrality problem,” T-Mobile US CEO John Legere was quick to proclaim during the announcement. "It’s free, the providers don’t pay, the customers don't pay. Most can shut it off, it’s complete customer choice," he added. Users who enable the service enjoy "optimized" 480p video streams that don't count against their caps. Turn it off, and users will view standard, higher-resolution streams that will erode their usage allotments. Legere also promised that any company "can meet our technical criteria" (said criteria hasn't yet been specified) can participate.

As far as zero rated programs go, it's not an apparently awful implementation, and it's going to appeal to a lot of customers. The problem continues to be precedent. The simple act of accepting wireless carriers as middlemen fit to determine what should or shouldn't be allowed past arbitrary usage restrictions paves the way for a very uncertain future, as the Verge rather hysterically worries:
"Binge On is bad because it gives T-Mobile too much power. It’s really that simple. And yes, it’s bad for net neutrality. If net neutrality has a core idea, it’s that regular people ought to be in charge of the internet — especially since the internet is mostly just people. That means companies like T-Mobile shouldn’t be picking winners and losers, even if customers appear to be winning in the short term. And there are definitely going to be losers. Legere insists that anybody who wants to be a part of Binge On can be, as long as they meet T-Mobile’s technical specifications. It’s not clear what those specifications are yet, though Legere used words like "optimized video" and "DVD quality or better." But that just sounds a lot like another type of managed network: cable television."
Consumer groups like Free Press also make the solid point that if you realize that caps are entirely arbitrary in the first place (untied to neither financial or network necessity), letting select services bypass them quickly loses its majesty:
"T-Mobile wants to suggest it’s saving customers by exempting video from its data caps. But we have to remember that T-Mobile imposed these caps in the first place. It’s a cheap sales trick: First you fabricate a problem for customers; then you make that problem go away and act like you’ve done them a huge favor."
And not everybody is as consumer-friendly and disruptive as T-Mobile. Allowing T-Mobile to inject itself into the data stream in this fashion encourages other wireless carriers to do so, and you can be damn certain that AT&T and Verizon's vision of zero rating will be notably more ham-fisted and problematic. Even if you admire T-Mobile's particular implementation of zero rating, small independents still have to reach out for T-Mobile's permission to be placed on the same, level playing field as their larger counterparts. Many may not even realize they're in such a position.

You'll probably see countless reports suggesting that T-Mobile's move is sure to "invite scrutiny by the FCC," but that's highly unlikely. T-Mobile's done a fantastic job of selling a potentially problematic precedent as consumer empowerment. Meanwhile, the FCC has made it abundantly clear it sees usage caps and zero rating as creative pricing experimentation, in the process opening the door wide to a lopsided vision of the Internet many will naively be cheering for.

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