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About Karl Bode

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

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Posted on Techdirt - 2 July 2015 @ 5:19am

Comcast's New Voice-Controlled Remote Starts Marketing Movies To Your Kids

from the speaking-in-minion dept

For years, broadcasters and cable operators have tried to push the boundaries of good taste and advertising revenue generation. Whether that's trying to prevent consumers from skipping ads to patenting technology that will use cameras embedded in set tops to watch you watching TV, there's a relentless thirst for new realms of ad revenue. As a sense of futility extends into the quest for more meaningful privacy protections in the new age of smart hardware and deep packet inspection, cable operators continue to nudge the boundaries of revenue collection ever further.

Comcast's latest foray into this arena is its new voice-controlled remote, which lets users give some basic keywords to control the company's set top box. Like similar services, it's a relatively useful concept, though if it works as well as most such efforts, most people will stick with old-fashioned buttons. Meanwhile, Comcast has apparently started using the technology to strike deals that market certain films to kids:

"Just say the word ‘banana’ into the remote and you’ll get a list of food programs as the minions talk back. Saying ‘kudos’ will take you to the Despicable Me 2 movie, and the minions will say ‘kudos!’ right back. Test out other words in Minionese to see what comes up, and keep checking the Xfinity and Minions social channels for new commands as they’re added. And if you want to get ready for the movie that comes out on July 10, just say ‘Minions’ to see the trailer."
To be clear, I don't think this is all that big of a deal, even though I understand the concerns of those who aren't thrilled about direct marketing to (and data collection of) children (as we recently saw with the new Wi-Fi-connected Barbie). After all, Minions ads are everywhere. Amazon's featuring the yellow pill-shaped little rabblerousers on their boxes during a limited cross-promotion. This is just kind of cute, right?

The problem is one of slowly-established precedent (think about the boiling frog anecdote) and the fact that privacy and security have historically been afterthoughts when it comes to these kinds of services. You'll recall of course that Samsung just got run through the wringer when it was discovered that its smart TVs were collecting, storing, and processing in-room voice conversations (transmitted unencrypted, no less). It was curious to watch Samsung get absolutely hammered for disclosing this in its privacy policy, when storing, analyzing and selling voice data is something many, many companies are engaged in without much transparency and little more than a glance toward meaningful security.

Comcast's privacy policy doesn't reference the company's voice-remote service specifically at all, but does generally suggest it can do pretty much whatever it likes with data collected from your usage of its technology. The company's FAQ for the service only has this to say about what happens to your kids' commands once they hit the internet:
"After you speak into the remote, the voice commands are sent to Comcast and its contracted service provider for processing. Comcast and its provider use these voice commands to provide the voice control service (including for quality assurance, troubleshooting, and customer support), improve Comcast’s products and services and improve their voice recognition algorithms."
Another issue is that as cable operators face increasing competition from internet video, their response so far has been two-fold: to raise rates like it's going out of style, and to try to cram more and more ads into every minute of television (sometimes by cutting programs shorter). So paying customers are already being bombarded with ads, and now their remotes are pitching product. As cable operators begin losing internet voice and traditional TV customers to over-the-top services, the lust for new revenue streams is only going to accelerate this dissolution of product value further.

Again, I don't think your cable remote "speaking Minion gibberish" to your tot is that big of a deal in and of itself, but we need to be wary of the temperature of the water we're collectively sitting in. As noted previously, there's going to be a pretty fine line between useful and invasive, or cute and terrifying, and contrary to what many think it's not going to be entirely clear when we've crossed the Rubicon.

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Posted on Net Neutrality Special Edition - 1 July 2015 @ 3:48pm

Seattle City Council Member Urges Grass Roots Broadband Revolution After Ten Years Of Failing To Fix Broken Broadband Duopoly

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

For most of the last decade Seattle, like many U.S. cities, has been painfully unhappy with its broadband options. If they're "lucky," Seattle residents have the choice of apathetic telco CenturyLink (formerly Qwest), or everybody's favorite dysfunction monolith, Comcast. CenturyLink historically can barely be bothered to upgrade its aging DSL networks, resulting in most of its users paying an arm and a leg for 3 to 6 Mbps DSL (which was quite cutting edge in 2003). And while Comcast has done a relatively better job upgrading its networks, their customer service documentably qualifies for inclusion as a new circle of hell.

So Seattle has, since 2005 and before, pondered whether it should get into the broadband business itself. The city has conducted study after study on building a citywide fiber ring to feed municipal operations and residential and business service, yet these efforts consistently die under the weight of bureaucratic incompetence and Comcast and CenturyLink pressure. At one point, Seattle even paid a company by the name of Gigabit Squared $55,000 in exchange for absolutely nothing of note (Gigabit Squared magically evaporated after also taking money from Chicago in exchange for doing nothing).

So basically year after year slips by, and each new Seattle politician publicly laments the horrible state of broadband competition to score political points, but, like most cities, nothing gets fixed. That's in large part courtesy of incumbent ISP lobbyists, who work tirelessly to make sure city politicians don't disrupt the profitable and uncompetitive status quo. Last year, Seattle Mayor Ed Murray (the money he received from Comcast was a hot topic leading up to his election) proudly proclaimed that he would be the one to fix Seattle's broadband woes:

"My office is actively engaged in finding a path forward. We certainly need some short term options to bring a functional internet to neighborhoods that have almost no connectivity, and we’re looking at ways to bring service to those neighborhoods as soon as possible. We are looking at a number of policy changes and their impacts that could foster greater competition right now, like testing small neighborhood pilot programs, building off existing fiber, or increasing WiFi access."
Fast forward to last month, and Murray's office has released a viability study that cost the city $180,000 and took seven months to complete. It basically states that the effort would cost $500 to $600 million and isn't a viable project to take on alone. A memo by city budget director Ben Noble states the debt would "significantly constrain the debt capacity" for a number of critical city projects and hurt the city's credit rating. The study examined a variety of options, from partnering with the city's utility to using property taxes to fund a $45 per home gigabit service. The study concluded that none of these options were viable.

And if the math doesn't work it doesn't work, but remember the city has been throwing money (and time) for the last decade at exploring this theoretical network, and so far they've got little to show for it. And as city sports stadiums show (it should be noted CenturyLink field cost $430 million a decade ago), cities can build fairly amazing things when efforts take priority. The city did streamline regulations governing cabinet placement and city franchises, something Seattle CTO Michael Mattmiller insists is improving the city's broadband without pursuing the municipal option:
"To see that reducing regulatory barriers brought not one but two providers to the market who could start building fiber to the home has been very encouraging,” Mattmiller said. “I’ve seen the CenturyLink trucks around the city and am in talks with Wave about how they are approaching their build-out. It’s very encouraging that we are taking the right regulatory approach that still protects the city but allows providers to invest."
Except Wave's build out is condo-focused and modest, and CenturyLink is one of many ISPs that have responded to Google Fiber with what I affectionately call "fiber to the press release," or the practice of offering gigabit fiber to a few high-end developments, then pretending it's conducting a much broader rollout than it is. This usually fools the press and makes politicians look good, but the ruse often gets exposed when people actually try to sign up for service. CenturyLink's CEO recently had to apologize to Seattle residents for overstating gigabit service availability.

And while streamlining franchise agreements and eliminating bureaucratic burdens helps (and is something Google Fiber has been preaching), companies still wind up cherry picking only the most profitable neighborhoods. They're also not incentivized to upgrade uniformly or compete on price if there's no competitive pressure to do so. Most broadband investors and execs hate the slow returns from network builds, so the focus for years has been on aggressively raising rates and cutting corners to ensure improved quarterly returns.

That's why Seattle councilmember Kshama Sawant took to her blog recently urging Seattle residents to forge a grass roots movement to find some way to make Seattle municipal broadband happen:
"Seattle would be the largest city in the country to implement municipal broadband. We should expect Comcast and CenturyLink to go to every length to keep their unchallenged duopoly in Seattle. Countering them will require a mass citywide movement, much like the one we needed to win $15/hour last year by successfully overcoming the financial and political clout of fast food and retail giants...It is up to us working people to build a strong enough grassroots movement for municipal broadband to force elected officials to put Seattle’s need for universal, affordable high speed connectivity over Comcast and CenturyLink’s insatiable drive for profits."
Which is great, but if Seattle as a whole isn't willing to pay for service (and the tax-loathing public is easily swayed by ISP lobbyist and astroturfer vilification of such efforts), then the city's going to remain locked in its Kafka-esque duopoly logjam in perpetuity. At least unless it can find a deep-pocketed and marginally altruistic private partner to eat much of the bill, which seems to be what Mayor Murray and friends are placing their hopes on. But if cities can build multi-billion dollar churches to the NFL gods, surely a city as jam-packed with creative minds as Seattle can find some way to fund a giant kick in the incumbent ISPs' collective ass.

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Posted on Techdirt - 1 July 2015 @ 10:38am

Audit Reveals Verizon Tried To Corner NYC Broadband Market By Striking Exclusive Landlord Deals

from the you-knew-I-was-a-snake-when-you-picked-me-up dept

As we recently noted, New York City only just woke up to the fact that the lucrative 2008 Verizon franchise deal the city thought would bring fiber broadband to 100% of all five boroughs, has only resulted in Verizon cherry picking about half of the city's residents. Of course as we pointed out, if the city had actually bothered to read the closed-door agreement struck with former Mayor Mike Bloomberg (or listened to a few local reporters at the time), leaders could have noticed at any time that it contains oodles of loopholes allowing Verizon to wiggle over, under and around most of the obligations contained therein.

While most people know by now that taking subsidies and tax breaks for fiber that never gets delivered is Verizon's MO in Pennsylvania and New Jersey (ok, well everywhere), the city only just appears to be realizing the scope of Verizon's shenanigans. In addition to discovering that Verizon failed its build out obligations, analysis of the NYC Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications' audit (pdf) indicates that Verizon also tried to cajole landlords into exclusivity deals that may violate FCC rules:

"[T]wo of the interviewees’ statements supported the first property manager’s statement that Verizon was not completing NSIs because they wanted exclusive agreements for certain buildings before completion of the NSI," according to the audit report. "For example, one property manager from a well-known firm complained that Verizon would not complete the NSI at a building on Sutton Place unless 100 percent of the apartment dwellers committed to Verizon FiOS. This property manager also said only two of the eleven multiple dwelling properties he managed had Verizon FiOS and that installations took anywhere from six months to two years."
So yeah, in addition to pretending that homes "passed" with fiber were "served," Verizon actually refused to wire a lot of properties unless everybody in the building could be forced to only exclusively use Verizon services. This is something the FCC banned in a 2007 order (pdf) that's subsequently been held up during court challenges by cable providers. Verizon has long denied that it does this; in fact the telco has consistently tried to claim that landlords are solely to blame for the company's uneven deployment. This go-round, Verizon is blaming the city's findings on "miscommunication" (when it hasn't tried to dismiss the findings entirely as the unsubstantiated rabble rousing of labor unions).

But that's not all. In the week after the city's audit was made public, a number of competitors have come forward to complain that Verizon's been blocking access to key city infrastructure as well. In other words, Verizon's refusing to serve millions of people, but making it impossible for anyone else to do so either. If you've followed the municipal broadband debate, that's effectively the same logic the mega-ISPs have displayed on a national level, and this kind of behavior by incumbent ISPs (especially if you watched the ILEC/CLEC wars of the late 90s and early aughts) is a major contributor to the nation's utterly mediocre rankings in most broadband metrics.

Having watched telco lawyers get away with this stuff for the better part of fifteen years, it's clear to me few municipal leaders are actually reading the franchise agreements that they sign, and fewer still seem familiar with the laundry list of childhood fables warning them about just these kinds of business transactions.

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Posted on Techdirt Wireless - 1 July 2015 @ 5:09am

With 'Pregnant Woman Mode,' Chinese Router Maker Begins Marketing To Paranoids

from the clogged-chakras dept

For more than a decade we've noted that while there's no hard scientific evidence proving that Wi-Fi is a health hazard, that hasn't stopped an endless parade of folks from declaring war on the humble technology. Numerous schools have been sued for trying to install Wi-Fi networks, and some schools have even banned Wi-Fi entirely based on nothing more than a gut feeling. The campaign against Wi-Fi is generally waged by those professing to be "electromagnetically sensitive," even though most provocation trials to date have suggested these individuals can't actually identify when a "harmful" Wi-Fi agent is in the room.

Given that there are now entire towns full of the electromagnetically sensitive, it seems only fitting that some hardware vendors would begin marketing to them. One Chinese router manufacturer by the name of Qihoo has been recently promoting a new router that features a "pregnant woman" mode that the company promises delivers around 70% less radiation than a traditional router (or the device's other settings). The company clearly comes out and says it's basically marketing to paranoids (or, to be more compassionate, individuals with likely undiagnosed psychosomatic illnesses), and isn't basing their claims on any actual science:

"We are targeting people who are afraid of radiation", he said. However, in a statement to South China Morning Post, Qihoo acknowledged that no definitive link has been made between Wi-Fi signals and poor health. "We aren’t scientists. We haven’t done many experiments to prove how much damage the radiation from Wi-Fi can cause. We leave the right of choice to our customers."
They are, however, engineers who are very familiar with the effects of radiation, but the fact that they couldn't be bothered to support the claim with any actual research or data should tell you plenty. Not surprisingly, Qihoo competitor Xiaomi wasn't too impressed with this new product line:
"The so-called pregnancy mode [of Qihoo’s router] is just a marketing tactic. Wi-Fi usage is safe, so please rest assured when using it [Xiaomi’s router]. We firmly oppose, and feel ashamed of, those who create rumours and arouse instability for business purposes."
Qihoo's response? Basically the implication that the company will be proven righteous when the nation's moms begin dropping dead from 802.11n exposure:
"We will wait and see who has a more profound understanding of Wi-Fi routers, me or our competitors."
Lovely. If hard science is going to be an afterthought (or more accurately no thought at all), it seems pretty obvious to me what the next step in wireless router marketing is. We should begin selling routers that promise to magically protect all users' chakras and clogged meridians, while giving the customers' aura and spirit a bright, shiny luster that lesser routers simply can't match.

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Posted on Techdirt - 30 June 2015 @ 11:35am

With New Destiny DLC, Bungie Gives A Master Class In How To Alienate And Annoy Paying Fans

from the quadruple-dipping dept

Bungie, creators of the hit game Destiny, is going through a bit of a rough stretch. Whereas Witcher 3 creators CD Projekt Red have been showing the gaming industry how to do everything right in regards to DRM, DLC and consumer interaction, Bungie apparently decided to give a master class over the last few weeks on how to do everything very, very wrong.

Bungie's first misstep came when it unveiled the latest Destiny expansion pack, The Taken King. To access all of the content in this new expansion, gamers need to buy the new $80 Collector's Editon, forcing fans to shell out some notable cash to buy a slew of content they already owned (the base game and previous DLC), just to nab some new DLC doo dads. Destiny's creative director, Luke Smith, then did an epically shitty job of not-really-trying to quell fan outrage over at Eurogamer, where he repeatedly dodged the question of why consumers should pay for content they already own:

"Eurogamer: Can you see that some fans are confused that you're asking them to buy stuff they already own?

Luke Smith: Yeah, I can totally empathise with those people. But the Collector's Edition is a pretty cool package for people who want to pursue that stuff. Otherwise, surely what you're saying is that you would want to buy them separately, right?

Eurogamer: Well, yeah. I would rather do that - pay a few pounds or dollars or whatever - than spend money on things I already own.

Luke Smith: [Laughs] Well, we have nothing more to talk about regarding your opportunity to spend extra money in Destiny, other than The Taken King and the three versions we've announced"
Talk about non-answers. Smith essentially laughs off concerns about Bungie double dipping, arguing that users just haven't seen the full awesome scope of what Bungie has planned. When pressed by Eurogamer, Smith would only elaborate that the company is "really comfortable with the value" they're offering consumers. That of course completely ignored the fact that most Destiny fans were making it very clear they were not seeing said value whatsoever. Not too surprisingly, based on Smith's seemingly-flippant tone in the article, many Destiny fans felt they were at best being ignored, and at worst being laughed at.

All of this is, of course, ingenious on Bungie's part if the goal was to create a series of high caliber shitstorms on Reddit. Bungie only made things worse when the company subsequently announced that a chunk of The Taken King DLC would only be available to consumers who buy Red Bull products:
Over at Reddit, someone posted some leaked Red Bull marketing materials for the promotion, which are quick to highlight how this kind of stuff is great because Destiny players are "used to paying a premium for downloadable content." Isn't nickel-and-diming fans, like, totally rad?

Of course, one person's bumbling face plant is another person's marketing opportunity, and makers of the zombie apocalypse game Dying Light were quick to make fun of Bungie's DLC horrible week by offering users free DLC...if they drink water (their Twitter feed is now amusingly full of people drinking water):
The Eurogamer interview was published Monday, and by yesterday Bungie had been forced to do a complete 180, not only announcing they'd let fans buy the new DLC piecemeal, but also having Smith apologize for being an "asshat":
"Reading my interview with Eurogamer and imagining it came from some random developer of a game I love - that random developer looks like an Asshat. But that Asshat was me - and those words rightfully anger you. I'm sorry. My words made it sound as if Bungie doesn't care about their most loyal fans. We do care. We are listening. And we will make it right."
Of course, Bungie wouldn't have to "make it right" if it hadn't tried to aggressively nickel-and-dime its loyal fans in the first place. And Bungie, like many companies, wouldn't be trying to aggressively nickel-and-dime loyal fans if gamers didn't perpetually reward this kind of behavior by lapping up garbage pricing and content whenever it's shoveled in their general direction. At the end of the day, the way to stop this kind of pricing isn't to raise hell after the fact (though obviously that helps), it's to avoid paying companies that exhibit this kind of behavior in the first place.

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Posted on Techdirt - 30 June 2015 @ 6:23am

FCC Commissioner Legally Tasked With Bringing Broadband To All Americans Doesn't Think Broadband's All That Important

from the you're-really-not-helping dept

Nobody could ever accuse FCC Commissioner Mike O'Rielly of being a consumer advocate. As one of five agency commissioners, O'Rielly (alongside former Verizon lawyer Ajit Pai) has voted down every single meaningful FCC effort to aid consumers and improve broadband market competition. Whether it's trying to protect net neutrality, or the FCC's attempt to stop ISPs from writing obnoxious protectionist state law, O'Rielly's sole function appears to be to oppose pretty much everything that could possibly help the American public, under the ingenious pretense of helping the American public.

More recently, the FCC has been considering revamping the $1.7 billion Lifeline program, which was created by the Reagan administration in 1985 and expanded by Bush in 2005 to help bring phone services to low-income Americans. Despite being a Republican proposal, it's frequently mocked (even by reporters) as being part of the "Obamaphone" program thanks to the nation's ongoing case of partisan nitwit disease. The FCC's initiative involves letting the program's 1.2 million participants use some of the whopping $9.25 monthly discount (per household) they receive each month on broadband instead of just voice. Really, it's not all that controversial, especially in the context of bigger budget government issues.

Yet while the contextually-more immense subject of military and intelligence funding is apparently immune to this type of criticism, the very notion of using taxpayer funds to aid the less fortunate fostered the usual amount of hand-wringing and assorted hysteria. Not all of it was without justification given the FCC's utterly shitty history of policing USF fraud. But after a fifteen year nap, more consumer-minded FCC boss Tom Wheeler has been cracking down on fraud, even if some of the fines being levied are relatively pathetic. Still, a big part of this new proposal involves cracking down on fraud further.

But even if you oppose subsidies to the poor (which I don't agree with but can understand), one still needs to answer the question of how we improve broadband competition, penetration, and deployment to the estimated 55 million Americans without broadband and the countless others stuck in uncompetitive markets. To illustrate the importance of this conversation, Wheeler several times has tried to argue that we're reaching the point where broadband needs to be thought of as a basic human right. This isn't that new or controversial either, really. Finland declared broadband a human right five years ago (and you'll note they lead many broadband performance metrics). The UN declared broadband a human right in 2011.

O'Rielly apparently takes deep offense at the use of such terminology:

"It is important to note that Internet access is not a necessity in the day-to-day lives of Americans and doesn’t even come close to the threshold to be considered a basic human right," he said. "People can and do live without Internet access, and many lead very successful lives."
And while that's not necessarily wrong (broadband provides no phytonutrients or Omega-3 fatty acids, after all), broadband is increasingly a vital tool to connect people to health care, employment data, government services and everything else under the sun, making it pretty god-damned important. Whether broadband should be thought of as a necessity, utility and luxury has always caused endless, idiotic hyperbolic debate in the telecom sector. Why? Because if you consider broadband essential, you then have to then reconcile the fact that we've done a horrible job at trying to expand and improve it, whether that's through incentives, public/private partnership or policies that encourage competition (all of which O'Rielly opposes).

So, as somebody that just wants the miraculous U.S. broadband free market to remain as is (expensive, slow, generally kind of shitty) to help shore up some inflexible and unrealistic political beliefs, O'Rielly's quick to declare the idea of broadband as a human right "demeaning":
"It is even more ludicrous to compare Internet access to a basic human right," said O'Rielly. "In fact, it is quite demeaning to do so in my opinion. Human rights are standards of behavior that are inherent in every human being. They are the core principles underpinning human interaction in society. These include liberty, due process or justice, and freedom of religious beliefs. I find little sympathy with efforts to try to equate Internet access with these higher, fundamental concepts."
And that's great and all, but O'Rielly's not sitting on the Supreme Court or teaching a Constitutional ethics class. He's employed by an agency that has, as one of its Congressionally-mandated goals, the responsibility to "encourage the deployment on a reasonable and timely basis of advanced telecommunications capability to all Americans." That's something we've failed at by any measure (unless you're blinded by politics, employed by an ISP or paid by an ISP to look the other way). And again, if you're going to oppose subsidy programs like Lifeline, you at least need to support or recommend policies that can help drive more competition and services to areas with a low rate of return on the ISPs' investment.

Except O'Rielly's done none of that. What he's done is sit on his hands, opposing essentially every attempt to shore up broadband connectivity that shows up on the docket. He's voted against raising the definition of broadband to 25 Mbps. He's voted against stopping giant ISPs from writing state laws that protect regional duopolies. He's even voted against fining AT&T for blatantly lying to its customers. O'Rielly's MO is to shut down every proposal that comes down the pike (including many that can help consumers), then proudly pat himself on the back for being a hero of the American public. That suggests he's probably the very last person we should be asking when it comes to determining what technology is or isn't absolutely necessary.

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Posted on Techdirt - 29 June 2015 @ 5:58am

Years Of Pretending Netflix Cord Cutting Wasn't Real Is Biting The Cable Industry In The Ass

from the monsters-don't-go-away-when-you-ignore-them dept

If you didn't know, Netflix is kind of huge. So huge, in fact, that some new analysis suggests that if Netflix was a Nielsen-rated TV network, the service would, sometime within a year, attain a larger 24-hour audience than ABC, CBS, NBC or Fox. That's something Nielsen itself should probably be tracking, but as we've noted previously, Nielsen has painfully lagged on actually tracking the cord cutting revolution, for fear of upsetting cable and broadcast executives with their heads planted squarely in the sand.

The analysts at FBR Capital Markets note that Netflix served 10 billion hours of internet video content in the first quarter of the year, roughly two hours per subscriber per day. By dividing this two-hour figure by 24 hours, then multiplying it by the number of U.S. Netflix subscribers as a percentage of households, the analysts estimate Netflix would see a Q1 ratings score of 2.6, on par with both ABC and NBC. The difference, of course, is that Netflix is growing quickly while traditional cable broadcasters are losing market share, especially on the kids programming front.

Of course, the fact that Nielsen can't join the modern era and track TV viewing over the internet suggests this isn't quite yet an apples-to-apples comparison:

"One major caveat: Nielsen TV ratings cover, at most, up to seven days of VOD and DVR viewing — and exclude online-video views, which networks say are an increasing part of the pie. Moreover, TV networks provide a different blend of content, such as live sports, that Netflix doesn’t. And anyway, Netflix doesn’t care about “ratings” of individual shows, given that it doesn’t sell ads and has steadfastly refused to disclose anything but general data about viewing."
Except Variety may overstate this, since the cable industry's "TV Everywhere" initiative (which lets users watch cable content on their iPads and other devices in the hopes of keeping them from cutting the cord) is a bit of a dud. Cable video on demand viewing has been in the toilet for some time as well. And while sports is where cable still outshines internet video (for now), the cable and broadcast apparatus isn't helping its case by failing to improve customer service, yet relentlessly driving up rates in the face of this increased competition. As such, people generally like Netflix's value proposition more:
"Another data point called out by FBR’s analysts: When consumers were asked if they had to choose between Netflix and a cable or satellite TV subscription, 57% picked Netflix, with 43% opting for pay TV, according to a survey FBR conducted with ClearVoice Research in April. "Netflix subscribers clearly like it more than pay TV, which we see as arguing for pricing leverage, since pay TV, on average, costs over $80 per month,” the analysts wrote, citing Netflix’s average $8 price point."
And things are going to get worse. Netflix is already leading the charge toward 4K and HDR content, something the cable industry (and especially the telcos using fiber to the node or DSL) won't have the bandwidth to deliver for years. And while the cable industry loses subscribers slowly to cord cutting, Netflix is busy growing internationally, with plans to offer service in 200 different countries by the end of this year. Apparently, burying your head in the sand and pretending cord cutting wasn't real didn't magically stop the future from arriving anyway. Who knew?

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Posted on Techdirt - 26 June 2015 @ 11:34am

Breaking: Self-Driving Cars Avoid Accident, Do Exactly What They Were Programmed To Do

from the I-can-and-will-do-that,-Dave dept

We just got done talking about how, after logging 1,011,338 autonomous miles since 2009, Google's automated cars have had just thirteen accidents -- none of which were the fault of the Google vehicles. By and large the technology appears to be working incredibly well, with most of the accidents the fault of inattentive human drivers rear-ending Google's specially-equipped Lexus SUVs at stop lights. But apparently, the fact that this technology is working well isn't quite interesting enough for the nation's technology press.

A Reuters report making the rounds earlier today proclaimed that two self-driving cars from Google and Delphi Automotive almost got into an accident this week in California. According to the Reuters report, Google's self-driving Lexus "cut off" Delphi's self-driving Audi, forcing the Audi to take "appropriate action." This apparently got the nation's technology media in a bit of a heated lather, with countless headlines detailing the "almost crash." The Washington Post was even quick to inform readers that the almost-crash "is now raising concerns over the technology."

Except it's not. Because not only did the cars not crash, it apparently wasn't even a close call. Both Delphi and Google spokespeople told Ars Technica that both cars did exactly what they were programmed to do and Reuters apparently made an automated mountain out of a molehill:

"I was there for the discussion with Reuters about automated vehicles," she told Ars by e-mail. "The story was taken completely out of context when describing a type of complex driving scenario that can occur in the real world. Our expert provided an example of a lane change scenario that our car recently experienced which, coincidentally, was with one of the Google cars also on the road at that time. It wasn’t a 'near miss' as described in the Reuters story."

Instead, she explained how this was a normal scenario, and the Delphi car performed admirably.

"Our car did exactly what it was supposed to," she wrote. "Our car saw the Google car move into the same lane as our car was planning to move into, but upon detecting that the lane was no longer open it decided to terminate the move and wait until it was clear again."
In other words, As Twitter's Nu Wexler observed, the two cars did exactly what they were programmed to do, though that's obviously a notably less sexy story than Reuters' apparently hallucinated tale of automated automotive incompetence.

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Posted on Net Neutrality Special Edition - 25 June 2015 @ 1:36pm

Charter Hires Leading Net Neutrality Advocate To Write Its Net Neutrality Commitments, Promises To Go Further Than FCC Rules

from the who-are-you-and-what-have-you-done-with-the-cable-company? dept

By and large, the mega-ISP version of net neutrality has unsurprisingly been a far cry from the consumer and small business definition of net neutrality. At the moment, most ISPs argue that net neutrality only means they won't throttle or outright block competing content. It's this vague, incomplete definition (in that it doesn't cover issues like usage caps, interconnection or zero rating) the incumbent carriers have used when they've told regulators they "promise to adhere to net neutrality" if the latest merger-du-jour is allowed to go through. That's why, when Comcast promised it would adhere to "net neutrality" if it was allowed to buy NBC (and more recently Time Warner Cable), it meant -- to use a highly-scientific term -- jack shit.

So it's interesting to see Charter Communications -- which is trying to gobble up Time Warner Cable after Comcast's failed merger attempt -- suddenly promising to adhere to real net neutrality to get their deal done. The company is apparently dedicated enough to the idea that they've hired leading net neutrality and consumer advocate Marvin Ammori to help hash out a meaningful commitment that would appeal to a more consumer-focused FCC. Ammori, if you're unaware, was basically the key player in making sure the FCC passed good rules instead of the original terrible rules.

According to a piece by Ammori over at Wired, he actually wound up writing Charter's commitment:

"Charter hired me—which, to be honest, took some humility on its part since I have helped lead public campaigns against cable companies like Charter—to advise it in crafting its commitment to network neutrality. After our negotiation, I can say Charter is offering the strongest network neutrality commitments ever offered—in any merger or, to my knowledge, in any nation. In fact, in the end, I personally wrote the commitments."
That in and of itself is pretty impressive; I've covered the broadband industry for the better part of a lifetime, and the vast, vast majority of ISP merger conditions are promises that are utterly, mind-bendingly meaningless. They're almost always fluff and nonsense, political show ponies written by ISP lawyers to sound good to the clueless, even if they accomplish less than nothing. So for a cable company to bring on board a fierce neutrality critic to pen their commitment to neutrality is unprecedented. What's more, while the FCC has so far turned a blind eye to more clever types of neutrality violations (like usage caps and zero rating, pretty much ground zero of the current neutrality debate), Marvin managed to get those included in Charter's commitment as well:
"Since zero rating favors some sites over others based on the broadband provider’s preferences (not the users’), my allies and I urged the FCC to ban zero rating in all forms, but the FCC didn’t go that far. Charter necessarily will. In fact, it will commit to no data cap at all–and no usage-based billing–therefore it will be unable to exempt any applications from those practices."
That Charter -- a company that's flirted with usage caps on and off for years -- has agreed to avoid not only zero rating but usage caps entirely is a pretty big deal. Most cable operators are aggressively eyeing usage caps to jack up consumer broadband bills, well aware that inevitably users will chose to cut the TV and cable VoIP cord in exchange for over the top data services. Though only catch here, as Ammori notes, is that the restrictions only apply to Charter for a three year span, after which (especially if the FCC's neutrality rules are killed by the courts) all gloves are off and the fight begins anew. It's also important to remember that while Charter's busy making these promises, it's actively engaged in suing the FCC to destroy the net neutrality rules as a member in the NCTA.

Still, that Charter's willing to go this far is night and day from Comcast's merger approach, which was to dazzle everyone with an endless parade of utter bullshit and hope that nobody was smart enough to see truth, buried as it was under a junk yard of meaningless promises.

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Posted on Techdirt - 25 June 2015 @ 9:29am

Russia's Internet Propaganda Farm Is Being Dragged To Court For Labor Violations

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

While propaganda is everywhere, we've been exploring lately how Putin's Russia has been taking Internet disinformation to an entirely new level. Numerous whistleblowers and media reports have spent the last year or so unearthing Russian Internet propaganda factories, where armies of sockpuppets get paid 40,000 to 50,000 rubles ($800 to $1,000) a month to create proxied, viable, fake personas -- specifically tasked with pumping the internet full of toxic disinformation twenty-four hours a day.

Unlike some similar campaigns by the U.S. Russia originally didn't try very hard to hide these operations' existence, but that's already changing. As numerous writers have discovered (myself included), even pointing out that these operations exist will grab you a heaping helping of anonymous troll scorn. If you still haven't perused it, this recent New York Times Magazine breakdown of Russia's troll armies is essential reading.

In light of Putin's not-so-gentle treatment of critics, the bravery some of the program's whistleblowers continues to be impressive. Lyudmila Savchuk worked at the Russian Internet bile factory for two months, ultimately leaving after finding the work morally repugnant. She's since been leaking a treasure trove of information about the program, including clandestine videos showing some of the program employees at work. She's also spearheading a lawsuit against The Agency for Internet Studies, which was finally dragged into court this week after missing the first court hearing.

The company's specifically being sued for underpayment and a number of labor violations, since it unsurprisingly wasn't keen on providing employees with traditionally-necessary paperwork. Amusingly, a representative for "The Agency" hoped to settle with Savchuk, but she's apparently having none of it:

"The agency is now seeking to avoid public scrutiny by offering to compensate her. Yekaterina Nazarova, defending, told the Petrogradsky district court judge the agency was ready to settle with Savchuk, who had asked for a symbolic sum of 10,000 roubles (£118). Nazarova offered to wire the sum to Savchuk’s account, then quickly left the court without speaking to the press.

Savchuk said: “I am very pleased, they pretended they don’t exist at all and now they have come out of the shadows for the first time – we saw their representative. But I will feel that I won only after the troll factory closes completely."
The problem is that the operation Savchuk's trying to shut down operates under a spiderweb of various companies with an endless variety of names across numerous different industries (including construction) -- all of which are protected by the Russian government. As such, it's going to be a Sisyphean and dangerous game of legal whac-a-mole; one you'd hope Savchuk survives.

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Posted on Net Neutrality Special Edition - 24 June 2015 @ 3:45pm

Sprint Plans To Kill The One Thing That People Liked About It: Unlimited Data

from the shoot-yourself-in-the-foot dept

Before the FCC's new net neutrality rules went into effect, Sprint surprised a few people by coming out in favor of Title II based net neutrality rules, making them the only one of the big four carriers to clearly and publicly support the shift. Now news reports also suggest that while T-Mobile, AT&T and Verizon continue to throttle customers (unlimited or otherwise), Sprint has announced that just before the rules took effect the company decided to stop throttling its customers entirely, just to be on the safe side:

"Sprint, the third-largest U.S. wireless carrier, had been intermittently choking off data speeds for its heaviest wireless Internet users when its network was clogged. But it stopped on Friday, when the government's new net-neutrality rules went into effect....Sprint said it believes its policy would have been allowed under the rules, but dropped it just in case. "Sprint doesn't expect users to notice any significant difference in their services now that we no longer engage in the process," a Sprint spokesman said.
Specifics are skimpy as to precisely what Sprint was doing, but it seems likely that the company wasn't entirely sure that it could prove the throttling was necessary due to network congestion. Meanwhile, AT&T, Verizon and T-Mobile continue to use throttling as a network management practice, but they apparently hope to use semantics to play patty cake with FCC lawyers should the commission have any problems with what they're up to:
"T-Mobile spokespeople have been trying to convince Ars that "de-prioritization" isn't actually "throttling." Verizon has also claimed that its own "network optimization" isn't throttling. The tactic is reminiscent of Comcast's claim that its data caps aren't actually "data caps." Regardless of what semantics the carriers use, they are slowing down their customers. T-Mobile's policy is fairly generous, though. As of now, it applies only to unlimited customers who use more than 21GB of data in a month. Those customers are "de-prioritized for the remainder of the billing cycle in times and at locations where there are competing customer demands for network resources."
The semantics of the word "throttling" aside, the FCC has made it pretty clear the rules allow ISPs to use throttling as a network management tool to deal with congested networks, carriers just can't use throttling and network management as a pretense to make an extra buck. And as we've seen with AT&T being sued by the FTC and fined by the FCC, regulators are making it pretty clear they won't tolerate carriers that offer an "unlimited" service, then throttle it without making that clear to the end user. Watching the hammer come down on AT&T's throttling of unlimited data plans specifically is likely what prompted Sprint to back off its own throttling practices.

Granted, Sprint has bigger problems than the FCC's neutrality rules at the moment. The company continues to lag in last place in most network performance and customer satisfaction surveys, and has struggled to retain customers in the face of AT&T and Verizon's superior networks, and T-Mobile's consumer-friendly theatrics. Sprint currently has to figure out how to repair and substantially expand a last-place network while managing to nab market share from the other three carriers. So far, there's every indication that the company isn't going to be able to do that and compete on price at the same time. New company CEO Marcelo Claure has now suggested several times the company is going to kill one of the few things customers like about Sprint: unlimited data.

So while it's great that Sprint's so enthusiastic about complying with the FCC's new net neutrality rules, that won't mean much to consumers if Sprint implodes, or decides to weaken the competitive field by pricing services just like AT&T and Verizon.

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Posted on Net Neutrality Special Edition - 24 June 2015 @ 1:35pm

No, We Still Can't Definitively Prove Your ISP Is Slowing Netflix Traffic To Make An Extra Buck

from the network-shenanigans dept

While filing a net neutrality complaint is now easier than ever, actually identifying violations may not be. In the new age of interconnection, usage caps, overages, and pay-to-play zero rating deals, less technical users simply may not understand when they're being screwed by their ISP, as these violations aren't nearly as ham-fistedly obvious as outright blocking or throttling of services. That's why the Open Technology Institute’s MLAB recently introduced the Internet health test, which runs user connections through a bevy of speed and performance tests to determine whether or not ISPs are engaged in any shenanigans.

Last October, MLAB released a study (pdf) that strongly supported Netflix, Level3 and Cogent's claims that ISPs were intentionally letting peering points to transit operators saturate to try and force companies like Netflix to begin paying for direct interconnection. In short, neutrality advocates believe ISPs had moved net neutrality to the edge of the network, using interconnection to grab the pound of flesh from content companies they've long stated was their end goal.

The problem is both sides of the equation (whether that's Netflix or AT&T) keep most of their data on interconnection (and the deals they strike) private for competitive reasons, meaning that while signs (and thirty years of history) pointed to ISP skulduggery, actually proving it is difficult. It's apparently becoming less difficult with the new consumer connection data being collected by MLAB, which the Guardian this week claimed proves big ISPs are intentionally degrading network performance across some networks:

"The study, conducted by internet activists BattlefortheNet, looked at the results from 300,000 internet users and found significant degradations on the networks of the five largest internet service providers (ISPs), representing 75% of all wireline households across the US...In Atlanta, for example, Comcast provided hourly median download speeds over a CDN called GTT of 21.4 megabits per second at 7pm throughout the month of May. AT&T provided speeds over the same network of ⅕ of a megabit per second. When a network sends more than twice the traffic it receives, that network is required by AT&T to pay for the privilege."
This is, consumer advocate group Free Press claims, proof positive that ISPs are up to no good:
"For too long, internet access providers and their lobbyists have characterized net neutrality protections as a solution in search of a problem,” said Karr. “Data compiled using the Internet Health Test show us otherwise – that there is widespread and systemic abuse across the network. The irony is that this trove of evidence is becoming public just as many in Congress are trying to strip away the open internet protections that would prevent such bad behavior."
The problem? While the Guardian report references a "new study," no study has actually been released that I could find (MLAB apparently just shared some selective data with The Guardian). That brings us back to the fact that the biggest problem here continues to be a lack of transparency on the part of all the players involved. But it's pretty hard to claim a "study" proves much of anything when there's no actual study, suggesting some over-eagerness on the parts of consumer advocates here.

Shortly after the Guardian piece MLABS did post a blog entry that sheds a little more light on the data they're collecting, but it's worth noting that while MLAB engineers are confident in saying these slowdowns are due to business choices and not network capacity, they're not yet willing to definitively state why some transit routes suffer more than others:
"It is important to note that while we are able to observe and record these episodes of performance degradation, nothing in the data allows us to draw conclusions about who is responsible for the performance degradation. We leave determining the underlying cause of the degradation to others, and focus solely on the data, which tells us about consumer conditions irrespective of cause."
If you're interested, all the data MLAB is collecting has been released publicly and is available through the telescope program, which can be used to pull down and analyze subsets of the data.

Still, despite some of the breathless rhetoric in the Guardian piece neutrality advocates still haven't obtained the AT&T lawyer proof silver bullet that indisputably proves large ISPs have been up to no good. I'm not entirely sure this can even be accomplished without access to raw, confidential ISP data and internal correspondence that may or may not even exist (how do you "prove" Verizon intentionally isn't upgrading a port?). Sure, most people can study AT&T and Verizon's behavior over the last thirty years and conclude that yes, this sort of thing would certainly be in their jackassery wheelhouse, but proving it is kind of important if you want these kinds of claims to be taken seriously.

Still, the fact that people are crunching and closely analyzing the data, combined with the new and novel threat of a regulator that's not asleep at the wheel, appears to have many of these companies magically and suddenly getting along famously. This suggests, contrary to broadband industry doomsday prognostications, that the net neutrality rules are having a positive impact on consumers, business interests, and the Internet at large.

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Posted on Net Neutrality Special Edition - 23 June 2015 @ 1:40pm

The First Net Neutrality Complaint Has Been Filed, And It's Stupid (But Important)

from the regulatory-fisticuffs dept

For much of the last year, transit ISPs like Level3 and Cogent have been complaining that the residential megaISPs have basically been trying to shake down Netflix and transit operators for additional money. To hear these companies tell it, ISPs like AT&T, Verizon and Comcast, have been doing this by intentionally letting network interconnection points get congested, then using that congestion to justify an end to settlement-free peering, and for new direct Netflix interconnection payments.

Basically, the accusation goes, the big ISPs have been breaking the Internet, then demanding steep new payments should companies like Netflix want it to work properly. While the FCC's new net neutrality rules don't specifically cover interconnection feuds of this type, they do allow companies to file grievances the FCC will examine on a case-by-case basis for anti-competitive behavior. However, once the FCC's new rules were passed, the mere threat of regulatory enforcement magically put the kibosh on many of these complaints. As a result many (but not all) transit and last mile ISPs are now getting along beautifully, showing that the rules are already working.

However, we did see the very first net neutrality complaint filed this week, and by all indications it's rather stupid. A company by the name of Commercial Network Services (CNS) has been complaining to the press for a few weeks that Time Warner Cable has been abusing its monopoly power by refusing to give the company free peering. CNS operates a series of webcams in the San Diego area which, when visited, will likely tell you you can't access the "ultra-HD" version of the cameras because your ISP isn't a peering partner with CNS:

In the informal complaint (pdf) CNS filed with the FCC, the company proclaims that Time Warner Cable's refusal to offer free peering constitutes a violation of the FCC's throttling and paid prioritization neutrality rules:
"I am writing to initiate an informal complaint against Time Warner Cable (TWC) for violating the “No Paid Prioritization” and “No Throttling” sections of the new net neutrality rules for failure to fulfill their obligations to their BIAS consumers by opting to exchange Internet traffic over higher latency (and often more congested) transit routes instead of directly to the edge provider over lower latency peering routes freely available to them through their presence on public Internet exchanges, unless a payment is made to TWC by the edge provider."
Except Time Warner Cable is doing nothing of the sort, and CNS either doesn't understand how interconnection works, or understands it perfectly well and is hoping to abuse the new rules for its own financial benefit. There's nothing that obligates Time Warner Cable to provide free peering to anybody who asks, and refusing CNS' demands on that front has absolutely nothing to do with paid prioritization, throttling, or net neutrality. Settlement-free peering sometimes occurs when ISPs and transit operators agree to offload huge-swaths of relatively similar sized traffic allotments, but as Harold Feld correctly points out, CNS simply doesn't qualify:
"Basically, CNS wants settlement free peering (aka free interconnection) with with Time Warner Cable (TWC). According to CNS’ complaint, they have exchange points where TWC also has a point of presence. They want TWC to exchange traffic with them for free, and allege it is unjust and unreasonable for TWC to offer them the standard deal for entities of their size, i.e. a paid transit agreement.

Entities like CNS haven’t gotten free peering as a matter of course with major carriers since the first great upheaval in the peering market in the mid/late-1990s. CNS does not provide any evidence that it has been treated any differently from any other comparable entity of its size and function. TWC considered their request for settlement free peering under its standard procedures and found that CNS did not qualify."
If CNS is genuinely confused about what the rules do, it wouldn't be surprising, given the amount of nonsense that has been spouted about the rules from neutrality opponents in Congress and by folks like FCC Commissioner (and former Verizon lawyer) Ajit Pai. Of course ISPs and assorted broadband industry flacks will be quick to argue that this kind of frivolous complaint is the perfect example of how neutrality rules create "onerous new hurdles for ISPs." Except there's no hurdle here; the FCC will ignore this complaint because it's stupid, in the process showing the agency only intends to step in when there's clear, document-able proof of anti-competitive behavior.

So far, the net neutrality rules have been good for business, Internet health and consumers alike, despite the endless claims by the mega-ISPs that the rules would most certainly cause the Internet to implode.

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Posted on Net Neutrality Special Edition - 23 June 2015 @ 8:11am

Eight Years Later, New York City Officials Wake Up To Verizon's Fiber Broadband Bluff

from the fine-print dept

Like Silicon Valley, New York City purports to be a bastion for emerging technology, yet, just like Silicon Valley, it suffers from a pitiful lack of broadband options and competition. In New York, Time Warner Cable enjoys notable market dominance, with either spotty Verizon FiOS or DSL coverage providing the barest semblance of real market competition for the cable giant. It wasn't supposed to be this way: in 2008 Verizon struck a closed-door franchise agreement with then NYC Mayor Mike Bloomberg, one which Verizon strongly implied would result in 100% FiOS coverage for all five boroughs of the city by the end of 2014.

The agreement, both Bloomberg and Verizon tried to proclaim at the time, would mean uniform fiber for the whole city, putting an end to the broadband "cherry picking" that plagued franchise agreements of years past:

"Our investment in the City is historic, which is reflected in the citywide nature of our plan," (Verizon's Monica) Azare said. "When our fiber deployment project is completed it will reach to each and every borough, neighborhood, boulevard, avenue and street, without regard to the demographics of a particular area. More importantly, City residents will be able to take advantage of the power of fiber optics delivered straight to their doors."
2014 has of course come and gone, and most estimates peg New York City FiOS penetration at somewhere between 45 and 55%, with most of the city's least affluent areas left in the broadband dark. Despite plenty of warning signs from reporters at the time, and the fact that city lawyers could have read the agreement at any time, New York City officials are only just starting to realize that the deal allowed Verizon ample room to wiggle around and under most of the uniform deployment obligations.

A new city report (pdf) released last week has found, shockingly, that Verizon went right ahead and used these loopholes to cherry pick only select neighborhoods, just as the company had intended. The biggest trick Verizon used to bluff its way past obligations was by bringing fiber somewhere close to many residences (as in buried in the street one block over), then declaring that these users could get fiber. Of course when the city began to look, they found Verizon refused to finish the job:
"As 2014 progressed, and Verizon’s (supposed) build-out approached 100 percent, DoITT began to receive anecdotal evidence, largely in the form of consumer complaints, suggesting that Verizon was simultaneously taking credit for “passing” households and declining to accept orders for nonstandard service installations from those households. The anecdotal evidence, in combination with discussions of the particular households involved with Verizon personnel, led DoITT to be concerned that these anecdotes did not reflect occasional irregularities, but possibly broader failures by Verizon to fulfill the obligations it undertook in the 2008 franchise agreement."
Possibly! Again, this was all pretty much spelled out in the franchise agreement Bloomberg's office signed with Verizon years earlier. As we've often covered, Verizon also has a long, proud, history of similar shenanigans in New Jersey and Pennsylvania, getting significant tax breaks and subsidies in exchange for fiber optic service that never winds up getting deployed. Verizon, as you might expect, denies that it in any way failed the city, and blames difficult city landlords for its failure to deliver promised fiber to roughly half the city:
"We indeed have met the requirement to install fiber optics through all five boroughs," a Verizon spokesperson told Ars. "Our $3.5 billion investment and the 15,000 miles of fiber we have built have given New Yorkers added choices and a robust set of advanced, reliable, and resilient services. The challenge we have is gaining access to properties which of course would expand availability. We look forward to working with the City to seek solutions to this issue."
Verizon had been trying to blame crotchety landlords for these expected FiOS coverage gaps for some time, and while there certainly are some difficult building managers, reporters have found in many of these instances that Verizon incompetence was actually to blame. In some instances, Verizon was accused of telling building owners that it would only actually connect buildings to the FiOS network if every resident in the building was required to get service through Verizon and nobody else.

So, the better part of a decade later New York City officials are annoyed at the sweetheart deal their predecessors signed, and insist that they'll be holding Verizon's feet to the fire:
"Through a thorough and comprehensive audit, we have determined that Verizon substantially failed to meet its commitment to the people of New York City,” said Mayor Bill de Blasio..."What the audit reveals is an alarming failure on the part of Verizon to deliver on its franchise agreement with the City,” said Counsel to the Mayor Maya Wiley. “Verizon must make good on its commitment and do so with transparency, accountability and better service delivery going forward. New Yorkers deserve no less."
The agreement says the city "may "seek and/or pursue money damages" if Verizon fails to live up to its side of the agreement, but the loophole-filled wording of the contract will likely make that impossible. If Verizon's business history is any indication, what will actually happen is the company's lawyers will keep the bureaucratic wheels spinning indefinitely, while the city spends another decade paying lip service to the transformative power of broadband. That New York City is at least making a stink about it is at least marginally promising; Pennsylvania and New Jersey officials threw billions of dollars at the company, let it off the hook for any and all obligations, and then just hoped nobody would notice.

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Posted on Techdirt - 22 June 2015 @ 3:51pm

FCC Gives Cable Industry Just Enough Rope To Hang Itself

from the expediting-obsolescence dept

While the FCC has been engaging in a slew of consumer-friendly moves of late (from tougher neutrality rules to fighting for municipal broadband), a few weeks ago the agency turned heads by fully prohibiting towns and cities from imposing price controls on TV service. According to the FCC's announcement on the matter (pdf), they're doing this because they believe the cable industry is so competitive, such local TV price restrictions are no longer necessary. The FCC voted 3-2 to approve the measure, with Wheeler uncharacteristically siding with the agency's two Republican Commissioners to support it.

Wheeler not only bucked consumer advocates and his Commission allies, he ignored the FCC's own intergovernmental advisory committee, which advised against the change. And while Wheeler's been notably more consumer friendly than anybody expected, consumer groups like Public Knowledge weren't big fans of this latest move by the agency boss:

"Congress directed the FCC to streamline the process by which small cable operators can file petitions with the FCC for finding that they are subject to effective competition, which exempts them from some regulatory oversight," said Public Knowledge senior attorney John Bergmayer. "In general, Public Knowledge agrees that the FCC should do what it can to make regulatory processes simpler for smaller entities."

"However, the FCC has gone beyond Congress's directive, adopting a blanket presumption that all cable operators, large and small, are subject to effective competition. Any analysis that shows that the largest cable companies face effective competition in their local markets is flawed. These companies bundle cable television with high-speed broadband and often have control over valuable programming. They are in a fundamentally different marketplace position than the small cable operators that Congress is concerned with."
So why would a consumer-friendly FCC boss suddenly make a decision that seems, on its surface, decidedly not consumer friendly? Well one, the existence of satellite TV and the rise of telco TV has resulted in the FCC repeatedly declaring that the TV business is effectively competitive each time cable ops apply for exemption, making this 22-year-old process effectively obsolete. Even if, as Public Knowledge notes -- broadband bundles and other factors usually mean competition can't always be adequately measured by the number of TV operators in a market. Of course, the FCC had already been traditionally letting cable operators ignore local price caps (the FCC had granted all but four of 224 such exemption requests since 2013) and they're relatively rare; Comcast estimates just 17% of its markets see them.

But more importantly, Wheeler knows that internet video is coming. Cable operators and broadcasters have, hand in hand, been raising prices hand over fist on everything from programming to DVR rentals for years, regardless of these limited localized price caps. Wheeler likely hopes that by removing already meager barriers, the cable industry will feel free to raise rates further, and be painfully punished by the rise of internet video. Basically, Wheeler is throwing the cable industry a small bone -- with the intent of letting them choke on it.

That might work over the long term, but over the short term the end result will probably only be even higher rates. That could help accelerate cord cutting, and a faster shift toward the more competitive TV market Wheeler is probably envisioning. And while giving the cable industry enough rope to hang itself might work, the problem with his scenario is that broadband ISPs will likely respond to the rise in internet video by increasing their use of broadband caps and overages. And with limited broadband competition, and the FCC generally ignoring the problems inherent with usage caps, that raises a whole slew of issues Wheeler will need to address if he's truly interested in speeding up a television revolution.

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Posted on Techdirt - 17 June 2015 @ 6:20am

Comcast Thinks Using Misleading Polls Will Somehow Fix Its Horrible Reputation

from the my-truth-is-better-than-your-truth dept

Comcast is currently trying to negotiate a new franchise agreement in its hometown of Philadelphia, but is running into the kind of fierce consumer disgust for the company that ultimately helped derail its failed acquisition of Time Warner Cable. Back in April, the city was criticized for refusing to publicize a city survey on Comcast that took two years to conduct, but only Comcast executives were allowed to see. When the 571-page report (pdf) was finally released, the results weren't surprising: Philadelphia locals by and large loathe Comcast and its documentably atrocious customer service.

Of the roughly 1,700 people who submitted online comments for the city’s survey, around 99% of those were negative. Comcast, as you might expect, denied that the survey's findings were accurate, and promised the Philadelphia city council that it would provide evidence proving as much.

Fast forward a few months, and Comcast is now facing allegations that it's engaging in misleading polling in the Philadelphia region. Apparently, Comcast hopes to use garbage polling to "disprove" the obvious reality that Comcast just isn't very good at what they do. ISP lobbyists have leaned heavily on inaccurate polls for years. Especially push polls -- often using them to scare locals away from municipal broadband ahead of local votes, sometimes by implying that tax dollars will be used to fund pornography, or that the government would come in and try to ration their TV viewing.

The effort was first spotted by Eric Rosso, Political Director for Pennsylvania Working Families:

Rosso notes that the questions were phrased in such a way as to generate positive responses to controversial programs like Comcast's Internet Essentials, a low-income broadband program we've noted as being intentionally restrictive and a bit of a PR show pony. Rosso says questions focused on Comcast's employment and tax record were also phrased in such a way as to generate limited or positive responses. Other locals well-versed in the practice of polling science agree that Comcast is up to no good:
"Chris Rabb, author of Invisible Capital: How Unseen Forces Shape Entrepreneurial Opportunity and a professor at Temple University’s Fox School of Business, also took part in the phone survey. He tells Consumerist it was one of the most egregious examples of non-electoral push polling he’s seen in decades. This was particularly true, says Rabb, when the survey transitioned to questions about demands Philadelphia could make of Comcast in the company’s renewed franchise agreement, and how these could increase costs for the company."
Comcast has confirmed that it has hired a "reputable third party, independent company" to conduct polls in the city, but has, rather unsurprisingly, been unable to provide an exact copy of the precise language used in the poll questions. Of course, in a few weeks the findings will be trotted out by city leaders as a shining example of Comcast's sterling reputation, and Philadelphia city leaders will likely grant Comcast a very cozy new franchise agreement that helps cement the cable giant's monopoly power in the city for another decade.

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Posted on Techdirt - 17 June 2015 @ 4:26am

Should Your Self-Driving Car Be Programmed To Kill You If It Means Saving A Dozen Other Lives?

from the I'm-sorry,-Dave dept

Earlier this month Google announced that the company's self-driving cars have had just thirteen accidents since it began testing the technology back in 2009, none the fault of Google. The company has also started releasing monthly reports, which note Google's currently testing 23 Lexus RX450h SUVs on public streets, predominately around the company's hometown of Mountain View, California. According to the company, these vehicles have logged about 1,011,338 "autonomous" (the software is doing the driving) miles since 2009, averaging about 10,000 autonomous miles per week on public streets.

With this announcement about the details of these accidents Google sent a statement to the news media informing them that while Google self-driving cars do get into accidents, the majority of them appear to involve the cars getting rear ended at stoplights, at no fault of their own:

"We just got rear-ended again yesterday while stopped at a stoplight in Mountain View. That's two incidents just in the last week where a driver rear-ended us while we were completely stopped at a light! So that brings the tally to 13 minor fender-benders in more than 1.8 million miles of autonomous and manual driving—and still, not once was the self-driving car the cause of the accident."
If you're into this kind of stuff, the reports (pdf) make for some interesting reading, as Google tinkers with and tweaks the software to ensure the vehicles operate as safely as possible. That includes identifying unique situations at the perimeter of traditional traffic rules, like stopping or moving for ambulances despite a green light, or calculating the possible trajectory of two cyclists blotto on Pabst Blue Ribbon and crystal meth. So far, the cars have traveled 1.8 million miles (a combination of manual and automated driving) and have yet to see a truly ugly scenario.

Which is all immeasurably cool. But as Google, Tesla, Volvo and other companies tweak their automated driving software and the application expands, some much harder questions begin to emerge. Like, oh, should your automated car be programmed to kill you if it means saving the lives of a dozen other drivers or pedestrians? That's the quandary researchers at the University of Alabama at Birmingham have been pondering for some time, and it's becoming notably less theoretical as automated car technology quickly advances. The UAB bioethics team treads the ground between futurism and philosophy, and note that this particular question is rooted in a theoretical scenario known as the Trolley Problem:
"Imagine you are in charge of the switch on a trolley track. The express is due any minute; but as you glance down the line you see a school bus, filled with children, stalled at the level crossing. No problem; that's why you have this switch. But on the alternate track there's more trouble: Your child, who has come to work with you, has fallen down on the rails and can't get up. That switch can save your child or a bus-full of others, but not both. What do you do?"
What would a computer do? What should a Google, Tesla or Volvo automated car be programmed to do when a crash is unavoidable and it needs to calculate all possible trajectories and the safest end scenario? As it stands, Americans take around 250 billion vehicle trips killing roughly 30,000 people in traffic accidents annually, something we generally view as an acceptable-but-horrible cost for the convenience. Companies like Google argue that automated cars would dramatically reduce fatality totals, but with a few notable caveats and an obvious loss of control.

When it comes to literally designing and managing the automated car's impact on death totals, UAB researchers argue the choice comes down to utilitarianism (the car automatically calculates and follows through with the option involving the fewest fatalities, potentially at the cost of the driver) and deontology (the car's calculations are in some way tethered to ethics):
"Utilitarianism tells us that we should always do what will produce the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people," he explained. In other words, if it comes down to a choice between sending you into a concrete wall or swerving into the path of an oncoming bus, your car should be programmed to do the former.

Deontology, on the other hand, argues that "some values are simply categorically always true," Barghi continued. "For example, murder is always wrong, and we should never do it." Going back to the trolley problem, "even if shifting the trolley will save five lives, we shouldn't do it because we would be actively killing one," Barghi said. And, despite the odds, a self-driving car shouldn't be programmed to choose to sacrifice its driver to keep others out of harm's way."
Of course without some notable advancement in AI, the researchers note it's likely impossible to program a computer that can calculate every possible scenario and the myriad of ethical obligations we'd ideally like to apply to them. As such, it seems automated cars will either follow the utilitarian path, or perhaps make no choice at all (just shutting down when encountered with a no win scenario to avoid additional liability). Google and friends haven't (at least publicly) truly had this debate yet, but it's one that's coming down the road much more quickly than we think.

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Posted on Techdirt - 16 June 2015 @ 6:16am

Verizon Says Claims It's Abandoning Its DSL Customers 'Pure Nonsense,' As Company Clearly Busy Abandoning DSL Customers

from the you-realize-we-have-eyes,-right? dept

As we've been exploring for some time, both AT&T and Verizon have been turning their backs on traditional copper-based phone service and DSL users they're unwilling to upgrade. Both of the companies' next-gen fixed-line broadband deployment plans (U-Verse and FiOS, respectively) have been all but frozen as the ISPs focus on notably more profitable wireless service. The shift is understandable: wireless tends to be cheaper to deploy, less unionized, and relatively less regulated, and the fact that it's usage capped in the face of soaring mobile video growth means future revenue projections are very handsome indeed.

The only problem? Tens of millions of people remain on DSL lines the companies refuse to upgrade to fiber. Many of these lines were built on the backs of billions in taxpayer subsidies -- subsidies that quite often were given for fiber upgrades that were never actually delivered. Both AT&T and Verizon are willfully trying to drive these customers away via the one-two punch of price hikes and support neglect, while going state by state lobbying for the gutting of all regulations requiring that they continue to offer service or meet base levels of service quality.

Cable operators are pretty happy with this paradigm, as the decrease in DSL competitors means less competition than ever before. Unions, however, obviously aren't a huge fan of this transition given the decrease in deployment and support, and have ramped up their attacks on Verizon's neglect of older networks. The Communications Workers of America has been pushing regulators to disclose the impact this neglect has had on consumer complaint numbers:

"The CWA plans to file public information requests this week with a handful of state regulators including in New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania to see whether it can uncover data showing the extent of the problems..."Verizon is systematically abandoning the legacy network and as a consequence the quality of service for millions of phone customers has plummeted,” said Bob Master, CWA’s political director for the union’s northeastern region."
That specifically shouldn't be hard in both Pennsylvania and New Jersey, where state lawmakers handed Verizon billions in tax breaks and subsidies for symmetrical fiber lines, then more recently voted to let Verizon completely off the hook for failing to meet agreement obligations. Making things worse, states like New Jersey then let Verizon lobbyists sell them on deals that gut the company's remaining obligations to users in these states, meaning what service that remains labors under a completely deregulated environment where there's no punishment for total Verizon apathy.

So with Verizon pretty obviously neglecting its aging copper networks, it's pretty amusing to see a Verizon rep try to tell the Journal that's simply not happening:
"It’s pure nonsense to say we’re abandoning our copper networks," Mr. Young said. Mr. Young said the company is investing in its copper network, and it only offers Voice Link as a temporary replacement while repairs are being done. About 13,000 customers have decided to keep the Voice Link service, Mr. Young said."
Except it's hard to insist a claim is "pure nonsense" when anybody with eyes (or a rural Verizon DSL and phone connection) can see what Verizon's up to. Verizon's been particularly distasteful in its recent decisions to use storm damage (be it Hurricane Sandy or other major storms) to simply refuse to upgrade damaged DSL and POTS (plain old telephone service) lines, instead shoving customers toward the Voice Link service Mr. Young highlights. Except Voice Link is less reliable and provides numerous fewer features than the fixed lines it's replacing, something that has annoyed locals and municipalities.

So while the unions' arguments are obviously self-serving, they're highlighting a pretty important problem that's still managing to fly under the radar despite being a topic of great importance to millions of impacted, neglected consumers. Verizon not only took billions in subsidies and failed to deliver fiber, they're now lobbying states for the right to neglect these remaining copper-based customers they simply couldn't care less about. In short, they've shafted these users from countless directions, in countless ways, for more than a decade. For Verizon to try and claim that these easily-documented problems are "nonsense" is a heaping dose of nonsense in and of itself.

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Posted on Techdirt Wireless - 15 June 2015 @ 2:40pm

AT&T Explores Giving Away Free Wireless Data If Users 'Interact' With Brand Partners

from the well-look-at-that dept

For a few years now AT&T has taken heat for its "Sponsored Data" program, which lets certain companies pay AT&T an extra fee to let consumers access their content without it impacting their wireless data usage allotment. Critics have repeatedly charged that the program immediately creates an uneven playing field for small companies, independent and non-profits, who may not be able to afford the toll. While it's clear the plan violates net neutrality, consumers have been fortunate in that corporate interest in the idea so far appears to be minimal.

In an interesting twist, AT&T appears to now be cooking up a new program called "Data Perks" that gives consumers free, additional wireless data should they "interact" with AT&T partner brands in a specific fashion. Leaked information on the program suggests it's being run by AT&T's Sponsored Data partner Aquto, who explains AT&T's new project as such:

"Aquto CEO Susie Riley told VentureBeat that to many brands it’s a lead generation campaign. Subscribers are rewarded with data when they sign up for services, learn about new products, discover new apps, or click through and purchase something at a brand’s e-commerce site. If for example, an AT&T customer bought a DVD from a participating brand, they might be awarded with a gigabyte of data that they could use to browse any site, anywhere on the web, Riley said. Subscribers accumulate their data credits in their Data Perks account, then transfer the data into their AT&T wireless account when they want."
So far that sounds more neutrality friendly than the company's Sponsored Data effort, as it's opt in and doesn't tilt the mobile Internet playing field in any obvious fashion. Of course this is AT&T -- the same company that's been busted time and time again for business models that trample neutrality and consumer rights -- so we'll have to see if there's any nasty caveats when the program launches next Tuesday. AT&T might be engaging in semantics here (exempting some content from the cap, versus giving away "free" data if users "interact" with a brand). With the FCC's new net neutrality rules taking effect this week (you know, the ones AT&T is suing twice to overturn), it seems possible that AT&T would tread carefully

Maybe.

While the FCC's new neutrality rules don't cover data caps and zero rating specifically, when they take effect on Friday there is at least a complaint mechanism for those who find a specific business model obviously anti-competitive. As such, ISPs can still violate neutrality, but as noted previously, they just have to be extra-clever about it, dressing it up as an innovative business model and a great boon for consumers (see T-Mobile's Music Freedom). We'll see next week if AT&T's actually developing a sound business model for once -- or if it's just being extra clever.

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Posted on Net Neutrality Special Edition - 15 June 2015 @ 11:36am

Reporting Net Neutrality Violations Is Now A Snap... Actually Identifying Them Not So Much

from the real-game-is-now-afoot dept

As you might have heard, the FCC's new net neutrality rules went live on Friday and, contrary to ISP and friend prognostications, the internet did not explode into a fiery cacophony of Armageddon-esque proportions (surely that happens later). With the courts refusing a stay of the rules, the FCC's neutrality protections will remain intact until either the ISPs are victorious in court, or there's a 2016 party (and associated FCC leadership) shift. Until then, consumers can file their complaints with the FCC in a variety of ways, including snail mail.

Of course, actually determining whether your ISP is up to no good is another issue entirely, and unfortunately for those of you sick-to-death of the neutrality discussion, getting the rules in place is really just the beginning.

We've talked a few times over the years about people crying net neutrality wolf, and attributing perfectly run-of-the-mill network issues to malicious intent. That's sure to be an even bigger problem going forward. The average internet user doesn't really have the ability to differentiate run-of-the-mill routing or DNS problems from aggressive anti-competitive behavior, and in the new age of more subtle net neutrality infractions, that's probably going to be more true than ever. That's of course why folks like MLAB have started offering an internet health test that will investigate your connection for hints of ISP skulduggery.

If you've yet to run the test, you might want to; data's going to be stored, cataloged, and eventually publicized for potential use against neutrality violators:

"An individual test may be considered an aberration," (Free Press boss Tim) Karr wrote. "In order to make the case that there's systemic throttling or degrading you need to perform several tests from different addresses and at different times. That's what we're hoping to show by gathering data from hundreds of thousands of separate tests." "I think participating in the Internet Health Test is the best thing an Internet user can do to gather comprehensive evidence of abuse," he added. Battle for the Net hasn't published the results of its analysis on Internet Health Test data yet, but it plans on doing so sometime in the future."
So while companies and organizations like MLAB should be able to substantiate neutrality violation claims with hard data, that's going to be notably less likely for individual consumers. The problem, as we've touched on previously, is there are still a variety of ways to violate net neutrality while looking like you're just engaging in everyday business affairs from a network analysis perspective. For example, there's every indication that the FCC is going to let zero-rating and cap-related shenanigans like AT&T's Sponsored Data and T-Mobile's Music Freedom continue as is.

As Facebook and Google are painfully learning overseas, most neutrality advocates realize these kinds of zero-rated programs violate neutrality by tilting the playing field against smaller companies or independent operations -- all while convincing users they're doing them a favor. So ISPs certainly can get away with neutrality violations under this new paradigm -- they just have to be much more clever about it while massaging public sentiment. Whether the FCC cracks down on zero-rating (the practice of letting some companies buy their way around already arbitrary usage caps) should provide a pretty good litmus test for whether or not the FCC's going to be willing to go the extra mile on enforcement.

Of course, if nobody files complaints, ISPs will be sure to insist that this is proof positive that there was never anything to worry about in the first place. Except that's not true: the absence of complaints could indicate the threat of the rules is working as intended. In fact, we've already seen transit and last mile ISPs suddenly and magically get along beautifully after a year of very ugly bickering, thanks simply to the mere threat of real rules.

All of that said, we're still in a much better place than we were under the original 2010 rules, which excluded wireless and had enough loopholes to drive entire military convoys through. Of course, if you're still the type to buy into the ISP (and paid friend) narrative that meaningful Title II-based net neutrality protections will destroy the internet, crush free speech, hinder innovation and harm puppies, then there's probably no evidence on earth that's going to knock you off that particular perch. But while you're busy waiting for the internet to die to make a political point, the rest of us will need to remain vigilant to ensure that the FCC, now equipped with the right tools, actually does its job.

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