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Posted on Techdirt - 17 September 2019 @ 3:45am

Colorado Town Offers 1 Gbps For $60 After Years Of Battling Comcast

from the build-it-and-they-will-come dept

A new community broadband network went live in Fort Collins, Colorado recently offering locals there gigabit fiber speeds for $60 a month with no caps, restrictions, or hidden fees. The network launch comes years after telecom giants like Comcast worked tirelessly to crush the effort. Voters approved the effort as part of a November 2017 ballot initiative, despite the telecom industry spending nearly $1 million on misleading ads to try and derail the effort. A study (pdf) by the Institute for Local Reliance estimated that actual competition in the town was likely to cost Comcast between $5.4 million and $22.8 million each year.

Unlike private operations, the Fort Collins Connexion network pledges to adhere to net neutrality. The folks behind the network told Ars Technica the goal is to offer faster broadband to the lion's share of the city within the next few years:

"The initial number of homes we're targeting this week is 20-30. We will notify new homes weekly, slowly ramping up in volume," Connexion spokesperson Erin Shanley told Ars. While Connexion's fiber lines currently pass just a small percentage of the city's homes and businesses, Shanley said the city's plan is to build out to the city limits within two or three years.

"Ideally we will capture more than 50% of the market share, similar to Longmont," another Colorado city that built its own network, Shanley said. Beta testers at seven homes are already using the Fort Collins service, and the plan is to start notifying potential customers about service availability today.

The telecom sector simply loves trying to insist that community-run broadband is an inevitable taxpayer boondoggle. But such efforts are just like any other proposal and depend greatly on the quality of the business plan. And the industry likes to ignore the fact that such efforts would not be happening in the first place if American consumers weren't outraged by the high prices, slow speeds, and terrible customer service the industry is known for. All symptoms of the limited competition industry apologists are usually very quick to pretend aren't real problems (because when quarterly returns are all that matter to you, they aren't).

For years we've noted how large ISPs like Comcast quite literally write and buy protectionist state laws preventing towns and cities from building their own broadband networks (or striking public/private partnerships). These ISPs don't want to spend money to improve or expand service into lower ROI areas, but they don't want towns and cities to either -- since many of these networks operate on an open access model encouraging a little something known as competition. As such it's much cheaper to buy a state law and a lawmaker who'll support it -- than to actually try and give a damn.

And while roughly nineteen states have passed such laws, Colorado's SB 152, co-crafted by Comcast and Centurylink in 2005, was notably unique in that it let local towns and cities hold local referendums on whether they'd like to ignore it. And over the last few years, an overwhelming number of Colorado towns and cities have voted to do so, preferring to decide local infrastructure issues for themselves instead of having lobbyists for Comcast dictate what they can or can't do in their own communities, with their own tax dollars.

There's probably not a day that goes by without these companies regretting letting that caveat make it into the final bill.

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Posted on Techdirt - 16 September 2019 @ 3:27pm

The MoviePass Mess Has Finally Come To An End

from the dysfunction-junction dept

Moviepass is no more. The company's all you can eat movie ticket business model never worked as advertised, and a letter to subscribers informed them that the service would be shutting down over the weekend. Users are supposed to be getting refunds without having to ask for them.

MoviePass initially seemed like it might be a plausible idea, though in recent months the company has been exposed for being aggressively terrible at this whole business thing. The service initially let movie buffs pay $30 a month in exchange for unlimited movie tickets at participating theaters, provided they signed up for a full year of service. But it wasn't long before the company began hemorrhaging cash, something made immeasurably worse when it dropped its price point to $10 a month as part of a last ditch attempt to spur growth.

A bombshell Business Insider expose offered a stunning look at the company's dysfunction, and executives' interest in focusing on flashy marketing instead of fundamental business basics. Particularly entertaining was the fact that as things began to fall apart, company CEO Mitch Lowe thought it would be a good idea to arbitrarily change the passwords of heavy users so they couldn't actually use the service as advertised:

"Lowe dreaded the company's power users, those high-volume MoviePass customers who were taking advantage of the low monthly price, constantly going to the movies, and effectively cleaning the company out. According to the Motion Picture Association of America, the average moviegoer goes to the movies five times a year. The power users would go to the movies every day.

"Before Mitch came on it was, 'How do we slow down those users?'" one former employee said. "With Mitch it was just, 'F--- those guys.'"

Per Lowe's orders, MoviePass began limiting subscriber access ahead of the April release of the highly anticipated "Avengers: Infinity War," according to multiple former employees. They said Lowe ordered that the passwords of a small percentage of power users be changed, preventing them from logging onto the app and ordering tickets."

With that kind of "leadership," it's probably not too surprising that the effort fell apart. Granted the idea itself wasn't terrible, and individual movie chains have since adopted it with some fairly decent success, something acknowledged in the goodbye letter to company subscribers:

"We still deeply believe in the need for the MoviePass™ service in the marketplace, to maintain affordable access to theaters and provide movie lovers with choices of where to go to the movies. In August 2017, MoviePass™ began a transformation of the moviegoing industry by introducing its low monthly price subscription service. Since then, others in the industry have followed our lead. Now, as a result of this transformation, movie lovers throughout the United States have the ability to see movies in theaters using subscription services at prices they can actually afford, albeit with limited choices of theaters using those services."

SEC filings indicated that the company's net loss ballooned from $7.4 million in 2016 to $150.8 million in 2017, in no small part thanks to the $10 Hail Mary price hike attempted by the outfit. And while the company says it has formed a new strategic review committee to explore “strategic and financial alternatives” for the company, that likely means a bargain basement fire sale of the company's remaining assets in short order. There's also still that ongoing NY AG probe into allegations that the company misled investors as to the sorry state of the company's financials.

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Posted on Techdirt - 16 September 2019 @ 6:30am

Some Investors Are Fed Up With AT&T's Costly Obsession With Merger Mania

from the growth-for-growth's-sake dept

This wasn't how it was supposed to go for AT&T. In AT&T executives' heads, the 2015, $67 billion acquisition of DirecTV and the 2018 $86 billion acquisition of Time Warner were supposed to be the cornerstones of the company's efforts to dominate video and online video advertising. Instead, the megadeals made AT&T possibly one of the most heavily indebted companies in the world. To recoup that debt, AT&T has ramped up its efforts to nickel-and-dime users at every opportunity, from bogus new wireless fees to price hikes on both its streaming and traditional video services.

Not too surprisingly, these price hikes are now driving subscribers to the exits.

The company's latest earnings report indicates that AT&T not only lost another 778,000 "traditional" video subscribers last quarter (satellite TV, IPTV), but it lost another 168,000 subscribers at its DirecTV Now streaming service -- due to "higher prices and less promotional activity." While the stupidity of these efforts (not to mention AT&T's absurdly confusing TV branding) has been apparent to analysts and the press for a while, investors have also now started to criticize AT&T's "growth for growth's sake" mindset.

For example, "activist" (a generous term) investor Elliott Management recently conducted a detailed review of AT&T’s business management over the last decade and came away notably unimpressed. In a public letter to AT&T executives, the investor -- whose funds own around $3.2 billion in AT&T stock -- makes it pretty clear that AT&T's obsession with merging is not doing it any favors:

"AT&T has been an outlier in terms of its M&A strategy: Most companies today no longer seek to assemble conglomerates. This approach is more characteristic of a prior era, calling to mind the Conglomerate Boom of the 1960s or the Mike Armstrong years at the “old” AT&T. It also represents a departure from the approach articulated in 2007 by the Company’s Chairman and CEO at his first analyst day after being named to that position: “When there’s a temptation to want to launch off into areas that may not be closely tied to our strengths or which are going to distract us from an operational focus, that won’t happen."

We firmly believe that AT&T’s M&A strategy has not only contributed directly to its profound share price underperformance, but has also caused distractions that have contributed to the Company’s recent operational underperformance."

Granted AT&T's merger mania has had a number of additional downsides investors probably actually support, like the billions in regulatory favors and tax breaks the company has received in recent years, only to pocket that money before laying off employees and skimping on network investment. Amusingly, Eliot's complaints excited the President, who was quick to use said complaints to bash his longstanding nemesis, CNN:

Granted somebody might want to inform Donald that despite a lot of whining about the news divisions of both AT&T/Time Warner and Comcast NBC Universal, his administration has doled out more regulatory favors and handouts to both companies than any administration in American history -- with little to nothing to really show for it.

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Posted on Techdirt - 13 September 2019 @ 3:45am

Comcast Sues Maine For Demanding It Sell TV Channels À La Carte

from the the-Constitutional-right-to-be-an-ass dept

Over the last few years, telecom giants have increasingly been trying to claim that pretty much any effort to hold them accountable for their terrible service (or anything else) is a violation of their First Amendment rights. Historically that hasn't gone so well. For example, courts generally laughed off ISP lawyer claims that net neutrality violated their free speech rights, quite correctly highlighting that ISPs are simply conduits to information, not acting as editors of available speech through their blocking or filtering of available information.

With the federal government effectively in the cable, telecom, and broadcast sector's back pocket at the moment (aka regulatory capture), the lobbying focus has shifted toward the states, where the industry has similarly tried to claim that holding them accountable for decades of bad service violates their First Amendment rights. For example when it was found that Charter lied about meeting its recent merger conditions and New York tried to hold it accountable, Charter claimed doing so would violate its 1A rights.

The argument popped up again this week in a Comcast lawsuit against the state of Maine, filed because the state passed a law that would force companies like Comcast to sell cable TV channels à la carte:

The companies claim the Maine law—titled "An Act To Expand Options for Consumers of Cable Television in Purchasing Individual Channels and Programs"—is preempted by the First Amendment and federal law. The Maine law is scheduled to take effect on September 19 and says that "a cable system operator shall offer subscribers the option of purchasing access to cable channels, or programs on cable channels, individually." The lawsuit seeks an injunction to prevent the law from being enforced.

Granted, "You can't do that because it violates our First Amendment rights," is literally the first argument telecom lawyers try whenever anybody tries to hold them accountable for terrible service, unfair bundling, predatory behavior, or anything else. Just like the fifty times before this, the argument is nonsensical, and really just a knee jerk effort to fling some ideas at a wall and see what sticks in a bid to protect the shitty status quo.

Consumers have been begging for the ability to buy individual channels for decades now, and it used to be a pet project of former Senator John McCain. For the entirety of that duration, the cable industry has tried to claim that à la carte television would do two things: raise rates for all consumers, and kill off niche channels, which the industry argued simply couldn't survive outside of the bundle. You're to ignore that these niche channels are being killed off anyway and cable TV prices continue to skyrocket despite the rise of streaming competition.

Undaunted, Comcast continues to claim that bringing flexibility to the cable bundle would raise TV rates (something Comcast is super, authentically worried about, to be sure):

In a statement provided to Ars, Comcast and the TV networks said that "Maine's à la carte mandate is prohibited under federal law and is unconstitutional... the law is not only unnecessary, but also likely to suppress competition and result in higher consumer prices and less program diversity."

On the plus side it's not like any of this is going to matter longer term, and both Comcast and state regulators really are just swimming upstream here. The rise of streaming competition will, sooner or later, force these companies to finally listen to consumers, stop mindlessly raising TV rates, and kill off traditional bundles. Cable TV providers that are tired of the increasingly tight margins in the pay TV sector will simply exit and focus on broadband instead. The rest, like AT&T and Comcast, will spend a few years swimming upstream by suing people, trying to tilt the regulatory playing field, and crying a lot until they realize the shift toward cheaper, more flexible TV bundles is a trend they can no longer ignore.

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Posted on Techdirt - 12 September 2019 @ 11:56am

The DMV Is Selling Your Data To Vast Array Of Third Parties

from the dysfunction-junction dept

Another day, another data privacy scandal. This time the focus is on the Department of Motor Vehicles, which has been busted selling DMV user data to a laundry list of third parties, without always making such financial relationships or data transfers clear to patrons. Some of the data wound up being sold to the usual suspects (auto insurance companies being the most obvious), but much of it is routinely sold to more dubious third-party outfits and private investigators. And while some of the data is in bulk and "anonymized," we've long noted that doesn't mean what you think it does.

The collection and sale of sensitive user data is particularly problematic for those dealing with stalkers or other jackasses:

"The selling of personally identifying information to third parties is broadly a privacy issue for all and specifically a safety issue for survivors of abuse, including domestic violence, sexual assault, stalking, and trafficking," Erica Olsen, director of Safety Net at the National Network to End Domestic Violence, told Motherboard in an email. "For survivors, their safety may depend on their ability to keep this type of information private."

Granted all of this is perfectly legal due to the Driver's Privacy Protection Act (DPPA), a 90's law that critics say is in dire need of an update. That law was created in response to a series of abuses of DMV data, including the 1989 murder of actress Rebecca Schaeffer, after her killer obtained her home address from the DMV. And while the law was intended to stop the abuse of DMV data, it contained (surprise!) plenty of loopholes making it okay to sell this data to a wide variety of individuals, including PIs, bail bondsmen, and consumer credit reporting agencies.

While the data sold can vary from state to state, it generally includes names, addresses, zip codes, dates of birth, phone numbers, and email addresses. The documents obtained by Motherboard show that the Wisconsin DMV, for example, has personal data sales relationships with more than 3,100 different entities. The practice is, unsurprisingly, hugely profitable:

"DMVs are making a lot of money from the sale of this data. The Rhode Island DMV made at least $384,000 selling personal data between 2015 and this year, according to a spreadsheet obtained by Motherboard. When asked how much the Wisconsin DMV made from selling driver records, a spokesperson wrote in an email "Per these 2018 DMV Facts and Figures, $17,140,914 was collected in FY18 for driver abstract fees." Examining that document shows that Wisconsin's revenue for selling driver records has shot up dramatically since 2015, when the sale drew in $1.1 million. The Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles made $77 million in 2017 by selling data, a local outlet found."

Most DMVs say that they inform customers (in fine print) that their data may be sold, and that they've cut off access to data by firms that they've found to have abused the access. But given the wild west nature of US privacy law (read: we don't have many and the ones we do have are riddled with issues and loopholes), there's not much of a mechanism to confirm this data isn't being abused, or that DMVs are doing a particularly good job of dealing with issues when the data is being access by malicious parties. In response to the investigation, Presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders demanded more comprehensive oversight:

"The DMV should not use its trove of personal information as a tool to make money. While the internet has been an enormous source for good, all that convenience and connection has come with a price: our privacy has been invaded in an unprecedented way, in a manner that would have been unthinkable even 20 years ago. Nobody—from agencies like the DMV to large corporations like Facebook and Google—should be profiting from sharing or selling personal information without meaningful consent. Congress must get serious about ending practices that violate the privacy of ordinary Americans.

Granted it's hard to reform US privacy law when a broad coalition of industries are using every lobbying trick in the book to prevent said reform from taking place. And while a lot of companies publicly state they want a new privacy law, what they really mean is for Congress to pass another flimsy, loophole-filled law their lawyers wrote, that will primarily serve to pre-empt more comprehensive state and federal privacy proposals.

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Posted on Techdirt - 12 September 2019 @ 6:29am

AT&T's Terrible New TV Branding Confuses Even AT&T

from the DERP dept

AT&T's efforts to dominate the online streaming (and advertising segment) has had a bit of a rocky start. After spending more than $150 billion to acquire both DirecTV and Time Warner in recent years, AT&T's been losing subscribers hand over fist anyway. Part of the problem is that the company acquired so much debt in the course of the deal (AT&T is among the most indebted companies in the world), AT&T's been forced to raise rates on subscribers. Given the rise in streaming competitors, those users are wisely just heading for the exits.

But AT&T's been making some notable missteps on the branding front as well. The company keeps launching, scrapping, and then re-launching so many different TV options it's confusing the hell out of customers. As the company stumbles its way into building one cohesive brand, it has gotten kind of, well, silly:

Apparently AT&T's new TV branding isn't just confusing consumers. It's also confusing AT&T. The company's marketing and support departments appear to have been bungling the names of several new AT&T TV products in marketing and support materials, only compounding consumer confusion. AT&T recently eliminated its DirecTV Now streaming TV brand, and renamed it (quite creatively) "AT&T TV Now." The company also rolled out another completely new service and called it "AT&T TV." The former service is just another streaming app, while the latter service requires a new AT&T set top box and is currently in a glorified beta.

This being the telecom sector, customer support is already kind of an afterthought. But AT&T's confusing branding has taken things to an entirely new level, leaving many AT&T customers in a bizarre, customer service purgatory:

"To make matters even worse, most tech support for AT&T TV Now is labeled AT&T TV on AT&T's website. When you try to contact AT&T TV Now you need to use the contact information for AT&T TV. This has resulted in many of our readers confused about how they contact... AT&T TV Now to ask a question.

AT&T's website does not help. AT&T TV Now is only found if you click on streaming. For a while after the name change, clicking on DirecTV Now in some menus on AT&T's website brought you to AT&T TV [instead of] AT&T TV Now.

Even just this week when AT&T announced a deal with Starz they didn't list AT&T TV Now but listed AT&T TV. When asked about this AT&T said AT&T TV Now was lumped together with AT&T TV.

As we've long noted, telecom companies aren't particularly innovative because they've spent the last few generations as government-protected and pampered monopolies. Fused to the nation's intelligence and law enforcement community, they're the personification of "too big to fail." Their deep lobbying tendrils also mean they enjoy regulatory capture on the state and federal level, making any real accountability for bad behavior a rarity, at best.

Given real competition is alien to them, Verizon and AT&T keep doing face plants as they attempt to erode Google and Facebook online video ad revenues. That's why instead of directly competing or innovating, the telecom sector's first inclination is usually to try and tilt the regulatory playing field or cheat in some fashion. And while these kind of shenanigans have caused plenty of problems in the broader internet and streaming TV ecosystem, those problems would likely be immeasurably worse were the telecom sector actually competent outside of its core competencies (building networks, lobbying to erode competition).

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Posted on Techdirt Wireless - 11 September 2019 @ 6:21am

Verizon Can't Stop Over-hyping 5G; This Time In NFL Stadiums

from the unrealistic-expectations dept

We've noted for a while that 5G is being aggressively over-hyped. While it's an important evolutionary step in wireless connectivity, it's far from the revolution hardware vendors and cellular carriers are promising. Verizon, for example, insists that 5G is the "fourth industrial revolution" that will almost miraculously spur the smart cities and smarter cars of tomorrow. While 5G is important (in that faster, more resilient networks are always important), the idea that 5G will fundamentally transform the world tends to overshoot the mark.

Carriers haven't quite learned yet that over-hyping the standard only serves to associate it with disappointment in the minds of consumers. Verizon, for example, has crowed widely about the company's early 5G launches, but when reporters and users actually try to use these networks, they routinely find they're barely available. Lately, Verizon's marketing department has been heavily hyping the company's launch of 5G in around 13 NFL stadiums, once again insisting this is going to be a paradigm shift that changes the woooooooorld:

"Today’s announcement is a key moment in our partnership with the NFL. We’re proud to work with such an iconic organization to bring Verizon 5G Ultra Wideband service to fans across the country. Verizon 5G is fundamentally changing the way we live, work and play, and we expect the impact on the sports entertainment industry to be massive - it promises to revolutionize the entire game-day experience for fans."

But once again, reporters who dug just beneath the service again found that the launch was nowhere as impressive as what the company has promised:

"Verizon isn't promising any 5G coverage outside the seating areas, and the seating-area coverage will only be available in some sections. When contacted by Ars, Verizon said that its 5G coverage "varies by stadium" but provided no specifics on how widespread the coverage is in each facility. At least some of the 13 stadiums don't have any 5G coverage available outside the seating areas, Verizon also acknowledged."

Part of the problem is Verizon is leaning heavily on millimeter-wave signals to fuel most of its 5G deployments, but such signals don't travel very far and are easily blocked by walls, weather, and other obstacles. The other problem: there are few if any phones that actually support the standard yet, since the industry has yet to really hammer out the battery issues caused by the higher power consumption (one of several reasons Apple isn't expected to launch a 5G iphone until the second half of 2020, if not later).

In other words, most of the hype you've seen about 5G is talking about networks that are barely available, and have little to no widespread device support. Wireless carriers are eager to over-hype 5G for two reasons: it allows them to justify sky high prices for mobile data (US consumers pay some of the highest prices in the world for 4G, something that's only getting worse with 5G), and it will eventually help spur the sales of significantly more mobile handsets, a metric that has stalled out in recent years as smartphone innovation has plateaued.

Superficially, those seem like sensible reasons for wireless carriers to hype a new network standard that will genuinely bring about some important (albeit not really revolutionary) improvements. But by associating 5G with failed promises in the minds of consumers, companies like Verizon are actually sending the message to most of those users that it's not actually going to be worth their time to make the switch, defeating the entire point of the marketing hype.

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Posted on Techdirt - 10 September 2019 @ 12:20pm

Equifax Victims Jump Through Hoops To Nab Settlement Money They Won't Get Anyway

from the dysfunction-junction dept

So we've noted that the FTC's settlement over the Equifax hack that exposed the public data of 147 million Americans is a bit of a joke. The FTC originally promised that impacted users would be able to nab 10 years of free credit reporting or a $125 cash payout if users already subscribed to a credit reporting service. But it didn't take long for the government to backtrack, claiming it was surprised by the number of victims interested in modest compensation, while admitting the settlement failed to set aside enough money to pay even 248,000 of the hack's 147 million victims.

This week, the Equifax Settlement Administrator sent out an email doubling down on the dysfunction, demanding that users who applied for their $125 prove they already have credit monitoring services. Users are being told they need to prove they subscribe to such services by October 15, or they won't get the money. Worse perhaps, the notice reiterates that even if you can prove you subscribe to credit monitoring services, you probably won't get anywhere near $125 because the settlement failed to set aside enough money to fulfill even a fraction of its promise:

"This latest email again reminds users that even if you can prove you have credit reporting already, you still may not get the full $125 thanks to the limitations of the settlement. In response to what it’s calling “overwhelming” demand, the FTC also urges those who submitted a claim for $125 switch to the free credit reporting offer instead."

One problem is that "free credit monitoring" is largely a useless perk. Such services are routinely doled out for free every time there's a major hack or privacy breach, which drop at a rate of around once a week now. Usually these services are included as a settlement freebie to make the settlement itself seem more substantive than it actually is. But the other major problem is that the FTC and its settlement partners gave the impression that users would at least get $125 for their troubles, set aside a tiny fraction of the money they'd need, then acted shocked when users signed up.

Most of the legal experts I've talked to about this say it would have been fairly easy to strike a more productive, less chaotic settlement. Instead of free credit reporting, the settlement could have simply requested victims have their credit reporting temporarily frozen (until needed), something which costs nothing. And while it still may have been underwhelming, the settlement also could have promised individual users a cash payout they could have actually met. The general consensus remains that the settlement, as structured, teeters somewhere between negligence and incompetence:

"James Grimmelmann, a professor of law at Cornell Tech and Cornell Law School told Motherboard the FTC’s failure to predict the public’s interest teeters toward negligence. “Even a single-digit percentage claim rate for this one would have exhausted the $31 million 50 times over,” he says. “It was negligent on the part of the FTC not to expect that more victims would choose the cash payment in a case this prominent and this egregious, instead of the worthless credit monitoring.”

Users can still apply for up to $20,000 in compensation if they can clearly prove the hack directly contributed to concrete harm like identity theft, but by and large the settlement is the poster child for meaningless privacy wrist slaps. Outside of bad press coverage, there's absolutely nothing here that would deter Equifax from future lax security and privacy practices, and consumers get little to compensate them for what is one of the biggest data breaches in American history. The FTC's primary function appears to have been to act as a PR proxy for Equifax's reputation, primarily by pretending the company had been held accountable via a "record" fine, inflated to appear far more meaningful than it actually is.

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Posted on Techdirt - 10 September 2019 @ 6:15am

Much Of The Assault On 'Big Tech' Is Being Driven By 'Big Telecom'

from the inauthentic-outrage dept

Over the last few months, Google, Amazon, and Apple have all taken a significant beating on Wall Street amidst rumblings of looming antitrust investigations by the DOJ and FTC. Google, we're told, is subject of a looming antitrust probe by the DOJ. Amazon, we've learned, is facing growing scrutiny from the FTC. Apple stock also briefly did a nose dive on the news that it too may soon be subject to a significant new antitrust probe.

On its surface, many of these actions aren't all that surprising. After all, experts have noted for a decade than US antitrust enforcement has grown toothless and frail, and our definitions of monopoly power need updating in the Amazon era. Facebook's repeated face plants on privacy (and basic transparency and integrity) have only added fuel to the fire amidst calls to regulate "big tech."

But while Silicon Valley faces an endless cavalcade of outrage, the telecom sector is suddenly seeing no scrutiny whatsoever. Whether it's the speed at which the problematic T-Mobile merger is being shoveled through the DOJ and FCC or the blind eye being turned to major telecom privacy scandals (like location data), telecom lobbyists have been on a successful tear convincing well-heeled DC lawmakers to ignore the massive, obvious monopoly, privacy, and competition issues inherent in telecom to focus exclusively on the problems in "big tech."

Yet somehow, this asymmetrical policy paradigm is still treated as entirely coincidental in press coverage. Only recently have some news outlets started to notice how well things have been going for telecom lately in DC (Axios calls it telecom's "sweet summer of revenge"). Outlets have even started to finally realize that with former telecom lawyers now running the FCC and DOJ (Ajit Pai and Bill Barr), that is not coincidentally being reflected in federal policies attempting to hamstring telecom's competitors:

"In a June speech, DOJ Antitrust Division Chief Makan Delrahim laid out ways his agency could could go after Big Tech for anti-competitive behavior. In a June Senate hearing, FCC Chairman Ajit Pai said, “The greatest threat to a free and open internet has been the unregulated Silicon Valley tech giants that do, in fact, today decide what you see and what you don’t,” he said."

It's routinely understated how telecom lobbying, not a sincere worry about market power or privacy, is what's driving much of this current policy paradigm in DC (including much of the hyperventilation over nonexistent Censorship of Conservatives). The telecom sector is pushing hard into an online advertising sector traditionally dominated by Silicon Valley. As such, telecom lobbyists have spent several years now pushing to hamstring their direct competitors with the help of cash-compromised lawmakers and full blown regulatory capture.

That includes successfully convincing government that a sector filled with natural, historically-predatory monopolies should see no guard rails whatsoever (see the killing of net neutrality and the neutering of the FCC as example A). Yet somehow, there are still a lot of folks in tech policy circles who see the lopsided focus on "big tech" as entirely authentic, and any failure to police telecom as somehow coincidental. But folks in DC (like former FCC lawyer Gigi Sohn), are well aware that much of this current policy paradigm is highly-produced theater and, shockingly, all about money:

Again, none of this is to say that there aren't massive problems with Silicon Valley giants and plenty of authentic calls for reform. But it is a reminder that an oversized portion of the current anti big tech sentiment in DC is telecom driven. Intellectual inconsistency and campaign finance data usually makes it clear which lawmakers are telecom sector marionettes. More often than not consumer rights, market power, or healthy competition are the very last thing on the minds of those pushing lopsided regulatory solutions to a "big tech" problem they don't actually care all that much about.

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Posted on Techdirt - 9 September 2019 @ 12:05pm

Charter Spectrum Once Again 'Competes' By... Raising Prices

from the nickel-and-dime dept

When Charter Communications (Spectrum) proposed merging with Time Warner Cable and Bright House Networks in 2016, the company repeatedly promised that the amazing "synergies" would lower rates, increase competition, boost employment, and improve the company's services. Of course like countless telecom megamergers before it, that never actually happened. Instead, the company quickly set about raising rates to manage the huge debt load. And its service has been so aggressively terrible, the company almost got kicked out of New York State, something I've never seen in 20 years of covering telecom.

Fast forward to 2019, and despite surging competition from streaming video providers, Charter is once again raising rates on numerous services. Broadband and TV services will all be seeing major price increases next month, as will the company's hardware rental surcharges and the universe of misleading fees the industry uses to covertly jack up the advertised rate post sale. That includes the company's "broadcast TV fee," which is really just a small part of the cost of programming hidden below the line in the form of a (now) $13.50 monthly additional charge:

"With this price change, you will now pay $13.50 a month for broadcast TV fees, which is up from $11.99 a month. This will add up to $162 a year to your bill just watch free over-the-air TV you could get with an antenna."

Note: that fee had already seen a $2 bump early this year.

That Charter's response to increased streaming video competition and record cord cutting is to raise rates tells you plenty about both the level of competition it sees in broadband, and the regulatory oversight of the sector. These hidden fees in particular are something the FCC (under both parties) has been happy to turn a blind eye to. Much in the same way both parties have rubber stamped a long line of telecom and media megamergers that, time and time again, have only really netted one thing: greater sector consolidation, higher rates, fewer jobs, and worse service.

Giants like Comcast and Charter have one ace in the hole when it comes to the streaming video wars to come. They are enjoying growing monopolies over broadband access thanks to the slow, steady implosion of many US telcos. That limited competition has let Comcast respond to cord cutting and streaming by imposing arbitrary and punitive usage caps and overage fees that are incurred when its broadband users use a competitor's services (say Netflix) but not their own TV offerings. This lets them simultaneously cash in on -- and hinder -- streaming competitors.

Charter's banned from doing this due to a few flimsy conditions affixed to its 2016 merger, but those conditions expire in just a few years, meaning you can expect an even fatter broadband bill over the horizon. The FCC having just effectively neutered its oversight authority over telecom at telecom lobbyist behest certainly isn't likely to help, nor is the death of FCC privacy and net neutrality consumer protections.

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Posted on Techdirt - 9 September 2019 @ 6:13am

New York City Sues T-Mobile For Ripping Off Its Prepaid Users

from the not-very-uncarrier dept

While T-Mobile has built a brand on the claim it's hugely different from the other big wireless carriers, it routinely likes to illustrate the limits of that claim. Like the time T-Mobile CEO John Legere mocked the EFF after the group noted T-Mobile routinely violated net neutrality (it also supported killing the FCC rules). Or the time the company hired Trump advisor Corey Lewandowski, shortly after he'd mocked a kid with Downe's Syndrome on live TV, just to get a leg up on its Sprint merger approval process. And that's before you get to the steady stream of bullshit T-Mobile has been pushing to get that deal approved.

That's not to say that T-Mobile hasn't done some good things in the industry, just that when push comes to shove the entire consumer-friendly schtick is only skin deep.

Another case in point: New York City has filed suit against T-Mobile (pdf) alleging that the company's "Metro" (formerly MetroPCS) prepaid arm routinely rips off its customers. More specifically, the complaint alleges that Metro routinely sells customers used phones disguised as new, buries caveats, restrictions, and surcharges in fine print, and offers a "30 day money back guarantee" the complaint claims is "wholly illusory, and completely deceptive":

"...the MetroPROMISE® Return Policy has nothing in common with a “30 day guarantee,” nor does it resemble what the Virtual Chat Assistant describes. Instead, it expires in seven days and two of its most restrictive and unintuitive features – its inapplicability to phones bought for an existing line of service and defective phones – go unmentioned by the Virtual Chat Assistant."

In other words, T-Mobile's prepaid stores are using the exact bullshit tactics CEO John Legere has spent several years mocking AT&T and Verizon for on Twitter. The complaint says misleading behavior was the norm across numerous 56 Metro locations (run directly and by "authorized dealers") across all five boroughs of New York City. This particular example is notable:

"In January 2019, Vashti Anais Wagner shopped for a phone advertised for $599. Defendant Metropolitan Wireless Anandpur Inc. (“Anandpur”) charged her $710 for the phone, according to a receipt. The Anandpur employee then filled out a SmartPay contract, entered Ms. Wagner’s email address as noemailft67484@gmail.com, and falsely recorded the phone’s purchase price as $1,150. The employee did not show Ms. Wagner the contract, appears to have e-signed it in her name, and did not tell her that she would be leasing the phone rather than buying it outright. Thus, unbeknownst to Ms. Wagner, SmartPay had leased the phone to her for $199.21 per month, totaling $2,191.30 – $1,592.30 more than the advertised price; $1,481.30 more than the prices supposedly charged by the Metro Store; and $1,041 more than price surreptitiously recorded on the contract by the Metro Store employee.

Charging users $2,191 for a $699 phone, eroding user rights with fine print, and hitting customers with "illegal taxes, mystery fees, and fees for unwanted services" is not very "uncarrier" (the term T-Mobile marketing uses to make it clear how it's not like other giant US telecom operators). But again, if you've watched T-Mobile suck up to Trump at his hotels during its bid to get its $26 billion merger with Sprint approved, this disconnect likely doesn't come as much of a surprise.

To be fair, T-Mobile's presence in the market was initially a good thing. While T-Mobile's impact on wireless pricing has largely been over-hyped, the company's aggressive tactics early on helped pressure other carriers into lowering costs of international roaming, eliminating the scourge of long-term contracts, and killing off several other dumb tactics that had been industry mainstays for years. But as T-Mobile grows more powerful it's becoming apparent they're not so different as marketing would suggest, and if the Sprint merger is consummated and competition is reduced by 25%, that point is going to be made even clearer in short order.

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Posted on Techdirt - 6 September 2019 @ 1:37pm

MoviePass Left Tens Of Thousands Of Credit Card Numbers Exposed Online

from the whoops-a-daisy dept

MoviePass initially seemed like it might be a plausible idea, though recently the outfit has been exposed for being terrible at this whole business thing. The service initially let movie buffs pay $30 a month in exchange for unlimited movie tickets at participating theaters, provided they signed up for a full year of service. But recent reports have made it clear company leaders had absolutely no idea what they were doing, the service was routinely hemorrhaging cash (particularly after an unsustainable price drop to $10), and execs even tried to change user passwords to prevent users from actually using the service.

Apparently, the outfit wasn't too hot at this whole internet security thing, either.

Mossab Hussein, a security researcher at Dubai-based cybersecurity firm SpiderSilk, recently discovered that the company had left tens of thousands of user credit card numbers exposed to the internet. An exposed database on one of the company's subdomains resulted in 161 million records on various types being exposed (a number, if precedent holds, that could grow even larger). And while much of this data was not sensitive, a good chunk of it was:

"We reviewed a sample of 1,000 records and removed the duplicates. A little over half contained unique MoviePass debit card numbers. Each customer card record had the MoviePass debit card number and its expiry date, the card’s balance and when it was activated.

The database had more than 58,000 records containing card data — and was growing by the minute."

Some customer names and addresses were also exposed to the internet. The data also included logs of failed login attempts, as well as subscriber email addresses. None of the records in the exposed database had been encrypted. The data had been exposed for months, and like so many companies, MoviePass didn't appear to be in much of a rush to address the problem:

"The database was exposed for months. Yonathan Klijnsma, threat researcher at cyberthreat intelligence firm RiskIQ, found evidence that the database was open from early May. Then, after we published this story, security researcher Nitish Shah told TechCrunch he also found the exposed database months earlier. “I even notified them, but they [didn’t bother] to reply or fix it,” he said. He provided a screenshot of the exposed database for proof, which we verified."

With the number of companies that have been embarrassed for leaving sensitive customer data exposed to the internet, you'd think we'd be seeing fewer of these kinds of scandals as companies work to audit and secure their systems. Yet we seem to be seeing more of these breaches (especially private data left exposed in unprotected Amazon cloud buckets) each and every month.

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Posted on Techdirt - 6 September 2019 @ 6:12am

T-Mobile Employees Want Promises They Won't Be Fired Post Merger

from the good-luck-with-that dept

We've noted repeatedly how the Sprint, T-Mobile merger isn't great. There's forty years of history showing how telecom industry megamergers almost always result in less competition, higher prices, and fewer jobs, and this deal is no exception. Eliminating one of just four US wireless carriers is likely to result in higher prices (see: Canada or Ireland). And Wall Street analysts not only predict the deal could eliminate anywhere between 10,000 and 30,000 jobs, data suggests the consolidation could result in employees across the sector making less money even if they work at other companies.

Of course if you ask T-Mobile and Sprint executives, they'll tell you that none of this will actually happen. They'll tell you that the deal will somehow create more competition and jobs, despite (again) history showing that this rarely, if ever happens and such deals almost exclusively benefit executives and shareholders.

Hoping for a little reassurance, T-Mobile employees this week penned a letter to Deutsche Telekom CEO Tim Hoettges (Deutsche Telekom has a majority stake in T-Mobile) asking for guarantees they won't see layoffs and pay cuts in the wake of the deal:

"T-Mobile US retail employees and technicians delivered a letter late Tuesday for Deutsche Telekom CEO Tim Hoettges, seeking assurances that their jobs and paychecks will be safe if the wireless carrier is allowed to merge with Sprint, its smaller rival.

T-Mobile Workers United, with about 500 members and backed by the Communications Workers of America and the German union ver.di, urged Hoettges to “make solid and verifiable” assurances that jobs will be safe, paychecks will not shrink and management will not interfere in union activities."

These workers shouldn't hold their breath.

From Comcast to AT&T, telecom merger after telecom merger begins with a laundry list of promises that nothing whatsoever will change and if things do change, it will only be for the better. Then, everything changes as redundant retail support, and executive positions are inevitably eliminated. It's a finely oiled machine you could set your watch to, yet each time a new merger is proposed the press collectively nods dumbly as if pre-merger guarantees mean much of anything, and government doesn't have a multi-generational history of failing to hold companies accountable when they blatantly ignore merger conditions.

It's a problem that's particularly pronounced in the telecom sector, where tens of thousands of jobs are being lost due to mindless consolidation and a mantra of "growth for growth's sake." Saturated growth in fixed and mobile broadband has driven companies to mergers in the hopes of attaining growth, but as AT&T's Time Warner and DirecTV acquisitions or Frontier's gobbling up of aging phone lines have made clear, being bigger doesn't magically equate to being better. In fact it's usually the opposite as even bigger, debt-saddled companies fail to scale customer service to handle the growth.

Why the US seems incapable of learning from history on this subject is a question for the ages. Right Now, T-Mobile is telling regulators that the merger will magically create thousands of new jobs. It's also promising to keep both Sprint's Overland Park, Kansas and T-Mobile's Bellevue, Washington headquarters both intact. All while we see zero negative impact and increased competition despite fewer overall competitors. History has repeatedly shown such claims to be little more than fluff and nonsense, yet regulators at both the FCC and DOJ (both not coincidentally now run by former telecom lawyers) are happy to believe the promises.

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Posted on Net Neutrality Special Edition - 5 September 2019 @ 9:37am

One More Time: Just Because The Internet Didn't Explode Doesn't Mean Killing Net Neutrality Was A Great Idea

from the feigned-ignorance dept

By now we've well established that the FCC ignored the public, ignored the experts, and ignored all objective data when it killed net neutrality rules at the behest of telecom monopolies.

One common refrain by Pai and and the industry (and many folks who don't understand how the broken telecom market works) is that because the internet didn't immediately collapse upon itself post-repeal in a rainbow-colored explosion, that the repeal itself must not be that big of a deal. That ignores the fact that ISPs are only largely behaving because they're worried about the numerous new state level net neutrality laws passed in the wake of the federal repeal. Not to mention the 23 state AG lawsuit against the FCC (which, if victorious, would restore some or all of the rules).

None of that matters to the Chicago Tribune editorial staff, the latest outlet to proclaim that because your internet connection still works, ignoring the public and letting AT&T, Verizon, and Comcast dictate US federal internet policy must not have been a bad thing:

"The FCC did vote to nix net neutrality, effective June 2018. A year-plus later, broadband download and upload speeds have quickened rather than slowed. Internet providers haven’t bifurcated service into different speeds for rich and poor households. Mobile networks, too, move data more swiftly than before. Broadband investment in better technology again has accelerated. And if baseball fan Chuck Schumer has missed a pitch, blame his bat speed, not his data speed."

Again, this ignores the fact that ISPs don't want to dramatically shift their business models only to run afoul of state regulators. Nor do they want to dramatically start ripping people off, only to have the FCC's 2015 rules suddenly be restored via the AG lawsuit (a ruling in which is expected any day now). Folks writing these kinds of editorials know this. They're just hoping that you don't.

Meanwhile, claims that nothing happened in the wake of the repeal aren't even true. Giants like AT&T have quietly started using broadband usage caps to disadvantage competitors like Netflix. ISPs like CenturyLink have blocked internet access to sling ads. Mobile carriers now charge you more just to stream in HD as intended. And the repeal of net neutrality didn't just kill net neutrality, it eroded the FCC's ability to police the sector, leaving us with revolving door regulators totally unwilling to do anything about numerous sector scandals including the collection and sale of user location data or hurricane recovery failures.

When you can't make your point based on the facts, the trend du jour is to just make up your own facts. In the realm of net neutrality, that usually means falsely claiming that the rules apocalyptically-stifled broadband investment and network upgrades (which has objectively never, ever been true). That doesn't stop the Tribune:

"That silence you hear in response to those two questions is the sound of free-market incentives improving internet services at a steady pace. Companies are competing to increase rather than decrease data speeds. And, thus far, internet providers haven’t adopted exploitative service and pricing policies that would drive angry customers to rival providers in a heartbeat. And if companies do take unfair advantage of life after net neutrality, the federal deregulation can be modified, or reversed by regulators, or overridden by Congress."

So one, the speed increases we've seen in the wake of the repeal are routine and have nothing to do with repealing net neutrality, something the Tribune likely knows, but ignores. Punting to Congress on this issue is also a cop out when Congress is slathered with telecom sector campaign contributions, something else the Tribune knows is true, but ignores. The pretense remains that the FCC's 2015 net neutrality rules (fairly tame by international standards) crushed the vibrant and competitive broadband sector, and again, that, like most of the Tribune's claims, has never been true.

This apparently needs repeating: a telecom regulator ignoring all objective data and neutering itself at the behest of the telecom lobby is a bad thing. Revolving door regulators ignoring the public and gutting essential consumer protections (based on fabricated data) is a bad thing. Government officials turning a blind eye to identity theft and fraud during the one chance consumers had to make their voices heard is a bad thing. Putting natural monopolies with 30 years of anti-competitive behavior under their belts in charge of US telecom policy is a bad thing. It may take a few years for the full negative impact to be seen, but that doesn't make what happened any less of a problem.

If your response to all of this is "gee, who cares, the internet still works for the moment," the only thing you're advertising is your ignorance.

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Posted on Techdirt - 4 September 2019 @ 6:49am

Facebook And Twitter Hope To Fix California's Troubled Privacy Law With...Misleading Ads?

from the you're-not-helping dept

With the federal government doing little to pass a real privacy law for the modern era, states have begun rushing into the void. That's unfortunately resulting in some state privacy laws that are a lacking in the...quality department. That's been particularly true in California, where the government recently passed the new California Consumer Privacy Act. While the law may be well intentioned, we've noted how the rushed bill has plenty of problems that need fixing if it's ever going to actually work. Murky definitions and drafting errors leave the bill a bit of a muddled mess, with the potential to even undermine other, existing laws.

While all sides of the debate have descended upon the California legislature in a bid to try and fix the bill's language, Silicon Valley lobbying giants have been busy running some highly misleading ads in a bid to try and soften the bill. Under the banner of "Keep the Internet Free," the Google, Twitter, Facebook, and Microsoft-backed Internet Association has been running ads trying to claim that the bill would result in users having to pay errant fees just to use the internet:

"The FREE websites and apps you use every day could start costing you,” announced one such ad on Twitter.

“Using the internet shouldn’t hurt your wallet,” began another that predicted browsing the Web could someday seem like paying at the pump for gasoline."

And while California's proposal certainly has numerous problems, any claim it's going to result in the internet being turned into some kind of pay-to-play hellscape is just nonsense. Sacramento-area users who actually click on the ad are directed to a website that further tries to suggest the new bill will suddenly have users paying to access social media in much the same way they have to pay to buy gasoline:

This obviously isn't the Internet Association's first foray into misleading privacy lobbying. Silicon Valley worked hand in hand with the telecom sector early on to try and stall California's privacy law efforts, pushing ads and talking points claiming that a state-level privacy law would embolden extremists, endanger children, and litter the internet with annoying popups, none of which was actually true. This was after telecom and Silicon Valley worked hand in hand to kill some fairly modest (and far better written) FCC privacy rules back in 2017.

Granted, Silicon Valley giants have some very good reasons to oppose the California bill, given it's rushed and sloppy language could easily result in steeper additional operational costs and numerous unforseen headaches.

At the same time, it's oddly understated that these companies would much prefer it if no privacy law were passed at all, and if a bill is passed, they'd prefer it be loaded with so many loopholes as to be largely useless. Even if the bill lacked troubling language, no major company actually wants to suddenly face million/billion dollar losses due to restrictions on data monetization or behavioral ads, and the combined lobbying firepower of the telecom, tech, insurance, healthcare, and marketing industries makes passing any privacy law with teeth a steep uphill climb.

The problem in California is the bill is slated to go live (warts and all) on January 1, though actual enforcement isn't expected until at least next summer. Efforts by privacy advocates to strengthen the bill have stalled, so their focus now is simply keeping the tougher portions of the bill intact:

"After two failed bids to strengthen the 2018 law, data-privacy advocates say their goal for the year is simply to keep the Privacy Act intact.

"We’re basically looking to hold the line on everything." said Lee Tien, a senior staff attorney for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a San Francisco-based group that advocates for stronger consumer protections online. "We’re watching for gut-and-amends and the usual shenanigans on the floor."

In contrast, the tech sector's goal is to try and weaken the definitions of what's collected, how it can be shared, and who it can be sold to. And while the industry certainly has plenty of other of legitimate reasons to oppose the bill as currently written, further muddying the waters with additional layers of misleading advertising isn't likely to help their cause.

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Posted on Techdirt - 3 September 2019 @ 6:30am

Pressured By 'Right To Repair' Movement, Apple Will Sell Parts To Independent Repair Shops

from the monopolizing-repair dept

Apple has never looked too kindly upon users actually repairing their own devices. The company's ham-fisted efforts to shut down, sue, or otherwise imperil third-party repair shops are legendary. As are the company's efforts to force recycling shops to shred Apple products (so they can't be refurbished and re-used), and Apple's often comical attacks on essential right to repair legislation, which only sprung up after companies like Apple, Microsoft, Sony, John Deere, and others created a grass-roots counter-movement via their attempts to monopolize repair.

The motivation for these behaviors is obvious: if users are repairing or recycling their iDevices, that means fewer device sales and more customers wandering outside of Apple's ecosystem. Apple routinely obfuscates this obvious self interest under claims that it's exclusively worried about consumer safety and security, like that time it claimed that Nebraska would become a "mecca for hackers" (oh no!) if the state embraced legislation protecting a consumer's right to repair their own devices.

But the right to repair movement finally appears to have driven some actual change at the company. Apple announced this week it would be providing parts to independent repair shops for the first time in the company's history, provided the repair technicians are certified. The program creates an entirely new "authorized independent repair" program, but for the moment it only applies to out-of-warranty iPhone repairs in the US, and it's not clear yet how easy it will be to gain Apple's official approval.

In a company statement, Apple implies the decision was driven by a simple concern for consumer welfare:

"To better meet our customers’ needs, we’re making it easier for independent providers across the US to tap into the same resources as our Apple Authorized Service Provider network,” said Jeff Williams, Apple’s chief operating officer. “When a repair is needed, a customer should have confidence the repair is done right. We believe the safest and most reliable repair is one handled by a trained technician using genuine parts that have been properly engineered and rigorously tested."

Apple is, of course, hoping to preempt proposed legislation in nearly 20 states that would open the flood gates to consumer and independent repair, putting an end to the company's dreams of a repair monopoly. As such, some worried that Apple was attempting to co-opt the movement by creating this new program that it still at least has some degree of control over. Others were skeptical that Apple would just reject a wide swath of applicants and make the program far more restrictive than the announcement would leave you to believe:

Still, the fact that Apple is even doing this speaks to the incredible work being done by right to repair advocates, who've increasingly been successful in pushing this subject into the mainstream. That said, given Apple's history, it makes sense to not give Apple too many pats on the back until it's clear the program isn't rife with obnoxious restrictions and caveats.

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Posted on Free Speech - 30 August 2019 @ 6:32am

Hong Kong ISPs Refuse To Help China Censor The Internet

from the swimming-upstream dept

China's no stranger to censorship online, given it runs one of the most sophisticated internet censorship operations on the planet. Like many governments upset with the idea of free expression online, China has also long waged a war against VPNs and proxies that let the public bypass this ham-fisted techno-blockade.

But the repression and censorship China enacts within its core territories have been harder to implement in Hong Kong, where internet traffic isn't forced through China's massive censorship firewall. Case in point: when reports began circulating that China was considering censoring access to certain websites and services, the Hong Kong Internet Service Providers Association (HKISPA) issued a statement saying thanks but no thanks. A core complaint by the ISPs was the fact that the use of encryption and VPNs means that such efforts are largely pointless:

"Technically speaking, given the complexity of the modern Internet including technologies like VPN, cloud and cryptographies, it is impossible to effectively and meaningfully block any services, unless we put the whole Internet of Hong Kong behind large scale surveillance firewall."

Should China's government proceed anyway, the ISPs were quick to note that any ham-fisted attempt to cordon off Hong Kong from the rest of the world would only stifle industry in the city:

"By the above token, HKISPA would like to warn that, imposing any insensible restrictions on the open Internet would only result in more restrictions, as the original restrictions wouldn’t be effective, and ultimately the result is putting Hong Kong’s Internet behind a big firewall. Therefore, any such restrictions, however slight originally, would start the end of the open Internet of Hong Kong, and would immediately and permanently deter international businesses from positing their businesses and investments in Hong Kong."

Telegram is widely being used to help coordinate the ongoing protests. As a result, the company has been facing massive DDOS attacks that are likely being launched by the Chinese government. Regardless, Hong Kong ISPs say they'll refuse any government demands to censor the platform:

"ISPs in Hong Kong are all law abiding, but they may not circumvent technical and financial constraints of the business which may make executive orders to impose network restrictions not easily implementable. We request that the government consult the industry in resolving these constraints, and consult the society at large before imposing any such restrictions."

As on other fronts, China's government is a stumbling and confused mess when it comes to governing a free thinking, successful city, and any efforts to apply tactics used in China's mainland (most notably the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests) is likely to only make existing tensions worse.

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Posted on Techdirt Wireless - 29 August 2019 @ 10:43am

DOJ 'Solution' For Sprint T-Mobile Merger Will Result In Less Overall Wireless Coverage

from the empty-promises dept

As we recently noted, the DOJ is absolutely tripping over itself to approve a $26 billion merger between T-Mobile and Sprint that most objective experts say will inevitably erode competition, raise rates, and reduce not only the total number of sector jobs--but the amount everybody in the telecom industry is paid. Forty years of telecom history is very clear on this point: when you reduce the total number of competitors in a telecom market, the results generally aren't pretty (unless you're an investor or executive).

To try and justify its approval, the DOJ has been pushing a plan that would involve the government nannying the creation of an entirely new fourth wireless carrier by spinning some of T-Mobile and Sprint assets to Dish Network, a company with a long history of empty promises on the wireless front. But a closer look at the proposal notes that not only will it take years for Dish to become a viable replacement fourth carrier (if it happens at all), the end product will result in a carrier that covers just 70% of the US, not the 99% T-Mobile, Sprint, and the FCC have been promising:

"70% of the US is far short of what T-Mobile and Sprint promised the FCC. The merging companies "committed to deploying a 5G network that would cover 97 percent of our nation's population within three years of the closing of the merger and 99 percent of Americans within six years," FCC Chairman Ajit Pai said in May."

And again, this is assuming that Dish builds a full network in the first place, something many doubt will ever actually happen. For one, doing so requires some heavy coddling from the likes of FCC head Ajit Pai, who has done little to nothing to punish wireless carriers for a wide variety of sins ranging from location data scandals to billing fraud. The idea that this rubber stamp FCC will stand up to Dish and T-Mobile should they miss build out deadlines (or stand up to AT&T and Verizon when they inevitably try to undermine the effort) seems fairly laughable.

And Dish has a long history of hoarding precious wireless spectrum and then doing nothing with it, something even T-Mobile complained about at length before they became megamerger BFFs. Wall Street analysts doubt Dish has the assets, expertise, or funds to actually pull off the DOJ plan:

""Verizon spends $15 billion annually to maintain a network that they've already built," wireless industry analysts Craig Moffett and Jessica Moffett wrote in a note for investors on July 25. "The idea that Dish might spend $10 billion (their own estimate on previous conference calls) and then somehow be finished is, well, just silly."

MoffettNathanson recommended that investors sell their Dish shares, writing that the biggest loser in the T-Mobile/Sprint/Dish deal "is Dish Network, or rather, Dish Network's investors." Dish's investors value its "spectrum holdings as an asset-held-for-sale," which is "only appropriate if the spectrum will be sold," the firm wrote."

It's likely the FCC and DOJ know this proposal simply ends with Dish selling its spectrum assets back to Verizon or AT&T, but simply don't care. That's the benefit of regulatory capture. Granted the deal still has to survive a bipartisan lawsuit from a growing number of state AGs, the trial for which won't even begin until December.

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Posted on Techdirt - 29 August 2019 @ 6:11am

The FCC Doesn't Actually Know How Many People Have Broadband

from the busted-data dept

For a country that likes to talk about "being number one" a lot, that's sure not reflected in the United States' broadband networks, or the broadband maps we use to determine which areas lack adequate broadband or competition (resulting in high prices and poor service). Our terrible broadband maps are, of course, a feature not a bug. ISPs have routinely lobbied to kill any efforts to improve data collection and analysis, lest somebody actually realize the telecom market is a broken mono/duopoly whose dysfunction reaches into every aspect of tech.

While these shaky maps have been the norm for several decades, recent bipartisan pressure by states (upset that they're not getting their share of taxpayer subsidies because we don't actually know where broadband is) has finally forced even the Ajit Pai FCC and the telecom industry to take some modest action.

US Telecom, a lobbying org largely backed by AT&T, has been conducting trials in Missouri and Virginia that utilize a new broadband mapping system that integrates hundreds of millions of data points, statistical scoring, and managed crowdsourcing to get a far more accurate assessment of broadband availability. The results? A huge chunk of the areas the FCC has long claimed have broadband, don't:

"In Missouri and Virginia, up to 38% of rural homes and businesses that the FCC counts as having broadband access actually do not, the new research found. That's more than 445,000 unconnected homes and businesses that the FCC would call "served" with its current system.

Given that the new research covered just two states with a combined population of 14.6 million (or 4.5% of the 327.2 million people nationwide), it's likely that millions of homes nationwide have been wrongly counted as served by broadband. A full accounting of how the current data exaggerates access could further undercut FCC Chairman Ajit Pai's claims that repealing net neutrality rules and other consumer protection measures have dramatically expanded broadband access."

Granted most of this is due to the flawed Form 477 data the FCC collects from ISPs. Historically, nobody has confirmed that the data ISPs provided is really accurate, letting ISPs spend years falsely overstating broadband availability. The FCC's methodology had long made the problem worse by determining an entire census blocked "served" with broadband if just one home in that zone had broadband.

The industry has long opposed more accurate mapping because it would only serve to highlight the industry's coverage and competitive shortcomings. That's a major reason why the FCC's $350 million broadband map omits pricing data and largely hallucinates both availability and speeds. And the industry is only finally buckling to pressure now because it knows better mapping efforts are inevitable, and they want to be the ones in control of the data. Some consumer advocates are understandably concerned that less transparency into the raw data may be the industry's broader goal.

Whether the FCC will adopt US Telecom's approach is unclear. But what is clear is that the agency tasked with improving broadband deployment in the US doesn't actually know who has broadband and hasn't for the better part of the last decade. What's also fairly clear is that the Pai FCC's claims that gutting consumer protections (like net neutrality) have dramatically boosted broadband availability, are routinely not supported by, you know, facts. It's kind of hard to claim your policies are having a profound impact on broadband availability when you don't actually know where broadband's available in the first place.

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Posted on Techdirt - 23 August 2019 @ 3:32am

Rogue 'Smart' Ovens Again Highlight How Dumb Tech Is Often The Smarter Choice

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

If you hadn't noticed by now, in the IOT era, sometimes dumb technology is the smarter option. Given that privacy and security are usually afterthoughts for many vendors, we now live in an age where your Barbie can be hacked and used to spy on your kids, your refrigerator can be hacked to gain access to your Gmail account, your smart tea kettle can provide a nice attack vector on your home network, and your "smart" television watches you every bit as often as you watch it. This wasn't the future the Jetsons promised.

Enter the June oven, a "smart" oven that originally launched in 2015 with a $1500 countertop variant that used a camera and "computer vision" to know what was being cooked. The company then launched a $600 version in 2018 that integrates an oven, an air fryer, dehydrator, slow cooker, broiler, toaster, warming drawer, and convection countertop oven. Which might all be fairly impressive if the oven didn't have a weird habit of turning itself on in the middle of the night:

"The first documented overnight preheat occurred in May. A group member wrote that he roasted potatoes around 5PM one night and left them to cool in the oven. He apparently forgot to take them out. The next morning, he awoke to find that the oven had turned on at 1:20AM and baked at 425 degrees for four hours and 32 minutes. The potatoes, which were still in the oven, burned to a crisp. “Had I not left the potatoes overnight, I may have not realized it had turned on in the night,” he wrote."

The future is decidedly more Terry Gilliam than Star Trek.

In response, June's CEO decided that the best path forward was to blame owners for the problem:

"June CEO Matt Van Horn says that owners, not the oven, are at fault. “We’ve seen a few cases where customers have accidentally activated their oven preheat via a device, figure your cell phone,” he tells The Verge. “So imagine if I were to be in the June app clicking recipes and I accidentally tapped something that preheated my oven, we’ve seen a few cases of that.”

While there's certainly an element of human error here, if you can accidentally preheat your oven with your ass, we're talking about design issues. Other customers say their ovens began cooking nonexistent food in the middle of the night due to things like Alexa misunderstanding smart home commands. And while June says that it will try and implement tech that prevents the oven from staying on if there's no food inside, this complicated tap dance only really advertises how sometimes the dumber tech we already have is perfectly fine.

Ovens preheat in minutes and it often requires a single button press (or three). If you're going to improve upon basic ideas, you probably want to make sure your internet-connected devices don't inadvertently make the technology more annoying than ever.

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