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Posted on Techdirt - 24 September 2018 @ 6:25am

New York Times Sues FCC With Eye On Bogus Russian Net Neutrality Comments

from the disinformation-nation dept

So we've pretty well established that somebody flooded the FCC's website with bogus comments during the agency's unpopular attack on net neutrality last year. Many of these comments were made using lifted identities (like Senators Jeff Merkley and Pat Toomey, or my own). Other comments were made using the identities of dead people. Many of the comments were made by a bot that pulled some of these fake identities in alphabetical order from a hacked database of some kind. Exactly 444,938 of those comments were made using Russian e-mail addresses.

The general consensus among activists and journalists is that it was broadband providers or a partisan advocacy group linked to broadband providers, though the FCC's total refusal to aid investigations have made proving this rather difficult. This week, the New York Times sued the FCC for its ongoing refusal to adequately respond to FOIA requests regarding the incident. In an interesting twist however, the Times seems more interested in the Russian angle of the story than the wholesale fraud that occurred:

"The request at issue in this litigation involves records that will shed light on the extent to which Russian nationals and agents of the Russian government have interfered with the agency notice-and-comment process about a topic of extensive public interest: the government’s decision to abandon “net neutrality.” Release of these records will help broaden the public’s understanding of the scope of Russian interference in the American democratic system."

It's unclear whether the Times actually thinks the Russian angle to this story is really the heart of the matter, or whether they're using concerns surrounding other Russian disinformation efforts to help bring some additional national security gravitas to the effort to expose home-grown graft and disinformation.

It's certainly possible Russia saw the net neutrality fight as another opportunity to sow division. But it's also worth noting that bogus comments supporting bad, usually anti-consumer policy is something that's been a problem across numerous agencies for several years, from fake consumers supporting efforts to rein in the banking industry, to the NFL submitting fake comments in opposition to efforts to eliminate the so-called black out rule.

On its face, those mostly likely responsible are the companies trying to shape the policies in question, and here too the most likely culprits in the net neutrality fracas are telecom monopolies with long histories of precisely this sort of nonsense.

Regardless, the Times suit makes it abundantly clear that the FCC refused to lift a finger to help reporters (or law enforcement) get to the bottom of the matter, and has routinely tried to use inapplicable FOIA exemptions (6, B5, 7E) to avoid having to share any real data:

"Repeatedly, the FCC has responded to The Times’s attempt to resolve this matter without litigation with protestations that the agency lacked the technical capacity to respond to the request, the invocation of shifting rationales for rejecting The Times’s request, and the misapplication of FOIA’s privacy exemption to duck the agency’s responsibilities under FOIA."

While it will likely take a while, slow progress is being made to force the FCC's hand on this issue. Journalist Jason Prechtel enjoyed a legal victory this week after he also sued the FCC for refusing to adequately respond to FOIA requests, data from which (largely the e-mail addresses and .CSV files utilized in the bot campaign) should surface in a few months. It's pretty obvious that there's something the FCC doesn't want explored here, and that something may just be exposed in time for not only the midterm elections, but also for the wide array of lawsuits headed the FCC's way this fall.

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Posted on Techdirt - 21 September 2018 @ 6:21am

GAO Again Points Out That Terrible U.S. Broadband Maps Drive (Intentionally) Terrible Broadband Policy

from the round-and-round-we-go dept

We've made it pretty clear by now that U.S. broadband policy generally stinks because the nation's biggest broadband providers (and the politicians who adore their campaign contributions) want to keep the U.S. broadband market as it is: uncompetitive, expensive, and broken. There are myriad ways they accomplish this, from quite literally writing and lobbying for the passage of protectionist state laws, to convincing regulators like Ajit Pai to turn a blind eye to pretty much all of the worst habits of entrenched telecom mono/duopolies.

But at the heart of the problem sits the flawed form 477 broadband mapping data the FCC collects from broadband providers. With a vested interest in portraying a healthy market, ISPs have long submitted data that over-states broadband speed and availability. And, like a loyal servant to the industry it's supposed to hold accountable, the FCC (under both parties) rarely does much to actually verify that this data is accurate. This bad data then goes on to inform bad FCC policy.

Case in point: the GAO released a study last week noting that the FCC routinely overstates broadband availability in tribal areas, which in turn results in policy that doesn't do a good job fixing the problem. As the report (pdf) notes, the flimsy, unverified data the FCC collects is only compounded by odd FCC methodology decisions, like declaring an entire area "served" with broadband if just one home in a census tract has service:

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) collects data on broadband availability from providers, but these data do not accurately or completely capture broadband access on tribal lands. Specifically, FCC collects data on broadband availability; these data capture where providers may have broadband infrastructure. However, FCC considers broadband to be “available” for an entire census block if the provider could serve at least one location in the census block. This leads to overstatements of service for specific locations like tribal lands. FCC, tribal stakeholders, and providers have noted that this approach leads to overstatements of broadband availability. Because FCC uses these data to measure broadband access, it also overstates broadband access—the ability to obtain service—on tribal lands.

The bad data, and the FCC's unwillingness to do anything about it for the last twenty years, then has a cascading effect down the line, the GAO found:

Additionally, FCC does not collect information on several factors—such as affordability, quality, and denials of service—that FCC and tribal stakeholders stated can affect the extent to which Americans living on tribal lands can access broadband services. FCC provides broadband funding for unserved areas based on its broadband data. Overstatements of access limit FCC’s and tribal stakeholders’ abilities to target broadband funding to such areas. For example, some tribal officials stated that inaccurate data have affected their ability to plan their own broadband networks and obtain funding to address broadband gaps on their lands.

Of course this is certainly a problem for tribal areas, especially given the Pai FCC's decision to try and limit the broadband improvement subsidies that help expand broadband coverage to these areas (which is odd for a guy that prattles on endlessly about how fixing the digital divide is his top priority).

But this same problem is playing out everywhere in the country, as cable providers secure a growing monopoly over broadband thanks to telcos that refuse to upgrade aging DSL lines at any real scale.

Our $350 million broadband map does a fairly terrible job mapping broadband, but it does do a wonderful job perfectly illustrating the width and breadth of this problem. The map is supposed to "educate and inform" Americans as to broadband availability. But as we've pointed out repeatedly, the plan hallucinates both speeds and ISP availability, and fails to include any data at all on pricing (at ISP request). You can try it out yourself here, perhaps noting that most of the ISPs it claims are available at your address likely don't exist.

The end result is government regulators who look at one of the most broken markets in America through rose-colored glasses, resulting in our national broadband dysfunction never getting much better. And of course when somebody at the FCC does get the crazy idea of improving mapping and availability, ISP lobbyists quickly get to work killing those efforts. And, as you might suspect, the problem has only gotten worse under FCC boss Ajit Pai, who has taken steps to weaken the very definition of "competition" itself at incumbent ISP behest.

As such, keep in mind, when you see data highlighting how terrible U.S. broadband is, you can be fairly certain it's significantly worse than that. And the reason should be pretty obvious: if somebody were to accurately illustrate the monopoly Comcast, Charter, Verizon, and AT&T enjoy (and the impact this has on everything from pricing to net neutrality), somebody might just get the crazy idea to embrace policies that actually do something about it.

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Posted on Techdirt - 20 September 2018 @ 6:22am

Court Orders FCC To Hand Over Data On Bogus Net Neutrality Comments

from the sunlight-makes-the-best-disinfectant dept

You might recall that when the Trump FCC killed net neutrality, the public comment period (the only chance consumers had to actually offer their opinion) was plagued with all manner of identity theft and bogus comments. Oddly, the FCC didn't seem too concerned that dead people were filing comments to the FCC website supporting their extremely unpopular decision, and even actively blocked law enforcement investigations into what happened. It's worth noting that similar campaigns to generate bogus support for unpopular policies have plagued other government agencies in the post-truth era.

Annoyed by the FCC's lack of transparency and its refusal to respond to FOIA requests for additional data, journalist Jason Prechtel sued the FCC in late 2017. This week, a ruling (pdf) by Christopher Cooper of US District Court for the District of Columbia ordered the FCC to hand over at least some of the data. The ruling requires that the FCC hand over email addresses that were used to submit .CSV files, which in turn contained the bulk comments. The order did not, however, grant Prechtel's request for server logs, which could help detail who used specific APIs.

In his ruling, Cooper stated that understanding what went wrong would help prevent fraud in other proceedings moving forward (something, again, the FCC has shown it's really not too concerned about):

"In addition to enabling scrutiny of how the Commission handled dubious comments during the rulemaking, disclosure would illuminate the Commission's forward-looking efforts to prevent fraud in future processes...It is surely in the public interest to further the oversight of agency action to protect the very means by which Americans make their voices heard in regulatory processes."

Yes, go figure.

The FCC argued it couldn't disclose this e-mail data because it would violate consumer privacy, but consumers were told by the FCC when they made these comments that their e-mail addresses would likely be made public, "mitigating any expectation of privacy," the Judge declared. Again, the FCC's disinterest in getting to the bottom of this issue can't be over-stated, the agency ignored nine inquiries over a period of five months by New York State investigators looking for more data on the problem, and (like that DDOS the agency was caught fabricating) refused to seriously respond to journalists' inquiries.

In a blog post, Prechtel stated that he's not sure when he'll actually get access to the data, but was pleased that the court saw the importance for transparency surrounding the FCC's historically-unpopular policy:

"Regardless of how the rest of the case plays out, this is already a huge victory for transparency over an issue that has gone unanswered by the FCC and its current leadership for too long. Of course, it may be a matter of months before we actually get to see the records I won (or may still win), and learn who else was submitting bulk comments to the FCC that we don’t already know about. Even then, the full scope of the records I asked for only goes through early June 2017, and doesn’t encompass several more months of millions of comments the FCC went ahead and let flood into their system in spite of all the high-profile controversy."

A big source of the bogus comments appear to have originated with GQ Roll Call, on behalf of an "anonymous client" (which most assume is either a major broadband provider like AT&T or Comcast, or some other proxy partisan organization they covertly fund). Hopefully the data, whenever it arrives, helps shine a little more light on precisely what it is the FCC pretty clearly doesn't want exposed to the light of day.

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Posted on Techdirt - 19 September 2018 @ 10:44am

Congress Fails To Include A Single Consumer Advocate In Upcoming Privacy Hearing

from the ill-communication dept

As the U.S. ponders what meaningful privacy protections should look like in the Comcast & Cambridge Analytica era, it should probably go without saying that consumers should be part of that conversation. Unsurprisingly, that hasn't really been the case so far. That was exemplified, in part, by the GOP's decision to neuter FCC broadband privacy rules much the same way they dismantled net neutrality: by ignoring any consumer-oriented input that didn't gel with their pre-existing beliefs: namely that all regulation is always bad and a nuanced conversation on the merits of each instance of regulation simply isn't necessary.

When a "conversation" does occur, it tends to be superficial at best, and consumers pretty consistently aren't invited to the table. Case in point: on September 26, the Senate Commerce Committee will be holding a hearing entitled "Examining Safeguards for Consumer Data Privacy." One of the motivating reasons for this hearing, at least according to Senator John Thune, was because "consumers deserve clear answers" on privacy:

"Consumers deserve clear answers and standards on data privacy protection,” said Thune. “This hearing will provide leading technology companies and internet service providers an opportunity to explain their approaches to privacy, how they plan to address new requirements from the European Union and California, and what Congress can do to promote clear privacy expectations without hurting innovation."

It's odd then, that not a single consumer or consumer advocacy group was invited to appear at said hearing, according to the EFF:

"...the Committee is seeking only the testimony of big tech and Internet access corporations: Amazon, Apple, AT&T, Charter Communications, Google, and Twitter. Some of these companies have spent heavily to oppose consumer privacy legislation and have never supported consumer privacy laws. They know policymakers are considering new privacy protections, and are likely to view this hearing as a chance to encourage Congress to adopt the weakest privacy protections possible—and eviscerate stronger state protections at the same time."

Regardless of whether you think new privacy rules are necessary, it goes without saying that consumers should have some voice in the process. Instead, Congress pretty clearly prefers a round table where companies that have spent the better part of the last decade trying to avoid meaningful privacy protections get to dictate the course and cadence of the conversation. AT&T thinks it's a good idea to charge consumers more to protect their own privacy. Google and Facebook, meanwhile, have been working in concert with the telecom sector to scuttle state-level efforts on privacy, no matter what they look like.

Like net neutrality, the Trump era attack on federal consumer protections (like the GOP's dismantling of modest FCC broadband privacy rules last year) has opened the door to numerous states rushing to fill the oversight vacuum. The end result, as we've seen in California, tends to be rushed bills that over-reach (as opposed to the FCC's broadband privacy rules, which took years to craft). All the while, the tech press adores tap dancing around the fact that this current administration and Congressional majority couldn't care less about meaningful consumer protections.

Yes, some of these state efforts are terrible. And yes, it would be easy for federal rules to be equally bad. Especially when the crafting process is largely being driven by cross-industry gamesmanship (the telecom industry, for example, has covertly undermined its alliance with Silicon Valley and is pushing for rules that screw over their video ad competitors like Google, but leave giant ISPs free to do as they wish). That said, it shouldn't be assumed that meaningful privacy protections are impossible, especially given the Congressional status quo shake up that may be just over the horizon.

Another truth the tech press enjoys tap dancing around is the fact that none of the companies invited to this round table want serious privacy rules impacting them, even if they're well-crafted. Informed, educated, empowered consumers are more likely to opt-out of data collection and monetization, and you'd be hard pressed to find any major company that's eager to lose billions as these consumers dodge being tracked and sold to.

Without consumer groups at the table, these are the kind of facts that tend to get lost in the shuffle, and the entire conversation tends to shift to why privacy rules kill innovation and aren't necessary, and not what real privacy consumer protections might look like. Again, because as it stands now, none of the folks at this hearing are actually interested in real rules that protect consumers. They're interested in either no rules at all, or flimsy federal rules that pre-empt more meaningful state-level protections. And many of the politicians at this hearing aren't interested in privacy at all, they're simply eager to hammer Silicon Valley over perceived, frequently hallucinated, partisan censhorship claims that have nothing to do with privacy.

Sure, maybe meaningful privacy protections are impossible, either due to government's failure to adapt to quickly changing markets, or outright corruption. But by omitting consumer groups from the conversation, it's being made abundantly clear that this isn't a serious effort one way or another, with the end result being more of an echo chamber than any meaningful policy discussion.

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Posted on Techdirt - 19 September 2018 @ 6:24am

Google Fiber's 'Failure' Succeeded In Shining A Light On Pathetic Broadband Competition

from the mission-not-accomplished dept

We've mentioned several times how Google Fiber's promise to revolutionize the broadband sector never really materialized. There's a long list of reasons for that, from incumbent ISPs suing to stop Google's access to utility poles, to Alphabet executives suddenly getting bored with the high cost and slow pace of deploying fiber and battling entrenched monopolies.

As it stands, Google Fiber's expansions are largely on pause as company executives figure out how much money they're willing to spend, what the wireless future looks like, and whether Alphabet really wants to participate. That said, while Google Fiber's actual footprint pales in comparison to the hype, the service was a success in that it generated a quality, nationwide conversation about the sorry state of U.S. broadband competition, and spurred some otherwise apathetic incumbent ISPs to actually up their game, as countless cities nationwide decried the terrible state of existing service.

That point was driven home this week in this piece by Blair Levin and Larry Downes. In it, the two quite correctly note that Google Fiber not only pushed incumbents to expand more fiber, but also resulted in incumbent ISPs offering dramatically lower rates in markets where Google Fiber was deployed. This is, as you may already know, how real competition is supposed to work:

"It stimulated the incumbents to accelerate their own infrastructure investments by several years. New applications and new industries emerged, including virtual reality and the Internet of Things, proving the viability of an “if you build it, they will come” strategy for gigabit services. And in the process, local governments were mobilized to rethink restrictive and inefficient approaches to overseeing network installations."

I wrote something very similar on this subject back in 2015, noting that Google Fiber (read: actual competition) did more for broadband in a short period than the FCC's 2010 "national broadband plan," a collection of politically-timid policy goals set forth by Obama's first FCC boss, Julius Genachowski. Like most of the things Genachowski did, the plan carefully avoided offending anyone, barely addressed the overall lack of competition in the market, and (as the FCC likes to do) set forth a number of policy "goals" that would have been met with our without the plan's guidance.

Levin, who played a starring role in crafting that plan, sent me numerous e-mails complaining about my original piece, yet several years later returns to make many of the same points. That said, Levin and Downes go on to notably oversell the lasting impact Google Fiber's effort is going to have on the (still quite broken) U.S. broadband market. There's an odd effort to suggest the broadband market has been permanently fixed by Google's now-shelved ambitions. Case in point:

"Though Google appears to have paused future deployments, the broadband business has permanently changed. Fiber investments by former telephone companies have accelerated or restarted. More advanced DSL using fiber-copper hybrid technology was rushed into operation, as were new fiber-to-the-home services from AT&T, CenturyLink and Frontier. Cable companies once again upgraded their technology, accelerating deployment of gigabit-capable standards. New technologies — including low-orbit satellites and “fixed wireless” — were developed for remote and rural locations.

The two-tiered market of high-speed cable and lower-speed DSL broadband has given way to a free-for-all, forcing adoption of more disruptive strategies by incumbents and new entrants alike. The result is increased competition between providers and among cities and regions eager for game-changing private investment."

Reading that, you'd think it was mission accomplished. But Levin and Downes fail to even mention how incumbent ISPs continue to sue many cities that try to modernize their rules if they favor competition. They also ignore how many potential Google Fiber customers are immensely frustrated by delays, cancelled installations, and empty hype as Google Fiber figures out what it wants to do next. But most importantly, the piece ignores that despite Google Fiber, the broadband competition problem in the United States continues to get worse in many markets.

One, without Google Fiber or an equivalent prompting them to, most telcos have refused to upgrade aging DSL lines to fiber at any real scale. That has resulted in cable incumbents like Comcast securing a bigger monopoly than ever across a huge swath of the states, and numerous areas where fast broadband simply doesn't exist (especially if you're poor). And while Downes/Levin look to wireless to magically fix this mono/duopoly, companies like AT&T and Verizon still enjoy monopoly control over the backhaul fiber used to feed cellular towers (and everything ranging from ATMs to schools).

So yes, Google Fiber helped generate a conversation about broadband competition, and even helped address the problem in a few areas. But we've taken numerous steps back since Google Fiber's heyday. Especially given the Ajit Pai tactic of simply gutting most consumer protections and insisting that's going to somehow magically fix the problem of natural broadband monopolies (another issue the authors just kind of casually ignore as if it's not relevant to solving the current problem).

The broadband market is a complicated mess, and is going to require an ocean of creative solutions, from serious policy that encourages competition, to local public/private partnerships where local governments play a role in improving connectivity to lower ROI markets. Yes, Google Fiber highlighted the problem. But its solution was a temporary one, and most would-be competitors lack the resources allowing them to bang their heads against a regulatory captured, broken market. So yes, Google Fiber taught us some valuable lessons, but it's entirely unclear if those lessons have actually been learned.

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Posted on Techdirt - 18 September 2018 @ 6:12am

Ajit Pai Whines About California's Net Neutrality Effort, Calls It 'Radical,' 'Illegal'

from the cry-baby dept

Much like the giant ISPs he's clearly beholden to, Ajit Pai isn't particularly happy about California's efforts to pass meaningful net neutrality rules. The state's shiny new law recently passed the state assembly and senate, and is awaiting the signature of California Governor Jerry Brown. ISPs recently met with Brown in a last-minute bid to get him to veto the bill (a very real possibility) despite widespread, majority public support.

Pai last week took some time to whine about California's bill at the Maine Heritage Policy Center, a "free market" think tank supported by (shockingly) major ISPs. In his speech, Pai insisted that California's attempt to protect consumers is somehow both "extreme" and "illegal":

"Of course, those who demand greater government control of the Internet haven’t given up. Their latest tactic is pushing state governments to regulate the Internet. The most egregious example of this comes from California. Last month, the California state legislature passed a radical, anti-consumer Internet regulation bill that would impose restrictions even more burdensome than those adopted by the FCC in 2015."

We've been over this so many times it hardly warrants a response. But it should be clear that states only took the steps to pass state-level net neutrality laws after Pai made it repeatedly, aggressively clear that his agency could not care less about the welfare of consumers. Killing net neutrality, supporting the elimination of broadband privacy protections, gutting FCC consumer protection authority, thwarting efforts to improve cable box competition, and eroding broadband programs for the poor all highlight this fact. Didn't want states intervening? Don't be so aggressively hostile to consumers.

From here, Pai proceeds to again try to claim that what California is up to is somehow "illegal," which also (surprise) isn't true:

"The broader problem is that California’s micromanagement poses a risk to the rest of the country. After all, broadband is an interstate service; Internet traffic doesn’t recognize state lines. It follows that only the federal government can set regulatory policy in this area. For if individual states like California regulate the Internet, this will directly impact citizens in other states.

Among other reasons, this is why efforts like California’s are illegal."

At ISP behest, Pai included language in the FCC's net-neutrality-killing "restoring internet freedom" order that attempts to pre-empt (read: ban) states from protecting consumers in the wake of FCC apathy. And while Pai keeps trying to claim the FCC has this authority, the courts so far have not seen it that way. In part because when Pai decided to roll back ISP classification of common carriers under the Telecom Act, he also eliminated any potential rights the FCC had to tell states what to do.

That's a point California Senator Scott Weiner was quick to make in his own statement:

"SB 822 is necessary and legal because Chairman Pai abdicated his responsibility to ensure an open internet. Since the FCC says it no longer has any authority to protect an open internet, it’s also the case that the FCC lacks the legal power to preempt states from protecting their residents and economy. When Verizon was caught throttling the data connection of a wildfire fighting crew in California, Chairman Pai said nothing and did nothing. That silence says far more than his words today.

Like any good disinformation magician, Pai hopes that if he repeats these falsehoods often enough, they'll magically become true. But it's hard to tapdance around the fact that the vast, bipartisan majority of Americans hate their cable and phone companies and support these rules for good reason -- and by ignoring the will of the public and refusing to rein in monopoly providers with three decades of anti-competitive behavior under their belts, it's Pai that's the radical one.

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Posted on Techdirt - 17 September 2018 @ 6:30am

The Nation's Second Biggest Cable Company Probably Won't Get Kicked Out Of New York State After All

from the ill-communication dept

Back in July, New York State took the historically-unprecedented step of voting to kick Charter Communications (aka Spectrum) out of New York State. Regulators say the company misled them about why the company repeatedly failed to adhere to merger conditions affixed to the company's $86 billion acquisition of Time Warner Cable and Bright House Networks, going so far as to falsify (according to the NY PUC) the number of homes the company expanded service to. The state has also sued the company for failing to deliver advertised broadband speeds, for its shoddy service, and for its terrible customer support.

But the threat to kick Charter out of the state appears largely to have been a negotiation tactic, as the two sides are now purportedly making progress and engaging in "productive dialogue" as they attempt to hash out their differences. That's at least according to a Charter filing with the state PUC requesting a deadline extension obtained by Ars Technica:

"Good cause exists to further extend this deadline. Charter and the Department have been involved over the past few weeks in productive dialogue regarding the Revocation Order as well as the July Compliance Order and the related special proceeding initiated by the Commission in the [state] Supreme Court pursuant to the July Compliance Order. As part of that dialogue, Charter has been assembling additional information regarding broadband deployment efforts in New York for the Department's and the Commission's review. A further extension would allow additional time for discussions between Charter and the Department before the initiation by Charter of additional Commission or court proceedings."

The state PUC seems to agree, noting in its own order granting a deadline extension (pdf) that Charter has made a few good faith efforts of late, including ceasing running ads misleadingly stating the company expanded broadband to areas it may not have actually wired. While most telecom experts I've spoken to believe this is likely to result in some kind of settlement, this is still a fight that's going to be important to watch moving forward.

For one, Charter has attempted to use the FCC's "pre-emption" language embedded in its net neutrality repeal to try and claim that states have no authority to police ISPs in the wake of obvious federal apathy on consumer issues by the Trump administration and Ajit Pai FCC.

ISPs have lobbied hard (and quite successfully) to not only gut federal (FTC and FCC) oversight of their businesses, but have also been working hard to cripple state oversight. That's a troubling trend for an industry that already faces limited accountability due to the lack of competition in most of their markets, especially given that Charter and Comcast now enjoy a pretty stark monopoly over faster broadband speeds. That monopoly manifests itself in all manner of obvious ways, including soaring prices, unnecessary usage caps, net neutrality violations, and historically-terrible customer service.

So far those efforts haven't gone well for ISPs, with a court shooting down Charter's claim that the FCC's net neutrality repeal means states can't step in to fill the void. But with more than half the states in the nation now pursuing their own net neutrality rules, and other states trying to pass privacy rules in the wake of dismantling of FCC protections last year in Congress, this is a fight that's going to be playing out repeatedly in the months and years to come as states try to fill the vacuum left by a federal government that (unless you're in deep denial) pretty clearly doesn't care much about telecom consumer protection.

And while some states (New York, California, Washington) clearly still think consumer protection is important given the perils of monopoly power, there's countless states that are going to mirror the federal belief that telecom Utopia is accomplished, magically, by letting giant monopolies like Comcast, Charter and AT&T run amok. That's going to be especially problematic for users in states like Tennessee and West Virginia, where letting these historically-unpopular companies rip off taxpayers and over-charge captive customers is seen as a god-given right.

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Posted on Techdirt - 14 September 2018 @ 6:34am

AT&T, Verizon, T-Mobile & Sprint Want Even Broader Access To Your Personal Data

from the hard-pass dept

We've noted repeatedly that however bad Facebook has been on privacy (pretty clearly terrible), the broadband industry has traditionally been much, much worse. From AT&T's efforts to charge consumers more just to protect their privacy, to Verizon getting busted for covertly tracking users around the internet without telling them (or letting users opt out), this is not an industry that respects you or your privacy. That's before we even get to their cozy, often mindlessly-loyal relationship with intelligence and law enforcement.

As such, it's kind of amusing to note that these are the same companies now trying to position themselves as the gatekeepers of all of your private data online. As security expert Brian Krebs notes, AT&T, Verizon, T-Mobile and Sprint (the latter two of which will likely soon be one company) are cooking up something dubbed "Project Verify," which would let end users eschew traditional website passwords -- instead authenticating visitors by leveraging data elements unique to each customer’s phone and mobile subscriber account, including location, "customer reputation", and device hardware specs.

This video by the carriers offers a little more detail:

The problem, as Krebs is quick to note, is that giving more private data to companies with an utterly abysmal track record on privacy might not be a particularly bright idea:

"A key question about adoption of this fledgling initiative will be how much trust consumers place with the wireless companies, which have struggled mightily over the past several years to validate that their own customers are who they say they are."

As we've been noting, these are the same companies that have been struggling to prevent hackers from routinely stealing customer identities via SIM hijacking, which involves a hacker bribing an employee to port your phone number to a new device, then jacking your identity and making off with your private data (or making millions by selling your cryptocurrency or valuable accounts). These are also the same carriers that have routinely failed to do much about the SS7 exploit that's been in the wild for seemingly ever, allowing hackers to spy on an undetermined number of cellular customers for years.

These are also the same wireless carriers that were just caught up in a massive scandal involving their collection of sale of user location data, a multi-billion dollar venture that involves selling your daily motion habits to a cavalcade of different companies, many of which have shown a similarly-flimsy disregard for actually keeping that data safe. And these are the same companies that work tirelessly to scuttle any and every effort to actually shore up nationwide privacy standards, usually by lying to lawmakers and the public about what these plans would actually do.

For his part, Krebs thinks this is a hard pass:

"I am not likely to ever take the carriers up on this offer. In fact, I’ve been working hard of late to disconnect my digital life from these mobile providers. And I’m not about to volunteer more information than necessary beyond the bare minimum needed to have wireless service."

Other widely-respected security reporters were similarly unimpressed:

Again, the devil will be in the details. But at first glimpse, you'd be pretty foolish to trust companies with additional private data that have repeatedly proven to be routinely cavalier about the oceans of data they already collect. Time and time again wireless carriers have prioritized profits over the personal interest and welfare of consumers, and anybody expecting that to magically change ahead of Project Verify's launch haven't been paying attention.

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Posted on Techdirt - 13 September 2018 @ 6:14am

California Eyes Questionable Legislation In Bid To Fix The Internet Of Broken Things

from the broken-stuff dept

If you hadn't noticed, the much-hyped internet of things is comically broken. WiFi connected Barbies that spy on your kids, refrigerators that cough up your Gmail credentials, and "smart" televisions that watch you as often as you watch them are all now the norm. And while this has all been the focus of a lot of humor (like the Internet of shit Twitter feed), security experts have been warning for a while about how introducing millions of security flaws into millions of homes and businesses is, sooner or later, going to come back and bite us all on the ass.

As security analysts like Bruce Schneier have pointed out, few people in this dance of dysfunction really care, so things tend to not improve. Customers often aren't even aware (or don't care) that their device has been compromised and hijacked into a DDOS attacking botnet, and hardware vendors tend to prioritize sales of new devices over securing new (and especially older) gear.

Efforts to regulate the problem away are the option for many. That's what California lawmakers are considering with the recent passage of SB-327, which was introduced in February of last year, passed the California Senate on August 29, and now awaits signing from California Governor Jerry Brown. If signed into law, it would take effect in early 2020, and mandates that "a manufacturer of a connected device shall equip the device with a reasonable security feature or features," while also taking aim at things like default login credentials by requiring devices auto-prompt users to change their usernames and passwords.

But as you might expect, critics of the bill state it's not likely to actually fix the problem, in part because Chinese gearmakers (a major source of the problem) can just ignore the law. Others state California's solution is superficial at best, given that just "adding security features" doesn't really help if the technology is just fundamentally unsecure on the skeletal level:

"It’s based on the misconception of adding security features. It’s like dieting, where people insist you should eat more kale, which does little to address the problem you are pigging out on potato chips. The key to dieting is not eating more but eating less. The same is true of cybersecurity, where the point is not to add “security features” but to remove “insecure features”. For IoT devices, that means removing listening ports and cross-site/injection issues in web management. Adding features is typical “magic pill” or “silver bullet” thinking that we spend much of our time in infosec fighting against."

So if legislation isn't the solution, what is? Some believe transparency is a better bet, as exemplified by the Princeton computer science department's IOT Inspector, which aims to better educate users as to what their devices are actually doing on the internet. Others, like Consumer Reports, have been pushing to include privacy and security issues as standard operating procedure in hardware reviews. Both could go a long way toward making it much clearer as to what kind of product you're actually buying and what it's doing, since many vendors (and their user interfaces) refuse to.

Whatever the solution, it's going to likely require a coordinated response by consumers, hardware vendors, governments, and security professionals alike. While there have been some scattered efforts around the world on this front, as a whole that's generally not yet happening. As folks like Schneier continue to argue, it's likely going to require IOT devices causing massive damage and a potential loss of life (say, via attacks on core infrastructure) before the willpower for such a super-union truly materializes.

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Posted on Techdirt - 12 September 2018 @ 11:49am

Farmer Lobbying Group Accused Of Selling Out Farmers On Right To Repair Laws

from the do-not-pass-go,-do-not-collect-$200 dept

For the last few years, numerous states have been pushing so-called "right to repair" bills, which would make it easier for consumers to repair their own products and find replacement parts and tools. Not surprisingly, many tech companies have been working overtime to kill these efforts including Apple, which has tried to argue that Nebraska's right to repair bill would turn the state into a nefarious playground for hackers. Opposition also includes Sony and Microsoft, both of which enjoy a repair monopoly on their respective video game consoles.

Whether coming from Apple, Sony, or Microsoft, opposition to these bills usually focuses on the three (false) ideas: the bills will make users less safe, somehow "compromise" intellectual property, and open the door to cybersecurity theft.

Much of the current right to repair fracas began with the lowly tractor. More specifically, it started when John Deere decided to ban anything but "unauthorized repairs," inadvertently turning countless ordinary citizens into technology policy activists. A lengthy EULA the company required customers to sign back in 2016 forbids the lion-share of repair or modification of tractors customers thought they owned, simultaneously banning these consumers from suing over "crop loss, lost profits, loss of goodwill, loss of use of equipment … arising from the performance or non-performance of any aspect of the software."

As ordinary farmers hack their way around these restrictions just to make a living (often utilizing Ukranian firmware), California recently joined the attempt to codify the right to repair into law. But that effort was derailed this week with the news that California's biggest farmer lobbying organization decided to sell out its constituents and support a watered down version of California's proposal.

Back in February, the Equipment Dealers Association promised a few concessions in a bid to stall legislation; including making repair manuals, diagnostic tech and other service tools widely available to farmers by 2021. They did not, however, address efforts to hamstring third-party part sales, the use of DRM to lock down devices, and continued to battle right to repair legislation in numerous states. The California Farm Bureau (which again is supposed to represent the farmers on this issue) this week struck a "concession" deal with the Equipment Dealers Association that isn't much of a concession.

In fact, said "new" concession closely mirrors things the industry had already voluntarily agreed to:

"It is beyond comprehension...why the California Farm Bureau—which should nominally have the interests of farmers in mind—reached an agreement with the Equipment Dealers Association last week that enshrines the concessions the Equipment Dealers Association already agreed to, without seemingly getting anything else out of it, and without even getting it to move up its 2021 timeline."

“This agreement is especially important because whenever we can resolve issues that concern us without passing laws, everybody wins,” Joani Woelfel, the CEO of the Far West Equipment Dealers Association, said in a statement.

Well, not everybody. The core problems here owners have grown angry about (DRM, intentionally making it harder for third-party repair shops to get parts) weren't really addressed, and the "compromise" not only isn't much of one, but it kills the California effort for effective right to repair laws. Needless to say, activists looking for more meaningful action see this as a massive sellout:

"When it is up to the manufacturer to decide what information to share and what to withhold, you haven't addressed the problem," Gay Gordon-Byrne, Executive Director of the Repair Association, which is leading the right to repair movement, told Motherboard in an email. "We're also concerned that the agreement fails to mention anything about fair and reasonable pricing for parts, nor any mention of how farmers will get firmware, updates or patches."

"This agreement does not end monopolization of farm equipment repair,” Nathan Proctor, who is heading consumer rights group US PIRG’s right to repair efforts, told me in an email. “While it highlights how industry is feeling the pressure from Right to Repair, it also underscores that we need to do more if truly want the freedom to fix our property."

Unfortunately for hardware vendors and companies like John Deere, this isn't a fight that's going to be going away any time soon. The tighter companies like John Deere lock down their products with draconian DRM and annoying restrictions on what consumers can do, the more activists they create who previously may have never even gotten involved in such fights. As it stands, there are pushes for right to repair laws in nearly 20 states, and the tighter these companies squeeze, the more support for these initiatives they generate.

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Posted on Techdirt - 12 September 2018 @ 6:23am

Ajit Pai Again (Falsely) Claims States Are Powerless To Protect Broadband Consumers

from the good-luck-with-that dept

For much of the last year ISPs like Comcast have been successfully lobbying to eliminate most meaningful oversight of their broadband monopolies. On the federal level, that has involved convincing Ajit Pai to neuter the FCC's authority over ISPs, then shoveling any remaining authority to an FTC that's ill-equipped to actually do the job. On the state level, that has involved lobbying Pai (who again was happy to oblige) to include language in the FCC net neutrality repeal attempting to "pre-empt" (read: ban) states from also protecting consumers.

These efforts haven't gone well so far. Charter (Spectrum) tried to lean on this language to recently wiggle out of a New York State lawsuit over terrible speeds and poor service, only to have the courts reject its argument. And lawyers have argued that when the FCC abdicated its authority over ISPs, it ironically also eroded its rights to tell states what they can do, spelling trouble for any ISP plans to kill state level net neutrality rules.

Undaunted, Pai's FCC continues to insist it has this authority anyway. Last week, the US Court of Appeals for the 8th Circuit ruled (pdf) that Minnesota's state government cannot regulate VoIP phone services offered by Charter and other cable companies because VoIP is an "information service" under federal law. Charter had sued the state PUC after it filed a complaint noting that Charter had split off its voice service from its regulated wholesale telecommunications business, dubbing it an "information service" in a bid to avoid state oversight.

Ajit Pai was quick to take a victory lap in a statement praising the ruling (pdf), insisting that the court victory portends success in the FCC's goal of stopping states from protecting net neutrality:

"A patchwork quilt of 50 state laws harms investment and innovation in advanced communications services. That’s why federal law for decades has recognized that states may not regulate information services. The Eighth Circuit’s decision is important for reaffirming that well-established principle: ‘[A]ny state regulation of an information service conflicts with the federal policy of nonregulation’ and is therefore preempted. That is wholly consistent with the approach the FCC has taken under Democratic and Republican Administrations over the last two decades, including in last year’s Restoring Internet Freedom Order."

So for one, there wouldn't be a "patchwork quilt of 50 states" trying to protect net neutrality if Pai hadn't almost-gleefully assaulted popular (and modest by international standards) federal rules. Two, Pai's endless claim that net neutrality stifles investment has never been supported by the facts. Three, you'll probably be surprised to learn that the ruling doesn't do anything close to what Pai says it does:

"The net neutrality case is being handled by the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, so it will be decided by different judges. The details are also different in the net neutrality case, said attorney Andrew Schwartzman, who represents the Benton Foundation in the case against the FCC.

In the net neutrality case, "the Pai FCC definitively said that it has no jurisdiction under either Title I or Title II [of the Communications Act] to regulate broadband Internet access service," Schwartzman told Ars. "As the governmental parties explained at pp. 39-56 their brief, when an agency lacks authority to regulate, it also lacks authority to preempt.

The VoIP case also differs from the net neutrality case in that there was "no FCC decision at issue" because "the FCC has repeatedly refused to decide what regulatory classification... should be applied to VoIP," Schwartzman said. "Thus, it was left to the court to consider the question in a case between the state and Charter."

In other words, these are completely different rulings in a different court saying completely different things, something you imagine Pai (as a lawyer) would understand. And again, when the FCC killed its own ability to regulate ISPs as common carriers under Title II of the Communications Act, it simultaneously eliminated its authority to thwart states from filling the void. That's a bit weedy, but it's going to be very important should ISPs follow through on their promise to sue any states that pass their own state-level net neutrality protections.

Again, the pretense is that by killing state and federal oversight of natural monopolies, magical things will happen, ranging from more investment to lower prices and more competition. But that's not how the telecom sector works. Freeing Comcast from meaningful oversight in the absence of healthy competition only gives Comcast carte blanche to do whatever it damn well pleases. And as we've made pretty clear, what Comcast wants is to be able to find new and creative ways to rip people off with neither regulatory oversight nor competition having much of a say about it.

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Posted on Techdirt - 11 September 2018 @ 6:34am

Facebook Is Not The Internet: Philippines Propaganda Highlights Perils Of Company's 'Free Basics' Walled Garden

from the disinformation-nation dept

We've talked at great lengths about Facebook's pretty transparent effort to dominate the advertising industry in developing markets. That has come largely via internet.org and the company's "Free Basics" service, which provides a curated selection of Facebook-approved content exempt from mobile usage caps (aka "zero rated"). While Facebook has often hyped this service as a wonderful way to connect impoverished third-world farmers to the internet, net neutrality and gatekeeper concerns resulted in the program being banned in India as part of a growing tide of criticism over the programs' less noble aspects.

Many groups (like Mozilla) have pointed out that if Facebook really wants to connect poor people to the internet, they should just connect poor people to the internet, not some curated, AOL-esque version of it where Facebook dictates what content and services users get to see. Others have quite correctly pointed out the perils of conflating such a walled garden with the actual internet, especially in places like Myanmar just emerging from under the umbrella of violent dictatorship where the internet is a relatively new phenomenon with an even more profound impact than usual.

That point was driven home again this week via this Buzzfeed report on Facebook's propaganda problem in the Philippines. While Facebook was ultimately forced to retreat from Free Basics in many areas due to the above criticisms, Zuckerberg initially and repeatedly praised the service's 2013 launch in the Philippines as a smashing success, calling the program a "home run" at a conference in Barcelona in 2014.

But as the report notes, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has used Facebook -- more specifically Facebook's Free Basics service -- to wage a major disinformation war against his political opponents, shore up support via a cacophony of fake user accounts, and amplify smear campaigns and any number of bogus news reports. And because only Facebook-approved content was exempt from usage caps, users quickly began to see Facebook as the end all be all of connectivity and information, exactly as Facebook designed it.

But Facebook didn't do much of anything to help combat platform abuse, resulting in cultural and political chaos that may just look a little familiar:

"Alongside all this, Duterte and his administration have railed against the mainstream media in the Philippines. Duterte has repeatedly called local news outlets “fake news.” He’s suggested murdered journalists must have “done something” to deserve their fate. Such statements are chilling in a country where as many as 177 media workers have been killed since 1986, according to the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines.

This miasma of inflammatory rhetoric, propaganda, and real and fake news has made a mess of the Filipino political discourse and the Philippines itself. And it’s a mess we’ve seen before."

The difference, of course, is that in the States users at least tend to have access to the actual internet, allowing them to find alternative viewpoints. That's not quite as easy when your version of the "internet" is primarily a walled garden dictated by Facebook; a walled garden that at least in its earlier incarnations went so far as to ban access to encrypted services while giving governments a wonderful new repository for personal data. The end result was that all of the problems we've seen in the States were amplified and made even worse in the Philippines:

"Facebook’s Internet.org effort has floundered embarrassingly in more than half a dozen nations and territories. But in the Philippines, the social media capital of the world according to global media agency We Are Social, Facebook rushed into a culture that unquestioningly assimilated it.

"We were seduced, we were lured, we were hooked, and then, when we became captive audiences, we were manipulated to see what other people — people with vested interests and evil motives of power and domination — wanted us to see,” de Lima wrote to BuzzFeed News. “It was a slow takeover of our attention. We didn’t notice it until it was already too late."

Now that may have happened anyway, but when users can only afford to use Facebook's version of the internet, you can see how the problem could be compounded. On the plus side, Facebook does at least seem to be showing some indication it now understands its own initial lack of understanding as it bumbled toward attempting to dominate the developing world's ad markets:

"Facebook has made the world more connected than ever before, resulting in unprecedented ways for people to organize themselves in society,” a Facebook spokesperson said in response to a list of detailed questions sent by BuzzFeed News. “We know we were too idealistic about the nature of these connections and didn’t focus enough on preventing abuse or thinking through all the ways people could use the tools on the platform to do harm."

We're still pretty far from hammering out a solution to the global disinformation problem, or from determining the real width and breadth of such operations and their real impact on elections. But there does at least seem to be forming a growing consensus that when rich, white Westerners attempt to dominate markets they don't really understand with "help" that may not actually be all that helpful -- it's possible to do more harm than good.

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Posted on Techdirt - 10 September 2018 @ 10:44am

ISPs Push Employees To Urge Governor Brown Veto New California Net Neutrality Bill

from the down-to-the-wire dept

Last week we noted how California managed to shake off ISP lobbyists and pass meaningful net neutrality rules. The rules largely mirror the FCC's discarded 2015 rules, in that they prohibit throttling or blocking of services that compete with ISP monopolies. But the rules also go a bit further in that they prohibit all of the sneaky bullshit ISPs have creatively-shifted to as their anti-competitive impulses evolved, including restrictions on zero rating and interconnection shenanigans out toward the edge of the network (the cause of those Netflix slowdowns a few years back).

While the California Senate has passed the new law, it still hasn't been signed by California Governor Jerry Brown. Given Brown's tendency to occasionally veto efforts that have broad public support, net neutrality activists are a little worried he may shut the entire effort down. Potentially via the argument that the bill would somehow harm ISPs ability to make a living (which has never been true, since you only run afoul of the rules when you behave badly).

ISPs meanwhile have been making a zero hour push to encourage Brown to veto the bill, with activists telling me the CTIA (the wireless industry's top lobbying organization), Comcast and AT&T all met with Brown at his office last Tuesday. Other ISPs, like Frontier Communications, have taken to urging their employees to demand Brown veto the bill. And, as is usually the case, their arguments aren't exactly what you'll call fact-based:

"The email directs users to an online form letter to Brown claiming that Frontier “supports an open Internet,” but that the bill will “create significant new costs for consumers, hinder network investment and delay Frontier’s hard work to help close the Digital Divide in California.”

Except Frontier’s “support” for net neutrality has involved participating in a coalition of ISPs that repeatedly sued the FCC over its modest rules. And claims that net neutrality somehow harms network investment have been repeatedly, painstakingly debunked using public SEC filings, ISP earnings reports, and countless public statements by ISP executives themselves.

The e-mail to employees, which urges them to sign this letter to Brown, also relies on an ISP industry falsehood from way back; the idea that the bill (SB822) would somehow give Netflix and Google "free internet":

"The email, which notes that employee participation is voluntary, contains numerous other unsubstantiated allegations, including one claim that the bill would somehow create “free internet for big users like Netflix and Google."

Obviously there's nothing about that statement that's true, though ISPs have long leaned on this idea that content companies are just "free riders" on their networks, hoovering up revenues that, by imaginary divine mandate, should be going into the pockets of the ISPs. Of course every time we suggest to an ISP that they pay Netflix or Google's bandwidth bill, they go oddly quiet. That's because, like most ISP talking points on net neutrality, ISPs have to make up points out of whole cloth, since admitting "we just want the freedom to anti-competitively cash in on broken broadband markets" isn't a winning argument.

If Brown signs the bill, the entire west coast will soon be covered in state-level net neutrality protections, which is certainly not what ISPs had in mind after spending millions to kill net neutrality. If Brown doesn't sign the bill, he's going to be opposing the bipartisan majority of Americans who want some degree of meaningful protection standing between them and historically anti-competitive telecom monopolies like Comcast.

While broadband tends to be an issue politicians pay empty lip service to, the FCC's grotesque handout to Comcast and friends has changed the game. Should Brown veto the bill, he's only reiterating that monopoly welfare trumps the public interest and the health of the internet, a position that's likely to hold political consequences moving forward.

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Posted on Techdirt - 10 September 2018 @ 6:11am

Verizon's Pivot From Stodgy Old Telco To Sexy Millennial Ad Brand Isn't Going So Well

from the you're-not-built-for-this dept

We've noted for some time now how Verizon desperately wants to pivot from dull old broadband provider to sexy, Millennial-focused video advertising juggernaut. To accomplish this task, Verizon acquired both Yahoo and AOL, smushed them together, then hoped this would be enough to compete with the likes of Google and Facebook. The effort distracted the company from upgrading or repairing much of its fixed-line broadband footprint, since investing in networks isn't profitable enough, quickly enough, for many on Wall Street.

But Verizon's pivot hasn't been going so well. The company's Go90 video platform, which was supposed to be the cornerstone of the company's effort, recently fell flat on its face after Verizon spent $1.2 billion on the effort. And the company's Oath ad network, the combination of AOL and Yahoo, hasn't been doing much better, with Tim Armstrong (formerly of AOL) now heading for the exit (warning: annoying paywall):

"Mr. Armstrong, who came to Verizon in 2015 when it acquired AOL and helped steer its purchase of Yahoo two years later, had tried to combine the two internet companies to challenge Google and Facebook Inc. in digital advertising. But those efforts so far have failed to generate much growth or make the unit, called Oath, more than a side note in the wireless giant’s earnings."

Everyone (including Verizon) tends to forget that Verizon usually fails when it wanders outside of its core competencies (read: running networks and lobbying to kill consumer protections and hinder competitive threats). From the company's arguably terrible VCAST services to its failed app store, Verizon has long engaged in "me too" efforts that don't last because they're simply not good. And they're generally not good because, as a government-pampered telecom monopoly, Verizon simply isn't good at innovation, creativity, competition, disruption pr actually listening to your users. They're alien concepts to most Verizon executives.

The company's failed streaming partnership with RedBox was another such example, and who can forget the company's attempt to launch a news website dubbed Sugarstring that collapsed in embarrassment after critics pointed out Verizon tried to ban writers from talking about net neutrality or surveillance.

Ironically though, part of the reason given for Verizon's problems getting Oath off the ground (at least according to the Wall Street Journal's sources) is that the company wasn't willing to be snoopy enough:

"Verizon and Oath executives, however, have disagreed over what some employees within the digital ad unit see as an overly conservative approach to using wireless subscriber data to boost Oath’s advertising revenue, people familiar with those discussions say.

Senior executives within Verizon are wary of potentially alienating lucrative wireless customers in the name of adding incremental advertising revenue, these people said. Oath contributed less than $4 billion in revenue during the first half of the year, compared with the wireless business’s $44 billion.

Verizon agreed to share with Oath anonymous information on subscribers’ age, gender, phone language, and data plan size, for example. But these people say the carrier refused to share information on the apps customers used and their web browsing activity unless users explicitly opted in.

Verizon, you'll recall, was one of the key players responsible for killing FCC broadband privacy rules last year. It also faced a major privacy scandal after it was found the company was covertly modifying user wireless packets to track users around the internet without telling them or providing working opt out tools. It took security researchers two years to even discover this was happening, and another six months of public shaming before Verizon made it possible to opt out.

Gun shy from that experience, and wary of courting additional scandal as it rushed to kill consumer oversight (both on the national and state level), Verizon subsequently made Oath's snoopiest systems opt in. And the result pretty clearly highlights why ISPs and marketing folks hate the entire opt in paradigm:

"Given the choice, most of Verizon's 116.5 million wireless subscribers decided not to take the deal. Just 10 million of them have opted into the data-sharing program, known as Verizon Selects, according to the Journal."

Again, it's pretty ironic that Verizon only went the opt in route because it was wary of courting additional scandal after it was caught spying on all of its wireless users without its permission. But it really also can't be over-stated at how terrible government-pampered monopolies are at actually building innovative and competitive products. You'd think that eventually, Verizon would realize its best bet lies in doing what it's good at, be it running wireless networks, or lobbying the government to screw over competitors and consumers.

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Posted on Techdirt - 7 September 2018 @ 6:34am

After Nabbing Billions In Tax Breaks, AT&T's Promised Job Growth Magically Evaporates

from the Charlie-Brown-playing-football dept

Telecom monopolies have a pretty good racket going. They'll consistently demand all manner of tax cuts, subsidies, and other government perks in exchange for broadband networks they only half or partially deploy--or jobs that never materialize. The nation's telcos in particular have received countless billions in taxpayer subsidies to expand their broadband networks, yet time and time again we've shown how they've wiggled out of these obligations, leaving huge swaths of America left outside of the reach of fast, inexpensive, competitive broadband (that's particularly true if you're poor).

It doesn't matter how many times we go through this little stage play, it's a cycle that just never ends. AT&T's lobbying and policy folks are exceptionally good at routinely promising state and federal governments that a cornocopia of new jobs and amazing broadband investment is just around the corner, but only if AT&T gets what it wants: be that the death of net neutrality, a lower tax rate, more subsidies, or any number of protectionist or otherwise terrible laws designed largely to protect AT&T's non-competitive geographical fiefdoms. It's a cycle, and a level of institutional gullibility, that's pretty staggering in scope and repetition.

Yet somehow we never wise up. We never audit investment promises. And we certainly never hold giant telecom monopolies accountable. For example, AT&T spent most of last year promising all manner of incredible broadband investment, new jobs, and new innovations if the Trump administration was willing to give it a massive new tax cut. These cuts would, we were repeatedly told, result in a huge boon for broadband investment and "really good jobs":

"Lower taxes drives more investment, drives more hiring, drives greater wages," Stephenson said on CNBC's "Squawk Box." "All of this fits together."...For example, he said AT&T would have to add 7,000 jobs to execute on every $1 billion of capital investment. "There are jobs wearing hard hats … to put that capital into the ground or on cell towers," he said. "There are high-paying, really good jobs with great benefits. The correlation is tight — very, very tight."

The AT&T CEO said that reducing business regulations is another way to get companies to invest. Regulation is "effectively a tax on investment," he argued. "Take regulation down, you get investment up."

The Trump administration was happy to oblige, doling out cuts worth upwards of $20 billion for AT&T. But this theater ignored the fact that AT&T (and countless other companies like it) have long engaged in all manner of financial bookkeeping magic to ensure they already pay a relative pittance in taxes (especially true in telecom where complex mergers and gamesmanship like Reverse Morris Trusts can be used to endlessly dodge tax obligations). And it also ignored how many times AT&T has made these empty promises then failed to follow through.

And it's happening again. Despite its $20 billion in tax savings and record profits, AT&T continues to lay off thousands of employees in the wake of the Trump tax cuts:

"Though AT&T is earning record profits, spending billions on stock buybacks and is expecting an estimated windfall of $20bn in savings from Donald Trump’s tax reforms, it has continued to lay off workers and outsource jobs...In the last seven years, AT&T has closed 44 call centers, according to the Communications Workers of America labor union. Four closures, including the facility in Harrisburg took place this year. While some workers are able to relocate to other call centers in the US, many are left jobless. For some, their jobs are sent offshore, where workers can be paid less than $2 an hour."

Some of these job cuts reflect AT&T's waning interest in being an actual broadband company as it pivots (like Verizon) to more lucrative online advertising. Others reflect the company's efforts to manage the massive debt incurred from its endless quest to grow bigger for growth's sake via an endless wave of megamergers. Unsurprisingly (if you spend five full minutes reading a telecom history book), any real savings from tax cuts, mergers, consolidation and mindless deregulation of natural monopolies (like net neutrality) goes to executive compensation and investors, not to employees or back into the network.

Of course enriching investors and executives is the whole point. Yet we seem intent on adding a layer of bullshit onto these proceedings that try and suggest that such mindless fealty to AT&T is good for everybody, when that's simply not true. To sell the public and press on this manufactured idea, AT&T and other telecom companies (like Charter) promised employees bonuses (not to be confused with actual raises) as a direct result of the tax cuts. But there too AT&T was misleading, failing to mention those bonuses had already been secured as part of routine union negotiations:

"In a December 2017 news release advocating in favor of Trump’s tax cuts, AT&T promised bonuses of $1,000 to 200,000 employees over the next year. The news release omitted that unions had already previously negotiated those bonuses with AT&T before the tax cut bill was passed."

AT&T's broadband investment promises are also routinely hollow. One thing AT&T likes to do is take the CAPEX and network investment numbers it would have had anyway, and claim these are "new" goals only made possible if AT&T gets what it wants. Few in the press ever really bother to fact-check AT&T's math. Neither do lawmakers, who have come to rely on AT&T's generous windfalls to help fund their next election. The end result usually winds up being some scattered upgrades in more competitive areas, but huge swaths of America with decidedly last-generation DSL despite a parade of subsidies and tax breaks for AT&T (again, a trend especially notable in low-income AT&T markets).

Our immense gullibility to these bogus promises is a bit more stark to me than it is to most, having watched this play out countless times with nary a single penalty for AT&T over the last few decades. The drama played out again recently with the assault on net neutrality, a move that will result in countless anti-competitive headaches and rate hikes for captive customers, but was similarly framed as an incredible gift to consumers, innovation, American jobs and network investment. Someday we may learn our lesson and stop throwing billions at blatant grifters like AT&T, but it's abundantly clear it's not happening anytime soon.

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Posted on Techdirt - 6 September 2018 @ 1:34pm

Reddit Ignored A Year's Worth Of User Warnings About Iranian Propaganda

from the fake-plastic-trees dept

Not to be outdone by their friends over at the Russian Internet Research Agency, Iran has also amped up its online disinformation efforts in a bid to fill the internet with an additional layer of hate and nonsense. Like Russia's efforts, the goal appears to be focused on pouring some gasoline on the United States' deep, existing partisan, racial, and ideological divisions. According to recent analysis by security firm FireEye, the Iranian effort included a rotating crop of fake social media identities and websites, all of which pushed policies of interest to the Iranian government.

The effort included numerous bogus news websites and hundreds of fake accounts on YouTube, Instagram, Facebook and Twitter. Earlier this month Facebook announced it had removed hundreds of accounts and pages tied to this effort, with one of the fake organizations ("Liberty Front Press,") having 155,000 Facebook and 48,000 Instagram followers. Twitter also subsequently announced that it had purged 770 different Twitter accounts found to be engaging in "coordinated manipulation" originating in Iran. It's a game of Whac-a-Mole that isn't likely to end anytime soon.

Of interesting note, Reddit users and a moderator had uncovered a number of these accounts more than a year ago. Some of these users were immensely-successful in getting Reddit love, with at least a quarter of the users considered Reddit "power users" with more than 10,000 karma (one of the suspended accounts, elikh13 had the top overall post on Reddit just last week). Iran's effort most heavily targeted r/WorldNews, the site’s third-largest subreddit with more than 19 million subscribers.

From July 2017 onward, a group of volunteers including a Reddit moderator from California named Alex Brown brought the bogus accounts to Reddit's attention more than two-dozen times, but were repeatedly ignored:

"Brown and other amateur researchers notified Reddit, but the website...did not respond." In total, there were more than two dozen times that the group of Reddit power users, led by Brown, notified Reddit employees of the Iranian disinformation operation, starting in July 2017, according to correspondence viewed by NBC News. The two most recent messages identifying Iranian propaganda to Reddit's paid administrators came on Aug. 16 and 18, just days before Facebook's pulldown."

After the FireEye report became publicized, Reddit joined Facebook and Twitter in shutting many of the accounts down. The company acknowledged that it had confirmed 143 accounts that were part of the Iranian effort, 126 of which were created between 2015 and 2018, and 17 of which dated back to 2011. From a post by Reddit CTO Christopher Slowe:

"We believe this type of interference will increase in frequency, scope, and complexity. We're investing in more advanced detection and mitigation capabilities, and have recently formed a threat detection team that has a very particular set of skills. Skills they have acquired...you know the drill. Our actions against these threats may not always be immediately visible to you, but this is a battle we have been fighting, and will continue to fight for the foreseeable future. And of course, we’ll continue to communicate openly with you about these subjects."

Reddit has reached out to Brown and the other volunteer researchers and apologized, and the company says it's continuing to work on standards and procedures to police evolving propaganda efforts moving forward. Brown told NBC News he appreciated the apology, but noted that sites like Reddit still aren't doing enough to police disinformation and propaganda. The website still has no hard rule prohibiting propaganda, though these users may occasionally run afoul of Reddit's restrictions on spamming.

It remains entirely unclear what actual impact these efforts had on the 2016 election and American discourse, but as the recently-revealed Macedonian disinformation efforts make clear, we're only just scratching the service of how deep this particular rabbit hole goes, which countries and governments are involved, and just how much cross-coordination has taken place.

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Posted on Techdirt - 6 September 2018 @ 6:22am

With The Death Of Net Neutrality & NBC Merger Conditions, Comcast Is Free To Misbehave

from the a-storm's-a'-comin' dept

Comcast has been having some massive "success" on the lobbying and policy front of late. Its lobbyists have successfully dismantled both net neutrality and privacy rules at the FCC. They've killed efforts to bring competition to the cable box. They've also successfully convinced Ajit Pai's FCC to effectively neuter its authority over lumbering telecom monopolies, kicking all remaining authority over to an FTC that's ill-equipped to actually hold Comcast accountable. The company has also been pushing hard to prevent states from being able to protect broadband and TV consumers either.

Given Comcast's quickly growing monopoly over fixed-line broadband, combined with its growing international footprint in media, it shouldn't be hard to see how we're building a perfect vacuum of limited accountability for one of the more anti-competitive companies in America. With neither competition nor even modest regulatory oversight to constrain it, it's not speculation to note that there's every indication that the Comcast everybody loves to hate is poised to become notably more obnoxious with little constraining its less ethical tendencies.

Comcast's dream scenario of no competition, and paltry state and federal oversight will soon get another gift in the expiration of the merger conditions affixed to the company's 2011 acquisition of NBC Universal. Conditions such as offering discounted broadband, promises to avoid hamstringing Hulu's competitive potential (Comcast is a co-owner), and restrictions on Comcast's treatment of smaller video programmers and distributors will all soon evaporate. Sure, the government let Comcast ignore many of these with no real punishment, but many of them still helped keep Comcast's worst habits in check.

For its part, the DOJ fired off a memo to Comcast last week stating that while the conditions expired, it would still be keeping an eye on Comcast for any potential anti-competitive behavior:

"The department retains jurisdiction to enforce the antitrust laws and takes its obligations seriously,” Makan Delrahim, head of the Justice Department’s antitrust division, wrote in the letter obtained by Bloomberg. “We would appreciate your cooperation in keeping us informed by providing the department with any plans you may have to change your policies or practices involving video programming and distribution.”

Yes, Comcast, do let us know in writing if you intend to behave anti-competitively.

Of course antitrust enforcement in this country isn't what it used to be. The powers that helped the government break up the ma bell monopoly have been largely eroded after decades of lobbying. And the DOJ's latest attempt to hold vertically-integrated powerhouses like AT&T in check recently fell flat on its face, thanks to said erosions locking DOJ lawyers into very specific confines of economic theory, and a comically-terrible misreading of AT&T's anti-competitive potential (especially in the wake of the death of net neutrality) by U.S. District Court Judge Richard Leon.

In short, thanks to Comcast lobbying you've got no net neutrality, a crippled and beholden FCC, potentially-handcuffed states (depending on how well the ISPs and Ajit Pai's pre-emption gambit goes), and little-to-no competition in broadband (especially at faster speeds). And while Comcast will likely try and behave on the net neutrality front until the looming court case is settled, it shouldn't be hard to see how this growing competition and accountability vacuum is, sooner or later, only likely to make America's least liked company more obnoxious than ever.

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Posted on Techdirt - 5 September 2018 @ 11:59am

AT&T's Top Anti-Net Neutrality Lobbyist In California Doesn't Register As A Lobbyist

from the funny-how-that-works dept

We've noted for years how U.S. lobbying laws and restrictions are essentially hot garbage, and are routinely laughed at by some of the country's largest corporations. The legal DC definition of a lobbyist was beefed up slightly back in 2007, when the Lobbyist Disclosure Act was notably amended by the Leadership and Open Government Act of 2007. Those changes required that if an employee spends more than 20% of their time lobbying, they have to register with the government as a lobbyist, detail their travel with lawmakers, and more fully outline their contributions to politicians and their myriad foundations.

But many lobbyists responded to those changes by just changing their title or calling their lobbying... something else. We've examined, for example, how Comcast's top lobbyist David Cohen shifted his title to "Chief Diversity Officer" in order to skirt around that 20% restriction. Cohen often can frequently be seen holding press junkets heralding Comcast's altruism because it offered some discounted broadband connections to the poor to get its NBC Universal merger approved. But the lion's share of Cohen's time is spent lobbying local lawmakers during these junkets.

Comcast, it's worth noting, gets really mad when you point this out.

State lobbying restrictions, as you might imagine, aren't much better. Another lobbying juggernaut in the telecom space, AT&T, has also found itself under fire for lobbyists who pretend not to be lobbyists. The company's top lobbyist in California, Vice President of Legislative Affairs Bill Devine, has never registered as a lobbyist under California law. Devine has spent a lot of time lately lobbying to kill efforts in California to pass net neutrality law (you know, for freedom!), without adhering to lobbying requirements:

"By not registering as a lobbyist, Devine can take advantage of political influence techniques that registered lobbyists are banned from under California laws. The Political Reform Act of 1974 requires registered lobbyists to disclose their lobbying activity expenses to the state. It also bans them from giving gifts worth more than $10 to state, legislative and agency officials. Under Proposition 34, enacted in 2000, registered lobbyists are also banned from making campaign contributions."

Devine's lobbying lambada was noticed courtesy of an anonymous complaint filed with the California Fair Political Practices Commission (FPPC):

"William H. Devine, an AT&T Vice President, unlawfully fails to register as a lobbyist, despite spending the majority of his time in the Capitol Building talking to lawmakers and staff in order to influence legislation. It is an open secret in the Capitol building that Mr. Devine is an undeclared AT&T lobbyist."

"Mr. Devine hides his lobbyist status by setting up meetings under other AT&T employee and lobbyist names,” the complaint alleges. “In particular, Mr. Devine has recently been lobbying legislators on SB 822 and SB 460. On information and belief, Mr. Devine attended numerous meetings with other AT&T lobbyists, employees and grant beneficiaries, including, but not limited to, employees of CalInnovates (paid by AT&T to work against SB 822/SB 460) and a researcher paid by CalInnovate, David Sosa. He may also have accompanied Mark Kleeman, a fellow at University of California – San Diego."

This isn't really complicated. Devine has been paid $117,000 so far this biennial legislative session by AT&T for lobbying-related activities, most notably related to AT&T's lobbying against the state's two net neutrality laws, SB 822 and SB 460. He coordinates routinely with other AT&T lobbyists, and works hand in hand with the various policy groups, think tankers and consultants AT&T uses as proxies for its messaging, including that outfit that was just busted trying to scare grandmothers away from net neutrality via misleading robocalls.

The FPPC has given Devine 14 days to respond to the complaint. But if history is any indication, it's likely no punishment will materialize. Because despite our collective, bipartisan chirping about how grotesque American lobbying and corruption is, these sort of things tend to float in one ear and out the other of the collective American consciousness. It's also kind of hard to improve state and national lobbying rules, when you've got an ocean of lobbyists consultants, think tankers, chief diversity officers, liaisons, and others lobbying courageously striving to keep that from happening.

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Posted on Techdirt - 5 September 2018 @ 6:20am

Ajit Pai Coddles Big Telecom, Demonizes Silicon Valley

from the inconsistency-ahoy dept

To be very clear there's no shortage of legitimate criticism aimed at giants like Facebook and Google for their inconsistent policies, repeated privacy snafus, and incessantly-incompetent public relations skills.

That said, a large chunk of the push to "do something" about Google, Facebook and Twitter's supposed assault on free speech is also little more than wet nonsense driven by people who don't understand how the internet or First Amendment work. And a lot of the recent breathless hyperventilation in DC and vilification of "big tech" is being driven by the telecom sector, which has spent years demanding that their broken and uncompetitive monopoly market be mindlessly deregulated, while the healthier, more competitive online content and ad space face onerous new regulations.

We've discussed at length how the telecom industry has grown bored with the slow, steady profit made from upgrading and running broadband networks, and has shifted its focus toward the sexier realm of online advertising. Granted, when large ISPs try to directly compete in that space they tend to fall flat on their faces, since running government-pampered monopolies has dulled their innovative and competitive edge. As a result, the Comcast/AT&T/Verizon version of "competition" usually involves two things they're actually good at: cheating by distorting the playing field (aka net neutrality violations) and lobbying.

The motivation here (money) isn't really mysterious. Cable lobbyists routinely call for regulation of companies they're trying to compete with in the online ad space, and loyal policymakers and lawmakers are frequently happy to oblige to keep campaign contributions flowing. Telecom executives like to pretend this is just fair play, given Netflix and Google's (long since dead) support of net neutrality. The difference: ISPs really were trying to use their broadband monopolies to harm competitors, and Google and Netflix's arguments were largely being made in good faith.

There's no good faith ISP arguments occurring here. ISPs don't actually care about privacy, transparency, or your right to spread hate on Twitter. And ISP BFFs like Ajit Pai have long demonized Silicon Valley giants by using straight up nonsense in order to make their argument (like the time he tried to claim a run of the mill Netflix CDN was a network neutrality violation). All while turning a blind eye to ample problems in the telecom sector.

This inconsistency was again on proud display this week in a post by Pai over at Medium ahead of this week's Silicon Valley hearings. In it, Pai laments all manner of problems with Silicon Valley giants, from their disdain for privacy, to a lack of total transparency. You'll notice that most of the concerns Pai expresses were comically-absent as he dismantled popular net neutrality (and ISP transparency) protections last fall:

"Are these tech giants running impartial digital platforms over which they don’t exercise editorial judgment when it comes to content? Or do they in fact decide what speech is allowed and what is not and discriminate based on ideology and/or political affiliation? And again, going back to the first point: where is the transparency?"

Pai's sudden interest in transparency is downright adorable. But you'd have to be blind not to notice how the things Pai demonizes Silicon Valley for pale in comparison to many of the things we've seen in the telecom sector. You'd also have to be blind not to notice how Pai's arguments perfectly mirror the telecom industry lobbying talking points accidentally leaked to us last week by US Telecom. Surely that's only coincidental, right?

From ISPs efforts to charge customers more for privacy to using bullshit fees to jack up your bill, Pai never bats an eyelash when AT&T or Comcast engages in all manner of bad behavior. Yet watch how Pai hyperventilates when talking about Google, Facebook, and Twitter doing things notably less terrible or, as we saw with the recent bogus Twitter shadowbanning controversy, completely made up.

Pai spent the last five years insisting that ISPs shouldn't face "burdensome regulations," despite the fact ISPs like Comcast operate natural monopolies. Yet here he is, advocating for new regulatory restrictions to be foisted upon ISP competitors who actually do face competition:

"The public deserves to know more about how these companies operate. And we need to seriously think about whether the time has come for these companies to abide by new transparency obligations. After all, just as is the case with respect to broadband providers, consumers need accurate information in order to make educated choices about whether and how to use these tech giants’ platforms."

Part of the problem is that this conversation on what to do about Facebook, Google and Twitter has been infected by our idiotic need to apply partisanship to fucking everything, regardless of whether it makes intellectual sense. Net neutrality, for example, has long been played up as a "partisan" issue by ISPs to sow dissent and derail consensus, despite the fact that an overwhelming bipartisan majority of Americans support it.

Here too, ISPs are using baseless, inconsistent, and inflammatory rhetoric to enflame ideological divides and censorship fears with an eye on hampering competitors and encouraging partisan gridlock. In reality, telecom operators don't exclusively inhabit "the right," and Google, Facebook, and Twitter aren't the exclusive dominion of "the left." They're comprised of employees across vast swaths of the ideological spectrum, who, if you actually sit down and talk to them, tend to agree more than they disagree.

But viewing technology debates through a partisan lens is encouraged by those eager to keep the public bickering--instead of developing real solutions to real problems. When the partisan labels come out, the brain often turns off. And there's entire industries happily cashing in on that fact to thwart consensus and meaningful change. There's also an ocean of lawmakers and politicians like Pai more than happy to unabashedly-parrot those efforts on demand, knowing full well that loyalty now means either a lucrative lobbying job or posh think tank gig down the road.

There's absolutely a legitimate conversation to be had here in terms of what to do about privacy and speech in the Facebook and Twitter era. And that may or may not involve crafting new regulations. But it might be nice if people wised up to the fact that a huge swath of the conversation is being dictated not by parties acting in good faith with a genuine eye on valid solutions, but by telecom monopolies eager to pee in the discourse pool simply to fatten their wallets.

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Posted on Net Neutrality Special Edition - 4 September 2018 @ 6:30am

California Shakes Off ISP Lobbyists, Embraces Real Net Neutrality

from the fat-lady-singing dept

Despite a rocky start, California has shaken off the lobbying influence of Comcast, AT&T and Verizon and passed meaningful net neutrality protections for the state's broadband residents. California's SB822, which pretty closely mirrors the FCC's discarded 2015 rules, almost had its most important parts stripped away courtesy of some early committee gamesmanship by AT&T. When that failed, ISP-connected lobbying and influence orgs tried to scare voters away from the effort by making misleading robocalls to state senior citizens insisting the bill would dramatically raise their phone bills.

Given the continued, overwhelming and bipartisan support for net neutrality, those efforts didn't work. SB822, which the EFF has called the "gold standard" for state-level rules, passed the California Assembly last Thursday, then managed to nab the necessary votes in the State Senate last Friday. It's now headed to the desk of California Governor Jerry Brown for signing:

Like most protections, the rules simply prevent ISPs from using their broadband monopolies to unfairly throttle, block, or censor competing content and services. Unlike weaker bills (like those being proposed by ISPs), the bill also takes aim at all of the creative anti-competitive efforts ISPs have been engaged in in recent years, from anti-competitive abuse of usage caps and overage fees (zero rating), to the anti-competitive abuse of interconnection points with transit operators and content companies.

With SB822's passage, the entire west coast is now covered with net neutrality rules thanks to laws passed in Oregon and Washington State; certainly not the end game most ISPs envisioned after spending millions to lobby the federal government.

You'll likely now hear ISPs, ISP lobbyists, and their literal armies of think tankers, payrolled academics, consultants and others whine incessantly for weeks about the unfairness of having to deal with numerous, discordant state-level protections. Of course none of these folks will acknowledge that's the telecom industry's fault, since this wouldn't be happening if they hadn't waged endless war on modest (by international standards), popular, and cohesive federal rules. Whatever your thoughts on net neutrality, this move was a reflection of what the public wanted (aka, Democracy).

ISPs will now shift their attention to slowing the spread of state laws, likely by suing individual states. They'll likely lean heavily on the "pre-emption" language Ajit Pai's FCC included in its net neutrality repeal at the behest of Comcast and Verizon, though early efforts by ISPs to use this language to dodge state oversight for terrible service haven't gone particularly well. Other lawyers have noted that when the FCC neutered its Title II authority under the Telecom Act at the behest of telecom monopolies, it also ironically eroded any authority to tell states what to do. Whoops.

The goal still needs to be to improve competition in the broadband space, since net neutrality violations are just a symptom of limited competition and a broken market. But until somebody in government grows a spine and is willing to stand up to deep-pocketed campaign contributors like Charter, AT&T, Verizon, CenturyLink and Comcast, net neutrality rules are the next best thing. Meanwhile, there's still a chance to restore the FCC's 2015 rules courtesy of the looming lawsuits headed the FCC direction; suits that will highlight the laundry list of bizarre and shady FCC behavior that accompanied the repeal.

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