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Karl Bode

About Karl Bode

Karl Bode is a Seattle-based freelance reporter focused on tech, telecom, media, politics and consumer rights.


Posted on Techdirt - 5 July 2022 @ 06:24am

All The Fastest U.S. ISPs Are, Once Again, Small, Independent Competitors Or Local Governments

We’ve spent years laying out mountains of documented evidence on how the U.S. broadband is a heavily monopolized mess largely protected and pampered by captured lawmakers and regulators. The impact of this lack of meaningful competition is everywhere, from historically terrible customer satisfaction rates, to high prices, slow speeds, and spotty coverage.

83 percent of US households live under a broadband monopoly. The U.S. is painfully mediocre in nearly every global broadband metric that matters. And when competitors do still somehow manage to survive in this environment, their positive impact is very clear.

Case in point: PC Magazine once again measured all the fastest broadband providers in America and found that smaller ISPs, or community built broadband networks, consistently provided the fastest speeds:

As smaller competitors, these efforts are all far more incentivized to, you know, try. Or in the case of efforts like Fort Collins Connexion or Longmont Nextlight, both community broadband builds in Colorado, they’re actually part of the local communities they serve, and therefore, more directly responsible to those communities and their voters.

Independent California ISP Sonic, one of the very few larger independent ISPs to survive monopoly power and the lobbyist-induced competitive carnage of the early 00s, has the fastest speeds in the country thanks to its 10 Gbps offerings. All of these smaller operations are about improving the communities they operate in, instead of the traditional monopoly model of extraction and turf protection.

Campaign cash slathered lawmakers and policymakers have literally spent decades embracing one core central policy: throwing countless billions in subsidies, tax breaks, and regulatory favors at industry giants like AT&T in exchange for networks they half deploy or don’t deploy at all. AT&T, in turn, has historically cut jobs, skimped on investments, and ripped off the federal government.

Worse, state and federal legislatures have allowed giants like AT&T to repeatedly write and craft legislation aimed at curtailing competition, whether it comes from a small local government frustrated with market failure, or smaller broadband providers trying to make inroads in the market. At the same time, they’ve lobotomized most federal oversight of market competition and consumer welfare.

Even in this environment, scattered competition continues to emerge and demonstrate its value.

Terrible telecommuting and home education experiences levied historic pressure on lawmakers to try to do somewhat better, resulting in equally historic financial investment in new deployments. And California is exploring some very novel efforts such as the creation of a massive new open access middle mile network aimed at boosting competition and driving down costs without rate regulation.

As somebody who has tracked U.S. federal telecom policy for 20+ years, I can say unequivocally that federal telecom policy has failed due to corruption. The evidence is everywhere; most recently and painfully evident by the telecom lobby’s successful bid to block the nomination of FCC Commissioner Gigi Sohn based on a bunch of half-assed, manufactured attacks.

The vast majority of the most interesting efforts in telecom right now are coming at the hands of a bipartisan collection of states, local towns, small competitors, cooperatives, and utilities — all extremely pissed off and finally doing something about it.

Posted on Techdirt - 1 July 2022 @ 06:29am

‘Big Telecom’ Still Wants ‘Big Tech’ To Give Them Billions Of Dollars For No Coherent Reason

For literally twenty-five years now, telecom monopoly executives the world over have been trying to force big tech companies billions of dollars for no coherent reason. It began with AT&T’s attempt to double dip on Google; which spurred the entire net neutrality war. The complaint by telecoms has long since moved global, as they try to get gullible politicians to try and force tech giants to give them billions.

The (false) argument always involves some variation of the claim that tech giants are getting a “free ride” on the internet or somehow not “paying their share,” despite the fact that companies like Google pay billions of dollars not only for their own bandwidth, but increasingly own all manner of core internet and telecom infrastructure, from fiber transit lines to undersea fiber runs (Google even runs a residential ISP).

The argument by telecom lobbyists (and the regulators and politicians paid to love them) is ever present in the U.S., but has heated up in Europe the last few months, as the EU debates the digital policy trajectory that will shape tech policy across the EU for the next decade.

The gambit, as it did in the EU again last week, always involves a telecom lobbyist getting some politician or regulator to push the idea as if it’s just a good faith gambit to conquer that pesky “digital divide”:

The EU executive’s chief officials on digital policy, Commission Executive Vice President Margrethe Vestager and Commissioner Thierry Breton hinted at the plans in recent weeks. In an interview last month, Breton told Les Echos newspaper that telecoms operators weren’t getting “the right return on investment” from maintaining the networks, and it was time “to reorganise the fair remuneration of the networks.”

It doesn’t take much for a telecom giant lobbyist to get entire teams of politicians cheering in favor of giving their employer billions of dollars… just because:

In a letter sent to Vestager and Breton last week and obtained by POLITICO, five leading members of the European Parliament from center-left to right groups called on the Commission to step up their efforts to remove hurdles that prevent the telecoms industry from investing in infrastructure and to incentivize “the roll-out of high-speed electronic communications networks” in Europe.

This is the exact same argument being recently made by FCC Commissioner Brendan Carr here in the States. Carr has rubber stamped every big telecom policy since being seated, including the wholesale demolition of broadband consumer protections. He’s incapable of admitting the U.S. broadband sector even has a competition problem, yet is first in line cheering to subsidize industry giants further.

These arguments always (intentionally) ignore some things; namely that telecoms receive untold billions in taxpayer subsidies, tax breaks, and regulatory favors for networks that always, quite mysteriously, wind up half completed. If a policymaker is serious about shoring up access, cracking down on waste and fraud in telecom oversight would be the very first place to start. The omission is usually fairly telling.

When it comes to telecom monopolies the world over, nobody gets a free ride. Everybody pays, and pays, and pays some more. And when said telecoms control the policymaking apparatus (which is the case in most countries), politicians, who should be working for the public interest, but are, instead, in the telecoms’ pockets, are usually easy to spot by their tendency to want to throw billions more at the problem without functional reform.

Posted on Techdirt - 30 June 2022 @ 06:36am

FCC’s Carr Once Again Heads To The Fainting Couch Over TikTok

A week or two ago we noted how there was a mass panic because TikTok was found to be sharing U.S. user data with executives at the company’s Chinese parent company, ByteDance. This was in stark contrast to the strict, U.S.-based data management controls the company claimed to be implementing, and, to be clear, was not a good thing.

But while this showcased how TikTok’s privacy standards are often performative, it wasn’t truly all that different than what happens with countless other domestic and international companies with shitty privacy practices. Vast troves of varying US consumer behavior, location, and browsing and app datasets are bought and sold everyday in the largely unaccountable telecom/adtech/app/hardware data world without anywhere near the same level of hyperventilation TikTok receives.

There’s a tendency among some performative politicians (see: Trump) to specifically single out what TikTok is doing on this front for xenophobic, political, or cronyistic purposes, yet turn a complete blind eye to the broader policy failures that made TikTok (and everybody else’s) lax privacy practices possible in the first place.

That’s been a particular habit of FCC Commissioner Brendan Carr, whose public record shows he literally could not give any less of a shit about any of the vast privacy abuses in a sector he actually regulates (telecom), yet loves to head to the fainting couches any time TikTok is mentioned.

Like this week, when Carr sent a letter to Google and Apple demanding they kick TikTok from the app store because he’s just super concerned about American consumer privacy!

If you were to dig through the resulting news reports covering Carr’s empty letter, you’d be hard pressed to find a single one that could be bothered to note that Carr doesn’t have any regulatory authority over social media or app stores, the letter has absolutely no meaningful legal backing to support his request, or that Carr himself has absolutely zero credibility on consumer privacy issues.

Yeah, there are serious concerns about TikTok user security and privacy. But there’s equal concern about the privacy violations in the telecom sector Carr actually regulates. And in adtech. And in the internet of things space. And in Chinese-made routers and other hardware. And among app makers, and data brokers, smart TV makers, Wi-Fi-connected toys, modern vehicles, and….

Carr’s voting and policy record has made it pretty clear he doesn’t care about any of that. The sector Carr actually regulates, telecom, has been plagued with a parade of location data scandals showcasing how cellular carriers have repeatedly failed to protect user location data, often to devastating effect. Carr’s been largely a no show on the subject, despite its increased relevance post Roe.

Several former officials who worked with Carr to help AT&T kill net neutrality and lobotomize the FCC’s consumer protection authority have since gone on to work at Targeted Victory, a right wing K Street policy and lobbying shop recently busted trying to smear TikTok on behalf of Facebook. Surely that’s just a weird coincidence, though.

Not only does pushing scary stories about TikTok help Facebook, it helps feed xenophobia to a growing right wing base proud of its own bigotry. This kind of scary rhetoric is of great benefit to any U.S. company that doesn’t want to compete with China. Of course Carr’s letter also does something else incredibly important (to Carr), it puts his name in headlines for no real reason.

As recently noted, you could demolish TikTok today with a giant patriotic hammer and the Chinese government could just nab much of the same data from any number of unaccountable app makers, telecoms, ad brokers, or hardware giants. And they can do that because we have garbage privacy standards, no functional privacy laws with any teeth, and zero accountability.

That’s directly thanks to politicians like Carr, who don’t believe in meaningful privacy oversight, laws, or guidelines of any kind.

It’s extremely easy for U.S. companies like Facebook or Cisco to use politicians as marionettes to create or feed moral panics about China. But the underlying motivations usually have absolutely nothing to do with a genuine interest in US consumer privacy or security. Made evident by those same politicians’ completely hollow track record when it comes to tackling the broader problem.

Posted on Techdirt - 29 June 2022 @ 06:21am

Facebook Bans People For Simply Saying Abortion Pills Exist

On the one hand, content moderation at the scale modern social media companies operate at is an impossible nightmare. Companies are always going to lack the staff and resources to do it well (raising questions about the dangers of automation at scale), and they’re always going to screw things up for reasons well discussed.

At the same time, there’s Facebook. A company whose executive leadership team often compounds these challenges by making the worst and most idiotic decisions possible at any particular moment.

Case in point: the company appears to have consciously embraced the policy of banning Facebook and Instagram users for saying they might mail abortion pills in the wake of the Supreme Court’s overturning Roe:

To corroborate this activity, on Friday a Motherboard reporter attempted to post the phrase “abortion pills can be mailed” on Facebook using a burner account. The post was flagged within seconds as violating the site’s community standards, specifically the rules against buying, selling, or exchanging medical or non-medical drugs. The reporter was given the option to “disagree” with the decision or “agree” with it. After they chose “disagree,” the post was removed. 

Again, we’re not just talking about blocking websites that actually mail abortion pills. Reporters at Vice’s Motherboard found that even publicly acknowledging that abortion pills exist and could be mailed resulted in an account ban:

Other reporters have confirmed the changes. Facebook refuses to reverse the bans or even respond to reporter inquiries into the policy, which are consciously bad choices, not content moderation at scale problems.

The company’s systems claim that even mentioning that these pills exist violates its community standards related to “restricted goods and services.” Yet when other reporters made similar posts promising to mail marijuana or guns, there were no restrictions:

The Facebook account was immediately put on a “warning” status for the post, which Facebook said violated its standards on “guns, animals and other regulated goods.”

Yet, when the AP reporter made the same exact post but swapped out the words “abortion pills” for “a gun,” the post remained untouched. A post with the same exact offer to mail “weed” was also left up and not considered a violation. Marijuana is illegal under federal law and it is illegal to send it through the mail.

Activist groups like Fight For the Future were decidedly unimpressed, saying the policy foretold uglier things to come as the far right continues to push its court-enabled advantage:

Facebook’s censorship of critical reproductive healthcare information and advocacy should be a massive, code-red warning to Democrats who want to revise or repeal Section 230. In a post-Roe environment, litigation-fearing platforms will cover their hides by tearing down online access to abortion healthcare and support.

Facebook, no stranger to sucking up to and amplifying the authoritarian right, has also tried to restrict employees from talking about abortion bans at work, triggering a backlash. The company is also finding itself under fire after it classified one prominent pro-choice activism group a terrorist organization.

Countless tech companies, including Facebook, have failed to even issue basic platitudes on securing women’s location, app usage, or browsing data from state officials (or vigilantes) looking to punish women in the wake of Roe’s reversal.

Again, this initial lack of any meaningful backbone whatsoever in the face of one of the most wide-reaching, transformative, legally dubious, and dangerous political projects in a generation doesn’t exactly instill confidence that Facebook will make sound decisions as U.S. authoritarianism accelerates and a radical court steadily chips away at democratic norms and long-established law.

Posted on Techdirt - 28 June 2022 @ 02:47pm

Not Even Your ‘Smart’ Jacuzzi Is Safe From The Internet Of Broken Things

The Internet of things — aka the tendency to bring Internet connectivity to devices whether they need them or not — has provided no shortage of both tragedy and comedy. “Smart” locks that are easy to bypass, “smart” fridges that leak your email credentials, or even “smart” barbies that spy on toddlers are all pretty much par for the course in an industry with lax privacy and security standards.

Even your traditional hot tub isn’t immune from the stupidity. Hot tub vendor SmartTub thought it might be nice to control your hot tub from your phone (because walking to the tub and quickly turning a dial is clearly too much to ask).

But like so many IOT vendors more interested in the marketing potential than the reality, they allegedly implemented it without including basic levels of security standards for their website administration panel, allowing hackers to access and control hot tubs, all over the planet. And not just SmartTub brands, but numerous brands from numerous manufacturers, everywhere:

Eaton used a program called Fiddler to intercept and modify some code that told the website they were an admin, not just a user. They were in, and could see a wealth of information about Jacuzzi owners from around the world. “Once into the admin panel, the amount of data I was allowed to was staggering. I could view the details of every spa, see its owner and even remove their ownership,” he said. “Please note that no operations were attempted that would actually change any data. Therefore, it’s unknown if any changes would actually save. I assumed they would, so I navigated carefully.”

Security researcher EatonWorks documented all of his findings here. Again, not everything needs to have Internet functionality, and often dumb tech is the smarter option. Especially not if you’re not willing to take the time and money needed to do it correctly.

Posted on Techdirt - 28 June 2022 @ 05:29am

U.S. Companies Don’t Much Want To Talk About Abortion Data Collection And Protection

In response to the Supreme Court’s recent assault on female bodily autonomy, numerous U.S. corporations have issued statements stating they’ll be paying for employee abortion travel. You’re to ignore, apparently, that many of these same companies continue to throw millions of dollars at the politicians responsible for turning the Supreme Court into a dangerous, cruel, legal norm-trampling joke:

With abortion now or soon to be illegal in countless states, there’s newfound concern about the privacy issues we’ve talked about for years, like how user location data, period tracking data, or browsing data can all be used against women seeking abortions and those looking to aid them… by both the state and violent vigilantes (thanks to flimsy U.S. standards on who can buy said data and how it can be used).

Reporters that have tried to ask modern data-hoovering companies if they’ll do better job securing data to ensure it can’t be used against women, or if they’ll fight efforts from states hunting abortion seekers and aiders in and out of state, have been met with dead silence. Not even rote statements on how the safety of women is important, but dead silence:

Motherboard asked a long line of companies including Facebook, Amazon, Twitter, TikTok, AT&T, Uber, and Snapchat if they’d hand over user data to law enforcement and not a single one was willing to commit to protecting women’s data:

Motherboard asked if each will provide data in response to requests from law enforcement if the case concerns users seeking or providing abortions, or some other context in which the agency is investigating abortions. Motherboard also asked generally what each company is planning to protect user data in a post-Roe America.

None of the companies answered the questions. Representatives from Twitter and Snapchat replied to say they were looking into the request, but they did not provide a statement or other response.

To be fair, company legal departments haven’t finished doing the risk calculations of showing a backbone and upsetting campaign contributors and law enforcement. They’ve also got to weigh the incalculable looming harms awaiting countless women against any potential lost snoopvertising revenues, so there’s that.

As public pressure grows, ham-fisted state enforcement begins, and the dynamics of the Roe repeal become harder for them to ignore, several of these companies may find something vaguely resembling a backbone in time. But the initial lack of any clarity or courage whatsoever in the face of creeping authoritarianism (and a high court gone completely off the rails) doesn’t inspire a whole lot of confidence.

Posted on Techdirt - 27 June 2022 @ 05:26am

Verizon, AT&T Delay 5G Due To Ongoing Scuff Up Over Airplane Interference

Late last year, we noted how the FAA and the FCC (the agency that actually knows how spectrum works) had gotten into a bit of an ugly tussle over the FAA’s claim that 5G could harm air travel safety.

The FAA claimed that deploying 5G in the 3.7 to 3.98 GHz “C-Band” would cause interference with certain radio altimeters. But the FCC conducted its own study showing minimal issues, and pointed to the more than 40 countries have deployed 5G in this bandwidth with no evidence of harm. Telecom lawyer Harold Feld had a detailed post on this if you’re interested in the particulars:

…the technical evidence on which the FAA bases its interference concerns have a lot of problems — not least of which that about 40 other countries operate similar 5G deployments in the same C-Band without any interference showing up. Either physics works differently in the U.S., or the report at the center of this controversy needs to explain why this hasn’t shown up in any other country where deployments are either authorized or have already taken place. 

This being about human lives, caution has generally prevailed, and AT&T and Verizon have promised to further delay the deployment of C band 5G service near airports until July 2023, giving the airline industry more time to retrofit any problematic altimeters. The airline industry still isn’t happy about it, claiming the entire thing is being rushed due to pressure from telecom companies:

“It is not at all clear that (air travel) carriers can meet what appears to be an arbitrary deadline,” trade group CEO Nicholas Calio said in a letter to Nolen. He said safety is jeopardized “by the rushed approach to avionics modifications amid pressure from the telecommunications companies,” and warned that if replacement parts aren’t ready in time, airline service could be disrupted.

AT&T and Verizon, which paid $45.45 billion and $23.41 billion respectively last year for C-band spectrum, very much want to get this spectrum deployed and in use (especially considering that U.S. 5G has generally underperformed so far). Much of this consternation is over who pays for these equipment upgrades (the airline industry has long wanted telecom companies to foot the bill, to no avail).

At the heart of this persists two government agencies that apparently can’t work well together. The FCC’s multi-year old reports on this issue say there wasn’t much of an issue. The FAA, in contrast, took to doing things like leaking scary stories to the Wall Street Journal instead of working with the FCC (again, the agency with the engineering expertise in how these things work).

Throw in some supply chain headaches and you’ve got a bit of a mess. So, again, taking time to do this correctly is important because of the fact that human lives are at stake, but this still wound up being way more avoidably stupid and complicated than it needed to be for a long list of reasons.

Posted on Techdirt - 24 June 2022 @ 05:26am

Much Like Cord Cutting Itself, Big Media Execs Think TikTok Is A Fad That Will Just Fade Away

For more than a decade, cable and broadcast executives brushed aside the threat of cable TV “cord cutting” (ditching traditional cable TV) as either a nonexistent threat or a temporary phenomenon. There were endless reports about how these users were poor and unimportant (they weren’t), or how the phenomenon would end once Millennials bought homes and starting procreating (it didn’t).

Now, traditional cable and media executives seem similarly ignorant about the threat that TikTok poses to their traditional video empires. Last year, advertisers indicated that TikTok users were spending 90 minutes a day on the free app, increasingly eating into traditional TV time. 90.3% of broadcast and cable networks saw notable audience decline between 2016 and 2021.

Much of that decline was thanks to a wide variety of streaming alternatives. But a lot of it was also thanks to YouTube and TikTok. As a recession comes and folks look to cut corners, traditional TV will again be among the first to take the pinch. According to Vox’s Peter Kafka, the traditional TV industry’s plan is… no plan at all:

So what is Big Media doing to counter or respond to TikTok’s threat? Nothing more than hope it’s a fad that goes away, from what I can tell. But I wanted to make sure I wasn’t missing anything, so I called around and heard … crickets. I triple-checked by asking Nathanson, who just dug deep into TikTok’s impact — did he know of any media companies doing anything interesting in response? His one-word, all-caps answer: “NOPE.”

Keep in mind that many media giants (Comcast NBC Universal, for example) can always recoup their losses by price gouging customers stuck on their monopolized broadband networks (83 million Americans live under a broadband monopoly). And as Kafka notes, at least the industry isn’t responding to this new threat by attempting to sue the hell out of it (as it did in the early YouTube era).

That said, TikTok is only just ramping up its ad business, and I’d imagine you’ll see a lot more smear campaigns against the company (see: this one from Facebook) as it begins to bruise more egos. At the same time, today’s hot trends can quickly become old news (see Netflix’s fall from grace), and there’s always new disruption waiting in the wings for traditional cable executives to be wholly unprepared for.

Posted on Techdirt - 23 June 2022 @ 05:28am

The Myopic Focus On TikTok Privacy Issues Remains Kind Of Weird

U.S. consumers face a parade of major privacy and security problems. Poorly secured routers, Internet things devices with zero privacy and security safeguards, major telecom network vulnerabilities, a massive unaccountable adtech and telecom hyper-surveillance apparatus (often unaccountably linked to government), all operating in a country that can’t seem to pass a privacy law for the Internet era because Congress is too corrupt.

Yet for whatever reason, the press and broader discourse remains singularly focused on…TikTok. For example, Buzzfeed released a report recently noting that “engineers in China” (read: at Beijing-based TikTok owner ByteDance) had repeated access to U.S. user TikTok data, contrary to a lot of ByteDance and TikTok promises that U.S. user data is stored in the U.S.

To be clear, this is dumb and bad. TikTok officials had testified before Congress that a “world-renowned, US-based security team” employed by the company strictly decided who got access to said data. It generally blows up a lot of the superficial promises the company has made as it tries to untangle itself from ByteDance and fears of Chinese intelligence agencies exploiting the app’s popularity.

Criticizing a company for being full of shit is fine. Countless companies all over the world are immensely full of shit when it comes to largely performative privacy practices. But for whatever reason we seem singularly obsessed with TikTok, and the singular threat the company poses to planet Earth. In a way that drowns out the broader issues and context.

But these stories always operate in a weird, contextual vacuum. One where the entirety of global technology markets aren’t a privacy shit show and user datasets of all kinds aren’t bouncing around the ether. This is Buzzfeed’s analysis, for example:

Lawmakers’ fear that the Chinese government will be able to get its hands on American data through ByteDance is rooted in the reality that Chinese companies are subject to the whims of the authoritarian Chinese Communist Party, which has been cracking down on its homegrown tech giants over the last year. The risk is that the government could force ByteDance to collect and turn over information as a form of “data espionage.”

Here’s the thing. The global adtech, telecom, and app privacy space is an absolute clown show, with just an endless parade of hardware/software/service companies over-collecting user location, financial, behavioral, and other data from every device you use, and selling access to it to a massive roster of random shitheads all over the planet.

The U.S. has no privacy law for the Internet era. The FTC is too understaffed and underfunded (by design) to tackle privacy seriously. We talk a lot about privacy but we do very little about abuses, because hyper-collection of data is simply too profitable to too many individuals and industries.

As a result, if you were to take a giant, patriotic hammer to TikTok and smash it into a million patriotic little pieces, it would prove irrelevant in the larger scheme of things. Chinese intelligence officials (just like any other government) have unchecked access to just an unlimited trove of various datasets gleaned from no limit of poorly secured and monitored hardware, apps, and services.

Buzzfeed at least introduces this concept later on its its story (most outlets don’t), but immediately dismisses the point to try and argue that TikTok could be used for mind control:

Project Texas’s narrow focus on the security of a specific slice of US user data, much of which the Chinese government could simply buy from data brokers if it so chose, does not address fears that China, through ByteDance, could use TikTok to influence Americans’ commercial, cultural, or political behavior.

Again though, numerous apps all over the world are routinely exploited all the time by a wide variety of bad actors to push problematic propaganda (take a look at your MAGA Uncle’s Facebook feed sometime).

But the press likes to single out TikTok’s shitty privacy and security standards — and the data TikTok collects — as somehow unique. Usually because it’s Chinese. In response to the news, outlets like Mashable even went so far as to try and suggest that this all somehow means that the Trump administration was right to repeatedly and singularly freak out about TikTok:

That means some signs are now pointing to former President Donald Trump potentially being correct in his assessment of the app when he said in an August 2020 executive order that TikTok’s “data collection threatens to allow” China to “access to Americans’ personal and proprietary information.” TikTok repeatedly said it has never and would never share U.S. user data with the Chinese government.

That introduces the other problem: nearly all of our “solutions” to the TikTok problem are always weird and performative. The Trump administration didn’t give a flying shit about any of a million other consumer and privacy issues, but was breathlessly concerned about TikTok. Their solution? Some dumb cronyism that attempted to offload the entire successful company to his friends at Walmart and Oracle.

The Trump GOP wasn’t actually worried about TikTok user privacy. They’d shown zero indications they were concerned about consumer privacy more broadly. They saw a Chinese company that was successful and wanted it, and used xenophobia to try and get it. Far too many press outlets ignorantly conflated this with a good faith effort to genuinely rein in Chinese intelligence or fix U.S. privacy problems.

More recently, TikTok and officials (and by proxy the press) have made a big deal about how much of TikTok’s data will now reside at Oracle — a company with some of the sleaziest lobbying practices in tech — that actively lobbies against any kind of privacy oversight, and whose CEO recently got all hot and bothered about the prospect of ending U.S. democracy. This is, I’m told, a “fix.”

Again, none of this is to defend the shitty Chinese government or TikTok’s shitty and performative privacy practices. The Chinese government is a violent hyper-surveillance and censorship shit show in a way that exceeds even America’s grandest ambitions on this front.

But there’s a much broader problem here. Namely that the entire adtech, telecom, and privacy space is an unaccountable dumpster fire. The singular fixation on one app by one company because it’s Chinese (gasp), and the xenophobic hysteria and half-cooked solutions that follow, are just kind of… dumb? And in many cases, driven by competitors who couldn’t care less about privacy anyway.

If you’re going to hyperventilate about U.S. consumer privacy, at least hyperventilate in proper context.

Posted on Techdirt - 22 June 2022 @ 06:35am

Roku, Netflix, Start Behaving More Like The Annoying Cable Giants They Once Disrupted

It’s always interesting to watch one-time disruptors shift toward turf protection, apparently remembering none of the annoyances that drove their passion for disruption (and ultimate success) in the first place.

Once Netflix was as powerful as the telecom sector, it shifted its tone on issues like net neutrality. And as the now-dominant company has increasingly faced competitors, it has taken to nickel-and-diming its subscribers (see the recent rate hikes followed by fees for those who share passwords, a practice it once heralded as little more than free advertising).

Roku has also gone from pesky market disruptor to one of the biggest streaming hardware companies in the world. And their behavior has also, as you might have expected, started to resemble a lot of the cable companies that it once disrupted.

In the last year or two, Roku has been mired in contract standoffs with Google and AT&T as it tries to leverage its market share to take greater control of profitable streaming user viewing, CDN, and behavior data. That’s resulted in a growing number of instances where users have lost access to certain streaming content on certain devices (something you’re going to see a whole lot more of).

As Janko Roettgers at Protocol notes, many of Roku’s contemporaries feel like the company may be getting a bit to big for its britches as it pushes for a bigger cut and more control:

Under the new terms, Roku keeps 45% of net advertising revenues. That’s still less than the cut some competing platforms take, according to industry insiders. However, given Roku’s size, the change has significant impact on the business of these channel providers, with one of the affected publishers calling it “a bit of a money grab” in a conversation with Protocol.

As we noted last year, the future of streaming TV is looking more and more like traditional cable. Especially with the rise of free, ad-supported streaming TV channels (aka “FAST”) popping up on a lot of hardware. Roku wants to take advantage of the company’s massive fifty percent streaming hardware market share to bend other sector companies to its will.

In a book forward in 2016, Netflix CEO Reed Hastings warned about the hubris of successful disruption:

“Throughout my business career, I have often observed powerful incumbents, once lauded for their business acumen, failing to adjust to a new competitive reality,” Hastings writes. “The result is always a stunning fall from grace.”

Like most executives, Hastings hasn’t heeded his own warnings. Once you’ve achieved success and face the kind of young, hungry competitors you used to be, panic often sets in, and you forget what brought you to the top of the mountain in the first place. Especially under the thumb of Wall Street’s demand for improved quarterly returns at any cost. And the cycle continues…

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