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Karl Bode

About Karl Bode Techdirt Insider

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


Posted on Techdirt - 4 October 2023 @ 05:20am

Trump FCC Pick Nathan Simington Wants You To Think Net Neutrality Is A Secret Cabal By Big Tech To ‘Censor Conservatives’

The modern authoritarian GOP knows its radical policies are widely unpopular, which is why it increasingly needs to rely on propaganda. That’s also why the party pretends that absolutely any effort to moderate online political propaganda is “censorship.” With young voters turning away from the GOP in record numbers, propaganda, gerrymandering, and race-baiting anti-democratic bullshit is all the party has.

It’s an argument that bleeds into pretty much everything these days, even net neutrality.

After the Biden FCC last week announced it would be restoring net neutrality, Trump FCC pick Nathan Simington came out with a rambling missive claiming that efforts to keep Comcast from screwing you over is, you guessed it, somehow an attempt to censor conservatives. Net neutrality is, Simington claims, secretly a way to help “big tech” censor poor, unheard right wingers:

“The leaders of Big Tech companies have anointed themselves the arbiters of which ideas are allowed to be expressed and which are not. These companies are, without a doubt, the biggest threat against freedom of speech that our country has faced in decades.”

So one, you’ll notice that Simington is incapable of talking honestly about telecom monopoly power and his party’s 40 year track record of coddling it. But his core thesis, that this is all secretly a favor to “big tech,” simply isn’t true. Why not? Because “big tech” companies documentably stopped caring about net neutrality a long time ago.

While Google used to care about net neutrality, it stopped somewhere around 2010. Once Netflix became successful, it too vocally stopped caring about net neutrality somewhere around 2017. While these companies originally supported net neutrality, once they became big and powerful they simply stopped caring. Facebook never cared, and long actively opposed net neutrality.

The GOP knows this, they just think (or hope) that you’re stupid.

Simington also tries to argue that because the internet didn’t explode into a rainbow of bright colors after the 2017 repeal of net neutrality (which required the use of fake and dead people to pretend the repeal had public support), that the consumer protection rules must not have mattered:

“It has now been nearly six years since we repealed the net neutrality rules, and as far as I know, no one has died yet, nor have any other of the solemnly predicted catastrophes come to pass.”

Folks opposed to basic consumer protection love to make this claim, but they’re actively ignoring that big telecom didn’t behave worse post repeal because numerous states rushed in to pass state level laws. Companies like Comcast didn’t want to implement major anti-competitive practices on their network, because they now risk running afoul of state net neutrality laws all along the west coast.

This gets conflated into “gosh, our removal of federal guidelines must not have mattered,” which is misleading bullshit. The FCC repeal of net neutrality didn’t just kill net neutrality rules, it gutted much of the FCC’s consumer protection authority. The GOP’s repeal even tried to ban states from protecting broadband consumers entirely, an effort the courts have subsequently shot down.

Focus on what matters: Net neutrality rules were imperfect, stopgap efforts to keep giant telecom monopolies from using their power over internet access to harm consumers and competitors. If you don’t support net neutrality, what’s your solution for concentrated telecom monopoly power? The GOP actively supports concentrated telecom monopoly power. There are 40 years of documentable evidence.

From Simington’s missive, do you gather he cares one fleeting shit about the problems created by telecom monopoly power? The high costs? They slow speeds? The patchy access in rural markets? The comically terrible customer service? The refusal of ISPs to upgrade poor, minority neighborhoods?

Simington can’t even be bothered to actually discuss the actual issue he’s trying to counter. Because what the modern GOP cares about is protecting its own power, and, at the moment, that requires propping up the delusion that anything the GOP doesn’t like is somehow “big tech censorship.” Even some basic, popular consumer protections designed to protect the public from big telecom.

Posted on Techdirt - 3 October 2023 @ 05:24am

Disney Joins Netflix In Harassing Password Sharers As The Enshittification Of Streaming Continues

We’ve noted a few times now how as the streaming sector consolidates and grows, it’s becoming more and more like the traditional cable industry it disrupted. This enshittification includes a lot of endless price hikes, a steady degradation of product quality, pointless mergers that cause endless layoffs, and the implementation of new restrictive efforts to nickel-and-dime customers.

Like Netflix’s recent crackdown on password sharing.

Netflix spent years encouraging the practice as a form of free advertising. But as the streaming market’s growth saturated, Netflix turned to more creative ways to give Wall Street its improved quarterly returns at any cost (including product quality or customer satisfaction). Like charging users even more money for something it already monetized (users were already paying more for more simultaneous streams).

Unsurprisingly, other companies like Disney are now following suit, starting with Canada:

“Disney has not provided many details on how it plans to enforce this policy — its email merely states that “we’re implementing restrictions on your ability to share your account or login credentials outside of your household.” The announcement reads more like a strong finger wag than anything else. “You may not share your subscription outside of your household,” reads the company’s updated Help Center.”

Despite what Netflix and Disney claim, password sharing is not a major threat to these companies’ fortunes. In part because there’s no guarantee that the “moochers” they’re harassing (usually college kids or people who don’t like paying for things) will sign up for their own accounts. Analysts have noted a lot of these companies’ predictions of how much money they’ll make from crackdowns are based in fantasy.

Netflix claims the crackdown has been a smashing success, but there’s no hard evidence that’s actually true so far. These streaming giants aren’t really required to detail where new subscriptions are coming from in earnings reports, so whatever happens they’ll insist it’s all been a smashing success either way.

But nickel-and-diming your users as the streaming market gets more competitive simply isn’t all that bright. Streaming competitors looking to make market inroads can give themselves an edge by simply being less annoying. And should some companies push too hard, they risk increasingly driving paying customers to the next layer of disruptive services like TikTok, Twitch, or YouTube as the cycle continues.

Posted on Techdirt - 2 October 2023 @ 05:29am

A Volunteer Army Is Deploying Dirt Cheap Broadband In NYC

A few years ago during one of our Greenhouse forums, activist Terique Boyce wrote about how an all-volunteer army had been spending their days deploying free broadband to NYC residents. It’s the latest example of frustrated communities building their own infrastructure after decades of being ripped off and underserved by powerful, local broadband monopolies.

NYC Mesh is a sort of guerilla activist project that installs wireless mesh networking antennas and routers on the top of buildings to deliver affordable (sometimes free) broadband.”

CNET has done a good profile piece on the project, which charges users a $50 fee for the installation and a pay-what-you-can monthly donation to keep the network operating. DIY’ers can install the service for free. Subscribers are encouraged to share their connections with other locals. The organization says it never disconnects users for non-payment.

These aren’t the kind of next-gen fiber connections you want to run a business off of, but they do provide essential access to marginalized neighborhoods that can’t afford broadband from their regional monopoly (in NYC that’s usually Charter/Spectrum or Verizon):

“NYC Mesh is not an internet service provider, but a grassroots, volunteer-run community network. Its aim is to create an affordable, open and reliable network that’s accessible to all New Yorkers for both daily and emergency internet use. Santana says the group’s members want to help people determine their own digital future and “bring back the internet to what it used to be.”

Around a thousand U.S. communities have built some flavor of community-owned and operated broadband network, whether it’s something like NYC Mesh, fiber deployed by the city-owned utility, a local cooperative, or a direct municipal broadband build. As always, these communities wouldn’t be deploying their own networks if not for market failure at the hands of regional monopolies.

“ISPs are always trying to maximize profits. We are just trying to connect our members for the lowest cost possible,” says Brian Hall, one of the lead volunteers and founders of NYC Mesh. 

Federal policymakers talk a lot about the “digital divide,” yet routinely fail to address the core reason for it: we turned broadband into a luxury good dominated by a handful of extremely political powerful regional monopolies, hellbent on nickel-and-diming customers trapped by a lack of competition. We didn’t block mergers, we didn’t hold them accountable, and we somehow act surprised at the result.

Instead of directly tackling monopoly power (in fact the folks at the FCC under both parties routinely can’t even admit there’s a problem in public facing statements), we enjoy throwing billions in taxpayer subsidies at said monopolies in the hopes that this time, our “bad luck” will finally change.

Meanwhile, a growing list of communities countrywide have grown tired of waiting for competent federal broadband policy, and continue to take matters into their own hands. Often with zero messaging or policy support from federal regulators purportedly dedicated to “bridging the digital divide.”

Posted on Techdirt - 29 September 2023 @ 05:25am

Feds Probing Tesla For Lying About EV Ranges, Bullshitting Customers Who Complained

Back in July, Reuters released a bombshell report documenting how Tesla not only spent a decade falsely inflating the range of their EVs, but created teams dedicated to bullshitting Tesla customers who called in to complain about it. If you recall, Reuters noted how these teams would have a little, adorable party every time they got a pissed off user to cancel a scheduled service call. Usually by lying to them:

“Inside the Nevada team’s office, some employees celebrated canceling service appointments by putting their phones on mute and striking a metal xylophone, triggering applause from coworkers who sometimes stood on desks. The team often closed hundreds of cases a week and staffers were tracked on their average number of diverted appointments per day.”

The story managed to stay in the headlines for all of a day or two, quickly supplanted by gossip surrounding a non-existent Elon Musk Mark Zuckerberg fist fight.

But here in reality, Tesla’s routine misrepresentation of their product (and almost joyous gaslighting of their paying customers) has caught the eye of federal regulators, who are now investigating the company for fraudulent behavior:

“federal prosecutors have opened a probe into Tesla’s alleged range-exaggerating scheme, which involved rigging its cars’ software to show an inflated range projection that would then abruptly switch to an accurate projection once the battery dipped below 50% charged. Tesla also reportedly created an entire secret “diversion team” to dissuade customers who had noticed the problem from scheduling service center appointments.”

This pretty clearly meets the threshold definition of “unfair and deceptive” under the FTC Act, so this shouldn’t be that hard of a case. Of course, whether it results in any sort of meaningful penalties or fines is another matter entirely. It’s very clear Musk historically hasn’t been very worried about what’s left of the U.S. regulatory and consumer protection apparatus holding him accountable for… anything.

Still, it’s yet another problem for a company that’s facing a flood of new competitors with an aging product line. And it’s another case thrown in Tesla’s lap on top of the glacially-moving inquiry into the growing pile of corpses caused by obvious misrepresentation of under-cooked “self driving” technology, and an investigation into Musk covertly using Tesla funds to build himself a glass mansion.

Isn’t modern innovation exciting?

Posted on Techdirt - 28 September 2023 @ 05:27am

Silicon Valley Starts Hiring Poets To Fix Shitty Writing By Undercooked “AI”

When it comes to the early implementation of “AI,” it’s generally been the human beings that are the real problem.

Case in point: the fail-upward incompetents that run the U.S. media and journalism industries have rushed to use language learning models (LLMs) to cut corners and attack labor. They’ve made it very clear they’re not at all concerned about the fact that these new systems are mistake and plagiarism prone, resulting in angry employees, a lower-quality product, and (further) eroded consumer trust.

While AI certainly has many genuine uses for productivity, many VC hustlebros see AI as a way to create an automated ad engagement machine that effectively shits money and undermines already underpaid labor. The actual underlying technology is often presented as akin to science fiction or magic; the ballooning server costs, environmental impact, and $2 an hour developing world labor powering it are obscured from public view whenever possible.

But however much AI hype-men would like to pretend AI makes human beings irrelevant, they remain essential for the underlying illusion and reality to function. As such, a growing number of Silicon Valley companies are increasingly hiring poets, English PHDs, and other writers to write short stories for LLMs to train on in a bid to improve the quality of their electro-mimics:

“A string of job postings from high-profile training data companies, such as Scale AI and Appen, are recruiting poets, novelists, playwrights, or writers with a PhD or master’s degree. Dozens more seek general annotators with humanities degrees, or years of work experience in literary fields. The listings aren’t limited to English: Some are looking specifically for poets and fiction writers in Hindi and Japanese, as well as writers in languages less represented on the internet.”

LLMs like Chat GPT have struggled to accurately replicate poetry. One study found that after being presented with 17 poem examples, the technology still couldn’t accurately write a poem in the style of Walt Whitman. While Whitman’s poems are often less structured, Chat GPT kept trying to produce poems in traditional stanzas, even when explicitly being told not to do that. The problem got notably worse in languages other than English, driving up the value, for now, of non-English writers.

So it’s clear we still have a long way to go before these technologies actually get anywhere close to matching both the hype and employment apocalypse many predicted. LLMs are effectively mimics that create from what already exists. Since it’s not real artificial intelligence, it’s still not actually capable of true creativity:

“They are trained to reproduce. They are not designed to be great, they try to be as close as possible to what exists,” Fabricio Goes, who teaches informatics at the University of Leicester, told Rest of World, explaining a popular stance among AI researchers. “So, by design, many people argue that those systems are not creative.”

That, for now, creates additional value for the employment of actual human beings with actual expertise. You need to hire humans to train models on, and you need editors to fix the numerous problems undercooked AI creates. The homogenized blandness of the resulting simulacrum also, for now, likely puts a premium on thinkers and writers who actually have something original to say.

The problem remains that while the underlying technology will continuously improve, the folks rushing to implement it without thinking likely won’t. Most seem dead set on using AI primarily as a bludgeon against labor in the hopes the public won’t notice the drop in quality, and professional writers, editors, and creatives won’t mind increasingly lower pay and tenuous position in the food chain.

Posted on Techdirt - 27 September 2023 @ 05:26am

Bloomberg Lazily Helps Telecom Lobby Seed The Press With Bullshit Claims About Net Neutrality

With the Biden FCC now having a voting majority, the telecom industry is clearly worried about the agency’s plans to restore popular net neutrality rules stripped away by the Trump administration.

To prep the lobbying field, the industry has started using its various proxy groups to seed the press with a bunch of bullshit arguments about net neutrality. Like this piece over at The Hill by the telecom-industry-funded “Innovation and Technology Policy Center,” which claims that dismantling net neutrality “saved the internet,” and that restoring the rules would harm the “vibrant and competitive” U.S. broadband market.

Or this story and associated telecom industry funded white paper by “two former Obama-era solicitors general” (who coincidentally now lobby for the telecom industry at their respective law firms) falsely claiming that the FCC lacks the authority to pursue net neutrality (courts have repeatedly stated they do).

The study basically argues that because the Supreme Court wants to lobotomize all federal regulatory authority via its looming Chevron deference ruling (something the telecom industry lobbied in favor for), the FCC shouldn’t even bother to try to restore net neutrality rules. It’s industry-funded bullshit, pushed by an industry that wants the FCC to remain a toothless marionette to monopoly power.

Numerous news outlets run this kind of industry propaganda without disclosing the authors’ financial ties to the telecom industry. But Bloomberg ran the op-ed, and then for good measure “reported” on their own op-ed as if it was factual, objective news. Only days later, after Bloomberg was criticized by outlets like The American Prospect, did Bloomberg reveal the study was funded by industry in a correction:

Bloomberg editors still somehow didn’t note that both study authors work for law firms that do policy and lobbying work for the telecom industry.

This is, of course, a fairly tried and true tactic by the telecom lobby. Make up some stuff, then get lazy or editorially feckless news outlets to seed the ideas in the public discourse without important context (like, oh, that the whole white paper is a policy and PR ploy designed to confuse everyone, or that it’s directly funded by telecom monopolies with zero credibility on public interest policy).

While it’s true that ruling Supreme Court cases could (further) lobotomize U.S. regulatory power, long time telecom policy guru Harold Feld is quick to point out that when the courts have discussed the “major questions doctrine” or Chevron deference, they’ve specifically given the FCC more leeway than other federal regulators when it comes to expertise-based rulemaking authority:

“One of the most important rulings relied upon by the courts regarding this doctrine is a 2005 case Gonzales v. Oregon, which blocked the Attorney General via the Drug Enforcement Agency from regulating doctors’ prescriptions under the public interest standard. In that ruling, the Court went out of its way to note that, while Congress delegated limited powers to the DEA, the FCC was an example of an agency that had far more expansive powers via its writ from Congress.”

So yes, the FCC should still pursue net neutrality, especially if it’s not going to bother to try and tackle telecom industry monopoly power more directly. And yes, net neutrality still matters, despite what the uninformed folks in the cheap seats like to suggest. Telecom giants like AT&T, Verizon, Comcast, and Charter are just seeding the press with bullshit in the hopes of killing any reform before it begins.

Posted on Techdirt - 26 September 2023 @ 03:58pm

Biden FCC Prepares To ‘Restore Net Neutrality,’ But The Details Will Matter

Hey, remember when a bunch of unpopular broadband monopolies convinced a corrupt reality TV star to dismantle most oversight of their very broken industry? And remember how to accomplish this companies like AT&T, Verizon, and Comcast spread endless lies about what was actually happening, going so far as to use fake and even dead people to try and pretend the idea was broadly popular?

Good times.

Anyway, now that the FCC finally has a fifth Commissioner and Democrats finally have a voting majority after almost seven years of lobbyist-fueled bullshit, reports are emerging that indicate the agency is preparing to finally restore net neutrality rules. The FCC clearly leaked word to Bloomberg that the FCC will vote to begin the process of restoring net neutrality rules at an October 19 agency meeting:

“Remarks by Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel will center on the FCC’s role in net neutrality, two people briefed on the topic said, pointing toward a possible renewed fight over US regulations of broadband providers. Rosenworcel is expected to announce plans to restore the rules, according to two of the people, who asked not to be identified because the details aren’t yet public.”

As noted previously, what those rules will look like matters. A lot. Given this FCC’s lack of backbone, I had concerns that the agency would propose something that very much looks like real net neutrality, but doesn’t fully include the Title II reclassification required to ensure the FCC can actually enforce it. Something designed with ample industry input to pre-empt tougher, state level rules.

But in comments made before the National Press Club, FCC boss Jessica Rosenworcel hinted that the restoration of net neutrality will involve a restoration of the agency’s Title II authority under the Communications Act. A separate fact sheet circulated by the FCC also states that restoring the agency’s Title II authority will be key:

“The proposed rules would return fixed and mobile broadband service to its status as an essential “telecommunications” service.”

Rosenworcel noted that restoring the agency’s authority under Title II won’t just aid in the enforcement of net neutrality, but will also help the agency’s quest to impose stricter cybersecurity requirements on network operators. Rosenworcel also stated the FCC’s actual order will be made publicly available on Thursday.

Why does any of this matter? The Trump-era net neutrality repeal not only killed net neutrality rules, it actively gutted the FCC’s consumer protection authority over broadband giants. The Trump repeal even tried to ban states from being able to protect broadband consumers. The courts have frowned upon that last point, noting the FCC can’t abdicate its consumer protection authority then tell states what to do.

I routinely see misinformed folks try to claim that net neutrality must not have mattered because the internet didn’t fall apart post repeal, but that’s ignorant gibberish. A growing roster of state net neutrality rules have helped keep ISPs from implementing truly stupid ideas. They don’t want to implement some anti-competitive idea that runs afoul of regulators across the entire west coast.

The actual rules aside, either you want predatory giants like AT&T and Comcast to see some type of real oversight, or you don’t. The attack on net neutrality was really part of a decades-long assault on the FCC and all meaningful telecom consumer protection authority. Not some of it, all of it.

That kind of mindless fealty to monopoly power doesn’t benefit innovation, competition, or consumers, and folks that claim otherwise are lying to you.

There’s a reason U.S. broadband is slow, patchy, and expensive: unchecked monopoly power and regulatory capture (and the corruption that enables it). The one-two punch of limited competition and little to no meaningful government oversight have proven utterly corrosive to quality, affordable broadband. Contrary to claims by the telecom industry, it’s not something that’s debatable.

The telecom lobby is already seeding the press with bullshit about net neutrality before consumer groups can even fire up their messaging machines. Mainstream news outlets are already giving sterile historical primers on net neutrality that weirdly exclude most of the telecom industry’s bad behavior, leading credence to long-debunked industry claims (like the false claim net neutrality hurt industry investment)

It’s all going to get very stupid. Again.

As we once again descend down this rabbit hole I think it’s important to remember that the real problem is unchecked telecom monopoly power. If you’re opposed to attacking monopoly power directly or less directly (net neutrality), what’s your solution? If it involves handcuffing government regulators in the belief that AT&T and Comcast will suddenly become magically innovative, or waiting for “free market competition” to magically fall from the sky without some kind of real reform, you’re part of the problem.

To be clear: neither party has a great track record of standing up to concentrated telecom monopoly power. These are companies now bone grafted to our intelligence gathering and first responder networks, and when genuine reformers attempt to stand up to them it’s usually politically painful. The current Rosenworcel FCC generally avoids making telecom giants mad; so hopefully there are no strange loopholes or caveats included in the final order to appease Comcast, AT&T, Verizon and friends.

Posted on Techdirt - 26 September 2023 @ 05:23am

It’s Beyond Stupid That Robocallers And Lobbyists Have Made Our Voice Networks Almost Unusable

It can’t be said often enough: it’s stunning that we’ve let scammers and scumbags hijack the nation’s top voice communications platform. And that we’ve let marketing and telecom industry lobbyists slowly degrade the authority of the one U.S. regulator capable of actually doing something about it.

Every six months or so the FCC comes out with a new plan it insists will finally fix the scourge that is robocalls. Yet the solutions are never quite enough to actually combat robocallers, who now annoy Americans roughly 5.1 billion times every month. We’ve noted repeatedly why robocalls are a problem that somehow never gets truly fixed:

  • Lobbying by a coalition of industries has routinely led to Supreme Court rulings that have curtailed the FCC’s authority to pursue “scammers” and legitimate companies alike.
  • Lobbying has resulted in a paradigm where the discourse fixates on “scammers,” when it’s “legitimate” industries that are routinely the biggest culprits, often using the same exact tactics as scammers to do things like harass heavily-indebted people they know can’t pay.
  • The FCC has long lacked the backbone to stand up to telecom giants that for 20 years turned a blind eye on robocalling because they profited from it (and in many cases still do).
  • The current system allows the FCC to fine robocallers, but doesn’t give the FCC the authority to actually collect those fines. That falls to the DOJ, which often doesn’t bother. The FCC has repeatedly asked for the authority to collect fines itself, but a corrupt Congress ignores the request, thanks to a prevailing “wisdom,” seeded by industry, that competent regulatory oversight is somehow bad.

Still, the FCC really loves putting on a show to suggest that a fix for the problem is just around the next corner. Like last week, when the FCC finally (after years of pressure) closed a loophole pertaining to voice over IP (VOIP) providers that gave robocallers easy access to U.S. phone numbers. Which scammers then use to spoof their numbers and hide their identities:

“…under rules adopted by the FCC yesterday, VoIP providers will face some extra hurdles. They will have to “make robocall-related certifications to help ensure compliance with the Commission’s rules targeting illegal robocalls,” and “disclose and keep current information about their ownership, including foreign ownership, to mitigate the risk of providing bad actors abroad with access to US numbering resources,” the FCC said.”

To be clear: this is good; it’s just not enough.

Every time you see the FCC do something about robocalls, you can be fairly certain that it’s (1) something people had been pressing them to do for the better part of a decade, (2) probably contains ample loopholes as not to offend the “legitimate” companies that utilize the exact same tactics as scammers, and (3) probably won’t actually stop more agile robocallers from annoying the shit out of you at dinner.

Groups like the National Consumer Law Center (NCLC) have repeatedly issued reports detailing that we can’t fix robocalls until the FCC and Congress find the backbone (you might be waiting a while) to stand up to both scammers and legitimate corporations alike:

“Even when these providers are told—sometimes repeatedly—that they
are transmitting fraudulent calls, they keep doing it, because they are
making money from these calls. And even when they are caught and told
to stop, they are not criminally prosecuted, and the fines that are levied
are rarely collected.”

The robocall problem is usually framed in the press as a story about robocall scammers deftly outmaneuvering bumbling regulators. But that’s only part of the story. The reality is legitimate companies have actively constrained the FCC’s authority to do its job, blocked real reformers from being seated at the agency, and actively purchased the hollow performance that is modern regulatory oversight.

As a result, you often can’t use the fucking phone. Another byproduct of corruption and unchecked lobbying power we’ve somehow normalized over decades of dysfunction.

Posted on Techdirt - 25 September 2023 @ 05:20am

Activists Say California Is Backtracking On Plan For Statewide Affordable Broadband

While the California legislature often screws up tech policy, they’ve generally been pretty good on broadband. At least in relation to most U.S. states. California was among the first in the country to pass a net neutrality law after the telecom industry got Trumpists to dismantle federal rules.

The state also unveiled a major broadband plan a few years ago that, among other things, aims to spend $3.5 billion to create a massive, open access “middle mile” fiber network in a bid to boost competition. It’s part of a broader quest to make broadband both more affordable and more competitive (see our Copia report from last year discussing the potential impact of open access fiber).

The open access network is designed to dramatically drive down market entry costs for all ISPs in the state, but it was generally a broadside against incumbent regional monopolies like AT&T. AT&T, unsurprisingly, first worked to undermine the bill during crafting, and has whined about it ever since.

Facing a budget deficit as well as “inflation and rising construction costs,” state leaders announced earlier this year they’d be making some notable cuts to the program. As usual, the folks most impacted by the cuts wound up being low income, minority, and otherwise marginalized populations, who’ve already routinely found themselves “redlined” by giant telecom monopolies disinterested in upgrading them.

But folks in impacted neighborhoods like East Oakland and South Central Los Angeles were quick to express their annoyance at the cuts. And with the help of tech activism orgs like the EFF, have managed to get Governor Newsom to reverse course:

“Inflation and rising construction costs still constrain the state’s allotted $3.87 billion for these expansions, said Liana Bailey-Crimmins, director of the California Department of Technology. However the state is still determined to universalize broadband service in California.”

Activists I’ve spoken to aren’t sure that the state will follow through and fully restore funding to these already neglected areas. Many, like Patrick Messac, director for #OaklandUndivided, an internet advocacy nonprofit, noted that the decision to prioritize cuts to long-marginalized neighborhoods speaks to a deeper problem in both policymaking and data collection:

“I’m still concerned that the state isn’t doing anything to address the underlying issue, which is the discriminatory” data that the state used to identify which regions to scale back from, Messac said.

And the promised funding, which Messac said he is still not sure will come, leaves him unsettled.

“So many promises have been broken to Black and brown communities” — the communities Messac said would be disproportionately harmed by the state’s prior decision to scale back on broadband expansions — “that it makes it difficult to celebrate this moment.”

The FCC is engaged in a proceeding that’s supposed to take aim at the way big telecom monopolies intentionally screw over poor and minority neighborhoods, but like so much the generally feckless FCC does, it’s wholly unclear if the inquiry will result in meaningful action.

What California originally promised — investment in a core open access fiber network in a bid to drive competition to market and reduce costs — is precisely the sort of thing federal telecom regulators refuse to do. For decades the FCC has played a form of regulatory theater wherein they talk a lot about the “digital divide,” while proposing superficial fixes for the symptoms of monopoly power, but generally lack the backbone to assault monopoly power straight on.

New York City had considered something similar — a major open access fiber network that all competitors could compete over — but the Adams administration effectively gutted that project in the middle of project planning after repeated complaints by Comcast and Verizon.

Fixing expensive, spotty, and sluggish U.S. broadband access requires a frontal assault on monopoly power. But so far only a few states (like Washington and California) have genuinely had the backbone to even think about trying. A growing parade of long-frustrated towns, from Chattanooga to Palo Alto, have even decided to build their own community-owned networks.

Federal policymakers have repeatedly had the opportunity to assault monopoly power by cracking down on monopoly fraud, supporting open access fiber networks, and embracing community broadband.

But instead of doing that, federal regulators have generally just thrown billions in subsidies at the very same monopolies directly responsible for patchy, expensive U.S. broadband in the first place. That lack of leadership has driven a few states, like California, to take aim at the problem themselves.

But for every California, there are at least a dozen states whose broadband policy approach genuinely involves simply doing whatever AT&T and Comcast wants. And even in California, unsurprisingly, keeping incumbent telecom monopolies from undermining the occasional quest to do the right thing on affordable broadband access is a full time job.

Posted on Techdirt - 22 September 2023 @ 01:44pm

The Enshittification Of Streaming Continues As Amazon Starts Charging Prime Video Customers Even More Money To Avoid Ads

Thanks to industry consolidation and saturated market growth, the streaming industry has started behaving much like the traditional cable giants they once disrupted. As with most industries suffering from “enshittification,” that generally means imposing obnoxious new restrictions (see: Netflix password sharing), endless price hikes, and obnoxious and dubious new fees geared toward pleasing Wall Street.

Case in point: Amazon customers already pay $15 per month, or $139 annually for Amazon Prime, which includes a subscription to Amazon’s streaming TV service. In a bid to make Wall Street happy, Amazon has apparently decided it makes good sense to start hitting those users with entirely new streaming TV ads, then charge an additional $3 per month to avoid them:

“US-based Prime members will be able to revert back to an ad-free experience for an additional $2.99 per month on top of their existing subscription. Prime memberships in the US cost $14.99 per month, or $139 per year if paid annually. Pricing for the ad-free option for other countries will be shared “at a later date.”

Of course imposing new annoyances you then have to pay extra to avoid is just a very small part of Amazon’s overall quest to boost revenues at the cost of market health, competition, customer satisfaction, and the long-term viability of its sellers.

Ideally, competition in streaming is supposed to result in companies improving product quality and, ultimately, competing on price. But eager to feed Wall Street’s insatiable and often myopic need for improved quarterly returns at any cost, streaming giants have begun extracting additional pounds of flesh wherever and however they can, product quality and consumer satisfaction be damned.

That (combined with stupid and pointless mergers and “growth for growth’s sake” consolidation) results in streaming services that are increasingly expensive, lower quality than ever (see the decline of HBO as one shining example), and don’t much care about the consumer experience. That’s before you get to the endless industry layoffs or the media industry’s protracted unwillingness to pay creatives a living wage.

All overseen by a suite of unremarkable, fail-upward, overpaid executives (see: Warner Brothers Discovery CEO David Zaslav) who show absolutely no indication that they genuinely understand the industry they do business in or have any real empathy for employees or consumers. The result is higher prices, worse product quality, lower employee pay, plenty of industry chaos, and enshittification.

So, it’s not terribly surprising short-sighted executives can’t see this is the exact trajectory and decision making process that opened the traditional cable industry to painful and protracted disruption, ensuring history simply repeats itself in perpetuity.

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