Adi Robertson

This is the NSA reform that you've been waiting for -- sort of

[Commentary] Reformers are now pinning their hopes on a single bill: the USA Freedom Act, only one step away from passing the House of Representatives. The USA Freedom Act, brought by Rep Jim Sensenbrenner (R-WI), focuses on the most notorious government surveillance program: the NSA’s mass collection of phone call records, which it stores for up to five years.

The new bill focuses only on the calling records. Among other things, the amendment took out a section that would make it easier for companies to reveal that they’d been ordered to give up data, and it explicitly allowed intelligence agencies to gather numbers within two "hops" of the original query, instead of restricting it only to foreign agents and their contacts.

Most controversially, though, it struck out a section that applied to another NSA program: the collection of emails through Section 702 of the FISA Amendments Act. The original bill explicitly barred the practice of "backdoor searches," which let NSA agents get around bans on collecting communications from Americans by searching for data that had been inadvertently caught in the dragnet.

The Intelligence Committee, meanwhile, was initially rumored to be making some unpopular changes of its own. A circulated amendment, says Center for Democracy and Technology senior counsel Harley Geiger, apparently would have made it unclear what the NSA could count as a search term when requesting data, opening a significant loophole. Unlike the Judiciary Committee, the Intelligence Committee held its hearing behind closed doors, part of a more general pattern of secrecy.

Ultimately, though, the bill that emerged was the same one the Judiciary Committee had amended and approved. Rogers and Ruppersberger praised the committee for adopting "a compromise that garnered strong, bipartisan support," leaving their own proposal in limbo.

Who's fighting to save the Internet now?

After years of pressure from Internet service providers, network neutrality is under threat by the Federal Communications Commission itself.

In a letter, Sen Al Franken (D-MN) warned that the FCC’s latest network neutrality proposal "would not preserve the Open Internet -- it would destroy it." His language is reminiscent of the response to another "Internet-destroying" policy: SOPA, the anti-piracy bill that mobilized perhaps the most effective online protest of all time. Like SOPA, these proposed Open Internet rules tackle an issue that’s near to the hearts of both Internet denizens and tech companies.

And as the FCC plans to officially consider the rules on May 15th, they’re figuring out how to mobilize the same kind of opposition. Though the company hasn’t confirmed anything on the record, sources say that outspoken net neutrality proponent Netflix has privately brought concerns to the FCC, and that it, Google, and other major players are quietly planning an accompanying publicity blitz.

Other groups have been more open. Mozilla, a prominent participant in the 2012 anti-SOPA blackout, has filed a petition with the FCC, asking it to regulate parts of Internet service providers’ business under common carrier laws. Mozilla senior policy engineer Chris Riley sees the FCC’s current proposal as the worst of both worlds: by allowing "commercially reasonable" discrimination, it’s allowing ISPs to undermine net neutrality, and by requiring a baseline level of service, it could be stretching beyond the limited authority courts have given it. "I’m really worried that what the FCC would do now is both lose in court and fail to protect net neutrality," he says. If it fails, net neutrality supporters predict dire consequences.

Reddit, currently one of the 25 most popular sites in the US, also joined the SOPA blackout, and it’s planning a site-wide online protest on May 15th. Nothing is locked down, but he hopes some of the politicians who have spoken out against the proposal will make appearances on Reddit -- a statement by Sen Bernie Sanders (I-VT) made it to the top of the site.

Comcast has very bad reasons for wanting to buy Time Warner Cable

[Commentary] Comcast wants to own the Internet -- or, at least, the cables that carry it to most Americans’ homes. There is absolutely no way that Comcast can argue it would have meaningful competition in wired broadband or cable after the merger.

A merger would turn Comcast’s already long lead into overwhelming dominance. And Comcast knows this. So how can it convince the FCC that this isn’t a problem? By comparing itself to pretty much any company that offers Internet or video service in any form. Leaving aside its link to NBCUniversal, Comcast has three major offerings: wired broadband, cable TV, and video on demand. If a company has moved into any of those spaces, Comcast says it’s a competitor.

Taken individually, each of these companies do compete in some sense with parts of Comcast, but the comparison falls apart when you look at how many of these services run on its broadband network. Comcast offers carefully constructed revenue and market cap charts that place it and TWC at the very bottom of the scale -- except that it’s comparing itself to the entirety of multinational giants like Apple, AT&T, and Microsoft, as well as bizarre additions like Facebook.

Comcast can only claim new services compete with existing wired broadband if it vastly oversells their potential. Google announced tentative plans to bring Fiber to more cities in February, and Comcast has spun this into a pending flurry of expansions, ignoring the fact that Google has until the end of 2014 to announce its decision and currently operates in only two small markets. There’s no doubt it can spur competition, but certainly not on the scale that Comcast implies.

USAID refutes claims about allegedly subversive Cuban Twitter clone

US Agency for International Development (USAID) has denied Associated Press allegations that it created a Cuban alternative to Twitter in order to foment political unrest.

USAID has disputed several of the Associated Press' claims, saying that the program was neither covert nor intended as anything but a platform for free speech. "The article contained significant inaccuracies and false conclusions about ZunZuneo," writes spokesperson Matt Herrick, calling it "part of a broader effort that began in 2009 to facilitate 'Twitter-like' communication among Cubans so they could connect with each other on topics of their choice."

Rather than covert, Herrick calls the program "discreet." According to him, it was kept quiet in order to protect its staff and partners, but it was explicitly legalized with a budget line asking USAID to break the "information blockade" in Cuba with methods that included new media. "All funds for this project were congressionally appropriated for democracy programs in Cuba, and that information is publicly available," he writes.