Senate Commerce Committee Chairman John Thune (R-SD) has made himself into an indispensable player in debates over the future of technology policy and its ripple effects around the economy.
His education on technology issues began when he unexpectedly became the committee’s ranking member after then-Sen. Jim DeMint (R-SC) left the Senate to become the head of the conservative Heritage Foundation. When he became chairman in 2014, Thune said in a speech at the conservative American Enterprise Institute that lawmakers should work to free up government-owned spectrum — the invisible frequencies that carry signals to mobile devices — for private use. Chairman Thune released a bill to carry through that pledge, though it did not make it out of Congress. He’s found bipartisan ground on a bill to reauthorize the Federal Communications Commission, which would give Congress another chance to weigh in on the goings-on at the agency. That bill, however, also failed to make it through Congress. “He knows the facts, he knows the background, he knows where the policy challenges are and he knows what needs to be done,” said Andy Halataei, senior vice president for government affairs at the Information Technology Industry Council. “And I think the other thing that gives us confidence is the way he conducts the debate is that it’s usually pretty open, transparent, it’s pretty thoughtful and it lends itself to a bipartisan result.” Even some who disagree with Thune sing his praises.
Facebook rolled out a ballot guide aimed at preparing people for the voting booth, the company’s latest effort at civic engagement. The feature allows users to scroll through and get more information about the candidates and ballot issues they’ll see when they go to vote. What users see on the guide is what they'll see on their ballot, according to Facebook. “We’re interested in offering people a space that’s separate from News Feed where they can prepare for that they’re going to do in the ballot box,” said Jeremy Galen, a product marketing manager with the company.
A user can scroll through to see all the candidates for a given office and choose to see their position on the issue, assuming the candidate has uploaded that information to their Facebook page. They can also see other users who have endorsed the candidate. The website serves information on the presidential race first, followed by down-ballot races and ballot questions. The order in which candidates are presented on the page is randomized. The information comes from the Center for Technology and Civic Life, a nonprofit group. Users can favorite a candidate they plan to support, an action they can either keep to themselves or share with friends. That data will be discarded 60 days after Election Day, the company said, and will not be used for any advertising purposes.
Presidential politics are casting a shadow over the biggest media acquisition of 2016. The outcome of the White House race could help determine the fate of the proposed $85 billion sale of Time Warner to telecommunications behemoth AT&T, an unusual situation for a massive sale. “It’s such an interesting thing about this deal, is the fact that it was announced when it was announced,” said Craig Aaron, president of Free Press, which argues the deal would be bad for consumers. “I think this would be a highly controversial deal whenever it happened, but the fact that it’s happening two weeks out from the election and will be decided by … appointees who nobody knows who they are yet, makes this a much more political fight than maybe it would have been if it had happened at another time.” Neither of the presidential hopefuls has spoken kindly of the proposal.
AT&T’s chief executive said that he couldn't "prejudge" whether the issue of so-called zero-rating, or providing customers with free data when they view certain content, would hold up the company’s acquisition of Time Warner. Randall Stephenson said that he “can’t prejudge any of this” when asked whether the use of zero-rating could be a problem in getting the deal approved by regulators. “I really don’t know — just going to have to get into the process, put the data out with regulators, and begin that effort, and the sausage will come out the way the sausage comes out,” he said on the company’s third-quarter earnings call.
Zero-rating programs have become controversial in recent years. They allow a carrier to provide free data usage to customers when they’re using a certain application or viewing specific content. The most prominent of these programs is T-Mobile’s Binge On, which allows customers to stream video from major services without it counting against their monthly allotment of data. But other companies, including AT&T, have tested offerings where companies can “sponsor” data usage. Some have speculated that zero-rating could become an issue as regulators consider whether to approve AT&T’s purchase of content giant Time Warner.
Government requests for Google user data rose slightly in the first half of 2016. Google said that it received 44,943 requests from government entities worldwide in the first six months of the year, up from 40,677 in the previous six month period. The requests affected 76,713 accounts — a decrease from the previous six months. The company said it had provided the authorities with some data in 64 percent of cases. That was the same rate as in the prior six months. For the first time, the company said, it had received requests from officials in Saudi Arabia, Algeria, Belarus, El Salvador, Fiji and the Cayman Islands.
The top job on the House Energy and Commerce Committee is likely up for grabs in the next Congress, with Rep Fred Upton (R-MI) reaching his six-year term limit with the gavel. The chairmanship has long been prized because it comes with sweeping jurisdiction over technology, healthcare and energy issues.
Rep Greg Walden (R-OR), who now leads the campaign arm for House Republicans, has his eye on the job. So does Rep John Shimkus (R-IL), who outranks Rep Walden in seniority. Both men have been reaching out to party leaders and members who serve on the Steering Committee, which will be awarding top committee jobs after the elections in November. “I’ve talked to a few members of the Steering Committee to make sure that they understood that I do intend to pursue it,” Rep Walden said. The composition of the Steering Committee will shift somewhat after the November elections. But lawmakers seeking to chair a committee, and their aides, often have a good sense of who the decision-makers will be. Rep Shimkus said that he spent much of September speaking with colleagues who might have a say in who gets the gavel. “Yeah, I think pretty much we talked to everyone we were targeted to talk to,” he said. The Energy and Commerce Committee’s wide jurisdiction makes its work of interest to a range of businesses, from Silicon Valley startups to coal-mining companies in Appalachia.
The Federal Communications Commission pulled a vote on a contentious proposal to open up the market for television set-top boxes from its agenda minutes before the start of its monthly meeting on Sept 29. The delay is a blow to FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler, who had been pitted against the pay-television industry in a fight over the reforms. “We have made tremendous progress — and we share the goal of creating a more innovative and inexpensive market for these consumer devices,” said Chairman Wheeler and the agency’s other two Democratic commissioners, Mignon Clyburn and Jessica Rosenworcel. “We are still working to resolve the remaining technical and legal issues and we are committed to unlocking the set-top box for consumers across this country.” The item now remains on “circulation,” in the parlance of the agency, meaning it is being weighed by the commissioners.
An industry trade association, NCTA -- The Internet and Television Association, said they were pleased with the FCC’s move. “We are pleased that the FCC has chosen to delay consideration of its set-top box item and hope that additional time will lead to meaningful public review and comment on any newly-crafted proposal under consideration.” Sen Ed Markey (D-MA), a vocal advocate for the reforms, said he was frustrated by the delay. "Today’s vote delay is an unequivocal loss for the tens of millions of Americans across the country who are forced to spend their hard-earned money on overpriced set-top box leases that cost them hundreds of dollars a year," he said. "I am extremely disappointed that the majority of the FCC Commissioners have not yet come to an agreement to provide relief for consumers for these bloated set-top box rental fees and certainty to companies who wish to innovate with new products."
Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) blocked a tech bill championed by Sen John Thune (R-SD) because of the stalled re-nomination of Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel on the Federal Communications Commission. Sen Reid cited Rosenworcel's outstanding nomination to a second term on the FCC as he objected to Sen Thune's request to pass the MOBILE NOW Act by unanimous consent.
“I do not apologize to anybody for objecting to this legislation," Sen Reid said. "He can bring it out every other day — I’ll object to it — every other minute, every other hour." Sen Thune's bill aims to free up more of the frequencies that carry signals to mobile devices like smartphones. Sen Thune has previously said he expects the issue to come to a head in the lame duck session after the presidential election in November. Sen Thune lamented that state of play, accusing Democrats of playing partisan politics with a non-controversial piece of legislation. “We had her hearing, we voted her out of the committee,” he said. “Scheduling the floor is not something that I control.” “These two issues have been inexplicably linked, but they need not be."
Sen Charles Schumer (D-NY) joined the chorus of New York officials calling for changes to a key mobile emergency alerts system after bombings in Manhattan and New Jersey. In a letter, Sen Schumer pushed Federal Communications Commission Chairman Tom Wheeler to make it possible for such messages to be longer and include richer content.
“Though this resource has provided great assistance in emergency and terror situations in New York and across the country, much work remains to be done in order to modernize the system and bring it into the 21st century,” Sen Schumer said. “Accordingly, I applaud your efforts to improve the system and I ask you to expedite enhancements, such as extending the character limit to the maximum, allowing the use of multimedia images, and improving locational accuracy, so that citizens can be as informed as possible during times of risk.” His move follows a lobbying effort by New York City officials at the FCC ahead of a commission vote on whether, and how, to upgrade the Wireless Emergency Alerts system. The push follows the decision by authorities in the city to send an alert earlier in Sept telling the public they were looking for bombing supsect Ahmad Khan Rahami.
House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Ranking Member Elijah Cummings (D-MD) accused Republicans on the Federal Communications Commission of obstructing an investigation into 2015’s network neutrality debate. Rep Cummings said that commissioners Ajit Pai and Michael O’Rielly have not provided documents as part of an investigation into the process leading up to the net neutrality rules the commission approved last February.
“I am writing to request an explanation for your refusal to provide any documents in response to a request from the Oversight Committee more than a year ago relating to the rulemaking process for the Open Internet Order, which was released publicly on March 12, 2015,” Rep Cummings said in the letter. "Your refusal to cooperate with the Committee’s request is unacceptable, it obstructs our investigation, and it prevents the Committee from having a complete or accurate understanding of the circumstances surrounding this rulemaking," he said. He asked that by Sept 16 the two commissioners lay out the steps they have taken to respond to the committee’s request and to say when their offices will fulfill the request.