Julian Hattem

Advocates press Obama on warrantless searches

President Barack Obama needs to take a stand on whether or not the government should be able to get someone’s emails without a warrant, a coalition of business and privacy advocates said.

In a letter sent to the White House, dozens of organizations including the American Civil Liberties Union, FreedomWorks, the Electronic Frontier Foundation and the Chamber of Commerce blamed the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) for the Administration’s reticence on the issue.

“You have a rare opportunity to work with Congress to pass legislation that would advance the rights of almost every American,” the groups wrote. “Please act now to support meaningful privacy reform.”

Under terms of the Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA), emails, texts, photos and other data stored online can be searched by law enforcement without a warrant as long as they have been in the cloud for at least 180 days. The law was written in 1986, when dial-up Internet was still cutting-edge technology, and is deeply in need of an update, advocates say.

A reform bill in the House from Reps Kevin Yoder (R-KS) and Jared Polis (D-CO) has 205 co-sponsors, but the White House has yet to respond to a November petition to take sides on the issue.

Sec Kerry calls to ‘tear down’ Internet censorship

Different countries’ control of the Internet is increasingly dividing the world into “two different visions” reminiscent of the Cold War, Secretary of State John Kerry warned.

In remarks to a global Internet governance conference, Sec Kerry said that barriers to Internet access and online freedom needed to be torn down, just like the Berlin Wall in 1989.

"Today, we’ve all learned that walls can be made of ones and zeros and the deprivation of access even to those ones and zeros, and that wall can be just as powerful in keeping us apart in a world that is so incredibly interconnected,” he said at the fourth annual Freedom Online Coalition conference. “So it's very much our ... common responsibility to try to tear down those walls just as it was our responsibility to try to do that during the Cold War.”

He specifically mentioned Russia and Venezuela as countries with an “an absolutely unmistakable pattern” of Internet crackdown. “The places where we face some of the greatest security challenges today are also the places where governments set up firewalls against some of the basic freedoms online,” he said.

US takes Philippines off intellectual property watch list

The Obama Administration says that the Philippines has fixed its problems protecting intellectual property enough to take it off of a special watch list on the issue.

“Although significant challenges remain, the commitment of Philippine authorities and the results achieved merit this change in status,” said the Office of the US Trade Representative. “The United States will continue to engage with the Philippines to address unresolved and future challenges.”

The Philippines had appeared on the watch list or the priority watch list continually since 1994, and was first added in 1989. Countries on the list, which include nations from India to Russia to Canada, are considered to have a weak record of defending or enforcing intellectual property rights, or close off market access to people relying on intellectual property.

The Obama Administration said that the Philippines had enacted “a series of significant legislative and regulatory reform” to protect intellectual property rights in the country.

Cable companies shell out for lobbyists ahead of merger decision

Comcast and Time Warner Cable forked over more than $5 million on lobbying in the first three months of 2014, according to recently disclosed lobbying records.

The two cable giants are pushing regulators at the Justice Department and the Federal Communications Commission to approve their proposed $45 billion merger, which they say will lead to faster Internet and better service.

Skeptics warn the deal will offer few benefits and cause consumers’ bills to go up. Comcast, the largest cable company in the country, spent $3.09 million to pay for dozens of lobbyists so far. Among those were at least 27 different firms to focus specifically on the Time Warner Cable merger or “competition” issues.

Time Warner Cable spent $1.93 million on lobbyists, including at least four shops focusing on the merger or “competition” in the marketplace. Among the hired lobbyists are multiple former lawmakers and staffers on Capitol Hill.

Critics: Cable merger could sideline sports

A pending mega-merger between Comcast and Time Warner Cable could affect some sports fans' ability to watch their favorite teams, critics are saying.

Opponents of the proposed $45 billion deal are warning it could lead Comcast to squeeze out competition and force leagues to show games exclusively to the company's subscribers. "What [Comcast] can do is it can favor its own content in a lot of ways on its own platform, and then it can also deny its own content to other platforms, meaning typically the satellite guys," said Matt Wood, policy director for Free Press. Comcast owns a handful of regional sports networks, as well as NBC and its slate of channels.

That could give it an incentive to make sure games are shown only on its stations, not others, and give the company more leverage over teams when it comes to broadcasting rights. That potential exists for a variety of types of programming, critics say, but would be especially egregious for sports, which are often supported by local tax dollars.

"Because sports are publicly subsidized, our belief is that everything should be viewed through the lens of what makes them more available," said David Goodfriend, the chairman of the National Sports Fan Coalition and former deputy staff secretary in President Clinton's White House.

Lawmakers have expressed similar concerns. In a hearing in April, Sen Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) said Comcast would own 16 regional sports networks after the merger, which amounts to "a very formidable amount of local sports programming in the largest media markets in the country."

After another data breach, Congress pressed to act

Credit unions are looking for Congress to take up legislation following news of a new data breach that exposed millions of shoppers’ data.

The National Association of Federal Credit Unions told House and Senate leaders that revelations about the data breach at arts and crafts chain Michaels, which affected about 2.6 million customer debit and credit cards, are a reminder to act.

“In light of this and the numerous other large scale data breaches occurring on the heels of major breaches at Target and Neiman Marcus over the holidays, it is clear that Congress must take action to protect consumers’ financial information,” trade group CEO Dan Berger wrote.

The Target and Neiman Marcus breaches that potentially affected more than 100 million people rattled Washington and led to a wave of hearings and proposed legislation.

Snowden calls Putin to talk NSA

Edward Snowden called into a Russian state television program and asked President Vladimir Putin about whether Moscow has surveillance programs similar to those exposed by the former government contractor.

The exchange between Putin and Snowden appeared to be a piece of theater designed to embarrass the Obama Administration amid heightened tensions between the US and Russia over Ukraine.

“I’ve seen little public discussion of Russia’s own involvement in the policies of mass surveillance,” Snowden, a former government contractor facing espionage charges in the US, told Putin via video message. “So I’d like to ask you: Does Russia intercept, store or analyze in any way the communications of millions of individuals? And do you believe that simply increasing the effectiveness of intelligence or law enforcement investigations can justify placing societies, rather than subjects, under surveillance?”

In response, Putin said that bulk collection programs “cannot exist’ under Russian law. “We don’t like a mass system of such interception,” Putin said, according to a translation from state-run broadcaster Russia Today. He said that the government has “some efforts like that” to track “criminals and terrorists,” but that was highly regulated and did not amount to "mass scale" surveillance.

Study says national cyber plan hurts US

A new report claims that the Commerce Department’s voluntary cybersecurty framework could end up undermining the online protections it seeks.

The report from George Mason University’s Mercatus Center claimed that the plan amounts to “opaque control” of the Internet, which could undermine the “spontaneous, creative sources of experimentation and feedback that drive Internet innovation.”

Companies, the authors wrote, “already have intrinsic incentives to develop cybersecurity solutions” without a formal government plan. Those standards, in fact, are based on industry norms and market trends which “are more robust, effective, and affordable than state-directed alternatives,” they added.

The voluntary framework released by the Commerce Department in February outlines how financial services firms, power companies and other critical infrastructure businesses can beef up their protections against cyberattacks. Supporters have said that the guide is a step towards safer networks and critical protections against a future impending cyberattack.

Lawmakers and administration officials have warned of a “cyber Pearl Harbor” for which the US is currently unprepared. But study authors Eli Dourado and Andrea Castillo say that that kind of rhetoric is overblown and serves as a distraction from the steady stream of data breaches and cyber spying that authorities should be going after.

Privacy, media groups want anti-Muslim video kept online

A host of news outlets and privacy rights groups are urging a federal appeals court to keep the anti-Muslim video “Innocence of Muslims” on the Internet.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation, American Civil Liberties Union, Center for Democracy and Technology and other groups filed a brief with the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals asking it to reverse a decision to take down the contested video, which was partially blamed for the 2012 attack at a US diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya.

“Whatever may be said about the merits of ‘Innocence of Muslims,’ it has unquestionably become part of the historical record,” the groups wrote. If the current ruling is left to stand, they added, it “is likely to harm online expression.”

The Washington Post, National Public Radio, Los Angeles Times and other news companies filed a similar friend-of-the-court brief, arguing that the decision to take down the disputed video “failed to adequately consider the impact its decision could have on core First Amendment rights” and “could empower putative plaintiffs to bypass well-established constitutional protections against restraints on speech...”

The groups are protesting the court’s 2-1 February decision ordering Google, which owns YouTube, to take the video offline. They are looking for a new decision from a slate of 11 judges on the panel, known as an en banc review.

House Judiciary chief claims jurisdiction over NSA reform

The head of the House Judiciary Committee is asserting his panel’s jurisdiction over any legislation to reform surveillance programs at the National Security Agency (NSA) and elsewhere.

“This is the jurisdiction of the Judiciary Committee,” Rep Bob Goodlatte (R-VA) said. “Obviously the Intelligence Committee has an interest in how intelligence is gathered, but because of the civil liberties entailed that must be protected under our Bill of Rights, this is very clearly the jurisdiction of our committee,” he added.

Analysts have raised questions about which of the two panels would be given primary jurisdiction over the issue, a decision that could determine how far reform legislation will go. Rep Jerrold Nadler (D-NY), a member of the Judiciary Committee and fierce critic of the NSA programs, said he was “deeply concerned” about the decision. Rep Goodlatte declined to back any specific piece of legislation to rein in the NSA.