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Communications and Democracy
Even by his standards, President Trump’s biting attacks on the press this week stand out. He has praised a libel lawsuit against The Washington Post, called for “retribution” against NBC for satirizing him on “Saturday Night Live” and, issued his sharpest words yet against The New York Times, calling the newspaper “a true ENEMY OF THE PEOPLE!” They have added up to a rough few days for freedom of the press, a once-sacrosanct American notion that has been under sustained assault since Trump made fiery denunciations of journalists — and the rallying cry “Fake news!” — into hallmarks of his campaign and presidency. On Feb 20 President Trump wrote, “The Press has never been more dishonest than it is today. Stories are written that have absolutely no basis in fact. The writers don’t even call asking for verification. They are totally out of control.” He went on to write, “The New York Times reporting is false.”
President Donald Trump sought to discredit a news report that says he asked his then-acting Attorney General Matthew G. Whitaker whether he could put a Trump ally in charge of an investigation into hush money paid to women during the 2016 campaign. “The New York Times reporting is false,” President Trump said in a tweet. “They are a true ENEMY OF THE PEOPLE!” President Trump was asked on Feb 19, after the Times story published online, about his reported inquiry to Whitaker. “No, I don’t know who gave you that, that’s more fake news,” President Trump told reporters. “There’s a lot of fake news out there. No I didn’t.” On Feb 20, President Trump tweeted, "The Press has never been more dishonest than it is today. Stories are written that have absolutely no basis in fact. The writers don’t even call asking for verification. They are totally out of control. Sadly, I kept many of them in business. In six years, they all go BUST!" New York Times reporter Maggie Haberman refuted President Trump's claim that reporters fail to reach out to the White House for comment, calling it "a lie".
America’s founders believed that a free press was essential to democracy because it is the foundation of an informed, engaged citizenry. That conviction, enshrined in the First Amendment, has been embraced by nearly every American president. All these presidents had complaints about their coverage and at times took advantage of the freedom every American has to criticize journalists. But in demonizing the free press as the enemy, simply for performing its role of asking difficult questions and bringing uncomfortable information to light, President Donald Trump is retreating from a distinctly American principle. It’s a principle that previous occupants of the Oval Office fiercely defended regardless of their politics, party affiliation, or complaints about how they were covered.
The phrase “enemy of the people” is not just false, it’s dangerous. It has an ugly history of being wielded by dictators and tyrants who sought to control public information. And it is particularly reckless coming from someone whose office gives him broad powers to fight or imprison the nation’s enemies. As I have repeatedly told President Trump face to face, there are mounting signs that this incendiary rhetoric is encouraging threats and violence against journalists at home and abroad. Through 33 presidential administrations, across 167 years, The New York Times has worked to serve the public by fulfilling the fundamental role of the free press. To help people, regardless of their backgrounds or politics, understand their country and the world. To report independently, fairly and accurately. To ask hard questions. To pursue the truth wherever it leads. That will not change.
The family of the Covington Catholic High School teen from Kentucky who was involved in an encounter with a Native American advocate at the Lincoln Memorial in Jan filed a defamation lawsuit against The Washington Post on Feb 19, seeking $250 million in damages for its coverage of the incident. The suit alleges that The Post “targeted and bullied” 16-year-old Nicholas Sandmann in order to embarrass President Donald Trump. “In a span of three days in January of this year commencing on January 19, the Post engaged in a modern-day form of McCarthyism by competing with CNN and NBC, among others, to claim leadership of a mainstream and social media mob of bullies which attacked, vilified, and threatened Nicholas Sandmann, an innocent secondary school child,” reads the complaint. The suit seeks $250 million because Amazon chief executive Jeffrey P. Bezos paid that amount for the newspaper when he bought it in 2013. In a tweet Feb 20, President Trump voiced support for the lawsuit, quoting a line from the complaint and writing: “Go get them Nick. Fake News!”
A wide-ranging disinformation campaign aimed at Democratic 2020 candidates is already underway on social media, with signs that foreign state actors are driving at least some of the activity. A Politico review of recent data extracted from Twitter and from other platforms, as well as interviews with data scientists and digital campaign strategists, suggests that the goal of the coordinated barrage appears to be undermining the nascent candidacies through the dissemination of memes, hashtags, misinformation and distortions of their positions. But the divisive nature of many of the posts also hints at a broader effort to sow discord and chaos within the Democratic presidential primary. The cyber propaganda — which frequently picks at the rawest, most sensitive issues in public discourse — is being pushed across a variety of platforms and with a more insidious approach than in the 2016 presidential election, when online attacks designed to polarize and mislead voters first surfaced on a massive scale. “It looks like the 2020 presidential primary is going to be the next battleground to divide and confuse Americans,” said Brett Horvath, one of the founders of Guardians.ai, a tech company that works with a consortium of data scientists, academics and technologists to disrupt cyberattacks and protect pro-democracy groups from information warfare. “As it relates to information warfare in the 2020 cycle, we’re not on the verge of it — we’re already in the third inning.”
Sen Bernie Sanders (I-VT) wasted no time taking aim at e-commerce giant Amazon over its economic practices after announcing his 2020 presidential bid — marking an early campaign appearance for the senator's long-standing critiques of tech titans. Sen. Sanders criticized the company over how it conducted its second headquarters search and for not paying any federal income taxes for 2018. Sen. Sanders has consistently challenged companies’ market size and power. While he has not made outright calls for the breakup of major tech firms, Sen. Sanders has questioned whether “Facebook, Google, and Amazon [should] be allowed to control so much of the internet.” In the telecom sector, more recently, he called on federal regulators to reject the proposed $26 billion Sprint-T-Mobile merger. In 2018, Sen Sanders joined a group of Democratic lawmakers in urging US tech companies to extend to Americans the protections offered under a sweeping privacy law the European Union passed. And in recent weeks Sen Sanders has pressed federal agencies to investigate reports that wireless carriers allowed third-party brokers to improperly access and sell subscribers’ location data. On net neutrality, Sen Sanders has called the FCC’s decision to repeal the open internet rules a “disastrous decision.”
The dearth of broadband Internet connectivity is the bane of many rural areas, exacerbating demographic decline by contributing to out-migration of millennials and loss of business opportunities. Merely installing high-speed fiber-optic networks across rural America, while vital, will not be enough. Significant public and private investment in K-16 education is required to build a new digital economy future for rural America. In addition, innovative public-private partnerships, including university-community-industry-partnerships (UCIPs) can galvanize action around the urgency of digital literacy in rural areas. Key to this strategy would be significantly increasing participation in expanded coding and STEM programs from K-16 as well as vocational and workforce development programs. By increasing digital literacy, distressed communities can emerge as tech talent hot spots that generate higher-paying jobs, attract millennials and rejuvenate downtown areas.
[Jem Spectar is president of the University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown]
Even as the 2019 E-rate season gets underway, hundreds of school and library applicants are still waiting to learn if they will receive the funding they requested in 2018, the result of an application-review process some observers deride as cumbersome despite years' worth of promised fixes. As of February 1, 752 E-rate applications from the 2018 funding year, seeking a total of $356 million, were still under review. The bulk of the pending requests (more than $115 million) were for "lit fiber" service, delivering high-speed broadband over fiber-optic cable. The delays are "woefully par for the course," said John Harrington, the CEO of Funds for Learning, a consulting group that helps thousands of schools and libraries apply each year to program. An FCC spokesman said that E-rate support is being delivered "as quickly and efficiently as possible," noting that 98.7 percent of the roughly 36,000 E-rate applications submitted in 2018 have been processed. That's up a tick from the same point in 2018.
One of the most disturbing aspects of the digital divide is the “homework gap.” The term – first coined by FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel – describes the situation faced by the estimated 12 million students that cannot complete their school assignments because they have no broadband access at home. As she notes, roughly 7 in 10 teachers assign homework that requires a broadband connection, which means that many students, especially in low-income communities, are missing out on the educational opportunities afforded to their connected peers. Fortunately, there’s a valuable slice of wireless spectrum that can help solve the homework gap. Federal Communications Commission Chairman Pai launched a proceeding in 2018 to award new wireless licenses to schools, colleges, and other educational institutions. These new licenses would operate in the 2.5 GHz band known as Educational Broadband Service (EBS). Some communities received EBS licenses over twenty years ago, but the EBS licensing regime has been almost completely frozen since then, and no EBS licenses were issued for about one-half of the United States territory, mostly in rural markets. Under Chairman Pai’s proposal, priority for these new licenses would be given to tribal entities and educational institutions, similar to the way the EBS licenses were awarded in more urban markets over twenty years ago.
[John Windhausen Jr. is the executive director of the Schools, Health & Libraries Broadband (SHLB) Coalition]
Nearly a year after announcing an investigation into the incident, the Federal Trade Commission is negotiating with Facebook over a fine that could range into the billions of dollars. Experts say the government has to seize on the opportunity to send a message -- to Facebook and its peers -- that it hears consumers’ frustrations and is willing to challenge the tech industry’s data-collection practices. "The Facebook inquiry is a basic test of the credibility of the FTC to be an effective privacy enforcement agency," said William Kovacic, a former Republican commissioner who now teaches at George Washington University. “Anything other than a significant penalty will be seen as a form of policy failure and will really impede the agency's ability to function in the future.”
Even if the FTC can’t broker an agreement with Facebook over fines and other punishments, privacy advocates have urged the agency to stand its ground -- and take the company to court. Such a legal war could prove brutal for both sides, pitting an agency with limited staff and a meager $306 million budget against a corporate behemoth that took in $55.8 billion in revenue in 2018. Adding to the pressure, the FTC generally runs the risk that an adverse court ruling in a landmark case could jeopardize the very nature of the agency’s authorities to police companies for privacy and security breaches.
Democrats on Capitol Hill say they are intrigued by a proposal from Gov. Gavin Newsom (D-CA) for users to “share in the wealth that is created from their data” — though they would like to hear more details. Gov. Newsom said the plan, which would see people compensated for the use of their personal data, would build on the state’s sweeping data protection law passed in 2018. “Data dividends is an interesting idea,” said Rep. Ro Khanna (D-CA), adding that there “are a number of conversations in Congress about making sure individuals receive some compensation for the use of their data.” Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), who is working on privacy legislation with fellow Senate Commerce lawmakers, said “in principle, it’s not a bad idea.” He added, “I think the idea that the data belongs to us is right, and the information, data belong to people, not the companies.” According to a new Morning Consult/POLITICO poll, 45 percent of those surveyed somewhat or strongly support Newsom’s data proposal, while 28 percent somewhat or strongly oppose it. Twenty-six percent of respondents said they did not know or had no opinion on it.
The Federal Communications Commission has renewed the charter for the Disability Advisory Committee. The charter became effective December 21, 2018 and provides the Committee with authorization to operate for two years from the effective date. Issues to be considered by the Committee may include, but are not limited to,
- Communications Access: Telecommunications Relay Services (TRS) (Section 225 of the Communications Act); Telecommunications Services and Equipment (Section 255 of the Communications Act); Advanced Communications Services and Equipment (Sections 716 and 718 of the Communications Act); Hearing Aid Compatibility (Section 710 of the Communications Act); Access to Telephone Emergency Services (9–1–1) (Section 106 of the Twenty-First Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act); National Deaf-Blind Equipment Distribution Program (Section 719 of the Communications Act);
- Video Programming: Video Description (Sections 303(u), (z), and 713 of the Communications Act); Closed Captioning (Sections 303(u), (z), and 713 of the Communications Act); Access to Televised Emergency Information (Sections 303(u), (z), and 713 of the Communications Act); Accessible User Interfaces on Video Programming Apparatus/Access to Program Guides and Menus Provided by Navigation Devices (Sections 303(aa) and (bb) of the Communications Act).
CTIA, a trade group representing top US wireless providers, disagreed with European and Asian counterparts over alleged security threats from Chinese equipment maker Huawei. A Feb 14 release from GSMA, a London-based wireless industry group, urged European lawmakers not to ban Huawei as a supplier. But CTIA, a Washington-based group, responded with its own statement saying the GSMA “does not represent the views of all wireless operators or all regions.” The divergent statements underscore a fissure opening between Washington and carriers and regulators around the world, who’re starting to re-evaluate US warnings that China’s largest technology corporation aids Beijing in espionage. European carriers offered to cooperate with their governments in devising steps to ward off vulnerabilities. CTIA, with members that include US market leaders AT&T and Verizon, has urged US regulators to go slow in crafting rules on equipment security.
“It looks like [CTIA is] scared of the impact of European policy-making on the rollout of their 5G networks” that will offer advanced speeds, said Gigi Sohn, Benton senior fellow and fellow at the Georgetown University Law Center Institute for Technology Law and Policy. “It seems they’re concerned that if Europe does so, it would become the de facto standard.”
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