Read unique perspectives on communications policy debates written by Benton and guest contributors in the Digital Beat https://www.benton.org/digital-beat
Democratic state attorneys general sue to preserve net neutrality rules
Twenty-two Democratic state attorneys general launched a lawsuit aimed at preserving network neutrality on Feb 20, the same day the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) published its rule striking the regulations in the Federal Register. New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, who is leading the suit along with other state attorneys generals, had previously filed a lawsuit, but they are refiling their case now that the order is eligible for legal challenge, following its official publication. Their lawsuit hinges on the Administrative Procedure Act, which they argue prevents the FCC from “arbitrary and capricious” redactions to already existing policy.
Antitrust Provides a More Reasonable Regulatory Framework than Net Neutrality
In 2015, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) imposed network neutrality rules on Internet Service Providers (ISPs). The rules depressed investment and harmed consumers. In 2017, the FCC started a proceeding to end net neutrality regulation. Antitrust law can address harm to innovation arising from anticompetitive acts by ISPs. Antitrust requires proof that consumers were harmed, reducing the cost of regulation. Under antitrust law, vertical agreements are tested on a case-by-case basis under the “rule of reason;” some are prohibited ex post, but only if the agreements harm consumers.
The FCC’s New Broadband Map Paints an Irresponsibly Inaccurate Picture of American Broadband
[Commentary] Back in 2011 the Obama Federal Communications Commission announced the creation of a $300 million broadband map using the Form 477 data Internet service providers provide the agency. At the time the map was heralded as a novel way to highlight the coverage gaps and competitive shortcomings of what is pretty clearly a broken US telecom market. But users quickly discovered that despite the project’s steep price tag and good intentions, the map itself was almost useless. Before the map was mothballed due to a lack of funding, it spent a few years hallucinating competitors out of whole cloth, over-stating both speed and availability, while failing utterly to mention service pricing whatsoever. At the core of the problem is, unsurprisingly, the influence of deep-pocketed telecommunication operators on lawmakers and regulators. The data ISPs submit to the FCC is rarely independently verified by objective third parties, and because companies like Comcast don’t want to emphasize the obvious lack of competition, data they provide tends to be overly-optimistic. As a result, the FCC has long used an ISP-approved, census-tract-based approach to measuring broadband. And the results are comical: according to current FCC logic, if a single home in a census tract has broadband, the entire neighborhood is declared served. This rose-colored glasses approach to data integrity has fueled policy for decades. [Karl Bode]
What the President’s Infrastructure Plan Will Do to Expand Rural Broadband Access
[Press release] The week of Feb 12, the President released the details of his infrastructure plan which will provide Federal funding to help repair and modernize rural infrastructure, including broadband. The President’s plan dedicates $50 billion to rural infrastructure, accounting for 25 percent of all Federal spending in the plan. These funds will be awarded directly to the states, giving them the flexibility they need to address their individual rural infrastructure needs. Under the President’s plan, states will have flexibility to spend as much as 100 percent of the Federal funding they receive on improving rural broadband access. This funding boost will build off of actions the President has already taken to provide more Americans with broadband access in rural areas, such as the Executive Order on “Streamlining and Expediting Requests to Locate Broadband Facilities in Rural America.” Inadequate broadband access is a barrier to rural prosperity. It stunts economic growth and prevents many rural Americans from engaging in the modern economy. Further, lack of broadband access deprives many rural students of educational opportunities afforded to those living in areas with better connectivity. Expanded broadband access will offer a better quality of life and more economic opportunity for rural communities that have been left behind for too long.
There’s something strange going on amid the satellite Internet rush
As Feb 22's SpaceX launch of two test satellites vividly demonstrated, several companies are moving ahead with ambitious plans to design, build, and fly hardware capable of delivering broadband Internet from space. However, as intense as the battle for broadband may be in orbit, the fight is also heating up on the ground. In particular, there is a controversy quietly simmering at the Federal Communications Commission. In a somewhat bizarre situation, the founder and chairman of one company seeking to deliver broadband services, OneWeb, has founded a second company to compete with himself. In response, other companies proposing satellite constellations have objected, which has added considerable spice to an already heated battle for valuable spectrum.
'Closing The Digital Divide': Connecting The Least Connected In Texas
The Texas-Mexico border is one of the least connected in the US. A map from the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas shows border counties bathed in bright red, meaning less than 60 percent have home access. It’s a distinction shared by the Mississippi Delta and Appalachia, other parts of the country with pernicious poverty. But that may change. This small city — Pharr (TX), just a handful of miles from the border — is trying to break up the dark red line of disconnectedness that plagues low-income border communities. In December, Pharr started connecting the homes of high school students to broadband internet for free as a year-long pilot program for something much larger. Since 2016, the federal Lifeline Program has offered internet service providers like Spectrum money to provide broadband service to low-income people. It does for some residents in nearby Las Milpas (TX). The future of that program has been thrown into disarray by proposals to limit, or some say end the program, by Federal Communications Commission Chair Ajit Pai. Joanna Barton with the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas said she and others working on digital inclusion will push Lifeline, while it exists, as well as free Wi-Fi and these city-owned middle-mile projects wherever they can.
Supreme Court to hear Microsoft case: A question of law and borders
The Supreme Court is set to hear a case that could have far-reaching implications for law enforcement access to digital data and for US companies that store customer emails in servers overseas. What began as a challenge by tech giant Microsoft to a routine search warrant for a suspected drug dealer’s emails has become a marquee case over data access in the Internet age. At issue is whether a US company must comply with a court order to turn over emails, even if they are held abroad — in this case in a Dublin server. The litigation turns on a 1986 law, the Stored Communications Act, passed long before email became a ubiquitous way to communicate and before American firms began storing massive amounts of data outside US borders. The arguments are abstract — “metaphysical,” one analyst quipped — but each side says the stakes are significant.
Gothamist Lives, Thanks to a Boost from Public Radio
After billionaire Joe Ricketts announced the shuttering of local news organizations Gothamist and DNAInfo last fall, readers across the country mourned the loss of the beloved sites, and worried about the vulnerability of journalism in the digital age. Now, a consortium of public radio stations, including WNYC in New York, WAMU in Washington DC, and KPCC in Southern California, has banded together to bring some of those sites back from the dead.The three stations are acquiring the assets of Gothamist and some of its associated sites, including LAist, DCist, and DNAInfo. The deal was spearheaded by Gothamist founders Jake Dobkin and Jen Chung, and is being funded by two anonymous donors who have contributed an undisclosed sum to acquire the brands. As part of the deal, the archives of both sites will remain online. Gothamist, led by Dobkin and Chung, will begin publishing new stories this spring.
Propaganda, lies and social media: Harvard's Nicco Mele on how the tech we love hurts us
Five years ago. Nicco Mele warned that technology — particularly social media — was taking power from big institutions and and giving it to individuals. When used for good, he said in his 2013 book “The End of Big: How the Internet Makes David the New Goliath,” new technologies could empower individuals, give smaller players a fighting chance and challenge incumbents. But there was also a dark side to the power shift, warned Mele, the director of the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics, and Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School. In light of the recent indictment accusing Russian groups and individuals of using social media to sow discord in America and the growing consensus that technology companies further the spread of misinformation, we spoke with Mele to ask him how we got here and what comes next.
The FCC’s Republicans went to a conservative confab. One won a gun, the other an ethics complaint.
The Federal Communications Commission's Republican majority arrived at an annual gathering of influential conservatives hoping to tout their business bona fides — from freeing the Internet from government’s grasp to battling back the efforts of their Democratic predecessors. Instead, the appearance by Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai and his GOP colleagues offered an unexpected brush with a national battle over gun control — and a new ethics complaint targeting FCC Commissioner Michael O’Rielly for his comments about President Donald Trump.
O’Rielly's trouble started with a question about what the FCC could do to stop the constant “ping-pong” of issues, like net neutrality, every time the party in power changes. “I think what we can do is make sure as conservatives that we elect good people to both the House, Senate and make sure that President Trump gets reelected,” Commissioner O’Rielly began. His plug for the president riled some ethics watchdogs. Under a set of rules known as the Hatch Act, government officials like Commissioner O’Rielly generally aren’t supposed to use their stations to advocate for election outcomes.
President Trump is already a candidate for the 2020 presidential race; he has filed his paperwork with the Federal Election Commission. The early nature of his candidacy even prompted the Office of Special Counsel to issue guidance in February 2017 as to what Trump administration officials could and could not say about their boss’s upcoming campaign. In short, the OSC ruled that the Hatch Act does “prohibit federal employees, while on duty or in the workplace, from expressly advocating for or against his reelection in 2020.” Citing that guidance, one organization — American Oversight, a nonprofit group backed by many Democrats that seeks to target the Trump administration on ethics issues — said it would file a complaint against Commissioner O’Rielly with the OSC. Its leader, Austin Evers, also called in a statement for O’Rielly to resign.
A spokeswoman for O’Rielly said in a statement: “Commissioner O’Rielly was asked a question on how to prevent the agency from ping ponging back and forth. He tried to respond in a factual way without engaging in advocacy.”
FCC Chairman Pai receives NRA gun award for courage
In lieu of delivering advertised remarks dubbed "American Pai: The Courageous Chairman of the FCC," Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai received the National Rifle Association's (NRA) “Charlton Heston Courage Under Fire Award” at the Conservative Political Action Conference. The NRA-sponsored award was given to Chairman Pai in recognition of months of heavy criticism over his successful push to repeal the agency’s network neutrality rules. Chairman Pai led the push to repeal the rules, which were overwhelmingly supported by the public. "Ajit Pai is the most courageous, heroic person that I know,” said Dan Schneider, the executive director of the American Conservative Union, while introducing the FCC chairman. “He has received countless death threats. His property has been invaded by the George Soros crowd. He has a family, and his family has been abused in different ways. Chairman Pai, thank you for everything you’ve done." Chairman Pai’s award is a handmade Kentucky long gun, which will be housed in the NRA’s museum in Fairfax (VA).
Russian spies hacked the Olympics and tried to make it look like North Korea did it, US officials say
Russian military spies hacked several hundred computers used by authorities at the 2018 Winter Olympic Games in South Korea, according to US intelligence. They did so while trying to make it appear as though the intrusion was conducted by North Korea, what is known as a “false-flag” operation. Analysts surmise the disruption was retaliation against the International Olympic Committee for banning the Russian team from the Winter Games due to doping violations. As of early February, the Russian military agency GRU had access to as many as 300 Olympic-related computers, according to an intelligence report. Apart from accessing the computers, GRU cyber-operators also hacked routers in South Korea and deployed new malware on the day the Olympics began, according to Western intelligence agencies. Such access could enable intelligence collection or network attacks, officials said.
How the Internet Is Changing Life for the World’s Poorest People
[Commentary] One of the internet’s most important qualities is that it slashes transaction costs to a bare minimum. What has followed is a remarkable development: It is becoming cost-effective, even profitable, to serve the world’s poorest two billion people—whether they are online or not. Entrepreneurs are devising new services to provide neighborhood-scale renewable energy and clean water, gas cooking-stoves, microloans for consumer goods and insurance against natural disasters. The enablers are mobile money, the internet of things, data science, even satellite imaging—all now remarkably cheaper and more accessible. One thing that isn’t necessarily required: a smartphone. While the narrative from US tech giants like Google and Facebook implies that economic development comes from directly connecting people to the internet, billions of people can’t afford smartphones, and many might never get them. Innovators must think around that barrier.
Benton (www.benton.org) provides the only free, reliable, and non-partisan daily digest that curates and distributes news related to universal broadband, while connecting communications, democracy, and public interest issues. Posted Monday through Friday, this service provides updates on important industry developments, policy issues, and other related news events. While the summaries are factually accurate, their sometimes informal tone may not always represent the tone of the original articles. Headlines are compiled by Kevin Taglang (headlines AT benton DOT org) and Robbie McBeath (rmcbeath AT benton DOT org) -- we welcome your comments.
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