Thursday, March 14, 2019
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Democratic lawmakers continue to push their new network neutrality bill through Congress, but there’s signs that several members of the party are already eager to water down the proposal. During March 12 hearings on the proposal in the House Communications Subcommittee, some Democratic lawmakers, like Rep Darren Soto (D-FL), stated the bill was simply an “opening offer” and that Democrats would be open to amendments for the bill. Others, like Rep Kurt Schrader (D-OR), insisted that additional “compromise” would be needed to ensure passage. Activists at consumer groups like Fight For the Future said that at this juncture in the net neutrality fight, efforts to compromise will only likely to weaken the popular proposal. “It was frustrating to hear Rep. Soto say he's open to amendments on the Save The Internet Act,” said Fight for the Future’s Josh Tabish. “Given that his office was one of the bill's original co-sponsors, it's hard to view this as anything other than foreshadowing for a back door effort to water down the bill or add ISP-approved loopholes.”
A Q&A with House Communmications Subcommittee Chairman Mike Doyle (D-PA).
“I believe access is a right,” Chairman Doyle says. “We shouldn’t be able to block any group of people from access to the internet.” According to Chairman Doyle, the Save the Internet Act will not only restore net neutrality protections but will also reaffirm the power and authority of the Federal Communications Commission. “Today, nobody is enforcing any rules. There’s no cop on the beat,” Doyle explains. “Chairman Ajit Pai, when he revealed the open internet order, basically just abdicated the FCC’s authority to regulate the ISPs.” He emphasizes that “you need a cop on the beat. These rules wouldn’t have been put into place if there was never this kind of behavior on the part of ISPs. We didn’t just dream all this up.”
As with other efforts to pass similar protections, Chairman Doyle’s bill has been met with fierce resistance from Republicans in Congress. However, recent polling consistently reports that a bipartisan majority of Americans supports net neutrality. “The opponents are really just a handful of companies,” says Chairman Doyle. “Not the American people.”
Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Roger Wicker (R-MS) and Sen Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ) announced a bipartisan working group focused on crafting a net neutrality proposal to encourage innovation, boost investment, and close the digital divide. “The mission of this working group will be to put partisan politics aside in order to provide permanent internet protections,” said Chairman Wicker. “We need clear rules of the road that prohibit providers from blocking or throttling access to lawful content and provide transparency and consumer choice. We invite our colleagues on both sides of the aisle to join us in this effort.” “Net neutrality is critical to maintaining a vibrant internet. We need a modern, internet-specific framework that encourages the freedom and innovation that make the internet the vital tool it is today—and consumers and providers need stability. We will only achieve those goals by working across party lines to find a bipartisan solution,” said Sen Sinema.
Sen Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) has made the issue of rural broadband a major talking point as she begins her campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination. Gov Tim Walz (D-MN) has promised he’d attack the problem like a “moonshot.” Meanwhile, a Republican-sponsored bill with bipartisan support is making its way through the Minnesota Legislature, promising $35 million a year in each of the next two years for rural broadband upgrades. All the talk about addressing the issue is encouraging, broadband advocates say. But with one in five rural Minnesota households still lacking access to high-speed, wired internet service, there’s a long way to go. Gov Walz's “moonshot” would simply return annual broadband spending to its 2016 level of $35 million. That number dropped to $20 million in 2017 and to zero in 2018 after then-Gov. Mark Dayton (D-MN) vetoed the Legislature’s omnibus spending bill. In the budget negotiations that followed, broadband was left on the cutting-room floor. The key difference is that the current proposal runs for two years.
The Federal Communications Commission intends to move ahead with a plan to auction off wireless radio frequencies that scientists say could negatively impact critical satellite data used in weather forecasting. The auction, scheduled for March 14, will proceed, the FCC said, despite protests from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and NASA, as well as two committees in the US House of Representatives.
For months, the FCC, supporting the interests of advancing 5G wireless technology, has sparred with NOAA and NASA, which have fought to protect the wireless radio frequencies or “spectrum” along and adjacent to frequencies weather data is passed. In a last-ditch effort to intervene, three subcommittee chairs from the House Appropriations Committee, and the House Science Committeepenned separate letters to FCC Chairman Ajit Pai, asking that the auction be delayed. But FCC spokesperson Brian Hart said that the auction would proceed. "[Thursday’s] 24 GHz auction is an important step towards securing American leadership in 5G,” he said. “While our nation’s international competitors would undoubtedly be pleased if we delayed this auction of greenfield spectrum at the last minute, the FCC will move forward as planned so that our nation can win the race to 5G and the American people can quickly enjoy the benefits of the next generation of wireless connectivity."
The Federal Communications Commission has proposed policy that could jeopardize the collection of vital information for weather prediction, the heads of the Commerce Department and NASA say. This data is disseminated across wireless radio frequencies known as “spectrum.” It enables transmission of information from satellites, weather balloons, ocean buoys, weather radars and other technologies that are used by government agencies and the private sector. But some of this same spectrum is coveted by commercial wireless providers for their next-generation 5G networks. The federal government’s science-focused agencies and the FCC are battling over spectrum policy and its allocation. The question in this dispute boils down to in essence: What’s the bigger priority — the 5G network for wireless providers or accurate weather forecasts? A Feb 28 letter from Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross and NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine urged the FCC to remove a policy paper on its website containing a proposal that “would have a significant negative impact on the transmission of critical Earth science data — an American taxpayer investment spanning decades and billions of dollars with data supporting public safety, natural disaster and weather forecasting." The letter said the FCC posted the proposal when “there was no consensus in the interagency on this topic.” On March 8, the FCC replied to the letter and rejected the request.
House Science Committee Chairwoman Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX) and Ranking Member Frank Lucas (R-OK) asked the Federal Communications Commission to delay a radio frequency spectrum auction for next-generation 5G wireless communications, which is scheduled for March 14. The , committee leaders cited concerns that the spectrum under consideration could interfere with signals for sensors related to weather and climate forecasting, and said such interference could impact public safety. They urged the FCC to delay the spectrum auction until it properly addresses the concerns of relevant agencies and departments: the Pentagon, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).
The following items have been adopted by the Federal Communications Commission and deleted from the list of items scheduled for consideration at the March 15 Open Meeting:
- Review of the Commission’s Rules Governing the 896-901/935-940 MHz Band (WT Docket No. 17-200): The Commission will consider a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking that would propose to reconfigure the 900 MHz band to create a broadband segment to facilitate technologies and services for a wide variety of businesses, including critical infrastructure, as well as seek comment on various transition mechanisms to achieve this goal.
- Streamlined Reauthorization Procedures for Assigned or Transferred Television Satellite Stations (MB Docket No. 18-63); Modernization of Media Regulation Initiative (MB Docket No. 17-105): The Commission will consider a Report and Order that streamlines the reauthorization process for television satellite stations when they are assigned or transferred.
Federal prosecutors are conducting a criminal investigation into data deals Facebook struck with some of the world’s largest technology companies, intensifying scrutiny of the social media giant’s business practices as it seeks to rebound from a year of scandal and setbacks. A grand jury in New York has subpoenaed records from at least two prominent makers of smartphones and other devices, apparently. Both companies had entered into partnerships with Facebook, gaining broad access to the personal information of hundreds of millions of its users. The companies were among more than 150 firms, including Amazon, Apple, Microsoft and Sony, that had cut sharing deals with the world’s dominant social media platform. The agreements let the companies see users’ friends, contact information and other data, sometimes without consent. Facebook has phased out most of the partnerships over the past two years.
On Facebook's map of humanity, the node for "you" often includes vast awareness of your movements online and a surprising amount of info about what you do offline, too. The company has near-total awareness of every move you make on its website or in its apps. Facebook does scan your chat messages, but it isn't exactly reading them — it runs an automated scan for child pornography and other banned content. Facebook sees you less thoroughly outside its own digital turf, but it still sees a lot. This data comes from two places: partner services and third-party information brokers. Facebook has tools that partner websites use to integrate with Facebook, including the inclusion of "Like" and "Share" buttons, as well as a tracking cookie known as Facebook Pixel. Facebook knows your location, even if you haven't directly given it permission to access your phone's GPS, by tracking the IP address of the phones, computers and other devices you use to access its servers.
For all the many controversies around Facebook's mishandling of personal data, Google actually knows way more about most of us. It likely knows everything you've ever typed into your browser’s search bar and every YouTube video you’ve ever watched. But that's just the beginning. It may also know where you've been, what you've bought and who you communicate with. A 2018 study by Vanderbilt University's Douglas Schmidt found that Google and Chrome are sending plenty of data to Google even without any user action, including location data (assuming a user hasn't chosen not to share such information). And nearly half the data came from people's interaction with Google's services for advertisers, as opposed to consumers directly choosing to use a Google service. In addition to everything Google collects via its services, Google search aims to be a repository for all the world's information. That means there's a mountain of information accessible on Google because someone, somewhere in the world has put it online.
Google, a shrewd Washington player, has shifted into overdrive and adapted its approach as calls to regulate Big Tech have grown louder. A person familiar with Google’s strategy for influencing public debate says the company generally doesn’t seek to change experts’ thinking but, rather, to underwrite their time and encourage them to be more vocal on issues important to Google. Google may pre-vet op-eds and ask that certain statements be made stronger or weaker, which seems small but ends up having a big impact, the person said. "Google is much savvier at this game than Comcast or AT&T in that it doesn’t pay for strict quid pro quos. Its strategy relies on social capture,” one congressional staffer said.Google finds an organization that seems to share Google’s values and then donates money without a specific ask, the staffer said.
Freshman Senator Josh Hawley (R-MO), 39, (the country's youngest senator) is swiftly emerging as one of the Repulican Party's toughest critics of Big Tech. At a March 12 privacy hearing, he slammed Google for collecting people's location data on Android phones -- even after they try to disable the tracking function. Sen Hawley wants Google to give consumers a clear way to opt out of invasive location tracking. He says many members of the committee — including Sen Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) — told him they were not aware that Google tracks people at this level. Sen Hawley's top tech priority right now is passing an amended version of the Children’s Online Privacy and Protection Act that he introduced with Sen Edward Markey (D-A) March 12.
Regulating big tech is quickly becoming a central theme of the 2020 presidential race. But many of the tech-industry insiders I spoke with, including some who agree with Sen Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) that the big companies are too powerful, cautioned that some of the details in her proposal were too vague, and could backfire if put into effect as written. Warren’s plan is a bold first stab at reform, and some of her proposals make a lot of sense. But I’d offer a few edits.
- Apply specific fixes to specific problems: Rather than one giant package that crams everything together, a set of effective tech regulations would treat each problem discretely, and address each with surgical precision.
- Split off cloud businesses.
- Get rid of the “app tax”: Stop Apple and Google, the makers of the two dominant mobile operating systems, from taking unfair advantage of mobile app developers.
- Don’t get lured into a censorship debate: focus squarely on competition, and avoid being sucked into partisan debates about content censorship.
In response to questions from Sen Ron Wyden (D-OR), T-Mobile has revealed another case of abuse, in which a “bad actor” acquired location information without consumer consent. “It is now abundantly clear that you have failed to be good stewards of your customers’ private location information,” Sen Wyden wrote in another letter March 13 addressed to all of the major telecoms. In the newly revealed incident, in Aug 2014, LocAid—a company that aggregated location data from the telecoms and then sold it onto other clients—informed T-Mobile it was suspending the account of a particular customer called Freedom Telecare. This was “due to an identified vulnerability in the consent mechanism,” T-Mobile's letter adds. “There was suspicion that a bad actor, who was a paying customer of Freedom Telecare, had acquired location information without customer consent, but review of the evidence could not confirm improper disclosure of location data,” the letter reads. The vulnerability was fixed and then the service re-enabled, it adds. In his letter March 13, Wyden asked AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, and Verizon to list all incidents since Jan 1, 2010, in which a third party fraudulently obtained location data. He also asked the telecoms to confirm whether they had reported each of these incidents through the Federal Communications Commission Data Breach Reporting Portal, which they are required to by law.
Nielsen says set-top-box/return-path data coming from pay-TV providers and other sources can underrepresent certain viewer groups -- in particular Hispanic and African-American homes, compared to other household types. Compared with official US Census estimates and Nielsen’s representative national panel, these homes -- many coming from cable, satellite and telco platforms -- underrepresent Hispanics by 33%, Spanish-language dominant Hispanics by 49% and African Americans by 34%. Nielsen adds that when you compare set-top-box/return-path data homes with over-the-air/broadband only, the situation is even worse. Set-top-box data measurement under-represents Hispanics by 50%, Spanish-language dominant Hispanics by 68% and African Americans by 38%.
Sens Ron Wyden (D-OR) and Tom Cotton (R-AR) urged the Senate to take the cyber threats to congressional computers and cell phones seriously by providing an annual report on the number of successful hacks of Senate devices. In a letter addressed to the Senate Sargent of Arms (SAA), Michael Stenger, the bipartisan Senate Intelligence Committee members wrote: “During the last decade, hackers have successfully infiltrated US government agencies including the Office of Personnel Management, health care firms such as Anthem, and technology giants like Google. Hackers continue to target all manner of government entities, and there is little doubt that Congress is squarely in their sights...The Sergeant at Arms must be transparent in providing members of the Senate all information about the possible existence and scale of successful hacks against the Senate.” Sens Wyden and Cotton requested that SAA provide annual reports to each senator revealing aggregate data on when Senate computers and smartphones have been compromised and when hackers have otherwise gained access to sensitive Senate data. The senators also pressed SAA to notify Senate leadership and all members of the Senate Committees on Rules and Intelligence of any breaches on Senate computers within 5 days of discovery.
The United States and its allies are arguing over whether governments should use telecommunications equipment manufactured by Huawei. However, 5G is not the only important communications network. In other parts of the world such as Latin America and Africa, Huawei is laying the submarine cables that carry most long-distance communications traffic. Other countries are more willing to work with Huawei because they know that the United States, too, has tapped into global cable networks. By taking advantage of the opportunity to tap into the world’s communications network, the US government has damaged its ability to counter the expansion of Chinese and non-US firms. Its current efforts to constrain Huawei and other Chinese firms in Europe do not address other countries’ lack of confidence in the proposed American alternatives.
[Jack Hasler is a PhD candidate in political science at George Washington University.]
What could help a body as large and overwhelmed as Congress get its tech facts straight? Rep Mark Takano (D-CA) focused his South By Southwest speaking time on one possible answer: a call to re-fund the Office of Technology Assessment, whose budget was nuked by the Newt Gingrinch-led Congress of 1995. Since the OTA's funding fallout, Takano says, members of Congress have found themselves without access to federally funded, tech-specific research on whatever the OTA deems relevant in terms of either current-tech expertise or trend forecasting. What's a representative to do, then? Rep Takano used his own office as an example. His office receives enough of a budget to pay only three legislative assistants to research and brief him on every topic relevant to his constituents. "One of those might be staffed with science and technology issues," he added.
He prefers Sharpies over email. His aides cart around cardboard boxes of work papers — not laptops — for him to sift through on Air Force One. On pressing technology matters, he prefers a nonscientific approach. In short, President Donald Trump often operates on the theory that older is better. “It doesn’t put the best face forward for the United States to have a president talking that way,” Darrell West, the director of the Center for Technology Innovation at the Brookings Institution, said in an interview. “It makes us look like we’re not a scientifically literate country.”
A Q&A with Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai.
When asked, "What oversight of broadband does the FCC have after the Restoring Internet Freedom order? Your critics have used terms like 'abdication' to describe the FCC and net neutrality," Chairman Pai said, "We maintain oversight both through our transparency rule, which requires broadband providers to disclose various business practices, network-management practices and the like on their websites or the FCC’s website. We also require them to submit all kinds of forms — form 477, for example, detailing how they are deploying broadband — so we can measure how it is or is not progressing. The notion that we have abdicated our responsibility in this area [broadband] is completely false, but it is par for the course for those for whom political motivations more than policy considerations have long been the primary draw."
When asked, "Coming up on the midpoint of your chairmanship, what do you view as your major accomplishments?" Chairman Pai said, "It has been an exciting two years. We’ve had a pretty aggressive agenda on some of our core priorities — closing the digital divide, promoting innovation, protecting consumers and modernizing our regulations. Particularly on that first point, closing the digital divide, I have been proud of the accomplishments we have been able to achieve, including a successful Connect America Fund auction in which we are allocating approximately $1.5 billion for rural broadband across 45 states. We are also making sure we are updating our regulations to make 4G LTE more available in parts of the country that don’t enjoy it today. We have much more to do in the next two years but I am really grateful to the terrific FCC staff for the work that they have done to enable us to advance the ball on behalf of the public."
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