Thursday, August 15, 2019
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Government & Communications
Stories From Abroad
The digital divide – the “haves” and “have nots” when it comes to internet access and use – is an abiding concern for telecommunication and internet policymakers at all levels of government. The Federal Communications Commission’s focus on deployment means policymakers miss an entirely different dimension of the problem – broadband adoption. Ensuring the ubiquity of high-speed networks is a laudable goal. But if a lot of people are not subscribing even when networks pass their residences, that’s a different problem. Analysis of broadband adoption data shows that:
- The digital divide is more about consumer adoption than it is about network deployment;
- The problem extends to non-rural and rural areas alike, and;
- Household economics is a larger driver of non-adoption decisions than geography.
Lesson 1: More non-broadband subscribers live in non-rural areas than in rural America. Although a higher share of rural households lacks a home broadband subscription than non-rural ones (by a 21.2% to 15.4% margin), the number of households without a broadband subscription is larger in non-rural areas.
Lesson 2: Nearly 80% of the broadband adoption gap is due to factors other than network deployment. It turns out that a number of factors – such as monthly fee, cost of the computer, and the capacity of smartphones, far outpace network issues as reasons people offer for not subscribing to broadband. In fact, cost factors – either monthly fee or a computer – are the most important reasons (when combined) that people do not subscribe to broadband.
A more expansive examination of the digital divide underscores the national scope of the problem and draws attention to factors such as affordability as part of the overall digital divide. Policy solutions for the digital divide should be flexible enough to serve the needs of a nation that is diverse geographically and demographically.
[John B. Horrigan is a senior fellow at the Technology Policy Institute. He was research director at the Federal Communications Commission for the development of the National Broadband Plan.]
With communities all across the country exploring ways to overcome the digital divide, and with Congress sending clear signals about the importance to address rural disconnect, now is an opportune time to help policymakers and practitioners understand the benefits of pursuing new infrastructure, public policies, and training programs. For us, that process begins with understanding where the current state of knowledge is clear and where it falls short.
Broadband benefits: What we don't know. Though there is a lot of excitement around broadband’s potential to reshape the economy, save the planet, or increase life expectancy, the technology is still in its early days and there is so much we don’t yet know. For one, we’re eager to see what effect the technology has on wealth generation and inequality. It’s imperative researchers continue to study whether the digital divide is another contributing factor to the rising income inequality seen all across the country. Given the wide range of technologies qualifying as broadband, we also don’t yet have standards around what universal broadband adoption would even look like. We’re left to wonder: Does broadband adoption at different speeds result in radically different outcomes What is the minimum speed that should count in setting a universal standard? Do wireless and wireline adoption result in the same outcomes? And will the benefits look different across different geographies and socioeconomic groups? Over the coming months, we’ll be exploring these questions in more detail. Relying on interviews with experts, number-crunching, and as much reading as we can handle, we hope to make clear the case for equitable broadband access across the United States so that everyone can enjoy its benefits.
Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai shared with his colleagues a draft Order that would approve, subject to conditions, the proposed merger between T-Mobile and Sprint. “After one of the most exhaustive merger reviews in Commission history, the evidence conclusively demonstrates that this transaction will bring fast 5G wireless service to many more Americans and help close the digital divide in rural areas. Moreover, with the conditions included in this draft Order, the merger will promote robust competition in mobile broadband, put critical mid-band spectrum to use, and bring new competition to the fixed broadband market,” said Chairman Pai. “I thank our transaction team for the thorough and careful analysis reflected in this draft Order and hope that my colleagues will vote to approve it."
T-Mobile and Sprint filed their opposition to calls for a formal comment period on proposed changes to their planned merger, saying petitioners already have had plenty of time to comment and it’s time for the Federal Communications Commission to act. The August 9 filing came after the Wireless Internet Services Providers Association (WISPA) on August 8 filed a request for a public notice and review period. WISPA’s request followed one lodged by the Rural Wireless Association (RWA) and NTCA – The Rural Broadband Association. RWA and NTCA called for, among other things, details of Dish’s agreement to be made available under the FCC’s protective review orders, at a minimum, and said there’s no immediate urgency for the FCC to act without public comment on the newer issues. WISPA also suggested that proposed changes to the rural broadband market could affect competition with smaller fixed broadband providers and eligibility for universal service high-cost funding.
T-Mobile and Sprint are having none of it, saying “the Petitioners have articulated no credible basis that could plausibly justify yet another delay in Commission action in this proceeding."
Federal Trade Commission Chairman Joe Simons aid he’s prepared to break up major technology platforms if necessary by undoing their past mergers as his agency investigates whether companies are harming competition. Chairman Simons, who is leading a broad review of the technology sector, said that breaking up a company is challenging, but could be the right remedy to rein in dominant companies and restore competition. “If you have to, you do it,” Chairman Simons said about breaking up tech companies. “It’s not ideal because it’s very messy. But if you have to you have to.”
Chairman Simons said an agreement between the FTC and the Justice Department to divide scrutiny of the tech industry is based on specific conduct, not on the companies themselves. One company could potentially be investigated by both agencies, though he declined to provide details about their agreement. “It’s possible for sure that we could be investigating the same company at the same time but just for different conduct,” he said. Chairman Simons said, for example, that the FTC could scrutinize Amazon for buying a grocer, because of the agency’s expertise in the supermarket sector, while the Justice Department would probably look at, say, the purchase of a music-streaming site.
Apparently, the White House is considering a potential Executive Order to address the ongoing-yet-unproven allegations of pro-liberal, anti-conservative bias by companies such as Facebook, Twitter, and Google. The Executive Order would require the Federal Communications Commission to create regulations designed to create rules limiting the ability of digital platforms to “remove or suppress content” as well as prohibit “anticompetitive, unfair or deceptive” practices around content moderation. The EO would also require the Federal Trade Commission to somehow open a docket and take complaints (something it does not, at present, do, or have the capacity to do) about supposed political bias claims.
I have a number of reasons why I don’t think this EO will ever actually go out. For one thing, it would completely contradict everything that the Federal Communications Commission said in the “Restoring Internet Freedom Order” (RIFO) repealing net neutrality. As a result, the FCC would either have to reverse its previous findings that Section 230 prohibits any government regulation of internet services (including ISPs), or see the regulations struck down as arbitrary and capricious. Even if the FCC tried to somehow reconcile the two, Section 230 applies to ISPs. Any “neutrality” rule that applies to Facebook, Google, and Twitter would also apply to AT&T, Verizon, and Comcast. But this niggles at my mind enough to ask a good old law school hypothetical. If Trump really did issue an EO similar to the one described, what could the FCC actually do under existing law? I want to focus on whether, under the FCC’s existing statutory authority, it can do anything like what the descriptions of the draft EO would require. Spoiler alert: not really.
A coalition of nearly 40 privacy and civil liberties groups is demanding changes when lawmakers weigh whether to renew Section 215 of the USA PATRIOT Act, which allows for the collection of information about US phone calls and text messages. The provision, and two others that were reauthorized in the 2015 USA Freedom Act following the leaks by former federal contractor Edward Snowden, are slated to expire on Dec. 15 unless lawmakers act. “We urge you to oppose, and our organizations will oppose, any bill to reauthorize Section 215 that does not include meaningful surveillance reforms,” the letter to House Judiciary Chairman Jerry Nadler (D-NY) and ranking member Doug Collins (R-GA) states. The missive primarily focuses on the call detail records program under Section 215, an effort the NSA has reportedly scrapped due to technical headaches. In June, documents revealed the agency had improperly collected Americans’ call records — the second such incident; the first forced NSA to delete calls and text records it had unlawfully obtained since 2015. “Given these serious technical failures, their serious privacy impact, and the lack of demonstrated efficacy of the [call detail record] collection, the NSA should not be permitted to resume this program,” the groups wrote. “Eliminating the authorization for the CDR program is necessary but not sufficient to reform the government’s surveillance authorities.
The Senate Judiciary Committee’s new tech task force leader, Marsha Blackburn (R-TN), wants to use her perch to hold tech companies accountable. But before Congress aims its hammer at Big Tech's power, she says lawmakers need to pass data privacy legislation and see how that changes the companies' business models and impacts competition in the market. That approach splits sharply from the Democratic-led House Judiciary Committee, which has opened a wide-ranging, bipartisan investigation into technology companies’ power and their impact on competition. The diverging priorities illustrate that while there is a broad bipartisan consensus that Silicon Valley is overdue for regulation, there’s little agreement in a divided Congress about which tech policy issues should even be the priority — let alone how lawmakers should craft such measures. Sen Blackburn's priorities:
- Help lawmakers "up their institutional knowledge" on issues like privacy, data security, competition issues, and allegations of political censorship
- For Congress to use her legislation, the BROWSER Act, as a starting point for data regulation
- Having the Federal Trade Commission continue to be in charge of enforcing privacy restrictions, even though she was disappointed by the $5 billion fine handed to Facebook
Protecting privacy is especially important for marginalized communities, who are disproportionately harmed by the exploitation of personal information enabled by inadequate privacy protections. Online discrimination through commercial data practices is a persistent problem, and it is vital that we treat individual privacy not as a personal luxury, but as a civil right. To create effective privacy legislation, policymakers must ensure that companies’ data practices don’t violate individuals’ civil rights. Privacy rights are civil rights, but our civil rights protections have not caught up to the digital economy. Though we have a number of federal civil rights statutes that can protect individuals belonging to certain protected classes from unjust treatment by traditional institutions, these laws don’t sufficiently protect against the novel forms of discrimination flourishing in the digital realm. As the fight for civil rights grapples with the threats posed by data and technology, these developments are making it more challenging to enforce civil rights laws. Broader policy changes are needed to resolve the ambiguities around applying civil rights laws to these twenty-first century means of discrimination. Otherwise, individuals, especially members of marginalized communities, will continue to face discrimination online.
[Becky Chao is a policy analyst at New America’s Open Technology Institute, where she works to promote equitable access to a fair and open internet ecosystem]
In our increasingly digitized world, it is critical to protect individuals’ privacy. As policymakers consider passing meaningful privacy legislation, civil rights protections are a critical but mostly overlooked component. To have effective privacy legislation, we must ensure that companies’ data practices do not violate individuals’ civil rights—especially when it comes to marginalized communities. Problematic commercial data practices disproportionately harm people of color—especially Black and Brown communities—women, immigrants, religious minorities, members of the LGBTQ+ community, low-income individuals, and other marginalized communities. Centering these communities in this work helps us understand exactly how high the stakes are and underscores the need for solutions that directly mitigate these harms. Without civil rights protections adapted for the twenty-first century, the discriminatory data practices adopted by online companies will continue to have long-lasting, severe consequences.
Monitoring social media feeds is a common practice for major brands and companies trying to keep up with consumer sentiment and tastes. City governments are now tapping into those data streams to keep tabs on residents' chatter and complaints about what's happening around town. Social media creates a wide-ranging sensor network of sorts that helps cities direct resources to what residents actually care about. But it can also be surprising for users who don't expect city staff to be paying attention. Privacy tensions bubbled up when law enforcement agencies were found to be using social media to monitor protesters and activists in 2016. After criticism, Twitter, Facebook and Instagram changed their policies to prohibit using their data for police surveillance.
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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