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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.

White House website allows collection of user data

An updated privacy policy for WhiteHouse.gov, its mobile apps and social media sites explains how the government can collect user data if it’s in the open domain.

“Information you choose to share with the White House (directly and via third party sites) may be treated as public information," the new policy says, according to the Associated Press.

The policy, however, doesn’t impose any significant changes. Instead, it aims to make it easier for online visitors to the White House to understand how their visits are documented.

Information about how long and when people visit the site is recorded, for instance, as is the amount of data transmitted from WhiteHouse.gov to their computers. Emails that are opened, forwarded or printed from the website are also tracked.

FCC chief defends plan to limit large carriers in auction

Federal Communications Commission Chairman Tom Wheeler is defending plans to limit large wireless carriers when the federal government auctions off airwaves worth billions of dollars in 2015.

In a letter to House members, FCC Chairman Wheeler said the agency is designing the highly anticipated auction with "equity and openness in mind" to "deliver to consumers, regardless of their zip code, greater wireless competition, improved services and lower costs." Chairman Wheeler's letter is in response to a letter from 78 House Democrats who asked him to allow unlimited competition among wireless carriers in the 2015 auction. That auction will involve buying airwaves from broadcasters, repackaging those airwaves and selling them to spectrum-hungry wireless companies.

Revenue from the 2015 auction, as well as from two airwave auctions in 2014, will go toward funding a nationwide network for first-responders.

"My proposal would reserve a modest amount of this low-band spectrum in each market for providers that, as a result of the historical accident of previous spectrum assignments, lack such low-band capacity," Chairman Wheeler wrote, adding that the proposal will "contain safeguards to ensure that all bidders for reserved spectrum licenses bear a fair share of the cost of making incentive payments to broadcasters."

Chairman Wheeler pointed to wireless companies' need for low-frequency spectrum, especially in rural areas. "Today, most of this low-band spectrum is in the hands of just two providers," he said. "The Incentive Auction offers the opportunity, possibly the last for years to come, to make low-band spectrum available to any mobile wireless provider, in any market, that is willing and able to compete at auction."

Chairman Wheeler said he agreed with lawmakers looking to incentivize broadcasters and wireless companies to participate.

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.

Sen Franken asks Netflix to join fight against Comcast deal

Sen Al Franken (D-MN) is asking Netflix to weigh in on the proposed merger of Comcast and Time Warner Cable. In a letter, Sen Franken asked Netflix CEO Reed Hastings, who recently took to his company's blog to slam Comcast, to "gauge the risks posed by this deal."

Sen Franken has been one of Congress's most vocal opponents of a deal to combine the country's top two cable companies, which is currently being evaluated by the Department of Justice and the Federal Communications Commission (FCC).

In a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing and television appearances, Sen Franken pushed back on the companies' claims that a merger would help them compete against telecoms like AT&T and Verizon and Internet media companies like Netflix. Instead, Sen Franken said the merger would add to Comcast's market share, giving it too much leverage over customers and Internet content providers.

In his letter, Franken noted the "extensive programming portfolio" -- which Comcast acquired when it purchased NBC Universal in 2011 -- that makes it a competitor to Netflix. A Netflix spokesman said the company has "received senator Franken's letter and plan[s] to respond to his inquiry."

AT&T threatens to boycott airwave auction

AT&T is threatening to sit out the Federal Communications Commission’s highly anticipated spectrum auction in 2015, which will sell billions of dollars’ worth of airwaves.

As the FCC plans the auction, it is considering "complicated and unnecessary" restrictions on large companies, AT&T Vice President Joan Marsh said. “Such restrictions would put AT&T in an untenable position, forcing AT&T to reevaluate its potential participation in the auction,” Marsh wrote.

AT&T’s filing pointed to the auction’s x-factors, including where the FCC sets the revenue benchmark. The proposal in front of the agency -- which will be voted on at the FCC’s May meeting -- “does not define the threshold for initiation of the restrictions, instead deferring this determination to a subsequent order,” Marsh wrote. She urged the FCC to set the benchmark “at a significant and material level” to keep the small wireless carriers from getting the airwaves “at a discount that the FCC cannot afford to give in this auction.”

Marsh also noted the uncertainty around how much of their airwaves broadcasters will be willing to sell back. If they’re only willing to sell back 60 MHz or less, AT&T and Verizon will be forced to split the available three 10-MHz blocks.

“The restrictions would thus put AT&T in an untenable and unacceptable position,” the filing said. “AT&T could either participate in the auction, accepting that it will likely obtain only a fragmented and inefficient 600 MHz footprint, or it can choose to withhold its capital for other investments and sit out of the auction entirely.”

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.