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Groups tell Congress to go big on NSA overhaul

Dozens of privacy, technology and political organizations are calling on Congress to radically overhaul surveillance programs at the National Security Agency (NSA) and other government offices.

As lawmakers spar over President Obama’s proposal to end the NSA’s bulk collection of phone records, the groups called for them to take up broader changes to the country’s spy agencies.

“Overbroad national security surveillance raises a host of Constitutional, human rights, and practical concerns, and we urge Congress and the Administration to address systemic reform,” the organizations wrote in a letter to top lawmakers, along with President Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder. “The trust of the American people and the global public cannot be regained with legislation that achieves only modest changes to discrete programs.”

The American Civil Liberties Union, online forum reddit and conservative outfit FreedomWorks were among the 42 organizations signing the letter, which went to House and Senate leaders and top lawmakers on the Judiciary and Intelligence committees.

Hill Dems back FCC moves

Congressional Democrats are cheering the Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) votes to crack down on broadcasters and open up more space for Wi-Fi.

“I thank the FCC for answering my call to rein in the misuse of broadcast television sharing agreements, which has threatened the integrity of the FCC’s media ownership rules,” Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Jay Rockefeller (D-WV) said. “Today's action on joint sales agreements is a positive step forward, and I am pleased by the agency's further inquiry into how it can monitor the possible impact other sharing agreements could have on consumers.”

In a closely watched 3-2 vote, the FCC placed new limits on those arrangements. Republicans had lambasted the move, and criticized commission Chairman Tom Wheeler for moving forward with the proposal before finalizing a years-overdue review of its media ownership rules. Both Republican members of the panel opposed the new ownership rules, and said that the crackdown will hurt small stations.

A measure to clear up space for Wi-Fi was met more positively on the commission. The FCC's unanimous vote to free up space for unlicensed spectrum “is a win for consumers,” Rep Anna Eshoo (D-CA) said. “It supports greater competition, it improves mobile services, and it enhances innovation.”

Comcast head: Time Warner deal ‘not scary’

Comcast’s proposed $45 billion purchase of Time Warner Cable is “not particularly scary,” according to Comcast Executive Vice President David Cohen.

In an interview on C-SPAN’s “The Communicators,” Cohen said that the planned deal would be good for consumers and help the cable industry compete against satellite, telecoms and online video companies.

“We’re going to have a serious governmental review of the transaction, but I’ll be honest with you: I think the transaction is a lot less scary, it's a lot less large and a lot less complicated than some people would like to make it,” he said.

The deal would combine the two largest cable companies, but executives have been quick to point out that the two giants do not currently compete in the same markets and Comcast has already pledged to drop some customers so that it takes up less than 30 percent of the market.

“In no local market will there be any less choice after the transaction than there is before the transaction,” Cohen said. Instead, the merger will help the cable industry build infrastructure, do research and invest for the future, in order to fight against satellite television, online video companies like Netflix and major telecom companies like Verizon and AT&T, he said.

Movie industry: With online piracy, takedown 'must mean stay down

The Motion Picture Association of American (MPAA) repeated its calls for fixes to the current system for combatting online piracy and expressed optimism the system could be improved through a series of discussions with Internet companies being convened by the Commerce Department.

"We must create best practices that will allow the Internet to live up to its potential of fostering creativity and innovation, while also protecting the work of all kinds of creators," Ben Sheffner, the entertainment industry group's vice president of legal affairs, wrote in a blog post.

The Department of Commerce held the first in a series of meetings with copyright holders and Internet companies aimed at the "notice and takedown" system under current law.

Protections for Internet companies under copyright law are "being used as a free pass, making it a shield from taking responsibility to help the content community curb online infringement," Sheffner wrote. "Takedown must mean stay down," he said, adding that stakeholders at the recent Commerce meeting "recognized that the notice-and-takedown process must become both more efficient and more effective."

Privacy groups: WhatsApp users don't want Facebook deal

WhatsApp users don't want the social messaging service to be acquired by Facebook, privacy groups told the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), urging the agency to investigate the deal.

The privacy groups -- the Electronic Privacy Information Center and the Center for Digital Democracy -- added to their plea to the FTC to investigate the $16 billion deal from in early March 2014, citing comments from around the Internet.

"WhatsApp users continue to object to the proposed acquisition" and "believe that companies acquired by Facebook will lose the ability to keep user data private," the groups wrote. They pointed to comments on tech news sites decrying the deal between WhatsApp and Facebook. The comments quoted one Huffington Post user who said she "will most likely" delete WhatsApp if it is purchased by and integrated into Facebook, because the latter "isn't very big on privacy."

The groups added that the FTC's examination of the deal between Facebook and WhatsApp should be more rigorous than its examination of Google's acquisition of Nest, a company that makes algorithm-based home thermostats.

FCC's choice: Lock down innovation or unleash competition

[Commentary] On November 4, 2008, as millions of Americans cast votes in a historic presidential election, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) held a historic vote on the future of the Internet.

Unlike the partisan national election, the FCC vote was unanimous. The five commissioners -- three Republicans and two Democrats -- voted to open unused TV spectrum, otherwise known as “white spaces” (TVWS), for unlicensed use to deliver super-fast broadband Wi-Fi. TVWS offers speeds far superior to the capabilities of existing unlicensed spectrum, and high-tech firms, venture capital investors and rural broadband advocates alike rejoiced at the news from the Commission. But for rural Americans stuck in dial-up or satellite purgatory, TVWS isn’t just “far superior” to the existing unlicensed spectrum -- it is a godsend.

But after years of litigation from dominant incumbents, bureaucratic red tape and congressional meddling created uncertainty that has slowed TVWS development and stifled innovation and economic growth. By contrast, a cornucopia of wireless marvels arose from earlier releases of unlicensed spectrum, from remote controls, keyless entry and baby monitors to Wi-Fi and Bluetooth, contributing billions to the US economy each year.

But now, yet another uncertainty looms. The FCC will hold spectrum auctions in 2015 to help meet the growing demand from wireless devices, but deficit hawks in Congress have joined with the big wireless companies to pressure the FCC to include TVWS in the auctions, greatly reducing or eliminating new unlicensed spectrum. If they get their way, the lion’s share of our airwaves will be locked up for exclusive use by big corporations, handicapping competitors for decades to come.

Without new unlicensed spectrum, tomorrow’s innovators and entrepreneurs must cut a deal with the spectrum oligarchs to bring new products and services to market. And rural communities will be robbed of the chance to meet their broadband needs through nonprofit TVWS networks in the self-help tradition of rural electric co-ops.

[Bowen is the founder of the nonprofit Mountain Area Information Network]

Comcast transparency report reveals 24k requests

Comcast published its first transparency report, outlining the more than 24,000 federal, state and local government requests for user data it received in 2013.

"With every request ... we make sure it complies with applicable legal standards before we respond with any information," the company's Chief Privacy Officer Gerard Lewis said.

According to the report, Comcast received 24,698 requests for user data during 2013. Of those, 19,377 were subpoenas, which "typically seek basic customer account information" such as information to identify the subscriber, the report said. The company also said it received 1,333 warrants, which require probable cause and a judge's approval. Of those, 253 warrants sought the content of users' communications. Additionally, the company said it received 3,893 general court orders, which require a judge's approval and "typically seek historical information." It also received 93 requests for real-time information about email and phone exchanges and two requests for real-time access to the contents of those exchanges.

Department of Commerce denies 'abandoning the Internet'

The Department of Commerce rejected charges that is abandoning the open Internet by relinquishing oversight of the domain name system.

"This announcement in no way diminishes our commitment to preserving the Internet as an engine for economic growth and innovation," Larry Strickling, administrator of the Commerce Department's National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), said. "Our announcement has led to some misunderstanding about our plan with some individuals raising concern that the US government is abandoning the Internet," Strickling said. "Nothing could be further from the truth."

He repeated his assurances that the US government won't hand over its oversight role to governments that have tried to restrict the open Internet. "I have emphasized that we will not accept a proposal that replaces NTIA’s role with a government-led or an inter-governmental solution," he said. "Until the community comes together on a proposal that meets these conditions, we will continue to perform our current stewardship role."

Deadline nears for NSA reform proposals

Attorney General Eric Holder said he is on track to meet a March 28 deadline for presenting specific reforms to the National Security Agency (NSA).

Attorney General Holder did not say whether a formal recommendation has already been submitted to the White House.

“That review is ongoing. We are in touch with the White House,” Attorney General Holder said. “I've been in touch with the president. We'll meet the deadlines that the president has set. We have meetings that are scheduled,” he said.

Comcast: Network neutrality is good business

Comcast has business motivations to follow the Obama Administration's now-defunct network neutrality rules, according to CEO Brian Roberts.

Comcast will continue to treat all Internet traffic the same, the company's CEO said. "Getting broadband connectivity to our customers ... means you want to have the best experience," Roberts said, adding that consumers don't want their Internet providers to block or slow access to certain websites.

"I think the ship has long ago sailed in terms of charging companies for [a] high speed fast lane." Roberts said his company will work with the Federal Communications Commission as it attempts to rewrite its network neutrality rules, which kept Internet providers from blocking or slowing access to certain websites and was struck down by a federal court in early 2014.

The company's investors want to ensure that Comcast's base of Internet subscribers continues to grow, he said. "It's the first thing our Wall Street investors will ask us." Outside of business reasons to treat all Internet traffic the same, Comcast committed to practicing net neutrality when it purchased NBC Universal in 2011.