Washington Post

George Takei’s take on net neutrality, Edward Snowden and the future of ‘Star Trek’

Q&A with George Takei, famous for playing Captain Hikaru Sulu on "Star Trek," now host for the award-winning Web series "Takei's Take," a show underwritten by AARP meant to help introduce technology to seniors, youngsters and everyone in between.

Asked if there policy debates that he's into, such as network neutrality, he said that issues like policy and privacy are complex.

Takei also said that his audience was not built by Internet service providers. Instead, it came about “by our efforts, by our creativity. And once we have that audience built, they want to charge us for it? […] They can't unilaterally say, 'All right, it's our platform, we're going to charge you for it.'”

There’s nothing neutral about the FCC’s partisan politics

The Federal Communications Commission split along partisan lines in its vote on net neutrality rules: All three Democrats voted for the proposal, while the two Republicans opposed it.

That may be not be surprising, considering the issue at hand pits large businesses against grass-roots consumer advocates. But the vote is also evidence of the internal frictions between the FCC's Democratic majority and Republican minority.

The nation's top telecommunications regulator is composed of five members, each nominated by the president and approved by Congress.

Generally, the only time we get to see those members interact is when they appear before the public at the commission's monthly open meeting. In recent weeks, though, we've had brief glimpses of their behind-the-scenes relationship, thanks to unusually public statements about the inner workings of the agency.

Republican commissioner Ajit Pai complained that the Democrats recently sent him a revised draft of a proposal at the last minute, forcing him to compare both drafts in the wee hours of the night to see what had changed. There apparently are divisions within the majority party, too. Democratic commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel opened her remarks by flatly: "I support the open Internet, but I would've done this differently."

Minnesota passes nation’s first smartphone ‘kill switch’ law

Minnesota passed the nation’s first law requiring smartphones to have the ability to be remotely disabled. The law requires smartphone manufacturers to introduce so-called “kill switches” in devices to allow users to make lost or stolen phones unusable.

In so doing, the state hopes to remove the incentive for such robberies, which are on the rise.

A Consumer Reports survey released in April month found that 3.1 million Americans had cellphones stolen in 2013, nearly double the 1.6 million thefts reported the previous year. Some of those robberies can become violent, as was the case for a Minneapolis mayoral candidate who received nine stitches after being assaulted by teenage thieves in December.

“This law will help combat the growing number of violent cellphone thefts in Minnesota,” Gov. Mark Dayton said in a statement to announce the bill’s signing. Minnesota is the first state to pass such a law. A similar measure is working its way through the California legislature.

US revealed secret legal basis for NSA program to Sprint, documents show

Under threat of a court challenge, the Obama Administration in 2010 revealed to Sprint the secret legal basis of a then-classified program that collected billions of Americans’ phone records for counterterrorism purposes, according to newly declassified documents and interviews.

The company -- the nation’s third-largest wireless provider -- is believed to have been one of the only firms to have raised concerns about the lawfulness of the National Security Agency program before its existence was revealed in June 2013 as a result of a leak from former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, current and former US officials said.

The administration continued to resist opposition entreaties for surface-to-air missiles to fight Assad’s forces. But after being shown the legal rationale, the company dropped its challenge and continued to turn over customers’ call detail records to the NSA. Civil liberties advocates seized on the case to argue that the disclosure of the program’s legal reasoning to the phone company alone was not sufficient to protect the public’s privacy rights.

Big Cable threatens to create Internet fast lanes even if the FCC beefs up net neutrality

Broadband providers could still create Internet fast lanes even if federal regulators adopt stronger rules for the Web, as net neutrality advocates are hoping.

That's what the cable industry is arguing in a letter to the Federal Communications Commission. The letter, filed by the National Cable Television Association, opposes the labeling of broadband companies as utilities -- a move that would give the FCC much greater authority over Internet service providers like Comcast and Verizon.

At issue is whether the FCC should regulate those firms like phone companies under Title II of the Communications Act, the law that serves as the commission's charter. The FCC's current proposal would regulate broadband companies under Title I, Section 706 -- a part of the law with murkier implications.

"Subjecting broadband access providers to regulation under Title II would not even accomplish the goal that reclassification proponents apparently seek," the letter reads. "Reclassification would not support a categorical prohibition on Internet 'fast lanes' any more than Section 706 would."

After two years, app to assist mobile deaf users finally gets nod of approval from FCC

It's been over two years, but Miracom -- a Kansas firm that's developed an app to help the deaf and hard-of-hearing use mobile phones -- has finally gotten government approval to hit the market.

As The Washington Post reported in October, the Kansas firm had successfully designed an app, InnoCaption, to accurately transcribe mobile phone conversations in real-time. But it was spinning its wheels as it waited for the Federal Communications Commission to grant it access to a government fund that would allow deaf consumers to use the app for free.

The fund, known as the Interstate Telecommunications Relay Services Fund, reimburses companies for providing communication services to those with hearing or speech problems.

But after evidence that some companies were deceptively padding their reimbursement requests, concerns about fraud in the multi-million-dollar fund held up Miracom's progress and threatened to put the app on the ropes. Now, Miracom is planning a full release at the end of June.

"This is just tremendous," said Chuck Owen, Miracom's chief operating office. "We are very excited to be approved, be a part of the TRS community, very excited to offer a functionally equivalent solution to those that are in need and can make great utilization of this product."

Net neutrality protesters are literally camped outside the FCC. And the agency is hearing them out.

Demonstrators are calling on Federal Communications Commission Chairman Tom Wheeler to abandon a proposal that allows broadband providers to charge content companies like Dropbox and Google extra for speedy and reliable service.

They set up shop on a small strip of concrete and grass outside the FCC building on Maine Avenue in Southwest. Orange and white tents from REI dotted the perimeter. It was hard to see whether anyone was inside them taking refuge from the heat. Drawing inspiration from the Occupy Wall Street protests, the demonstrators are asking the agency to reclassify broadband providers as utility companies, which would allow the government to issue a ban on speeding up or slowing down types of Internet traffic. The FCC is considering rules that would prohibit companies from blocking traffic but could give them the freedom to offer faster service to Internet companies like Netflix and Google that chose to pay a fee.

European court ruling on privacy could give boost to US privacy advocates

The highest court in the European Union ruled that search engines such as Google have a responsibility to allow individuals the right to scrub their online histories.

The decision, handed down by the Court of Justice of the European Union, puts the onus on search engine operators to field and evaluate appeals from individuals who want to have links to harmful or unflattering content removed from their services, even if the material was published legally or as part of media coverage or government postings.

Along with its effect on Google, the decision has the potential to affect the operations of all search engines in Europe, including Yahoo and Microsoft's Bing.

The European court's ruling is unlikely to spark any fast movement among US lawmakers, who have long dragged their feet in producing privacy legislation, Fordham Law professor Joel Reidenberg said. But it does add ammunition to those fighting for similar provisions in America, he said, by providing "a degree of international legal support."

A new lawsuit takes aim at British spies’ alleged hacking of phones, Web cams and PCs

Privacy International, an international nonprofit is suing the British counterpart to the National Security Agency in what the group says is the country's first-ever legal challenge to device-hacking by intelligence services.

The watchdog says that while former NSA contractor Edward Snowden drew a great deal of attention to the Government Communications Headquarters' (GCHQ) attempts to eavesdrop on people's communications, the spy agency's efforts to break into electronic devices is far more pernicious.

In a 21-page complaint filed to a British special court and obtained by The Washington Post, Privacy International has accused GCHQ of installing malware on unsuspecting targets' mobile phones, computers and Web cams that can capture keystrokes, secretly activate microphones and obtain sensitive information such as usernames and passwords and even the content of communications, such as text messages and e-mails stored on a device.

"If the interception of communications is the modern equivalent of wiretapping," according to the complaint, "then the activity at issue in this complaint is the modern equivalent of entering someone’s house, searching through his filing cabinets, diaries and correspondence, and planting devices to permit constant surveillance in future, and, if mobile devices are involved, obtaining historical information including every location he visited in the past year."

The filing invokes the European Convention on Human Rights. If a private citizen were to try doing what GCHQ does routinely, Privacy International alleges, it would run afoul of British cybercrime law.

FCC chair responds to net neutrality backlash: ‘I could not agree with you more’

Federal Communications Commission Chairman Tom Wheeler responded to some of the most vocal critics of his proposal to allow Internet providers to charge content providers like Netflix for faster access to customers. In a letter to a tech coalition that includes Microsoft, Google, Yahoo and nearly 150 other companies, Chairman Wheeler said he will regulate broadband companies more heavily if the situation called for it.

Chairman Wheeler added that as an entrepreneur, he has also been "subject to being blocked from access to cable networks." "It is an experience that made me especially wary of the power of closed networks to innovate on their own agenda to the detriment of small entrepreneurs," Chairman Wheeler wrote. He also said his proposal is an attempt to adhere to the roadmap laid out by a federal court when it struck down the FCC's old net neutrality rules in January.

The FCC's newest proposal, which will be outlined to the public May 15, has drawn criticism from high-tech start-ups and consumer groups that fear that only the richest companies will be able to afford tolls exacted by Internet service providers.