Washington Post

On network neutrality, the FCC’s chairman increasingly stands alone

First came the tech companies, almost 150 of them. Then it was the investor class, clamoring that the Federal Communications Commission's plan for net neutrality would create an uneven playing field between established companies and young startups.

Protesters -- usually more common on the National Mall than at the FCC's secluded offices in Southwest Washington -- camped out at the commission's front doors.

To outsiders, the FCC may seem like a black box: We haven't even seen a draft of the proposed rules that have critics so alarmed. But on the inside of the commission, a charged political battle is playing out that could set the tone for the commission's future. And the fault lines are mostly leaving the agency's head, Tom Wheeler, cut off from the rest of his colleagues.

Chairman Wheeler has pushed back against claims that his draft rules on net neutrality would allow for an Internet fast lane. At a recent speech in Los Angeles, he told cable industry executives that he would not hesitate to regulate broadband companies more heavily if the situation called for it. That hasn't stopped a more recent rush of criticism -- including from within the FCC itself.

While it is less surprising to see Commissioner Ajit Pai criticize Chairman Wheeler, using the moment to undermine the Chairman’s early tenure, to see Commissioners Mignon Clyburn and Jessica Rosenworcel break so publicly from Chairman Wheeler is unusual. The widening rifts suggest internal deliberations on net neutrality may either have broken down or never took place.

Some say the revolt -- not to mention the chairman's decision, for the most part, to ignore it -- is evidence of Chairman Wheeler’s isolation.

Now dozens of high-profile VCs are protesting the FCC’s net neutrality rules, too

Mere hours after a group of top tech companies wrote to the Federal Communications Commission to oppose the agency's proposed rules for net neutrality, nearly 50 venture capitalists are doing the same.

The letter -- which is signed by high-profile investor Ron Conway, GigaOm founder Om Malik and reddit co-founder Alex Ohanian -- argues that small startups would be harmed by the FCC rules, which would allow broadband providers to charge Web companies for better access to consumers.

"If established companies are able to pay for better access speeds or lower latency, the Internet will no longer be a level playing field," the letter addressed to FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler reads. "Entrepreneurs will need to raise money to buy fast lane services before they have proven that consumers want their product. Investors will extract more equity from entrepreneurs to compensate for the risk."

What's more, the letter warned, investors themselves might be deterred from backing new projects if they believe Internet providers see a threat in a new company. "They will use the same technical infrastructure to advantage their own services or use network management as an excuse to disadvantage competitive offerings," the VCs wrote.

Federal Election Commission approves bitcoin donations to political committees

The Federal Election Commission gave a green light to donating bitcoins to political committees, one of the first rulings by a government agency on how to treat the virtual currency.

In a 6-to-0 vote, the panel said that a PAC can accept bitcoin donations, as well as purchase them, but it must sell its bitcoins and convert them into US dollars before they are deposited into an official campaign account. The commission did not approve the use of bitcoin to acquire goods and services.

After the vote, however, individual commissioners offered sharply divergent views on whether their decision limits bitcoin donations to small amounts -- creating more uncertainty about how much of the Internet currency that political committees can accept. Because the commission only approved the acceptance of bitcoin as specifically described in the request by the Make Your Laws PAC, the decision does not permit contributions of more than $100, she said.

Google, Netflix lead nearly 150 tech companies in protest of FCC net neutrality plan

Nearly 150 Internet firms are banding together to call for more stringent net neutrality regulations on broadband providers. In a letter to the Federal Communications Commission, the companies asked federal regulators to reconsider a proposal that critics fear would allow Internet providers to charge for faster, better access to consumers.

The list includes Amazon, Facebook, Google and Microsoft, along with dozens of other firms that called the prospect of paid fast lanes "a threat to the Internet."

With just a week to go before the Federal Communications Commission meets to consider its proposed new rules for ISPs, the letter represents a late attempt by Silicon Valley to take a stance on the open Internet.

"Instead of permitting individualized bargaining and discrimination," the companies wrote, "the commission's rules should protect users and Internet companies on both fixed and mobile platforms against blocking, discrimination and paid prioritization, and should make the market for Internet services more transparent."

The companies have not gone so far as to demand the FCC "reclassify" Internet providers under Title II of the Communications Act -- a move that would allow the commission to regulate ISPs more heavily, as it does with phone companies. The letter does not offer an alternative proposal. Even as the companies were writing to the commission, however, some at the agency were suggesting that the May 15 meeting be delayed.

A House committee has voted unanimously to rein in the NSA

A key House committee has approved a package of National Security Agency reforms that would end the spy agency's bulk collection of Americans' phone records, nearly a year after former NSA contractor Edward Snowden disclosed the program's existence.

The House Judiciary Committee voted 32-0 to rein in the NSA with the USA FREEDOM Act, a measure that places new requirements on the government when it comes to gathering, targeting and searching telephone metadata for intelligence purposes. In addition to prohibiting the NSA from engaging in what the bill's sponsors have called "dragnet surveillance," the bill would also require authorities to get permission from the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court on a case-by-case basis.

It would establish a panel of privacy experts and other officials to serve as a public advocate at the court. And it would also give businesses more latitude to tell the public about requests it receives from the government for user data.

The bill represents "the best chance in a decade" to correct an imbalance between national security and privacy, said co-sponsor Rep Jerry Nadler (D-NY) It is the first surveillance reform bill to proceed to the House floor.

Sen Patrick Leahy (D-VT), who helped write the bill and introduced a version of it in the Senate in October, vowed to bring up the measure there this summer. "The committee’s overwhelming, bipartisan vote makes clear that there is broad support in Congress, after years of debate, to recalibrate the nation’s surveillance authorities and put a real oversight structure in place," Sen Leahy said.

Civil liberties advocates are calling the measure a modest step; a number of amendments by Rep Zoe Lofgren (D-CA) to strengthen the bill failed to pass.

Political data, once the reserve of presidential campaigns, is spreading to local races

The November midterms aren't the only race Republicans and Democrats are running in 2014. As Election Day approaches, both parties are rushing to put new political technology into the hands of smaller campaigns that may lack the resources or staff of a major presidential effort.

Candidates competing for seats in state and local races are increasingly gaining access to sophisticated databases and predictive modeling tools, much like those that earned President Barack Obama so much attention in 2012. As a result, the 2014 election season is likely to see a much wider use of data to target likely voters, organize volunteers and consolidate voter lists.

The Republican National Committee said that it's trying to persuade conservative campaigns to adopt a suite of free tools it has developed in recent months to give candidates an edge. The package includes a massive voter file known as OneData, which contains information on 190 million active US voters gathered from all 50 states.

Republican campaigns will have access to information on another 63 million Americans through data gathered from commercial sources such as Axiom and Experian, the committee said. Altogether, the data tracks nearly two decades of Americans' voting history, including whether they own hunting and fishing licenses that could indicate their positions on political issues.

Cable forces more channels down unwilling viewers’ throats

It's become a cliché: "Why am I forced to buy more cable channels I never watch?"

Now, new data show the common consumer complaint is true.

In 2013, US cable subscribers got a record average of 189 channels in prepackaged bundles but watched only 17 of those channels, according to a report by Nielsen. And the appetite to view more channels, even when offered vastly more television content, hasn't changed much in years.

In five years, cable companies added 60 more channels for the typical subscriber, but viewers haven't increased their consumption of new content. They have consistently watched an average of 17 channels.

"This data is significant in that it substantiates the notion that more content does not necessarily equate to more channel consumption," the Nielsen report said. "And that means quality is imperative — for both content creators and advertisers. So the best way to reach consumers in a world with myriad options is to be the best option."

NSA e-mails purport to show a ‘close’ relationship with Google. Maybe, maybe not.

In the summer of 2012, about a year before former contractor Edward Snowden revealed surprising new information about the extent of the National Security Agency's surveillance programs, the head of the spy agency reportedly traded e-mails with top Google execs 0n cyber-security issues.

Then-NSA director Gen Keith Alexander told Google executive chairman Eric Schmidt that he was organizing a meeting of tech CEOs in Silicon Valley for Aug 8, 2012, and he extended an invitation to Google, according to the e-mails, which were obtained by Al Jazeera America.

The e-mails offer a rare look at the communications between Google and the NSA. It's a relationship that has been prickly lately, given Snowden's disclosures. But the two entities have worked closely in the past on developing defenses against cyber-attack, according to Al Jazeera America.

The military thinks Bitcoin could pose a threat to national security

Does Bitcoin risk endangering the nation's safety? The Pentagon thinks it might.

According to a Defense Department solicitation, virtual currencies represent an emerging technology that could help terrorists and criminals evade law enforcement and launch attacks against the United States.

To prepare, the Pentagon's Combating Terrorism Technical Support Office asked companies in January to help study virtual currencies' potential role in "threat finance." (The study would be conducted as part of a wider investigation into evolving threats, including facial recognition and Web monitoring.)

"The introduction of virtual currency will likely shape threat finance by increasing the opaqueness, transactional velocity, and overall efficiencies of terrorist attacks," according to a CTTSO memo obtained by Bitcoin Magazine.

One reason would-be criminals find Bitcoin so attractive is that it makes anonymous transactions over long distances a cinch. Like cash, it's the perfect financial tool if you're trying to cover your tracks.

How George Washington University is shaping a piece of Google’s smartphone future

In the labs of George Washington University, students are laboring in labs covered in black-and-white dotted paper, puzzling out how to make a machine that understands images like the human brain.

It’s a question that Google is trying to tackle in typical Silicon Valley fashion with Project Tango, a smartphone that will use its sensors to map the environment around its users in real time. But this research isn't restricted to the secret labs of West Coast tech giants.

A piece of it is happening right here in Washington. The vision for Tango is to make a phone that can not only recognize places -- so you can, for example, navigate within a store to find a product on a shelf -- but also potentially tap into large-scale 3-D maps to help the phone better understand the scene. Think of it as more detailed version of Google Maps.

In a mall, a Tango phone could direct you to the nearest restroom by using a meaningful 3-D map of the mall. (Google hasn’t said when the phone could be released.) At George Washington, the scientists have been helping Google deal with the basics: getting the phone to understand its own sensors and the images it sees to understand how what its sensing matches up with what it expects.