Internet/Broadband

Coverage of how Internet service is deployed, used and regulated.

Pai Seeks Clarity on Broadband Privacy

Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai has circulated an item for a vote that provides guidance on the broadband privacy rules that were in effect before its 2016 privacy order, apparently. That is opposed to a brand new framework for rules.

That broadband privacy order, adopted last fall by a Democratic majority under former chairman Tom Wheeler and against the dissents of the current Republican majority, was invalidated earlier in 2017 by a Congressional Review Act (CRA) resolution, essentially with the blessing of Chairman Pai and acting Federal Trade Commission chair Maureen Ohlhausen. The CRA did not roll back FCC authority over internet-service provider broadband privacy, which it has had since the 2015 Open Internet order classified web access as a common-carrier service exempt from FTC oversight. But just what authority the FCC had has been a bit unclear since the agency’s common-carrier privacy regulations are tailored to phone service, stemming from an effort to prevent telcos from using information about who was changing to another carrier to try and incentivize them not to switch. Following that Open Internet order, the FCC had teamed with the FTC on a memorandum of understanding outlining how — in a generally worded document — they could, together, protect broadband privacy going forward.

A Three-Step Plan to Promote Consumer Privacy

[Commentary] There are steps Congress can and should take to improve consumer privacy. Here are three big ones.

First, Congress should repeal the common-carrier exemption.
Second, Congress should pre-empt the current patchwork of state privacy laws by setting a single standard to govern consumer privacy throughout the country.
Third, Congress should direct the FTC to update its current privacy regime and reconsider which types of data are sensitive.

[Tom Struble is a technology policy manager with the R Street Institute. Joe Kane is a tech policy associate at the R Street Institute.]

Analysis: Majority of FCC Comments Favor Repealing Internet Rules

Free market group Consumer Action for a Strong Economy (CASE) says according to its analysis of the Federal Communications Commission's open internet docket, a majority (65%) favor repealing the Title II-based Open Internet order, as FCC Chairman Ajit Pai has proposed to do. But it also points out that a vast majority, 75%, of those comments are from "letter campaigns" coming from both sides of the issue.

In addition, nearly 6% of the comments have been submitted by self-identified international filers. The group said it looked at the 4,990,000 filings as of June 20 and said it would do similar assessments in the future. Of those, it said, 3,237,916 support repealing the order, while 35% (1,752,084) oppose repeal. It said that assessment was based on analysis of "clear language" one way or the other—including the language encouraged by HBO's John Oliver—mostly on the form letters that make up the 75% of comments, though it said the percentage might actually be more since it was looking at varieties and permutations of the same language, and there could be more.

FCC Looks to Provide Privacy Reporting Reminder

Apparently, an item Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai has circulated for a vote on "Protecting the Privacy of Customers of Broadband and Other Telecommunications Services" essentially clarifies that the telecommunication customer proprietary network information (CPNI) privacy rules that were in effect before the Tom Wheeler FCC adopted a new broadband privacy regime are still in effect after that regime was nullified by Congress. It is a way to remind carriers that they are still responsible for submitting an annual certification of compliance with those CPNI privacy rules.

The item was described as administrative in nature and focused on voice privacy, rather than providing any new guidance on broadband privacy, apparently. In addition, the item dismisses petitions to reconsider the Wheeler-era rules, since they were mooted by the Congressional Review Act resolution. Chairman Pai has proposed reclassifying ISPs as information service providers, rather than telecoms, after which the Federal Trade Commission would reclaim its authority over broadband privacy, which it lost when ISPs were classified as common carriers in the 2015 Order. The FTC is prevented from enforcing regulations on common carriers.

Twenty years after Reno v. ACLU, the long arc of internet history returns

Twenty years ago, on June 26, 1996, the US Supreme Court unanimously decided Reno v. American Civil Liberties Union, which found the communications decency provisions of the Telecommunications Act of 1996 to be unconstitutional. Applying strict scrutiny under the First Amendment, the Supreme Court concluded that unlike broadcasting – where the Federal Communications Commission’s indecency regulation has been upheld due to the unique characteristics of that medium – no content regulation with a justification of online child protection would be allowed. This means that there continues to be no content restrictions on what American internet users can send or receive.

Viewed in contemporary context, two lessons from Reno v. ACLU endure. First, as a constitutional law matter, there is a firewall for US government restrictions on any non-obscene online content. In turn, this virtually unfettered freedom has fueled the pervasiveness of the internet in our lives. Remember, Facebook and the world of online apps – which now exceed websites as the go-to sources online – did not even exist then. Mark Zuckerberg was only 13 years old when the court decision was released, and other app content pioneers such as Snapchat’s Evan Spiegel were still in elementary school.

This leads to the case’s second legacy, which is more implicit but also of great importance. Given the continuing inability to predict the speed and scale of internet development or changing consumer preferences, there seems to be a subtext in that government may find it difficult to develop broad prescriptive long-lasting approaches to internet regulation. The FCC favored this ex ante approach when crafting the Open Internet order under the Obama Administration. Under new FCC Chairman Ajit Pai, the agency seems to favor a revision that limits government oversight to the Federal Trade Commission’s traditional enforcement authority. As the FCC compiles its rulemaking record to justify this significant change in approach, it would not be surprising to see the Reno v. ACLU decision used to support a return of this light-touch regulatory framework.

How sharing economy regulatory models could resolve the need for Title II net neutrality

[Commentary] Sharing economy companies have had no shortage of regulatory battles, but companies such as Uber, Airbnb, and TaskRabbit are innovating and improving regulation by incorporating the very trust created through their platforms. Arun Sundararajan, author of “The Sharing Economy: The End of Employment and the Rise of Crowd-Based Capitalism” (MIT Press, 2016), observes that regulation need not originate with the government. He writes that it can take a myriad of forms while still being rational, ethical, and participatory. He describes three models of regulation used by sharing platforms: peer-to-peer, self-regulatory, and data-driven delegation.

The way that sharing economy platforms are innovating regulation with digital trust systems exposes the effort by digital elites to impose Title II utility regulation from 1934 on the internet as backward and out of date. While sharing economy entrepreneurs are creating a decentralized, innovative, and distributed world and are finding and transforming passive assets into productive ones, Title II advocates want to centralize and aggregate power beneath a single government agency that we the people have never authorized to regulate broadband. We should resist this like we would any faction that wants to usurp power. Meanwhile, we should encourage the Federal Communications Commission and Internet service providers to experiment with these innovative forms of regulation.

[Roslyn Layton is a PhD Fellow at the Center for Communication, Media, and Information Technologies (CMI) at Aalborg University in Copenhagen, Denmark. She is also a member of the Trump FCC Transition Team.]

Remarks of FCC Chairman Ajit Pai At Broadband For All Seminar, Stockholm, Sweden

The United States is ahead of the global curve when it comes to delivering “broadband for all.” But we too face challenges. First, a quick snapshot: 93% of Americans have access to fixed broadband with a speed of at least 25 Mbps down. An estimated 73% of Americans subscribe to fixed broadband at home. And approximately 80% of Americans use smartphones. When you dig deeper into those numbers, however, you begin to see some real divides. In urban areas, 98% of Americans have access to high-speed fixed service. In rural areas, it’s only 72%. 93% of Americans earning more than $75,000 have home broadband service, compared to only 53% of those making less than $30,000. Too many identify with the lines in One of Us, in which ABBA sang: “One of us is lonely / One of us is only / Waiting for a call.”

Every American who wants to participate in our digital economy should be able to do so. Access to online opportunity shouldn’t depend on who you are or where you’re from. I’m pleased to say that since my first days as Chairman, the Federal Communications Commission has taken significant actions to make that a reality.

Technology Week Recap

The week of June 19 was Technology Week at the White House, and the Trump Administration held events focusing on modernizing government technology and stimulating the technology sector.

That Monday, June 19, the White House invited major tech leaders and university presidents for the inaugural summit of the American Technology Council. Hosted by the White House's Office of American Innovation, the event consisted of multiple breakout sessions to discuss ways to modernize the government by retiring out-of-date legacy systems and increasing the use of shared services. On Tuesday, United States Secretary of the Treasury Steven Mnuchin and Director of the National Economic Council Gary Cohn held a listening session with technology leaders to discuss tax reform in the United States and the implications of a new tax plan on the technology sector. On Wednesday, President Trump traveled to Cedar Rapids, Iowa. He toured Kirkwood Community College and spoke about agricultural innovation and empowering the American farmer. On Thursday, the White House hosted the American Leadership in Emerging Technology Event, where American tech industry leaders demonstrated technologies like advanced drones and 5G wireless networks to the President. On Friday, President Trump signed the Department of Veterans Affairs Accountability and Whistleblower Protection Act of 2017. After a successful week of addressing American innovation and meeting with leaders of the technology sector, next week the Trump Administration will turn its focus to energy.

How 7 words unfit for TV fostered an open Internet 20 years ago today

Twenty years ago, on June 26, 1997, the Supreme Court issued a landmark decision and unanimously overturned congressional legislation that made it unlawful to transmit "indecent" material on the Internet if that content could be viewed by minors. The justices ruled that the same censorship standards being applied to broadcast radio and television could not be applied to the Internet.

"The record demonstrates that the growth of the Internet has been and continues to be phenomenal," the high court concluded. "As a matter of constitutional tradition, in the absence of evidence to the contrary, we presume that government regulation of the content of speech is more likely to interfere with the free exchange of ideas than to encourage it." The legal wrangling over the Communications Decency Act happened when the commercial Internet was primitive compared to today. The ACLU says it didn't even have a website when the CDA was signed into law in 1996. And the ACLU's lawyers on the case had never even used the Internet, either.

Wireless Tower Dispute May Derail BVU Optinet Municipal Broadband Sale

A planned municipal broadband sale of BVU Optinet is in jeopardy, thanks to a disagreement regarding wireless tower assets. One of the early pioneers in municipal broadband, Bristol (VA) based BVU Optinet was put up for sale back in February 2016 for $50 million to Sunset Digital Communications. That deal may now be in trouble.

A government oversight board, the Virginia Coalfield Coalition (VCC) approved the sale of BVU Optinet to Sunset Digital, but with conditions that Sunset now objects to. The board wants operational control of the wireless tower network currently operated by BVU Optinet transferred to a different service provider, Scott County Telephone Cooperative. BVU operates 22 wireless towers throughout the region, and is valued at $14 million. There is a difference of opinion between the VCC and Sunset as to whether the tower network was a part of the original $50 million deal. Sunset Digital is calling foul, and says that condition could kill the deal. “Those are conditions that we [previously] said were not acceptable,” said Jeff Mitchell, an attorney for Sunset Digital.