Stories from Abroad

Since 2010, the Benton Foundation and the New America Foundation have partnered to highlight telecommunications debates from countries outside the U.S.

'Downright Orwellian': journalists count cost of Facebook's impact on democracy

Facebook has been criticised for the worrying impact on democracy of its “downright Orwellian” decision to run an experiment seeing professional media removed from the main news feed in six countries. The experiment, which began 19 Oct and is still ongoing, involves limiting the core element of Facebook’s social network to only personal posts and paid adverts. So-called public posts, such as those from media organisation Facebook pages, are being moved to a separate “explore” feed timeline. As a result, media organisations in the six countries containing 1% of the world’s population – Sri Lanka, Guatemala, Bolivia, Cambodia, Serbia and Slovakia – have had one of their most important publishing platforms removed overnight.

“The Facebook explore tab killed 66% of our traffic. Just destroyed it … years of really hard work were just swept away,” says Dina Fernandez, a journalist and member of the editorial board at Guatemalan news site Soy502. “It has been catastrophic, and I am very, very worried.” For those who rely on Facebook to campaign politically, share breaking news, or keep up to date with the world, that might be a concerning thought. “I’m worried about the impact of Facebook on democracy,” said Fernandez. “One company in particular has a gigantic control on the flow of information worldwide. This alone should be worrisome. It’s downright Orwellian.”

FCC Streamlines Part 43 International Reporting Requirements

The Federal Communications Commission eliminated the requirement that US providers of international telecommunications services file annual Traffic and Revenue Reports. The FCC also streamlined the requirements for filing Circuit Capacity Reports. These actions minimize the costs to both industry and the Commission while providing the Commission with the information it needs to fulfill its statutory obligations and protect US consumers and carriers.

The Report and Order finds that the costs of the traffic and revenue data collection now exceed the benefits of the FCC collecting the information from international service providers on an annual basis. Instead, the Commission will rely, as necessary, on targeted data requests to international service providers, in combination with third-party commercial data sources, to achieve its statutory objectives. Today’s action also concludes that the benefits of the Circuit Capacity Reports continue to justify the estimated costs of this data collection. However, the Commission streamlines the reporting by eliminating the requirement that carriers file circuit data for terrestrial and satellite facilities. The data from the Circuit Capacity Reports that will continue to be collected are necessary for the Commission to fulfill its statutory obligations, including those related to national security and public safety, and will continue to play a vital public interest role for other federal agencies.

Smartphones are getting more expensive around the world

Globally, the average price of a smartphone is expected to rise 6 percent to $324 this year, according to new data from GfK, a market research firm that collects customer checkout data. The hike is surprising as the price of smartphones — and electronics in general — tends to decrease over time as components are produced in larger quantities, bringing costs down.

Ever since Apple released the first iPhone, competition has been lowering prices as more players entered the market with cheaper and cheaper options. Additionally, smartphone demand in markets like India and China brought about local competitors whose lower prices appealed to customers in those areas, driving down the average price of phones globally. Now, however, as the majority of people in the world become smartphone owners, smartphone makers are adding in all sorts of new features to encourage consumers to upgrade their phones. These upgrades engender bigger price tags.

Facebook moving non-promoted posts out of news feed in trial

Facebook is testing a major change that would shift non-promoted posts out of its news feed, a move that could be catastrophic for publishers relying on the social network for their audience. A new system being trialled in six countries including Slovakia, Serbia and Sri Lanka sees almost all non-promoted posts shifted over to a secondary feed, leaving the main feed focused entirely on original content from friends, and advertisements.

The change has seen users’ engagement with Facebook pages drop precipitously, by 60% to 80% . If replicated more broadly, such a change would destroy many smaller publishers, as well as larger ones with an outsized reliance on social media referrals for visitors.

Can Alphabet’s Jigsaw Solve Google’s Most Vexing Problems?

With Alphabet’s engineering resources, Jigsaw translates this research into internet tools that combat hate speech, detect fake news, and defend against cyberattacks. Jigsaw CEO Jared Cohen’s eight-day visit to Pakistan in December provided firsthand insights into what methods extremists are now using to recruit new members online, which Jigsaw aims to circumvent using targeted advertising to counter terrorist propaganda. Although Cohen’s mission sounds philanthropic, Jigsaw operates as a business, no different from any of Alphabet’s moonshots. Yet Cohen says there’s no stress on the group to generate a profit. For now, its value to the enterprise is the ancillary benefits of protecting Google’s myriad other businesses—Android, Gmail, YouTube—from the world’s worst digital threats. And if, in the process, Jigsaw can help address some of the most acute unintended consequences of digital communication, all the better.

“I don’t think it’s fair to ask the government to solve all these problems—they don’t have the resources,” says Alphabet executive chairman Eric Schmidt. “The tech industry has a responsibility to get this right.”

The unintended consequences of Europe’s net neutrality law after one year

[Commentary] The European Union’s law “laying down measures concerning open internet access” came into force in 2016. After a year with the law on the books, telecom regulators across Europe have submitted compliance reports to the supervisory Body of European Regulators for Electronic Communications (BEREC) and the European Commission. While no bad internet service providers (ISPs) or violations have emerged, a regulatory bureaucracy is growing because of the law. 

The unintended consequences of Europe’s net neutrality law after one year

[Commentary] The European Union’s law “laying down measures concerning open internet access” came into force in 2016. After a year with the law on the books, telecom regulators across Europe have submitted compliance reports to the supervisory Body of European Regulators for Electronic Communications (BEREC) and the European Commission. While no bad internet service providers (ISPs) or violations have emerged, a regulatory bureaucracy is growing because of the law.

[Roslyn Layton was a member of the Trump FCC transition team, and is a visiting researcher at Aalborg University Center for Communication, Media, and Information Technologies and a vice president at Strand Consult, both in Denmark.]

CIA director distorts intelligence community’s findings on Russian interference

CIA Director Mike Pompeo declared that US intelligence agencies determined that Russia’s interference in the 2016 American presidential election did not alter the outcome, a statement that distorted spy agency findings. “The intelligence community’s assessment is that the Russian meddling that took place did not affect the outcome of the election,” Pompeo said. His comment suggested — falsely — that a report released by US intelligence agencies in January had ruled out any impact that could be attributed to a covert Russian interference campaign that involved leaks of tens of thousands of stolen e-mails, the flooding of social media sites with false claims and the purchase of ads on Facebook.

A report compiled by the CIA and other agencies described that Russian operation as unprecedented in its scale and concluded that Moscow’s goals were to undermine public faith in the US democratic process and help elect Donald Trump. But the report reached no conclusions about whether that interference had altered the outcome — an issue that U.S. intelligence officials made clear was considered beyond the scope of their inquiry.

With consent from Brazil, AT&T has only one regulatory hurdle left before it can gobble Time Warner

AT&T has secured the blessing of Brazilian regulators for its $85-billion takeover of Time Warner, moving the blockbuster deal closer to the finish line.

The company said Brazil’s antitrust authority, the Conselho Administrativo de Defesa Econômica, had signed off on AT&T’s application to acquire the media company which owns CNN, HBO, TBS, Cartoon Network and Hollywood’s biggest film and television studio, Warner Bros. Now, AT&T must win approval from the US Department of Justice before it can finalize the merger. The government’s review slowed over the summer because the Senate’s approval of President Trump’s appointment of Makan Delrahim as chief of the Justice Department’s anti-trust division was made in late September. The Justice Department and AT&T continue to negotiate conditions for the merger, according to knowledgeable people who do not want to be identified discussing the sensitive process. AT&T earlier had received approval from regulators in Chile and Mexico. Brazilian regulators concluded that AT&T would not be required to divest any assets.

European Union Says Privacy Shield is Working

The European Union has given a thumbs up to the EU-US Privacy Shield in its first annual review of the framework for protecting cross-border data flows. The first annual report concluded the shield works, but could use some bolstering, including by the U.S. Department of Commerce.

"Overall the report shows that the Privacy Shield continues to ensure an adequate level of protection for the personal data transferred from the EU to participating companies in the U.S. The U.S. authorities have put in place the necessary structures and procedures to ensure the correct functioning of the Privacy Shield, such as new redress possibilities for EU individuals," the report concluded. "Complaint-handling and enforcement procedures have been set up, and cooperation with the European Data protection authorities has been stepped up," it said. "The certification process is functioning well - over 2,400 companies have now been certified by the U.S. Department of Commerce. As regards access to personal data by U.S. public authorities for national security purposes, relevant safeguards on the U.S. side remain in place."