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Telecommunications Policy



All Reason.com articles with the "Telecommunications Policy" tag.



Published: Sat, 19 Aug 2017 00:00:00 -0400

Last Build Date: Sat, 19 Aug 2017 05:55:09 -0400

 



Net Neutrality Supporters Should Actually Hate the Regulations They're Endorsing

Tue, 18 Jul 2017 08:00:00 -0400

If you went on the internet at all last week, you could not help but miss some of the web's most popular websites publicizing their campaigns that defend the Obama-era telecommunications regulation known as the Open Internet Order (OIO). Last Wednesday, tech heavyweights like Google, Facebook, Twitter, Reddit, and even Pornhub held a "Day of Action" to support the controversial FCC rules. The websites bombarded users with blog posts encouraging folks to contact their representatives and popup messages bemoaning the future of a slow and tiered internet. But ironically, these websites' stated goals are in direct contradiction of the regulations that they ostensibly support. Simply stated, the OIO does not in fact secure the principles of "net neutrality" like so many of these websites implied to their users. In fact, the OIO may have the adverse effect of actively discouraging the principles of net neutrality through a loophole that would exempt motivated Internet Service Providers (ISPs) from OIO regulations. This cannot be emphasized enough: The OIO allows and encourages ISP filtering, a huge no-no in the world of net neutrality. This is a point that my Mercatus Center colleague Brent Skorup has made since shortly after the OIO rules were first introduced in February of 2015. It's a bit of a nuanced argument, and one that would not be immediately obvious to anyone who does not closely read all FCC reports and related court cases as a profession. But as the general public is whipped into a veritable frenzy to defend the OIO rules or risk Internet catastrophe, it's a critical fact to hammer home in the debate. To understand just how muddled the discussion surrounding "net neutrality" and the OIO has become, we need to know a bit about: 1) how the concept of net neutrality developed and what it means; and 2) the political pressures and compromises that were made in the run-up to the introduction of the OIO. First, the definition of "net neutrality" is incredibly hazy. You could almost say that more people agree that net neutrality is a good thing than can agree on any particular definition. The concept was first laid out by law professor Tim Wu in his seminal 2002 article, "A Proposal for Network Neutrality." Wu lays out hypothetical scenarios where ISPs block or throttle access to content for reasons ranging from cost to anti-competitive activities. His article attempts to distinguish content differentiation that he finds reasonable and should be allowed from those that he finds unjustifiable and should be prohibited. The article generated a fair bit of controversy even under this more limited framework—critics responded by pointing out some benefits of non-neutral Internet arrangements—but it was at least a relatively narrow and understood topic. From there, the concept of "net neutrality" morphed into something that was both utopian and unworkable. If you type the phrase into Google, the top definition provided is the "principle that Internet service providers should enable access to all content and applications regardless of the source, and without favoring or blocking particular products or websites." Yet this definition stands in sharp contradiction to the vision outlined by Wu, who noted that "a total ban on network discrimination, of course, would be counterproductive." This kind of extreme understanding of net neutrality has been dismissed by early Internet pioneer and MIT computer scientist David Clark as a "happy little bunny rabbit dream" that would be both impossible and undesirable to implement. Unfortunately, the unhinged understanding of "net neutrality" has since won the day. And it has fueled average people's nightmares about what the future of the Internet holds—even though it looks a lot like what we've always enjoyed. (After all, the OIO regulations were only proposed in 2015.) The core of these fears is a future where consumers are forced to purchase tiered package for Internet access of specific websites, or face slow service or even a complete blackout. Consider this image macro, which is popul[...]



Plan to Roll Back Internet Regulations a Boon for Business and Innovation

Tue, 02 May 2017 00:30:00 -0400

Libertarians, rejoice—a U.S. regulator took the bold step of deciding that his office simply doesn't have the jurisdiction to control major parts of the internet. Last Wednesday, the free market-friendly Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Chairman Ajit Pai unveiled his plan to roll back the FCC's controversial 2015 Open internet Order (OIO), which granted the telecommunication regulator expansive discretionary authority over how internet Service Providers (ISPs) can operate and compete. Pai's plan is a real win for those who believe businesses should not need government permission before innovating. But don't expect the so-called "net neutrality" hardliners to accept this proposal without a major fight. Their reactions last week were predictably apoplectic. Sen. Edward Markey (D-Massachusetts) set the tone on Wednesday, promising a "tsunami of resistance" against Pai's deregulatory move. Sen. Al Franken (D-Minnesota) clutched his pearls and warned that rescinding the OIO would "destroy the internet as we know it." A writer at Gizmodo scoffed that Pai's position was one "only the strongest free-market libertarians" could support (is that supposed to be an insult?). The political group Free Press, a dogged OIO supporter, bemoaned that if Pai succeeds, "the internet as we know it will be gone for good." But hysterical critics have a hard time answering exactly how the internet was able to become the engine of innovation that it is today without the expansive FCC controls only granted through the OIO in 2015. Radical Regulation The 2015 Open Interent Order broke from years of established federal policy by reclassifying ISPs as "common carriers" for FCC purposes. In legal terms, the OIO applied Title II of the 1934 Communication Act to ISPs. This meant that web-service providers such as RCN and Time Warner were to be treated less like part of a competitive and cutting-edge industry and more like an arm of the Ma Bell telephone monopoly of Norman Rockwell's America. Specifically, the change would prohibit certain kinds of content-delivery differentiation, placing the FCC in the position of picking winners and losers by being able to determine which service innovations are allowed and which are not. For providers, the imposition of Title II regulations meant uncertainty, new fees and compliance costs, and a major new power center just waiting to be captured by commercial interests. For consumers, it meant less choice, higher prices, and a worrying channel for new government censorship of speech. For libertarians, it was merely more of the same: Yet another government regulator deciding that it should have more power to tell businesses and consumers what they can and cannot do. It is hard to overstate just how radical of a departure the OIO was from the preceding years of light touch regulatory authority over internet activities. For years, U.S. internet policy was guided by a remarkably laissez faire approach encapsulated by the Clinton administration's Framework for Global Electronic Commerce. This extraordinary document instructs the federal government to "encourage industry self-regulation wherever appropriate" and "refrain from imposing new and unnecessary regulations" on commercial internet activities. And if that's not clear enough, Section 230 of the Telecommunications Act states that any "service or system that provides access to the internet" should be "unfettered from Federal or State regulation" like the OIO. Accordingly, America today is home to the world's most successful and competitive technology companies, and consumers have access to a dazzling array of telecommunication services at affordable, competitive prices. (And thanks to Pai's new plan, we can continue to be.) But can you imagine what the internet would now look like if ISPs had been forced to ask the FCC for permission every time one wanted to roll out a new service over the years? We might not have much of an internet at all. No Free internet For a great example of how the OIO harms consumers and innovation, we can l[...]



Denmark Proves We Don't Need the FCC

Tue, 04 Apr 2017 08:30:00 -0400

Americans often look to Scandinavian countries for examples of successful policy and governance. It's easy to see why: These countries boast some of the best quality-of-life rankings in the world. Denmark in particular is praised for its stellar telecommunications services. The country has topped the International Telecommunications Union's ranking of global information and communication technology (ICT) provision for years due to its expansive broadband and wireless penetration, fast Internet speeds, and ample provider competition. The Danish reputation got a boost among the American left in last year's presidential election, when none other than Bernie Sanders himself plugged the country as a model for the United States to emulate. But admirers of the popular democratic socialist politician may be surprised to learn exactly how Denmark was able to become an international leader in ICT delivery. It wasn't super-charged regulation, top-down "net neutrality" rules, or major government subsidies that did the trick. So how did Denmark do it? Deregulation. By virtually eliminating their equivalent of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), Danes now enjoy some of the best ICT service on the planet. A new Mercatus Center working paper by Roslyn Layton and Joseph Kane describes precisely how Danish telecommunications officials undertook successful deregulatory reforms. It starts with Danish regulators who quickly understood the promise of digital technology and realized that government policies could quash innovative applications that would benefit consumers and businesses alike. From there, they developed a plan to prioritize competition and development instead of central control. This hands off-approach was so successful that eventually the country's National IT and Telecom Agency (NITA) was disbanded altogether. Committed to Competition In 1994, when most governments hadn't even started to consider the impending digital revolution, Danish authorities had already laid out a clear path for simple telecommunications policy. Their plan emphasized facilitating interactions between the public and private sectors instead of rushing to regulate. The Danish government also undertook early efforts to modernize their own services by digitizing government records, thereby becoming a key buyer of ICT services. Government services became more efficient, and the infant ICT sector got an enthusiastic and large client. Policymakers clearly stated their opposition to subsidy-driven "growth" and heavy-handed regulation. The country's state-owned telecommunications provider, Tele Danmark (TDC), was completely privatized in 1998 through the efforts of Social Democrat Prime Minister Poul Nyrup Rasmussen. The next year, a consortium of Danish political parties formed a "Teleforlig," or telecommunications agreement, that outlined their goals. It stated: It is important to ensure that regulation does not create a barrier for the possibility of new converged products… Regulation must be technologically neutral, and technology choices are to be handled by the market. The goal is to move away from sector-specific regulation toward competition-oriented regulation. And Danish regulators kept this promise. For example, following the privatization of TDC, NITA levied special regulations on the provider so that it would not abuse its previous monopoly to prevent new competition in wireless. TDC was therefore subject to controls on its access to mobile networks and call origins. But NITA discovered that the wireless industry was sufficiently competitive by 2006, with four active providers in the market. Remarkably, NITA then dissolved the TDC regulations. As one official stated, "We are obliged to remove the regulation when the competitive situation demands it. There is no need to regulate something that market forces can take care of." By 2011, Danish ICT provision had become so competitive and responsive to market needs that NITA closed up shop all together. Interestingly, this major deregula[...]



Danish Deregulators

Tue, 28 Mar 2017 21:15:00 -0400

(image) If you're interested in the shift from Scandinavian social democracy to Nordic neoliberalism (*), you should check out Roslyn Layton and Joseph Kane's new paper on Denmark's deregulation of the telecommunications industry. The Danes, they inform us, have not just shed the state's telephone monopoly but disbanded its telecom regulatory agency, refused to let the government fix telecom prices or push particular telecom technologies, and mostly avoided telecom subsidies.

As is often the case with reforms described as deregulatory, some of these changes did more to rearrange the state's role than to reduce it. (That regulatory agency, for example, had its duties distributed to other arms of the government.) And some weren't really changes at all. ("In Denmark's history there are only three instances of telecom subsidies," Layton and Kane write, "and they are for extremely small amounts targeted to remote areas.") But the net effect was less intervention in the marketplace, not just compared to the past but compared to nearby nations. Despite all the recent liberalization in Sweden, for example, the government there still owns a piece of the country's dominant telephone company.

In any event, it's an interesting case study. It used to be a cliché to suggest that socialism works better in Scandinavia than elsewhere. The best argument that that's true may be the ease with which Scandinavian socialists have moved toward markets.

(* I hate the word "neoliberalism," but alliteration must prevail.)




Facebook Has No First Amendment Right to Send Unauthorized Texts, Says Court

Fri, 10 Feb 2017 16:09:00 -0500

(image) "Today is Jim Stewart's birthday. Reply to post a wish on his Timeline or reply with 1 to post 'Happy Birthday!'" That's the text, from Facebook to Colin Brickman, that launched a legal battle between Brickman and the social-media giant.

You see, Brickman had opted out of receiving texts from Facebook via the platform's notification settings. In response to the unwanted birthday reminder, Brickman filed a class-action lawsuit against Facebook, representing "all individuals who received one or more Birthday Announcement Texts from [Facebook] to a cell phone through the use of an automated telephone dialing system at any time without their consent."

The suit, filed in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California, argues that Facebook's sending unauthorized text messages is a violation of the federal Telephone Communications Privacy Act (TCPA). "A valid TCPA claim requires plaintiff to allege (1) a defendant called a cellular telephone number; (2) using an automated telephone dialing system ('ATDS'); and (3) without the recipient's prior express consent," explains lawyer Jack Greiner in the Cincinnati Enquirer. "A text message is a 'call' within the meaning of the TCPA."

In its defense, Facebook alleged that the TCPA in unconstitutional. Citing the U.S. Supreme Court's 2015 decision in Reed v. Town of Gilbert, Facebook attorneys argued that the TCPA's allowed exceptions—for emergency communications and debt collectors—render it an umpermissable, content-based restriction on speech. But the judge, while agreeing that the TCPA's restrictions are content-based (and thus subject to strict scrutiny, legally speaking), found that the law passed constitutional muster nonetheless.

The case will go forward with Facebook defending its text messages on technical grounds; it argues that the texts were not automated because Brickman and others who received them had supplied Facebook with their phone numbers. But, for now, Facebook's argument that it has a First Amendment right to send people text messages against their will has been rejected.

The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has twice found the TCPA to be constitutional in previous cases—Moser v. Federal Communications Commission (1995) and Campbell-Ewald v. Gomez (2016)—the Department of Justice pointed out in a memorandum in support of TCPA's constitutionality. In the latter case, the 9th Circuit rejected the idea that the government's interest with the law "only extends to the protection of residential privacy, and that therefore the statute is not narrowly tailored to the extent that it applies to cellular text messages."

"There is no evidence that the government's interest in privacy ends at home," ruled the 9th circuit in Campbell-Ewald. Furthermore, "to whatever extent the government's significant interest lies exclusively in residential privacy, the nature of cell phones renders the restriction of unsolicited text messaging all the more necessary to ensure that privacy."




Google, Facebook, Twitter Sued for Allegedly Helping ISIS Inspire Orlando Pulse Nightclub Killer Omar Mateen

Tue, 20 Dec 2016 21:52:00 -0500

One can understand the instinct, when the one who actually caused you tortious harm is beyond any judgment but the eternal one, to lash out at whatever hefty pockets seem within reach. Still, the legal gambit from the families of three of the people (Tevin Crosby, Javier Jorge-Reyes and Juan Ramon Guerrero) killed in Omar Mateen's murder rampage in June at Orlando's Pulse nightclub to sue Facebook, Twitter and Google because the tech services allegedly "provided the terrorist group ISIS with accounts they use to spread extremist propaganda, raise funds, and attract new recruits" should have any believer in free expression and the ability to technologically and legally facilitate it nervous. I certainly hope no U.S. judge sees any merit in it. The suit was filed this week in U.S. District Court in the eastern district of Michigan, as first reported yesterday by Fox News. What we all want out of communication networks like Facebook and Twitter and search services such as Google, and usually get at least in any way it actively affects us, is that they neither interfere with nor even worry overmuch about how we are using them. For them to be what we want them to be, they should be as neutral as possible. To the degree they choose not to be neutral, they open themselves up to these sorts of accusations that by providing a means for people to communicate or earn money via ads, they are somehow complicit in the nature of the communications or their real-world harms, if any. This should be a reason for such companies to be as effectively content-neutral as possible, though as the lawsuit itself notes, the entities being sued try not to seem to facilitate terror. Section 230 of 1996's Communications Decency Act has generally been interpreted, correctly, as indemnifying the providers of these communications services from being considered responsible for the content on them. The families' lawyer are arguing, though, that, as Fox puts it: sites like Facebook may be violating the provision with their heavily-guarded algorithms....this lawsuit alleges something much more nefarious behind one of the tech world's most secretive processes. "The defendants create unique content by matching ISIS postings with advertisements based upon information known about the viewer," [lawyer Keith] Altman said. "Furthermore, the defendants finance ISIS's activities by sharing advertising revenue."... While these social platforms have cracked down and deactivated accounts affiliated with terrorist groups in the past, Altman argued that another account will almost immediately pop up and that companies think they're not responsible because they are not ones producing the content. Yes, that is exactly the point, and no one who enjoys using any of those services would want them to have to act otherwise (even if some applaud them when they try to act otherwise in certain cases, even if the services don't, and shouldn't, admit that policing or barring certain content means they are responsible for everything they don't bar). If these companies felt the legal need to behave as if every use of their service is their legal responsibility, nearly everything good about them would be in danger. USA Today reports that this is not the first time this argument has been brought to bear: The lawsuit is the latest to target popular Internet services for making it too easy for the Islamic State to spread its message. In June, the family of a California college student killed in last year's terrorist attacks in Paris sued Facebook, Google and Twitter. Keith Altman, the attorney representing the three families in the Orlando nightclub lawsuit, also represents the family of that student, Nohemi Gonzalez, in the Paris terrorist attacks lawsuit. The services aren't always neutral in allowing their customers to use them, as noted above and in the suit, and according to Reuters: Facebook said on Tuesday there is no place on its service fo[...]



When AT&T Profits Off Government Snooping, Shouldn’t We Be Blaming the Government?

Tue, 25 Oct 2016 12:42:00 -0400

It is easy to forget that Americans had actually been clued in to the likelihood of domestic telecommunication surveillance by the National Security Agency (NSA) long before Edward Snowden's leaks. Snowden helped us understand the massive scope and many particulars about which we were unaware and really put the issue before the public in a way we hadn't seen before. But have we all forgotten Room 641A? That was the room in San Francisco where telecommunications company AT&T set up a system for the NSA to access the company's internet traffic for surveillance. It was exposed by the Electronic Frontier Foundation and a former AT&T technician all the way back in 2006, years before Snowden's leaks. That background is relevant again as The Daily Beast has a story that puts AT&T's cooperation with federal authorities with surveillance in a whole new light. The reason why AT&T has been so helpful to the government in providing data about its customers (or anybody who communicates with their customers) is because it has found a way to monetize it. The Hemisphere Project was first revealed in 2013 by The New York Times. Hemisphere was a database system provided by AT&T to help law enforcement officials access data from any call that passes through their system (which means not just their own customers). This data was then used by the government for drug busts. In order to participate in the program, government agencies were required by the contract to keep the existence of Hemisphere a secret and not reference it in any government document. This was not unlike the contracts we have been seeing from law enforcement agencies using "Stingray" devices used to track mobile phones. It's where we learned about "parallel construction," where law enforcement agencies kept this information they had received from surveillance secret, but used it to create a second chain of evidence that could be introduced in court cases. The Times story from 2013 mentioned that government paid AT&T for access to Hemisphere (and even for AT&T employees to embed with drug-fighting units to assist them), but the Times didn't know the cost. Kenneth Lipp from The Daily Beast provides that information today, along with news that the Hemisphere program was not just for fighting drugs. It's being used to fight all kinds of crime. And while the government can force telecommunications companies like AT&T to provide data about users with a subpoena, it appears AT&T took this all to the next level, turning it all into a program that can be marketed, and more importantly, sold to law enforcement agencies. They found a way to make money off government demands for data. And if you think the prices were modest, you obviously know nothing about government contracts: Sheriff and police departments pay from $100,000 to upward of $1 million a year or more for Hemisphere access. Harris County, Texas, home to Houston, made its inaugural payment to AT&T of $77,924 in 2007, according to a contract reviewed by The Daily Beast. Four years later, the county's Hemisphere bill had increased more than tenfold to $940,000. "Did you see that movie Field of Dreams?" [American Civil Liberties Union tech policy analyst Christopher] Soghoian asked. "It's like that line, 'if you build it, they will come.' Once a company creates a huge surveillance apparatus like this and provides it to law enforcement, they then have to provide it whenever the government asks. They've developed this massive program and of course they're going to sell it to as many people as possible." This reporting hits AT&T at a time when they're trying to plan a merger with Time Warner. There's a thought, one supposes, that this either might or should hurt AT&T's chances there, but given that this program is in full cooperation with the very federal government that has authority to approve or deny the merger, it seems unlikely that whether this particular beha[...]



Airbnb Sues To Defend Itself from City Regulations; Santa Monica Latest Target

Fri, 09 Sep 2016 20:06:00 -0400

Airbnb (along with another company in the same space, Homeaway in a separate suit) sued the city of Santa Monica last week in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles. The company argued that regulations aimed at its service of matching buyers and sellers of short term rentals via website and app violated its 1st, 4th, and 14th Amendment rights. (I reported on the first conviction under those laws against an AirBnb host in Santa Monica in August.) This is the third such suit filed by Airbnb against California cities since June; they've also sued San Francisco and Anaheim. Anaheim faces a similar suit in state court from aggreived short-term rental housing owners. Alison Schumer, a spokeswoman for Airbnb, told the Los Angeles Times that "Santa Monica's clumsily written law punishes hosts who depend on home sharing to make ends meet and travelers looking for low-cost accommodations near the beach. The city is unwilling to make necessary improvements to its draconian law, so while this isn't a step we wanted to take, it's the best way to protect our community of hosts and guests." The challenged laws completely bar rentals of whole apartments for fewer than 30 days, strongly hobbling the business model. It also imposes rules forcing Airbnb hosts to post business licenses to operate on their online listings and pay a 14 percent hotel tax to the city, and holds the website liable for hosts violations. Part of the suit argues that "The ordinance seeks to hold Airbnb liable for content created by third-party users, by punishing Airbnb for listings posted to its platform where those listings do not comply with city law. As such, the ordinance unquestionably treats online platforms such as Airbnb as the publisher or speaker of third-party content and is completely preempted by the [Communications Decency Act] CDA." The San Francisco suit is based on a similar appeal to the CDA. The suit also insists that the Stored Communication Act and the 4th Amendment are violated by Santa Monica, since the law forces "disclosure to the City of certain customer information without any legal process or pre-compliance review." Courthouse News Service reports that: Airbnb already has paid $20,000 in fines [to Santa Monica], KPCC radio reported in late July...In its 22-page lawsuit, Airbnb says it "has paid all of the citations it has received under protest," and says the city should enforce its laws against the hosts who violate them, not Airbnb. The San Francisco-based company says the regulations force it to pay criminal fines without any evidence of intentional wrongdoing. "The city has impermissibly created a strict-liability crime for publishing third-party advertisements for rentals that prove to be unlawful for one reason or another, even if the hosting platform has no knowledge of the violation," the complaint states. It claims the city law and enforcement of it violate constitutional guarantees of due process, and that the city's demand for information about its customers constitutes unconstitutional search and seizure. Both companies seek declaratory judgment that the ordinance is unconstitutional, and an injunction against its enforcement. Consumerist reports on some more aspects of the Santa Monica regulations that harass AirBnb, which by law: must not only collect and remit taxes to the city, they must regularly provide the city with a list of all their properties in Santa Monica, along with the name of the homeowner, the length of each stay, and the price paid for each rental. Violation of the ordinance could result in penalties of up to $500 and six months in prison. Since the city enacted the ordinance, Airbnb says it has received multiple notices from the city demanding the removal of "hundreds" of allegedly unlawful vacation rentals. The Times reports that the Anaheim suit is going to be abandoned by Airbnb since "Anaheim officials reviewed [...]



Court Rules FCC Cannot Overrule State Laws Limiting City-Run Broadband

Thu, 11 Aug 2016 11:30:00 -0400

A federal appeals court panel has ruled this week that the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) overstepped its powers by attempting to subvert and overrule state laws that forbid cities from developing and operating their own broadband networks and competing with private providers. This is a big deal in reining in an FCC that is attempting to intervene more and more in how Americans receive internet access, and it also represents a blow against a potential avenue for porkbarrel federal infrastructure spending in whatever projects the next president hopes to put into place (both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump have each promised hundreds of billions of dollars in more federal spending in these areas). The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals panel ruled unanimously (3-0) that the FCC did not have the authority to bypass state laws that restrict or forbid municipal development and operation of broadband. To be clear, though, this was a very narrow ruling. The court didn't rule that the FCC could never overrule these types of state laws. Rather, the ruling was that there was no federal authorizing legislation that specifically gave the FCC authority to do so. Congress could pass a law that would allow the federal government to preempt the state laws that preempt city involvement in broadband operations. But it hasn't done so, and the FCC's attempts to bend the rules to make it happen anyway were smacked down. FCC chairman Tom Wheeler complained about the outcome and ignored the legal issues that drove it: Wheeler criticized the decision that "appears to halt the promise of jobs, investment and opportunity that community broadband has provided in Tennessee and North Carolina." He said since 2015, "over 50 communities have taken steps to build their own bridges across the digital divide. The efforts of communities wanting better broadband should not be thwarted by the political power of those who, by protecting their monopoly, have failed to deliver acceptable service at an acceptable price." Anybody who thinks that municipal broadband provides "acceptable service at an acceptable price" should read Kevin Glass' Reason piece from 2015 about what disasters and money pits government-operated broadband programs actually are. Far from competing with monopolies, many of them are proposed as revenue generators at the public's expense. Chattanooga, Tennessee's broadband program is typically invoked as a success story (one of the lawsuits in this case involved the city trying to expand its program beyond its territorial boundaries, forbidden by state law). But as Glass noted, the reason the city was able to avoid going into debt building their broadband infrastructure was due to a huge infusion of federal stimulus spending: What goes unmentioned is the cost. Chattanooga didn't build the network cheaply, nor did they even pay for it themselves. No, it took $111 million in federal tax dollars to get the network off the ground. This was doled out to Chattanooga as a part of President Obama's stimulus program. The success that Chattanooga has had in putting federal tax money to work was actually the impetus for the FCC's unilateral, unprecedented overturn of state-level municipal broadband laws; the Chattanooga EPB wants to bring its service beyond the lines of its current authority. We can see the folly in using Chattanooga as a model for how other municipal broadband projects could work. Not every city can use the federal government to extract money from taxpayers in other cities and states to pay for their government broadband projects. The money has to come from somewhere; the feds can't redistribute hundreds of millions to every city in the country, and the cost for these networks in larger cities would be much, much higher. A proposed network in Seattle, for example, has been projected to cost up to $660 million. [...]



How Privatization and Competition Freed the Web and Made the Modern World Possible

Sat, 11 Jun 2016 07:55:00 -0400

How the Internet Became Commercial: Innovation, Privatization, and the Birth of a New Network, by Shane Greenstein, Princeton University Press, 488 pages, $35  In 1991, the internet was one data communications protocol among many competitors. It had taken hold in a collection of research and education institutions serving less than 2 percent of the population. A small, government-funded backbone that tried to exclude all commercial use held its participating networks together. Twenty-five years later, the internet protocol is the lingua franca of the global digital economy. Nearly 4 billion people worldwide depend on it. It is the platform for the business giants of the 21st century—Google, Apple, Facebook, Ali Baba—and the site of monumental battles over regulation and governance. An entire digital ecosystem has grown up around the internet as it evolved from a government-sponsored research community to a commercial economy. Dozens of books, academic papers, and magazine articles describe different aspects of that change. What we've long needed is a comprehensive history that synthesizes all those elements into a single narrative. How the Internet Became Commercial, a new book by the Harvard economist Shane Greenstein, is an imperfect but noteworthy attempt to fill that gap. Greenstein asks: How did economic forces, government policies, and prevailing norms and institutions interact to encourage or discourage the decentralized innovation that we have come to associate with the internet economy? He devotes most of his attention to the economic part of this triad, with institutional analysis coming in a distant third. The narrative begins with the privatization of the National Science Foundation (NSF) backbone—the larger network connecting all the local and regional networks—from 1992 to 1995. This opened up what had been a fairly closed network for education and research institutions to commercial use, and it replaced a single government backbone contractor with multiple competing private connectivity providers. We see the emergence of private internet service providers (ISPs) and an unregulated, decentralized market for interconnection among them. We also see the importance of dial-up Bulletin Board Systems (BBSes) as entrants driving competition in the ISP market. Making the jump from BBS to ISP was relatively easy in terms of the capital investment and expertise required. As demand for internet access grew, what had been a small, localized BBS market for computer nerds exchanging files and messages became a mass market for web access. There is a useful, if stylistically labored, comparison of the early internet boom to the California gold rush. Greenstein is particularly good on the emergence of the World Wide Web and the commercialization of the web browser, including the early browser war between Netscape and Microsoft. Developed in research institutes while internet use was still primarily noncommercial, the web protocols for linking documents and other resources on the network, coupled with the browser's graphical user interface, pushed computer networking into mass adoption from 1992 to 1995. As internet content and applications increased and became richer, Greenstein shows the deepening of capital investment in the telecommunications infrastructure due to user demand for faster upload and download speeds. Dial-up modems went from 2.4 to 56 kilobits per second, and from there to broadband cable modems. Equally important, established firms such as IBM and brick-and-mortar enterprises adapted to the internet, which facilitated organizational efficiencies through more extensive access to relevant information about supply chains, work teams, accounting, and so on. An illuminating chapter is devoted to Google's origins in an NSF-funded research project at Stanford, a[...]



Bill Named After Murdered Girl Fails House Vote. Thank Goodness.

Wed, 25 May 2016 11:25:00 -0400

(image) The Kelsey Smith Act was named after an 18-year-old woman who was abducted from a Target parking lot and killed. For the last four years, Smith's family has been backing a bill to force telecommunications companies to hand over data about the whereabouts of a cellphone at the time of a call to law enforcement in emergency situations. Seems like this sort of thing should sail right though Congress, right? After all, we've got: 

Tragic story about violence done to a young white woman: check!

Grieving family on display at the Capitol: check!

Bill named after the victim: check!

Increased powers that law enforcement has been demanding for years anyway: check!

Then, a surprising twist: The Kelsey Smith Act failed on the floor of the House this week with a vote of 229-158 (it needed two-third of the vote to pass, because it was considered "under suspension of the rules"). Smith's family was in the gallery, as The Huffington Post's Matt Fuller noted yesterday, adding a particularly embarrassing emotional layer to proceedings.

Thank goodness. It was a bad bill and it deserved to be voted down.

If you're thinking that I'm an insensitive jerk right now, congrats: You've been successfully manipulated by lawmakers and law enforcement who want to expand their power under cover of human tragedy. 

People who backed this bill are surely well-intentioned, but here's the thing: The new powers granted to law enforcement in the bill would almost certainly have wound up being used primarily to track down everyday criminals, drug dealers, and, heck, probably people who say mean things about the size of Donald Trump's appendages—not just in rare emergency abduction scenarios. What's more, if the law had already been in place when Kelsey was abducted, it almost certainly would NOT have helped find her before she was killed.

Current law already allows telecom providers to share info with police in emergencies if the user has given permission or if law enforcement clears a few existing bureaucratic and judicial hurdles to prove to the company that an emergency is indeed underway, as the R Street Institute has noted. This bill would have taken a bigger dent out of the Fourth Amendment by removing even those minimal barriers—which are designed to protect users' privacy—and leaving the definition of emergency up to law enforcement, as the ACLU noted earlier this year.

The lawmakers who voted against this bill did the right thing. If there's anyone who should be ashamed about how this played out, it's the guys and gals who trotted out grieving family members to score political points.

Handy rule of thumb: Bills named after victims (or those with cutesy acronyms) should raise red flags; they're more likely than usual to be classic examples of the legislative sub-variant of the "hard cases making bad law" principle. 




President Obama Wants a Back Door on Your Phone. But Not on His.

Sat, 12 Mar 2016 10:30:00 -0500

In yesterday's South by Southwest keynote address, President Obama took a firm stand against strong encryption. Standing before an audience of over two thousand technology enthusiasts, Obama explained why the government needs back door access to all personal communication devices. If it was technologically possible to make an impenetrable device where there’s no door at all, then how do we apprehend the child pornographer? How do we disrupt a terrorist plot? How do we even do a simple thing like tax enforcement? If government can’t get in, then everyone’s walking around with a Swiss bank account in their pocket. There has to be some concession to get into that information somewhere. Obama didn’t specifically discuss Apple’s case with the FBI, though the inference is clear. The president is not content with unlocking the individual phones of suspected criminals. He's asking for specific security protections to be permanently removed from all electronic devices. Because terrorists, child pornographers, and tax dodgers exist, no private citizen should have the right to secure communications. Buried inside the President’s appeals to fear is a principle that’s widely understood by security professionals: A back door for the government is, in practice, indistinguishable from a security flaw that makes communication devices vulnerable for everyone. As Alex Abdo of the ACLU put it, “If the FBI can force Apple to hack into its customers’ devices, then so too can every repressive regime in the rest of the world.” The sentiment was echoed by Edward Snowden, who has called Apple's legal battles with the FBI, "the most important tech case in a decade." In a recent interview with Reason TV, Snowden characterized the issue in stark terms. “It’s a binary choice: Either all of us have security or none of us have security.”  Watch Snowden's extended comments on Apple vs. the FBI below, starting at the 0:53 minute mark. frameborder="0" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/o8pkUTav0mk" height="340" width="560"> In the coming months, Obama’s hypothetical concerns may become a lot less speculative. Apple is widely believed to be making an impenetrable iPhone, possibly for sale within the coming year, which could render recent legal wrangling moot.  Paradoxically, Obama also used his keynote address to encourage citizens to use technology to reclaim American democracy. “We systematically make it harder for our citizens to vote," he said. "It is much easier to order pizza or a trip than it is for you to exercise the single most important task in democracy." In theory, voting online is long overdue. But at the very least, a digital election would seem to require the very kind of secure, encrypted communication that the president wants to abolish. Bonus irony: President Obama still uses a Blackberry because he's not allowed to use the latest technology... for security reasons.[...]



What Cell Phones Reveal About the Failures of Government-Run Telecommunications

Tue, 01 Mar 2016 07:00:00 -0500

A colleague of mine recently alerted me to the following quote from Charles Moore's book Margaret Thatcher: At Her Zenith. As Thatcher's official biographer remembered, "In 1981, the present author bought his first house. It had no telephone and he wished to install one, but was told by [British Telecom] that this would take six months because of a 'shortage of numbers.' The only way to speed this up was for his employer, the editor of The Daily Telegraph, to have a word with the chairman of the company, Sir George Jefferson. The device was installed in ten days. This was a classic example of how a nationalized industry would respond to string-pulling, but not to the ordinary customer's needs."

The British Telecommunications, as it was then known, was notorious for its slow and shabby service, and Lady Thatcher privatized it in 1984. At the time of privatization, Great Britain had 36 fixed telephone lines per 100 people. The United States had 47.

Of course, these are first world problems. Almost all African countries had state-owned and state-run telecommunications monopolies until recently. Some, including Kenya and Zambia, still retain a monopoly on the provision of landline services. No wonder, therefore, that the number of fixed telephone lines in Africa peaked in 2009 at 4 lines per 100 people. In Tanzania, there is just one landline per 100 people. The vast majority of Africans, in other words, never had reliable means of calling a doctor or a loved one.

The rise of the cell phone changed all that. In 2014, 84 percent of Africans had a cell phone. In addition to massively improved communications, cell phones enabled Africans to side-step another problem plaguing people in poor countries—limited banking opportunities (especially in the far-flung rural areas). Users of cell phone services, like Kenya's M-Pesa, can deposit, withdraw and transfer money, and pay for goods and services, without ever having to visit a bank or access a bank account on a computer.

The private sector has also been instrumental to mitigating the negative effects of African governments' failure to provide their people with adequate education and drinking water. For more data on communications and other indicators of human well-being, please visit www.humanprogress.org.

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The FCC Might Have Just Killed Polling as We Know It—and That's OK

Tue, 23 Jun 2015 16:45:00 -0400

Nobody likes getting robo-called. But in an effort to protect Americans from the deluge of unwanted advertising and political recordings they receive, pollsters fear the federal government may have just dealt a fatal blow to the survey research industry as we know it. Per a story from The Des Moines Register: The Federal Communications Commission voted Thursday on a slate of increased restrictions on telemarketers who use robo-calls and auto-dialing. ... Among the new rules, the FCC said phone companies can start providing call-blocking technology to their customers without violating federal laws.  FCC officials have said robo-calls are a top generator of complaints to the agency. Last year, the FCC said it received more than 215,000 complaints about unwanted calls. The move was no surprise. FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler announced in May that new rules were on the way. But what he called "another win for consumers" a number of prominent pollsters saw as "an existential threat," Politico's Steven Shepard reported at the time. FiveThirtyEight's Nate Silver reacted with frustration, writing that "the FCC probably ought to go back to policing 'wardrobe malfunctions' and not making pollsters' jobs any harder." The source of the conflict is the difference between a robo-call and an auto-dial. The first, which anyone who's ever spent time in a swing state during an election year is all too familiar with, simply plays a recorded message when someone answers a call. The second is an integral part of how modern telephone polling works. Via last week's HuffPost Pollster newsletter, auto-dialing happens when "a computer system dials pre-loaded phone numbers and waits until a live-person picks up the phone and says 'hello' before routing the call to a live interviewer." The survey is still administered by a human, but rather than having to manually type in each respondent's phone number, one at a time, then wait while it rings to see whether anyone will even answer, this system makes trying to reach hundreds or thousands of people—fewer than one-in-ten of whom will end up being interviewed—a whole lot more efficient. If the FCC's rule change forces pollsters to hand-dial every single number, it will take significantly more man-hours (and therefore cost significantly more money) to conduct even basic surveys. This will lead to fewer polls overall—and as Silver points out, fewer polls means less information about the population's views on various issues of national importance. Here's the thing: Contrary to the way this vote is being described in the press, the FCC isn't actually imposing new regulations on pollsters. What it's doing is clarifying that telephone service providers are in fact allowed to use robo-call- and auto-dialer-blocking technologies if subscribers ask for them. From an FCC press release: In a package of declaratory rulings, the Commission affirmed consumers’ rights to control the calls they receive. As part of this package, the Commission also made clear that telephone companies face no legal barriers to allowing consumers to choose to use robocall-blocking technology. In other words, the ruling empowers consumers to make use of new "market-based solutions" intended to help them screen out calls—including most (though not all) calls that originate from an auto-dialer if that's what they want. There's no doubt this rule, if people take advantage of it, is bad news for pollsters. But the real problem the industry faces is not government giving people permission to use the commercial products of their choosing. Ultimately, the problem is that people can't be bothered to take polls. Given the option to screen out numb[...]



ISPs Challenge FCC Net Neutrality Rules as “Arbitrary, Capricious, and An Abuse of Discretion"

Tue, 24 Mar 2015 12:06:00 -0400

(image) The Federal Communications Commission’s new Internet rules aren’t even a month old, and they’re already being challenged in court—multiple courts, to be exact. 

A consortium of major Internet service providers, through the USTelecom Association, which includes AT&T and Verizon, formally submitted a legal complaint in the District of Columbia yesterday. The complaint states that the FCC’s recent order, which reclassifies broadband Internet service as a Title II telecommunications service, making it akin to a utility, is “arbitrary, capricious, and an abuse of discretion…” and that it “violates federal law, including, but not limited to, the Consitution, the Communications Act of 1934, as amended, and FCC regulations promulgated thereunder.”

Another suit was filed by a small Texas ISP in a New Orleans court. Both suits were first noted by The Washington Post.

The legal challenges were all but inevitable as soon as the FCC decided to pursue reclassification, which potentially subjects ISPs to much stricter regulatory oversight. The FCC has been nosing around the possibility of reclassification for years, and critics have been warning the entire time that if the agency went that route, a drawn out legal battle would be unavoidable. The FCC made its choice, and now a multi-year, multi-front courtroom saga awaits.

And the thing is, the FCC might lose—again. The agency’s last two attempts to institute net neutrality also wound up in court, and both were eventually thrown out. It’s not all clear that the agency’s rules have more solid legal grounding this time.

Indeed, as Berin Szoka of TechFreedom points out, the FCC’s refusal to formally issue notice of new rules late last year when Chairman Wheeler changed directions and began considering reclassification is a vulnerability. Because of that decision, the rules that the FCC voted on last month were never really debated publicly; the agency had spent a year taking public comments on a different proposal, and then altered its approach at the last minute. That alone makes it legally dicey.

Anyway, this is likely just the first salvo in the Great Telecom Legal War. According to Ars Technica, more lawsuits are expected from trade groups for cable and wireless service companies. This is an all hands on deck fight for the telecom industry, with the majority of the major players taking major steps to fight the FCC’s rules.