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Democrat Tries an End Run Around GOP’s Revocation of Internet Privacy Rules

Phillip Dampier April 19, 2017 Consumer News, Public Policy & Gov't No Comments


If the Federal Communications Commission can’t or won’t guarantee internet privacy and data security oversight, one Senate Democrat has proposed transferring authority to regulate ISPs and establish data security standards to the Federal Trade Commission.

Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) last week alerted the media of his forthcoming bill: “The Managing Your Data Against Telecom Abuses (MY DATA) Act,” which he says will address corporate concerns over two different regulatory standards by giving the FTC oversight powers over ISPs as well as internet companies like Google, Yahoo, and others.

The bill, not yet available for review, contains language giving the FTC important rulemaking authority, something it generally lacked without specific congressional approval on a case-by-case basis. With such power, the FTC could set and enforce the rules and fine companies that break them.

The FTC has sought jurisdiction over broadband providers for years, something that has generally been left to the FCC to manage. But since the arrival of FCC chairman Ajit Pai, who has been stripping consumer protection policies and ending oversight, the FTC’s case has suddenly gotten much stronger, and more appealing to some members of Congress in both parties.

What has given the matter some urgency was Congress and President Trump’s decision to rescind FCC rules requiring ISPs to get customer consent before collecting and selling their personal information to third parties. ISPs welcomed that decision but consumers largely did not. For Blumenthal’s bill to have any chance of passage, he will need Republican co-sponsors. It is more likely Republicans will shepherd whatever final bill finally emerges from committee, if any.

If such legislation fails to win passage, expect states to begin enforcing their own privacy laws. Wisconsin and Minnesota have already enacted their own internet privacy protection laws. New York is considering one as well.

Swamp Filling: AT&T Among Special Interests Donating $106 Million for Trump Inauguration

Phillip Dampier April 19, 2017 AT&T, Public Policy & Gov't No Comments

So much for the “small-dollar donors” President Donald Trump touted as his biggest financial supporters. A new campaign finance report released today shows about three dozen billionaires and corporations bankrolled almost half the inauguration expenses of the president, doubling what President Obama collected for each of his two inaugurations.

Despite a campaign that promised to “drain the swamp” of corporate influence and special interests in Washington, Trump’s team accepted checks valued in the millions from individuals and companies with matters before regulators or Congress. The Wall Street Journal reports they include billionaire casino owner Sheldon Adelson, who gave $5 million; hedge-fund executive Robert Mercer, who gave $1 million; Marlene Ricketts, a member of the family that owns the Chicago Cubs, who gave $1 million; and Robert Kraft, owner of the New England Patriots, who gave $1 million.

While the Republican National Committee was concerned enough about a $250,000 contribution from Russian-American businessman Alexander Shustorovich to return it, President Trump had no reservations accepting a $1 million check from Shustorovich, who has close ties to the Putin government and various state-owned companies. Shustorovich raised alarms with national security officials who rejected some of his U.S. business deals in the past on national-security grounds.

Trump also accepted huge contributions from corporations with dealings in Washington and his Administration. Chief among the top donors was AT&T, along with Pfizer, Boeing, and Qualcomm, that all donated $1 million each. Boeing’s check arrived about a month after Trump tweet-slammed Boeing for the “out of control” cost of the new 747 Air Force One. Trump has been silent about Boeing since the check arrived. AT&T’s check may also prove a good investment if Trump abandons his commitment to oppose the AT&T-Time Warner, Inc., merger now before regulators.

The Journal reports Trump’s extravagant corporate donor list threatens to undercut the president’s message that he isn’t beholden to anyone — special interests or wealthy donors. In contrast, President Obama banned corporate funding of his 2009 inauguration. The newspaper adds, in some cases, the donations arrived days after the president selected executives at those companies to serve in his administration.

Netherlands, Luxembourg and Belgium Now Tops in European Broadband Connectivity Index

Denmark, Finland, Sweden and the Netherlands have the most advanced digital economies in the EU followed by Luxembourg, Belgium, the UK and Ireland, while Romania, Bulgaria, Greece and Italy are at the bottom of the latest European Digital Economy and Society Index (DESI).

DESI is a composite index that summarizes how well European states are performing in the 21st century digital/knowledge economy and how well they are evolving in digital competitiveness. The index helps countries track the likelihood of their success in the global market, and gives countries relative goals they should achieve to be ready to compete with North America and Asia.

In 2016, every EU Member State improved on the DESI, with Slovakia and Slovenia turning it the biggest growth. However, growth was so slight in Portugal, Latvia, and Germany it appeared almost static.

In general, the best scoring nations also scored highly in all the categories measured in the DESI: Connectivity, Human Capital/Digital Skills, Citizen Use of the Internet, Business Digital Technology Integration, and Digital Public Services.

In terms of internet connectivity scores which track broadband deployment and quality, the Netherlands scored highest in 2016 followed by Luxembourg and Belgium. The weakest EU performers were Croatia, Bulgaria, and Poland. Europe has made better inroads in guaranteeing access to broadband, with 98% of Europeans able to access at least one provider. About 76% of Europeans can today choose high-speed broadband at speeds of at least 30Mbps.

Wireless 4G mobile networks cover on average 84% of the EU’s population (measured as the average of each mobile telecom operator’s coverage within each country). At least 74% of European homes subscribe to wired broadband, and over one-third of these connections are high-speed. The number of high-speed connections went up by 74% in two years.

Having a skilled population comfortable with the digital economy and knowledgeable enough to navigate it are also important for commerce, education, and employment. Denmark, Luxembourg, Finland, Sweden, and the Netherlands scored the highest in 2016, while Romania, Bulgaria, Greece and Italy got the lowest scores.

Europeans still do not spend as much time on the internet as their American and Asian counterparts. Last year, 79% of Europeans went online at least once a week, up 3 points compared to 2015. But 44% of Europeans still lack basic digital skills. The most popular online activity in Europe is reading news online (70%), followed by online shopping (66%), social media (63%), and online banking (59%).

Frontier Bills Stoke Controversy Between Mille Lacs County Residents and Ojibwe Native Americans

Phillip Dampier April 19, 2017 Consumer News, Frontier, Public Policy & Gov't No Comments

A suspicious line item labeled “Mille Lacs Indian Res Tel Lcl Sales Tax” amounting to $0.21 that appeared on the Wahkon City Council’s latest Frontier phone bill was all it took to become a significant topic at the April 10 city council meeting.

City officials and some residents in and around the Mille Lacs County, Minn. were concerned Frontier appeared to be taxing their phone bills and giving the proceeds to a Native American tribe’s nearby reservation that surrounds the southern part of Mille Lacs Lake.

“I can appreciate that some citizens are concerned about what they’re paying. We don’t know anything, it might be a mistake,” said county administrator Pat Oman. “The county is certainly taking this seriously and wants an answer.”

Reviewing prior bills, city clerk Karrie Roeschlein told the council the “new tax” replaced one previously labeled as “Wahkon Telecom Local Sales Tax.” That tax presumably covered the county’s new 0.5% “transit sales and use tax” which took effect Jan. 1, 2017, but nobody, including Frontier Communications, appears to know for sure.

The Minnesota Department of Revenue has no idea what Frontier is doing either, telling the Mille Lacs Messenger, “the wording provided from the billing statement (Mille Lacs Indian Res Tel Lcl Sales Tax) does not correspond to any state or local tax administered by the department.”

County officials and residents are opposed to any part of their Frontier bill being paid to the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe, which maintain the Mille Lacs Indian Reservation. The county paid the $0.21, under protest.

The conflict may lie with Frontier’s billing department, not the Band, however. In a written statement to the newspaper, Band officials made it clear they are not imposing any tax or collecting any revenue received from it. The money stops at Frontier’s bank account:

“The Band is not imposing additional sales tax, or any tax for that matter, on Frontier Communications’ customer accounts, nor is the Band receiving sales tax revenue related to those activities. The recent reporting of an assessment by the Band is the result of an internal bill coding issue by Frontier Communications. We understand the company is taking the appropriate steps to rectify the situation. The Band is not aware of any changes to the rules regarding sales taxes on fee or trust lands.”

Unfortunately for both sides, Frontier could not quickly determine exactly what was behind the “new tax” appearing on Frontier customers’ phone bills, but the county’s attorney, Joe Walsh, received an informal answer from Frontier claiming it was probably a mistake.

“Frontier believes this is a mis-coding caused by a third-party service provider called Core Logic,” Walsh told the newspaper. “At this time, it appears that this may have been a simple mistake of nomenclature – a misnamed tax. If that changes and there is any indication that your tax dollars are being distributed to the Mille Lacs Band, that will be taken very seriously and an appropriate joint response will be formulated.”

Where Will the Money Go? Free TV Stations Earn $ Bonanza from Auction

Two N.J. public-television stations will collect more than $330 million to turn off their transmitters.

At a time when the Trump Administration is signaling its interest in eliminating the small amount of funding still available to public broadcasting in the United States, the recent FCC Spectrum Auction brought some public stations much-needed revenue to complete station or facility upgrades and help underwrite the cost of locally produced programming. But some TV station owners will pocket tens of millions of dollars from auction proceeds earned from a license that was supposed to include a commitment to serve in the public interest.

Current – News for People in Public Media has tracked the station changes that will come to public-television stations as a result of the spectrum auction. In most cases, the public-TV stations that sold their channel position will not disappear entirely. Many will “merge into other station’s spectrum” — which means in plain English they will share space with another local station.

It won’t be a total loss for public-television in most of these cities. Many are served by “repeater” stations that essentially rebroadcast programming from another nearby station. In larger cities, multiple public-TV stations are not uncommon and losing one might not have a big impact, especially if remaining stations pick up some of the programming that will go missing when the affected station signs off. But in some states, the loss of free over the air TV stations could exacerbate the growing problem of maintaining quality coverage of local news and events.

For cord-cutters, local free television remains an essential part of the kind of TV package consumers used to pay the cable or satellite company to receive. Local stations still deliver an important public service to the community through news and public affairs programming, but that responsibility is increasingly taking a back seat to profits.

The state of New Jersey is served by two media markets – one in New York City, the other Philadelphia, neither in New Jersey.

For some states, the challenge to deliver locally focused programming in areas dominated by media markets in adjacent states has been a problem for decades. No state has faced this challenge more than New Jersey, divided in half and served by two out-of-state media Designated Market Areas (DMAs). The northern half of New Jersey is part of the New York City TV market and the southern half is part of the Philadelphia DMA. As a result, local stories about events inside New Jersey can get lost in favor of stories centered on New York or Philadelphia, even more so during today’s era of media consolidation and cutbacks in newsroom budgets.

A Free Press project is trying to address that problem by encouraging New Jersey state officials to create a public trust fund from part of the hundreds of millions earned by the state’s stations from the spectrum auction to support community-driven projects, responsive local journalism, serious investigative reporting, civic technology and essential public media outlets. The campaign seeks to remind state and local officials that the airwaves still belong to the public, and the stations collecting large sums from the auction agreed to serve their communities in return for obtaining that license to broadcast. Simply putting auction proceeds into their pockets isn’t serving the public interest.

“It’s only right that money from the sale of the state’s 20th-century media outlets be used to create a new, forward-thinking media landscape for this century that focuses on local communities and is attuned to residents’ needs,” said Mike Rispoli, Free Press Action Fund journalism campaign director and director of the News Voices: New Jersey project. “When local stations go off the air, news coverage disappears. That means people are less informed, civic participation drops and political corruption increases. Spectrum revenues must be used to support those who rely on locally produced news and information to engage with their neighbors, learn about volunteer opportunities, make decisions about voting, run for public office, get information about small businesses and support their children in local schools.”

Just two New Jersey public-television stations WNJN and WNJT together collected more than $330 million in auction revenues — two of the largest individual payouts of any noncommercial stations. Now both stations plan to go off the air. Where exactly will that money be going?

The News Voices: New Jersey project wants some of it spent on making sure New Jersey residents have a New Jersey-focused news media, particularly in a state where political scandals have not been uncommon.

“Some ideas we’ve heard from journalists and community members on how to use these public proceeds include support for locally focused digital news startups; apps and tools to help people sift through public data and expedite Freedom of Information Act requests; robust community-engagement projects designed to lift up voices long ignored by newsrooms, in communities of color, immigrant communities, and other underserved areas; and media-literacy programs to identify and combat the spread of fake news and disinformation,” Rispoli said.

The group is asking interested members of the public to sign up for the project and help advocate for stronger newsrooms and communities. A similar effort is also getting underway in North Carolina.

As of today, here is an update on what is happening with the public-TV stations affected by the FCC Spectrum Auction.

Station affected City State Licensee Effect on broadcast signal Total proceeds Proceeds for pubcaster Date announced
WSBN Tri-Cities TN Blue Ridge Public Television, Inc. Unknown 597,793 597,793 4/13/17
WXEL West Palm Beach-Ft. Pierce FL South Florida PBS, Inc. Merge into other station spectrum 4,696,299 4,696,299 4/13/17
WMSY Tri-Cities TN Blue Ridge Public Television, Inc. Unknown 5,243,122 5,243,122 4/13/17
WJSP Columbus GA Georgia Public Telecommunications Commission Move to Low-VHF 7,267,147 7,267,147 4/13/17
WPBO Charleston-Huntington WV Ohio State University Go off-air 8,822,670 8,822,670 2/10/17
WQED Pittsburgh PA WQED Multimedia Move to Low-VHF 9,853,782 9,853,782 2/9/17
WNGH Chattanooga TN Georgia Public Telecommunications Commission Move to Low-VHF 11,949,966 11,949,966 2/8/17
WCMZ Flint MI Central Michigan University Go off-air 14,163,505 14,163,505 3/30/17
WOUC Columbus OH Ohio University Move to Low-VHF 18,412,349 18,412,349 3/30/17
WUSF Tampa-St Petersburg-Sarasota FL University of South Florida Go off-air 18,754,503 18,754,503 4/13/17
WEDY Hartford-New Haven CT Connecticut Public Broadcasting, Inc. Merge into other station spectrum 18,900,229 18,900,229 4/13/17
K35DG-D San Diego CA Regents of the University of California Unknown 24,020,383 24,020,383 3/3/17
WITF Harrisburg PA WITF Inc. Channel-share 50,109,234 25,054,617 2/8/17
WVIA Pittston PA Northeastern Pennsylvania Educational Tel.A’ssn Channel-share 51,934,668 25,900,000 2/17/17
WRET Greenville-Spartanburg SC South Carolina Educational TV Commission Merge into other station spectrum 43,162,610 43,162,610 4/13/17
KOCE Los Angeles CA KOCE-TV Foundation Channel-share 138,003,711 49,000,000 4/13/17
WVTA Burlington VT Vermont ETV, Inc. Go off-air 56,648,952 56,648,952 4/13/17
WGBY Springfield-Holyoke MA WGBH Educational Foundation Move to High-VHF 57,043,939 57,043,939 4/13/17
WNVT Washington DC Commonwealth Public Broadcasting Corp. Go off-air 57,154,459 57,154,459 4/13/17
KLCS Los Angeles CA Los Angeles Unified School District Channel-share (with KCET) 130,510,880 62,000,000 4/13/17
KCET Los Angeles CA KCETLink Channel-share (with KLCS) N/A 62,000,000 4/13/17
KRCB Rohnert Park CA Rural California Broadcasting Corp. Move to Low-VHF 71,979,802 71,979,802 4/13/17
WLVT Philadelphia PA Lehigh Valley Public Telecommunications Corp. Channel-share 121,752,169 82,000,000 4/13/17
WMVT Milwaukee WI Milwaukee Area Technical College District Board Merge into other station spectrum 84,931,314 84,931,314 4/13/17
WSBE Providence RI Rhode Island PBS Foundation Move to Low-VHF 94,480,615 94,480,615 4/13/17
KQEH San Francisco-Oakland-San Jose CA KQED Inc. Go off-air 95,459,109 95,459,109 2/13/17
WNVC Washington DC Commonwealth Public Broadcasting Corp. Go off-air 124,801,961 124,801,961 2/27/17
WYBE Philadelphia PA Independence Public Media of Philadelphia, Inc. Go off-air 131,578,104 131,578,104 4/13/17
WNJT Philadelphia PA New Jersey Public Broadcasting Authority Merge into other station spectrum (WNJS) 138,059,363 138,059,363 2/9/17
KVCR San Bernardino CA San Bernardino Community College District Move to Low-VHF 157,113,171 157,113,171 4/13/17
WGBH Boston MA WGBH Educational Foundation Move to Low-VHF 161,723,929 161,723,929 4/13/17
WNJN New York NY New Jersey Public Broadcasting Authority Merge into other station spectrum (WNJB) 193,892,273 193,892,273 4/13/17
WHUT Washington DC Howard University Withdrew from auction N/A N/A 4/13/17
WYCC Chicago IL Board of Trustees of Community College District #508, Cook County Unknown 15,959,957 Unknown 4/13/17
KMTP San Francisco-Oakland-San Jose CA Minority Television Project Inc. Unknown 87,824,258 Unknown 2/16/17

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