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Sinclair’s Lawyer Says Ajit Pai Froze Sinclair Out in All-But-Dead Sinclair-Tribune Merger

After the inspector general of the Federal Communications Commission opened an investigation into FCC Chairman Ajit Pai’s close relationship with executives at Sinclair Broadcasting, Pai stopped returning Sinclair’s phone calls and refused any further meetings with America’s largest local TV station owner, at least until last Tuesday when Pai called Sinclair’s general counsel to say its multi-billion dollar merger with Tribune Media was in trouble.

The revelation Pai effectively froze out Sinclair while under investigation came in an ex parte communication disclosed by FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel’s office late last week.

“I realize that you appear to have been unwilling to discuss this matter for the past several months (and for that reason our counsel and Tribune’s have been reaching out everyone at the FCC but you),” Sinclair general counsel Barry Faber wrote in an email to Ajit Pai the morning after the phone call.

Based on the email, it is clear Mr. Pai personally called Mr. Faber on Tuesday evening to report the FCC planned to refer Sinclair’s buyout of multiple Tribune Media TV stations, including WGN in Chicago, to an independent administrative law judge who would pursue a hearing — a procedure that usually signals the death of a proposed merger or acquisition. The courtesy call was one last consideration to Sinclair by Mr. Pai, giving executives an early warning that would allow them to quietly withdraw the deal as a face-saving measure before the FCC publicly pulled the rug out the next day. The call came as an apparent shock to executives at Sinclair and Tribune, who had repeatedly expressed confidence the transaction would meet approval from the Republican majority at the FCC — one led by Pai, who personally proposed several rule changes that made the Sinclair transaction possible.

Faber told Pai in response the two companies could not agree to withdraw the deal “in the brief period of time provided to us.” Instead, Faber begged Pai to give the companies more time to reassure the FCC and then offered to withdraw the controversial sweetheart sales of TV stations in Chicago, Dallas, and Houston a short time later. The buyers all had long-standing, close ties to the family that founded Sinclair and were suspected of buying the stations to become Sinclair’s silent partners. Pai refused Faber’s request and went public the next morning with the proposal to refer the matter to an administrative hearing. As of today, the deal is still headed for a hearing, but few expect it will survive long enough to begin the process. But the repercussions are likely to last far longer than that.

Faber

While talking to Faber, it is clear Pai also raised the issue of Sinclair’s possible deception in its merger application and its lack of candor about its plan to divest stations in those three cities.

“I understand that if Sinclair has not been completely truthful and forthcoming with regard to these proposed sales, abandoning them would not eliminate such unacceptable behavior. I point out, however, that as we discussed yesterday no evidence exists that Sinclair has mislead the FCC or been anything other than completely candid with respect to our relationships with the proposed buyers and the terms of the transaction,” Faber wrote. “To designate our transaction for hearing based on the possibility that there may be more to the deals than meets the eyes based on the pricing and other terms that have been disclosed, would be extraordinary and unprecedented.”

Deal critics claim Sinclair’s bold effort to barely disguise the sweetheart deals with well-known business associates of Sinclair’s chairman David Smith was extraordinary and unprecedented as well. Several Wall Street and K Street analysts have expressed concern Sinclair was being exceptionally brazen with the FCC, proposing to spin-off stations to known Sinclair associates at fire sale prices, with contract clauses allowing Sinclair to program the stations ‘for the owner’ and also have the right to buy the stations back at their original fire sale price, assuming deregulation of station ownership caps continued moving forward. Sinclair is no stranger to political controversy, generating a full-scale advertiser boycott and Wall Street blowback over mandatory political programming aired on its stations during the 2004 U.S. presidential election. Recently Sinclair’s mandatory editorials and news stories have received even more scrutiny in the media, and have generated a lot of negative press for the Baltimore-based TV station owner.

Pai

Some on Wall Street are reportedly growing tired of Sinclair management’s political agendas getting in the way of potential profits, and this latest high-profile incident is likely to further strengthen that perception. Pai’s announcement that the merger deal smacked of a “lack of candor” and “misrepresentation,” raise questions about the Sinclair’s honesty and character, something that could threaten its ability to keep or renew its stations’ licenses. Long standing FCC rules state a license can be revoked if an owner lies to the Commission or engages in unethical or criminal behavior.

The FCC rarely forgets about egregious bad conduct. In the 1960s, RKO General, a division of General Tire and Rubber Company, falsely testified to the FCC that its television stations, including KHJ Los Angeles, WNAC Boston, and WOR New York did not engage in “reciprocal trade practices” — forcing General Tire’s vendors to buy advertising time on RKO stations if they wanted their contracts with the tire company renewed. In 1969, the FCC had enough evidence to prove RKO officials had lied to the Commission and were brazenly violating FCC rules. In 1975, RKO was once again hauled before the FCC and questioned about allegations General Tire was bribing foreign officials, had a secret slush fund to finance campaign contributions, and misappropriated revenue from overseas operations to cook its books.

Five years later in 1980, the FCC stunned the broadcasting industry by canceling the license of RKO’s Boston station — WNAC, declaring RKO “lacked the requisite character” to hold a FCC license because it openly deceived the FCC by withholding evidence, covered up improper dealings, and maintained a “persistent lack of candor” about its business practices and behavior. The FCC also moved to cancel licenses for KHJ in Los Angeles and WOR in New York. RKO held on for a few more years by appealing the FCC’s decision in various courts. It eventually sold most of its TV stations by the mid-1980s. But by then, FCC administrative law judge Ed Kuhlmann documented even more corruption by RKO, calling the company’s conduct the worst case of dishonesty in FCC history. RKO systematically misled advertisers about station ratings, fraudulently billed clients, destroyed audit reports demanded by the FCC, and filed several false financial statements with the FCC. Kuhlmann wanted RKO out of the broadcasting business for good, ordering RKO to surrender licenses for the two remaining TV stations it still owned in 1987, as well as 12 radio stations.

Sinclair’s critics are likely to invoke RKO General in challenging Sinclair license renewals in the future, noting a similar lack of candor and misrepresentation.

With the Sinclair-Tribune merger deal now swirling in the bowl, shareholders may be the ultimate judge, jury, and executioner, at least at Tribune Media. Sports Fan Coalition and Public Knowledge took the opportunity to remind Tribune’s board of directors it just blew a $3.9 billion deal by allowing Sinclair to manage the transaction with apparent dishonesty and chutzpah:

The FCC has unanimously determined that Sinclair may have “engaged in misrepresentation and/or lack of candor in its applications with the Commission,” in possible violation of the Communications Act and FCC rules. Thus, because Sinclair failed to satisfy its commitments under the merger agreement, Tribune can and should invoke its termination right under the merger agreement. Such termination would not trigger the liquidated damages provisions of the merger agreement.

[…] “Either take immediate action to terminate your agreements for the sale of your company to Sinclair Broadcast Group, or resign as directors of Tribune Media.”

Historical Truths: The Telecom Act of 1996 Sowed the Seeds of a Telecom Oligopoly

How exactly did America get stuck with a broadband monopoly in many areas, a duopoly in most others? It did not happen by accident. In this occasional series, “Historical Truths,” we will take you back to important moments in telecom public and regulatory policy that would later prove to be essential for the creation of today’s anti-competitive, overpriced marketplace for broadband internet service. By understanding the trickery and legislative shell games practiced by lobbyists and their elected partners in Congress, you will learn to recognize when the telecom industry and their friends are preparing to sell you another bill of goods. 

Vice President Al Gore watches President Bill Clinton digitally sign the 1996 Telecom Act into law on February 8, 1996.

By the end of the first term of the Clinton Administration, the president faced a major backlash from Republicans two years into the Gingrich Revolution. A well-funded chorus of voices in the business community, the Democratic Leadership Council — a business-friendly group of moderate Democrats, as well as commentators and pundits had the attention of the Beltway media, complaining in unison that the Democrats shifted too far to the left during the first term of the Clinton Administration, leaving it exposed in the forthcoming presidential election to another voter backlash like the one that installed the Gingrich revolutionaries in the House of Representatives and delivered a Republican takeover of the U.S. Senate in 1994.

With pressure over the growing lack of bipartisanship, and a presidential election ahead in the fall, the Clinton Administration was looking for ideas to prove it could work across the aisle and pass new laws that would deliver for ordinary Americans.

Revamping telecommunications policies would definitely touch every American with a phone line, computer, modem, and a television. Before 1996, America’s telecommunications regulation largely emanated from the Communications Act of 1934, which empowered the Federal Communications Commission to establish good order for the growing number of radio stations, telephone, and wire lines crisscrossing the country.

The 1934 Act’s legacy remains today, at least in part. It created the FCC, firmly established the concept of content regulation on the public airwaves, and established a single body to conduct federal oversight of the nation’s telephone monopoly controlled by AT&T.

Efforts to replace the 1934 Act began well before the Clinton Administration. In the early 1980s, Sen. Bob Packwood (R-Ore.) attempted to push for a legislative breakup of AT&T and a significant reduction in the oversight powers of the FCC. The bill met considerable opposition from AT&T, spending $2 million lobbying against the bill in 1981 and 1982. Alarm companies also heavily opposed the measure, terrified AT&T would enter their market and put them out of business. AT&T preferred a more orderly plan of divestiture being carefully negotiated in a settlement of a 1974 antitrust lawsuit by the Justice Department. A 1982 consent decree broke off AT&T’s control of local telephone lines by establishing seven Regional Bell Operating Companies independent of AT&T (NYNEX, Pacific Telesis, Ameritech, Bell Atlantic, Southwestern Bell Corporation, BellSouth, and US West). AT&T (technically an eighth Baby Bell) kept control of its nationwide long distance network.

Also in the 1980s, the cable television industry gained a much firmer foothold across the country, quickly gaining political power through well-financed lobbyists and close political ties to selected members of Congress (particularly Democrat Tim Wirth, who served in the House and later Senate representing the state of Colorado) that allowed them to push through a major amendment to the 1934 Act in 1984 deregulating the cable industry. The result was an early wave of industry consolidation as family owned cable companies were snapped up by a dozen or so growing operators. These buyouts were largely financed by dramatic rate increases passed on to consumers, resulting in cable bills tripling (or more) in some areas almost immediately. By the end of the 1980s, a major consumer backlash began, creating enormous energy for the eventual passage of the 1992 Cable Act, which re-regulated the industry and allowed the FCC to order immediate rate reductions.

The Progress and Freedom Foundation, with close ties to former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, closed its doors in 2010.

The biggest push for a near-complete revision of the 1934 Act came during the Gingrich Revolution. In 1995, the conservative Progress & Freedom Foundation — a group closely tied to then-Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) floated a trial balloon calling for the elimination of an independent Federal Communications Commission, replaced by a stripped-down Office of Communications that would be run out of the White House and be controlled by the president. A small army of telecom industry-backed scholars also began proposing privatizing the public airwaves by selling off spectrum to companies to be owned as private property. The intense interest in the FCC by the group may have been the result of its veritable “who’s who” of telecom industry backers, including AT&T, BellSouth, Verizon, the National Cable & Telecommunications Association, cable companies like Comcast and Time Warner; cell phone companies like T-Mobile and Sprint; and broadcasters like Clear Channel Communications and Viacom.

The proposal outraged Democrats and liberal groups who called it a corporate-friendly sell-off and giveaway of the public airwaves. Then FCC Chairman Reed Hundt took the proposal very seriously, because at the time Gingrich lieutenant Tom DeLay’s (R-Tex.) secretive Project Relief group had 350 industry lobbyists, including some from BellSouth and Southwestern Bell literally drafting deregulation bills and a regulatory moratorium on behalf of the new Republican majority, coordinating campaign contributions for would-be supporters along the way. The proposal ultimately went nowhere, lost in a sea of the House Republicans’ constantly changing agendas, but did draw attention to the fact a wholesale revision of telecommunications policy would attract healthy campaign contributions from all corners of the industry — broadcasters, cable companies, phone companies, and the emerging wireless industry.

When it became known Congress was once again going to tackle telecommunications regulation, lobbyists immediately descended from their K Street perches in relentless waves, with checks in hand. There were two very important agendas in mind – deregulation, which would remove FCC rate regulation, service oversight, cross-competition prohibitions, and ownership caps, and ironically, protectionism. The cable and satellite companies had become increasingly fearful of the regional Baby Bells, which arrived in Congress in the early 1990s promoting the idea of entering the cable TV business. The cable industry feared phone companies would cross-subsidize the development of Telco TV by charging telephone ratepayers new fees to finance that entry. The cable industry had carefully developed a de facto monopoly over the prior decade of consolidation. Companies learned quickly direct head-to-head competition between two cable operators in the same market was bad for business.

The original premise of the 1996 Telecom Act was that it would eliminate regulations that discouraged competition. Promoters of the legislation asked why there should only be one phone or cable company in each city and why maintain regulations that kept cable and phone companies out of each others’ markets. Fears about market power and allowing domineering cable and phone companies to grow even larger were dismissed on the premise that a wide open marketplace, with regulations in place to protect consumers and competition would avoid creating telecom robber barons.

The checks handed out by industry lobbyists were bi-partisan. Democrats could crow the new rules would finally give consumers a new choice for cable TV or phone service, and help bring the “information superhighway” of the internet to schools, libraries, and other public institutions. Republicans proclaimed it a model example of free market deregulation, promoting competition, consumer choice, and lower prices.

At a high-brow bill signing ceremony held at the Library of Congress, both President Bill Clinton and Vice President Al Gore were on hand to “electronically sign” the bill into law. Both the president and vice-president emphasized the historical significance of the emerging internet, and its ability to connect information-have’s and have-not’s in an emerging digital divide. Missing from the discussion was an exploration of what industry lobbyists and their congressional allies were doing inserting specific language into the 1996 Telecom Act that would later haunt the bill’s legacy.

On hand to celebrate the bi-partisan bill’s signing were Speaker Gingrich, Sen. Larry Pressler (R-S.D.); Sen. Ernest F. Hollings (D-S.C.); Rep. Thomas J. Bliley Jr. (R-Va.); Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.); and Ron Brown, the Secretary of Commerce. Pressler was among the soon-to-be-endangered moderate Republicans, Hollings was a holdout against the gradual wave of Republican takeovers in southern “red states,” and Dingell was a veteran lawmaker with close ties to the broadcasting industry.

Some of the bill’s industry backers were also there, some who would ironically see its signing as directly responsible for the eventual demise of their independent companies. John Hendricks of the Discovery Channel, Glenn Jones of Jones Intercable (acquired by Comcast in 1999), Jean Monty of Northern Telecom (later Nortel), Donald Newhouse of Advance Publications (eventual part owner of Bright House Networks and later Charter Communications), William O’Shea of Reuters Ltd. and Ray Smith of Bell Atlantic (today part of Verizon) were on hand. Also in the audience was Jack Valenti of the Motion Picture Association of America, representing Hollywood Studios.

Among the fatal flaws in the Telecom Act of 1996 were its various ‘competition tests,’ which were open to considerable interpretation and latitude at the FCC. The Republican supporters of the bill argued that the presence of an open and free marketplace would, by itself, induce competition among various entrants. They were generally unconcerned with the question of whether new competition would actually arrive. Their priority was lifting the protective levers of legacy regulation as soon as possible. Many Democrats assumed what appeared to be carefully drafted regulatory language would protect consumers by preventing the FCC from lifting protections too early in the competitive process. But lobbyists consistently outmaneuvered lawmakers, finding ways to insert loopholes and compromise language that introduced inconsistencies that could be dealt with and eliminated either by the FCC or the courts later.

For example, lawmakers insisted on unbundling telecommunications network elements, an arcane way of saying new competitors must be granted access to existing networks to be shared at wholesale rates. In practice, this meant if a phone company entered the internet service provider business, it must also make its network available for other ISPs as well. In some areas, competing local telephone companies also offered landline service over existing telephone lines, paying wholesale connection fees to the incumbent local phone company. As competition emerged, the incumbent company usually petitioned for a lifting of the regulations governing their business, claiming competition had arrived.

The first warning the 1996 Act was going awry came a year after the bill was signed into law. Phone companies started raising rates from $1.50-6 a month on average. AT&T was petitioning to hike rates $7 a month. Someone would have to pay to replace the scrapped subsidy system in a competitive market — subsidies that had been in place at the nation’s phone companies for decades. By charging higher rates for phone service in cities and for pricier long distance calls before the arrival of companies like MCI and Sprint, the phone companies used this revenue to subsidize their Universal Service obligations, keeping rural phone bills low and often below the real cost of providing service. To establish a truly competitive phone business, the subsidies had to be reformed or go, and that meant someone had to cover the difference.

“This game is called ‘shift and shaft,'” Sharon L. Nelson, the chairwoman of the Washington Utilities and Transportation Commission, said in 1997. “You shift the costs to the states and shaft the consumer.”

Sam Brownback (R-Kansas)

Gradually, consumers suddenly discovered their phone bill littered with a host of new charges, including the Subscriber Line Charge and various regulatory recovery fees and universal service cost recovery schemes. Phone companies also boosted rates on their unregulated Class phone features, like call waiting, caller ID, and three-way calling. The proceeds helped make up for the tens of billions in lost subsidies, but the end effect was that phone bills were still rising, despite promises of competitive, cheap phone service.

At a hearing of the Senate Commerce Committee later that year, several angry senators said they would never have voted in favor of the Telecommunications Act of 1996 if they had thought it would lead to higher rates. Sam Brownback, a Kansas Republican, was in the line of fire because of his rural constituents. Rates for those customers are subsidized more heavily than elsewhere because of the cost of extending service to them. Rates were threatening to skyrocket.

“We would be foolish to build up all these expectations about competition without saying to the American people, ‘We’re going to have to raise your phone bill,'” Brownback said.

But the rate hikes were just beginning. By the beginning of the George W. Bush administration, telecom lobbyists brought a thick agenda of action items to Michael Powell’s FCC. Despite promises of competition breaking out everywhere, that simply was not the case. Republicans quickly blamed the remaining regulatory protections still in place in noncompetitive markets for ‘deterring competition.’ But the companies knew the only thing better than deregulation was deregulation without competition.

Consolidation wave

The Republican-dominated FCC quickly began removing many of those protective regulations, claiming they were outdated and unnecessary. The very definition of competition was broadened, allowing the presence of virtually any company offering almost any service good enough to trip the deregulation levers. Later, even open access to networks by competitors was often limited to pre-existing networks, not the future next generation networks. Republicans argued those networks should be managed by their owners and not subject to “unbundling” requirements.

The weakened rules also sparked one of the country’s largest consolidation waves in history. Cable companies bought other cable companies and the Baby Bells gradually started putting themselves back together into what would eventually be AT&T, Verizon, and Qwest/CenturyLink. For good measure, phone companies even snapped up a handful of independent phone companies, most notably General Telephone and Electronics, better known as GTE by Verizon and Southern New England Telephone (SNET) by AT&T.

Prices rising as costs dropping.

The cable industry, under the premise it needed territories of scale to maximize potential ad insertion revenue from selling commercials on cable networks, gradually shrunk from at least a dozen well-known companies to two very large ones – Comcast and Charter, along with a few middle-sized powerhouses like Cox and Altice. Merger and acquisition deals faced little scrutiny during the Bush years of 2002-2009, usually approved with few conditions.

The result has been a rate-raising oligopoly for telecom services. In broadcasting, the consolidation wave started in radio, with entities like Clear Channel buying up hundreds of radio stations (and eventually putting the resulting giant iHeartMedia into bankruptcy) and Sinclair and similar companies acquiring masses of local television outlets. On many, local news and original programming was sacrificed, along with a significant number of employees at each station, in favor of inexpensive music, network or syndicated programming. Some stations that aired local news for 50 years ended that tradition or turned newsgathering over to a co-owned station in the same city.

Although telephone service eventually dropped in price with the advent of Voice over IP service, consumers’ cable TV and internet bills are skyrocketing at levels well in excess of inflation. Last year, the Washington Center for Equitable Growth demonstrated that the current consolidated, anti-competitive telecom marketplace results in rising prices for buyers and falling costs for providers.

Your oligopoly tax.

“In truly competitive markets, a significant part of cost reductions would be passed through to consumers,” the group wrote. “Based on a detailed analysis of profits—primarily EBITDA—we estimate that the resulting overcharges amount to more than $45 per month, or $540 per year, an aggregate of almost $60 billion, or about 25 percent of the total average consumer’s monthly bill.”

That is one expensive bill, paid by subscribers year after year with no relief in sight. Several Republicans are proposing to double down on deregulation even more after eliminating net neutrality, which could cause your internet bill to rise further. Several Republicans want to rewrite the 1996 Telecom Act once again, and lobbyists are already sharing their ideas to further curtail consumer protections, lift ownership caps, and promote additional consolidation.

Exploring the FCC’s Latest Proposal to “Streamline” Rules; And What About That $225 Complaint Fee?

Pai

In an effort to “streamline” procedural rules and paperwork at the Federal Communications Commission, FCC Chairman Ajit Pai is proposing to theoretically weaken the existing informal complaints process, leaving consumers with unresolved complaints only one firm option — paying a $225 filing fee to pursue a formal complaint at the Commission regarding their internet service provider.

“This Order streamlines and consolidates the procedural rules governing formal complaints against common carriers, formal complaints regarding pole attachments, and formal complaints concerning advanced communications services and equipment,” the FCC proposal reads. “We base these rule refinements on 20 years of experience adjudicating formal complaints and conducting mediations. We find that these rule revisions will eliminate inconsistencies among various complaint proceedings, promote a fully developed record in each case, foster disposition of formal complaints in a timely manner, and conserve resources of the parties and the Commission.”

With thousands of informal complaints about the nation’s cable, phone, wireless, and satellite companies arriving at the FCC every week, and millions of comments to process on hot-button topics like net neutrality, the federal agency is trying to distance itself from being a government’s version of the Better Business Bureau. Under the Obama Administration, FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler invited consumers to bring their complaints about internet service providers to the FCC’s attention. In 2015, the FCC launched a Consumer Help Center that, like Pai’s latest proposal, also claimed to “streamline the complaint system.”

FCC’s online Complaint Center

“The first responsibility of the FCC is to represent consumers,” the agency noted in a 2015 blog post. “Facilitating consumer interface with the Commission is a major component of that responsibility.”

Three years ago, the FCC stepped up involvement in the consumer complaints process to keep an eye on the marketplace and its providers — to see whether consumers were being well-served and ferret out companies that were not responsive or “bad actors” in the industry. The best way the FCC determined that was to track and measure consumer complaints.

“The information collected will be smoothly integrated with our policymaking and enforcement processes,” the FCC wrote in 2015. “The result will be better results for consumers and better information for the agency. The insights we gain will help identify trends in consumer issues and enable us to focus Commission time, money, and resources on the issues that matter most.”

The proposed changes supported by Chairman Pai are subtle, but in the regulatory world, a few words can mean a lot — something the New York State Public Service Commission and Charter/Spectrum are debating right now. A single appendix in the 2016 Merger Order approving Charter’s acquisition of Time Warner Cable and the cable company’s interpretation of it led to threats by the PSC to de-certify the multi-billion dollar merger.

Matthew Berry, the FCC’s chief of staff, promptly attacked as “fake news” a partly specious article on the subject published by The Verge (which was substantially modified from the original this afternoon).

But Berry ignores the fact the proposal states up front it amends or changes current rules. Whether the FCC intends to make changes in its day-to-day operations as a result is a separate matter from the rules that govern the FCC’s work. The former can be changed almost at will, the latter cannot.

The section that has sparked controversy this week is: § 1.717 Procedure. It details what happens when the FCC receives an informal complaint from a consumer, either from a web-based complaint form or written complaint:

Current Language:

The Commission will forward informal complaints to the appropriate carrier for investigation. The carrier will, within such time as may be prescribed, advise the Commission in writing, with a copy to the complainant, of its satisfaction of the complaint or of its refusal or inability to do so. Where there are clear indications from the carrier’s report or from other communications with the parties that the complaint has been satisfied, the Commission may, in its discretion, consider a complaint proceeding to be closed, without response to the complainant. In all other cases, the Commission will contact the complainant regarding its review and disposition of the matters raised. If the complainant is not satisfied by the carrier’s response and the Commission’s disposition, it may file a formal complaint in accordance with § 1.721 of this part.

Proposed Language:

The Commission will forward informal complaints to the appropriate carrier for investigation and may set a due date for the carrier to provide a written response to the informal complaint to the Commission, with a copy to the complainant. The response will advise the Commission of the carrier’s satisfaction of the complaint or of its refusal or inability to do so. Where there are clear indications from the carrier’s response or from other communications with the parties that the complaint has been satisfied, the Commission may, in its discretion, consider a complaint proceeding to be closed. In all other cases, the Commission will notify the complainant that if the complainant is not satisfied by the carrier’s response, or if the carrier has failed to submit a response by the due date, the complainant may file a formal complaint in accordance with § 1.721 of this part.

At first glance, these two sections appear nearly identical. The subtle changes relate to defining, in writing, the exact responsibilities of the FCC. Weasel words like “may,” “advise,” “in its discretion,” and “consider” are red flags. When these kinds of words replace black letter words like “will,” the rules are weakened by making them discretionary. In such cases, a decision to pursue a matter is no longer a requirement, it’s an option.

In this case, Mr. Pai is proposing to reduce the FCC’s obligations to oversee an informal consumer complaint from the moment it is received to its ultimate disposition.

Under the current complaint rules, the FCC has collected a lot of information about the nature and resolution of consumer complaints. Let’s say Nancy Smith files a informal complaint against Comcast using the FCC’s online complaint center. Right now, the FCC requires Comcast to respond to Nancy’s complaint within 30 days. Comcast knows that the FCC will be monitoring the complaint and Comcast’s response. If Comcast were to ignore the letter or dismiss it, the FCC will be watching.

Consumers getting squeezed by reduced oversight.

The high complaint rates earned by telecom companies have been fodder for regulators and politicians for years, so most companies refer complaints filed with the FCC to their highest level “executive customer service” personnel empowered to resolve complaints almost anyway they can. If Mrs. Smith is pleased with the response from Comcast, the cable operator knows the FCC sees that as well. Comcast is also sensitive to the fact the FCC might one day act on unresolved issues that generate the most complaints. Over time, statistics gathered by the FCC will reveal the companies least willing to cooperate with their customers and those most motivated to resolve issues. That could count if a company like Comcast sought a merger with another cable company with a lower complaint rate, for example.

Under the proposed informal complaint rules, the FCC’s role is effectively reduced to a complaint letter-forwarder. Nancy Smith’s letter sent to the FCC under the new rules will still be forwarded to Comcast and probably arrive with a 30 day deadline to respond, should the FCC choose to maintain that requirement. In a theoretical response to Mrs. Smith, the FCC can immediately notify her it has forwarded her complain to Comcast and regardless of the provider’s response (assuming Comcast sends one), her only recourse if she remains dissatisfied is to pursue a formal complaint — the one that involves a previously established $225 filing fee and comes with a mass of terms, conditions, and requirements comfortable only for lawyers and lobbyists.

The FCC attempts to explain away the changes in a footnote (emphasis ours):

We also clarify rule 1.717, which addresses informal Section 208 complaints. See 47 CFR § 1.717. In addition to wording revisions that do not alter the substance of the rule, we delete the phrase “and the Commission’s disposition” from the last sentence of that rule because the Commission’s practice is not to dispose of informal complaints on substantive grounds. We also add a rule memorializing MDRD’s staff-assisted mediation process, which enables parties to attempt to resolve their disputes before or after the filing of a formal complaint.”

A “practice” is not a “rule” or “requirement,” however. “Substantive grounds” is also undefined in the footnote and could be subject to interpretation. After all, Mr. Pai has also claimed that repealing net neutrality would have no substantive impact on the internet.

D.C.’s lobbyists routinely make regulatory language change suggestions on behalf of their clients.

Lobbyists are paid handsomely to urge adoption of similar, subtle modifications in regulatory rules and laws because they can establish loopholes large enough to drive a truck through. In virtually every proceeding, comments routinely focus on proposed language changes. This will be the core part of the discussion at the FCC before voting on the rule change proposal as early as tomorrow – July 12, 2018.

In practical terms, the changes are designed to subtly distance the FCC from involvement in consumer disputes with their providers. Oversight is weakened in this proposal, but more importantly, the focus of the FCC’s mandate changes from “the first responsibility of the FCC is to represent consumers” in 2015 to “if the complainant is not satisfied by the carrier’s response, or if the carrier has failed to submit a response by the due date, the complainant may file a formal complaint.” Only then, assuming a consumer successfully navigates a very complicated procedure to file a formal complaint and correctly follow notification requirements, will the FCC be compelled by the rules to stay involved with a complaint from start to finish.

Keep in mind companies that frequently have regulatory business before the FCC have staff attorneys and employees familiar with the FCC’s bureaucracy and rules. A $225 filing fee is an afterthought. For the average consumer, neither is probably true.

The likely result of the change will act as a deterrent for consumers relying on the FCC to help them resolve problems. Providers will also quickly recognize the FCC is no longer as willing to scrutinize customer complaints.

Ranking Member Rep. Frank Pallone, Jr. (D-N.J.) and Ranking Member of the Subcommittee of Communications and Technology Mike Doyle (D-Penn.), who both serve on the House Energy & Commerce Committee, quickly realized the implications of the FCC’s proposed rule changes and fired off a letter to Mr. Pai this week:

We are deeply concerned that the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is poised to adopt a rule that would eliminate the agency’s traditional and important role of helping consumers in the informal complaint process. Too often, consumers wronged by communications companies face unending corporate bureaucracy instead of quick, meaningful resolutions. Historically, FCC staff has reviewed responses to informal complaints and, where merited, urged companies to address any service problems. Creating a rule that directs FCC staff to simply pass consumers’ informal complaints on to the company and then to advise consumers that they file a $225 formal complaint if not satisfied ignores the core mission of the FCC — working in the public interest.

At a time when consumers are highly dissatisfied with their communications companies, this abrupt change in policy troubles us.

After reviewing a lot of regulatory proceedings and comments over the last ten years of Stop the Cap!, it troubles us too.

AT&T Agrees to Pay $5.25 Million to Settle 911 Outages

Phillip Dampier July 2, 2018 AT&T, Consumer News, Public Policy & Gov't, Reuters No Comments

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – AT&T will pay $5.25 million to settle a U.S. investigation after two outages in 2017 prevented about 15,000 callers from making emergency “911” calls, the company and a federal regulator said last week.

The Federal Communications Commission said Thursday AT&T had agreed to make changes to reduce the likelihood and impact of future 911 outages and improve notifying 911 call centers of outages.

AT&T said it has “taken steps to prevent this from happening again.”

The FCC said the 911 service outages were the result of planned network changes implemented by AT&T inadvertently interfering with the company’s routing of 911 calls.

The FCC said the March 2017 outage lasted about five hours, resulting in the failure of 911 calls from some 12,600 unique users, while the May 2017 outage lasted 47 minutes, resulting in 2,600 failed 911 calls.

The FCC said during the March outage the company failed to “quickly, clearly, and fully notify all affected 911 call centers.”

AT&T said it had cooperated with the review and agreed that “providing access to emergency 911 services is critically important.”

Several other carriers agreed to settlements after an April 2014 outage affected 11 million telephone users.

Verizon Communications agreed to a $3.4 million fine after a six-hour 911 outage in April 2014 that affected about 750,000 wireless consumers in nine California counties.

CenturyLink agreed to a $16 million settlement in the April 2014 outage.

The FCC said the outages at the carriers in April 2014 resulted in 6,600 missed 911 calls about domestic violence, assault, motor vehicle accidents, a heart attack, an overdose, and an intruder breaking into a residence.

The April 2014 outage was the result of a preventable software coding error at a call management center in Colorado, the FCC said.

In 2015, T Mobile US agreed to a $17.5 million settlement after two 911 service outages nationwide in August 2014. The separate but related outages lasted approximately three hours and affected almost all of T-Mobile’s then 50 million customers.

Reporting by David Shepardson; Editing by Lisa Shumaker and David Gregorio

Verizon, AT&T, Sprint, and T-Mobile Have Been Selling Your Location to Just About Anyone

Go ahead, enjoy a free trial and locate (within 100 yards) your ex-boyfriend or girlfriend, husband, wife, or friends. This online demo had few security checks to keep unauthorized users out, despite claims consent was required. (Image courtesy of: Krebs on Security)

A company best known for providing phone service to prisoners and monitoring inmate locations has sold access to the whereabouts of almost every powered-on cellphone in the country without verifying a court order, thanks to a lucrative partnership with America’s top four cell phone companies.

The service, provided by Securus, has proved a handy tool for law enforcement agencies nationwide, allowing one former sheriff of Mississippi County, Mo., to track the whereabouts of a judge and members of the State Highway Patrol, all without their consent.

The New York Times reported in May that despite repeated assurances from cell phone companies that location data sold to third parties would not include personally identifiable information, it now appears in fact, it often does, and not just information about a particular company’s own customers.

Securus’ location service has been available since at least 2013, although some claim the service has been active for much longer than that, and after recent attention from Congress, Verizon, AT&T, and Sprint have announced they will suspend the sale of location data to most third parties as soon as contract termination notices can be sent.

The industry’s commitments to customer privacy appear to be tissue thin, based on the confidential contracts companies like Verizon and AT&T sign with third-party data aggregators, who in turn resell each provider’s location service to an even broader range of companies. Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) called the contracts “the legal equivalent of a pinky promise” in a letter sent to the Federal Communications Commission.

Verizon, T-Mobile, AT&T, and Sprint all have contracts with two of the country’s largest resellers of location data – LocationSmart and Zumigo. The contracts allow the two firms to pull cellphone users’ locations in real time and sell that information to other companies, including Securus. The contracts claim to need users’ consent before their location information can be revealed, which is either done in an app directly requesting location data or in a thicket of fine print terms and conditions most consumers never read. There is scant evidence cell phone companies independently audit consent records, which means a company or app author could claim blanket consent.

Securus never had a contact with many of the people it tracked — often those suspected of a crime or law enforcement officers. Securus operates its service under provisions permitting law enforcement to access location data without the consent of those being tracked, as long as the law enforcement agency attests to the legality of its request. Laws requiring court orders to track cellphone users vary considerably in different states. Some require a judge’s signature on a court order, others demand a notarized statement from a law enforcement official, while others require no independent review at all.

Cell phone companies may have a loophole to escape legal culpability for revealing private personal location information to unauthorized third parties. Privacy laws have never offered strong privacy protections to consumers for telecommunications services. In March 2017, the Republican majority in Congress stripped what privacy protections did exist during the Obama Administration in a mostly party-line vote condemned by Democrats. After the rules were repealed, mobile providers can track and share people’s browsing and app activity without permission. Several Democrats warned the move would lead to an eventual scandal when providers were caught collecting and selling sensitive personal information without customer consent.

As long as they are following their own voluntary privacy policies, carriers “are largely free to do what they want with the information they obtain, including location information, as long as it’s unrelated to a phone call,” Albert Gidari, the consulting director of privacy at the Stanford Center for Internet and Society and a former technology and telecommunications lawyer told the New York Times. If a cellphone is powered on, constantly updated location information accurate within a few hundred feet is available for sale.

Because cell phone companies work with third-party aggregators, they can claim any privacy violations could be the result of unauthorized or inappropriate use of their location tools. But finding which company ultimately violated a consumers’ privacy requires investigative work because services like LocationSmart also sell services to other aggregators, who in turn sell services to a myriad of companies. That is what appears to have happened with Securus, who accessed location services through a mobile marketing company called 3Cinteractive, which in turn has a contract with LocationSmart. That means a provider can claim at least three layers of possible third-party liability, because requests moved through several hands:

Example: Law enforcement agency request -> Securus -> 3Cinteractive -> LocationSmart -> Verizon

Although law enforcement agencies are supposed to upload legal documents proving informed consent laws do not apply to a particular request, it appears the validity of those documents was not independently verified.

“Securus is neither a judge nor a district attorney, and the responsibility of ensuring the legal adequacy of supporting documentation lies with our law enforcement customers and their counsel,” a Securus spokesman said in a statement. Securus offers services only to law enforcement and corrections facilities, and not all officials at a given location have access to the system, the spokesman added.

But those that did could abuse the system with few consequences. In fact, a security hole left open for a year by LocationSmart appears to have let almost anyone use the service to find friends, family, or anyone else, thanks to a helpful free demo for prospective clients revealed by Robert Xiao, a security researcher at Carnegie Mellon University:

LocationSmart’s demo is a free service (Editor’s Note: the demo has since been locked down) that allows anyone to see the approximate location of their own mobile phone, just by entering their name, email address and phone number into a form on the site. LocationSmart then texts the phone number supplied by the user and requests permission to ping that device’s nearest cellular network tower.

Once that consent is obtained, LocationSmart texts the subscriber their approximate longitude and latitude, plotting the coordinates on a Google Street View map. [It also potentially collects and stores a great deal of technical data about your mobile device. For example, according to their privacy policy that information “may include, but is not limited to, device latitude/longitude, accuracy, heading, speed, and altitude, cell tower, Wi-Fi access point, or IP address information”].

But according to Xiao, a PhD candidate at CMU’s Human-Computer Interaction Institute, this same service failed to perform basic checks to prevent anonymous and unauthorized queries. Translation: Anyone with a modicum of knowledge about how Web sites work could abuse the LocationSmart demo site to figure out how to conduct mobile number location lookups at will, all without ever having to supply a password or other credentials.

“I stumbled upon this almost by accident, and it wasn’t terribly hard to do,” Xiao said. “This is something anyone could discover with minimal effort. And the gist of it is I can track most peoples’ cell phone without their consent.”

Obtaining customer consent to share location details appears to not always be a priority of the location data resellers. For them, a lucrative business depends on easy access to location information that can be sold for targeted marketing campaigns (such as texting a coupon offer when entering a store or sending a special offer if you appear to be visiting a competitor’s store), tracking packages, service calls, or deliveries (such as tracking the cable repair technician, the location of your pizza, or where the parcel service driver is with a package you ordered), or allowing your bank to flag a suspicious credit card transaction when they discover your cellphone is nowhere near the store where the purchase just occurred.

Wyden

The personal risks of unauthorized access are too numerous to count, starting with former boyfriends or girlfriends cyberstalking one’s live location, criminals tracking a target, and law enforcement officials violating your rights.

The revelations in the New York Times, published on May 10, have attracted the sudden attention from America’s largest cell phone companies this week because of Sen. Wyden’s letter informing them they are under scrutiny. No cell phone company wants to endure the media spotlight Facebook has been under since revelations it exposed the personal data of as many as 87 million users without their consent. The carriers, except for T-Mobile, have announced a lock-down.

Verizon: Verizon Communications pledged to stop selling individual customer locations to data brokers, and will wind down contracts with LocationSmart and Zumigo, a competing data aggregator. “We will not enter into new location aggregation arrangements unless and until we are comfortable that we can adequately protect our customers’ location data,” Verizon privacy chief Karen Zacharia wrote in a June 15 letter to Wyden. Verizon did not explain why it took at least two years for the lock-down to begin.

AT&T: Said it “will be ending our work with aggregators for these services as soon as practical in a way that preserves important, potential lifesaving services like emergency roadside assistance.”

Sprint: “Suspended all services with LocationSmart” last month and “is beginning the process of terminating its current contracts with data aggregators to whom we provide location data.” A spokeswoman said that effort “will take some time in order to unwind services to consumers, such as roadside assistance and fraud prevention services.”

T-Mobile: Stopped short of terminating agreements, T-Mobile executives told Wyden it “started one of our periodic reviews several months ago and selected a third-party to assess this program.”

Securus: Securus spokesman Mark Southland said in a statement that the company adheres to its contract, adding that cutting off law enforcement access to location tools “will hurt public safety and put Americans at risk.”

Read the full letters from America’s top-four mobile companies:

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