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FCC Preparing to Redefine Text Messaging as an Information Service in Gift to Telecom Industry

Pai

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai is leading the charge to define text messaging (SMS, MMS) as an “information service,” allowing phone companies a clear right to censor or block messages they do not like.

On Tuesday, Pai proposed a Declaratory Ruling that would deny a petition from consumer group Public Knowledge asking the FCC to once and for all affirm text messaging as a telecommunications service. The request goes all the way back to a 2007 dispute between NARAL — a reproductive rights group and Verizon Wireless. The wireless carrier blocked a text message campaign from NARAL, claiming it had the right to block “controversial or unsavory” text messages. It was the only wireless company to reject NARAL’s text-message program, which invited consumers to sign up for alerts and other information.

Legal experts told the New York Times private companies like Verizon probably had the legal right to decide which messages to carry, because text messaging was never defined as a “common carrier” service. Verizon Wireless at the time insisted it did not accept text messaging programs from any group “that seeks to promote an agenda or distribute content that, in its discretion, may be seen as controversial or unsavory to any of our users.”

Verizon claimed it was neutral on the subject of abortion, but the topic itself was forbidden to be discussed or raised in text messaging campaigns directed to customers.

That 2007 claim irritated then-NARAL president Nancy Keenan, who claimed Verizon was interfering with free speech and activism.

“No company should be allowed to censor the message we want to send to people who have asked us to send it to them,” Ms. Keenan told the newspaper in 2007. “Regardless of people’s political views, Verizon customers should decide what action to take on their phones. Why does Verizon get to make that choice for them?”

Pai says giving companies like Verizon the permanent right to manage the kinds of text messages allowed on their networks is a good way to stop texting spam.

“The spam rate for text messages is estimated at 2.8%, compared to a rate of over 50% for email. That’s not by accident,” Pai claimed. “Today’s wireless messaging providers apply filtering to prevent large volumes of unwanted messages from ever reaching your phone.”

Pai claimed that the effort underway to classify text messaging as a telecommunications service was anti-consumer and would open customers up to a lot more unwanted messages.

“This may not seem like a big deal, but such a classification would dramatically curb the ability of wireless providers to use robotext-blocking, anti-spoofing, and other anti-spam features,” Pai said in a blog post on Medium.

Feld

“It wouldn’t be the holiday season without Chairman Pai giving a great big gift basket to corporate special interests at the expense of American consumers,” said Harold Feld, senior vice president at Public Knowledge. “Chairman Pai proposes to grant the wireless industry’s request to classify text messages as Title I ‘information services,’ stripping away vital consumer protections. Worse, Chairman Pai’s action would give carriers unlimited freedom to censor any speech they consider ‘controversial,’ as Verizon did in 2007 when it blocked NARAL and prompted the Public Knowledge 2007 Petition.”

Feld claims Pai is only telling half the story.

“As the FCC made clear in 2016 (over then-Commissioner Pai’s dissent), text messages and robocalls are both ‘calls’ under the anti-robocall statute, and this Title II designation does not prevent filtering or other technological means to block unwanted robocalls or spam texts,” Feld said. “Indeed, Chairman Pai undermines his own argument by pointing out that email, which has always been an information service, has a 50 percent spam rate whereas text messaging, which the FCC treats as a ‘phone call,’ has a 2.5 percent spam rate.”

The FCC plans to vote on the matter, and is likely to adopt Pai’s proposal, at a meeting on Dec. 12.

Former FCC Chairman Wheeler Gratified by Election Results; Urges Hearings on Net Neutrality

Phillip Dampier November 13, 2018 Net Neutrality, Public Policy & Gov't 1 Comment

Wheeler

Three developments — two in the courts and another at the ballot box — have encouraged former FCC Chairman Thomas Wheeler to believe net neutrality can be restored, but only if a new Democratic majority in the House of Representatives reignites public attention on the issue and a D.C. court finds the current FCC acted recklessly in repealing the rules.

Wheeler, a visiting fellow of Governance Studies at the Brookings Institute’s Center for Technology Innovation, argues the last chapter of net neutrality has yet to be written:

The FCC’s Authority to Govern Internet Traffic Upheld by U.S. Supreme Court

On November 5, the Supreme Court declined to review the decision of the D.C. Circuit Court that twice upheld the 2015 Open Internet Rule. The industry groups that had long opposed non-discriminatory access to broadband networks had previously stopped such regulation at the D.C. Circuit. When they attempted the same thing with regard to the 2015 decision of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), a three-judge panel ruled the FCC’s favor. The industry then appealed the panel’s decision to the entire D.C. Circuit and lost again. The industry then appealed that loss to the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court voted 4-3 (with Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Kavanaugh abstaining) to deny a writ of certiorari for the appeal. As a result, the lower court’s decision upholding the 2015 Open Internet Rule stands.

In order to overcome earlier court rulings that found the FCC lacked the authority to regulate broadband services, Wheeler redefined broadband as a telecommunications service, subject to stronger regulatory authority under Title II of the Communications Act. Under “common carrier” provisions, internet service providers could not engage in traffic discrimination. The industry disagreed with Wheeler’s reclassification and sued. Because the Supreme Court refused to hear their appeal, the D.C. District Court ruling in favor of the FCC stands.

Trump’s FCC Becomes a Partner of Big Telecom

The Trump Administration appointed a Republican majority to the FCC that wiped away or repealed most of the accomplishments of the FCC under Chairman Wheeler, including net neutrality.

Pai

“In 2017, the Trump FCC repealed the Open Internet Rule at the request of the network companies. In the process, the FCC also ruled that the agency had only minimal authority over internet networks,” Wheeler wrote. “Except for toothless transparency requirements, the Commission would exercise no oversight over broadband internet access services. Not only did the agency created by Congress to oversee the nation’s networks walk away from that responsibility, but it also joined with the plaintiffs in asking the Supreme Court to overrule the D.C. Circuit’s 2015 decision. When the High Court denied that request, it breathed new life into the 2015 Open Internet Rule.”

Wheeler was gratified by the news that Democrats have retaken the House, noting that presumptive Speaker Nanci Pelosi, next chairman of the Energy & Commerce Committee Frank Pallone, and incoming chairman of the Telecommunications Subcommittee Mike Doyle are all vocal supporters of net neutrality. Reps. Pallone and Doyle even attempted to introduce a resolution to repeal the FCC’s decision on net neutrality, but Republicans refused to allow the issue to come up for a vote in the House.

Wheeler believes both congressmen will conduct more aggressive oversight hearings over the FCC, but until Republicans are voted out, net neutrality “is a long shot” according to Wheeler.

“Even if it was passed by the House, the Republican-controlled Senate would not likely support it. Even if they miraculously passed a bill, President Trump would no doubt veto it, having previously spoken out against net neutrality,” Wheeler said. “The only foreseeable legislative path would be with the support of the network companies, and that support would come at the price of watering down the proposal to render it virtually meaningless.”

Will a Court Find Trump’s FCC “Arbitrary and Capricious?”

On Feb. 1, the D.C. Circuit Court will hear arguments over a lawsuit challenging the FCC’s decision to repeal net neutrality. Wheeler says if the D.C. Circuit rules against the FCC and vacates the decision to repeal net neutrality, Wheeler’s 2015 Open Internet rules will be reinstated.

“In their zeal to gut oversight of their activities, the internet networks and their Trump FCC allies may have shot themselves in the foot,” Wheeler wrote. “There is a strong case that the Trump FCC acted in an arbitrary and capricious manner when it repealed the 2015 Open Internet Rule and walked away from any responsibility over the most important network of the 21st century. If the D.C. Circuit makes such a finding, net neutrality would once again be the law of the land. Although the Trump FCC would probably spitefully ignore its enforcement and even force adoption of a new rule to free the broadband companies, that action would simply bolster the Democrats in the House.”

U.S. Supreme Court Upholds Obama-Era Net Neutrality That Republican-Dominated FCC Repealed

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday refused a request by the Trump administration and the telecommunications industry to wipe away a lower court decision that had upheld Obama-era net neutrality rules aimed at ensuring a free and open internet, though the justices’ action does not undo the 2017 repeal of the policy.

The high court decision not to throw out the 2016 U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit ruling leaves a legal precedent in place that could help net neutrality supporters in any future legal battle if that policy is ever re-introduced.

The rules championed by Democratic former President Barack Obama, intended to safeguard equal access to content on the internet, were opposed by President Donald Trump, a Republican.

The Trump administration and the telecom industry had wanted to erase the 2016 ruling even though the Republican-led Federal Communications Commission in December voted to repeal the net neutrality rules. The policy reversal went into effect in June.

The Supreme Court’s brief order noted that three of the court’s conservative justices – Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito and Neil Gorsuch – would have thrown out the appeals court decision. Neither Chief Justice John Roberts nor new Trump appointee Brett Kavanaugh participated in the decision.

Industry trade group USTelecom, one of the groups that challenged the 2015 net neutrality rules, said the high court’s action was “not surprising.” USTelecom said it would “continue to support” the repeal “from challenges in Washington, D.C. and state capitals.”

Rosenworcel

FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel, a Democrat who backed the net neutrality order in 2015, said on Twitter that the commission had “actually petitioned the Supreme Court to erase history and wipe out an earlier court decision upholding open internet policies. But today the Supreme Court refused to do so.”

The Justice Department also has filed suit to block California’s state net neutrality law from taking effect in January. The state agreed in October to delay enforcement of the law pending appeals of the net neutrality reversal.

The FCC voted 3-2 in December along party lines to reverse the rules adopted under Obama that had barred internet service providers from blocking or throttling traffic, or offering paid fast lanes, also known as paid prioritization.

The new rules, which gave internet service providers greater power to regulate the content that customers access, are now the subject of a separate legal fight after being challenged by many of the groups that backed net neutrality.

The net neutrality repeal was a win for providers like Comcast Corp, AT&T Inc and Verizon Communications Inc. It was opposed by internet companies like Facebook Inc, Amazon.com Inc and Alphabet Inc, which have said the repeal could lead to higher costs.

Reporting by Lawrence Hurley; Additional reporting by David Shepardson; Editing by Will Dunham

Democrats Want FCC Inspector General to Investigate Fake Net Neutrality Comments

Phillip Dampier October 31, 2018 Net Neutrality, Public Policy & Gov't 2 Comments

Blumenthal

Three Democratic senators are calling for an investigation into why nearly 10 million phony net neutrality comments were allowed to be included on the record as part of the Republican majority decision to rescind the rules in early 2018.

Sens. Ed Markey (Mass.), Richard Blumenthal (Conn.), and Brian Schatz (Hawaii), jointly signed a letter addressed to the FCC’s Inspector General claiming the net neutrality matter was likely clouded by industry-funded lobbyists and astroturf groups, possible Russian interference, and intransigence by Republican FCC officials unwilling or unable to investigate the phony comments.

The New York Attorney General’s office has made significant progress in its own independent investigation, identifying 14 so-called “groups of interest” that could have subverted the net neutrality debate with fake comments from non-existent individuals, comments from those whose identities had been stolen, duplicate comments, and signatures on questionnaires and petitions that may have misled the public about the definition of net neutrality.

New York subpoenaed industry-friendly special interest, lobbying, and public strategy groups including: Broadband for America, the Center for Individual Freedom, Century Strategies, CQ Roll Call, LCX Digital, Media Bridge, the Taxpayers Protection Alliance and Vertical Strategies.

Markey

Freedom of Information requests and the ongoing investigation uncovered multiple historical instances of manipulation and potentially counterfeit comments, according to the senators:

  • CQ Roll Call submitted “millions of individual comments” on behalf of a paid client in the broadband privacy docket.
  • In 2014, Broadband for America claimed many community organizations, veterans groups, and small businesses were opposed to net neutrality, but in fact these groups had no position on the issue and in some instances claimed they never heard of Broadband for America.
  • Media Bridge was involved in assisting a group called American Commitment to flood the net neutrality docket with duplicative comments hostile to net neutrality. Media Bridge sells companies on manipulating the public debate on issues, claiming “if your organization wants to stop ‘showing’ and start dominating the issues, pick up the phone and give Media Bridge a call.”
  • The Center for Individual Freedom was responsible for submitting comments that repeated the inflammatory phrase, “unprecedented regulatory power the Obama administration imposed on the internet.” A Wall Street Journal investigation found that 72% of those comments may have been falsely submitted.

Schatz

“The Commission’s apparent disinterest in investigating fraudulent comments risks undermining public trust in the FCC’s rule-making process. Presently, the only efforts at accountability have been led by the New York State Attorney General and the Government Accountability Office (GAO), prompted by a request from Congress,” the senators’ letter reads. “The status of cooperation with both is unclear, and the FCC has previously resisted requests from the NY AG. Moreover, while journalists have sought to conduct their own research through FOIA requests, the Commission has ignored those requests and withheld documents under dubious exemption claims. Given the seriousness of this issue, the FCC should respond transparently and thoroughly, and fully cooperate with all attempts to investigate fraudulent comments.”

The senators are requesting the FCC’s Inspector General investigate:

  • What policies are in place at the FCC to investigate and address fake comments?
  • When did the FCC first become aware of the fraudulent comments?
  • Was the FCC aware of the sources of these comments, and did they investigate them?
  • Is the FCC fully cooperating with the NY Attorney General and GAO and is the agency turning over requested documents? If not, why?
  • What is the status of FOIA requests at the FCC. Are they being handled in a timely and responsive manner? Were denials and exemptions appropriate?

Ajit Pai Plans to Remain as FCC Chairman “For the Foreseeable Future”

Phillip Dampier October 30, 2018 Net Neutrality, Public Policy & Gov't No Comments

Pai

Despite the potential for a Democratic Party takeover of the U.S. House of Representatives that is likely to usher in a new era of more aggressive oversight of the Republican-dominated Federal Communications Commission, current chairman Ajit Pai “plans to lead the FCC for the foreseeable future.”

Multichannel News reports Pai is unlikely to leave his post just two years after being appointed to the position by President Donald Trump, despite an ethics controversy over alleged assistance given to Sinclair Broadcast Group to allow the company to acquire more stations despite a federal ownership cap on the number of stations that can be owned by a single entity. Pai also was responsible for a highly controversial decision to cancel net neutrality provisions enacted during the Obama Administration.

“Chairman Pai remains focused on his key priorities, including bridging the digital divide, fostering American leadership in 5G and empowering telehealth advancements,” said Brian Hart, director of the FCC’s office of media relations.

Should both the Senate and House flip to Democrats in next week’s midterm election, Pai’s agenda of deregulation, media consolidation, and elimination of many Obama-era consumer protections would be in peril and subject to determined Congressional oversight.

Pai has taken heat from consumer groups for ending a set-top box competition program that could have forced television providers to accept equipment obtained competitively in the retail market. He also faced criticism for reinstating a program giving UHF TV station owners the opportunity to acquire more stations, directly benefiting Sinclair and allowing it to pursue its since failed merger with Tribune Broadcasting.

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