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U.S. Senate Hearing on Social Media Devolves Into Partisan Scuffle; “Bullying for Electoral Purposes”

Phillip Dampier October 28, 2020 Net Neutrality, Public Policy & Gov't, Reuters No Comments

Sen. Wicker

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – A U.S. Senate hearing to reform an internet law and hold tech companies accountable for how they moderate content quickly turned into a political scuffle as lawmakers not only went after the companies but also attacked each other.

Lawmakers are split on ways to hold Big Tech accountable under Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act – which protects companies from liability over content posted by users but also lets the firms shape political discourse.

Republican lawmakers used most of their time during the hearing to accuse the companies of selective censorship against conservatives. Democrats primarily focused on insufficient action against misinformation that interferes with the election.

In response to a limited number of questions discussing the law, the chief executives of Twitter, Facebook, and Google said it was crucial to free expression on the internet. They said Section 230 gives them the tools to strike a balance between preserving free speech and moderating content, even as they appeared open to suggestions the law needs moderate changes.

All three CEOs also agreed the companies should be held liable if the platforms act as a publisher but denied being the referees over political speech – a claim that angered some Republicans.

Senator Ted Cruz went after Twitter’s Jack Dorsey after the CEO said Twitter has no influence over elections.

“Who the hell elected you and put you in charge of what the media are allowed to report and what the American people are allowed to hear,” Cruz said, referring to the platform’s decision to block stories from the New York Post about the son of Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden. Ahead of the hearing, the senator released a picture on Twitter titled “Free Speech showdown Cruz vs Dorsey” that showed him and Twitter’s Dorsey pitted against each other.

Democratic Senator Brian Schatz said he did not have any questions, calling the hearing “nonsense”.

“This is bullying and it is for electoral purposes,” he said.

Other Democrats including Tammy Baldwin, Ed Markey and Amy Klobuchar also said the hearing was held to help President Donald Trump’s re-election effort.

Trump, who alleges the companies’ stifle conservative voices, tweeted “Repeal Section 230!” during the hearing.

Twitter’s Dorsey, who drew the most amount of criticism from Republicans, warned the committee that eroding the foundation of Section 230 could significantly hurt how people communicate online. Pichai said Google operates without political bias and that doing otherwise would be against its business interests.

Zuckerberg at today’s hearing.

Zuckerberg, who briefly had difficulty with his internet connection at the start of the hearing, said he supports changing the law but also warned that tech platforms are likely to censor more to avoid legal risks if Section 230 is repealed. Biden has expressed support for revoking the law.

NO MORE “FREE PASS”

Republican Senator Roger Wicker, who chairs the committee, said it was important to shield companies from liability without giving them the ability to censor content they dislike.

“The time has come for that free pass to end,” he said.

Wicker also criticized Twitter’s decision to block the New York Post stories about Biden’s son and Facebook’s move to limit their reach.

He and other senators such as Cory Gardner went after Twitter for not taking down tweets from world leaders that allegedly spread misinformation but going aggressively after Republican President Donald Trump’s tweets.

U.S. lawmakers are not the only ones pushing for reform. The European Union’s executive Commission is drafting a new Digital Services Act that, in addition to tackling market abuses by dominant platforms, would also address liability for harmful or illegal content. Competition Commissioner Margrethe Vestager is due to unveil her proposals on Dec. 2.

Reporting by Nandita Bose and David Shepardson in Washington; Additional reporting by Diane Bartz in Washington and Douglas Busvine in Frankfurt; editing by Kirsten Donovan and Lisa Shumaker

T-Mobile Introduces New Suite of Cord-Cutter Streaming TV Options Starting at $10/Month

After months of testing, T-Mobile’s streaming TV service TVision will debut for some existing T-Mobile wireless customers on Nov. 1, with three packages starting at $10/month.

Although late to the already-competitive cord-cutting streaming TV marketplace, T-Mobile hopes to shake up the market with more choices and, in some cases, lower pricing.

“People sure love TV — but they sure don’t love their TV provider,” T-Mobile CEO Mike Sievert said during a livestream previewing the TVision service. Sievert claimed the cable and satellite TV customers are fed up being ‘held hostage’ by programming lineup choices made by everyone but the customer, leaving consumers with costly bundles containing “live news and sports with hundreds of other channels you don’t want. Get ready to un-cable, everybody.”

The service will initially be available Nov. 1, but only to T-Mobile postpaid wireless customers. By the end of November, Sprint postpaid customers will also be invited to sign up. Prepaid T-Mobile and Sprint customers are expected to have access to the service sometime in 2021, along with those who do not have a T-Mobile or Sprint account. Non-customers will pay an undetermined surcharge.

TVision’s Android TV device, with remote control.

Details:

TVision will be available for streaming through apps on iOS, Android/Android TV, Amazon Fire TV, and Apple TV. It is currently not available on the Roku platform. Customers can also purchase a TVision Hub, a $50 Android TV device that plugs into an HDMI port on the back of your television to bring the streaming service to traditional television sets, along with a platform to use over 8,000 apps that already work with Android TV, including competing streaming services like Netflix, Hulu, YouTube and CBS All Access.

Special Offer:

New customers who sign up for Live TV Plus or Live Zone by Dec. 31, 2020 will receive 12 months of free Apple TV Plus service and an $80 rebate offer for the Apple TV 4K set-top box (retails at $179, but will cost $99 after rebate).

Available Packages:

T-Mobile’s philosophy is that customers want to choose between packages containing general entertainment fare, news and sports, local TV, and premium channels. The more categories you want, the higher the price. If you want all four, you are likely going to pay pricing rivaling what you already pay your current provider. True, a-la-carte packages allowing customers to select specific channels is not available. T-Mobile currently has no agreement with CBS, so this means CBS network programming and local affiliates are not accessible on TVision at this time. The three higher priced Live packages include 100 hours of DVR cloud-based recording.

TVision Vibe (general entertainment) ($10/mo for 30 channels, up to 2 concurrent streams): AMC, Animal Planet, BBC America, BBC World News, BET, BET Her, CMT, Comedy Central, Discovery, DIY, Food Network, HGTV, Hallmark Channel, Hallmark Movies & Mysteries, Hallmark Drama, IFC, ID, MotorTrend, MTV, MTV Classic, MTV2, Nickelodeon, Nick Jr., Nicktoons, OWN, Paramount Network, Sundance, Teen Nick, TLC, Travel Channel, TV Land, WEtv

TVision Live (emphasizing live news and local stations) ($40/mo for 30+ channels, up to 3 concurrent streams) Does not include networks from the Vibe package, which has to be purchased separately): ABC*, ABC News Live, Bravo, CNBC, Cartoon Network/Adult Swim, CNN, Cozi TV, Disney Channel, Disney Jr., Disney XD, E!, ESPN, ESPN2, Fox*, Fox Business Network, Fox News Channel, Freeform, FS1, FS2, FX, FXX, HLN, MSNBC, National Geographic, NBC*, NBC News Now, NBC Sports Network, Oxygen, Syfy, TBS, Telemundo*, TNT, truTV, USA

TVision Live Plus (enhances live sports options) ($50/mo for 40+ channels, up to 3 concurrent streams): Includes all channels from TVision Live package plus ACC Network, Big Ten Network, ESPNews, ESPNU, ESPN College Extra, FXM, Longhorn Network*, NatGeo Wild, NBC regional sports networks*, NECN*, NFL Network, Olympic Channel, SEC Network, SNY*, TCM, Golf Channel

TVision Live Zone (brings even more live sports and Spanish language networks) ($60/mo for 50+ channels, up to 3 concurrent streams): Includes all channels from TVision Live Plus package plus Boomerang, CNBC World, ESPN Deportes, Fox Deportes, NFL RedZone, Universal Kids, Universo, MavTV

A-la-carte premium channels:

  • Starz ($8.99 per month): 28 channels
  • Showtime ($10.99 per month): 16 channels
  • Epix ($5.99 per month): 4 channels

(*-may not be available in all TV markets. For exact TV lineup in your area, visit here.)

T-Mobile’s CEO Mike Sievert announces TVision, the company’s new streaming TV service. (3:19)

Republican Majority Votes 3-2 to Maintain Repeal of Obama-Era Net Neutrality Rules

Phillip Dampier October 27, 2020 Net Neutrality, Public Policy & Gov't, Reuters No Comments

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. Federal Communications Commission voted 3-2 on Tuesday to maintain its 2017 repeal of Obama-era net neutrality rules, even after a federal court directed a review of some provisions of the repeal.

The 2015 net neutrality rules barred internet service providers (ISPs) from blocking or slowing internet content or offering paid “fast lanes.” Under President Donald Trump, the 2017 FCC order granted ISPs sweeping powers to recast how Americans use the internet, as long as they disclose changes.

A federal appeals court in October 2019 largely upheld the FCC’s repeal of the rules, but ordered the agency to reconsider the repeal’s impact on public safety; regulations on attachments to utility poles; and the FCC’s ability to provide subsidies for broadband service. The FCC majority opted to leave the order unchanged.

The net neutrality repeal was effective in June 2018. ISPs have not changed how users access the internet, but consumer groups fear that they could move to raise prices or slow speeds selectively for some customers.

“It is patently obvious to all but the most devoted members of the net neutrality cult that the case against the (net neutrality repeal) was a sham,” FCC Chairman Ajit Pai said Tuesday.

ISPs and other advocates of the net neutrality repeal say the new rules have boosted investment. Consumer groups and other critics of the dispute the assertion that loosening net neutrality rules led to new investment.

FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel, a Democrat, said, “this agency is not interested in getting it right. Instead, it doubles down, rather than recognizing the realities of the world around us.”

Democrats have made net neutrality repeal a campaign issue. Presidential candidate Joe Biden, who was Obama’s vice president, is expected if he wins to designate an FCC chair who would move to would reinstate net neutrality.

Senator Ed Markey, a Democrat, said “without net neutrality protections, it’s just a matter of time before big broadband providers start raising prices, slowing down internet speeds, and making it harder for families, small business, and students to access the opportunities to recover and rebuild from this pandemic.”

Reporting by David Shepardson; Editing by David Gregorio

Streaming Flop Quibi Closing Down After Burning Through $1.75 Billion of Investors’ Money

Phillip Dampier October 21, 2020 Consumer News, Online Video No Comments

Quibi is closing down its streaming service in the next several weeks, sources told the Wall Street Journal this afternoon, after spending $1.75 billion of investors’ money and attracting few subscribers and a lawsuit.

The service, founded by Hollywood mogul Jeffrey Katzenberg, never found a footing in the highly competitive streaming business, and has been plagued with problems since its April debut. Katzenberg envisioned the service as a home for short-form video entertainment — typically 5-10 minute chapters of professionally produced shows, designed to be watched by people on the go. Quibi was specifically developed for smartphone viewing, which meant producers had to create shows specifically for small screens. For technical reasons, Quibi was difficult to view in-home.

Katzenberg argued the service would fill a streaming niche for people looking for short video fixes instead of long form programming, arguing highly produced shows would attract a different audience than amateur short-form clips from services like YouTube.

Then the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March, forcing most would-be Quibi subscribers into home lockdown for school and work. It could not have come at a worse time for Quibi. Soon after debuting, scathing reviews about the quality of some Quibi productions were also published, further deterring would-be customers.

Quibi’s advertising partners, which included Pepsi and Walmart, were patient with the service, but after six months of low viewer numbers, many advertisers began deferring payments on their combined commitment of $150 million in advertising.

Also in early March, a patent infringement lawsuit over Quibi’s Turnstyle feature, which lets viewers watch video horizontally or vertically on their devices and rotate between those positions without disrupting the experience, was filed by Eko, which claimed it invented and patented the technology and saw its work stolen by Quibi employees. Although Quibi won a motion to limit the lawsuit, litigation was expected to continue in a California court.

Over the summer, media reports noted 90% of free trial subscribers canceled their subscription before charges began, revealing Quibi had just 72,000 paid subscribers willing to spend $4.99 a month, a fraction of the tens of millions of subscribers other streaming platforms have attracted.

The Journal reported on Wednesday that Quibi founder Jeffrey Katzenberg called investors to tell them he is shutting the service down. A restructuring firm hired to examine options for the streaming platform reportedly made several recommendations to Quibi’s board of directors, but it seems a complete shutdown was chosen as the best option.

FCC Considering 18-24 Month Delay of $9 Billion Rural 5G Subsidy Until Accurate Coverage Maps Appear

The FCC is likely to delay for up to two years a massive $9 billion subsidy program that will provide 5G wireless service in rural America because the agency’s broadband coverage maps are too flawed to credibly determine where the money is needed.

The delay is just the latest in a series of speed bumps that have slowed down rural wireless service expansion, hampered mostly by service coverage maps that typically over-promise service that just doesn’t exist in many areas.

A revised subsidy program would double the funds available for rural wireless service, but delay projects at least 18-24 months, with the first awards granted sometime in late 2022.

The wireless subsidy program is designed to enhance rural wireless/mobile coverage across the United States. The FCC estimates about 83% of rural America is currently covered by 4G LTE service providing an average of 10/3 Mbps. In urban and suburban communities, 97% of areas have 4G coverage and often at faster speeds. Small, independent wireless carriers have popped up to serve rural states and regions that have been ignored by AT&T, Verizon, and T-Mobile, but coverage gaps still remain far from well-traveled interstate highways or in mountainous regions. Carriers have typically considered those areas unprofitable to serve, failing Return On Investment formulas that expect investments to pay off within a certain number of years. Wireless subsidies cover a portion of the cost to build and operate unprofitable rural cell towers, coaxing wireless companies to be more willing to expand coverage.

The ongoing problem of wireless coverage accuracy has had a direct impact on rural funding programs that have rules forbidding spending in areas that already have coverage. Wireless companies with overeager marketing departments have routinely issued coverage maps claiming solid 4G LTE coverage in areas where many claim it doesn’t exist. The conflict over accurate coverage maps became so contentious, the FCC canceled plans to spend billions on wireless subsidies in late 2019 until more accurate coverage maps could be created.

Next week the FCC plans a vote to authorize the new $9 billion subsidy program, but funds will likely be held until wireless companies can prove their coverage claims and update coverage information so the FCC can pinpoint areas that can qualify for the funds.

“This approach won’t be the fastest possible path,” FCC Chairman Ajit Pai wrote. “But it will allow us to identify with greater precision those areas of the country where support is most needed.”

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