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Your CenturyLink Internet Access Blocked Until You Acknowledge Their Ad

(Image courtesy of: Rick Snapp)

CenturyLink customers in Utah were rudely interrupted earlier this month by an ad for CenturyLink’s pricey security and content filtering software that left their internet access disabled until they acknowledged reading the ad.

Dear Utah Customer,

Your internet security and experience is important to us at CenturyLink.

The Utah Department of Commerce, Division of Consumer Protection requires CenturyLink to inform you of filtering software available to you. This software can be used to block material that may be deemed harmful to minors.

CenturyLink’s @Ease product is available here and provides the availability of such software.

As a result of the forced ad, all internet activity stopped working until a customer opened a browser session to first discover the notification, then clear it by hitting the “OK” button at the bottom of the screen. This irritated customers who use the internet for more than just web browsing.

One customer told Ars Technica he was watching his Fire TV when streaming suddenly stopped. After failed attempts at troubleshooting, the customer checked his web browser and discovered the notification message. After clicking “OK,” his service resumed.

A CenturyLink spokesperson told KSL News, “As a result of the new law, all CenturyLink high-speed internet customers in Utah must acknowledge a pop-up notice, which provides information about the availability of filtering software, in order to access the internet.”

In fact, according to a detailed report by Ars Technica, CenturyLink falsely claimed that the forced advertisement was required by Utah state law, when in fact the company would be in full compliance simply by notifying such software was available “in a conspicuous manner.”

CenturyLink chose to turn the Utah law to their profitable advantage by exclusively promoting its own product — @Ease, a costly ISP-branded version of Norton Security. CenturyLink recommended customers choose its Advanced package, which costs $14.95 a month. But parental filtering and content blocking tools are not even mentioned on the product comparison page, leaving customers flummoxed about which option to choose.

In effect, CenturyLink captured an audience and held their internet connection hostage — an advantage most advertisers can only dream about. CenturyLink countered that only residential customers had their usage restricted, and that because of the gravity of the situation, extraordinary notification methods were required.

But as Ars points out, no other ISP in the state went to this extreme level (and used it as an opportunity to make more money with self-interested software pitches).

Bill sponsor Sen. Todd Weiler (R), said ISPs were in compliance simply by putting a notice on a monthly bill or sending an e-mail message to customers about the software. Weiler added that ISPs had all of 2018 to comply and most had already done so. AT&T, for example, included the required notice in a monthly bill statement. CenturyLink waited until the last few weeks of the year, and used it as an opportunity to upsell customers to expensive security solutions most do not need.

With the demise of net neutrality, ISPs that were forbidden to block or throttle content for financial gain are now doing so, with a motivation to make even more money from their customers.

AT&T Drops Data Caps for Free if You Subscribe to DirecTV Now

Phillip Dampier December 19, 2018 AT&T, Competition, Consumer News, Data Caps, Net Neutrality 2 Comments

AT&T customers are telling Stop the Cap! the company is emailing their broadband customers to alert them they now qualify for unlimited internet access because they also happen to subscribe to DirecTV Now, AT&T’s streaming service targeting cord cutters.

“Good news about your internet service! Because you also added DIRECTV NOW℠ to your internet service, we’re giving you unlimited home internet data at no additional cost.”

AT&T normally charges customers an extra $30 a month to remove their 1,000 GB data cap.

The move has some net neutrality implications, because AT&T is favoring its own streaming service over the competition, which includes Sling TV, Hulu TV, PlayStation Vue, and other similar services. If a customer subscribes to Hulu TV, the 1 TB cap remains in force. If they switch to DirecTV Now, the cap is gone completely.

AT&T has undoubtedly heard from customers concerned about streaming video chewing up their data allowance. With AT&T’s DirecTV on the verge of launching a streaming equivalent of its satellite TV service, data caps are probably bad for business and could deter customers from switching.

It is yet the latest evidence that data caps are more about marketing and revenue than technical necessity.

Updated 1:15pm EST 12/20: Hat tip to Karl Bode, who got AT&T’s official confirmation the unlimited internet offer that formerly applied to DirecTV satellite customers has now quietly been extended to DirecTV Now streaming customers as well. We are still looking for a screen cap of anyone who received an e-mail from AT&T about unlimited service for streaming customers. If you have one, drop me a line at phil (at) stopthecap.com

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.”

Net Neutrality… Violated: Nearly Every U.S. Wireless Operator is Throttling You

Phillip Dampier November 8, 2018 Issues 3 Comments

Nearly every wireless provider in the United States is intentionally slowing down your data service, detrimentally affecting smartphone apps and video streaming.

That is the conclusion of researchers at Northeastern University, University of Massachusetts — Amherst and Stony Brook University, studying the results of more than 100,000 Wehe app users that have run 719,417 tests in 135 countries verifying net neutrality compliance, before and after the open internet rules were repealed in the U.S. earlier this year.

The raw data collected from the app is used as part of a validated, peer-reviewed method of determining which ISPs are throttling their customers’ connections and what services are being targeted.

Nearly Every Mobile Provider Is Throttling Your Speed, Even on “Unlimited” Plans

The researchers concluded that nearly every wireless provider is throttling at least one streaming video service, some reducing speeds the most for customers on budget priced plans while higher value customers are throttled less. No ISP consistently throttled all online video, setting up an unfair playing field for companies that benefit from not being throttled against those that are. Few customers noticed much difference in the performance of streaming video  after the repeal of net neutrality in the U.S., largely because the wireless companies involved — AT&T, Verizon, T-Mobile, Sprint and others — were already quietly throttling video.

“Our data shows that all of the U.S. Cellular ISPs that throttled after June 11th were already throttling prior to this date,” the researchers wrote. “In short, it appears that U.S. Cellular ISPs were ignoring the [former FCC Chairman Thomas] Wheeler FCC rules pertaining to ‘no throttling’ while those rules were still in effect.”

Summary of Detected Throttling

For each ISP, the researchers included tests only where a user’s set of tests indicated differentiation (speed throttling of specific apps or services) for at least one app and did not detect differentiation for at least one other app. This helps to filter out many false positives. As a result, the number of tests in this table is substantially lower than the total number of tests Wehe users ran. The researchers sorted the Cellular ISPs based on the number of tests from users of each ISP. If they did not detect differentiation, researchers used the entry “Not detected.” The researchers claim that offers enough evidence that throttling is not happening. In some cases researchers do not have enough tests to confirm whether there is throttling, indicated by “No data.” 

The table has two column groups for the results: before the new FCC rules took effect on June 11th, and after. If behavior changed from after June 11th, it is highlighted in bold

SP App Before Jun 11th After Jun 11th
Throttling rate (s) # tests # users* Throttling rate # tests # users*
Verizon (cellular) Youtube 1.9 Mbps
4.0 Mbps
10630 2859 1.9 Mbps
3.9 Mbps
2441 702
Netflix 1.9 Mbps
3.8 Mbps
8540 2609 1.9 Mbps
3.9 Mbps
2395 754
Amazon 1.9 Mbps
3.9 Mbps
5819 1949 1.9 Mbps
3.9 Mbps
1267 440
ATT (cellular) Youtube 1.4 Mbps 9142 2466 1.4 Mbps 1708 571
Netflix 1.4 Mbps 4538 1540 1.5 Mbps 1316 498
NBCSports 1.5 Mbps 3368 1326 1.5 Mbps 589 238
TMobile (cellular) Youtube 1.4 Mbps 3562 962 1.4 Mbps 1185 373
Netflix 1.4 Mbps 1813 637 1.4 Mbps 1074 387
Amazon 1.4 Mbps 1422 477 1.4 Mbps 1422 318
NBCSports 1.4 Mbps 1588 626 1.4 Mbps 579 231
Sprint (cellular) Skype 0.5 Mbps
1.4 Mbps
533 210 1.4 Mbps 132 46
Youtube 2.1 Mbps 224 56 2.0 Mbps 39 12
Netflix 1.9 Mbps
8.8 Mbps
277 100 2.0 Mbps
8.9 Mbps
40 15
Amazon 2.1 Mbps 116 45 2.1 Mbps 24 8
cricket (cellular) Youtube 1.2 Mbps 296 59 1.3 Mbps 58 14
Amazon 1.2 Mbps 79 22 1.2 Mbps 16 4
MetroPCS (cellular) Youtube 1.5 Mbps 302 85 1.5 Mbps 72 20
Amazon 1.4 Mbps 211 74 1.4 Mbps 45 16
Netflix 1.4 Mbps 190 71 1.3 Mbps 60 20
NBCSports 1.5 Mbps 152 67 1.5 Mbps 39 16
BoostMobile (cellular) Youtube 2.0 Mbps 80 12 2.1 Mbps 10 1
Netflix 1.9 Mbps 52 8 2.0 Mbps 14 4
Amazon 2.1 Mbps 55 8 2.1 Mbps 6 1
Skype 0.5 Mbps 32 10 0.5 Mbps 9 4
TFW (cellular) Youtube 1.2 Mbps
3.9 Mbps
39 4 1.3 Mbps 10 2
Amazon 1.3 Mbps 19 2 1.2 Mbps 3 1
Netflix 3.9 Mbps 8 3 Not detected 5 2
ViaSatInc (WiFi) Youtube 0.8 Mbps 35 7 No data No data No data
Netflix 1.0 Mbps 19 5 No data No data No data
Amazon 0.9 Mbps 15 5 No data No data No data
Spotify 1.1 Mbps 16 5 No data No data No data
Vimeo 1.2 Mbps 8 4 No data No data No data
NBCSports 1.2 Mbps 7 3 No data No data No data
HughesNetworkSystems (WiFi) Youtube 0.4 Mbps 24 2 No data No data No data
Netflix 0.7 Mbps 16 2 No data No data No data
CSpire (cellular) Youtube 0.9 Mbps 19 2 No data No data No data
GCI (cellular) Youtube 0.9 Mbps
2.2 Mbps
18 4 2.0 Mbps 4 1
Netflix 2.0 Mbps 13 4 2.1 Mbps 4 1
NBCSports 2.2 Mbps 7 3 1.2 Mbps 5 1
Amazon 2.2 Mbps 4 2 2.0 Mbps 4 1
Vimeo 0.9 Mbps 3 0 2.2 Mbps 4 1
SIMPLEMOBILE (cellular) Youtube 1.4 Mbps 14 5 No data No data No data
Amazon 1.5 Mbps 9 3 No data No data No data
NBCSports 1.4 Mbps 6 2 No data No data No data
Netflix 1.4 Mbps 9 3 No data No data No data
XfinityMobile (cellular) Youtube 3.9 Mbps 8 3 1.9 Mbps 34 7
Netflix 3.9 Mbps 12 4 2.0 Mbps 28 7
Amazon Not detected 61 3 1.9 Mbps 15 7
NextlinkBroadband (WiFi) Youtube 4.5 Mbps 10 3 3.2 Mbps 3 1
Vimeo 5.1 Mbps 6 1 No data No data No data
Amazon 1.2 Mbps
4.1 Mbps
5 1 No data No data No data
Netflix 4.1 Mbps 4 1 Not detected 1 1
FamilyMobile (cellular) Youtube 1.4 Mbps 13 5 Not detected 9 1
Amazon 1.4 Mbps 9 4 No data No data No data
Netflix 1.4 Mbps 8 4 1.3 Mbps 4 2
NBCSports 1.4 Mbps 6 3 No data No data No data
Cellcom (cellular) Youtube 3.9 Mbps 9 4 No data No data No data
Netflix 3.2 Mbps 5 2 No data No data No data
Amazon 3.9 Mbps 7 3 No data No data No data
iWireless (cellular) NBCSports 2.8 Mbps 8 2 No data No data No data
Youtube 2.9 Mbps 6 2 No data No data No data
Amazon 2.8 Mbps 7 2 No data No data No data
Spotify 2.9 Mbps 8 3 No data No data No data
Netflix 2.8 Mbps 6 2 No data No data No data

Sprint’s Skype Throttle

The researchers found that video was not the only service impacted by speed throttles. Sprint (and its subsidiary, prepaid provider Boost), for example, is actively throttling Skype.

“This is interesting because Skype’s telephony service directly competes with the telephony service provided by Sprint,” the researchers wrote. But curiously, the throttle almost entirely impacts Android phone users, while iOS devices have less than a 4% chance of being speed throttled. But isolating the exact trigger for throttling remains elusive, the researchers claim.

“While we have strong evidence of Skype throttling from our users’ tests, we could not reproduce this throttling with a data plan that we purchased from Sprint earlier this year,” the researchers admit. “This is likely because it affects only certain subscription plans, but not the one that we purchased.”

When asked to comment, Sprint said: “Sprint does not single out Skype or any individual content provider in this way.” The test results indicate otherwise, suggest the researchers.

T-Mobile’s “Boosting” Throttle Can Mess Up Streaming Video

Some providers, like T-Mobile, attempt to sell their throttled speeds as pro-consumer. In return for reduced definition video, customers are free to watch more online content over their portable devices without it counting against a data cap. But T-Mobile’s video throttle is unique among providers as it initially allows a short burst of regular speed to buffer the first few seconds of a streamed video before quickly throttling video playback speed. Many video players do not expect to see initial robust speeds quickly and severely throttled. Consumers report video playback is often interrupted, sometimes several times, as the player gradually adapts to the low-speed, throttled connection. Consumers receive lower quality video as a consequence.

T-Mobile Plays Favorites

Through extensive testing, research found throttling begins after a certain number of bytes have been transferred, and it is not based strictly on time; below is a list of the detected byte limits for the “boosted” (i.e., unthrottled video streaming) period.

The impact of T-Mobile’s “boosting” speed throttle. Initial speeds of streaming video reach 25 Mbps before being throttled to a consistent 1.5 Mbps.

App Boosting bytes
Netflix 7 MB
NBCSports 7 MB
Amazon Prime Video 6 MB
YouTube Throttling, but no boosting
Vimeo No throttling or boosting

More concerning to the researchers is their finding that video apps are treated differently by T-Mobile.

“T-Mobile throttles YouTube without giving it a boosting period, while T-Mobile does not throttle Vimeo at all,” the researchers report. “Such behavior highlights the risks of content-based filtering: there is fundamentally no way to treat all video services the same (because not all video services can be identified), and any additional content-specific policies — such as boosting — can lead to unfair advantages for some providers, and poor network performance for others.”

The team of researchers had just one conclusion after reviewing the available data.

“Net neutrality violations are rampant, and have been since we launched Wehe,” the researchers report. “Further, the implementation of such throttling practices creates an unlevel playing field for video streaming providers while also imposing engineering challenges related to efficiently handling a variety of throttling rates and other behavior like boosting. Last, we find that video streaming is not the only type of application affected, as there is evidence of Skype throttling in our data. Taken together, our findings indicate that the openness and fairness properties that led to the Internet’s success are at risk in the U.S.”

The team “strongly encourages” policymakers to rely on fact-based data to make informed decisions about internet regulations, implying that provider-supplied data about net neutrality policies may not reveal the full impact of speed throttles and other traffic favoritism that is common where net neutrality protections do not exist.

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

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