Tuesday, April 23, 2024

Trump's FCC Ripped Away Open-Internet Protections. We're This Close to Winning Them Back

A majority of commissioners is set to return to the agency the authority it needs to act as a strong advocate for a user-powered internet.

Later this week, the Federal Communications Commission is expected to reverse a Trump-era decision that stripped away essential open-internet protections. In a Thursday vote, a majority of commissioners will return to the agency the authority it needs to act as a strong advocate for a user-powered internet.

They will do this by reclassifying broadband-access services as telecom services subject to Title II of the Communications Act. Title II authority allows the FCC to safeguard
 Net Neutrality and hold companies like AT&T, Comcast and Verizon accountable to internet users across the United States.

Title II authority gives the FCC the tools to make the internet work better for everyone, ensuring that internet service providers can’t block, throttle, or otherwise discriminate against the content everyone accesses online. But it also gives the FCC the regulatory means to ensure that broadband prices and practices are “just and reasonable.” The agency will be able to step in to stop price gouging, safeguard user privacy, protect public safety, eliminate junk fees, and stop other abusive behavior from providers.

During a Capitol Hill press conference last week, FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel said, “There are a lot of things in this country that divide us, but Net Neutrality is not one of them.” Rosenworcel cited poll after poll that show that people across the political spectrum overwhelmingly support the 2015 Title II Net Neutrality safeguards that the Obama FCC put in place. The same polls show majorities opposed the Trump FCC’s 2017 repeal of these protections.

“Bringing back the FCC’s authority over broadband and putting back net neutrality rules is popular, and it has been court-tested and court-approved,” she added. “[W]e have an opportunity to get this right. Because in a modern digital economy, it is time to have broadband oversight, national Net Neutrality rules, and policies that ensure the internet is fast, open, and fair.”

Back to the future
The rules up for a vote on April 25 are identical to the 2015 rules. The FCC will enforce them in the same way. And the draft order text that the agency will finalize and adopt already makes this clear — in some cases, going further than the 2015 order did — with a chance before the vote occurs for the FCC to make this language even stronger.

Losing Title II hurt people, which is why millions protested the Trump FCC’s action. Not only did its 2017 repeal gut the Net Neutrality rules, it also surrendered the agency’s power to protect communities from unjust or unreasonable practices by these internet-access goliaths.

This had troubling consequences during the early months of the Covid-19 pandemic, when Trump FCC Chairman Ajit Pai asked broadband providers to sign a voluntary pledge to preserve people’s vital internet access (he couldn’t force providers to do this since he’d abdicated the agency’s authority to compel these companies to keep users connected). Despite Pai’s claim that the pledge was a success, reporting by Daily Dot found that many of these same companies still cut users’ connections during a national emergency, when everything from work to health care had shifted online.

A 2019 study by Northeastern University and UMass Amherst found that ISP throttling of network services happens “all the time.” Researchers analyzed data from hundreds of thousands of smartphones to determine whether wireless providers were slowing, or throttling, data speeds for specific mobile services. They found that “just about every wireless carrier is guilty of throttling video platforms and streaming services unevenly.”

In everyday terms, this means that companies like AT&T are picking winners and losers online. Allowing such throttling to continue opens the door to more content-based discrimination. This isn’t just about economic favoritism — for example, an ISP slowing down a competitor’s online app so people would use their product instead — but, potentially, the blocking of political messages that gigantic communications companies don’t like.

This isn’t a hypothetical. In 2005, the internet service provider Telus blocked access to a server that hosted a website supporting a labor strike against the company. And in 2011, the Electronic Frontier Foundation found that several ISPs were intercepting user search queries on Bing and Yahoo and directing them to “results” pages that they or their partners controlled.

The say-anything lobbyists
Lobbyists working for these large internet-access companies like to say that Title II authority offers “a solution in each of a problem” that doesn’t exist. And you can bet they’ll repeat a lot of these lies in the aftermath of this week’s vote.

Throughout the 20 years of debate around Title II and Net Neutrality, the powerful phone and cable lobby has demonstrated a willingness to say anything and everything to avoid being held accountable. They’ll say that Title II’s open-internet standard is a heavy-handed regulation that will undermine investment in new broadband deployment; in reality, executives from these companies have said publicly that their capital expenditures aren’t impacted in any way by Title II rules. The lobbyists will say that Net Neutrality is a hyper-partisan, politicized issue — ignoring public polling (see above) that shows internet users on the political left, right, and center overwhelmingly support the sorts of baseline protections offered under Title II.

The fight for this week’s victory predates the Trump FCC repeal of strong Title II rules in 2017. By restoring safeguards that millions fought so hard to make a reality, the FCC is recognizing the broad-based grassroots movement that coalesced in 2005 around the then-obscure principle of Net Neutrality and built a movement focused on retaining the people-powered, democratic spirit that was baked into the internet at its inception.

Without baseline open-internet protections, internet users are subject to privacy invasions, hidden junk fees, data caps, and billing rip-offs from their ISPs. In addition, without Title II oversight the FCC is severely limited in its ability to promote broadband competition and deployment, bringing this essential infrastructure within reach of people in the United States who lack access.

The FCC will change all of that later this week. It will respond to overwhelming public opinion and stand up for internet users against a handful of monopoly-minded companies that for too long have dictated media policy in Washington.

Come Thursday, I and many of the amazing advocates who’ve been fighting this fight for the past 20 years will be on hand at the FCC to witness the final vote. It will be a moment to appreciate our hard work and thank the agency for restoring to Americans their all-important online rights. Join us in celebrating!

Friday, February 23, 2024

To ‘Save Local News,’ Policymakers Need to Understand What Needs Saving

 Originally published at Tech Policy Press.

Northwestern Medill Local News Initiative State of Local News 2023

As lawmakers around the world struggle with ways to “save local news,” it’s worth asking who this sort of journalism benefits and whether new policies prioritize their needs. That’s why new research from Northwestern University’s State of Local News Project is so important.

Northwestern reports that the availability of local news depends largely on the wealth of the community where you live. According to project data, counties with an average household income of more than $80,000 can support 10 or more news outlets. Meanwhile, counties with household incomes of $54,000 or less are more likely to be news deserts.

“In communities with little disposable income to put toward news subscriptions or donations and no local philanthropies, cost-cutting becomes the only option,” writes project director Sarah Stonbely. “This creates a self-reinforcing spiral of lower quality and declining readership and, ultimately, closure.”

According to Stonbely, nearly 3,000 local newspapers have shuttered operations over the past two decades, leaving approximately half of the nation’s 3,143 counties with one — or zero — news outlets. 248 more counties are at risk of becoming news deserts in the near future.

Avoid a trickle-down approach
The crisis is real, and policymakers in multiple jurisdictions have started to talk about the roles they can play to solve it — but some of their solutions would do more harm than good. Many of those advocating to save local news in the United States are lining up in support of bills like the Journalism Competition and Preservation Act (JCPA). This legislation would force Big Tech companies like Google and Meta to compensate news publishers for featuring links and content summaries in their search results and on their social networks.

The JCPA (and its California cousin the CJPA, an even worse link-tax plan) take a trickle-down approach to saving local news, awarding big media conglomerates like Fox and “vulture capitalist” funds like Alden Global Capital with large payouts from tech platforms — leaving crumbs for the local and ethnic media outlets that serve lower-income communities.

A recent Free Press Action report finds that California’s link-tax approach (which is also part of a package of bills introduced last week in Illinois) — would result in a massive giveaway to large and very profitable media outlets, including those that focus on spreading hate and disinformation. Meanwhile, independent media outlets, which are closest to the communities they serve and in most need of support, would likely see little-to-no benefit.

“Smaller community-focused outlets are innovating and pushing the entire field of journalism forward, away from the boardroom’s focus on quarterly profits, and toward a future where impact is not measured in revenue growth,” says my Free Press Action colleague and report co-author Alex Frandsen. “Yet any payouts such outlets would receive would be — at best — the leftover crumbs from revenue pies gorged on by already-wealthy media companies.”

And yet ill-conceived Big Tech bargaining and link-tax legislation has captivated lawmakers and some advocates in the United States and other countries, including Australia and Canada.

These bills’ apparent momentum reveals the failure of some lawmakers and advocates to even try to to understand the problem at hand: how to support local news and civic information as the public goods that they are.

Many JCPA and CJPA supporters in the antitrust community seem to support this sort of legislation because it really sticks it to Big Tech, which they see as Public Enemy No. 1. And indeed the big platforms have resorted to some drastic measures to prevent passage of these and similar bills elsewhere.

Political expediency is also driving this legislation forward: these bills have received a forceful tailwind of lobbying support from trade groups representing powerful media conglomerates and commercial broadcasters — the same profitable companies that would benefit from (but don’t actually need) payments from the likes of Meta.

Who should really benefit
What bills like the JCPA and CJPA don’t do, however, is address the real-world impacts of the local-news crisis — which are, as Sarah Stonbely reports, far more acute in low-income communities. These are the same communities that the large media conglomerates lobbying for this legislation have ignored or misrepresented.

Free Press Action has urged lawmakers to reassess the current state of local news instead of trying to turn back the clock to a supposed golden age for journalism that existed pre-internet. We’ve called on legislators to reinvest in programs to fund public-interest media at the local and state levels. Alongside our allies, we’ve encouraged them to replant noncommercial media systems that can and must play a role at a time when the market economics of local news no longer work. And we’ve urged them to reimagine how critical local news and civic information get distributed and to whom, at a time when two local newspapers are shutting down each week and news deserts are spreading, especially in low-income communities.

While lawmakers are right to want to do something to support a more resilient local news and information sector, they need to be explicit about what needs saving and why. Efforts shouldn’t focus on bolstering the established news industry; instead, policymakers should prioritize ways to promote a public good: local-accountability journalism in service of the people who need it the most.

CNN OpEd: Here’s What’s at Risk if Big Tech Doesn’t Address Deceptive AI Content

Last Friday, 20 technology platforms agreed to better label and curtail AI-generated disinformation that’s being spread online to deceive voters during a busy election year. They pledged to provide “swift and proportionate responses” to deceptive AI content about the election, including sharing more information about “ways citizens can protect themselves from being manipulated or deceived.”

This voluntary commitment, signed by Google, Microsoft, Meta, OpenAI, TikTok and X, among others, does not outrightly ban the use of so-called political “deepfakes” — false video or audio depictions — of candidates, leaders and other influential public figures. Nor do the platforms agree to restore the sizable teams they had in place to safeguard election integrity in 2020. Even at those previous levels, these teams struggled to stop the spread of disinformation about the election result, helping to fuel violence at the US Capitol Building as Congress prepared to certify President Joe Biden’s victory.

In response, the platforms have pledged to set high expectations in 2024 for how they “will manage the risks arising from deceptive AI election content,” according to the joint accord. And their actions will be guided by several principles, including prevention, detection, evaluation and public awareness.

If the platforms want to prevent a repeat of 2020, they need to be doing much more now that technology has made it possible to dupe voters with these deceptively believable facsimiles... [read the full commentary at CNN]