This has been in the offing for weeks, with lots of reporting since Ajit Pai took over as FCC Chair about his intentions to dismantle net neutrality regulations, but today it finally become official with a speech by Pai outlining his proposed approach. For now, all that will happen is that the FCC will tomorrow publish a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking outlining plans to reclassify broadband services as Title I, and inviting public comment. The significance of that is that the 2015 reclassification of broadband as Title II was what enabled the agency to pass net neutrality rules which stood up in court, so reversing that decision would also remove the net neutrality regulations. What Pai didn’t do in his speech today was outline how net neutrality rules, which he says he broadly supports, would be enforced going forward, though reporting has suggested he favors handing enforcement to the FTC with providers drawing up voluntary codes of conduct. The providers themselves, meanwhile, have been piping up in praise of the proposal while reiterating their commitment to a version of net neutrality they can live with: not blocking or degrading competing traffic. Once again, how you feel about all this depends on what you think net neutrality should mean: if you agree with that basic definition from the providers, things should be fine, but if you think it should also mean no paid prioritization, no zero rating, and so on, then you’ll have a problem with how this plays out. Pai’s fundamental argument here is that the providers were largely self-regulating before the rules, and that they will be again. The counterargument is that the threat of rules was enough to keep the carriers in line without them, and with rules eliminated and no immediate prospect of their reintroduction, carriers would be emboldened to push the limits in a way they weren’t in 2015. Also, as I argued a few weeks back, though the proposal released tomorrow will be up for public comment, I wouldn’t expect it to change much in the face of even very strong negative feedback.
Google Forced to Unbundle Services from Android and Open to Search Competitors in Russia (Apr 17, 2017)
The EU is currently taking action against Google over what it sees as anticompetitive practices including bundling of its own services and blocking competing ones from being pre-installed in Android. As such, this Russian case takes on more importance than it might otherwise have, because it presents one possible outcome of the EU case, which is forcing Google to unbundle its own services from Android and allow competing search engines like Yandex to be pre-installed. That’s certainly a possibility in the EU case too, and would mirror the action taken years ago against Microsoft over browsers in Windows. If that were to happen, I’m skeptical many people (or OEMs) would choose alternative search engines on an Android phone, but it would potentially threaten Google’s Android business model, which is entirely about the apps and services it runs on the device (and the advertising they enable). For what it’s worth, as I wrote in this piece at the time the EU action was announced, I still think it’s misguided.
Silicon Valley is (quietly) beginning to fight the Trump administration’s net neutrality plan (but probably won’t succeed) (Apr 12, 2017)
This was somewhat inevitable given the earlier fight about net neutrality, but it appears tech companies are starting to make their views known on FCC chair Ajit Pai’s plans to roll back net neutrality regulations and hand oversight to the FTC instead. So far, though, none of them are saying anything publicly, and I’m skeptical that we’ll see the same vocal fight over this as we did last time around on the part of the big companies. More to the point, I suspect even if we do it won’t make much difference. When Tom Wheeler came to the FCC many doubted that he would be tough on the ISPs he had previously represented as head of a cable lobbying group, and so he was particularly sensitive to criticisms of his policy along those lines. He also, of course, represented a Democratic administration which favored net neutrality rules. Pai, on the other hand, is a familiar figure with well-known views on net neutrality, who was in turn appointed by a president who backs his agenda. As such, even though Wheeler strengthened his stance on net neutrality as a result of public pressure, I can’t see Pai caving in the same way. We might see a slight moderation of the approach, and perhaps a slowdown in the transition to ensure the FTC is ready to pick up the gavel, but I can’t see any substantive change to the plan occurring because of opposition from big tech companies. Meanwhile, of course, this sets up yet another potential fight between the tech industry and the Trump administration, which may be another reason they choose to stay fairly quiet, given all the fronts on which they’re fighting.
Google accused of ‘extreme’ gender pay discrimination by US labor department – The Guardian (Apr 7, 2017)
The Department of Labor is suing Google over an alleged failure to adequately disclose its compliance with equal opportunity laws as a federal contractor. During the course of the court case, the DoL has accused Google of having a significant gender pay disparity, something Google strongly denies. Were the allegations to be true, it would be extremely damaging for Google’s reputation as an employer, but given that Google hasn’t given the DoL all the documents it’s asking for, you have to ask whether the Department has a full picture of Google’s pay practices. Google, in turn, has argued that the DoL has gone too far in its request for documents and that it has already adequately complied with the applicable regulations. Recent surveys have shown significant gender and race pay disparities within the industry, so it wouldn’t be surprising if those patterns held at Google too, but it claims its own data shows no such disparity. The court case will presumably eventually come down one way or another both on this question and whether Google has adequately complied with regulations, so it’s worth keeping an eye on how this develops.
via The Guardian
A new front has just opened up in the war between the Trump administration and the tech industry: Twitter is suing the government after it attempted to compel Twitter to reveal the identity of the people behind the @Alt_USCIS Twitter account. That account is allegedly maintained by employees of the US Citizenship and Immigration Service and has been highly critical of the Trump administration and its policies on immigration. In and of itself, that seems like no legal justification at all for unmasking the account’s owners, and that’s why Twitter is pushing back on free speech grounds. But the legal hook here may be that the account is using the name of the agency in its Twitter handle, and as such might just possibly be in contravention of trademark or copyright law, or anti-impersonation regulations. Regardless of the reasoning, this sets up yet another fight between the tech industry and the administration, though in fairness Twitter had resisted some earlier attempts by the Obama administration to get at the people behind accounts as well. It’s also an important test of one of the key tenets of Twitter’s value proposition as a free speech platform.
This piece is sadly short on details and on comment from Apple, so we have to read between the lines a little bit to see what’s happening here. My guess is that this lawsuit from the Australian competition commission concerns Apple’s practice of disabling phones which have had their screens tampered with when that process involves the Touch ID sensor and its associated secure enclave. Apple does this in order to preserve the security of that system, but to an end user or repair shop it just looks like Apple is trying to keep the repair business to itself. Some US states have been pushing right-to-repair laws to deal with this kind of situation, and Apple has been pushing back, arguing that there are security issues at stake. The problem is that Apple often charges a lot more for either AppleCare or the repair itself than third parties, so the optics are bad even if the reasoning is sound. I suspect Apple is going to be dealing with a lot more of this kind of thing, and this Australian case will be an important test of how effectively Apple is able to fight its corner.
8,000 Uber, Lyft, ride-hailing drivers fail new background checks in Massachusetts – The Boston Globe (Apr 5, 2017)
Massachusetts put in place a new law requiring drivers for ride sharing services to acquire a license, which in turn requires passing an extensive background check. Of the 71,000 existing drivers who applied, a little over 11% failed these background checks, in many cases because of issues with driver’s licenses, at least some of which should have been caught by Uber and Lyft. Those companies, in turn, countered that they either don’t have access to longer criminal histories or that they have deliberately ignored older offenses as a way to help people with troubled pasts move on. Though there’s some truth to the former point, the latter is at least partly spin. Sex offenders, of whom 51 were rejected by Massachusetts, have to register, and presumably blocking them from becoming drivers would be both easy and desirable, no matter how long ago the offenses. The Massachusetts law is stricter than in other states and as such helps highlight how the background checks the companies themselves conduct can miss potentially serious issues in drivers’ histories.
via Boston Globe
FCC and FTC Heads Outline Policy on Internet Privacy (Apr 5, 2017)
In an op-ed in the Post this morning, the chair of the FCC and acting chair of the FTC write up their views on the internet privacy debate that’s been roaring in online tech publications over the last few weeks. As I’ve said previously (and discussed in depth in last week’s News Roundup podcast), the reaction on this topic has been overblown, and understanding poor, though the major players on the other side haven’t really helped themselves. The major ISPs only began communicating on the topic after the congressional vote was over, and only now are the FCC and FTC chairs communicating clearly about the issue. But the reality is that this issue of internet privacy can only really be resolved by new regulation from the FTC, which will end up once again having responsibility for online privacy as it did until 2015.
Another crazy wrinkle in the ongoing set of regulatory and legal actions against Qualcomm over anticompetitive practices: the Korean regulator responsible for the fine against Qualcomm last year says that one of the conditions of the contract between the companies was that Samsung would not be allowed to sell its own Exynos chips to any other vendors. What’s particularly crazy here is that Samsung is both Qualcomm’s biggest customer for chips and a contract manufacturer of those chips, so the two are inextricably intertwined here but are still going through this painful process. Samsung isn’t suing Qualcomm as Apple is, but it’s still likely cooperating with the authorities who are looking into its dealings in various markets. Just another sign of how far relationships between Qualcomm and some of its biggest customers have got, that they’re willing to start airing their grievances despite their close ties.
I’ll refer readers back to last week’s comment on this topic, even though the news has moved on a little. That item was about telcos lobbying for a change in laws regarding user data, whereas today’s news is about the Senate pushing through a bill that would enact the change, but the issues are the same. At root, the telcos have argued that they shouldn’t be regulated more tightly than the internet companies that already gather and sell lots of data on users, and that therefore regulations introduced last year should be overturned. Of course, both web companies and other entities like data brokers already gather, aggregate, and sell masses of user data, so there’s some merit to the argument that telcos shouldn’t be the only ones singled out here. ISPs have also argued that they’ve voluntarily agreed to codes of conduct which would bind them in similar ways without this regulation. Regardless, the optics of a move such as this bill are terrible both for the ISPs and for the (mostly Republican) senators who have backed it.
CTIA, which is the industry association that represents the largest US wireless carriers, is arguing before the FCC that it shouldn’t be subjected to new rules on sharing data it collects on its users. The carriers have argued that Google and other online service providers aren’t subject to the same rules (those companies are regulated primarily by the FTC rather than the FCC) and so for consistency’s sake the carriers should be treated the same way. This is really about a technical definition of the word “sensitive” – clearly the kind of data being talked about here is indeed enormously sensitive, but the real question is how disclosure of that data is regulated. This matters because, for example, AT&T as a fiber broadband carrier in certain parts of the country has offered a service discount for customers who consent to tracking of their web browsing history and so on, something which it argues Google does all the time without explicitly asking for users’ permission to do. What the carriers are arguing here is that it should be allowed to continue to do this kind of thing without having to ask users to opt in first. The carriers look likely to win given the current hands-off policy stance of the FCC, which means more erosion of user privacy for users, but the proper approach would be for the FTC and FCC to work together to craft a set of consistent rules that would apply to all players that get access to similar data, rather than each regulating in a vacuum.
via Ars Technica
1 million NYC homes can’t get Verizon FiOS, so the city just sued Verizon – Ars Technica (Mar 14, 2017)
This is a long-running dispute between Verizon and the city of New York over whether or not Verizon has lived up to a 2008 agreement that required it to “pass” all the households in NYC by 2014. Verizon says it has done so, because the definition of passing a building is to run fiber close enough that it could be hooked up to homes if building owners give permission, while the city is arguing that passing means actually hooking up the homes. The disconnect here is that most of New York is made up of apartment buildings where landlords and not tenants get to determine whether or not a telco or cable company can run fiber into the building to connect individual apartments. In many cases, landlords have existing exclusive agreements with another provider or simply don’t want the disruption of a new fiber build, so they resist. Verizon says it can’t be held responsible for not providing fiber in those situations and has asked the city to help persuade landlords to open up their buildings. The reality is likely somewhere in the middle – yes, Verizon has struggled to get landlords to agree to Fios installations, but it probably also hasn’t tried as hard as it might and likely also has some other buildings where it could hook up service but hasn’t. This is the flip side of the AT&T story I covered the other day – either cities don’t require any specific commitment to connect households and then there are complaints about favoring wealthier neighborhoods, or they do extract those commitments and then end up fighting over whether they’ve been met.
via Ars Technica
California DMV: Humans soon no longer required in self-driving cars – San Francisco Chronicle (Mar 10, 2017)
Michigan’s autonomous driving laws already allow testing of cars without drivers, and given that these two states are home to much of the testing going on, California clearly feels it needs to keep up. Those Michigan laws assume that carmakers are going to comply with all applicable regulations, and therefore require that any testing is done by or in partnership with those carmakers, while the proposed California law has no such restrictions (logical given the biggest local testers are tech companies and now legacy automakers). In both cases, the states are deferring somewhat to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to set the overall rules and to some extent approve cars for autonomous driving without a driver. This Chronicle piece quotes a spokesperson from Consumer Watchdog, which has been particularly harsh (perhaps deservedly so) on Uber/Otto, but also seems to be one of the main organizations demanding tougher regulation of autonomous driving in general in California. What’s interesting is that there are so few voices on the other side of this rapid push towards autonomous driving.
California and Michigan have to be the two states where the most testing of autonomous vehicle technology is being done, with the former home to most of the tech companies in the space and the latter the home of several legacy automakers. The FT is here citing data from the California DMV, which you can see in its raw form here. What’s fascinating is the mix of companies here, as I’ve said before – there are several traditional carmakers (VW, Mercedes, Nissan, BMW, Honda, Ford, and Subaru), several big names from the tech world (Waymo, Tesla, Uber, Baidu, Faraday Future, and Cruise [now part of GM]), and a variety of other smaller companies. But Waymo has by far the largest number of cars and miles driven (and most accidents). But the California DMV is certainly the source of some of the most interesting data on self-driving testing anywhere in the world right now.
via Financial Times
Uber has issued a statement announcing that it is ceasing the use of its Greyball platform for evading law enforcement and regulators, and that it’s in the process of responding to “organizations” (presumably regulators and law enforcement personnel in the cities where the platform previously did operate) who have enquired about it. This is striking because Uber’s initial response to the New York Times report was brazen in its lack of contrition – it had acted as though it saw nothing wrong, but has clearly now had a change of heart. The wording of today’s announcement certainly seems to concede that it did use the tool for evading regulators in the past, and even suggests it may continue to do so in the near future because of unspecified elements of how it works, which seems bizarre.
This case has been going on for a long time, and is another example of the tensions between US and Chinese tech companies, in the wireless space in particular. Though this case has nothing to do with the concerns about back doors in wireless networks I mentioned in the context of Huawei yesterday, it highlights another concern: that Chinese tech companies have often been willing to sell technology to some of the world’s repressive regimes, and have often had to cover their tracks in order to do so. ZTE got caught doing this in Iran a few years back and the US has taken action over breach of sanctions, as ZTE was incorporating US components. The worst case scenario here was that ZTE would be banned from exporting any US technology to use in its own products, which would have included Qualcomm chips apart from other things and would likely have been devastating. It avoided that outcome, but still has to pay a fine equivalent to its last two years of profits, which is pretty bad by itself. None of this is likely to make US wireless carriers more likely to place Chinese smartphones on their premium shelf space.
I think there may have been one day in the past week when there wasn’t some new negative story about Uber, and that’s just based on what I’ve written about here. The latest is reporting from the New York Times that Uber has a program called Greyball which identifies app users who may not be who they seem and serves up fake cars or otherwise obfuscates the real activity going on with drivers in the area. Although there are some legitimate reasons for Uber to do something like this – for a time, competitors were frequently ordering and canceling cars – it was deliberately used to evade law enforcement in places where Uber was breaking local laws. Its statement in the article suggests it sees nothing wrong with this behavior, but characterizes this last scenario as “opponents who collude with officials on secret ‘stings’ meant to entrap drivers”. One might, I suppose, make a similar argument about police running speed traps, but radar detectors are illegal in some places anyway. The legality of what Uber did here isn’t 100% clear, but it’s yet another example of Uber’s disregard for regulations and willingness to do almost anything to flout or circumvent them. On the other hand, it appears Uber’s PR department has lost the will to fight on yet another front and isn’t even disputing this story.
via New York Times