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Government Taking Steps to Address Companies’ Vast Collections of Private Consumer Data

in NTIA/Privacy by

WASHINGTON, November 3, 2010 – As consumers provide large amounts of private information to web services, the government is tuning into the fact that the use of this information by these companies is becoming increasingly important.

Last week, top members of the Committee on Energy and Commerce sent Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg a list of questions regarding the firm’s use of private user data. On Wednesday, the Federal Trade Commission completed an investigation of Google’s collection of information during its mapping efforts.

In an effort to organize the federal effort, the Obama administration has formed an Interagency Subcommittee on Privacy & Internet Policy. It includes representatives from the departments of State, Energy, Treasury and Commerce as well as the National Economic Council and others. The goal of the committee is to monitor and create policies that affect user privacy and access.

Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Communications and Information Larry Strickling recently spoke at the 32nd International Conference of Data Protection and Privacy Commissioners in Israel. Strickling highlighted a number of efforts being undertaken by te federal government to protect consumers. The most expansive of which is the Internet Policy 3.0. This policy position was announced in February and looks to update and improve overall internet policies including cyber security and copyright protection. In regards to privacy, the goal is to increase user privacy and simplify the privacy statements which sites and software use.

The NTIA has already formed the Internet Policy Task Force which combines the efforts of the NTIA, along with the Patent and Trademark Office, NIST and the International Trade Administration. The task force also works with key stakeholders to ensure that any policies proposed are achievable and pragmatic.

Strickling however lamented that there is still not a comprehensive set of guidelines such as the Fair Information Practice Principles which the FTC has proposed. These principles would offer a baseline from which new polices could be formulated and customized per industry; Strickling wants these rules to be a formal enforceable code.

“I envision a strong role for voluntary but enforceable codes of conduct, which must be developed through open, multi-stakeholder processes as a way to fuel this dynamism,” he said. “This approach recognizes that technologists and entrepreneurs, privacy and consumer advocates, business interests, and the government have to work together to develop a privacy policy. Launching such multi-stakeholder processes is, indeed, challenging, but we should have confidence in the process because similar global, multi-stakeholder efforts have been successful, for example, the creation of the underlying Internet standards.”

To achieve this level of consumer protection, Strickling proposed the establishment of a Privacy Policy Office which would act as an interagency center of expertise. This new office would not replace the FTC or NTIA but would offer a clearinghouse of information and work with stakeholders.

He also emphasized that these issues must be handled both at the national and international level, saying, “International cooperation on enforcement is very encouraging. Just about a month ago, privacy enforcement agencies from 13 countries formally announced the formation of the Global Privacy Enforcement Network. I’m pleased to say that the U.S.’s own FTC is among the thirteen.”

The FTC is also one of five signatories to the APEC Cross-border Privacy Enforcement Arrangement. The agreement creates a voluntary framework for cross-border cooperation on consumer privacy investigations and enforcement issues throughout the APEC region.

Experts Review Reform and Standards at the FCC

in Broadband Updates/Broadband's Impact/FCC/National Broadband Plan/Net Neutrality/Transparency by

WASHINGTON, March 8, 2010 – Panelists from the Federal Communications Commission, Capitol Hill, public interest groups and the private sector addressed issues of FCC reform and regulatory responsibility at “An FCC for the Internet Age: Reform and Standard-Setting,” a half-day conference sponsored by Public Knowledge, Silicon Flatirons and the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation.

Dale Hatfield from Silicon Flatirons opened up the conference by enforcing the need for an open, transparent process to encourage investment. He said regulatory risk is no good but it is critical to our fundamental belief in government. He added that while it’s important to protect investors, we run the danger of too much or too little regulation with bad effects on both ends.

“We need the right tool to stay closer to the optimum,” he said.

Public Knowledge Director Gigi Sohn moderated the first panel titled “The Present and Future of FCC Reform.” Sohn said the FCC has been “a little broken” in the past and asked the panelists to focus on agency reform by analyzing what has been done, what needs to be done and whether Congress should step in.

With regards to what reforms have been made, Mary Beth Richards, special counsel on FCC reform, said the agency’s goal is to become a model of excellence in government through openness, transparency, public input and data driven decisions.

She stressed that the FCC has made strides in seven areas beginning with public safety and readiness, data collection analysis and dissemination and system reform (licensing, comment filing and interface commonality).

The agency also has focused on how it communicates within and outside the agency, and Richards said there have been great strides in the areas of social media. Additionally. the FCC has focused on its workforce and organization, rules and procedures and all things financial.

FCC General Counsel Austin Schlick focused on the rules and processes reform and highlighted three changes in that area.

“The over-arching principles are accessibility, transparency and efficiency,” he said. “Sometimes they are complementary and sometimes they are in tension, and it is our job to balance them as best we can.”

Schlick added that the first thing the agency did was to return to the model that the drafters of the Administrative Procedures Act intended, which is to provide the public with draft rules in the FCC’s Notices of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) where ever possible.

As a tradeoff, this approach can lead to a loss of efficiency, he said, explaining that the agency will be using more Notice of Inquiries to gather preliminary knowledge to establish the content of draft rules.

The second change is what the agency calls the Procedures NPRM, which seeks to reform the operating procedures and rules of practice.

Schlick said the highlights of the NPRM streamline certain procedures and clear out stale items and backlogs, but perhaps most importantly they press toward a broader use of electronic filing and docketing. A big problem Schlick cited is that a number of large proceedings in the bureaus are undocketed and maintained as adjudications, making it difficult to get the comments filed in those proceedings.

Schlick highlighted a third change – the Ex Parte NPRM. The proceeding revises ex parte rules by proposing to require disclosure of every meeting addressing the merits and a summary of what was discussed in the meeting. Additionally the NPRM proposes reforms to the Sunshine Act and extends ex parte filing deadlines from one to two days to allow for more substantive filings.

Sohn turned to Matthew Hussey, who is the telecommunications legislative assistant for Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine), to gauge the Hill’s reaction to the changes.

Hussey told other panelists that it seems like Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W. Va.), who heads the Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, takes FCC reform seriously.

The committee still has concerns about undue influence and the integrity of data collection, he said, later adding that it is important for the FCC to resolve its bottleneck issues because industry cannot wait. Undue delay within industry will erode potential for competition and advanced technological development, he said.

Mark Cooper, the director of research at the Consumer Federation of America, said the essence of democracy is established when the people write the rules that they want to live under.

“Change means changing the rules. Changing rules means having proceedings” and changing proceedings naturally take a long time, he said.

Cooper also took issue with ex parte communications. He believes they “are an affront and insult to democracy and a denial of due process.” Certain parties are naturally much better situated to get those meetings than others. Why does the agency need everything explained to them by an army of lobbyists, he asked rhetorically. Cooper proposed that the FCC basically abolish ex parte communications.

Nick Johnson, a former FCC commissioner and now a law professor at the University of Iowa’s law school, agreed with Cooper. Johnson said all communications with commissioners should be done in writing and if a meeting is requested, it must occur in front of the full commission and be properly documented.

Susan Crawford, former National Economic Council member and now a law professor at the University of Michigan, said the work of the agency – especially in the area of net neutrality – is particularly exciting.

“When we see something, we make progress,” said Crawford in regards to the Web site fully dedicated to that proceeding.

To address Crawford’s concerns about the ex parte procedures, she said having the members of the FCC meet more often as a commission might reduce the dependence on the ex parte system.

Schlick agreed with Crawford that to the extent that ex parte has become a substitute for other fact gathering processes, it is wrong, inefficient and not transparent.

Schlick said he is a fan of the ex parte process because he has a lot of questions that are not normally addressed on the record.

He added that there is a need to lower the barriers of entry for ex parte communications and participation at the commission.

The OpenInternet proceeding took blog postings into the record, which proved controversial. Schlick added that in the ex parte NPRM they asked how they could take a construct that assumes a small professional record and apply it to everyday people on Twitter sending their thoughts to the commission.

Cooper countered: “It is hard to accept the proposition that a two-hour long dinner with the chairman is equal to a blog post.” His proposed compromise involves the use of an independent third party scribe who takes notes on and files the ex parte letter.

Sohn changed course and asked the panelists what they thought about the perceived notion that the agency’s relationship with the White House is a little too cozy. She then asked whether the FCC should be an executive agency rather than an independent agency.

Crawford said there will always be political pressure due to appointments and congressional budget oversight but that overall, the agency does a good job to try to be independent. However, she cautioned that the real pressure on the agency comes from industry, not from politics.

The relationships with the telecom industries is way too centralized, she said, adding that the revolving door at the agency should be fixed.

She said FCC staff should not be able to work for the industry that they are regulating. Crawford ended by referencing an article written by Kevin Murphy of Catholic Law School. Murphy suggests that the FCC’s policy role should be taken away and given back to the administration, leaving it with the sole responsibility of regulating the industry. Crawford suggests that a split between policy and regulation at the FCC is an interesting idea.

Cooper noted that to decrease political influences, commissioners should be appointed to life terms or have set term limits.

The realistic approach would be to limit commissioners to one term limit, he said, adding that the ban on lobbying the commission should be equal to the amount of time served at the agency.

He also said a former FCC employee should not be allowed face-to-face communications with current staff members and commissioners.

Schlick responded by clarifying that all employees are restricted from lobbying the agency on matters they worked on. Senior officials have a one-year ban on lobbying the agency.

Ethics pledge employees such as commissioners and some other senior employees have a two-year ban, he said. If they register as a lobbyist, they cannot work on the same issues they worked on at the commission.

Sohn brought up the Sunshine Act, which has been criticized as an impediment to honest decision-making. She asked whether proposals like the Stupak bill strike balance between transparency and deliberative privilege.

That bill, named after Rep. Bart Stupak (D-Mich.), allows more than two commissioners to meet alone at any time outside of a public meeting. However, the meetings would require a representative from the general counsel’s office as well as a detailed transcription of the meeting.

Johnson said the Stupak bill addresses a serious problem but is troubled by the solution. He wants to see more deliberation between bodies and would like to see the fact-finding process outlined for the public. He is not persuaded that the language in the Stupak upholds the spirit of the APA.

Cooper wanted to bring the Sunshine discussion to the data discussion. He said that when the FCC commissions a study it should be subject to a formal process of peer review just like stated in the guidelines offered by the Office of Management and Budget. Richards responded by saying that in the data and systems reform area, there are many changes to make data more available to the public.

When asked about the FCC academic studies such as those done by the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University, Schlick explained that they receive many of the academic studies as gifts.

When an audience member asked about the loss of engineering talent, Hussey asserted that Sen. Snowe has a strong interest in FCC reform on technology issues.

She has voiced concern about the reduction in engineering staff compared to the increase in complexity of technical issues. Hussey suggested that at least one commissioner should be an engineer. The senator also has introduced a bill to increase the engineering hires at the commission.

Another audience member asked why the agency does not use video conferencing to stream ex parte meetings.

Richards said it had been considered but the agency is in the process of currently improving its own internal bandwidth. Crawford saw no difference between a full description of the meetings and streaming the meetings. Schlick on the other had was firm to defend ex parte “if you stream ex parte then it is not ex parte.”

The final question asked the panelists how the FCC is balancing the effort to increase online comment filing with the notion that so many low-income Americans do not have access to high speed internet. Schlick responded that the question goes to the heart of the issues and the National Broadband Plan due out this month.

The Rise of the Middle Mile in Obama’s Theory of Broadband Stimulus

in Broadband Stimulus/Expert Opinion by

WASHINGTON, December 21, 2009 – Last Thursday’s announcement of broadband stimulus – even if it was about two-and-a-half percent of the total broadband stimulus funding – was like manna to broadband industry.

Whether or not broadband activists and broadband builders believe that the federal government will end up playing a significant part of the telecommunications industry, the tension-in-waiting for action has been palpable and long-building.

By the time of Thursday’s announcement, it had already been 10 months, to the day, since President Obama signed the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.

That means that if you divide the $182 million awarded on Thursday with the 303 days between February 17 and December 17, approximately $600,000 a day had been dispensed by the Commerce Department’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration and the Agriculture Department’s Rural Utility Service.

In light of these awards, what probably got less attention was a key policy document released on Thursday by the White House’s National Economic Council.

Titled “Recovery Act Investments in Broadband: Leveraging Federal Dollars to Create Jobs and Connect America,” this document represents a manifesto for the value of federal engagement in broadband’s “middle mile.”

“Middle-mile infrastructure is essential for brining broadband to communities that were previously isolated or had only rudimentary connections. By lowering the cost of last-mile connections, investments in the middle mile allow Internet service providers to enter the market and build connections to homes and business,” reads the report.

“In addition, Recovery Act middle-mile projects are designed to connect directly to community anchor institutions, providing them with immediate Internet access and improving the critical services they provide.”

What is this middle-mile infrastructure?

Just are there are interstate highways, secondary highways, and tertiary roads that lead into neighborhoods, the Internet can be broken into the fiber backbone, the middle mile, and the “last mile” connectivity to homes and businesses.

Telecom and tech officials have been puzzling over the problem of last mile connectivity for years. (So much so, in fact, that some internet purists insist on calling this home-connectivity the “first mile,” because it connects people to the rest of the Net.)

The middle mile, by contrast, is coming out for its solo in the spotlight under the Broadband Technology Opportunities Program and Broadband Infrastructure Program.

Of the funding announced on Thursday, about $170 million of the $182 million total appear to be targeted at this middle mile problem and opportunity.

Many more projects will be announced over the next 70 days. One of the many things that we’ll be watching is how the focus on the middle mile continues.

Broadband Stimulus Rush Begins with $182 Million Dispensed Today in Dawsonville, Ga.; Less Than 3 Percent of Total Funds

in Broadband Stimulus by

By Drew Clark, Editor,; and Winter Casey, Reporter,

WASHINGTON, December 17, 2009 – The White House announced that $182 million in federal funding for broadband stimulus funding will be dispensed Thursday by Vice President Joe Biden at Impulse Manufacturing in the rural town of Dawsonville, Ga.

The initial grants are the first of a $2 billion disbursement in broadband funding under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act over the next 75 days, the White House said.

The funding, said the White House, is “to bring broadband to communities that currently have little or no access to the technology.”

The projects to be unveiled on Thursday includes 18 program that benefit 17 states.

The $182 million in funding on these 18 projects announced Thursday will be matched by $46 million in private investment.

Of Thursday’s total, $129 million comes from the Commerce Department’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration, and $54 million comes from the Agriculture Department’s Rural Utilities Service.

See our related story on, that summarizes information known about the projects announced on Thursday.

The award include middle-mile projects in Georgia, Ohio, New York and North Carolina, a public computing center award in Arizona, a wireless project in remote Alaska, and two last-mile projects, in Maine and New Hampshire.

The White House is being extremely cautious in its unveiling of broadband stimulus funding. The $182 million in projects to be announced Thursday accounts for only 9 percent of the $2 billion that will be dispensed by the end of February.

In turn, that $2 billion represents only 27 percent of the $7.2 billion in federal funding allocated for broadband stimulus grants.

If the grants to announced by the end of February 2010 are the sum total of first round funding awards, that would leave nearly three-quarters of the remaining broadband funds to be announced in the second, or final, round of funding.

Put another way, Thursday’s announcements constitute merely 2.5 percent of all federal funds allocated for core broadband investments under the fiscal stimulus legislation, passed in February 2009.

In a Wednesday briefing embargod until Thursday, NTIA Chief Lawrence Strickling said that the government is not announcing more funding awards because they are carefully selecting the projects.

The first awards were initially planned to be announced in November – and completed by the end of December. The announcement was delayed. The Administration now plans to release grant recipient names on a rolling basis starting Thursday.

In a report issued by the National Economic Council said that “broadband investments will create tens of thousands of jobs and stimulate the economy in the near term.”

The NEC Broadband Report, entitled “Recovery Act Investments in Broadband: Leveraging Federal Dollars to Create Jobs and Connect America,” continues: “By providing broadband-enabled opportunities to previously underserved communities, these investments will also lay the foundation for long-term regional economic development.”

The report summarizes three major categories of broadband investment: middle-mile, community anchor institutions and last-mile connections “to rural America.”

The report downplays one key segment of broadband expenditures – “sustainable broadband” – targeted by the Recovery Act.

In the report, “middle mile” investments are seen as critical. “Investments in the ‘middle mile’ extend the reach of the Internet into communities that would otherwise lack adequate access to broadband and its many opportunities. Moreover, Recovery Act middle-mile projects are specifically designed to improve connections to community institutions such as schools, hospitals, and libraries in order to enhance the quality of their critical services and reach large numbers of people.”

“By focusing on these institutions,” the report continues, “federal investment will connect more workers to broadband at their jobs, empower more children with digital skills through schools and libraries, and lead to increased broadband adoption in homes and businesses.”

The report also analogies current federal investments in broadband infrastructure to the government’s traditional investments in the Internet’s backbone.

The report quotes President Obama as saying, on September 21, 2009, that “one key to strengthening education, entrepreneurship, and innovation in communities… is to harness the full power of the Internet, and that means faster and more widely available broadband.”

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