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TechFreedom Aims To Fill Privacy Niche

WASHINGTON, April 14, 2011 – In a town where there are as many opinions as there are issues, TechFreedom, a new think tank, aims to provide a non-partisan approach to privacy issues from a free market, libertarian stance.

The core focus of TechFreedom approaches privacy issues from two vantage points. One is to seek better protection from law enforcement intrusion, as seen in its efforts to reform the Electronic Communications Privacy Act. Second is in facilitating the least invasive government regulation of how the private sector uses data.

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WASHINGTON, April 14, 2011 – In a town where there are as many opinions as there are issues, TechFreedom, a new think tank, aims to provide a non-partisan approach to privacy issues from a free market, libertarian stance.

The core focus of TechFreedom approaches privacy issues from two vantage points. One is to seek better protection from law enforcement intrusion, as seen in its efforts to reform the Electronic Communications Privacy Act. Second is in facilitating the least invasive government regulation of how the private sector uses data.

TechFreedom President and Founder, Berin Szoka

The non-profit’s Founder and President, Berin Szoka, said his previous work addressed these issues when he was the Center for Internet Freedom’s Director at the Progress & Freedom Foundation (PFF), a policy institute that focused on the digital revolution. But into his third year at PFF, he was ready for more independence in his work.

“It was like living in someone else’s house,” said Szoka. “They expected things a certain way and reputation lags by years so all of us [at PFF] were held to the positions and approaches that everyone else had taken before us.”

When PFF shuttered its doors in October 2010, ending a 17-year run, Szoka saw a space open up for a new think tank and he launched TechFreedom in January.

So far the organization has hosted a handful of events; filed an amicus brief in the Supreme Court, pressing for commercial speech rights of pharmaceutical companies to use doctors’ prescription histories to market brand name drugs; testified before the House Judiciary Committee on Net Neutrality, and published a book entitled, “The Next Digital Decade: Essays on the Future of the Internet.”

ACADEMIA & PARTISANSHIP

Szoka notes one distinction with his think tank will be the interface it will provide for academics.

“There’s a lot of good work that goes on that is not well communicated to Washington. A lot of scholarship that does not have a lot of policy salience,” said Szoka.

Doubt remains, however, whether TechFreedom can connect a diversity of opinions from the academic sphere. Some consultants and academics in the field believe partisanship bleeds into the work most think tanks publish, exaggerating costs and benefits in the hope of persuading others.

“Most academics would be delighted to brief policymakers on any issue, without the need of a nonprofit organization as a go-between,” said Matt Jackson, department head of telecommunications at Pennsylvania State University. “If I were cynical, I would say this organization was created as a way to lobby on behalf of tech firms while appearing ‘neutral’ and therefore more credible than if the tech firms made similar policy arguments on their own.”

As for the group’s business model, like PFF, Szoka said TechFreedom will seek a wide variety of supporters, including companies that strongly disagree with each other on many issues but support the overall principle of a free market voice. He declined to go into further detail to disclose the group’s funding sources.

COVERAGE OPPORTUNITIES

Since the Microsoft antitrust case in 1998, the Internet and computer industry has more than tripled its lobbying efforts, spending $121.4 million in 2010 compared with $38.9 million in 1998, according to the Center for Responsive Politics (CRP). What’s unique about this lobbying sector is the amount of change in its top spenders.

“You’re not going to see this type of churn in oil and gas, in manufacturing and agriculture,” said Dave Levinthal, communications director at CRP, referring to the high turnover rate in the tech sector. “Year after year, you see the same players [in those industries]. [In tech] there’s less of that.”

Levinthal points to Facebook as one example. In 2008, the company didn’t spend a dime lobbying but spent six-figure sums in 2010, according to CRP.

This might be the nature of fast growing companies: creating a government affairs presence upon expansion. But decades into the tech boom, staff at TechFreedom say traditional think tanks have yet to catch up with the changing “new economy,” providing an underutilized coverage area for the policy group.

“There are plenty that do technology work but they’re largely more on the regulatory side,” said Berkeley, California-based Larry Downes, senior adjunct fellow at TechFreedom and internet industry consultant.

Downes said he’s surprised traditional thinkers in this space haven’t made the transition to these new economic problems, especially as “they’re getting bigger and they’re so interesting and so complicated that you’d think that [issues surrounding technology companies] would be really attractive to them.”

As for what to expect coming down the pipeline for TechFreedom, the topics in the book it published will be the main guidebook for topics to tackle, which include Internet speech, censorship on the Internet, search engines and online transactions.

Four months since its commencement, lawyers in this arena say it is too early to gauge the effectiveness and success of this think tank yet but Szoka says he is satisfied with their “good start” thus far.

Digital Inclusion

Digital Literacy Legend and Rural Telecommunications Congress Board Member Gene Crick Dies

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Gene Crick, a longtime broadband evangelist, died of a heart attack at home in Bastrop, Texas, on August 15.

Gene spent more than four decades advocating for broadband in the United States and around the world. He set up the first free public internet facilities in Texas, designed grant programs for community networking, developed pilot programs for community networking and telehealth, and advised state and federal agencies, foreign governments and nonprofit organizations on broadband issues.

Gene presented his rural internet road show for rural leaders and citizens across Texas as part of the launch of the $1.5 billion Texas Infrastructure Fund in the mid-1990s. His message was that locals could do great things for themselves and others once they were online. He was also on the founding boards of the Association for Community Networking in 1993 and the Rural Telecom Congress in 1997.  (See more details here.)

A Global Win-Win

This list barely hints at the range of his impact. More important than any single accomplishment was his commitment to the internet as a force for good. As a vocal leader of the community networking movement since before the free-nets emerged in the 1980s, he articulated the vision – shared by most early adopters of online community capacity building – of a global “win-win” in which all members of the human family could participate in the global internet economy and achieve the peace and prosperity that broadband makes possible. In other words, he thought globally and acted locally.

Gene raised awareness among rural and vulnerable populations about how broadband could empower them to seek equity of opportunity and promote life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness for all. He was always humorous and generous, and he had a heart as big as Texas. He was chagrined at the destruction of policies that promoted equal opportunity, including net neutrality and citizens’ rights to privacy and control over their own information.

One of those good folks who worked for the benefit of all, Gene tried to discover best practices, amid evolving technologies, politics and public perceptions, for teaching people to use the internet to help themselves and others.

Meeting Today’s Challenges

During the 1990s, Gene presented at Apple-sponsored community networking conferences with Steve Snow of Charlotte’s Web and Pat Finn of La Plaza Telecommunity Learning Center, founders of the first two World Wide Web–based community networks. But as ISPs proliferated, technology corporations lost their interest in community networking.

In 2019, good people are challenged to have a voice on the internet and stand up for what they believe in. Civil discourse online has been overwhelmed by trolls and bad actors. Meaningful, measurable “broadband best practices” are badly needed.

Perhaps the tide is turning. Founders of the internet and the WWW, such as Tim Berners-Lee and several tech billionaires, are becoming increasingly vocal about corporate and governmental abuses that diminish the internet’s economic and social potential. There is a new movement to return to the original vision – Gene’s original vision – of using the internet to bring people together for the good of all, instead of driving them apart for the political or economic benefit of a few. Let’s hope Big Tech can give us new hope for a positive, connected future in partnership with all members of the human family.

Gene was always humble and was never negative, despite witnessing the dwindling of his vision for a connected world of good folks working together for the global common good. He was a good man and will be sorely missed.

Frank Odasz, president of Lone Eagle Consulting, knew Gene Crick for more than 25 years and was a fellow board member of the Rural Telecom Congress until Gene’s untimely end. Contact him at Frank@lone-eagles.com.

This article originally appeared in the August-September 2019 edition of Broadband Communities magazine, and is reprinted with permission.

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Broadband Roundup

FCC Spends $524 Million for Rural Area as House Subcommittee Highlights Problem, New Public Knowledge CEO

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The Federal Communications Commission on Monday announced more than $524 million in funding over the next decade to expand broadband access to 205,520 unserved rural homes and businesses in 23 states. Providers will begin receiving funding this month.

“High-speed Internet provides access to opportunity in the 21st century, and the FCC’s top priority is closing the digital divide so that all Americans can fully participate in our connected society,” said FCC Chairman Ajit Pai. “Today’s authorization of funding is the largest yet from the auction, nearly double the amount authorized in the first two rounds nationwide, and serving over twice as many rural homes and businesses. I am pleased that the Commission is moving quickly to authorize these funds to close the digital divide in rural America.”

The funding represents the third wave of support from last year’s Connect America Fund Phase II auction. The FCC has already authorized two waves of funding in May and June, which are expanding connectivity to nearly 100,000 homes and businesses.

In total, the auction last fall allocated almost $1.5 billion in support of expanding broadband access.

House Agriculture Subcommittee hearing highlights divisions from limited rural broadband

At a hearing held by the House Agriculture Subcommittee on Thursday, Rep. Austin Scott, R-Ga., emphasized the division caused by lack of rural broadband access.

“Broadband service is required for modern businesses and it is the foundation for economic growth in today’s global markets,” said Scott. “From improving education opportunities, to accessing health care, to innovative new farming technology, consistent, high-speed access to the Internet is revolutionizing rural communities.”

Scott said that the broadband gap “has become a dividing line between those 24 million rural Americans and all the modern broadband-dependent information and services most urban and suburban Americans take for granted.”

In order to close the divide, Scott advocated for “strengthening effective programs already in place at the USDA and FCC, advocating for robust broadband support in an infrastructure package and even encouraging innovative technologies like TV White Spaces.”

Public Knowledge announces appointment of Chris Lewis as CEO

Consumer rights group Public Knowledge announced on Monday the appointment of former Vice President Chris Lewis as the organization’s new president and CEO. Lewis has 17 years of experience in policymaking and political activism, including 10 years working in technology policy at the FCC.

“Our generation of Americans are living in a time when technology is more integrated in our daily experience than ever before,” said Lewis. “This brings exciting new innovations and experiences, but it also requires smart policy to protect the long-standing values and expectations of the American people. This includes the first amendment freedom of expression, fair and functional access to creative works, and affordable access to communications.”

(Photo of Rep. Austin Scott by Andrea Jenkins, used with permission.)

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Broadband Roundup

Amie Stepanovich at Silicon Flatirons, Amazon Stores Voice Recordings, and Dish Network’s Spectrum Assets

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Silicon Flatirons announced Amie Stepanovich as the new executive director of the technology policy think tank based at the University of Colorado Law School. A noted cybersecurity and privacy law and policy expert, she plans to build upon Silicon Flatirons’ legacy of interdisciplinary conferences and programming. She begins on July 29, 2019, succeeding Flatirons’ founder Phil Weiser, who was elected attorney general of Colorado.

Stepanovich previously served as U.S. policy manager and global policy counsel at Access Now, where she was responsible for developing the organization’s U.S. policy and leading global projects at the intersection of human rights and government surveillance.

Prior to this, she was director of the Domestic Surveillance Project at the Electronic Privacy Information Center. Stepanovich is a board member of the Internet Education Foundation and an advisory board member for the Future of Privacy Forum.

Amazon continues to store information about conversations with Alexa on its devices

The Verge reports that Amazon doesn’t always delete the stored data that it obtains through voice interactions with the company’s Alexa and Echo device, even after a user chooses to wipe the audio files from their account. Amazon revealed this in a letter a letter to Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del., dated June 28.

The answers were a follow-up to a request from Coons when he questioned how long the company retains voice recordings and transcripts from Echo interactions. Amazon confirmed some of the allegations. “We retain customers’ voice recordings and transcripts until the customer chooses to delete them,” the letter reads.

There was also a question about whether Amazon held on to text transcripts of voice interactions with Alexa, even after a user has chosen to delete the audio equivalent. In some cases, Amazon chooses to hold on to the data without telling the user.

In its response, Brian Huseman, Amazon’s vice president of public policy, said the company is engaged in an “ongoing effort to ensure those transcripts do not remain in any of Alexa’s other storage systems.” In other words, even if a user manually deletes the audio version, some text versions are still saved in separate storage systems for some unknown amount of time.

“The American people deserve to understand how their personal data is being used by tech companies, and I will continue to work with both consumers and companies to identify how to best protect Americans’ personal information,” said Coons in a statement.

Dish Network’s $20 billion in dormant spectrum could lie fallow longer under T-Mobile/Sprint asset spin off

Bloomberg reports that about $20 billion worth of wireless airwaves, owned by Dish Network Corp, are sitting dormant. If used, they could create more competition and supply millions more high-speed connections.

Dish is on track to get even more airwaves and other assets this year, this time as part of a side deal to T-Mobile US Inc.’s purchase of Sprint Corp. The idea is set up Dish, known for its satellite TV service, as a nationwide wireless carrier, creating a new competitor after the $26.5 billion T-Mobile-Sprint merger subtracts one provider from the U.S. market.

The Federal Communications Commission has been pressuring Dish’s owner Charlie Ergen, to use the spectrum he already has. The FCC has said it will move to take away licenses if Dish doesn’t meet requirements to begin offering mobile service on its existing airwaves holdings by 2020.

T-Mobile and Sprint would let Dish use their infrastructure for six or seven years until Dish can build its own network, people familiar with the matter said this week. That might appeal to the FCC because it would let Dish immediately enter the market, even though it might take more time to use its airwaves.

The agency denied a $3.3 billion discount on airwaves claimed at auction in 2015 by two Dish partners, saying that the firms weren’t independent of Dish. The company’s past misadventures may be on Chairman Ajit Pai’s mind as he weighs whether to entrust Ergen with the fate of the wireless market.

(Photo of Amie Stepanovich, former U.S. Policy Manager and Global Policy Counsel, Access Now, in June 2016 by New America Foundation used with permission.)

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