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John Meyer: Slam the Phone on Telemarketers, Chairman Ajit Pai

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The top regulator of U.S. phone calls has issued an ultimatum to telecom companies: Either stop robocallers from faking phone numbers or risk new regulations from the Federal Communications Commission.

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai’s warning is well-justified. By several different measures, the number of telemarketing and scam calls to cell phones has exploded over the last few years. Besides making good on Pai’s warning to telecom companies, the FCC should create new rules for telemarketers to protect consumers from intrusive calls and wasted time.

Americans are letting more than half their cell phone calls go to voicemail, according to a recent report. Consumers may have personal reasons for ignoring their phones, but the dramatic increase in cellular telemarketing, robocalls, and spam is undoubtedly the main culprit.

While the FCC has been active in doling out fines and adjusting regulations, Pai’s threat of “regulatory intervention” represents an escalation in the FCC’s war on spam. Victory won’t be easy, though.

Telemarketers employ a bag of tricks for subverting Caller ID. These include calling from different numbers, calling from foreign countries, and “spoofing,” which means falsifying the information showing up on call preview. “Neighborhood Spoofing,” or mimicking the call receiver’s area code, is a common practice.

When people refer to “telemarketers,” they probably mean one of three similar but distinct practices. There are sales calls from companies upselling to consumers with whom they already have a business relationship. There are also companies who have legally purchased consumer data and are using it to cold-call potential customers.

Then, last and worst, there are the scammers. First Orion, a Caller ID company, estimates scam calls constituted less than 4 percent of cellular calls in 2017. This year, they are projected to make up just under half.

According to the Washington Post, Americans received more than 26 billion robocalls last year. Robocalls are used by telemarketers from all three categories, more and less abusively. The rampant use of spoofing among robocall dialers was the primary source of Pai’s ire in his statement last week.

In 2003, Congress tried to strike a balance between consumer rights and business privilege by creating the National Do Not Call Registry. Technological advancement has made those protections obsolete, however, and disrupted the status quo in favor of telemarketers.

Americans are increasingly reliant on cell phones for both their work and social lives. At the same time, not everyone has the luxury of turning their phones on silent or ignoring unknown callers. While Caller ID companies like First Orion and others are offering consumers solutions to telemarketing abuse from the private sector, the FCC could make a few reasonable regulatory changes, as well.

The FCC should regulate from the position that consumers don’t want to be bothered. Dealing with companies that have preexisting business relationships with a consumer should be the easiest to tackle. With a few exemptions for consumer health or financial emergencies, the FCC should require customer opt-in for extracurricular calls

Reining in cold callers is trickier. Stopping telemarketers from buying phone data through companies like Google, Facebook, and Amazon would take an act of Congress, but The FCC can set strict rules on data buyers that are more consumer friendly.

All telemarketing calls, whether live or automated, should include clear “opt-out” mechanisms. These opt-outs would last for some set period of time and re-upping them after they expire should be simple.

The FCC should also require telemarketers to be more transparent about the companies they represent. That information, as well as opt-out numbers, should be communicated within the first seconds of a call.

Finally, a certain number of call rejections should count as an affirmative opt-out for future calls from a particular company. The onus should be on telemarketing companies to take the hint that their services are not required.

These regulations would benefit not only consumers but also the legitimate telemarketing industry as a whole. Scammers, incessant robocalls, and obnoxiously-relentless telemarketers are effectively poisoning the well for responsible actors. Stronger regulations might make consumers less likely to hang up on all commercial callers immediately, creating more room for good-faith salespeople.

To facilitate enforcement, all categories of telemarketing companies would need to keep extensive records on their calls and opt-out lists. Robust rules would hit the noncompliant with stiff penalties. In a perfectly just world, these “stiff penalties” might include nonstop, anonymous calls to executives and middle managers of offending companies, though such penalties would undoubtedly be cost prohibitive.

Pai’s exhortation to telecommunication companies shouldn’t be considered an idle threat. As the Net Neutrality saga proved, he’s not afraid to embrace controversy. Happily, he’s unlikely to face protests outside his home or receive death threats over new protections from telemarketing. To the contrary, successfully slamming the phone on spam callers could be the most popular thing the FCC has ever done.

John C. Meyer is Senior Researcher for Consumers’ Research, the nation’s oldest consumer organization.

BroadbandBreakfast.com accepts commentary from informed observers of the broadband scene. Please send pieces to commentary@broadbandcensus.com. The views reflected in Expert Opinion pieces do not necessarily reflect the views of BroadbandBreakfast.com and Breakfast Media LLC.

Education

Education Executives Tout Artificial Intelligence Benefits for Classroom Learning

Artificial intelligence can help fill in gaps when teacher resources are limited, an event heard.

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Screenshot of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation event

WASHINGTON, May 25, 2022 – Artificial intelligence can help fill in gaps when teacher resources are limited and provide extra help for students who need individualized teaching, experts said at an event hosted by the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation on Tuesday.

As policy makers weigh the options for a structure for AI in the classroom, panelists agreed on its benefits for both teachers and students. Michelle Zhou, CEO of AI company Juji Inc., said AI technology in the classroom can be tools and applications like chatbots for real-time questions during class, and post-class questions at home for when the teacher is not available.

Lynda Martin, director of learning strategy for strategic solutions at learning company McGraw Hill, said AI provides the extra help students need, but sometimes are too shy to ask.

When a teacher has a high volume of students, it is difficult to effectively help and connect with each student individually, Martin said. AI gives the teacher crucial information to get to know the student on a more personal level as it transmits the student’s misconceptions and detects areas of need. AI can bring student concerns to the teacher and foster “individualized attention” she added.

Privacy and security concerns

Jeremy Roschelle from Digital Promise, an education non-profit, raise the privacy and security concerns in his cautious support of the idea. He noted that there needs to be more information about who has access to the data and what kinds of data should be used.

Beside bias and ethical issues that AI could pose, Roschelle cautioned about the potential harms AI could present, including misdetecting a child’s behavior, resulting in potential educational setbacks.

To utilize the technology and ensure education outcomes, Sharad Sundararajan, co-founder of learning company Merlyn Minds, touched on the need for AI training. As Merlyn Minds provides digital assistant technology to educators, he noted the company’s focus on training teachers and students on various forms of AI tech to enhance user experience.

There is an “appetite” from schools that are calling for this, said Sundararajan. As policy makers contemplate a strategic vision for AI in the classroom, he added that AI adoption in the classroom around the country will require algorithmic work, company partnerships, and government efforts for the best AI success.

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Education

Closing Digital Divide for Students Requires Community Involvement, Workforce Training, Event Hears

Barriers to closing the divide including awareness of programs, resources and increasing digital literacy.

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Screenshot of Ji Soo Song, broadband advisor at the U.S. Department of Education

WASHINGTON, May 24, 2022 – Experts in education technology said Monday that to close the digital divide for students, the nation must eliminate barriers at the community level, including raising awareness of programs and resources and increasing digital literacy.

“We are hearing from schools and district leaders that it’s not enough to make just broadband available and affordable, although those are critical steps,” said Ji Soo Song, broadband advisor at the U.S. Department of Education, said at an event hosted by trade group the Self-Insurance Institute of America. “We also have to make sure that we’re solving for the human barriers that often inhibit adoption.”

Song highlighted four “initial barriers” that students are facing. First, a lack of awareness and understanding of programs and resources. Second, signing up for programs is often confusing regarding eligibility requirements, application status, and installment. Third, there may be a lack of trust between communities and services. Fourth, a lack of digital literacy among students can prevent them from succeeding.

Song said he believes that with the Infrastructure, Investment and Jobs Act, states have an “incredible opportunity to address adoption barriers.”

Workforce shortages still a problem, but funding may help

Rosemary Lahasky, senior director for government affairs at Cengage, a maker of educational content, added that current data suggests that 16 million students lack access to a broadband connection. While this disparity in American homes remained, tech job posts nearly doubled in 2021, but the average number of applicants shrunk by 25 percent.

But panelists said they are hopeful that funding will address these shortages. “Almost every single agency that received funding…received either direct funding for workforce training or were given the flexibility to spend some of their money on workforce training,” said Lahasky of the IIJA, which carves out funding for workforce training.

This money is also, according to Lahasky, funding apprenticeship programs, which have been recommended by many as a solution to workforce shortages.

Student connectivity has been a long-held concern following the COVID-19 pandemic. Students themselves are stepping up to fight against the digital inequity in their schools as technology becomes increasingly essential for success. Texas students organized a panel to discuss internet access in education just last year.

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Education

FTC Approves Policy Statement on Guiding Review of Children’s Online Protection

The policy statement provides the guiding principles for which the FTC will review the collection and use of children’s data online.

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FTC Chairwoman Lina Khan

WASHINGTON, May 23, 2022 – The Federal Trade Commission last week unanimously approved a policy statement guiding how it will enforce the collection and use of children’s online data gathered by education technology companies.

The policy statement outlines four provisions in the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act, including ones related to limiting the amount of data collected for children’s access to educational tools; restricting types of data collected and requiring reasons for why they are being collected; prohibiting ed tech companies from holding on to data for speculative purposes; and prohibiting the use of the data for targeted advertising purposes.

“Today’s statement underscores how the protections of the COPPA rule ensure children can do their schoolwork without having to surrender to commercial surveillance practices,” said FTC Chairwoman Lina Khan at an open meeting on Thursday.

Commissioner Rebecca Slaughter added Thursday that although COPPA provides the strongest data minimization rule in US law, it’s enforcement may not be as strong, saying that “this policy statement is timely and necessary.”

Slaughter, who was the acting FTC chairwoman before Khan was approved to lead the agency, said last year that the commission was taking an all-hands-on-deck approach to tackling privacy and data collection practices of ed tech companies, which has seen a boom in interest since the start of the pandemic.

Thursday’s statement comes after lawmakers have clamored for big technology companies to do more to prevent the unnecessary collection of children’s data online. It also comes after President Joe Biden said in his State of the Union address earlier this year that companies must be held accountable for the “national experiment they’re conducting on our children for profit.”

Lawmakers have already pushed legislation that would reform COPPA – originally published in 1998 to limit the amount of information that operators could collect from children without parental consent – to raise the age for online protections for children.

Thursday’s FTC statement also seeks to scrutinize unwarranted surveillance practices in education technology, such as geographic locating or data profiling. Khan added that though endless tracking and expansive use of data have become increasingly common practices, companies cannot extend these practices into schools.

Review is nothing new

“Today’s policy statement is nothing particularly new,” said Commissioner Noah Phillips, saying that the review started in July 2019.

Commissioner Christine Wilson, while supporting the statement, was also more withdrawn about its impact. “I am concerned that issuing policy statements gives the illusion of taking action, especially when these policy statements break no new ground.”

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