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Net Neutrality

Broadband Roundup: Justice Clarence Thomas Expresses Regret on Brand X, Clearview AI Hacked, Online Privacy Act

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Photo of Justice Clarence Thomas in April 2017 by Preston Keres in the public domain

In the seemingly never-ending debate over whether broadband classifies as a Title I information service, or a Title 2 telecommunications service, Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas regrets his ruling in 2005 that “gave federal agencies extensive power to interpret U.S. law,” reports Jon Brodkin for Ars Technica.

Net neutrality has come to the forefront yet again as the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit repealed three elements of the Federal Communications Commission’s proposal to treat broadband as an internet service.

“But in a dissent on a new case, released Monday, Thomas wrote that he got Brand X wrong,” writes Brodkin.

Referring to the National Cable & Telecommunications Association v. Brand X Internet Services, Thomas stated, “Under its rule of deference, agencies are free to invent new (purported) interpretations of statutes and then require courts to reject their own prior interpretations.”

Clearview AI hacks raises concerns about anonymity

Clearview AI, the controversial facial recognition company lead by Hoan Ton-That, was hacked.

Kashmir Hill reported on Clearview AI for the New York Times last month in an article that brought to light the extensive database the company has that accesses billions of photos from online resources, like social media.

Jordan Valinsky reported for CNN Business that Clearview AI “said it lost its entire client list to hackers.” A client list that includes “police forces, law enforcement agencies and banks,” writes Valinsky.

Sen. Edward Markey, D-Mass., sent a letter to Ton-That with concerns that his Clearview AI “could eliminate public anonymity in the United States.”

Following the news of the data breach, Markey released a statement yesterday, saying “Clearview’s statement that security is its ‘top priority’ would be laughable if the company’s failure to safeguard its information wasn’t so disturbing and threatening to the public’s privacy,” said Markey.

“This is a company whose entire business model relies on collecting incredibly sensitive and personal information, and this breach is yet another sign that the potential benefits of Clearview’s technology do not outweigh the grave privacy risks it poses,” Markey stated.

New groups announce support for Online Privacy Act

In a house press release yesterday, an additional 15 groups announced support for the Online Privacy Act.

“The Online Privacy Act is sweeping legislation that creates user rights, places obligations on companies to protect users’ data, establishes a new federal agency to enforce privacy protections, and strengthens enforcement of privacy law violations.”

H.R. 4978 was created by Rep. Anna Eshoo, D-Calif., and Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif.

Support was garnered from groups including the National Hispanic Media Coalition, MediaJustice, Free Press Action, Public Knowledge, and several professors.

“The theft and abuse of personal data is unacceptable, and it’s well-past time to put an end to unfair business practices that deny users control over their own data. Our legislation ensures that every Americans’ right to their personal data is protected, and that the government provides tough but fair oversight,” said Eshoo and Lofgren.

Expert Opinion

Johnny Kampis: Democrats Needlessly Push Another Round of Net Neutrality Legislation

The Net Neutrality and Broadband Justice Act may harm the ability of broadband infrastructure to grow.

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The author of this Expert Opinion is Johnny Kampis, director of telecom policy for the Taxpayers Protection Alliance.

It ain’t broke, but Democrats keep trying to “fix” it.

July 28 saw the introduction of a bill to reimplement Title II regulations on broadband providers, paving the way for a second attempt at “net neutrality” rules for the internet.

Led by Sen. Ed Markey, D-Mass., along with co-sponsors Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., and Rep. Doris Matsui, D-Calif., the comically named Net Neutrality and Broadband Justice Act would classify ISPs as common carriers and give the Federal Communications Commission significant power to regulate internet issues such as pricing, competition, and consumer privacy.

Markey claims that the deregulation of the internet under former FCC Chairman Ajit Pai left broadband consumers unprotected. But as data has shown, and Taxpayers Protection Alliance’s own investigation highlighted, no widespread throttling, blocking or other consumer harm occurred after the Title II rules were repealed.

Randolph May, president of the Free State Foundation, noted after Markey’s bill was released that nearly all service providers’ terms of service contain legally enforceable commitments to not block or throttle the access of their subscribers to lawful content.

Markey said his legislation, which would codify broadband access as an essential service, will equip the FCC with the tools it needs to increase broadband accessibility.

The country already has the tools it needs to close the digital divide, with billions in taxpayer dollars flowing to every state to boost broadband access. For example, less than $10 billion in federal funding was dedicated to broadband in 2019, but an incredible $127 billion-plus in taxpayer dollars will be dedicated to closing the digital divide in the coming years. That doesn’t even count the nearly $800 billion in COVID-19 relief and stimulus funding that could be used for multiple issues, including broadband growth.

The bill’s proponents say that the FCC can foster a more competitive market with the passage of the legislation. FCC’s data already indicate the market is extremely competitive, with 99 percent of the U.S. population able to choose between at least two broadband providers. That doesn’t even account for wireless carriers and their rapid development of 5G.

The Net Neutrality and Broadband Justice Act may instead harm the ability of broadband infrastructure to grow without funneling even more taxpayer money toward the cause. Studies have shown that private provider investment increased after the regulatory uncertainty of Title II rules were removed. Prior to the reversal of the 2015 Open Internet Order, broadband network investment dropped more than 5.6 percent, the first decline outside of a recession, the FCC reported.

US Telecom reported that capital expenditures by ISPs totalled $79.4 billion in 2020 and grew to $86.1 billion in 2021.

Michael Powell, president and CEO of NCTA – The Internet & Television Association, called the issue of net neutrality “an increasingly stale debate” with justifications for it that “seem increasingly limp.”

“In the wake of the once-in-a-lifetime infrastructure bill, we need to be focused collectively on closing the digital divide and not taking a ride on the net neutrality carousel for the umpteenth time for no discernable reason,” he said. “Building broadband to unserved parts of this country is a massive, complex, and expensive undertaking. Slapping an outdated and burdensome regulatory regime on broadband networks surely will damage the mission to deploy next-generation internet technology throughout America and get everyone connected.”

Again, the specter of Title II regulations rears its ugly head for no discernible reason other than the government’s insatiable need for control. The broadband market has proven itself as a market that functions better with a light-touch approach, so we hope that Congress says not to this misguided bill.

Johnny Kampis is director of telecom policy for the Taxpayers Protection Alliance. This piece is exclusive to Broadband Breakfast.

Broadband Breakfast accepts commentary from informed observers of the broadband scene. Please send pieces to commentary@breakfast.media. The views expressed in Expert Opinion pieces do not necessarily reflect the views of Broadband Breakfast and Breakfast Media LLC.

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Net Neutrality

Democrats Seek to Codify Net Neutrality as Fifth FCC Commissioner Hangs

Some say the bill would add heavy regulation that will harm investments and consumers.

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Photo of Senator Edward Markey (D-MA) during virtual press conference on Thursday

WASHINGTON, August 1, 2022 – Democratic Senators introduced Thursday a bill that would enshrine into law the concept of net neutrality, which would prevent internet service providers from tinkering with internet traffic, in a move that comes ahead of midterm elections that could alter whether the Federal Communications Commission gets its Democratic fifth commissioner to take unilateral action on the matter.

The Net Neutrality and Broadband Justice Act would give the FCC regulatory authority over broadband by classifying those services as Title II as defined in the 1934 Communications Act. Under Title II, the FCC would have greater regulatory muscle to make providers respect the principle of common carriage – that is, the traffic on their networks will not be throttled, sped up or given preference. Under the current light touch Title I – which was reinstituted by the 2017 commission under chairman Ajit Pai – the FCC does not have that authority, and the commission has previously been blocked by courts to bring net neutrality under Title I.

“My legislation would reverse the damaging approach adopted by the Trump FCC, which left broadband access unregulated, and consumers unprotected. It would give the FCC the tools it needs to protect the free and open internet, creating a just broadband future for everyone in our country,” Senator Edward Markey, D-Mass., said during a virtual press conference hosted by Public Knowledge on Thursday.

Markey noted that the majority of Americans and Republicans favor restoring net neutrality rules in the country.

Public Knowledge, an advocacy group for an open internet, was co-founded by Gigi Sohn, who was nominated by President Joe Biden to be the fifth FCC commissioner. The vote to confirm in the Senate has not happened yet, as some Republicans have complained about Sohn’s ability to be impartial on the commission.

“We’ve gone 544 days into the Biden administration without a fully functional agency. It’s time for Senate leadership to end this senseless delay and get the agency back to full capacity,” said Matt Wood, vice president of policy and general counsel at Free Press Action, in a press release welcoming the bill.

Reintroduction of bill comes as Sohn’s nomination to FCC appears to falter 

Sohn, who would be the party tiebreaker on the commission, would have bolstered the FCC’s chance to press for a reclassification of broadband services under Title II. But the longer a vote is not held, the less optimistic some say they are getting that a vote will be held before a midterm election in November that could flip the Senate red.

“Confirmation is still possible, but with the extended August recess and looming midterm election, there aren’t a lot of legislative days to get the job done,” said former FCC Chairman Richard Wiley at an event late last month.

Republican Commissioner Nathan Simington previously said that he would welcome congressional action on net neutrality – instead of an FCC vote on it.

“I have previously stated that the FCC’s 2015 Net Neutrality rules were the right approach,” said FCC Commissioner Geoffrey Starks in a press release. “That approach is undergirded by a voluminous record and overwhelming public support, and it has been tested in court. The Net Neutrality and Broadband Justice Act would codify just that,”

The bill comes after FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel has repeatedly said that she believes net neutrality should be the guiding principle for the internet economy. Rosenworcel was defiant in her support of the principle in response to a letter from Republican representatives who encouraged her not to change her mind on it.

She added in a statement after the bill’s introduction that despite the FCC having the authority it needs to implement net neutrality, “legislation that helps ensure it is the law of the land is welcome.”

“For anyone who wants more innovation, more voices and less corporate control of the internet, net neutrality is an absolute no-brainer,” said Ron Wyden, D-OR, who co-introduced the bill. In 2018, Verizon admitted to throttling the wireless speeds used by California firefighters who were working on a large fire – one of the examples used to illustrate the imposition of such rules.

As such, California has gone its own way in lieu of inaction from Washington. The state won a court battle this year from broadband industry that challenged its own net neutrality law. The law made AT&T pull free sponsored applications to residents.

Critics of the net neutrality measure from the broadband industry

But broadband service providers and the commission that reversed net neutrality rules don’t see it that way. They say that regulations imposed by a net neutrality framework hinders innovation and competition in the market – including being able to provide free access to certain applications.

Michael Powell, CEO of trade association NCTA, said this bill will have a negative effect on closing the digital divide.

“In the wake of the once-in-a-lifetime infrastructure bill, we need to be focused collectively on closing the digital divide and not taking a ride on the net neutrality carousel for the umpteenth time for no discernable reason,” he said.

“Slapping an outdated and burdensome regulatory regime on broadband networks surely will damage the mission to deploy next-generation internet technology throughout America and get everyone connected,” said Powell.

The Wireless Internet Service Providers Association also came out against the bill, saying heavy regulation would hamper their ability to serve underserved areas of the country. “The bill’s Title II requirements would create real threats to their ongoing viability,” the release said.

“Net neutrality may be a mixed bag, but common carrier regulation would inhibit competition, private investment and innovation, and further confound the complex task of eradicating the digital divide,” it added.

Another trade group USTelecom said it is concerned such regulation would hamper investments in broadband networks. “There is bipartisan support for net neutrality, but legislative proposals that would put any of this progress at risk are not the right answer,” said CEO Jonathan Spalter in a release. “Let’s keep our focus on moving consumers’ internet experiences forward, not backward.”

Non-profit research institution the Free State Foundation added that this type of bill will impose heavy-handed regulation that will harm consumers.

“[T]here is no present evidence, and there hasn’t been any for years, that ISPs have engaged in any deliberate discriminatory conduct,” said the FSF in a press release. “Almost all ISPs’ terms of service contain legally enforceable commitments not to block or throttle subscribers’ access to lawful content.

“To the extent that a couple of old incidents are cited that conceivably would run afoul of stringent anti-discrimination prohibitions, they have been isolated and quickly remedied,” the FSF added. “That’s why the net neutrality advocates are left to conjecture about what ‘might,’ ‘could,’ or ‘possibly’ happen absent new regulation, rather than identifying any existing problem warranting costly new regulatory mandates.”

With reporting by Riley Haight.

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Courts

Supreme Court’s EPA Decision Unlikely to Significantly Affect Federal Communications Commission

But landmark administrative law ruling could add more burden on agency in justifying decisions.

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Photo of Free State Foundation President Randy May courtesy the foundation

WASHINGTON, July 7, 2022 – The Federal Communications Commission is unlikely to be affected by a Supreme Court decision last week that limits the scope of decision-making by agencies on certain matters, but it could add to the commission’s task of proving that their decisions are in-line with the laws they administer, experts told Broadband Breakfast.

The June 30 high court ruling found, in West Virginia v. EPA, that the Environmental Protection Agency has limited regulatory authority, and that Congress alone has the power to decide on “major questions” of “vast economic or political significance.” The court effectively decided in favor of the so-called “major questions” doctrine, a conservative legal theory that seeks to maintain separation of powers by allocating “major questions” as the responsibility of Congress alone.

In turn, that theory contrasts with but does not explicitly overrule the still-valid doctrine known as Chevron deference. Chevron deference holds that where federal agencies are given legislative delegation by Congress, they are allowed reasonable interpretation of that authority.

Several experts are concerned, according to Protocol, that the ruling could affect the plans of tech regulators to implement laws under their jurisdiction. FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel recently reaffirmed her support for net neutrality rules to prevent internet service providers from slowing or blocking web traffic, and supporters fear that the EPA decision could prevent further action at the FCC.

But experts Broadband Breakfast spoke to don’t exactly see it that way for the commission.

Chevron deference ‘increasingly in eclipse.’

“Ninety-eight percent of the decisions that the FCC makes – at least – are not going to be considered major question cases if they ever get to review,” Randolph May, founder and president of the Free State Foundation, said in an interview with Broadband Breakfast, adding that the doctrine of Chevron deference (after the 1984 Supreme Court decision Chevron v. Natural Resources Defense Council) is “increasingly in eclipse.”

Meanwhile, Harold Feld, senior vice president of internet advocacy group Public Knowledge, also told this publication that while, “I don’t think the major question doctrine applies to much of what the FCC does.”

It may, however, have an impact on the timeliness of the agency, including any decision it makes on net neutrality, he said.

Harold Feld

There will be an additional need to prove that the actions of the agency are in line with not merely a reasonable interpretation of the statutory authority but also consistent with previous practices, he said.

Agencies must also consider “how expansive is [a statute] really until it becomes a major question that Congress has to be even more specific about.”

The impact for agencies in the lower courts must also be considered, continued Feld. For decades, Chevron deference has been the standard in the courts. It allows for agencies to have a framework to determine how lower courts will analyze cases, he said. The undermining of Chevron deference will bring back the “wacky uncertainty that caused the Supreme Court to implement Chevron in the first place.”

The ambiguity that results from the ruling may have a greater impact on the Federal Trade Commission, Feld said. “It is clear that Congress intended the FTC to do rulemaking, but it is also clear that they haven’t done it before,” Feld explained. “So do they need special authorization from Congress now?”

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