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Slaughter Named FTC Chair, Combatting Disinformation with Community Media, Kimmelman Departs Public Knowledge

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Screenshot of FTC Chair Rebecca Slaughter captured July 18, 2018, from House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Digital Commerce and Consumer Protection Oversight Hearing

January 22, 2021—President Joe Biden designated Rebecca Slaughter as acting chair of the Federal Trade Commission on Thursday. Slaughter has served as an FTC Commissioner since May 2018.

As a commissioner, Slaughter championed aggressive use of the FTC’s authorities to combat the abuse of consumers’ data, growing threats to competition, and systemic racism. She has further advocated for greater resources for the FTC and promoted equity and inclusion efforts.

“I am deeply honored and grateful to lead an agency that is critical to helping the U.S. economy get back on its feet and function more fairly for all Americans,” Slaughter said in a statement released Thursday. “I want to express my sincere appreciation for the excellent leadership of Chairman Simons during a time of unprecedented challenges.”

Outgoing chairman, Joseph Simons, said on Tuesday that he would resign effective January 29, along with members of his senior staff, including Democratic Commissioner Rohit Chopra. With those departures, Slaughter will be left to work with two Republican commissioners, Noah Phillips and Christine Wilson, on pressing consumer protection issues.

The agency filed a big antitrust lawsuit against Facebook last month, which accused the social media giant of seeking to either buy or crush smaller competitors. The lawsuit is one of several filed by federal and state enforcers against Google or Facebook. The agency also has an antitrust investigation underway of Amazon.

Combating disinformation requires urgent, hefty investments in community media

The U.S. Capitol attack revealed that much work remains in determining the role of digital media platforms in exacerbating and weaponizing disinformation.

Indeed, many of our societal ills – the mainstreaming of white nationalism, losing parties attacking the legitimacy of certified elections, and a growing distrust of electoral and public health systems – can be traced to systems of disinformation that have proliferated through digital technologies and social media, wrote Karthick Ramakrishnan, professor of public policy at the University of California Riverside, in a CalMatters post.

While the events of January 6 revealed that oversight of social media platforms is pressing, Ramakrishnan notes that “we cannot rely on regulation alone,” arguing that in addition to stopping the virulent spread of disinformation through digital media, we also need to invest in the production of good, reliable information that can fill the void

Current efforts to reinvigorate non-profit journalism are minuscule, compared to the scale of the problem. Researchers at the University of North Carolina discovered a decline of 1,800 newspapers between 2004 and 2018, with losses particularly acute in suburban and rural areas.

Ramakrishnan writes that one promising option is to reinvest in community media clusters that proved critical for outreach on the 2020 Census.

For example, the state of California dedicated more than $46 million to its Census outreach and public relations campaign, with an emphasis on local ethnic media to “build a base of trusted messengers, break down language access barriers for non-English speakers and facilitate culturally appropriate engagement within communities.”

Ramakrishnan writes that it is imperative the U.S. pay urgent attention to investing in local, community media, as well as “ethnic media” or “media of color”, to build an ecosystem of reliable and trustworthy news that can serve the needs of our 21st-century democracy.

Senior Advisor Gene Kimmelman resigns from Public Knowledge to join Justice Department

Public Knowledge Senior Advisor Gene Kimmelman announced his resignation from the advocacy organization in order to serve a limited-duration position as senior counselor for Biden’s Associate Attorney General at the Department of Justice.

Kimmelman’s leadership as Public Knowledge’s second president and CEO, and recently as a senior advisor, helped expand the issues the organization advocates for on behalf of technology users and consumers to include the importance of competition policy and antitrust law, beginning an organizational commitment to building a diverse generation of public interest advocates to follow his tenure.

“The entire Public Knowledge family is grateful for Gene’s seven years at our organization, part of Gene’s long career of working on behalf of the public interest in government and the nonprofit sector,” said Public Knowledge CEO Chris Lewis in a statement.

“With so many challenges to be faced in tech policy, we will continue to champion these priorities so that the average technology user is protected from harmful monopolies and gatekeepers; gains equitable access to communications tools and creative works; and enjoys free expression balanced against the powerful harms facing our society online,” Lewis said.

Former Assistant Editor Jericho Casper graduated from the University of Virginia studying media policy. She grew up in Newport News in an area heavily impacted by the digital divide. She has a passion for universal access and a vendetta against anyone who stands in the way of her getting better broadband. She is now Associate Broadband Researcher at the Institute for Local Self Reliance's Community Broadband Network Initiative.

Broadband Roundup

Democrats Frustrated with Biden Inaction on FCC, Comcast Gets 10 Gbps, Louisiana Wants Widespread Broadband

Democrats frustrated with Biden’s delay on FCC, Comcast tests 10 Gbps speed, Louisiana wants 75% more broadband in six years.

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Louisiana Governor John Bel Edwards.

October 14, 2021 – Democrats in Congress have grown increasingly frustrated at President Biden’s slow pace in naming a permanent commissioner to serve on the Federal Communications Commission, according to a report from Politico.

Nearly ten months after President Biden’s January inauguration, congressional Democrats worry that the president’s progressive telecommunications agenda is at risk, the report said.

Senator Ben Ray Luján, D-New Mexico, chair of the Senate Subcommittee on Communications, Media and Broadband, told Politico that “there’s no good excuse” for Biden’s delay in nominating an FCC chair. Luján added that he is “absolutely fearful that what the administration is setting up is a 2-1 Republican majority FCC under a Democratic administration. That is unacceptable.”

Pressure on Biden to nominate an FCC chair arrives as Acting Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel gains support from members of Congress and stakeholders.

Earlier this month, former FCC commissioner Michael O’Rielly said he is “perplexed” by Biden’s inaction to formalize Rosenworcel as chair. Seventeen education groups wrote a letter to Biden in September urging him to make her the permanent chair, while over two dozen senators signed their own letter asking for the same. Senators Elizabeth warren and Bernie Sanders did not sign onto the letter, signaling a possible disconnect amongst Democrats about who is the best person for the job.

Politico reports that, for comparison, former President Donald Trump named Ajit Pai as FCC chair only three days after being sworn in. No previous president has taken this long to name an FCC chair, the story said. Biden’s delay is alarming to Congressional Democrats who have been eager to confirm Biden’s nominees for the position.

Comcast says it has achieved 10 Gbps internet speed in test

Comcast said it has achieved internet speeds of 10 Gigabits per second on a test using new DOCSIS 4.0 technology.

A Thursday press release claimed it is the world’s first test of a “10G” connection, 10 times faster than the gigabit internet speeds that in many areas are the fastest speeds money can buy. Such speeds using the latest DOCSIS 4.0 technology was already predicted.

The cable company conducted the test at the Virtual SCTE Cable-Tec Expo from its network to a modem. The promise, according to Comcast, is that because the process is virtualized, it will be able to deliver these speeds to existing connections already in homes.

Louisiana to boost broadband by 75% in six years using FCC funds: report

Louisiana will use $342 million it received from the Federal Communications Commission to close 75 percent of the state’s broadband access problems in six years, according to a report from the Louisiana Illuminator.

“[W]e have to work with a sense of urgency” said Veneeth Iyengar, executive director of the Broadband Development and Connectivity Office.

Iyengar said he believes the state’s estimate that 500,000 households do not have broadband access is a “lowball estimate.” However, Iyengar struck an optimistic tone when discussing the possibilities for the funding.

The FCC granted Louisiana the $342 million last year. The office’s goal is to serve 100 percent of Louisiana households with broadband access by 2029.

Republican congressman Luke Letlow from Louisiana’s 5th Congressional District told the Louisiana Illuminator that he does not have high speed internet at his home in Start. Letlow compared broadband infrastructure to our physical roads and bridges. “There’s no difference, in my mind, in putting investments in the information superhighway,” Letlow said.

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Broadband Roundup

AT&T Hurricane Survey, FCC Announces $1.1B from Emergency Connectivity Fund, Comcast’s Utah Plans

AT&T copper facilities suffered significant damage after Ida, FCC’s second round of ECF, and Comcast’s expanded plans for low-income Utahns.

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AT&T CEO John Stankey.

October 13, 2021 – AT&T has reported that its copper facilities suffered “significant” damage in parts of Baton Rouge, Louisiana following Hurricane Ida this summer, but said it is pivoting to different technologies to restore affected areas.

On Wednesday, the company told the Federal Communications Commission that a survey of the damage from the Category 4 hurricane “revealed numerous facilities significantly damaged, including copper cables and terminals that have been temporarily repaired to restore service to the impacted customers.”

The company has said that it is using existing technologies, including its gigabit passive optical network and its fiber to the premises infrastructure to “mitigate all affected customers previously served on copper cables in the affected distribution areas.”

FCC announced another $1.1 billion from Emergency Connectivity Fund

The Federal Communications Commission announced Tuesday another $1.1 billion in a second round for its $7-billion Emergency Connectivity Fund program, which provides funding for schools and libraries to buy connected devices and connectivity.

The latest funding round will toward 2.4 million devices and 1.9 million broadband connections, the agency said.

“This new round of funding will connect even more students and library patrons with new tools for online learning and communicating with teachers in our ongoing work to close the Homework Gap,” FCC Acting Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel said in a press release.

“We are providing resources for schools and libraries across the country, from tiny communities in Delta Junction, Alaska supporting Delta Community Library, to large school districts like New York City.  Together with the Emergency Broadband Benefit Program, the Commission is investing more than $10 billion to support America’s critical broadband needs.”

The second wave of funding follows the $1.2 billion the agency said last month it will be disbursing, which will go to 3,040 schools, 260 libraries and 24 consortia. The FCC said in a press release Tuesday that it has so far processed 60 percent of applications.

The two waves of funding will so far go toward connecting eight million students.

Comcast announces expansion plans for low-income Utahns

Alongside state and city leaders, Comcast announced Tuesday additional plans for its 10-plus year mission to connect low-income residents of Utah and to close the digital divide in the state.

Those plans, part of the company’s “Project UP,” include engaging state, county and city leaders to open more free Wi-Fi zones, “connect more families to the Internet at home, and increase speeds for businesses and families across the state,” it said in a Tuesday press release. The Internet Essentials program has connected 10 million people to the internet at home, the company said.

“Comcast’s expanded eligibility for Internet Essentials, now including all Federal Pell Grant recipients within its service area, will enable even more students to stay connected as they continue to pursue degrees at colleges, universities, and technical schools,” the release said.

“Comcast’s top priorities are connecting people to the Internet at home, equipping safe spaces with free WiFi and working with a robust network of nonprofit community organizations, city leaders, and business partners to create opportunities for low-income Americans.”

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Broadband Roundup

Facebook Changes and Second Whistleblower, Comcast’s Spam Call Feature, AT&T Picks Ericsson for 5G

Facebook is nudging teens away from harmful content, Comcast’s new spam call blocker, AT&T goes with Ericsson for standalone 5G.

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Sophie Zhang from NBC news interview earlier this year.

October 12, 2021 – Following testimony from a whistleblower claiming Facebook can’t be trusted with research that shows its photo-sharing app Instagram is harmful to teens’ mental health, the company said it is making changes to the content people see even as another whistleblower said she is willing to testify in front of Congress.

The company has been under pressure since the release of a Wall Street Journal story that reported Facebook knew about the negative impact of Instagram on the mental health of teens, which triggered a call by lawmakers for the company to suspend the development of an Instagram for kids to which it obliged.

The company announced this weekend that it is making changes to its Instagram platform, including promoting teens to take a break from it and “nudging” teens away from the same content that they deem not good for their health.

But the company is now facing a possible second whistleblower, who said she provided to a U.S. law enforcement agency “detailed documentation regarding potential criminal violations.” Sophie Zhang, a data scientist for Facebook, said she is willing to testify before Congress about her experience, according to CNN.

As for the first whistleblower, Frances Haugen, who testified in front of Congress on October 5, will meet with Facebook’s Oversight Board, an independent panel the company set up to review executive decisions, according to reports.

Comcast introduces feature for customers to block spam calls

Comcast Corp. on Tuesday announced a new feature that will allow the company’s Xfinity Voice customers to block inbound calls based on risk levels that the company’s systems flag as possible spam.

The new feature will categorize calls as low, medium and high risk of being a nuisance call and will give customers the ability to choose, through the Xfinity Connect portal, what the company should do with which level of risk.

By default, the company blocks high risk calls, sends medium risk calls to voicemail and allows low risk calls to go through. “Customers will receive notifications of the call’s risk rating on their Caller ID as well as on the largest screen in their home – the TV – and can easily manage their preference settings using the Xfinity Connect portal,” the company said in a Tuesday release.

The company said the new Spam Blocker feature will give customers “added control over unwanted spam, spoofing and robocalls to their home.”

The new feature follows another the company released last March, called Verified Caller ID, which made visible on caller ID calls that were verified by the company as not spoofed – in other words, that the number is where the call is actually coming from and not faked.

The two features are part of the company’s efforts to meet the regulatory requirements for the STIR/SHAKEN regime, which requires telephone companies to put in place measures to limit and restrict spam and illegal robocalls and that has been in place for large carries since June 30. These companies have been working with analytics companies to help them sift through what’s a legitimate call and what isn’t.

Smaller telephone service providers have until June 2022 to implement similar measures, but some in the industry are asking that facilities-based carriers – which are said to let through much fewer spam calls – to be given until 2023.

AT&T partnering with Ericsson for 5G network

AT&T has selected Sweden’s Ericsson for a standalone 5G network using C-band spectrum, the company said Monday.

The five-year deal will go toward covering 70-75 million people with 5G over the C-band spectrum by the end of 2022, with a plan to reach 200 million people by the end of 2023, according to a Monday press release. A standalone network does not rely on a 4G backbone.

“Ericsson will help AT&T to bring its 5G network to more consumers, businesses and first responders across key industries – including 5G use cases in sports and venues, entertainment, travel and transportation, business transformation and public safety,” the release said.

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