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Controversy Over Gigi Sohn’s Involvement With Locast Continues to Plague Nomination

Sohn decided to recuse herself after controversy surrounding her service as a board member of the group operating Locast.

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Photo of Gigi Sohn at Wednesday hearing by Theadora Soter

WASHINGTON, February 10, 2022 — Gigi Sohn’s recusal from a recent broadcasting matter that raised a potential conflict of interest issue did little to assuage Republican concerns Wednesday that she could serve as an impartial commissioner for the Federal Communications Commission.

In a hearing held for her nomination as the party tie-breaking commissioner on the agency, Republican senators voiced doubts about Sohn’s ability to remain non-partisan on all the issues she might encounter as an FCC commissioner.

Sohn decided to recuse herself after controversy surrounding her service as a board member at Sports Fans Coalition New York Inc., which attempted to operate a non-profit streaming service called Locast, a non-profit streaming service.

After losing a lawsuit filed by the major television network stations for violating copyright laws against retransmitting broadcast signals, Locast settled a $32 million judgment for $700,000. GOP senators criticized Sohn for not providing details about the settlement.

By recusing herself from issues related to the subject matter of the Locast lawsuit, Sohn will not be able to engage on matters pertaining to copyright of broadcasting for three years. She also agreed to remove herself from any matters concerning retransmission consent regulations for the next four years.

In the opening remarks of Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss., the ranking member of the Senate Committee of Commerce, he insinuated that because Sohn signed the settlement only one day after the Biden Administration nominated Sohn as the next FCC commissioner, Sohn may have set in place a quid-pro-quo with the companies suing the Sports Fans Coalition New York Inc., in order to lower the settlement. Throughout the hearing other members of the Republican party echoed this allegation.

To this alleegation, Sohn says that she had no knowledge of when, or if, her nomination for commissioner would be announced. Furthermore, Sohn stated that she had no involvement in the settlement as it was handled by the lawyers of both parties.

Sen. Wicker’s has skeptical. He asked Sohn why she said nothing about the settlement in the prior hearing Wicker. Sohn said she was legally bound by the settlement agreement, and that she was not permitted to reveal the settlement’s details.

Later, Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, read the contract Sohn signed out loud. “Last time I checked, the U.S. Senate is not the press. There is nothing in this document that prohibits you from disclosing to the Senate,” said Ted Cruz.

Legitimate issue or smokescreen?

Conversely, Democrats said that the attacks on Sohn and her voluntary recusal are a smokescreen for the GOP to try and stop the FCC from moving forward in a positive direction. In her opening remarks Sohn said, “At the same time, I realize that this isn’t all about me. It’s about some wanting to stop the FCC from doing its important work ensuring that everyone in America has robust broadband regardless of who they are, what their income is or where they live, as mandated by the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law.”

Later, Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., echoed this statement when he said, “The reason you’re here is bigger than you. It is part of an effort to deadlock, disarm, and disable the FCC.”

Republican Commerce Committee members continue to raise concerns over Sohn’s Twitter feed and her ability to remain non-partisan.

The Wednesday hearing followed a prior December hearing, and came as a result of Wicker’s request to question Sohn again about her record, particularly on Locast, prior to a vote.

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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