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Analysis: Closing The 'Regulatory Donut Hole' - The 9th Circuit Appeals Court, AT&T, The FCC And The FTC

The International Association of Privacy Professionals (IAPP) site has a good article explaining what a recent appeals court decision means for everyone who uses the internet:

"When the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled, in September 2016, that the Federal Trade Commission did not have the authority to regulate AT&T because it was a “common carrier,” which only the Federal Communications Commission can regulate, the decision created what many in privacy foresaw as a “regulatory doughnut hole.” Indeed, when the FCC, in repealing its broadband privacy rules, decided to hand over all privacy regulation of internet service providers to the FTC, the predicted situation came about: The courts said “common carriers” could only be regulated by the FCC, but the FCC says only the FTC should be regulating privacy. So, was there no regulator to oversee a company like AT&T’s privacy practices?

Indeed, argued Gigi Sohn, formerly counsel to then-FCC Chair Tom Wheeler, “The new FCC/FTC relationship lets consumers know they’re getting screwed. But much beyond that, they don’t have any recourse.” Now, things have changed once again. With an en banc decision, the 9th Circuit has reversed itself... This reversal of its previous decision by the 9th Circuit now allows the FTC to go forward with its case against AT&T and what it says were deceptive throttling practices, but it also now allows the FTC to once again regulate internet service providers’ data-handling and cybersecurity practices if they come in the context of activities that are outside their activities as common carriers."

Somebody has to oversee Internet service providers (ISPs). Somebody has to do their job. It's an important job. The Republicans-led FCC, by Trump appointee Ajit Pai, has clearly stated it won't given its "light touch" approach to broadband regulation, and repeals last year of both broadband privacy and net neutrality rules. Earlier this month, the National Rifle Association (NRA) honored FCC Chairman Pai for repealing net neutrality rules.

"No touch" is probably a more accurate description. A prior blog post listed many historical problems and abuses of consumers by some ISPs. Consumers should buckle up, as ISPs slowly unveiled their plans in a world without net neutrality protections for consumers. What might that look like? What has AT&T said about this?

Bob Quinn, the Vice President of External and Legislative Affairs for AT&T, claimed today in a blog post:

"Net neutrality has been an emotional issue for a lot of people over the past 10 years... For much of those 10 years, there has been relative agreement over what those rules should be: don’t block websites; censor online content; or throttle, degrade or discriminate in network performance based on content; and disclose to consumers how you manage your network to make that happen. AT&T has been publicly committed to those principles... But no discussion of net neutrality would be complete without also addressing the topic of paid prioritization. Let me start by saying that the issue of paid prioritization has always been hazy and theoretical. The business models for services that would require end-to-end management have only recently begun to come into focus... Let me clear about this – AT&T is not interested in creating fast lanes and slow lanes on anyone’s internet."

Really? The Ars Technica blog called out AT&T and Quinn on his claim:

"AT&T is talking up the benefits of paid prioritization schemes in preparation for the death of net neutrality rules while claiming that charging certain content providers for priority access won't create fast lanes and slow lanes... What Quinn did not mention is that the net neutrality rules have a specific carve-out that already allows such services to exist... without violating the paid prioritization ban. Telemedicine, automobile telematics, and school-related applications and content are among the services that can be given isolated capacity... The key is that the FCC maintained the right to stop ISPs from using this exception to violate the spirit of the net neutrality rules... In contrast, AT&T wants total control over which services are allowed to get priority."

Moreover, fast and slow lanes by AT&T already exist:

"... AT&T provides only DSL service in many rural areas, with speeds of just a few megabits per second or even less than a megabit. AT&T has a new fixed wireless service for some rural areas, but the 10Mbps download speeds fall well short of the federal broadband standard of 25Mbps. In areas where AT&T has brought fiber to each home, the company might be able to implement paid prioritization and manage its network in a way that prevents most customers from noticing any slowdown in other services..."

So, rural (e.g., DSL) consumers are more likely to suffer and notice service slowdowns. Once the final FCC rules are available without net neutrality protections for consumers and the lawsuits have been resolved, then AT&T probably won't have to worry about violating any prioritization bans.

The bottom line for consumers: expect ISPs to implement first changes consumers won't see directly. Remember the old story about a frog stuck in a pot of water? The way to kill it is to slowly turn up the heat. You can expect ISPs to implement this approach in a post-net-neutrality world. (Yes, in this analogy we consumers are the frog, and the heat is higher internet prices.) Paid prioritization is one method consumers won't directly see. It forces content producers, and not ISPs, to raise prices on consumers. Make no mistake about where the money will go.

Consumers will likely see ISPs introduce tiered broadband services, with lower-priced service options that exclude video streaming content... spun as greater choice for consumers. (Some hotels in the United States already sell to their guests WiFi services with tiered content.) Also, expect to see more "sponsored data programs," where video content owned by your ISP doesn't count against wireless data caps. Read more about other possible changes.

Seems to me the 9th Circuit Appeals Court made the best of a bad situation. I look forward to the FTC doing an important job which the FCC chose to run away from. What do you think?

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Chanson de Roland

The 9th Circuit ‘s (Court’s) effort to permit some regulation of broadband ISPs by establishing a distinction between AT&T’s status as a common carriers and its activities as either common-carrier activities or not may have done more harm than good. First, the reasoning of the opinion seems to defy common sense, because what AT&T is alleged to have throttled is its communications service, that is, AT&T is alleged to have throttled its internet service. For the opinion to make any sense, the Court must accept AT&T and Ajit Pai’s FCC’s absurd contention that what AT&T provided was an information services, which was not what it in fact is, which is a communications service.

But is the regulation that the Court gets worth it. Well, perhaps the Court would argue that it is doing the best that it can do, because Ajit Pai and his two fellow Republican scoundrels commissioners at the FCC have overturned the net neutrality rules and have or shortly will redesignated the ISPs from communications companies back to information companies, which it, the FCC, has no authority to impose net neutrality on. So carving out non-carrier activities is the best that the Court could do.

But beyond the case sub judice, the Court doesn’t get much. The noncommon carrier activities only reach, if at all, the ISPs’ activities of providing broadband service as a matter of contract, which the ISPs can foist on consumers on any otherwise legal take-it-or-leave-it contract terms, which, unless there is a breach of contract or fraud, the FTC is powerless to regulate. So other than that, neither the Court, American consumers, or business other than the ISPs get any benefit or relief from the Court’s permitting the FTC to regulate the ISPs’ noncarrier activities.

So, with Republicans firmly in control of Congress, the fate of net neutrality and thus a fair and unbiased internet will be decided in the federal courts in cases by many states, which are led by New York, and many other advocates of internet freedom and privacy. Until that matter is decided, the best remedy that I’ve found is to use a VPN service, which does not log when I go, where I go, or what I do on the internet, so that neither my ISP or anyone else can monitor my internet activities. You may wish to consult Best VPN to consider whether a VPN service can help you protect your privacy and security. See https://www.bestvpn.com/.

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