Clyburn Says She Won’t Vote to Ban Sponsored Data Offerings

FCC Commissioner Mignon L. Clyburn has always seen the bigger picture with regards to telecom issues and how they relate to and affect Americans who remain digitally divided. Recently, she once again stood up for those being left behind in our ever evolving digital world by stating her support of “sponsored data”

Sponsored data, or “zero-rated” content as the industry refers to it, are wireless service offerings in which service providers offer some services whose use is not counted against customers’ data usage plans. These plans have been criticized by some advocates of the FCC’s open Internet rules.

Clyburn has taken a more progressive and insightful approach to the issue. She sees it as an opportunity to once again get people online in the ways most accessible to them: mobile devices. Clyburn stated, “I usually don’t show my hand that explicitly but I’m doing so today.”

She continued, “Everyone in this nation should have the opportunity to lawfully express and expand themselves and their potential, and I think we have the capacity to continue to make that happen.”

Based on data from the Federal Communications Commission itself, 55 million Americans still lack broadband access at home. Many of those people are members of low-income communities, people of color, elderly, disabled, or people living in rural communities. It is untenable that nearly 20% of America’s citizenry lag behind their digitally connected counterparts.

Ms. Clyburn said that sponsored-data services are valuable because they could be “an affordable way for people to stream and connect with content” – including important services such as medical services – in “a non-economically punitive way.”

Critics fear that sponsored data or zero rating treads on Net Neutrality rules; however, Clyburn and other forward thinkers see sponsored data as a way to get smart-phone dependent Americans online without them having to worry about running up against data caps when they need access the most – medical services, education, employment, etc.

With regards to those who are wary of what sponsored data may look like Clyburn added that the FCC “will take a case-by-case approach” on sponsored-data offerings.  She also said that such offerings “could be the way for the next creative content provider that can’t get on the legacy platforms to do so.”

“We want product differentiation, we do not want any violation of open Internet rules,” she said, adding, “I think there is a way for us to walk and chew gum at the same time on that.”

FCC Complaint: Baltimore Police reaking law with use of stingray phone trackers

This article originally appeared on The Baltimore Sun.

By Ian Duncan, Baltimore Sun

Civil rights groups complained to the FCC Tuesday over the Baltimore Police Department‘s use of the cell phone tracking technology known as stingray, alleging that the way police use it interferes with emergency calls and is racially discriminatory.

The complaint argues that the police department doesn’t have a proper license to use the devices and is in violation of federal law. It calls on regulators at the Federal Communications Commission to step in and formally remind law enforcement agencies of the rules.

“The public is relying on the Commission to carry out its statutory obligation to do so, to fulfill its public commitment to do so, and to put an end to widespread network interference caused by rampant unlicensed transmissions made by BPD and other departments around the country,” the groups say in the complaint.

The case is being brought by Center for Media Justice, Color of Change, and the New America Foundation’s Open Technology Institute.

The use of stingrays, also known as cell site simulators, was long shrouded in secrecy and many details about their use is still not publicly known. The devices work by imitating a cell phone tower so that nearby phones connect to them instead of the normal network, allowing police to gather information such as the location of a handset.

Police in Baltimore acknowledged in court last year that they had used the devices thousands of times to investigate crimes ranging from violent attacks to the theft of cellphones. Investigators had been concealing the technology from judges and defense lawyers and after the revelations Maryland’s second highest court ruled that police should get a warrant before using a Stingray.

Neil Grace, a spokesman for the FCC, said the commission was reviewing the complaint. “The commission expects state and local law enforcement to work through the appropriate legal processes to use these devices,” he said.

The police department declined to comment citing the “pending litigation.”

Laura Moy, a visiting professor at Georgetown University’s law school who is representing the groups, said the complaint is being lodged against Baltimore Police because of the evidence of its prolific use of the devices.

“It seems quite likely that the Baltimore Police Department makes the heaviest use of this technology of any police department in the country,” Moy said.

Exactly what impact Stingrays have on cell phone usage is not fully publicly known but the complaint cites government documents and news accounts to allege that they disrupt calls and could prevent callers reaching 911. The interference from a single device could affect several city blocks, the complaint alleges.

Christopher Soghoian, the principal technologist at the American Civil Liberties Union, said there is good evidence that the devices interrupt cell phone service. In some configurations they mobile block data connections in order to force a phone to use a less secure connection, he said, and in other cases seem to block calls outright.

Because the devices have been hidden from public view, Soghoian said, it has been difficult for communities that are suffering from the disruptions to understand what is happening and hold the police accountable.

“If you can’t make calls, it’s not like your phone is going to pop up with a message saying sorry the Baltimore PD is using a stingray right now,” he said. “It just doesn’t work.”

What’s more, the complaint argues, “these disruptions of the cellphone network—including of emergency calls—disproportionately harm the residents of Baltimore’s Black neighborhoods.”

The groups argue that surveillance using the devices also undermines people’s free speech rights and describe the use of Stingrays as an electronic form of the intrusive police practices described in the scathing Justice Department report on the police department’s pattern of civil rights violations.

“The problem of radicalized surveillance is particularly pronounced in Baltimore, where BPD’s racially biased policing is clearly reflected in its racially biased deployment of [cell site] simulators,” the groups say in the complaint.

Future of Lifeline Hangs in the Balances

The Federal Communications Commission made history with sweeping new changes to its Lifeline program. In adopting its new rule, the Commission sought to make broadband more accessible and affordable to low-income residents across the country. As with many issues before the FCC these days, politics has gotten in the way of progress. Among the contentions opposing the new program, opponents say that extending Lifeline benefits costs too much and does not properly address issues of “waste, fraud, and abuse.”

Now, twelve states – Wisconsin, Arkansas, Idaho, Indiana, Michigan, Montana, Nebraska, South Dakota, Utah, Connecticut, Mississippi, and Vermont – have filed petitions for review with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit challenging the Commission’s Lifeline Modernization Order. In its original order, the Commission noted, “at a time when our economy and lives are increasingly moving online and millions of Americans remain offline, the Lifeline program must keep pace with this technological evolution to fulfill its core mission.”

The new program is meant to offer to management and process efficiencies, and enable a pool of funding to support the purchase of high-speed broadband, and not just telephone service, which Lifeline applied exclusively applied to before. In structuring this new program, however, the FCC pre-empted the authority of state public service commissions – the regulatory bodies that previously administered the Lifeline program – to designate authorized service providers for broadband service. On these grounds, the states petitioning the D.C. Circuit are saying the FCC’s action was an overreach of authority, and they’re seeking restrictions on the FCC’s Order that would curtail state action on Lifeline.

The new Lifeline program, which the FCC has budgeted at an $2.25 billion annually, can make it possible for the millions of American families “whose household income in below 135% of the federal poverty lever, or $32,805 for a family of four” to obtain broadband. According to Watchdog.org, “the expansion is expected to add about 5.5 million people to the program that now serves 18 million.”

Around the time opposition mounted against the Lifeline program, the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights – a consortium of more than 200 civil rights and social justice organizations – issued a letter to members of Congress in which it addressed the Lifeline issue:

“Today, more than ever before, it is critical to ensure that people of color, low-income people, and other vulnerable populations have access to broadband…Protecting the Lifeline program should not be a partisan issue…Although sensationalized and opportunistic attacks on the program have gained traction because they exacerbate and exploit stereotypes about the individuals who use the program, previous and newly-adopted reforms are addressing fraud and abuse in a comprehensive manner.”

How to Close the ‘Homework Gap’ in the Digital Divide That’s Holding Back Our Kids

This article originally appeared on The Root.

Rep. Eva Clayton

When Xerox CEO Ursula Burns steps down from her position later this year, it will mark the end of having an African-American woman leading a Fortune 500 company as its chief executive officer. Burns, in retelling the story of her rise to success, acknowledges that her mother “knew that education was [her] way up and out.”

Long before Burns graduated from Columbia University and worked her way up to become an executive at Xerox, she keenly understood quite intimately that access to knowledge was the stepping-stone of success.
 As technology is increasingly integrated into every level of education today, students without access to the internet at home find themselves at a huge disadvantage among their peers. This disparity is known as the “homework gap,” and students who come from minority, low-income or rural households disproportionately fall into it. What’s more, this same population is on the wrong side of the digital divide, which is more broadly defined as the gap between those who have access to the internet and those who do not.

African Americans and Hispanics are three times as likely as whites to be “smartphone-dependent” because they lack both high-speed internet access at home and hardly any other means of getting online beyond their mobile devices. These statistics hold true for Americans with household incomes of less than $30,000 per year. 
Closing the homework gap and digital divide is one of the major challenges of our time, since high-speed internet is the modern economic leveler that enables social mobility.

As providers seek to attract a younger and more diverse consumer base, there’s a new tool in the toolkit with “free data” programs that, in some ways, help address some of the pressing societal challenges facing underserved and unserved communities—both rural and urban.

The concept of free data is simple. Companies cover some of the cost of accessing content (i.e., websites and apps) on mobile devices, leaving consumers with more mobile data in their monthly data plans to use in other ways, including to complete homework, look up health information, explore job opportunities, stay connected with family or simply read the news.

It comes as no surprise that consumers are embracing free-data programs. And why wouldn’t they? Who could be against giving people more access to online content for free? 
The opponents of free data ignore the user rates and are focused on trying to influence the Federal Communications Commission to ban free-data programs, despite the overwhelming public support for them. While these groups continue to equate free-data programs with other unrelated tech issues and make erroneous claims about how they could affect mobile services, they continue to completely ignore the potential benefits that free data could have.

Closing the homework gap and digital divide is vital to addressing long-standing income-inequality issues in communities that continue to be left behind. Access to quality education has always been a fundamental building block of upward mobility, and for students who have limited options for getting online, a smartphone represents their “way up and out,” as Burns would put it; and free-data programs will open more doors to all the internet has to offer.

Regulators in Washington, D.C., can aid the policy discussion of socioeconomic equality and upward mobility by supporting programs such as free data, when applied fairly and equally. This will allow an exciting, new consumer mobile-internet development to grow and expand.

For millennials and Generation Z, the future starts now, and in order for our young people to reach their full potential, we need to ensure that more minority and low-income households have access to and utilize technology to advance.