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Locally Owned Networks Protect Privacy and Limit Consumer Surveillance

Since the story broke about the NSA domestic spying practices, debate among concerned citizens has revolved around the Big Brother surveillance model. Most of us shudder at the thought of our federal agencies from DC watching, noting, and recording our actions. However, there is another type of Internet surveillance that largely escapes notice and likewise threatens our liberty. 

Both types of surveillance are perversely encouraged by a poorly regularly market that allows big corporations to profit from violating our privacy.

We have long known that our online habits are being recorded and combined with other personal data that allows companies to show us personalized ads. But Free Press recently offering a compelling explanation for how this model can harm us. From the Dana Floberg article:

And about those “personalized ads” — this isn’t about Facebook learning you prefer Coke over Pepsi. This is about corporations targeting us where we’re vulnerable. This is about your Latina neighbor who sees ads for risky high-interest credit cards. This is about your cousin who just got laid off and now sees ad after ad selling him dangerous fast-cash offers and subprime mortgages. This is about your friend who lives in a rougher part of town and sees higher prices whenever he shops online. This is about all of us.

These ads aren’t personalized — they’re predatory.

Floberg goes on to describe how shopping sites alter prices based on income and location so more affluent shoppers can access better prices and coupons. These sites both use and reinforce stereotypes as they take advantage of the most vulnerable in our society.

Without laws to protect consumers, there is little we can do to stop this predatory behavior. Just as the market encourages corporations to violate our privacy to sell its goods, big corporations are also profiting in their work with law enforcement at all levels.

An AP article by Anne Flaherty notes that AT&T charges $325 to activate a wiretap and $10 per day to maintain it. Verizon charges the government $775 for the first month and $500 per month after that to continue it. It is hard to believe these charges are in line with actual costs. 

Meanwhile, the other massive providers are undoubtedly aware of what allegedly happened when Qwest CEO Nacchio refused to help the NSA illegally spy on Americans - the NSA cancelled a lucrative contract with Qwest. This provides a major disincentive to follow the law, particularly when they can expect retroactive immunity after violating the law for years.

What would become of any provider who dared to say "no" to the NSA? We found out when Xmission, serving consumers via UTOPIA said "no" - absolutely nothing happened. No fearful complicity at local Xmission. Xmission is focused on serving its customers, not Wall Street.

Massive corporations collect information from millions of customers; the more data, the higher the value. Even if a municipal network tried to collect and sell private data, the opportunity to profit would be limited because their reach is localized. 

Community owned networks, whose focus is on serving the community rather than maximizing profit, have no reason to collect and sell data. In fact, it is a revenue source to avoid. With a local customer base and more accountability, selling data would violate the trust that gives their brand a competitive edge. When it comes to protecting privacy, supporting smaller scale providers that are rooted in the community is a far better protection than anything Washington, DC, can or will provide.

AT&T and American Eagle spying image created by the Electronic Frontier Foundation and available via Wikimedia Commons.

No High-Speed in Manchester: European Commission Rules Preempt Local Authority

Though we often discuss some of the ways European nations have surpassed the U.S. in Internet network investment, they also have some counter-productive rules that limit investment. The Manchester Evening News recently published an article about a plan to bring high speed Internet to a deprived area of 30,000 homes where access is either slow or absent. From the article:

European rules ban public subsidy being used to fund infrastructure where – in theory – a company could roll it out instead.

The Manchester Council planned to use public funding to bring the homes into the 21st century, but the European Commission blocked the plan. Because Internet providers say there is not enough demand for broadband access in the areas, they are not compelled to build there.

Sound familiar?

“Part of this involves trying to address the digital divide which means that some parts of Manchester have little or no high speed broadband coverage because commercial internet service providers, such as BT, Virgin and Talk Talk and others, claim there is not enough demand. We have tried hard to address this but it has become clear that Europe-wide regulations mean our hands our tied and we cannot help provide connections where the private sector is able, but not willing, to do so," [said Manchester Coun Nigel Murphy].

This serves as a reminder that Europe also has a variety of bad policy approaches that privilege massive corporations over local authority. We hope to see people there step to defend their rights to be locally self-reliant.

Responding to More "Crazy Talk" - Community Broadband Bits Podcast #55

Following up on our first "Responding to Crazy Talk" episode last month, we decided to publish a second edition this week. Again, Lisa Gonzalez and I respond to real arguments made by those who oppose community owned Internet networks.

Today, we used three arguments from a debate in 2011 that included myself, Jim Baller, Jeff Eisenach, and Rob Atkinson. We chose three arguments from Rob Atkinson for this audio show but strongly recommend watching the entire debate as it examines these issues from more perspectives.

We deal with the term "overbuilding" and competition more generally to discuss how these arguments are quite detrimental to the best solutions for expanding access in rural areas.

The second argument is the classic one that it is simply harder to build networks in the U.S. because we are such a large, spacious country and that statistics from other countries are misleading merely because they are smaller or more dense.

And the final claim is that subscribers are generally happy with what they have and do not need faster connections.

Let us know if you like this format and what questions we should consider the next time we do it. We want your feedback and suggestions for the show - please e-mail us or leave a comment below. Also, feel free to suggest other guests, topics, or questions you want us to address.

This show is 20 minutes long and can be played below on this page or subscribe via iTunes or via the tool of your choice using this feed. Search for us in iTunes and leave a positive comment!

Listen to previous episodes here. You can can download this Mp3 file directly from here.

Thanks to Eat at Joe's for the music, licensed using Creative Commons.

Muni Network Debate in Charlotte Observer

In a recent op ed in the Charlotte Observer, Christopher Mitchell delves into why North Carolina ranks last in per capita subscribers to a broadband connection. The state, through its legislature, is held hostage by large providers such as Time Warner, CenturyLink, and AT&T. David Hoyle, a retired Senator who admitted pushing bills written by Time Warner Cable, signed his name to an op-ed arguing cities should not have the authority to make their own decisions in this regard.

Readers know that Time Warner and CenturyLink (formerly EMBARQ) targeted Wilson's Greenlight, leading to restrictive barriers for any similar initiatives. In his opinion piece, Chris delves into how those providers create an environment that kills opportunity for the people of North Carolina and how local publicly owned networks could restore those opportunities.

The Observer edited the original piece for length, but we provide the full version:

If you think you’re being ripped off by the cable and telephone companies, you aren’t alone. These companies rank at the top of the most hated corporations in America, year after year. Given a recent report from the Federal Communications Commission, North Carolinians have more reasons to be angry than most Americans.

Released last month, the FCC’s annual Internet Access Services [pdf] report shows North Carolina last among U.S. states in percentage of households subscribing to high-speed Internet connections as defined in the National Broadband Plan. 

seal-north-carolina.jpg

This news comes on the heels of State Representative Brawley announcing that House Speaker Tillis told him he had a “business relationship” with Time Warner Cable after Brawley introduced legislation opposed by the cable giant. But one alleged relationship does not explain how North Carolina fell to last place in that FCC ranking.

The deeper problem is power Time Warner Cable, AT&T, and CenturyLink have at the General Assembly. These companies successfully lobbied for two flagship bills that increased prices, limited competition, and generally hurt consumers and businesses throughout the state.

Back in 2006, the General Assembly bowed to industry pressure and passed a bill for statewide video franchising. Local governments lost their right to oversee companies offering television services or require them to build out to everyone. North Carolina was promised a new age of cable competition and lower prices.

Prices continued to rise – a 2009 study from the University of Minnesota actually noted that North Carolina’s prices were among the fastest rising in the nation. But even now, most families still have the same limited options for cable and Internet service.

Fed up and recognizing that the cable and phone giants would never allow competition to prosper, the City of Wilson took matters into its own hands by building its own next-generation fiber optic network. Completed by 2009, the network has been a success and Wilson is the first community in North Carolina to have universal access to a gigabit – about 100x faster than cable speeds.

Time Warner Cable, AT&T, and CenturyLink lobbied against Wilson from the start and engaged in a multi-year effort in Raleigh to revoke the authority of any local government in the state to build a similar network. For five years, they worked with the now infamous ALEC, the American Legislative Exchange Council, to push bills that would effectively ban local governments from building networks.

Follow the Money Logo

In 2011, the new Speaker of the House, Representative Tillis, ushered just such a bill through the House after receiving $37,000 from the telecom companies in the previous election cycle. Though he ran unopposed, he received significantly more from that industry than any other candidate, according to a  report from the National Institute for Money in State Politics called “Dialing up the Dollars.”

Strictly speaking, the bill was not technically a ban. We call these “leprechaun-unicorn bills” because a local government effectively has to find a leprechaun riding a unicorn to meet the standard necessary to build a network.

What it really did was revoke local judgment for state authority – something Republicans regularly decry in other circumstances. Opponents of the bill consistently argued that these decisions should be made at the local level, by those who will live with the consequences for better or for worse.

These two bills are essential to understanding why North Carolina has such poor access to the Internet and ever-increasing cable prices. Consumer protections typically come from the market (competition) or government (regulation). But these big companies are too powerful for other private companies to compete against and local governments have no regulatory power to protect consumers. Big cable and phone companies have little fear of competition and little motivation to invest in regionally or globally competitive upgrades.

The Institute for Local Self-Reliance is tracking over 400 local governments across the nation that have invested in telecommunications networks and very few have regretted it. Just outside North Carolina, the cities of Bristol, Chattanooga, Danville, and a few others offer some of the fastest network connections at the lowest prices in the entire United States. If even 10 percent of these networks actually were failures, cable lobbyists wouldn’t have to spend millions lobbying states to revoke local authority to build them.

The General Assembly should return authority to local communities and trust them to make decisions. But as long as big cable and phone companies maintain their “business relationship” with elected officials, you can expect to see more decisions made in Raleigh rather than at the local level.

For the whole story on the war against Greenlight, you can download a copy of our case study, The Empire Lobbyies Back: How National Cable and DSL Companies Banned The Competition in North Carolina.

Responding to "Crazy Talk" - Community Broadband Bits Episode #50

For our 50th episode, we're trying something new: Lisa and I respond to three common claims made by opponents of community owned networks. We owe these three particular arguments to the Executive Director of the trade association of Wisconsin telephone companies. Each of the clips we respond to come from claims he made at a workshop at the 2012 WiscNet conference.

We play a short claim by him and then Lisa and I respond to it. For this show, we look at claims that telephone companies already serve everyone with broadband, that the rapid iteration of mobile phone technology delegitimizes public sector investment in networks, and that public investment "crowds out" private investment.

These are very common arguments offered every time a community considers building its own network, but they are quite weak. As Joey Durel, Mayor of Lafayette, so often reminds us, the big companies don't win by having good arguments. They win by buying steaks and football tickets -- lobbying. Campaign contributions help too.

At any rate, let us know if you like this format and what questions we should consider the next time we do it. We want your feedback and suggestions for the show - please e-mail us or leave a comment below. Also, feel free to suggest other guests, topics, or questions you want us to address.

This show is 12 minutes long and can be played below on this page or subscribe via iTunes or via the tool of your choice using this feed. Search for us in iTunes and leave a positive comment!

Listen to previous episodes here. You can can download this Mp3 file directly from here.

Thanks to Eat at Joe's for the music, licensed using Creative Commons.

Accusation of Corruption in Favor of Time Warner Cable in North Carolina General Assembly

Veteran North Carolina legislator Rober Brawley resigned as Chairman of the state Finance Committee, reports local WRAL. According to WRAL's @NCCapitol blog, the Republican from Iredall read his resignation letter during a recent floor debate. He criticized Speaker of the House Thom Tillis, questioning Tillis' ethics and accusing him of special legislative favors specifically for Time Warner Cable.

One bone of contention was a bill introduced by Brawley to expand the service area for the municipal cable network MI-Connection in Mooresville. From the letter as quoted in the article:

"You slamming my office door shut, standing in front of me and stating that you have a business relationship with Time Warner," Brawley wrote. "MI Connections is being operated just as any other free enterprise system and should be allowed to do so without the restrictions placed on them by the proponents of Time Warner."

Stop the Cap covered the background of that bill in its article about this accusation:

House Bill 557, introduced by Brawley, would have permitted an exception under state law for the community-owned MI Connection cable system to expand its area of service to include economic development sites, public safety facilities, governmental facilities, and schools and colleges located in and near the city of Statesville. It would also allow the provider to extend service based on the approval of the Board of County Commissioners and, with respect to schools, the Iredell County School Board.

In 2010 - 2011, Tillis received $37,000 from the telecommunications industry including a $1,000 contribution each from AT&T, Time Warner Cable, and Verizon. At the time of the contribution, Tillis had already won an election in which he ran unopposed and session was just about to start. He is a darling of ALEC, the American Legislative Exchange Council which exists to help corporations rewrite state laws in their favor.

Shortly thereafter, lawmakers passed HB 129 and created insurmountable barriers for local communities interested in building publicly owned telecommunications networks. Other Republican lawmakers who supported the bill received significant contributions from the same clique. We now know Tillis is willing to honor his "business relationships."

Brawley is no stranger to controversy. He introduced a bill this session that would have eased many ethics reforms passed in recent years. Included in the proposed changes was a repeal on a ban of gifts from lobbyists and relaxing requirements that lobbyists disclose those gifts. Earlier this year, Brawley stated to an @NCCapitol reporter:

"I believe in the integrity of people, including legislators and, in over 30 years of serious involvement, have not seen any situation that these [ethics] laws would have prevented or improved."

For those of us who have watched the way Time Warner Cable and others have corrupted the political process in many states, these allegations come as no surprise but are noteworthy for who is making them and the specific allegation of a "business relationship" between Time Warner Cable and the Speaker of the House.

Government Funded Interstates and Fraud

In the coming years, we will continue to see groups and elected officials funded by the big cable and telephone companies try to delegitimize any public sector investment in Internet networks. We have already endured a year of mostly-frivolous charges against BTOP and BIP stimulus programs. At times like this, it may be helpful to look back to other times in history when the federal government engaged in a new program to build essential infrastructure.

This comes from Earl Swift's excellent The Big Roads: The Untold Story of the Engineers, Visionaries, and Trailblazers Who Created the American Superhighways. Please buy it at a local bookstore, not from Amazon.

In fact, the committee did turn up some rotten business. In New Mexico, investigators found that contractors ran roughshod over road officials, exhibiting "open contempt" for construction specs and quality controls as "a continuing course of conduct over a period of almost ten years." They got away with it, Blatnik's people found, because the state didn't know enough to object; its highway department was managed by unskilled laborers who had been advanced up the ranks without a lick of training. Some state men testified that they didn't know how to test roadbed materials, so they OK'ed all that came before them. Their boss admitted he wasn't schooled on how to do this work until after it was finished. The committee discovered on stretch of highway that was in the act of collapsing even as New Mexico officials signed off on it.

The bureau stopped payments to New Mexico until it got itself together, and did the same to Massachusetts and Oklahoma.

There will be mistakes and we will undoubtedly find a case of fraud or two. That doesn't mean the government shouldn't be making these essential investments. And don't even get me off on all the far worse shenanigans of big private companies... Adelphia and Qwest are toward the top of that list.

Alex Marshall Examines Electricty / Internet Parallels

“My answer has been, as it is tonight, to point out these plain principles,” Roosevelt told the crowd. “That where a community -- a city or county or a district -- is not satisfied with the service rendered or the rates charged by the private utility, it has the undeniable basic right, as one of its functions of government, one of its functions of home rule, to set up ... its own governmentally owned and operated service.”

While FDR was referring to electricity in 1932, he could easily be speaking about today's critical need for Internet connectivity. Fortunately for a growing number of people in our country, many local leaders share his sentiments and those communities are investing in community owned telecommunications networks.

Government Technology recently reposted a Governing article by Alex Marshall, a Senior Fellow at the Regional Plan Association in New York City. The Director of our Telecommunications work, Christopher Mitchell, tells me he just bought Alex's new book from a local bookstore and has put it at the top of his reading list: The Surprising Design of Market Economies.

Marshall sees fiber optic connectivity as the utility of today and tomorrow. He explores the question of who should provide access - public institutions or the private market? In his research, Marshall finds that many local communities are not waiting for an "official" answer to that question and are taking control of getting their citizens online.

Marshall spoke with Nick Braden from the American Public Power Association (APPA):

“As was the case when America was electrifying a century ago, many unserved or underserved communities are ready, willing and able to take matters into their own hands, if necessary, to deploy the sophisticated broadband communications networks that will enable their communities and America to continue to be a leader in the global economy,” says Braden. “Many have already done so.”

Marshall notes the private sector's intense efforts to stop local public invest and how those efforts have permeated nineteen state legislatures, even contrary to overwhelming evidence of success. While court battles often end in the defendant's favor, when the private sector sues to stop municipalities and loses, the next step is money and lobbyists. Marshall talked to our own Christopher:

Given that the evidence shows that cities could offer better service at better prices than private companies, the logic behind these laws makes little sense. “They are the kind of arguments that can only work when accompanied by an army of lobbyists and large campaign contributions,” says Mitchell.

While the question will, of course, be debated far into the future, Marshall suggests a look back at 1932 for the right approach:

If the politicians falter, they should remember FDR’s words. It’s clear that fiber networks are a natural monopoly and need to be either run directly by the government, or so heavily regulated that it amounts to the same thing.

In Washington, Mt. Vernon Attracts Businesses with Open Access Network - Community Broadband Bits Episode 38

Nearly 20 years ago, a small community between Seattle and Bellingham, Washington, began building a fiber optic network to connect key municipal facilities. In the years since, Mt Vernon has expanded the network to many community anchor institutions and businesses locally, including in two nearby towns.

Information Systems Director Kim Kleppe and Community & Economic Development Director Jana Hansen join me to explain how they began the network and what benefits they have seen from the investment.

They did not borrow or bond for the network and they don't have a municipal electric department, which makes them particularly interesting in this space. They also run an open access network that allows eight providers to compete in delivering the best services to subscribers. The network has encouraged several businesses to move to the community.

Our interview begins with an introduction from Mayor Jill Boudreau.

We want your feedback and suggestions for the show - please e-mail us or leave a comment below. Also, feel free to suggest other guests, topics, or questions you want us to address.

This show is 25 minutes long and can be played below on this page or subscribe via iTunes or via the tool of your choice using this feed. Search for us in iTunes and leave a positive comment!

Listen to previous episodes here. You can can download this Mp3 file directly from here.

Thanks to D. Charles Speer & the Helix for the music, licensed using Creative Commons.

Blair Levin Discusses Gig.U and More for Community Broadband Bits Episode #37

Blair Levin is Executive Director of Gig.U. Prior to that, he was in charge of developing the National Broadband Plan and long before that was Chief of Staff for the FCC during the Clinton Presidency. He's had a lot of experience in telecommunications policy but here we focus on what can be done to move America's communities forward.

I asked Blair to join us for the show so I could ask him some hard questions about the Gig.U initiative, including the difficulty of achieving universal service and the tradeoffs around allowing entities not rooted in the community to own (and set the rules for) essential infrastructure. I also challenge Blair's preference for "private sector" investment, asking him what exactly that means.

I hope our discussion is helpful in understanding the tradeoffs communities must make in choosing exactly how to improve Internet access locally. Though Blair and I disagree in some ways, I think we clearly illuminate why we disagree so the listener can make up his/her own mind.

If you have some questions left unanswered or points you wish were made, note them in the comments below and we'll ask him to join us again.

We want your feedback and suggestions for the show - please e-mail us or leave a comment below. Also, feel free to suggest other guests, topics, or questions you want us to address.

This show is 35 minutes long and can be played below on this page or subscribe via iTunes or via the tool of your choice using this feed. Search for us in iTunes and leave a positive comment!

Listen to previous episodes here. You can can download this Mp3 file directly from here.

Thanks to D. Charles Speer & the Helix for the music, licensed using Creative Commons.