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Feb 7, 2017

John Breyault (@JammingEcono) is Vice President of Public Policy, Telecommunications and Fraud at the National Consumers League (NCL). John’s focus at NCL is on advocating for stronger consumer protections before Congress and federal agencies on issues related to telecommunications, fraud, technology, and other consumer concerns. In addition, John manages NCL’s Fraud Center and coordinates the Alliance Against Fraud coalition. John is also Research Director for the Telecommunications Research and Action Center (TRAC), a project of NCL. In his role with TRAC, John advocates on behalf of residential consumers of wireline, wireless, VoIP, and other IP-enabled communications services. John was a member of the FCC’s Consumer Advisory Committee from 2005 to 2007 and served on the Board of the Arlington-Alexandria Coalition for the Homeless. He is a graduate of George Mason University, where he received a bachelor’s degree in International Relations.

In this episode, we discussed:

  • top issues facing consumer advocates in the new administration.
  • the risk of scaling back the FCC's privacy rules.


National Consumers League (NCL)


The tech sector is hitting hard against the Trump administration's ostensibly temporary travel ban against 7 predominantly Muslim countries including Iraq, Syria, Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan and Yemen . Ninety-seven companies including, Facebook, Google, Microsoft and even Levi Strauss filed an amicus brief on behalf of the State of Washington in the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals late Sunday. The State of Washington is appealing to a 3 judge panel of the court to uphold the District Court's decision to halt the travel ban. Oral arguments in this case will take place Tuesday at 6PM.

The brief is a culmination of a number of developments last week in the the growing resistance against the Trump administration's travel ban by the tech sector. Among them was Uber CEO Travis Kalanick's departure from Trump's economic advisory council.  The move follows major protests by tech employees, including Uber's employees, against Trump's Muslim travel ban, which the district court in San Francisco has temporarily suspended. Uber employees were wondering why Kalanick was still on Trump's advisory board. Two hundred thousand Uber users wondered the same thing, and deleted Uber's app from their phones. Kalanick sent a letter to Uber employees on Thursday announcing that he had quit Trump's advisory council.  Mike Isaac reports in The New York Times.

Meanwhile, Tony Romm reports that Silicon Valley leaders are organizing against Trump. LinkedIn co-founder Reid Hoffman and Zynga founder Mark Pincus are among those leading the effort. They have set up organizations like Win the Future which will seek out progressive candidates for future elections.  Sam Altman from Y Combinator also set up a new site called Track Trump -- a running dashboard of the Trump administration's policy changes.


So on the one hand, FCC Chairman Ajit Pai is claiming he's going to be all about closing the so-called digital divide. He's announced small, closed-door meetings with organizations like the Multicultural Media, Telecom and Internet Council and HTTP, he's created a broadband adoption advisory board ... but on the other, his policies, thus far, can't be much more against closing the digital divide.  In fact, the moves he's been making suggest he's going in the complete opposite direction. Take for example his decision last week telling 9 companies that they can't offer broadband pricing subsidies of $9.95 per month to the poor--a program otherwise known as the Lifeline program.  The decision states that the Wheeler FCC allowed these 9 companies to provide Lifeline subsidies at the last minute and that the new FCC needs more time to consider the waste, fraud and abuse concerns the Republican commissioners have about the program.


A U.S. magistrate judge in Philadelphia has held that Google must comply with an FBI search warrant seeking access to emails stored on Google servers abroad. This departs from a decision in the Second Circuit Court of Appeals last year holding that Microsoft did not have to comply with such a warrant. A Google spokesperson says the company will appeal. Jonathan Stempel has the story in Reuters. 


FCC Chairman Ajit Pai has closed the set-top box proceeding. The proceeding, introduced under former Chairman Tom Wheeler, was intended to promote competition in the set-top box market by allowing consumers to choose to receive the programming they had already subscribed to on a set-top box of their choice, rather than being stuck with the one from their cable provider. Republican leaders of the House Energy and Commerce Committee had asked Pai to close the proceeding on Wednesday. On Tuesday, Pai also explicitly stated at a press conference that he "favors an open Internet but opposes Title II."  The Chairman, however, would not answer as to whether the Commission would be enforcing the FCC's net neutrality rules, which were upheld in the DC Circuit last year.


Finally, The commission also closed the zero-rating proceeding. The Wheeler FCC had begun an inquiry into carriers' zero-rating practices towards the end of its term. Zero rating, or so-called "sponsored data", plans are ones in which carriers offer access to their own preferred content without it counting against subscribers' data caps. But net neutrality advocates argue zero-rating is a back-door to violate the FCC's net neutrality rules.  For example, Sprint has announced it will be acquiring a 33% stake in Jay-Z's streaming music service, Tidal. Net neutrality advocates are worried about what this might mean for companies like Pandora, Spotify and Apple Music if Sprint turns Tidal into a zero-rated service--offering their customers music streaming without it counting against their data caps. Chris Brantner has the story in Motherboard and David Shepardson reports on this in Reuters.