Congress asks FCC to slow down 5G acceleration plans

24 Democrat members of the House Energy and Commerce Committee have asked FCC Chairman Ajit Pai to delay a vote on a Declaratory Ruling which would dilute local Government’s role in 5G.

Although those in the industry will cringe at the thought of another delay, the reasoning behind this one is certainly valid. In short, local Governments have enough on their plates dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic. Opinions on changes to the bureaucratic process for telecoms network deployment is not something which can be given full attention at this time.

“We are especially troubled by the burden responding to this Declaratory Ruling will place on local governments that are rightfully focused right now on combatting the ongoing coronavirus pandemic,” the letter states.

“Likewise, we worry that if this Declaratory Ruling does not benefit from meaningful input from local governments, the result could undermine municipalities’ ability to balance their responsibilities to public safety and community design with their desire to ensure access to affordable wireless networks and the next generation services.”

What remains to be seen is whether Pai and the FCC take this request on board. There have been broader political requests to offer more time and flexibility on consultation periods, but as the FCC is attempting to dilute the power and influence of local Government authorities, does it actually care about the opinion submissions?

The vote in question here, set to take place on June 9, aims to address several areas and ease the bureaucratic burdens which are placed on telecoms companies while upgrading existing networks. There are three areas which will be introduced in this document:

  1. A shot-clock for decision making for the local authorities
  2. Redefining what would be considered ‘substantial change’ to existing infrastructure, and therefore, what upgrades need to go through the application process
  3. Remove requirements for additional environmental impact studies for some work

The idea is to address a pain-point in the telecoms industry; burdensome bureaucracy. Applications and studies will of course always have their place, but there has been a worry too much red-tape has been introduced to the sector. Telcos complain it is time-consuming, cumbersome and expensive. It slows down network deployment, which will have to be accelerated as the country enters the 5G era.

This is of course an on-going challenge for the telecoms industry, and it is by no means limited to the US. Bureaucracy is a challenge all over the world as the balance between state oversight and corporate freedom is found. The FCC has identified this challenge and is attempting to empower the industry.

The request for a delay to the vote will not be well-received by the industry, however. The US might have been one of the first countries to launch 5G services, it is very debatable who was actually first, but it has since slipped down the pecking order. If it is to retain a leadership position, this will have to be corrected, and at some point, the US telcos will have to react to the aggressive deployment strategies from Chinese counterparts.

Congress asks Amazon whether it is becoming a police snitch

The Subcommittee on Economic and Consumer Policy has written to Amazon asking the internet to explain partnerships between surveillance company Ring and local police departments.

Home security and surveillance products are becoming increasingly popular with the consumer, though it appears the subcommittee is asking Amazon to explain the fine print. As with most products and services launched by Silicon Valley residents, Ring seems to be accompanied with legal jargon few will understand and may well compromise privacy and data protection principles.

“The Subcommittee on Economic and Consumer Policy is writing to request documents and information about Ring’s partnerships with city governments and local police departments, along with the company’s policies governing the data it collects,” the letter states.

“The Subcommittee is examining traditional constitutional protections against surveilling Americans and the balancing of civil liberties and security interests.”

The question which the politicians seem to be asking is how compliant Ring will in handing over information to law enforcement agencies or local government authorities, as well as the fundamentals of the partnerships themselves. Once again it appears the technology industry is revelling in the grey lands of nuance and half-statements.

Ring currently has partnerships with more than 900 law enforcement and local government agencies, it is critically important that everything is above board. This isn’t just a quirky product adopted by a few individuals anymore, this is potentially a scaled-surveillance programme. The opportunity for abuse is present once again, offering validity for Congress to wade into the situation and start splashing.

Optimists might suggest Ring is being a good corporate citizen, aiding police and security forces where possible. Cynics, on the other hand, would question whether Amazon is attempting to create a private, for-profit surveillance network.

One area which the Subcommittee would like some clarification on is to do with how compliant Ring would be when offering data to government agencies. Ring has said it would not turn over data unless it is “required to do so to comply with a legally valid and binding order”, though the wording of the terms of service seem to undermine this firm stance.

Ring may access, use, preserve and/or disclose your Content to law enforcement authorities, government officials and/or third parties, if legally required to do so or if we have a good faith belief that such access, use, preservation or disclosure is reasonably necessary to: (a) comply with applicable law, regulation, legal process or reasonable governmental request.

The final point of this clause, reasonable government request, is what should be considered worrying. This is unnecessarily vague and flexible language which can be used for a wide range of justifications or explanations for wrongdoing.

More often than not, politicians on such subcommittees are usually chasing a headline, but this seems to be a case where proper investigation is warranted. Law enforcement agencies and the internet giants have shown themselves on numerous occasions not to be trustworthy with minimal oversight. And when you are talking about a topic as sensitive as data privacy, no blind trust should be afforded at all.

US Congress moves to denounce UK decision on Huawei

It would be fair to say the Supply Chain Review conclusion received a less than enthusiastic response in the US, and now it appears Congress is stacking the deck for an offensive.

The House of Representatives has introduced what is known as a ‘Simple Resolution’ condemning the UK accepting attitude of the UK, Huawei effectively as an agent of the state and the Chinese Government.

Presented to the House by Congressman Michael McCaul, House Republican Conference Chairwoman Liz Cheney, and Representatives Ted Yoho, Mike Turner and Mike Gallagher, the Resolution denounces the UK decision to include Huawei in 5G plans, though it is not entirely clear what the end game here actually is. This Resolution could be used to force a firmer stance against the UK, a worrying sign with trade talks set to commence in the very near future.

“We are extremely disappointed that the United Kingdom seems poised to allow CCP [Chinese Communist Party] controlled Huawei to build much of their next generation 5G networks,” the politicians said in a joint statement.

“Huawei equipment is absolute poison – providing them access to any aspect of a 5G network compromises the integrity of the entire system and will result in network data being sent back to Communist Party leaders in Beijing.

“We hope the UK will reverse course on this consequential decision and work with us to build a 5G future that will not only protect our mutual interests but will safeguard the values we share.”

While the Resolution does not propose any new rules or amendments, it contains dozens of statements to paint a picture. This could be viewed as the prologue, setting the scene, creating the bad guy, before the main part of the story begins. Some of the points include:

  • All Chinese companies, private and state-owned, are under the effective control of the Chinese Communist Party
  • Supply Chain Review measures are not enough to ensure the security and fidelity of the United Kingdom’s 5G network
  • China has a series of laws which forces Chinese companies to effectively act as the intelligence gathering arm of the Government

This document could represent the opinion of the House of Representatives and could be used as a weapon against China and the UK.

There are two key takeaways from the Supply Chain Review. Firstly, Huawei has been deemed a ‘high-risk vendor’ but can continue to operate in the UK. Secondly, ‘high-risk vendor’ equipment will be limited to a 35% share of a telcos radio inventory, while said share can only carry 35% of the total internet traffic.

While this is a position which has been welcomed in the UK, it faced fierce criticism in the US, despite President Trump staying quiet on the matter. Arkansas Senator Tom Cotton suggested the UK was handing the front door keys to the Chinese, while several has maintained the stance that the sensitive and non-sensitive parts of the network cannot be separated.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo took a much more mellow approach when visiting London last week. Pompeo was not overly critical, but statements were made suggesting the UK had time to change its mind. Perhaps this is a hint that the US will continue lobbying the UK to ban Huawei while trade talks are conducted.

Looking at what this actually means is a bit more nuanced and speculative, however.

A ‘Simple Resolution’ is a legislative measure passed by one of the two House’s of Congress. As it has not been passed by both, it cannot be written into law, but it can be used to express a sentiment of the politicians in the House. This sentiment could be used to create a Committee, pave the way for a Bill to be introduced, or force policy decisions in other departments.

This Resolution is important, but unless the Senate passes a similar Resolution, its impact will be limited. In this Resolution, the politicians are effectively condemning the UK’s actions and every Chinese company as an agent of the Chinese state, therefore we suspect it wouldn’t take much to gain support in the Senate.

However, if both Houses pass the same Resolution, the US will have an official stance against every Chinese company and the UK’s adoption of Huawei technology. Some of the wording in this document makes for a potentially hyper-aggressive position against China.

As an official Resolution of Congress is a measure of the opinions of the members, it could be a powerful document. The State Department could be forced to take a much more aggressive stance against the UK in trade talks, the President could be convinced by the majority into signing some sort of executive order, or it could pave the way for much more aggressive legislation against ‘high-risk’ companies.

What is always worth remembering is that the US Constitution bans the Government from legislating against a single company, but this does look like a political preparation for a renewed assault against Huawei.

With Senator Cotton’s proposed Bill still on the floor of Congress, an official intelligence sharing ban with the UK and other countries which are deemed Huawei friendlies is still a possibility. And with the trade talks looming, the US still has a few carrots and sticks in store for the UK.

Some might have suspected this would be the end of the Huawei debate and the beginning of the UK’s 5G future, but while the US can still poke and prod politicians, the Huawei debate is still alive. It remains to be seen what impact this Resolution in the House of Representatives has, but it could be very significant.

The Children Act: US lawmakers asking to know how YouTube collects data on children

US Congressmen have demanded Google CEO answers questions on how YouTube tracks the data of minors.

Anyone who has been a parent to toddlers or pre-schoolers in the last dozen years must have felt, like it or not, YouTube has been a wonderful thing. It does not only provide occasional surrogate parenting but also delivers much genuine pleasure to the kids, from entertainment to education, with sheer silly laughter in between.

Meanwhile we have also recognised that YouTube can be a pain as much as a pleasure. The pre-roll and interstitial ads on such content are all clearly pushed at kids, in particular game and toy shopping; recommendations are based on what has been played therefore encouraging binge watching; not to mention the disturbing Peppa Pig or Micky Mouse spoof parodies that keep creeping through, a clear sign that, while you are watching YouTube, “YouTube is watching you”.

But neither the pleasure nor the pain should have been there in the first place, because, though not many of us have paid attention, “YouTube is not for children”, as the video service officially puts it. In its terms of service YouTube does require users to be 13 years and above. But, unlike Facebook, which would lock the user out unless he has an account, anyone can watch YouTube without the need of an account. An account is only needed when someone intends to upload a clip or make a comment. Even in situation like this, children can pretend to be above the age limit by inputting a faked date of birth, or simply by using someone else’s account. And YouTube has known that all along, it even teaches users how to make “family-friend videos”. Admit it or not, YouTube is for children.

Following complaints from 23 child and privacy advocacy groups to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), two congressmen, David Cicilline (D) of Rhode Island, and Jeff Fortenberry (R) of Nebraska, sent a letter to Google’s CEO Sundar Pichai on September 17, demanding information on YouTube’s practices related to collection and usage of data of underaged users. The lawmakers invoked the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act 1998 (COPPA), which forbids the collection, use or disclosure of children’s online data without explicit parental consent, and contrasted it with Google’s terms of service which give Google (and its subsidiaries) the permission to collect user data including geolocation, device ID, and phone number. The congressmen asked Google to address by October 17 eight questions, which are essentially related to:

  • What quantity and type of data YouTube has collected on children;
  • How YouTube determines if the user is a child, what safeguard measures are in place to prevent children from using the service;
  • How children’s content is tagged, and how this is used for targeted advertising;
  • How YouTube is positioning YouTube Kids, and why content for children is still retained on the main YouTube site after being ported to the Kids version

Google would not be the first one to fall foul of COPPA. In a recent high-profile case, FTC, which has the mandate to implement the law, fined the mobile advertising network inMobi close to $1 million for tracking users’, including children’s location information without consent.

This certainly is a headache that Google can do without. It has just been humiliated by the revelation that users’ location data was still being tracked after the feature had been turned off, not to mention the never-ending lawsuits in Europe and the US over its alleged anti-trust practices. It also, once again, highlights the privacy minefield the internet giants find themselves in.  Facebook is still being haunted by the Cambridge Analytica scandal, while Amazon’s staff were selling consumer data outright.

Nine years before COPPA came into force, an all-encompassing Children Act was passed in the UK in 1989. In one of its opening lines the Act states “the child’s welfare shall be the court’s paramount consideration.” This line was later quoted by the author Ian McEwan in his novel, titled simply “The Children Act” (which was recently made into a film of the same title). In that spirit we laud the congressmen for taking the action again YouTube’s profiteering behaviours. To borrow from McEwan, sometimes children should be protected from their pleasure and from themselves.