Trump attempts to tame Silicon Valley with questionable results

President Donald Trump has signed an Executive Order intended to limit the protections afforded to social media platforms, though feedback has been varied.

The right-leaning elements of society has celebrated the EO, believing the White House is finally holding the politically biased Silicon Valley accountable, while those on the left side of the spectrum point to an opportunistic attack on opponents. This is a move which has been in the works since Twitter decided to flag two of the President’s tweets as a risk of fake news.

“Twitter now selectively decides to place a warning label on certain tweets in a manner that clearly reflects political bias,” Trump said in the White House statement.

“As has been reported, Twitter seems never to have placed such a label on another politician’s tweet. As recently as last week, Representative Adam Schiff was continuing to mislead his followers by peddling the long-disproved Russian Collusion Hoax, and Twitter did not flag those tweets. Unsurprisingly, its officer in charge of so-called ‘Site Integrity’ has flaunted his political bias in his own tweets.”

Of course what is worth noting is that Trump is no champion of free speech or a protector of the US Constitution, he is a hawk swooping in on enemies; would the President have signed the same order if presumptive Democratic nominee for President Joe Biden or the politically independent Senator for Vermont Bernie Sanders were under the same scrutiny?

The EO attempts to do several things, including:

  • Depict the social media companies as enemies of the US
  • Remove immunity for the social media companies for content which is published on their platforms
  • Designate the social media platforms as ‘publishers’
  • Delegate responsibility of rulemaking to the FCC
  • Restrict how political campaign funds can be spend on social media advertising

Focusing on a section of the Communications Decency Act known as Section 230, passed in 1996, which states:

“No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider.”

The intent of this legislation was to protect freedom of speech by ensuring the platform hosting user-created content could not be targeted by those being criticised. Without this protection, the platforms which give the general public a voice could have been the focal point of hundreds of lawsuits and may not have survived their embryonic development stages.

While the original intentions of this law may well have been good, it has been criticised by both sides of the political aisle.

Aside from President Trump’s, as well as numerous other Republicans, complaints over left-wing Californians controlling the technology industry, the Democrat Party has also found issue with Silicon Valley. Chairman of the House Intelligence Committee Adam Schiff questioned the role of Section 230 last year as Deepfake videos emerged online, with the social media giants doing little in response.

Interestingly enough, while the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) is clearly opposed to the EO, it also feels it is largely redundant and ineffectual.

“President Trump’s Executive Order targeting social media companies is an assault on free expression online and a transparent attempt to retaliate against Twitter for its decision to curate (well, really just to fact-check) his posts and deter everyone else from taking similar steps,” the EFF said in a blog post.

“The good news is that, assuming the final order looks like the draft we reviewed on Wednesday, it won’t survive judicial scrutiny.”

According to the EFF, the clauses mentioned in the EO are not directly linked, in that, should one be affected by the EO it would not mean the protections afforded to the platforms would be diluted. The EFF believes the White House has misunderstood how the courts have already interpreted the law, therefore the path which is being taken forward cannot be legislated for.

Another very interest element to consider is the social media platforms do not have First Amendment obligations as they are private spaces.

This week saw the District Court of Washington DC rule against an appeal from right-leaning Freedom Watch and right-wing YouTube celebrity Laura Loomer. The two parties were attempting to sue Twitter, Facebook and Google for violating antitrust laws and the First Amendment.

The case was filed against the trio of internet giants on the grounds of political bias. Freedom Watch claimed the trio were inhibiting the organisations growth potential, while Loomer was fighting against a 30-day ban for suggesting a Democrat politician was ‘anti-Jewish’.

In the ruling, the three-judge panel said that as private organisations, the social media platforms were not necessarily obliged to First Amendment in terms of facilitating free speech. Private organisations are perfectly entitled to their own opinions, or to curate content in a manner of their choosing.

This might be contrary to the promise of the social media companies to the masses, but it does mean they are shielded from at least some of the President’s attacks.

While some might debate whether this is a document which has the power the President intended, it is a clear statement of intent. The social media companies have firmly entrenched themselves on the Trump enemy list.


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US consumers don’t feel there are benefits to data-sharing economy

Only 7.6% of US consumers feel they get the benefits of user tracking behavioural data, as research demonstrates pessimism towards the digital economy.

The reason companies want to track existing or potential customers, while also collecting insight on these individuals, is simple; it is simpler to sell goods and services to someone you know more about. But, in order to do something for free, you have to offer a benefit. This equation does not seem to be balanced currently.

Research from AI firm Cujo suggest 64.2% of the surveyed consumers do not believe tracking is beneficial to the user, while only 28.2% said it could be. A meagre 7.6% believe they get the benefits of tracking.

If users do not see the benefits of tracking and personalisation, there will be resistance and push-back against these practices. Data and insight is being touted as a central cog of new business models, but these strategies will fail if the consumer is not brought forward on the same mission.

Sentiment is clearly moving against data collection, so much so that 61.9% of respondents to the survey would be happy to be tracked less even if personalization was affected.

The question is what service is being provided by tracking users and collecting data?

Google clearly tracks users though the benefits emerge in several different ways. For example, more accurate results are shown when using the search engine, or more favourable restaurants are show on the mapping services. This is a benefit for the user, while also making money.

Netflix is another example where the benefits are clear. The recommendation engine will help customers navigate through the extensive back catalogue, theoretically, while understanding consumer behaviour will also inform decisions on what content is created in the future.

These are logical applications of data insight, something which the user can see benefits from though they might not appreciate them. However, the larger issue is with the majority who collect data but there is no obvious reason as to why or where the benefits are.

For the most part, this might be viewed as a security risk, an unnecessary ‘transaction’ to make, and considering the security credentials of the majority, the consumer is right not to place trust in these organisations.

Arizona Attorney General sues Google for misleading data collection practices

Arizona Attorney General Mark Brnovich has filed a lawsuit against Google for what he describes as ‘deceptive and unfair’ methods to secure valuable personal data.

While it is hardly unusual for Google to find itself on the wrong side of right when it comes to data collection and privacy practices, registering the attention of a single Attorney General could be a worrying start. These lawyers have a tendency to swarm around an adversary, collecting support from counterparts in other states. Simply look at how easily New York Attorney General Letitia James rallied disciples in failed opposition to the T-Mobile US and Sprint mega-merger, as well as a previous antitrust case against Google.

“While Google users are led to believe they can opt-out of location tracking, the company exploits other avenues to invade personal privacy,” said Brnovich. “It’s nearly impossible to stop Google from tracking your movements without your knowledge or consent. This is contrary to the Arizona Consumer Fraud Act and even the most innovative companies must operate within the law.”

The basis of this lawsuit is whether Google is acting with the rules set forth in Arizona consumer law. Brnovich details that the majority of Google’s revenues are derived from the collection of valuable personal information, though he also claims it is often done without the users’ consent or knowledge.

In 2018, the Associated Press ran an article which claimed Google was continuing to collect data even when the user explicitly removed consent. This practice seemingly carried on until the mid-2018’s and forms the basis of the case for Arizona. However, this is only the tip of the spear.

Following a two-year investigation, the Arizona Attorney General office has filed a 50-page complaint against Google in the Maricopa County Superior Court. Featuring internal documents, under-oath testimony from Google employees, as well as external opinions from academia condemning the activities.

A significant proportion of the information has been redacted and will be examined in private, thanks to confidentiality claims from Google, but the State lawyers will be pushing for more to be made public. Over the course of the next few weeks this could be a very interesting case to keep an eye on as details of the internal workings of Google are potentially exposed. Few people genuinely understand how Google works, so this could be very illuminating.

This will be an interesting case, though Brnovich will have to rally some support very quickly. The privacy advocacy organisations are remaining quiet for the moment, as are other politicians and Attorney Generals. That might change by this afternoon as our transatlantic cousins wake up but fighting the powerful Google legal department solo is unlikely to end well for Arizona’s Attorney General.

Privacy is in the same position as security was five years ago

It has taken years for the technology and telecoms industry to take security seriously, and now we are at the beginning of the same story arc with privacy.

The purpose of a story arc in popular culture is to take the character on a journey, agonising through challenges and failures, and up to success and lessons, ultimately concluding with some sort of resolution. There are seven different types, for example, a Cinderella story arc where the protagonist experiences a rise, then a fall, before a final rise, or an Icarus arc where there is simply a rise before an ultimate failure.

The security segment of the technology and telecoms world has gone through somewhat of a Rags to Riches story arc, with adequate protections being ignored for years before becoming a critical component of the technology landscape. That said, some would argue the arc has not been completed as there is still not enough investment.

Perhaps privacy is treading the same path as security, and it will have to battle moral dilemmas, successes and failures over numerous series before it is finally appreciated. The principles of privacy are certainly being ignored, massaged and bent sideways by private and public organisations today.

One question which might be raised is whether we need to reconsider the definitions of privacy for the new world; are we inappropriately judging digital privacy by the standards of the analogue era?

“In my view, there is currently no case for relaxing the privacy rules. There is a need to embed privacy considerations in design of technology,” said Joann O’Brien, VP of Digital Ecosystems at the TM Forum.

“In many cases architectural design/best practice and the embedding of the citizen at the centre of the design still needs to happen. When this happens, meeting privacy requirements becomes exponentially easier to achieve. In many cases relaxing any privacy policy due to impacts on innovation is really playing into the hands of lazy architectures and exploitative technologies.”

This sounds remarkably similar to the same rhetoric which was positioned around security technologies for years. Experts said security needs to be built into the products foundations, not simply an add-on. It does appear the same mistakes are being made with privacy.

One country which does seem to be taking the right approach to building contact tracing applications to combat COVID-19 is Switzerland. Using the decentralised approach, the app was built around the privacy foundations, with all sensitive operations taking place on the user’s device. Other countries should take note of this example championing privacy rights.

“TM Forum advocates for continuing and upholding the privacy rules as the long-term consequences of not doing so will have a negative impact on society and potentially run the risk of citizens losing trust in technology.”

While any reasonable person should not advocate the dilution of privacy rules, perhaps there is a case for reimagining them.

Should governments be able to ensure the same levels of protections and privacy are maintained, there is a case for rewriting rules to ensure they are fit for the digital society. After all, privacy rules as we know them today were written for a bygone era. It is like trying to fit a square peg through a round hole, it might fit if you try hard enough, but it is more suitable for another hole.

“The problem with the current system is it insists that every company asks for consent at a very granular level, which makes it impossible for people to read and understand what they are agreeing to,” said Ross Fobian, CEO of ResponseTap, a provider of intelligent call tracking software.

“It is also annoying because you are presented with messages on every website, but don’t have the time to really understand each one. This results in the user simply trying to get the box out of the way as quickly as possible. This means that generally people default to simply clicking the ‘I agree’ button, without understanding what they are agreeing to.”

The transfer of data to corporations can benefit both sides, however. Companies more intelligently and appropriately are able to target potential customers, while experience of products and services can be enhanced for the consumer.

“The problem is that some companies or even government entities don’t necessarily use your data just to help you,” said Fobian. “They use your data to manipulate you. Cambridge Analytica is a perfect example of this. Also, companies can get hacked and hackers can use that data in ways it was never intended. For this reason, at ResponseTap we don’t store personal data by default, which minimises the risk. However, this is not always possible.”

There are new privacy rules being created for this era, which are heading in the right direction according to Fobian. Telecoms.com readers generally agree with this statement also, with 32% believing privacy rules should be re-imagined for the digital era and 48% suggesting the user should be given more choice to create own privacy rights.

Privacy is a challenge today for several reasons, most of which can be directly linked back to corporations and governments ignoring its importance. In years gone, security was an add-on, despite what anyone told you, and the exact same position has been created for privacy today.

All these companies are telling us that they are pro-privacy, but eventually they will have to start showing us with actions which back up the rhetoric.

Indian telco association pushes for ‘floor tariffs’ on data pricing

In an open letter to India’s telecoms regulator, the Cellular Operators Association of India (COAI) has pressed for quicker decision making on pricing restriction rules.

The COAI is in a very interesting position currently. As an association representing the telecoms industry, it is tasked with responsibilities to lobby government authorities for favourable rules. But the question is what are favourable rules?

The association has three core members; Bharti Airtel, Vodafone Idea and Reliance Jio. Two of these members would like more stringent rules on pricing to protect their interests from the disruptive pricing strategies of the third, Reliance Jio.

Jio entered the market at the end of 2015 with data plans to undermine the traditional telcos and free phone calls for new customers. Bharti Airtel and Vodafone Idea suffered because of it and have been calling for more stringent rules to prevent the disruptive Jio from causing even more chaos and continuing to erode profits.

This is a painful position for a telco-neutral association to be in, though it is in favour of floor pricing.

“We expected an early decision by the Authority, on having the Floor Tariffs for the Data services,” Rajan Mathews, Director General of the COAI said in the letter to the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI).

“While, we acknowledge that the recent situation on account of COVID-19 might have caused some constraints, however the Authority has started conducting the OHD through online process on various other topics. Accordingly, we request the Authority to kindly hold an OHD on this issue at the earliest.

“The industry is looking forward to an early conclusion on this important matter with great interest and we therefore request the Authority for an early decision on the same.”

The longer this consultation from the TRAI continues, uncertainty prevails. Uncertainty is the enemy of progress and investment in the telecoms industry. A speedy decision would be the biggest net gain for the industry, though it is questionable whether anything can be done quickly in the telecoms industry.


Telecoms.com Daily Poll:

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Investors pressuring AT&T to divest TV assets – report

Reports are circulating the telecoms press pages suggesting AT&T investors are pressuring new CEO John Stankey to sell assets in DirecTV.

According to Fox Business News, ‘bankers’ are pushing for divestment in DirecTV to reduce the heavy debt which are weighing down financial spreadsheets. This is not the first time there have been calls to sell interests in the content units, but the telco has resisted so far, emphasising the importance of streaming and entertainment in the convergence mix.

While debt is something which will always exist in the corporate world (some see the accumulation of debt as a measure of corporate ambition and market confidence), AT&T seems to be in a position which is making investors uncomfortable.

As it stands, AT&T currently has $164.3 billion in debt, $147.2 of which is deemed long-term. Considering how cash-absorbent the telecoms industry is, there will always be debts on the books at AT&T, but this is a company which has made very large bets on the content world, the success of which is very debatable.

During July 2015, AT&T purchased DirecTV for $67.1 billion including assumed debt, and a year later it announced it was acquiring Time Warner for an eye-watering $108.7 billion. The business also has a 2% stake in Canadian entertainment company Lionsgate, as well as several smaller bets. The aims are to add additional revenue streams to the AT&T business, attempt to sell convergence packages and add greater resilience against macroeconomic trends and the commoditisation path the telco industry is treading.

It is of course a valiant quest from the executive team, dipping fingers into additional pies to create a more diversified business, but it is questionable as to how successful the team has actually been.

These are very big gambles to make, working against general consensus in the industry with many rivals choosing to take a content aggregator position, a safer albeit less profitable bet on the platform economy. Of course, doing something different to the status quo is not necessarily a bad thing, it just has to work out well.

The question is whether the telco is any good at managing such a multi-faceted and eclectic business; evidence suggests it is not.

Firstly, the content business unit is incredibly fragmented. We are aware that you need different brands to appeal to different demographics, but it is quite extraordinary at AT&T where you have DirecTV, DirecTV Now, U-verse, HBO Max, HBO Now, HBO Go, Watch TV and DC Universe. It’s scattered, chaotic and overlapping.

Of course, none of this would matter if the unit was growing and making money, which leads us onto the second point. The content division is costing AT&T a lot of money, while subscriptions are disappearing faster than toilet roll in the first days of lockdown. During the latest earnings call, AT&T executives somehow had to defend losing 1.03 million TV subscribers.

Activist investor Elliott Management, which owns roughly 1.2% of AT&T, has already kicked up a stink regarding the diversification strategy, though this is hardly surprising. This is a company which focuses on forcing asset disposal to hike share price. It is a successful business model for Elliott Management, but it is questionable whether the long-term interests of the company is at the heart of the strategy. Forcing AT&T to sell content assets and purely focus on connectivity is not necessarily a sensible idea for the long-term.

CEO Stankey will have his resolve tested in the first few months of his tenure here. He has explicitly stated the DirecTV business unit is not for sale but will also be acutely aware of the dangers of resisting the demands of investors. After all, Stankey was placed in charge of AT&T following Randall Stephenson being ushered out the exit under the guise of retirement.


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Should privacy rules be re-evaluated in light of a new type of society?

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UK’s National Cyber Security Centre launches another Huawei probe

The National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC) has confirmed it is attempting to understand what impact potential US sanction directed towards Huawei would have on UK networks.

With Huawei equipment and components delicately woven throughout the complex tapestry of telecoms in the UK, sanctions from the US which would materially inhibit Huawei operations should be a major concern.

“The security and resilience of our networks is of paramount importance,” a cross-government statement reads. “Following the US announcement of additional sanctions against Huawei, the NCSC is looking carefully at any impact they could have to the UK’s networks.”

There have been reports circulating through the press suggesting UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson is once again considering the role of Huawei in the telecoms landscape. These rumours are a separate story, but directly linked; the US wants to reduce the commercial opportunities for Huawei, and this is yet another attempt.

First, the US Government attempted the diplomatic approach, with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo attempting to prove his debating skills. Secondly, fear was introduced with the US attempted to reignite xenophobic fears of communism. The third strategy was more directly aggressive; work with Huawei or have access to our intelligence data, you can’t have both.

None of these strategies worked, but the latest attempt is an interesting one. If Huawei’s supply chain can be compromised, the UK (and other) Governments might have to turn its back on the Chinese vendor because it does not meet the standards required for resiliency tests.

Should the UK Government be revising its position, it would certainly be a blow to Huawei’s credibility.

“We’ve seen the reports from unnamed sources which simply don’t make sense,” said Victor Zhang of Huawei. “The government decided in January to approve our part in the 5G rollout, because Britain needs the best possible technologies, more choice, innovation and more suppliers, all of which means more secure and more resilient networks.

“As a private company, 100% owned by employees, which has operated in the UK for 20 years, our priority has been to help mobile and broadband companies keep Britain connected, which in this current health crisis has been more vital than ever. This is our proven track-record.”

Looking at the other rumours outside this confirmed investigation into the impact of US sanctions on Huawei, the underlying cause could be directed back tor Conservative backbencher Sir Iain Duncan Smith. Once a prominent voice in the House of Commons, Duncan Smith’s influence has been wilting rapidly, so much so this is one of the first times anyone has paid attention to him for what feels like decades.

In March, Duncan Smith led a small group of Tory revolters in opposition of the Supply Chain Review. Instead of limiting ‘High Risk vendors’ to 35% of any telecoms network, this group wanted them banned completely. These politicians clearly did not understand the complexities of the situation and debates were riddled with inaccuracies, but it appears the pressure has been enough to turn the head of Prime Minister Boris Johnson.

What is worth noting is that while the industry has been in firm support of Huawei in recent years, this staunch stance seems to be softening.

Vodafone Group CEO Nick Read recently discussed the Huawei situation during the telco’s earnings call, and while Vodafone had been warning of catastrophic consequences to prevent work with Huawei, the current rhetoric is no-where near as firm. The executive talked of removing certain firms “moderately” and investments into alternatives. It does appear Vodafone is preparing for the worst-case scenario.

While the rumours are nothing more than rumours, with the US undermining Huawei’s ability to operate as desired some uncomfortable questions will be asked. Top of the list is whether the vendor can maintain security and resiliency credentials for its products and components following such a disruption to its supply chain. This could drastically impact its position in the UK telecoms landscape.


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Privacy champion Schrems blasts Irish authorities over secret Facebook deal

Max Schrems, one of the central figures in bringing down the EU-US Privacy Shield, has penned an open-letter slams the Irish Data Protection Commission for not dealing with Facebook appropriately.

With his privacy campaign organisation, noyb.eu (none of your business) taking on the social media giant, Schrems has heavily criticised the regulator for a lack of action, shrouding investigations with mystery and secret meetings with the firm to create a ‘consent bypass’ situation.

“It sounds a lot like those secret ‘tax rulings’ where tax authorities secretly agree with large tech companies on how to bypass the tax laws – just that they now do this with the GDPR too,” noyb.eu Chairman Schrems said.

The ‘consent bypass’ was an agreement between the authorities and Facebook to switch its policy from ‘consent’ to an alleged ‘data use contract’, allowing the company to track, target and conduct research on users.

“It is nothing but lipstick on a pig,” said Schrems.

“Since Roman times, the law prohibits ‘renaming’ something just to bypass the law. What Facebook tried to do is not smart, but laughable. The only thing that is really concerning is that the Irish DPC apparently engaged with Facebook when they were designing this scam and is now supposed to independently review it.”

According to research quoted by the privacy advocates, only 1.6 – 2.5% of users were aware they were actually entering into a ‘data use contract’. Should these figures be anywhere near accurate, this should not be considered anywhere near good enough.

This entire saga is a bit of ‘he said, she said’ with mud being slung across the wall. On one side of the coin, it is not difficult to imagine secret meetings to figure out how rules can be circumnavigated, but it is also within reason to assume Schrems and his privacy cronies are exaggerating and making a mountain out of a molehill.

Schrems has stated his organisation filed complaints about Facebook during the first few hours of GDPR coming into action, however, the subsequent investigations have not been concluded. This is a fair complaint, these investigations do take time, but then again there has to be a limit. The Information Commissioners Office (ICO) in the UK has delivered dozens of rulings in this period while the Irish DPC celebrated completing the first of six steps last week.

Facebook is a very complicated business with operations spanning across almost every European nation, and while the Irish DPC has been designated lead regulatory authority for several high-profile names, it is not proving itself worthy of this responsibility yet.

Again, you have to take Schrems claims with a pinch of salt, but Silicon Valley is escaping without punishment. We find it impossible to believe all of its residents are acting perfectly within the rules. It would be more credible to blame overly complex bureaucratic processes, a lack of funding, steep workloads and people just not taking privacy as serious as they should; Silicon Valley’s residents at the top of the list.

A look back at the biggest stories this week

Whether it’s important, depressing or just entertaining, the telecoms industry is always one which attracts attention.

Here are the stories we think are worth a second look at this week:


Facebook reignites the fires of its Workplace unit

Facebook has announced its challenge to the video-conferencing segment and a reignition of its venture into the world of collaboration and productivity.

Full story here


Trump needs fodder for the campaign trail, maybe Huawei fits the bill

A thriving economy and low levels of unemployment might have been the focal point of President Donald Trump’s re-election campaign, pre-pandemic, but fighting the ‘red under the bed’ might have to do now.

Full story here


Will remote working trends endure beyond lockdown?

It is most likely anyone reading this article is doing so from the comfort of their own home, but the question is whether this has become the new norm is a digitally defined economy?

Full story here


ZTE and China Unicom get started on 6G

Chinese kit vendor ZTE has decided now is a good time to announce it has signed a strategic cooperation agreement on 6G with operator China Unicom.

Full story here


ITU says lower prices don’t lead to higher internet penetration

The UN telecoms agency observes that, while global connectivity prices are going down, the relationship with penetration is not as inversely proportion as you might think.

Full story here


Jio carves out space for yet another US investor

It seems the US moneymen have a taste for Indian connectivity as General Atlantic becomes the fourth third-party firm to invest in the money-making machine which is Jio Platforms.

Full story here


Telecoms.com Daily Poll:

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