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Old 18-02-21, 07:34 AM   #1
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Default Peer-To-Peer News - The Week In Review - February 20th, ’21

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February 20th, 2021

This File-Sharing App with Over a Billion Downloads has some Major Security Flaws

The app continues to be one of the most popular downloads on the Google Play Store
Mayank Sharma

One of the most popular Android file sharing apps has several vulnerabilities that haven’t been fixed by its developers for over three months, new research has claimed.

Security researchers at Trend Micro discovered the shortcomings in the ShareIT app that if exploited, can not only leak a user’s sensitive data, but can also execute arbitrary code on the device.

More worryingly, the vulnerabilities were brought to the attention of the app’s publishers over three months ago, but have seemingly decided to ignore the report.

Improper defaults

“We reported these vulnerabilities to the vendor, who has not responded yet. We decided to disclose our research three months after reporting this since many users might be affected by this attack because the attacker can steal sensitive data and do anything with the apps’ permission,” noted Trend Micro in its report.

Even more worryingly, the researchers add that any attacks launched by exploiting these vulnerabilities will be hard to detect as they masquerade the legitimate operations of the app.

While discussing the vulnerabilities in detail, the researchers say that the flaws exist because the app implements its sharing functions with improper settings that leave it prone to abuse.

The researchers were able to successfully exploit the vulnerabilities with a proof-of-concept app to gain temporary read/write access to the data on the device, and even managed to run arbitrary code on the device.

Since ShareIT’s developers failed to respond to the researchers, they’ve also brought it to the attention of Google - however, there has been no response as yet, and the app still continues to be listed on the official Android Play Store.

A Bored China Propels Box Office Sales to a Record

“Detective Chinatown 3” received tepid reviews, but Covid-19 travel restrictions drove many to the movies when they might have been journeying to their hometowns instead.
Amy Qin

Hundreds of millions of people are stuck in cities around China during this Lunar New Year holiday, as coronavirus restrictions put a halt to a travel season that is usually the world’s largest annual migration. Instead, they are going to the movies — and powering a blowout resurgence at the box office.

“Detective Chinatown 3,” the latest installment in a long-running buddy cop series, raked in an estimated $397 million over three days, according to Maoyan, which tracks ticket sales in the country. That set a world record for the largest opening weekend in a single market. The previous record-holder, “Avengers: Endgame,” took in $357 million in its weekend opening in the United States and Canada in 2019.

The strong showing was a forceful reminder of the power of the Chinese consumer. While the Chinese economy has come roaring back as the country has largely tamed the coronavirus, shoppers and moviegoers have been slower to open their wallets.

Now, people like Sophia Jiang are ready to spend, even on a movie that has received tepid reviews.

Over the Lunar New Year holiday, Ms. Jiang, a 40-year-old freelance writer, would typically go with her parents to their hometown in the northern province of Jilin. But the authorities imposed restrictions on visits to ancestral homes this year to stem any coronavirus outbreaks. Photos circulating on Chinese social media showed eerily empty railway cars, when travelers are usually packed shoulder to shoulder.

Stuck in the southern city of Shenzhen, Ms. Jiang has gone to the movies three times so far during the seven-day holiday, which ends on Wednesday. “Detective Chinatown 3,” she said, was the worst of the bunch.

“The story wasn’t that bad,” Ms. Jiang said, “but it wasn’t particularly amazing, either, and I fell asleep twice.”

Quality aside, China’s booming box office returns offered a promising sign for the global film industry, which has seen movie theaters large and small decimated by the pandemic and has been racked with concerns about the future of moviegoing.

By Tuesday morning, China’s total box office takings for the new year had reached $1.55 billion, according to local box office trackers. By contrast, total ticket sales last year in the United States, where many theaters are hanging on for survival, totaled $2.2 billion.

“Some have argued that, during the pandemic, people have become accustomed to watching online entertainment at home,” Jane Shao, president of Lumière Pavilions, a Chinese movie theater chain, said in a telephone interview. “But I think this is proof that movie theaters are an effective venue for social gatherings.”

Ms. Shao, who oversees 40 cinemas across 26 cities in China, said the Lunar New Year box office returns were like “night and day” compared with last year, when the outbreak of the virus in Wuhan prompted the government to close theaters at the start of the holiday. Recovery was slow, she said, but the recent numbers have been encouraging.

“It was a devastating year for our industry, but people have been thrilled to come back to the theaters,” Ms. Shao said.

“Detective Chinatown 3” had initially been slated for release during last year’s holiday. China’s theaters for the most part reopened in July, but most have been limited over this month’s holiday to 75 percent seating capacity, and only 50 percent in areas like Beijing, which have recently seen small outbreaks.

Theaters have been instructed not to sell concessions, further eating into profits. Movie ticket prices over the holiday were higher than usual, helping to overcome the gap.

The film features two bumbling detectives, played by Wang Baoqiang and Liu Haoran, who go to Tokyo to investigate the murder of a powerful businessman. Online, audiences criticized its excessive product placement advertising, scenes of abuse against women and scattered plot threads. But the movie benefited from the strong brand recognition of the “Detective Chinatown” franchise.

The Lunar New Year holiday has traditionally been a coveted window for film releases, and moviegoers had a more diverse selection to choose from than in past years. Coming in second place over the weekend was “Hi, Mom,” a time-travel comedy that grossed $161.9 million, according to Maoyan. “A Writer’s Odyssey,” an adventure film, took third place, with $48.4 million.

Rudolph Tang, 41, a classical music critic, said he had seen all three. But he said he felt especially compelled to watch “Detective Chinatown 3,” in part because he remembered seeing a poster for the movie on the facade of the historic Grand Cinema in Shanghai at the height of China’s coronavirus outbreak a year ago, when the normally bustling streets had been emptied and cinemas closed.

“Seeing the film brought back a lot of memories of the hardship that people have been through,” Mr. Tang said in a telephone interview. “I felt like I was making a statement that the scar has healed in China and that people can return to cinemas now and watch movies.”

Last year, box office revenue totaled $3.13 billion in China, making it the world’s largest movie market, ahead of the United States. But it is not clear whether the Chinese film industry’s early momentum this year can propel it beyond its performance of 2019, when it posted $9.2 billion in sales.

China’s box office success will depend partly on Hollywood’s pace of recovery. Though domestic productions have been on the rise, China still has a large appetite for Hollywood films, and many theater managers are hoping that titles like “No Time to Die,” the latest Bond film, and Disney’s “Black Widow” stay on schedule for theatrical releases this year.

It is also unclear what role the unique circumstances of this year’s Lunar New Year holiday might have played in the weekend’s impressive box office performance. Air travel was down 72 percent in the first week of the holiday travel period from a year ago, according to Chinese state media. Train travel was down by 68 percent from last year in the first two weeks of the travel season.

Still, the phenomenon of going to the movies over the Lunar New Year holiday appears to be here to stay.

“Celebrating Lunar New Year in China has traditionally meant setting off firecrackers, eating dumplings and watching the Spring Festival Gala,” said Yin Hong, a film professor at Tsinghua University in Beijing. “Now, more and more, going to the movies with family is being incorporated into that tradition.”

Obscure Musicology Journal Sparks Battles Over Race and Free Speech

A scholar’s address about racism and music theory was met with a vituperative, personal response by a small journal. It faced calls to cease publishing.
Michael Powell

A periodical devoted to the study of a long-dead European music theorist is an unlikely suspect to spark an explosive battle over race and free speech.

But the tiny Journal of Schenkerian Studies, with a paid circulation of about 30 copies an issue per year, has ignited a fiery reckoning over race and the limits of academic free speech, along with whiffs of a generational struggle. The battle threatens to consume the career of Timothy Jackson, a 62-year-old music theory professor at the University of North Texas, and led to calls to dissolve the journal.

It also prompted Professor Jackson to file an unusual lawsuit charging the university with violating his First Amendment rights — while accusing his critics of defamation.

This tale began in the autumn of 2019 when Philip Ewell, a Black music theory professor at Hunter College, addressed the Society for Music Theory in Columbus, Ohio. He described music theory as dominated by white males and beset by racism. He held up the theorist Heinrich Schenker, who died in Austria in 1935, as an exemplar of that flawed world, a “virulent racist” who wrote of “primitive” and “inferior” races — views, he argued, that suffused his theories of music.

“I’ve only scratched the surface in showing out how Schenker’s racism permeates his music theories,” Professor Ewell said, accusing generations of Schenker scholars of trying to “whitewash” the theorist in an act of “colorblind racism.”

The society’s members — its professoriate is 94 percent white — responded with a standing ovation. Many younger faculty members and graduate students embraced his call to dismantle “white mythologies” and study non-European music forms. The tone was of repentance.

“We humbly acknowledge that we have much work to do to dismantle the whiteness and systemic racism that deeply shape our discipline,” the society’s executive board later stated.

At the University of North Texas, however, Professor Jackson, a white musicologist, watched a video of that speech and felt a swell of anger. His fellow scholars stood accused, some by name, of constructing a white “witness protection program” and shrugging off Schenker’s racism. That struck him as unfair and inaccurate, as some had explored Schenker’s oft-hateful views on race and ethnicity.

A tenured music theory professor, Professor Jackson was the grandson of Jewish émigrés and had lost many relatives in the Holocaust. He had a singular passion: He searched out lost works by Jewish composers hounded and killed by the Nazis.

And he devoted himself to the study of Schenker, a towering Jewish intellect credited with stripping music to its essence in search of an internal language. The Journal of Schenkerian Studies, published under the aegis of the University of North Texas, was read by a small but intense coterie of scholars.

He and other North Texas professors decided to explore Professor Ewell’s claims about connections between Schenker’s racial views and music theories.

They called for essays and published every submission. Five essays stoutly defended Professor Ewell; most of the remaining 10 essays took strong issue. One was anonymous. Another was plainly querulous. (“Ewell of course would reply that I am white and by extension a purveyor of white music theory, while he is Black,” wrote David Beach, a retired dean of music at the University of Toronto. “I can’t argue with that.”).

Professor Jackson’s essay was barbed. Schenker, he wrote, was no privileged white man. Rather he was a Jew in prewar Germany, the definition of the persecuted other. The Nazis destroyed much of his work and his wife perished in a concentration camp.

Professor Jackson then took an incendiary turn. He wrote that Professor Ewell had scapegoated Schenker within “the much larger context of Black-on-Jew attacks in the United States” and that his “denunciation of Schenker and Schenkerians may be seen as part and parcel of the much broader current of Black anti-Semitism.” He wrote that such phenomena “currently manifest themselves in myriad ways, including the pattern of violence against Jews, the obnoxious lyrics of some hip-hop songs, etc.”

Noting the paucity of Black musicians in classical music, Professor Jackson wrote that “few grow up in homes where classical music is profoundly valued.” He proposed increased funding for music education and a commitment to demolishing “institutionalized racist barriers.”

And he took pointed shots at Professor Ewell.

“I understand full well,” Professor Jackson wrote, “that Ewell only attacks Schenker as a pretext to his main argument: That liberalism is a racist conspiracy to deny rights to ‘people of color.’”

His remarks lit a rhetorical match. The journal appeared in late July. Within days the executive board of the Society for Music Theory stated that several essays contained “anti-Black statements and personal ad hominem attacks” and said that its failure to invite Professor Ewell to respond was designed to “replicate a culture of whiteness.”

Soon after, 900 professors and graduate students signed a letter denouncing the journal’s editors for ignoring peer review. The essays, they stated, constituted “anti-Black racism.”

Graduate students at the University of North Texas issued an unsigned manifesto calling for the journal to be dissolved and for the “potential removal” of faculty members who used it “to promote racism.”

University of North Texas officials in December released an investigation that accused Professor Jackson of failing to hew to best practices and of having too much power over the journal’s graduate student editor. He was barred from the magazine, and money for the Schenker Center was suspended.

Jennifer Evans-Crowley, the university’s provost, did not rule out that disciplinary steps might be taken against Professor Jackson. “I can’t speak to that at this time,” she told The New York Times.

Professor Jackson stands shunned by fellow faculty. Two graduate students who support him told me their peers feared that working with him could damage their careers.

“Everything has become exceedingly polarized and the Twitter mob is like a quasi-fascist police state,” Professor Jackson said in an interview. “Any imputation of racism is anathema and therefore I must be exorcised.”

This controversy raises intertwined questions. What is the role of universities in policing intellectual debate? Academic duels can be metaphorically bloody affairs. Marxists slash and parry with monetarists; postmodernists trade punches with modernists. Tenure and tradition traditionally shield sharp-tongued academics from censure.

For a university to intrude struck others as alarming. Samantha Harris, a lawyer with the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, or FIRE, a free speech advocacy group, urged the university to drop its investigation.She did not argue Professor Jackson’s every word was temperate.

“This is an academic disagreement and it should be hashed out in journals of music theory,” Ms. Harris said. “The academic debate centers on censorship and putting orthodoxy over education, and that is chilling.”

That said, race is an electric wire in American society and a traditional defense of untrammeled speech on campus competes with a newer view that speech itself can constitute violence. Professors who denounced the journal stressed that they opposed censorship but noted pointedly that cultural attitudes are shifting.

“I’m educated in the tradition that says the best response to bad speech is more speech,” said Professor Edward Klorman of McGill University. “But sometimes the traditional idea of free speech comes into conflict with safety and inclusivity.”

There is too a question with which intellectuals have long wrestled. What to make of intellectuals who voice monstrous thoughts? The renowned philosopher Martin Heidegger was a Nazi Party member and Paul de Man, a deconstructionist literary theorist, wrote for pro-Nazi publications. The Japanese writer Yukio Mishima eroticized fascism and tried to inspire a coup.

Schenker, who was born in Galicia, part of the Austro-Hungarian empire, was an ardent cultural Germanophile and given to dyspeptic diatribes. He spoke of the “filthy” French; English, and Italians as “inferior races”; and Slavs as “half animals.” Africans had a “cannibal spirit.”

Did his theoretical brilliance counter the weight of disreputable rages?

Professor Ewell argued that Schenker’s racism and theories are inseparable. “At a minimum,” he wrote in a paper, “we must present Schenker’s work to our students in full view of his racist beliefs.”

The dispute has played out beyond the United States. Forty-six scholars and musicians in Europe and the Middle East wrote a defense of Professor Jackson and sounded a puzzled note. Professor Ewell, they wrote, delivered a provocative polemic with accusations aimed at living scholars and Professor Jackson simply answered in kind.

Neither professor is inclined to back down. A cellist and scholar of Russian classical music, Professor Ewell, 54, describes himself as an activist for racial, gender and social justice and a critic of whiteness in music theory.

Shortly after the Journal of Schenkerian Studies appeared in July, Professor Ewell — who eight years ago published in that journal — canceled a lecture at the University of North Texas. He said he had not read the essays that criticized him.

“I won’t read them because I won’t participate in my dehumanization,” he told The Denton Record-Chronicle in Texas. “They were incensed by my Blackness challenging their whiteness.”

Professor Ewell, who also is on the faculty of the City University of New York Graduate Center, declined an interview with The Times. He is part of a generation of scholars who are undertaking critical-race examinations of their fields. In “Music Theory and the White Racial Frame,” the paper he presented in Columbus, he writes that he is for all intents “a practitioner of white music theory” and that “rigorous conversations about race and whiteness” are required to “make fundamental antiracist changes in our structures and institutions.”

For music programs to require mastery of German, he has said, “is racist obviously.” He has criticized the requirement that music Ph.D. students study German or a limited number of “white” languages, noting that at Yale he needed a dispensation to study Russian. He wrote that the “antiracist policy solution” would be “to require languages with one new caveat: any language — including sign language and computer languages, for instance — is acceptable with the exception of Ancient Greek, Latin, Italian, French or German, which will only be allowed by petition as a dispensation.”

Last April he fired a broadside at Beethoven, writing that it would be academically irresponsible to call him more than an “above average” composer. Beethoven, he wrote, “has been propped up by whiteness and maleness for 200 years.”

As for Schenker, Professor Ewell argued that his racism informed his music theories: “As with the inequality of races, Schenker believed in the inequality of tones.”

That view is contested. Professor Eric Wen arrived in the United States from Hong Kong six decades ago and amid slurs and loneliness discovered in classical music what he describes as a colorblind solace. Schenker held a key to mysteries.

“Schenker penetrated to the heart of what makes music enduring and inspiring,” said Professor Wen, who teaches at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia. “He was no angel and so what? His ideology is problematic but his insights are massive.”

How this ends is not clear. The university report portrayed Professor Jackson as hijacking the journal, ignoring a graduate student editor, making decisions on his own and tossing aside peer review.

A trove of internal emails, which were included as exhibits in the lawsuit, casts doubt on some of those claims. Far from being a captive project of Professor Jackson, the emails show that members of the journal’s editorial staff were deeply involved in the planning of the issue, and that several colleagues on the faculty at North Texas, including one seen as an ally of Professor Ewell, helped draft its call for papers.

When cries of racism arose, all but one of those colleagues denounced the journal. A graduate student editor publicly claimed to have participated because he “feared retaliation” from Professor Jackson, who was his superior, and said he had essentially agreed with Professor Ewell all along. The emails paint a contradictory picture, as he had described Professor Ewell’s paper as “naive.”

Professor Jackson hired a lawyer who specialized in such cases, Michael Thad Allen, and the lawsuit he filed against his university charges retaliation against his free speech rights. More extraordinary, he sued fellow professors and a graduate student for defamation. That aspect of the lawsuit was a step too far for FIRE, the free speech group, which supported targeting the university but took the view that suing colleagues and students was a tit-for-tat exercise in squelching speech.

“We believe such lawsuits are generally unwise,” the group stated, “and can often chill or target core protected speech.”

Australian Law could Make Internet ‘Unworkable’, Says World Wide Web Inventor Tim Berners-Lee

Warning comes amid rising tensions between Australian law makers, news publishers and tech giants
Anthony Cuthbertson

Internet pioneer Tim Berners-Lee has said Australia’s plan to make tech giants pay for journalism could render the internet as we know it “unworkable”.

The inventor of the World Wide Web claimed that proposed laws could disrupt the established order of the internet.

“Specifically, I am concerned that that code risks breaching a fundamental principle of the web by requiring payment for linking between certain content online,” Berners-Lee told a Senate committee scrutinizing a bill that would create the New Media Bargaining Code.

If the code is deployed globally, it could “make the web unworkable around the world”, he said.

It’s a question dividing proponents and critics of the proposed Australian law: does it effectively make Google and Facebook “pay for clicks” and might it be the beginning of the end of free access?

The battle is being watched closely in the European Union, where officials and lawmakers are drafting sweeping new digital regulations.

Google contends the law does require it to pay for clicks. Google regional managing director Melanie Silva told the same Senate committee that read Berners-Lee’s submission last month she is most concerned that the code “requires payments simply for links and snippets.”

“The concept of paying a very small group of website or content creators for appearing purely in our organic search results sets a dangerous precedent for us that presents unmanageable risk from a product and business-model point of view,” Silva said.

Facebook regional vice president Simon Milner agreed that the potential cost for news under the code was “entirely uncapped and unknowable.”

Uniquely, Australia’s code includes a negotiation safety net. An arbitration panel would prevent digital giants from abusing their dominant negotiating positions by making take-it-or-leave-it payment offers to news businesses for their journalism.

In the case of a standoff, the panel would make a binding decision on whose best-offer wins.

Peter Lewis, director of the Australia Institute’s Center for Responsible Technology think tank, said the monetary value of public interest journalism has yet to be established.

“The reason it’s such as ephemeral process, if you like, is that no one’s ever tried this before,” Lewis told Australian Broadcasting Corp.

“How do you value fact-based news absent advertising? News has always been valued on the back of how much ads that the outlet can sell. Because Google and Facebook have dominated the advertising market and taken that out of the equation, we’re now trying to work out the value of public interest journalism,” Lewis added.

Google has reacted to the threat of compulsory arbitration by stepping up negotiations on licensing content agreements with Australian media companies through its own News Showcase model.

Facebook responded Thursday by blocking users from accessing and sharing Australian news.

Treasurer Josh Frydenberg amended draft legislation after weekend talks with Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and Sundar Pichai, chief executive of Alphabet Inc. and its subsidiary Google, to make it clear the platforms would not be charged per news snippet or link.

“We never intended that . . . if the arbitrator was overseeing a deal between a television station and one of the digital platforms, that they would make that digital platform pay 2 cents, for example, for every click over the forthcoming year,” Frydenberg said. “That was never the intention. It was always the intention was to have a lump sum payment and that’s what we have made explicit in the code.”

Dan Stinton is managing director of Guardian Australia and New Zealand which is negotiating a licensing deal through Google’s News Showcase.

Stinton said Google has benefitted from news through engagement with search users who link to journalism, the consumer data Google collects from publishers and from its revenue share from ads that are published with news articles.

“Google have been prosecuting an argument that they’re being asked to pay for links in Search and that is not the case,” Stinton said.

“They’re not stealing published content, but I do believe they are using their market power to preference their own businesses to the detriment of publishers and that’s not right,” Stinton said.

“It’s not just paying for links and snippets within search, it’s paying for the entire benefit that Google receives,” he added.

Google has reached pay deals with more than 450 publications globally since it launched News Showcase in October.

The EU’s executive Commission has proposed new rules aimed at taming the biggest digital “gatekeepers.” Proposals working their way through negotiations among lawmakers from the 27-member bloc’s parliament could be amended to include elements of Australia’s model.

Britain, which recently left the EU, is planning similar digital reforms that include shaking up the relationship between online platforms and news publishers.

“There’s definitely an influence” from Australia, said Angela Mills Wade, executive director of the European Publishers Council, a lobbying group for media companies. “It is being closely monitored by all who have a stake in the outcome.”

Publishers in European countries already can request payments from tech companies for using their stories under recently revamped copyright rules. France was the first country to adopt those rules into national legislation and Google initially balked at payments. It changed its tune when a court ordered it into negotiations that resulted in a deal with a group of French publishers.

One part of the Australian model that has caught attention in Europe is the requirement for binding arbitration if payment talks don’t lead to an agreement, which Google has resisted because it would give the company less control.

Mills Wade said several leading EU lawmakers want to add an arbitration mechanism to the digital regulations.

“Given that Google and Facebook have been undermining the scope of the publishers’ right it is clear that regulatory measures are needed, especially the final arbitration mechanism,” said Mills Wade. “Otherwise the majority of publishers won’t have the negotiating power to reach agreements.”

Google has been striking other news payment deals, including a multi-year agreement with tycoon Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp.

Mills Wade welcomed that deal, saying it shows Google puts “enormous value” on news content.

“However, regulators in Australia, but also in Europe, should not be misled into thinking that single deals, especially just before comprehensive laws come into effect, are the answer to ensuring the fair remuneration due to all publishers large and small, whose content is used by Google,” she said.

Facebook’s decision to block news in the country may have allowed the tech giant to at least temporarily dictate the narrative, though Human Rights Watch’s Australian director Elaine Pearson described it as a “dangerous turn of events”.

She said: “Cutting off access to vital information to an entire country in the dead of the night is unconscionable.”

Additional reporting from agencies.

SolarWinds Hack was 'Largest and Most Sophisticated Attack' Ever: Microsoft President
Reuters Staff

A hacking campaign that used a U.S. tech company as a springboard to compromise a raft of U.S. government agencies is “the largest and most sophisticated attack the world has ever seen,” Microsoft Corp President Brad Smith said.

The operation, which was identified in December and that the U.S. government has said was likely orchestrated by Russia, breached software made by SolarWinds Corp, giving hackers access to thousands of companies and government offices that used its products.

The hackers got access to emails at the U.S. Treasury, Justice and Commerce departments and other agencies.

Cybersecurity experts have said it could take months to identify the compromised systems and expel the hackers.

“I think from a software engineering perspective, it’s probably fair to say that this is the largest and most sophisticated attack the world has ever seen,” Smith said during an interview that aired on Sunday on the CBS program “60 Minutes.”

The breach could have compromised up to 18,000 SolarWinds customers that used the company’s Orion network monitoring software, and likely relied on hundreds of engineers.

“When we analyzed everything that we saw at Microsoft, we asked ourselves how many engineers have probably worked on these attacks. And the answer we came to was, well, certainly more than 1,000,” Smith said.

U.S. intelligence services said last month that Russia was “likely” behind the SolarWinds breach, which they said appeared to be aimed at collecting intelligence rather than destructive acts.

Russia has denied responsibility for the hacking campaign.

Reporting by Brad Heath; Editing by Heather Timmons and Peter Cooney

Kidnap Capital Mexico Eyes Biometric Phone Registry, Sparking Privacy Fears
Cassandra Garrison

A plan by Mexican lawmakers to put millions of cell phone users’ data in a biometric registry, billed as a tool to fight kidnapping and extortion, has sparked a backlash from telecoms companies and rights groups who warn it could lead to stolen data and higher costs.

Already approved in the lower house of Congress, the reform is in line with President Andres Lopez Obrador’s vow to counter crime using intelligence methods rather than force, but critics say it reveals the pitfalls of governments seeking to gather more citizen data for law enforcement purposes.

The bill is scheduled to be taken up in the current session in the Senate, where the ruling MORENA party and allies hold a majority.

Under the plan, America Movil, AT&T Inc and other carriers would be responsible for collecting customers’ data, including fingerprints or eye biometrics, to submit to a registry managed by Mexico’s telecoms regulator.

But a telecoms industry group that counts some major companies as members warned in an open letter that the reform could increase phone theft as criminals look to get around the registry by stealing devices and could risk customers’ safety if personal data were misused.

America Movil -- owned by Mexican billionaire Carlos Slim -- AT&T and Telefonica declined to comment.

The Mexico Internet Association, which includes Slim’s Telcel wireless company as a partner, said the registry would cost the industry hundreds of millions of dollars to implement, could put jobs at risk and create a human rights violation by compromising personal data protection.

Rights groups describe the plan as no better than a similar registry, which did not include biometric data, that Mexico dismantled in 2012 after a review found extortion calls, many of which come from inside prisons, actually increased by 40% after the data was leaked on the black market.

The new reform could lead people being exploited by bad actors and potentially wrongly convicted of crimes, according to Irene Levy, the president of Mexican telecommunications watchdog Observatel.

“El Chapo Guzman is not going to say, ‘This is my phone number and I am El Chapo Guzman,’” Levy said, referring to the Sinaloa Cartel kingpin who is in prison in the United States.

“What criminals do is ask someone to go and buy certain telephone lines, and when there is a crime committed with these numbers, this boy or girl - who took the money out of necessity and registered without knowing the consequences - will go to jail.”

Given the government’s strong support in Congress, the bill has a good chance of being passed, said Jorge Bravo, a political science professor at Mexico’s National Autonomous University (UNAM). However, a rethink is possible if public concern grows ahead of June mid-term elections.


However, Maria de los Angeles Huerta, a lawmaker with the ruling MORENA party, said the registry was needed to help fight kidnapping in Mexico, which has the highest incidence of the crime in the Americas and the third-highest globally, according to international consultancy Control Risks.

Criminals have been known to use up to 17 prepaid phones to carry out one kidnapping, making it nearly impossible for police to track them down, Huerta said.

The reform’s supporters argue there is too little control of the country’s more than 120 million mobile lines, 83% of which use pre-paid SIM cards available at corner stores.

As things now stand, you can “buy a card and put it on your phone.... make an extortion call and then throw the phone in the garbage,” said Huerta.

The registry would make it harder for mobile users to remain anonymous by requiring proof of identification alongside hard-to-fake biometric data for anyone opening a new line. That information would then be available to law enforcement upon request.

Huerta called it a necessary tool in Mexico’s fight against extortion.

“Biometric data is not so falsifiable. If you are a horrendous criminal, you can tell your mother to open (a line), but at least you’re going to find the criminal’s mother, right?” she said.

The new registry would mandate the installation of biometric equipment, either to capture fingerprints or iris scans, anywhere mobile lines are sold.

While 155 countries around the world maintain cellphone user registries, Mexico’s collection of biometric data would go further than most.

Only about 8% of countries with registries also require biometrics, mainly for prepaid SIM card users, according to global telecoms industry lobby GSMA. Mexico’s registry would collect biometric data from all cellphone users in the country including from postpaid customers who are normally seen as unlikely criminals.

Many of those countries which do retain biometric data have questionable records on human rights, including China, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan. No Western countries collect biometric data from cellphone users.

Still, Mexico could serve as a model for other countries in the region, including Chile, where SIM registration is under consideration, experts said.

The reform implies a sweeping change for telecoms companies by making them responsible for the cost of collecting the data and then submitting it to the registry.

Others say the registry will obstruct mobile access for indigenous people who may lack official forms of identification.

Peru introduced fingerprint collection in 2016 for a regulator-managed registry, but it led to complications in rural areas where mobile phone penetration was already a challenge.

If users fail to submit the data, mobile carriers will have to cut their lines, further isolating people who rely on their phones for internet access, said Elena Estavillo, a former commissioner of the IFT, Mexico’s telecoms regulator.

“We should highlight this as something very worrying because it can be a circumstance that discourages or, for some people, makes it impossible to have access to these services, which is a fundamental right,” Estavillo said.

Reporting by Cassandra Garrison; Editing by Christian Plumb and Alistair Bell

House Republicans Propose Nationwide Ban on Municipal Broadband Networks

GOP claims ban would "promote competition by limiting government-run networks."
Jon Brodkin

House Republicans have unveiled their plan for "boosting" broadband connectivity and competition, and one of the key planks is prohibiting states and cities from building their own networks. The proposal to ban new public networks was included in the "Boosting Broadband Connectivity Agenda" announced Tuesday by Reps. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-Wash.) and Bob Latta (R-Ohio), the top Republicans on the House Commerce Committee and Subcommittee for Communications and Technology, respectively.

Republicans call it the CONNECT Act, for "Communities Overregulating Networks Need Economic Competition Today." The bill "would promote competition by limiting government-run broadband networks throughout the country and encouraging private investment," the Commerce Committee Republicans said in their announcement, without explaining how limiting the number of broadband networks would increase competition. Rep. Billy Long (R-Mo.) is the lead sponsor.

The bill itself says that "a State or political subdivision thereof may not provide or offer for sale to the public, a telecommunications provider, or to a commercial provider of broadband Internet access service, retail or wholesale broadband Internet access service."

The bill has an exception that would allow existing government networks to continue in cities and towns without substantial broadband competition. States or municipalities that already offer Internet service may continue to do so if "there is no more than one other commercial provider of broadband Internet access that provides competition for that service in a particular area."

But existing networks would also be prevented from expanding into other areas. The bill says that states and municipalities already offering service "may not construct or extend facilities used to deliver broadband Internet access service beyond the geographic area in which the State or political subdivision thereof lawfully operates." The Republican bill also makes an exception for the Tennessee Valley Authority, which operates a fiber network but doesn't have carveouts for any other specific entities.

The bill is reminiscent of laws in nearly 20 states that restrict the building of municipal networks. But it has no realistic chance of passage in the Democratic-controlled House.

"I think they know it won't go anywhere and just want to make a statement against municipal networks without really caring how it will work," Christopher Mitchell, director of the Community Broadband Networks initiative at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, told Ars. Mitchell's group has done research on how publicly owned networks encourage economic development by attracting businesses and jobs.

PCMag recently named Chattanooga, Tennessee, the best work-from-home city in the nation, citing in part the city's "widely available broadband Internet" provided by the Chattanooga Electric Power Board. Comcast initially tried to block that public network from being built but eventually upgraded its own service to better compete against the public option.

The Republicans' proposed ban on state and municipal networks is one of 28 bills in the Republican agenda. Most of the others remove regulatory requirements or speed up permitting processes for ISPs. Republicans said the 28 bills "aim to turbocharge public and private investment," even though the ban on state or municipal networks would reduce public investment.

Bill called “utterly absurd”

Attorney Jim Baller, who represents local governments and maintains a list of states that restrict municipal broadband or other public communications initiatives, pointed out that Republicans in Congress are taking the opposite approach as Republicans in the Arkansas State Legislature. Baller told Ars:

In the face of compelling pandemic-driven evidence that affordable broadband Internet access is essential to modern life, that tens of millions of Americans are being left behind, and that an emergency requiring immediate action exists, five enlightened Arkansas Republicans recently persuaded their overwhelmingly Republican legislature to vote unanimously to give local governments significant new authority to provide or support the provision of broadband Internet access. Now, taking exactly the opposite approach in the US Congress, the Republicans on the House Energy and Commerce Committee have just introduced a bill that would all but extinguish public broadband initiatives and public-private broadband partnerships nationwide. That's utterly absurd.

Arkansas is one of 19 states on Baller's list of states that restrict municipal networks. Baller said that Arkansas still prohibits municipalities from offering local exchange service but "has made great strides in expanding local options," which will be reflected the next time he updates the list.

Democrats oppose limits on municipal broadband

Democrats have tried to eliminate restrictions on community broadband networks over the years. House Democrats last year proposed legislation that would overturn state laws that prevent the growth of municipal broadband.

In 2015, under then-Chairman Tom Wheeler, the Federal Communications Commission voted to preempt state laws in North Carolina and Tennessee that prevent municipal broadband providers from expanding outside their territories. The preemption was thrown out in court, however, allowing the states to continue imposing the restrictions.

The Democratic-led House Commerce Committee, which held a hearing on expanding Internet access during the pandemic yesterday, last week approved a $7.6 billion Emergency Connectivity Fund "to expand Internet connectivity for students and teachers without Internet access."

Google Blew $100 Million a Year Building Giant Balloons to Spread Internet Access. Insiders Describe how Larry Page's Passion Project Imploded.
Hugh Langley

• In January, Alphabet announced it would shutter its internet balloon business, Loon.
• It followed years of inflating costs and geopolitical headaches for the team.
• Meanwhile, the company tried to conjure new ways to make money from cruise liners, offshore oil rigs, and more.

For years, images of Loon's stratospheric balloons could be spotted throughout Google's campuses. Employees pitching to advertising clients would sometimes slip in a picture or mention of the project in their otherwise dull, statistic-heavy decks. Occasionally, a balloon could be spotted drifting across the presentation welcoming new employees to the company.

Wherever the balloon was seen, it was there to say the same thing: Google was way more than an advertising machine.

But last month, after nearly a decade of development, parent company Alphabet grounded the Loon project. The company's desire for a global, balloon-driven internet dwarfed to financial woes, a failure to attract more outside capital, and a sinkhole of skyrocketing costs.

Loon, which sat among Alphabet's "moonshots" – a hodge-podge of spin-off projects focused on longer-term ideas – was especially close to the heart of Google cofounder and former CEO Larry Page.

Now, it joins a growing graveyard of the company's boldest ideas.

In interviews with half a dozen employees, as well as analysts, it became clear that while Loon's executives started to worry about the project's funds, they were also planning costlier upgrades in the hopes of luring in investment.

"My memory of Loon was the word 'hubris' was used a lot," said one former employee who, like the others in this story, spoke to Insider on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the press. "They talked about taking this science fiction experiment and turning it into a commercial product."

"The message was, to do something bold, you have to have a degree of hubris."

As Loon burned through $100 million a year, tensions grew between employees who wanted to spend more on improving the technology and those who wanted to push ahead with what Loon had already built. As the company struggled to make headway on key deals, it explored new revenue lines such as delivering internet to cruise ships and offshore oil rigs.

This is the story of how Loon became one of Google's most ambitious and zaniest ideas – and how it came crashing back down to Earth.

A Loon spokesperson declined to comment on the details of this story.

Enter the A-team

In 2015, Larry Page was asked at the Fortune Global Forum to name the Google moonshot project that he was most excited about. Google had recently blown up its corporate structure into Alphabet – a new parent holding company that allowed it to keep its stable of more cash-intensive experiments at a distance from Google, its core financial powerhouse.

Page quickly named "Project Loon," which lived inside the company's hush-hush moonshots division, known as X. Loon's idea was to spread internet access across the globe using a network of helium balloons floating 60,000 feet in the sky, partnering with telecoms companies to beam their LTE services to hard-to-reach places.

Google knew it sounded crazy. It also believed it could be a $10 billion business.

"There's very many places you go in the world where you still don't have a cell signal. I think Loon could change that," said Page, "in a way I think most people don't appreciate."

Others had caught on. Facebook was also racing to control the stratosphere for its own solar-powered drones, which brought their own challenges.

Then there was Elon Musk's SpaceX, which Google had just invested $900 million in, and which wanted to bridge the digital divide using a constellation of satellites hovering much higher up in the low Earth orbit.

As was later revealed, this would also require the user on the ground to install a special antenna. For Loon, all you'd need was a cell phone.

In 2018, Loon was spun out into its own Alphabet company, giving it its own corporate structure, payroll, and incentives scheme – a process sometimes referred to internally as "Alphabetization." While these companies enjoy the backing of Google's deep pockets, they are also pushed to become commercially viable and seek outside investment.

Loon kept its headquarters inside X, giving it a direct line to some of Google's brightest minds and zaniest scientists whenever the team ran into engineering problems. Among them was the "captain" of moonshots himself, Astro Teller.

Teller, who often arrives to meetings on roller blades, was perhaps an even bigger champion for the project than Page, though insiders say his involvement in the day-to-day running of Loon after the spin-out was minimal beyond sitting on the company's board.

Running the show was left to CEO Alastair Wingarth and his squad of executives, known internally as "A-Staff."

Loon flexed with early experiments

Loon tried to demonstrate its early potential through a number of short experiments.

In 2017, the Federal Communications Commission granted Loon an experimental license to get Puerto Rico residents back online after Hurricane Maria destroyed the island's infrastructure. In 2019, Loon deployed balloons to Peru just 48 hours after the country was hit by a magnitude 8.0 earthquake.

But bigger plans – the ones that would actually make Loon money – were struggling to take off, including a project to bring full LTE coverage to Sri Lanka.

In early 2019, Loon raised $125 million from SoftBank subsidiary HAPSMobile, which was working on beaming internet access from high-altitude drones. The SoftBank backing gave Loon an important runway and a strategic partner in the stratosphere, from which Facebook was now absent.

"The team had been accustomed over the years to be an R&D project," said one former employee. "SoftBank coming in gave us a sense of governance and accountability."

At the same time, Loon was pouring millions into research and development and employee salaries, without reaping significant revenue.

Loon's tech gradually improved, but by the time is shut its doors its balloons could only stay afloat for an average of 150 days, after which time the balloon film and helium needed to be replaced. Some of the team thought that getting the balloons up faster and making them last longer would not only make them more efficient, but it would make Loon more attractive to outside investors.

To get there, Loon built an expensive new launch system at its Winnnemucca, Nevada site that was much taller than the existing one, making it capable of launching larger balloons. It was ultimately never used, two former employees said.

This all created internal tensions between leaders who believed that Loon needed more time to perfect its technology and some who wanted the company to push ahead on deals using its current technology and get money on the table, those same two former employees said.

"They just kept redesigning the wheel," said one. "I kept thinking, at some point someone is going to walk through that door and start dropping pink slips. It couldn't go on."

The cost to keep Loon afloat kept growing. By the end of its lifespan, the company was spending around $100 million a year, according to a report by The Information last November. A separate former employee familiar with Loon's financials confirmed that figure was accurate, describing an average monthly spend of $10 million-$15 million.

Loon explored other forms of revenue as it tried to stay afloat

One former employee said there was an understanding inside Loon that, as the world came increasingly online, the business was not going to make much money from underserved communities alone. Instead, it saw more value in building an infrastructure from which it could form lucrative licensing deals. "The end result wasn't supposed to be the balloon," they said. "The balloon was supposed to help us build out a hardware and software structure in the atmosphere.

"There was kind of an acknowledgement from the team that trying to make money off the backs of people who telecoms companies had ignored wasn't a good strategy to make money," the employee said.

In early 2019, for example, Loon announced a deal to licence its networking software to Canadian telecoms company TeleSat's constellation of low-orbit satellites.

Meanwhile, leadership were thinking up other ways to make money.

In 2019, Loon began exploring a strategy to beam internet connectivity to cruise ships, and entered talks with Carnival Cruises for a possible partnership, according to two former employees familiar with the plan. Loon thought its technology could be supplemental to existing satellite coverage, which can often be slow and unreliable for passengers.

This collaboration would have another efficiency: The balloons Loon was sending to Africa would be flying over the Caribbean Sea anyway, so the company could have them deliver internet to the cruise ships during their journey, one former employee said.

Loon also considered beaming internet connectivity to offshore oil rigs, onshore mining sites and other remote work sites, particularly those that involved using internet-connected equipment, according to former employees.

None of these side projects came to fruition, and it was only last summer that Loon even achieved its first commercial deployment, delivering 4G LTE internet coverage to nearly 31,000 square miles of Kenya in partnership with a local telecom company.

CEO Alastair Wingarth told The New York Times last year that the team chose Kenya because it was open to adopting new technologies, yet it took two years for Loon to get the project off the ground. Meanwhile, a contract to bring internet to users in Peru remained stuck in a similar regulatory hell.

"To get these government sign-offs and actually put our balloons on the stratosphere? That was hard," said one former employee. "That was really hard."

Unlocking more airspaces would have also allowed Loon to share balloons between countries. For example, if a balloon in Kenya flew off course, it could be rerouted to Mozambique and used there. Clearing these aerial pathways meant Loon could also deliver its balloons to their destinations efficiently – surfing any particularly good stratospheric winds that appeared en route.

But as time went on, Loon realized how tough it was to land these agreements. The company tried to get clearance to fly balloons over Venezuela, which would have made it easier to travel to other parts of South America, but the country's authoritarian government would not allow Loon to do so, one former employee said.

Some governments were also suspicious of allowing Loon in their airspace. Employees say it was not uncommon for foreign dignitaries to visit Loon's sites and offices to inspect their balloons for surveillance technology.

As Loon wrestled with sticky geopolitics, SoftBank's money was fast drying up, and the company spent most of 2020 trying to attract new investment. Loon had some leads, the most promising of which was a new deal with SoftBank for a second cash injection, according to two former employees familiar with the negotiations.

The amount Loon hoped to get from the new deal could not be learned, but one said they expected it would have had to be at least $100 million to be worth it.

When SoftBank and other leads ran cold, Loon no longer saw a future in which it could finance itself. After a turbulent 2020, the Loon board convened and decided it was time to pull the plug, according to a source familiar with the decision.

The decision to kill Loon was ultimately Astro Teller's to sign off on, they said.

Insiders blame timing, politics, and stodgy telecom companies

Few Google projects have attracted as much fawning press coverage and interest over the years like Loon. "It kept Google sexy," as one former employee put it.

What killed Loon? That depends on who you ask. One employee pinned the blame for Loon's fall on underestimating complex geopolitics. Another said it was "stodgy" telecoms companies that worsened the regulatory headaches.

While leadership appeared to downplay what Elon Musk's SpaceX and other rivals were doing in this domain, two of the former employees Insider spoke to thought these companies presented an existential threat in the long term. Loon's decision to play in a nascent space meant it was pouring more into R&D costs but made less attractive to investors.

"The technical feasibility of what SpaceX was doing was tried and tested," said one of those former employee. "We've been launching satellites since the '60s."

Even among Alphabet's gaggle of future-gazing moonshots, which include life sciences division Verily and self-driving company Waymo, Loon was a tough sell to investors.

"Verily and Waymo have the advantage of targeting markets that already exist, so it's easy to quantify," said a former executive, who also asked to remain anonymous, in a conversation with Insider last year. "It's easy to make a case for investment and why it makes sense."

While Loon struggled to find funding, billions were being poured into internet-delivery satellites operating several hundred thousand feet above. In January this year, internet satellite company OneWeb announced it had raised $400 million to continue deploying its network.

$350 million of that was from SoftBank.

Loon's business case has also shrunk over the decade as more of the world has come online, said Ernesto Falcon, a senior legislative council at the Electronic Frontier Foundation who focuses on internet connectivity. He also said he believed Loon had an uphill battle in working with telecomms companies.

"Loon was probably attractive to telcos because it extended their network, but if you were a large player with a larger reach, you didn't need anyone," he said.

Alphabet has become more conscious of its cash-burning subsidiaries over time. In an interview with Fortune last year, shortly after he was appointed CEO of Alphabet, Sundar Pichai hinted that there would be more discipline when it comes to moonshots. A few days later, Google shut down Makani, another bet that was working on power-generating kites.

"I think with the 'Other Bets' we are definitely at a phase where, while we take a long-term view, we also want to marry that with the discipline of making sure they are doing well," said Pichai.

After 10 years in development, Loon apparently failed to meet that bar.

Perhaps, in the end, it was all about timing. Another former employee wondered if Loon was simply too ambitious too soon. "I think that they prematurely sought the path of commercialization, thinking they would get there by winning these deals with other telecoms companies and the satellite industry," they said.

"If they had held off, I think we would still have a wacky internal project at Google X. They simply tried to grow up too fast."

America Is Finally Fixing Its Crappy Broadband Availability Maps

You can’t fix a problem you don’t understand. And for decades the US has refused to accurately measure the full scope of US broadband market failure.
Karl Bode

Despite pretense to the contrary, the U.S. government doesn’t really know who does—or doesn’t—have access to affordable broadband. Government broadband data is provided by ISPs with a vested interest in downplaying obvious sector shortcomings. And historically, the FCC hasn’t done a terrific job independently verifying the accuracy of this essential data.

As a result, U.S. leaders tend to view America’s uncompetitive broadband industry through rose-colored glasses. In the process experts say we’ve dramatically undercounted the number of Americans without broadband access, failed to fully catalog the impact of monopolization, and have thrown billions in taxpayer subsidies at companies without knowing if it's helping.

Fortunately, things are slowly starting to change.

After Congress spent the last year demanding the agency do more to address the problem, the FCC on Wednesday launched a new broadband data task force it says will implement “long-overdue improvements to the agency’s broadband data and mapping tools.”

“The Broadband Data Task Force will lead a cross-agency effort to collect detailed data and develop more precise maps about broadband availability,” Acting Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel said of the effort.

Under the current system, ISPs provide data on broadband availability via the FCC’s Form 477 process. But if you’ve spent any time with dodgy wireless carrier coverage maps, it’s clear that much of this data is more aspirational than real, and providers frequently overstate both fixed and wireless broadband coverage areas, sometimes dramatically.

In 2018, the Trump FCC was criticized for claiming that there had been a massive surge in broadband availability thanks to its decision to kill net neutrality. In reality, the surge in connections was due to a clerical error by a broadband provider named BarrierFree, which had over-estimated its broadband footprint by a matter of several million subscribers.

Broken FCC methodology has historically made the problem worse. For example the FCC has spent years declaring an entire census block “served” with broadband if ISPs claimed they could offer service to just one home in that census block. In reality, such blocks may have up to 3,000 residents, many without broadband access.

In a 2018 report, the General Accounting Office noted the FCC routinely overstates broadband availability, and that the agency’s bizarre methodology allowed ISPs to “report availability in blocks where they do not have any infrastructure connecting homes to their networks.’’

It only takes a few moments perusing the FCC’s $350 million broadband availability map to realize the scope of the problem. The map all but hallucinates broadband competitors—and speeds—and fails to catalog broadband prices whatsoever.

While the FCC formally states the number of Americans without access to any broadband to be around 21.3 million, broadband experts say the number’s closer to 42 million. Independent researchers also state that the FCC dramatically undercounts the 83 million US consumers that only have access to broadband through a single, monopolistic ISP.

The lion’s share of the task force’s job will be focused on implementing recommendations included in the DATA Act, a bill passed last year demanding the FCC take a more granular, crowdsourced approach to measuring broadband availability and speed. The Act also required that the FCC shore up its dodgy, census-blocked methodology for measuring access.

Consumer groups say the looming changes are desperately needed, but there’s still a lot of work that needs to be done.

“This issue has been a thorn in the side of the Commission's work, and establishing a dedicated task force to address these mapping problems in a comprehensive fashion is a good step forward,” Dana Floberg, policy manager at consumer group Free Press told Motherboard.

“The accuracy of broadband maps will of course always be limited by the accuracy of the data submitted, and so we hope the Commission continues to step up its efforts to ensure that providers submit accurate and timely data, and that the agency works to improve its analysis of that data to correct its past mistakes, such as the BarrierFree case,” she added.

But Floberg warned that if the FCC plans on giving Americans better information on the state of U.S. broadband, it needs to also start transparently tracking and sharing broadband prices.

“Improving broadband mapping will allow for better targeting of federal funds for deployment, but the Commission must also collect pricing data to craft a more complete picture of the U.S. broadband market, and the communities it leaves stranded on the wrong side of the digital divide,” Floberg said.

Incumbent ISPs have spent years lobbying against better broadband maps, and more recently lobbied the FCC to exempt fifth-generation (5G) wireless from any mapping improvements. These providers know full well that if the public and policymakers truly understood the scope of America’s broadband problems, somebody might just get the crazy idea to try and fix it.

Comcast Reluctantly Drops Data-Cap Enforcement in 12 States for Rest of 2021

ISP grants reprieve in Northeast but still caps users in most of its US territory.
Jon Brodkin

Comcast is delaying a plan to enforce its 1.2TB data cap and overage fees in the Northeast US until 2022 after pressure from customers and lawmakers in multiple states.

"[W]e are delaying implementation of our new data plan in our Northeast markets until 2022," Comcast said in an announcement yesterday. "We recognize that our data plan was new for our customers in the Northeast, and while only a very small percentage of customers need additional data, we are providing them with more time to become familiar with the new plan."

Comcast has enforced the data cap in 27 of the 39 states in which it operates since 2016, but not in the Northeast states where Comcast faces competition from Verizon's un-capped FiOS fiber-to-the-home service. In November 2020, Comcast announced it would bring the cap to the other 12 states and the District of Columbia starting in January 2021. But with yesterday's announcement, no one in those 12 states and DC will be charged overage fees by Comcast in all of 2021.

"Delaying this ill-timed data cap until at least 2022 is the right call," Connecticut Attorney General William Tong said yesterday. "I have heard from families across Connecticut who easily exceeded this cap while studying and working remotely. Far from so-called super users, these were stories from typical Connecticut families merely trying to stay employed and educate their children during a global pandemic. To raise rates on these families at the very moment they were most reliant on broadband access and least able to pay more was simply unconscionable."

The delay applies to Connecticut, Delaware, Massachusetts, Maryland, Maine, New Hampshire, New Jersey, North Carolina, New York, Pennsylvania, Vermont, West Virginia, and the District of Columbia.

Comcast vague on plans for 2022

Comcast's original plan for the Northeast imposed the cap in January 2021 while providing courtesy months in which newly capped customers can exceed 1.2TB without penalty, resulting in the first overage charges being assessed for data usage in the April 2021 billing period. That plan drew condemnation from lawmakers, including legislation in Massachusetts that would ban data caps and price hikes until the pandemic is over.

Comcast responded in late January by delaying overage charges until the July billing period, but the extra few months didn't quiet the controversy. Yesterday's announcement of a delay until 2022 did not specify in which month of 2022 the first overage charges will appear. We asked Comcast if it plans to impose the caps on the Northeast in January 2022 or sometime later but didn't get an answer.

Unlucky customers in 27 other states

Comcast did tell us that there are no changes in the other 27 states, where customers will continue to face caps and overage fees. Comcast's insistence on continuing to charge overage fees in most of its territory maintains the unequal status quo in which a customer's state of residence determines whether they have to deal with Comcast's most unpopular policy. Comcast's overage charges are $10 for each additional block of 50GB, up to a maximum of $100 each month. Customers can avoid overage charges by spending an extra $30 a month on unlimited data or $25 for the "xFi Complete" plan that includes unlimited data and the rental cost for Comcast's xFi gateway modem and router.

As we noted in previous coverage, Comcast said it wouldn't charge Northeast users for unlimited data plans until at least April. "Customers in our Northeast markets who have signed up for xFi Complete or Unlimited haven't actually been billed because of the complimentary months. So [there is] no need for refunds or credits," Comcast told us today.

Though Comcast claims the 1.2TB cap only affects "super users," the percentage of Internet users hitting that mark is always increasing, and broadband usage has risen more than usual during the pandemic. OpenVault research found that over 14 percent of US-based subscribers used over 1TB a month in Q4 2020, up from 8.8 percent of subscribers in Q3 2020, as we reported last week. The percentage of customers using over 2TB a month more than doubled to 2.2 percent in the same time period. Median monthly usage in Q4 2020 was 293.8GB and average usage was 482.6GB.

"The explosion in data consumption during 2020 has established a new normal of bandwidth usage that is especially visible when compared with pre-pandemic time periods," OpenVault said.

Network capacity not a “valid excuse”

Data-overage fees boost Comcast's revenue, but limiting monthly data usage regardless of when in the month that usage occurs is not an effective tool for preventing network congestion in real time. Comcast has boasted of its network's strong performance in the pandemic, once again showing that data caps are a profit play rather than a necessity.

Tong told Comcast in a letter earlier this month that "[b]roadband Internet access is an essential public service, particularly during the ongoing pandemic... The last thing our residents need to worry about at this time is whether they will run afoul of data caps, or incur significant unanticipated expense in order to remain connected."

"Network capacity is not an issue for Comcast or a valid excuse to charge customers more," 71 Massachusetts lawmakers told Comcast in a letter in late December. "Comcast itself claims it has plenty of capacity across its network, including areas where no caps are currently imposed... It is inconceivable that Comcast would choose to impose this 'cap and fee' plan during a pandemic, when many Massachusetts residents are forced to work and attend school from home via the Internet."

Until next week,

- js.

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