FTC tells ISPs to disclose exactly what information they collect on users and what it’s for

The Federal Trade Commission, in what could be considered a prelude to new regulatory action, has issued an order to several major internet service providers requiring them to share every detail of their data collection practices. The information could expose patterns of abuse or otherwise troubling data use against which the FTC — or states — may want to take action.

The letters requesting info (detailed below) went to Comcast, Google, T-Mobile, and both the fixed and wireless sub-companies of Verizon and AT&T. These “represent a range of large and small ISPs, as well as fixed and mobile Internet providers,” an FTC spokesperson said. I’m not sure which is mean to be the small one, but welcome any information the agency can extract from any of them.

Since the Federal Communications Commission abdicated its role in enforcing consumer privacy at these ISPs when it and Congress allowed the Broadband Privacy Rule to be overturned, others have taken up the torch, notably California and even individual cities like Seattle. But for enterprises spanning the nation, national-level oversight is preferable to a patchwork approach, and so it may be that the FTC is preparing to take a stronger stance.

To be clear, the FTC already has consumer protection rules in place and could already go after an internet provider if it were found to be abusing the privacy of its users — you know, selling their location to anyone who asks or the like. (Still no action there, by the way.)

But the evolving media and telecom landscape, in which we see enormous companies devouring one another to best provide as many complementary services as possible, requires constant reevaluation. As the agency writes in a press release:

The FTC is initiating this study to better understand Internet service providers’ privacy practices in light of the evolution of telecommunications companies into vertically integrated platforms that also provide advertising-supported content.

Although the FTC is always extremely careful with its words, this statement gives a good idea of what they’re concerned about. If Verizon (our parent company’s parent company) wants to offer not just the connection you get on your phone, but the media you request, the ads you are served, and the tracking you never heard of, it needs to show that these businesses are not somehow shirking rules behind the scenes.

For instance, if Verizon Wireless says it doesn’t collect or share information about what sites you visit, but the mysterious VZ Snooping Co (fictitious, I should add) scoops all that up and then sells it for peanuts to its sister company, that could amount to a deceptive practice. Of course it’s rarely that simple (though don’t rule it out), but the only way to be sure is to comprehensively question everyone involved and carefully compare the answers with real-world practices.

How else would we catch shady zero-rating practices, zombie cookies, backdoor deals, or lip service to existing privacy laws? It takes a lot of poring over data and complaints by the detail-oriented folks at these regulatory bodies to find things out.

To that end, the letters to ISPs ask for a whole boatload of information on companies’ data practices. Here’s a summary:

  • Categories of personal information collected about consumers or devices, including purposes, methods, and sources of collection
  • how the data has been or is being used
  • third parties that provide or are provided this data and what limitations are imposed thereupon
  • how such data is combined with other types of information and how long it is retained
  • internal policies and practices limiting access to this information by employees or service providers
  • any privacy assessments done to evaluate associated risks and policies.
  • how data is aggregated, anonymized, or deidentified (and how those terms are defined)
  • how aggregated data is used, shared, etc
  • “any data maps, inventories, or other charts, schematics, or graphic depictions” of information collection and storage
  • total number of consumers who have “visited or otherwise viewed or interacted with” the privacy policy
  • whether consumers are given any choice in collection and retention of data, and what the default choices are
  • total number and percentage of users that have exercised such a choice, and what choices they made
  • whether consumers are incentivized to (or threatened into) opt into data collection and how those programs work
  • any process for allowing consumers to “access, correct, or delete” their personal information
  • data deletion and retention policies for such information

Substantial, right?

Needless to say some of this information may not be particularly flattering to ISPs. If only 1 percent of consumers have ever chosen to share their information, for instance, that reflects badly on sharing it by default. And if data capable of being combined across categories or services to de-anonymize it, even potentially, that’s another major concern.

The FTC representative declined to comment on whether there would be any collaboration with the FCC on this endeavor, whether it was preliminary to any other action, and whether it can or will independently verify the information provided by the ISPs contacted. That’s an important point, considering how poorly these same companies represented their coverage data to the FCC for its yearly broadband deployment report. A reality check would be welcome.

You can read the rest of the letter here (PDF).

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Apple News+ is a great deal, but what does ‘full access’ really mean?

Curious whether you should cancel your existing magazine subscription and just subscribe to Apple News+?

Apple certainly seems to believe News+ is an outsized bargain for you. The company’s claim that it would cost users $8000 to get annual access to the publications they are giving readers for $9.99 per month suggests that they see News+ giving consumers the full value of of these publications’ subscriptions.

While you may have access to most of these publication’s editorial content, due to the curated nature of the platform, it still might be a challenge for you to actually see all of these stories as you scroll and click through the app. News+ is still a great bargain for consumers, but the company has done little to transparently communicate what the service is not.

Apple and individual publications (such as ours) struck their own deals. Terms were dictated in ways that probably made publishers believe that their wouldn’t be much attrition from core subscription products, but little of that matters when consumer perceptions aren’t managed.

Apple doing little to convey what users won’t see when they open the News+ tab is unfortunate, but it’s far more detrimental to publications earnestly looking to expand their user bases, not cannibalize subscriptions. Complicated deal terms don’t make for the prettiest Keynote slides but if consumers are left to make their own assumptions, they’ll likely just assume what Apple has told them is the truth, that they are getting “full access.”

As a subscriber how are you supposed to know if your pricier Wall Street Journal digital subscription is any different from what is available on News+? Don’t look for fine print on the Apple News+ landing page, don’t look in the app itself, in fact, this information doesn’t seem to be available anywhere in Apple’s communications. The best rundown I’ve seen so far is this newsletter from CNN’s Brian Stelter, which suggests the paper is “trying to have it both ways,” letting News+ users access the full scope of the day’s content through search though much of it won’t organically surface from Apple’s curation and will only be available for a limited time. Most users signing up for News+ likely won’t realize this.

Though the minutiae of “full access” is somewhat unclear, Apple is better than most at distilling complicated deal terms into something snappy and I think it’s fair to say that non-print subscribers signing up for News+ will cancel existing subscriptions unless the reasons not to are thrown directly in their face by the publications.

Some are trying to do just that, but it’s not easy to surface caveats in the wake of a major Apple announcement.

The New Yorker’s Editor Michael Luo laid out some of the differences between what access full subscribers would be getting to the magazine’s content compared to News+ subscribers, and it seems to boil down to the fact that “most” web content isn’t included in the deal alongside some digital services like crossword puzzles.

A journalist’s thread with a dozen or so retweets won’t achieve the reach that Apple can, and the underlying points embody the frustrations that Apple seemed to implicitly suggest News+ was a total replacement for these publications’ subscriptions when they juxtaposed the massive $8000 per year slide with the $9.99 monthly price of News+.

While plenty of these publications are seemingly stuck in News+ for the time being thanks to the initial terms of the Texture acquisition (which served as the basis for Apple’s new service), for the sake of securing newcomers with more flexible terms and poaching high-profile holdouts like the New York Times, it seems that Apple to be a bit more transparent to consumers about what all this new news service is and is not.

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Tracking the life cycle of giant storms on Neptune

The big picture: Neptune is the eighth and farthest known planet in our solar system (sorry, Pluto). It’s the fourth largest planet by diameter and the third largest in terms of mass but its distance from Earth makes it somewhat difficult to study. As such, it doesn’t get as much attention as some of the other planets but is compelling nevertheless.

NASA’s Voyager 2 spacecraft was the first to visit Neptune. As the craft zipped past the icy giant in 1989, it snapped photos of two large storms in the southern hemisphere which scientists called “The Great Dark Spot” and “Dark Spot 2.”

In 1994 when NASA aimed its Hubble Space Telescope at Neptune for another look, the two storms where gone. That was a surprise considering scientists had been used to looking at Jupiter’s Great Red Spot which has possibly been raging on for more than 100 years.

Amy Simon, a planetary scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, has been studying Neptune over the past several years to get a better grasp on how storms form on the icy planet. Since 2015, the Outer Planet Atmospheres Legacy (OPAL) project has analyzed images of Neptune, tacking the formation, path and dissipation of its various storm systems.

Imagery from 2015 to 2017 showed what scientists were no doubt hoping to witness – the birth of one such storm. It started when several small, high-altitude clouds made of methane ice crystals came together. A large, dark spot later appeared in the same region, suggesting that dark spots may originate much deeper in the atmosphere than scientists originally thought.

“Every time we get new images from Hubble, something is different than what we expected,” Simon said.

The team’s latest evidence suggests that new storms crop up on Neptune every four to six years with each lasting as many as six years. Two-year life spans seem more common, however, the group said in a paper published March 25 in the Astronomical Journal.

Lead image courtesy NASA images via Shutterstock

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European Union votes to end daylight saving time in 2021

Full disclosure: I feel that in a technologically advanced world where commerce operates 24/7, daylight savings time (DST) has lost its usefulness, if it had any to begin with. That also seems to be the view of the European Parliament as it has just voted to abolish DST (called Summer Time there).

Last year we reported that the European Commission had proposed ending daylight savings time in EU member states. The proposed scrapping of the seasonal time change was set to occur on March 31, 2019, but was waiting on approval by the European Parliament.

After months of debate, the ruling body has come to a decision. Parliament ruled in favor of abolishing daylight savings time across Europe. Bloomberg notes, member states will now have until 2021 to decide whether they will remain on summer time or winter time.

The change was partly prompted by a survey conducted among 4.6 million Europeans, 84 percent of which said they were opposed to seasonal time shifts. Public opinion was not the only reasoning.

“Our main finding is that — contrary to the policy’s intent — DST increases residential electricity demand. Estimates of the overall increase are approximately 1 percent.”

One of the cited motives the practice was started was to conserve energy. However, recent studies have shown energy savings between regions on daylight time and those that stay on standard time are negligible to nil and may actually increase energy consumption in some cases.

There is little to no evidence that seasonal time shifts of one hour create any tangible benefits. On the contrary, the US National Library of Medicine and National Institutes of Health have published numerous papers on the negative impacts of daylight savings.

More than one study has shown that fatal traffic accidents increase during the shift to and from DST. Other research has linked the time change to poor work performance. There is even one postulating increased cancer risks due to the time shifts fouling up normal circadian rhythms.

Daylight savings time also has been a thorn in Apple’s side on numerous occasions going back to at least 2011.

Studies aside, very few people in Europe, or even in the United States for that matter, see any valid point for changing their clocks twice a year. In the US, Arizona abolished DST in 1968 and has not financially collapsed, fallen into the center of the earth, or suffered any other imaginary boogieman. So kudos to the EU for finally abandoning an archaic and useless custom.

Lead Image via BT

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Microsoft to hold Surface Hub 2 event on April 17th

Microsoft is planning to hold a special work-focused press event in New York City next month. The software giant has started sending press invites to members of the media today for an event that will take place on April 17th. Microsoft’s event will include Steelcase, the same company that it paired up with to envision a Surface-powered office of the future.

Microsoft’s event invite simply states “Microsoft & Steelcase invite you to experience new ways to work better, together,” but the company is expected to detail its Surface Hub 2S plans. Microsoft first unveiled the Surface Hub 2 last year, promising a 2S model in Q2 2019. Microsoft’s giant 50-inch display will work with removable hardware cartridges, allowing owners to upgrade the device in the future. Microsoft is planning to deliver a Surface Hub 2X upgrade cartridge in 2020 that will include new software and the ability to rotate the device.

Microsoft has long been fascinated with creating workspaces of the future, and it’s likely we’ll see some of that work on April 17th, too. That could include unique furniture and additional Surface accessories from Steelcase and perhaps an idea of when we’ll see Microsoft’s visions inside workplaces.

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