Facebook’s new opaque political ads transparency site shows self-regulation isn’t enough

Alex_Howard_on_Twitter___So___Facebook_has_a_new_political_ad_transparency_site_https___t_co_EQoMMqDodq_You_can_t_get_to_it_unless_you_re_logged_into_Facebook__https___t_co_UbNjMZLbY

This past week, Facebook launched a new political ad transparency website. Facebook believes that “shining a light on ads” will increase transparency, which in turn “will lead to increased accountability & responsibility over time – not just for Facebook but advertisers as well.“

I think they’re right — which should be no surprise given my focus on advocating for more political transparency in Washington over the two years I spent at the Sunlight Foundation — but reviewing reports of unlabeled political ads is going to be hard.

Overall, this site is a welcome step towards more transparency, but misses the mark. The site only “exceeds expectations” if you think a search interface that exposes no underlying data is sufficient to inform the public and regulators.

In my initial assessment, I concur with journalists who found Facebook’s new political ad system is missing a lot, as ProPublica reported. (Please install ProPublica’s political ad collector so they can inform the public about how well Facebook’s tool actually works.)

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On the one hand, it was easy to use Facebook’s new archive of “ads with political content” – essentially a simple search tool for paid political ads that have run since May 7, 2018 – at least once I got on my laptop and logged into Facebook. I found recent ads that matched Trump, Clinton, gun control and corruption.

If you click on “see ad performance,” you can learn more about each ad.

If you click on the username, you arrive at the Page behind the ads. Unfortunately, there’s no tab for political ads or link to this archive. It’s hard to see how folks will find them, without it.

As I noted on Twitter, however, there’s one more critical wrinkle: you can’t get to the page unless you’re logged into Facebook!

This would be hilariously ironic, if it weren’t for the context of Russian interference and how Facebook handled it. Self-regulation is not enough.

As sociology professor Zeynep Tufecki noted, no one — whether member of the public, the press, watchdog, academic, regulator or legislator – should have to agree to Facebook’s Terms of Service and become a user to access political data.

To Facebook’s credit, the director of product at Facebook, Rob Leathern, responded publicly to Tufecki on Twittter, stating that this page is a first step:

“More ways are coming to make the ads with political content and information more accessible to people. One of those is an API, another is exploring opening the archive to people not on Facebook. We started with the Facebook community to see how they use the tool and gain feedback from third parties, including our newly-formed Election Commission. We’ll continue to update on our progress.”

If Facebook started with open data with no log-in, they could have gotten feedback from third parties like the Center for Responsive Politics or the public. No one should have to be part of Facebook’s “community” to understand who is buying electioneering on the platform, for whom, and what’s being shown.

As I commented to Leathern, if Facebook is only “exploring” making this archive open to people not on Facebook, then it is not implementing the Honest Ads Act, as its staff has claimed to Congress and the public. I asked Facebook to post a public ad file as bulk open data on the open Web.

Leathern told me that “we have prioritized getting the archive in the hands of people to use (as of today) + will follow up soon with an archive API. Thank you for the feedback, we are definitely listening.”

That’s good news, but not good enough.

Real transparency at Facebook will look like a public file of all paid political ads that are disclosed on a public website with bulk open data downloads and an API, none of which require the public to log into the site.

The good news is that I think Facebook understands this page as a start, not an end. In a post that closes matches what he told me, Leathern wrote that they’re “working closely” with a new “Election Commission” to launch an API for the archives.

It’s good news, but no deadline cited.

It’s hard for me not to be happy that Facebook is finally explicitly embracing political ad transparency in words and (some) deeds, including public soul searching about what constitutes a political ad and a policy.

That’s progress.

It’s just long overdue. Ultimately, elected representatives should be the ones to enact standards for transparency for political ads online after debate, not tech company executives.

Until Congress and other legislatures around the world empower regulators like Federal Election Commission by updating electioneering rules and enacting standards for disclaimers and disclosures, however, I’m glad to see positive actions.

I hope Facebook, its founder and its staff deliver on its most recent promises and their public obligations. Given past, current or predictable interference, opacity is unpatriotic.

Why it’s past time for governments to fix public comments online – and how

The Bot Wars, begun they have. Over the past two years, automated social media accounts and fraudulent regulatory filings have been used by anonymous parties to obscure public opinion, distort public discourse, and corrupt the integrity of rulemaking in the … Continue reading

In strong endorsement of net neutrality, President Obama says FCC should reclassify broadband Internet providers under Title II

As a candidate, Senator Barack Obama said on November 14, 2007 that “I will take a back seat to no one in my commitment to network neutrality, because once providers start to privilege some applications or websites over others, then the smaller voices get squeezed out and we all lose. The Internet is perhaps the most open network in history, and we have to keep it that way.” Over the past six years, however, his voice has often been missing from the debate over how the providers of broadband Internet service should be regulated. This morning, however, President, Barack Obama came out much more strongly in favor of net neutrality.

In his statement (video embedded above, text linked) the president outlined 4 “bright line rules” that he wants the Federal Communications Commission to adopt for how consumer broadband Internet providers should behave (no blocking, no throttling, no paid prioritization, more transparency) and a rationale for how they should be regulated.

On that count, the biggest news comes further down in President Obama’s statement: “…the time has come for the FCC to recognize that broadband service is of the same importance and must carry the same obligations as so many of the other vital services do. To do that, I believe the FCC should reclassify consumer broadband service under Title II of the Telecommunications Act — while at the same time forbearing from rate regulation and other provisions less relevant to broadband services.”

That position is unquestionably a big win for activists, who are thrilled about the news this morning. If you’re unclear about what “forbearance” means, beyond the dictionary meaning of “holding back,” here’s a good article by Nancy Scola and and here’s a much longer post, by Harold Feld, which has more on the topic, and why it’s contentious among telecom lawyers and policy wonks. Should this plan actually make into Open Internet rules and be voted in, how forbearance is handled what Stacey Higgenbotham suggested watching in her excellent analysis of this net neutrality proposal.” They have the patience and lobbying muscle to ensure that in the process of forbearing them from certain practices that are irrelevant for a broadband era, they can get concessions that may make Title II less onerous for them,” she wrote.

Forbearing from rate regulation, or artificially controlling the price for a set level of service, would address one of the most significant objections to Title II that have been raised by American telecommunications companies. Other countries, like Argentina, are going a different route.

That didn’t stop Verizon from warning that reclassification under Title II would cause “great harm to an open Internet, competition and innovation. The National Cable and Telecommunications Agency released a statement that (former FCC chairman) CEO Michael Powell was “stunned” by the president’s statement on net neutrality and that the matter belongs in Congress.

“There is no substantive justification for this overreach, and no acknowledgment that it is unlawful to prohibit paid prioritization under Title II,” he said. “We will fight vigorously against efforts to impose this backwards policy.”

In a tweeted statement that was subsequently posted to Comcast’s blog, David L. Cohen, an executive vice president at Comcast Corporation, similarly said that President Obama’s policy stance would “jeopardize this engine for job creation and investment as well as the innovation cycle that the Internet has generated” and suggested that reclassification this was a matter for Congress to decide:

To attempt to impose a full-blown Title II regime now, when the classification of cable broadband has always been as an information service, would reverse nearly a decade of precedent, including findings by the Supreme Court that this classification was proper. This would be a radical reversal that would harm investment and innovation, as today’s immediate stock market reaction demonstrates. And such a radical reversal of consistent contrary precedent should be taken up by the Congress.

The other key detail in the policy position on net neutrality the White House published today was picked up over at the Verge: President Obama asked the FCC to apply these rules to mobile broadband internet providers as well. In his statement, he said that “the rules also have to reflect the way people use the Internet today, which increasingly means on a mobile device. I believe the FCC should make these rules fully applicable to mobile broadband as well, while recognizing the special challenges that come with managing wireless networks.”

As the president also noted, that “the FCC is an independent agency, and ultimately this decision is theirs alone,” but there’s no question that the President of the United States has put his thumb on the scale here, finally, and that it will put some pressure on the two Democratic commissioners, along with the man he nominated to lead the FCC, chairman Tom Wheeler.

Here’s the statement released by Wheeler this morning, in response to the President’s position:

The President’s statement is an important and welcome addition to the record of the Open Internet proceeding. Like the President, I believe that the Internet must remain an open platform for free expression, innovation, and economic growth. We both oppose Internet fast lanes. The Internet must not advantage some to the detriment of others. We cannot allow broadband networks to cut special deals to prioritize Internet traffic and harm consumers, competition and innovation.

As an independent regulatory agency we will incorporate the President’s submission into the record of the Open Internet proceeding. We welcome comment on it and how it proposes to use Title II of the Communications Act.

In January, a federal court struck down rules that prevented Internet Service Providers from blocking and discriminating against online content. In May, the Commission sought comment on how to best reinstate these rules to protect consumers and innovators online while remaining within the parameters of the legal roadmap the court established. The goal was simple: to reach the outcomes sought by the 2010 rules. We sought comment on using Section 706 of the Telecommunications Act, as discussed by the court to protect what the court described as the “virtuous circle” of innovation that fosters broadband deployment and protects consumers.

The purpose of the Commission’s Notice of Proposed Rulemaking proposal was to elicit comments. In the past several months, we’ve heard from millions of Americans from across the country. From the beginning I have pledged to finally bring to an end the years-long quest for rules that are upheld in court. In May we sought comment on both Section 706 and Title II and I promised that in this process all options would be on the table in order to identify the best legal approach to keeping the Internet open. That includes both the Section 706 option and the Title II reclassification. Recently, the Commission staff began exploring “hybrid” approaches, proposed by some members of Congress and leading advocates of net neutrality, which would combine the use of both Title II and Section 706.

The more deeply we examined the issues around the various legal options, the more it has become plain that there is more work to do. The reclassification and hybrid approaches before us raise substantive legal questions. We found we would need more time to examine these to ensure that whatever approach is taken, it can withstand any legal challenges it may face. For instance, whether in the context of a hybrid or reclassification approach, Title II brings with it policy issues that run the gamut from privacy to universal service to the ability of federal agencies to protect consumers, as well as legal issues ranging from the ability of Title II to cover mobile services to the concept of applying forbearance on services under Title II.

I am grateful for the input of the President and look forward to continuing to receive input from all stakeholders, including the public, members of Congress of both parties, including the leadership of the Senate and House committees, and my fellow commissioners. Ten years have passed since the Commission started down the road towards enforceable Open Internet rules. We must take the time to get the job done correctly, once and for all, in order to successfully protect consumers and innovators online.

Whether this very public position by the White House leads the FCC to act any differently will be open to debate over the next month, as the deadline to get rules made and circulated to the commissioners before the last open meeting on December 11th grows near. It certainly gives them more political cover.

If the FCC does reclassify, expect the incoming 114th Congress and Republican majority to seek to shape that regulatory choice, perhaps by legislation, and that regulatory wrangling over net neutrality to end up in the courts. Again. (Conservatives concerned about the impact of applying Title II to the Internet may find this post by James Heaney of considerable interest.) Speaker of the House John Boehner was unequivocal in a statement released in response to President Obama’s position, asserting that “net neutrality hurts private-sector job creation“:

“It’s disappointing, but not surprising, that the Obama administration continues to disregard the people’s will and push for more mandates on our economy. An open, vibrant Internet is essential to a growing economy, and net neutrality is a textbook example of the kind of Washington regulations that destroy innovation and entrepreneurship. Federal bureaucrats should not be in the business of regulating the Internet – not now, not ever. In the new Congress, Republicans will continue our efforts to stop this misguided scheme to regulate the Internet, and we’ll work to encourage private-sector job creation, starting with many of the House-passed jobs bills that the outgoing Senate majority ignored.”

Evidence for the Speaker’s assertion regarding the impact of net neutrality laws on jobs is scant, as Carl Brooks, an IT analyst with 451 Research, noted: “Connection markets are robust and competitive in [the European Union] for business; for consumers, prices are dramatically lower.” (The European Parliament enacted a strong net neutrality law earlier this year.) “Net neutrality in the EU is explicit policy to encourage competition [and] benefit consumers on the backs of state telecom,” he went on.

Regardless of the political outcome in Congress, close observers of the FCC expect the rules to be delayed until 2015. What the American people get for a holiday present online is — reclassification or some form of tiered services — remains, for now, something only St. Nick knows.

This post has been updated with more statements, links, media and analysis.

“Internet Slowdown Day” sends over hundreds of thousands* of new comments on net neutrality to FCC

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Today, dozens of websites “slowed down” for a cause, collectively advocating against Open Internet rules proposed by the Federal Communications Commission. None of the participants in today’s “Internet Slowdown Day” actually delayed access to their websites: instead, they used code to add a layer to visitors’ Web browsers with one of the loading icons grimly familiar to anyone who’s ever waited for a long download or crufty operating system function to finish in an overlay and linked to BattleForThenet.com/September10, which encouraged visitors to sign a letter supporting net neutrality, or to use online tools to call Congress.

While many big tech companies didn’t participate, millions of visitors to Reddit, Tumblr, Netflix, Free Press, Reddit, Netflix, Mozilla, Kickstarter, Upworthy, Automattic, Digg, Vimeo, Boing Boing, Urban Dictionary, Foursquare, Cheezburger and the Sunlight Foundation saw the spinning icon, among others.

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The effort appears to have made a difference: According to the FCC*, by 6 PM ET the agency saw 111,449 new public comments added to the already record-setting total, with some 41,173 filed into the 14-28 docket of the FCC’s website since and another 70,286 sent to the openinternet@fcc.gov inbox, setting a new high water mark of some 1,515,144 to date, with more yet to come. As reported by Mike Masnick, citing ThinkProgress, the Internet slowdown generated 1000 calls per minute to Congress. *Update: Fight for the Future claims that more than 740,000 comments were submitted through Battleforthenet.com and that the FCC hasn’t caught up. According to the nonprofit, “this happened during our last big push too when their site crashed. We are storing comments and will deliver all.”

“We sent 500K+ comments,” wrote Tiffaniy Cheng, co-founder of Fight for the Future, in an email. “They’re getting backlogged as the FCC can’t handle the amount of data. The FCC asked us to hold as they could not accept them and can’t handle all the load. So, they only just got to accepting them again.”

That means there have been at least 409,522 reply comments filed since July 18, with five days left in the reply comment period, with more than one quarter of them coming in a single day. (*If Fight for the Future’s total is correct, the number of reply comments filed passed 800,000, with the total nearing 2 million.) The FCC will host a public Open Internet roundtable discussion on September 16, the day after the period closes. According to an analysis of the first 800,000 public comments by the Sunlight Foundation, less than 1 percent of the submissions were clearly opposed to net neutrality.

These numbers are still dwarfed by the millions of calls and emails sent to Washington during the campaign to halt the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and PROTECT-IP Act in Congress in 2012, when Google and Wikipedia connected visitors to their websites to switchboards on Capitol Hill. They may also have less of an effect on an independent regulatory agency that has yet to chart a sustainable legal course in the storm of online criticism and intense lobbying by affected industries.

According to a FCC spokesman, the agency expected an increased volume of traffic due to the “slowdown.” Perhaps anticipating the interest, the @FCC’s first tweet today encouraged people to submit comments via email:

The total number of comments on the Open Internet proceeding is sure to grow in the remaining week, with the number of emails sent to the FCC’s dedicated inbox likely to go past a million. (Update: On Thursday morning, the FCC confirmed that a total of 632,328 comments filed to ECFS and 1,118,107 sent to openinternet@fcc.gov, for a cumulative total of 1,750,435.) In many ways, that outcome feels appropriate.

When the FCC’s 18 year-old online commenting system has groaned under a huge volume of online traffic, people have routed around the downed comment system and used the original killer app of the Internet: email, the “tremendous, decentralized, open platform on which new, innovative things can and have been built,” based upon the same kinds of open protocols that enabled the unprecedented growth of a wealth of networks to grow around the world.

Update: At the end of the day after the Internet Slowdown, the FCC still working to enter all of the new comments created the day before into their systems — and the agency decided to offer another way to file comments: using email attachments.

In fact, FCC asked for something unexpected, simple and smart: for comments to be submitted at bulk open data, as .csv files of no more than 9 MB each. While the FCC doesn’t refer specifically to the comments that Fight for the Future has collected, this option does offer an easy way to electronically transfer the comments through an established channel. In the future, perhaps this will become the default option for
filing bulk comments collected by advocates, at least until Congress funds a new online filing system or the agency finds a way to use Dropbox. It should certainly make releasing them online as structured data for third-party analysis much easier; if the FCC wanted to, if could publish them almost as quickly as the comments came in.

The agency’s chief information officer, David Bray, explained the additional option in a blog post:

The volume of public feedback in the Open Internet proceeding has been commensurate with the importance of the effort to preserve a free and open Internet.

The Commission is working to ensure that all comments are processed and that we have a full accounting of the number received as soon as possible. Most important, all of these comments will be considered as part of the rulemaking process. While our system is catching up with the surge of public comments, we are providing a third avenue for submitting feedback on the Open Internet proceeding.

In the Commission’s embrace of Open Data and a commitment to openness and transparency throughout the Open Internet proceedings, the FCC is making available a Common Separated Values (CSV) file for bulk upload of comments given the exceptional public interest. All comments will be received and recorded through the same process we are applying for the openinternet@fcc.gov emails.

Attached is a link to the CSV file template along with instructions. Once completed, the CSV file can be emailed to openinternet@fcc.gov where if it matches the template the individual comments will be filed for the public record with the Electronic Comment Filing System. When you email this file, please use the subject “CSV”. We encourage CSV files of 9MB or less via email.

The Commission welcomes the record-setting level of public input in this proceeding, and we want to do everything we can to make sure all voices are heard and reflected in the public record.

White House e-petition system hits 15 million users, 22 million signatures and 350,000 petitions

Last week, the White House took a victory lap  for a novel event in U.S. history, when a bill that had its genesis as an online petition to the United States government filed at WhiteHouse.gov became law after the 113th Congress actually managed to passed a bill.

In a blog post explaining how cell phone locking became legal, Ezra Mechaber, deputy director of email and petitions in the White House Office of Digital Strategy, noted that this outcome “marked the very first time a We the People petition led to a legislative fix.” Mechaber also highlighted continued growth for the national e-petition platform: 15 million users, 22 million signatures and 350,000 petitions since it was launched in 2011.

WeThePeople epetition statistics

Mechaber also mentioned two other things worth highlighting: “a simplified signing process that removes the need to create an account just to sign a petition”  and a Write API that will “eventually allow people to sign petitions using new technologies, and on sites other than WhiteHouse.gov.” If and when that API goes live, I expect user growth and activity to spike again. Imagine, for instance, if people could sign petitions from within news stories or though Change.org. Enabling petition creators to have more of a relationship with signatories would also address one of the principal critiques levied against the site’s function. Professor Dave Karpf:

Launching the online petition at We The People created the conditions for a formal response from the White House.  That was a plus.  We The People provided no help in amplifying the petitions through email and social media.  That was neutral in this case, since Reddit, EFF, Public Knowledge, and others were helping to amplify instead.  But the site left the petition-creators with no residual list for follow-up actions.  That’s a huge minus.

If the petition had been launched through a different site (like Change.org), then it would have been less likely to get a formal White House response, but more likely to facilitate the follow-up actions that Khanna/Howard, Wiens and Khanifar say are vital to eventual success.

The White House has not provided a timeline for when the beta API will become public. If they respond to my questions, I’ll update this post.

Data journalism and the changing landscape for policy making in the age of networked transparency

This morning, I gave a short talk on data journalism and the changing landscape for policy making in the age of networked transparency at the Woodrow Wilson Center in DC, hosted by the Commons Lab.

Video from the event is online at the Wilson Center website. Unfortunately, I found that I didn’t edit my presentation down enough for my allotted time. I made it to slide 84 of 98 in 20 minutes and had to skip the 14 predictions and recommendations section. While many of the themes I describe in those 14 slides came out during the roundtable question and answer period, they’re worth resharing here, in the presentation I’ve embedded below:

CFPB proposes new policy to allow consumers to share stories of woes with financial companies

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As the nation’s first startup agency in more than a generation, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau has broken new ground in how it uses technology to create better Web products, publishes complaint data, shares software code, catalyzes innovation, uses the Internet to redesign forms, and, of course, regulates providers of consumer financial services. Now, it has floated a new proposal to create a consumer complaint database that would, for the first time, make the stories that consumers tell the regulatory agency public.

“The consumer experience shared in the narrative is the heart and soul of the complaint,” said CFPB Director Richard Cordray, in a statement. “By publicly voicing their complaint, consumers can stand up for themselves and others who have experienced the same problem. There is power in their stories, and that power can be put in service to strengthen the foundation for consumers, responsible providers, and our economy as a whole.”

The CFPB was given authority and responsibility for handling consumer complaints regarding financial services by the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act, more than three years ago. Today, the CFPB released an overview of the complaints that the agency has handled since July 21, 2011,

Today, the CFPB released an overview of complaints handled since the Bureau opened on July 21, 2011. (The graphics atop this post and below are sourced from this analysis.) According to the data inside, up until June 30, 2014, the CFPB has handled approximately 395,300 consumer complaints.

complaints by product

According to the overview, the World Wide Web has been a key channel for people to file complaints to the CFPB: 56% of all consumer complaints were submitted through the CFPB’s website. 10% were submitted via telephone calls, with the balance coming in through mail, email, and fax. The rest of the report contains tables and data that breaks down complaints by type, actions taken, company responses, and consumers’ feedback about company responses.

By releasing these narratives, not just the number of complaints, the agency holds that the following benefits will accrue: more context to the complaint, specific trends in complaints, enabling consumers to make more informed decisions, and spurring competition based on consumer satisfaction. In the release announcing the proposed policy, the CFPB emphasized that consumers must opt-in to share these stories: “The CFPB would not publish the complaint narrative unless the consumer provides informed consent. This means that when consumers submit a complaint through consumerfinance.gov, they would have to affirmatively check a consent box to give the Bureau permission to publish their narrative. At least initially, only narratives submitted online would be available for the opt-in.”

Consumers could subsequently decide to withdraw their consent, resulting in the regulator removing the complaint from their website. Companies will be given the opportunity to publish a written response to the complaints that would appear next to a given consumer’s story.

The agency’s proposal states that “no personal information will be shared, stating that “complaints would be scrubbed of information such as names, telephone numbers, account numbers, Social Security numbers, and other direct identifiers.”

Getting that right is important — watch for powerful financial companies, their lobbyists and sympathetic politicians to raise privacy concerns about the proposal in DC in the weeks to follow.

While it may not be apparent at first glance, however, the collection and publication of these complaints would have an important, tacit effect upon the market for financial services. By collecting, structuring and releasing consumer complaints as data, the CFPB could add crucial business intelligence into the marketplace for these services. This isn’t a novel model: the Consumer Product Safety Commission already discloses a public complaint database at SaferProducts.gov, enabling merchants and services like Consumer Products to give people crucial information about their purchases. The SEC and FINRA would be well-advised to release financial advisor data in a similar fashion. Someday, complaints submitted from mobile e-patients may have similarly powerful corrective effect in the market for health care goods and services.

FCC receives 1 million+ comments on Net Neutrality; extends Open Internet comment period until 7/16

Has the Internet showed up to comment on the Federal Communication Commission’s rulemaking around net neutrality, as I wondered when the Open Internet proceeding began? Well, yes and no. According to FCC press secretary Kim Hart, the FCC 677,000 or so total public comments on Net Neutrality submitted before tomorrow’s deadline.

As Wall Street Journal reporter Gautham Nagesh tweeted, the FCC’s action on media deregulation a decade ago received the most public comments of any of the agency’s rulemakings to date, with two million or so comments.

What this total number means in practice, however, is that network neutrality advocates have failed to stimulate public interest or engagement with this issue, despite “warnings about the FCC’s fast lane” in the New York Times. While that is in part because net neutrality is to many people a “topic that generally begets narcolepsy,” to use David Carr’s phrase, it may also be because cable, broadcast and radio news haven’t covered the issue, much less shown the email address or offered a short URL for people to officially comment. The big jump in the graphic below after June 1st can reasonably be attributed to John Oliver’s segment on this issue on his HBO show, not other media.

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That doesn’t mean that the comments haven’t flowed fast and furious at times, taking down the FCC’s ECFS system after Oliver’s show. (Shenanigans may have been at fault with the outage, too, as Sam Gustin reported at Vice.)

“During the past 60 days, the Commission has received a large number of comments from a wide range of constituents,” wrote FCC chief information officer David Bray on the FCC blog, where he reported the rate and total number of email comments on the Open Internet proceeding as open data and shared two graphics, including the one below.

Chairman Tom Wheeler and I both enthusiastically support open government and open data, so with this post I wanted to share the hourly rate of comments submitted into the FCC’s Electronic Comment Filing System (ECFS) since the start of public comments on the FCC’s Open Internet Proceeding (Proceeding 14-28). Here’s a link to a Comma Separated Values (CSV) text file providing those hourly rates for all comments submitted to ECFS and those specific to the Open Internet Proceeding; below is a graphical presentation of that same data.

I’m hoping we see the content of those public comments, too. I’ve asked.

Bray also wrote that the FCC’s inbox and (aged) public comment system will remain open and that the agency continues to “invite engagement from all interested parties.” He also indicated that the FCC will be considering ways to make it easier to third parties to scrape the comment data from the system.

The FCC IT team will also look into implementing an easier way for electronic “web scraping” of comments available in ECFS for comment downloads greater than 100,000 comments at once as we work to modernize the FCC enterprise.

The number of people submitting comments is impressive, underscoring the importance of this issue and the critical role public engagement plays in the Commission’s policy-making process. When the ECFS system was created in 1996, the Commission presumably didn’t imagine it would receive more than 100,000 electronic comments on a single telecommunications issue. Open government and open data is important to our rapidly changing times both in terms of the pace of technology advances and the tightening of budgets in government. I hope you find this information useful.

In the meantime, you have until tomorrow to participate.

UPDATE: On the afternoon of July 15th, the FCC extended the Open Internet comment period until Friday, July 18 at midnight. It appears that online interest was a large part of the decision. FCC press secretary Kim Hart:

“The deadline for filing submissions as part of the first round of public comments in the FCC’s Open Internet proceeding arrived today. Not surprisingly, we have seen an overwhelming surge in traffic on our website that is making it difficult for many people to file comments through our Electronic Comment Filing System (ECFS). Please be assured that the Commission is aware of these issues and is committed to making sure that everyone trying to submit comments will have their views entered into the record. Accordingly, we are extending the comment deadline until midnight Friday, July 18.”

If you wish to participate, learn more about the issuesee other comments and submit your own comments online atDocket 14-28 or email comments to openinternet@fcc.gov, where they will become part of the public record. Your email address will then become part of the Open Internet Rule docket.

One additional clarification from Hart, regarding the total number of comments and public access to their contents: emails are being entered into the official docket in ECFS but are not being filed individually in the docket. “A large number of them are put into a big PDF and then that single PDF is filed into ECFS, rather than filing them one by one,” she said, via email. “So they will all be in the docket, but in a couple dozen large files rather than individually. Some are already entered, but there’s a bit of a lag.”

Update: As of Wednesday morning, the FCC has received 780,000 comments on this proceeding.

Update: Per Hart, as of Thursday morning, the FCC has received a cumulative total of 968,762 comments: 369,653 to ECFS,
599,109 emails to the Open Internet inbox.

“This is the most comments the FCC has received in a rulemaking proceeding,” said Hart.

Update: As of Friday at 4 pm, 1,062,000 comments had been filed in the FCC’s Open Internet proceeding.

Statement from FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler regarding this outpouring of comments:

“When the Commission launched its effort to restore Open Internet protections that were struck down in January, I said that where we end up depends on what we learn during this process. We asked the public a fundamental question: “What is the right public policy to ensure that the Internet remains open?” We are grateful so many Americans have answered our call. Our work is just beginning as we review the more than one million comments we have received. There are currently no rules on the books to protect an Open Internet and prevent ISPs from blocking or degrading the public’s access to content. There is no question the Internet must remain open as a platform for innovation, economic growth and free expression. Today’s deadline is a checkpoint, not the finish line for public comment. We want to continue to hear from you. “

Statement from FCC spokesman Mark Wigfield regarding the process for reviewing these comments:

“We appreciate the high level of public engagement on the Open Internet proceeding and value the feedback we have received. The FCC has a great deal of experience handling complicated issues that draw extensive public comment. Managing this flood of information requires a combination of good technology, good organization and good people. We are currently examining a number of approaches. The FCC will deploy staff from across many bureaus and offices who have the training, organizational expertise, and track record of success sorting through large volumes of information to ensure that we account for all views in the record.”

Update: At the close of the initial comment period of the Open Internet proceeding, the FCC had received 1,067,779 comments: 446,843 were filed through the Electronic Comment Filing System, and 620,936 through the Open Internet inbox. Now, the “reply” period begins, and will run through September 10. Update: the FCC extended the reply period until September 15th to allow more time for the public to comment.

Here are 5 relevant comments to reply to, for those looking for substance: Verizon, Comcast, the Internet Association, Time Warner, and AT&T.

Statement from Mark Wigfield:

“The comment and reply deadlines serve to get public input to the FCC in a timely and organized way to provide more time for analysis.

However, comments are permitted in this proceeding any time up until a week before a vote is scheduled at an Open Meeting (the “Sunshine” period under the Sunshine in Government Act). ”

This post has been updated with more numbers, links and commentary, including the headline.

FAQ on Net Neutrality and FCC NPRM on Proposed Open Internet Rules

4808777114_aaa9fb7f2e_zThis morning, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) voted 3-2 to approve a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) on Open Internet Rules.

[Hearing Video] [Statements: Wheeler | Clyburn | Rosenworcel | Pai | O’Rielly]

The commission has released a fact sheet on the rules to the media and published the release online as a .doc, .pdf, HTML and .txt. I’ve published the FCC FAQ below and linked to the NPRM on Protecting and Promoting the Open Internet.

[.doc | .pdf | .txt ] [FCC-14-61A2 FCC-14-61A3 | FCC-14-61A4 | FCC-14-61A5 | FCC-14-61A6]

The FCC asks the public several important question in this NPRM:

  • Should the FCC should bar paid prioritization  completely?
  • Should the FCC apply Open Internet rules to mobile broadband Internet service, not just fixed broadband Internet?
  • Should the FCC reclassify broadband Internet service as a telecommunications service under Title II of the Telecommunications Act?

For more background on net neutrality, read:

  • Brian Fung at the Washington Post
  • Gautham Nagesh at the Wall Street Journal, including this net neutrality primer
  • Stacey Higgenbotham at GigaOm on the problem with this network neutrality compromise, including her useful timeline of net neutrality policy at the FCC, going back to 2004 when then-FCC Chairman Michael Powell gave a speech outlining four “Internet Freedoms.” 
  • Jon Brodkin‘s analysis of the law of the land at Ars Technica
  • Mark Coddington’s excellent digest at the Nieman Lab, which provides even more context for the origins of net neutrality and what’s next over the rest of the year:

    Earlier in the week, The Wall Street Journal reported that Wheeler was planning on revising his proposed rules to ensure that non-paying companies’ content wouldn’t be put at an unfair disadvantage. Stanford’s Barbara van Schewick and Morgan Weiland called the reported revisions a good start, with a long way yet to go. In a Twitter chat, an FCC representative gave some more details about the proposal and said the commission is still considering regulating Internet access like a utility. Columbia professor Tim Wu and TechFreedom’s Berin Szoka debated that prospect in The Wall Street Journal.

    Opposition to the plan hasn’t reached a fever pitch, but it is building. Quartz’s Yitz Jordan looked at the way net neutrality has united leftist and corporate tech interests, and The New York Times’ David Carr said he’s betting on the Silicon Valley powers aligning against the FCC plan over the Beltway establishment backing the proposals. The New York Times’ profiled an intellectual leader of the net neutrality movement, Columbia’s Tim Wu, and Time and CNET talked to one of the most prominent voices against the plan in Washington, Sen. Al Franken.

As of May 15, the Open Internet docket has received 21,017 comments. More are sure to pour in over the next four months, given the FCC’s controversial proposal to allow paid prioritization.

You can see other comments and submit your own comments at Docket 14-28 or email them to openinternet@fcc.gov. Your email address will then become part of the Open Internet Rule docket

Update: The White House released a statement on network neutrality from the press secretary:

The President has made clear since he was a candidate that he strongly supports net neutrality and an open Internet. As he has said, the Internet’s incredible equality – of data, content, and access to the consumer – is what has powered extraordinary economic growth and made it possible for once-tiny sites like eBay or Amazon to compete with brick and mortar behemoths.

The FCC is an independent agency, and we will carefully review their proposal. The FCC’s efforts were dealt a real challenge by the Court of Appeals in January, but Chairman Wheeler has said his goal is to preserve an open Internet, and we are pleased to see that he is keeping all options on the table. We will be watching closely as the process moves forward in hopes that the final rule stays true to the spirit of net neutrality.

The President is looking at every way to protect a free and open Internet, and will consider any option that might make sense.


 

FACT SHEET: Protecting and Promoting the Open Internet

May 15, 2014

 The Internet is a vital platform for innovation, economic growth and free expression in America. And yet, despite two prior FCC attempts, there are no rules on the books to prevent broadband providers from limiting Internet openness by blocking content or discriminating against consumers and entrepreneurs online.  The “Protecting and Promoting the Open Internet” Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) begins the process of closing that gap, which was created in January 2014 when the D.C. Circuit struck down key FCC Open Internet rules.

This Notice seeks public comment on the benefits of applying Section 706 of the Telecommunications Act of 1996 and Title II of the Communications Act, including the benefits of one approach over the other, to ensure the Internet remains an open platform for innovation and expression.  While the Notice reflects a tentative conclusion that Section 706 presents the quickest and most resilient path forward per the court’s guidance, it also makes clear that Title II remains a viable alternative and asks specifically which approach is better.  In addition, the proposal asks whether paid prioritization arrangements, or “fast lanes,” can be banned outright.

We Are Listening: An Extended Four-Month Public Comment Period is Open

Since February, tens of thousands of Americans have offered their views to the Commission on how to protect an Open Internet. The proposal reflects the substantial public input we have received. The Commission wants to continue to hear from Americans across the country throughout this process.  An extended four-month public comment period on the Commission’s proposal will be opened on May 15 – 60 days (until July 15) to submit initial comments and another 57 days (until September 10) for reply comments.

The NPRM seeks comment on a number of questions designed to:

 Develop the Strongest Legal Framework for Enforceable Rules of the Road

  • Reflects the principles that Chairman Wheeler outlined in February, including using the Section 706 blueprint for restoring the Open Internet rules offered by the D.C. Circuit in its decision in Verizon v. FCC, which relies on the FCC’s legal authority under Section 706 of the Telecommunications Act of 1996.  At the same time, the Commission will seriously consider the use of Title II of the Communications Act as the basis for legal authority.
  • Seeks comment on the benefits of both Section 706 and Title II, including the benefits of one approach over the other to ensure the Internet remains an open platform for innovation and expression.
  • Explores other available sources of legal authority, including also Title III for wireless services. The Commission seeks comment on the best ways to define, prevent, expose and punish the practices that threaten an Open Internet.

Ensure choices for consumers and opportunity for innovators

  • Proposes a requirement that all users must have access to fast and robust service: Broadband consumers must have access to the content, services and applications they desire. Innovators and edge providers must have access to end-users so they can offer new products and services.
  • Considers ensuring that these standards of service evolve to keep pace with of innovation.

Prevent practices that can threaten the Open Internet

  • Asks if paid prioritization should be banned outright.
  • Promises clear rules of the road and aggressive enforcement to prevent unfair treatment of consumers, edge providers and innovators.
  • Includes a rebuttable presumption* that exclusive contracts that prioritize service to broadband affiliates are unlawful.

(*Rebuttable presumption is a presumption that is taken to be true unless someone comes forward to contest it and proves otherwise)

 Expand transparency

  • Enhance the transparency rules to provide increased and specific information about broadband providers’ practices for edge providers, consumers.
  • Asks whether broadband providers should be required to disclose specific network practices, performance characteristics (e.g., effective upload and download speeds, latency and packet loss) and/or terms and conditions of service to end users (e.g., data caps).
  • Tentatively concludes that broadband providers should disclose “meaningful information” about the service, including (1) tailored disclosures to end users, (2) congestion that may adversely impact the experience of end users, including at interconnection points, and (3) information about new practices, like any paid prioritization, to the extent that it is otherwise permitted.

Protect consumers, innovators and startups through new rules and effective enforcement

  • Proposes the creation of an ombudsperson with significant enforcement authority to serve as a watchdog and advocate for start-ups, small businesses and consumers.
  • Seeks comment on how to ensure that all parties, and especially small businesses and start-ups, have effective access to the Commission’s dispute resolution and enforcement processes.
  • Considers allowing anonymous reporting of violations to alleviate fears by start-ups of retribution from broadband providers.

Consider the Impact on the Digital Divide: Ensuring access for all communities

  • Considers the impact of the proposals on groups who disproportionately use mobile broadband service.
  • Asks whether any parts of the nation are being left behind in the deployment of new broadband networks, including rural America and parts of urban America.

Link to Chairman Wheeler’s February Open Internet framework: http://www.fcc.gov/document/statement-fcc-chairman-tom-wheeler-fccs-open-internet-rules

Comment on the Open Internet proposals: http://www.fcc.gov/comments


 

This post has been updated with addition statements and revised as the FCC put more documents online.

[FAQ] How do I download a tax transcript from IRS.gov?

UPDATE: This service was taken offline after IRS security was compromised.

irs-transcriptIn January 2014, the IRS quietly introduced a new feature at IRS.gov that enabled Americans to download their tax transcript over the Internet. Previously, filers could request a copy of the transcript (not the full return) but had to wait 5-10 business days to receive it in the mail. For people who needed more rapid access for applications, the delay could be critical.

What’s a tax transcript?

It’s a list of the line items that you entered onto your federal tax return (Form 1040), as it was originally filed to the IRS.

Wait, we couldn’t already download a transcript like this in 2014?

Nope. Previously, filers could request a copy of the transcript (not the full return) but they would have to wait 5-10 business days to receive it in the mail.

Why did this happen now?

The introduction of the IRS feature coincided with a major Department of Education event focused on opening up such data. A U.S. Treasury official said that the administration was doing that to make it “easier for student borrowers to access tax records he or she might need to submit loan applications or grant applications.”

Why would someone want their tax transcript?

As the IRS itself says, “IRS transcripts are often used to validate income and tax filing status for mortgage applications, student and small business loan applications, and during tax preparation.” It’s pretty useful.

OK, so what do I do to download my transcript?

Visit “get transcript” and register online. You’ll find that the process is very similar to setting up online access for a bank accounts. You’ll need to choose a pass phrase, pass image and security questions, and then answer a series of questions about your life, like where you’ve lived. If you write them down, store them somewhere safe and secure offline, perhaps with your birth certificate and other sensitive documents.

Wait, what? That sounds like a lot of of private information.

True, but remember: the IRS already has a lot of private data about you. These questions are designed to prevent someone else from setting up a fake account on your behalf and stealing it from them. If you’re uncomfortable with answering these questions, you can request a print version of your transcript. To do so, you’ll need to enter your Social Security number, data of birth and street address online. If you’re still uncomfortable doing so, you can visit or contact the IRS in person.

So is this safe?

It’s probably about as safe as doing online banking. Virtually nothing you do online is without risk. Make sure you 1) go to the right website 2) connect securely and 3) protect the transcript, just as you would paper tax records. Here’s what the IRS told me about their online security:

“The IRS has made good progress on oversight and enhanced security controls in the area of information technology. With state-of-the-art technology as the foundation for our portal (e.g. irs.gov), we continue to focus on protecting the PII of all taxpayers when communicating with the IRS.

However, security is a two-way street with both the IRS and users needing to take steps for a secure experience. On our end, our security is comparable to leaders in private industry.

Our IRS2GO app has successfully completed a security assessment and received approval to launch by our cybersecurity organization after being scanned for weaknesses and vulnerabilities.

Any personally identifiable information (PII) or sensitive information transmitted to the IRS through IRS2Go for refund status or tax record requests uses secure communication channels that meet or exceed federal requirements for encryption. No PII is passed back to the taxpayer through IRS2GO and no PII is stored on the smartphone by the application.

When using our popular “Where’s My Refund?” application, taxpayers may notice just a few of our security measures. The URL for Where’s My Refund? begins with https. Just like in private industry, the “s” is a key indicator that a web user should notice indicating you are in a “secure session.” Taxpayers may also notice our message that we recommend they close their browser when finished accessing your refund status.

As we become a more mobile society and able to link to the internet while we’re on the go, we remind taxpayers to take precautions to protect themselves from being victimized, including using secure networks, firewalls, virus protection and other safeguards.

We always recommend taxpayers check with the Federal Trade Commission for the latest on reporting incidents of identity theft. You can find more information on our website, including tips if you believe you have become the victim of identity theft.”

What do I do with the transcript?

If you download tax transcripts or personal health information to a mobile device, laptop, tablet or desktop, install passcodes and full disk encryption, where available, on every machine its on. Leaving your files unprotected on computers connected to the Internet is like leaving the door to your house unlocked with your tax returns and medical records on the kitchen table.

I got an email from the IRS that asks me to email them personal information to access my transcript. Is this OK?

Nope! Don’t do it: it’s not them. The new functionality will likely inspire criminals to create mockups of the government website that look similar and then send phishing emails to consumers, urging them to “log in” to fake websites. You should know that IRS “does not send out unsolicited e-mails asking for personal information.” If you receive such an email, consider reporting the phishing to the IRS. Start at www.irs.gov/Individuals/Get-Transcript every time.

I tried to download my transcript but it didn’t work. What the heck?

You’re not alone. I had trouble using an Apple computer. Others have had technical issues as well.

Here’s what the IRS told me: “As a web application Get Transcript is supported on most modern OS/browser combinations. While there may be intermittent issues due to certain end-user configurations, IRS has not implemented any restrictions against certain browsers or operating systems. We are continuing to work open issues as they are identified and validated.”

A side note: For the best user experience, taxpayers may want to try up-to-date versions of Internet Explorer and a supported version of Microsoft Windows; however, that is certainly not a requirement.)”

What does that mean, in practice? That not all modern OS/browser combinations are supported, potentially including OS X and Android, that the IRS digital staff knows it — although they aren’t informing IRS.gov users regarding what versions of IE, Windows or other browsers/operating systems are presently supported and what is not — and are working to improve.

Unfortunately, ongoing security issues with Internet Explorer means that in 2014, we have the uncomfortable situation where the Department of Homeland Security is recommending that people avoid using Internet Explorer while the IRS recommends that its customers choose it for the “best experience.”

Given the comments from frustrated users, the IRS could and should do better on all counts.

Will I be able to file my tax return directly to the government through IRS.gov now?

You can already file your federal tax return online. According to the IRS, almost 120 million people used IRS e-file last year.

Well, OK, but shouldn’t having a user account and years of returns make it easier to file without a return at all?

It could. As you may know, other countries already have “return-free filing,” where a taxpayer can go online, login and access a pre-populated tax return, see what the government estimates her or she owes, make any necessary adjustments, and file.

Wait, that sounds pretty good. Why doesn’t the USA have return-free filing yet?

Yes, it does. As ProPublica reported last year, “the concept has been around for decades and has been endorsed by both President Ronald Reagan and a campaigning PresidentObama.”

As ProPublica reported last year, both H&R Block and Intuit, the maker of TurboTax, have lobbied against free and simple tax filing in Washington, given that it’s in their economic self-interest to do so:

In its latest annual report filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission, however, Intuit also says that free government tax preparation presents a risk to its business. Roughly 25 million Americans used TurboTax last year, and a recent GAO analysis said the software accounted for more than half of individual returns filed electronically. TurboTax products and services made up 35 percent of Intuit’s $4.2 billion in total revenues last year. Versions of TurboTax for individuals and small businesses range inprice from free to $150.

What are the chances return-free filing could be on IRS.gov soon?

Hard to say, but the IRS told me that something that sounds like a precursor to return-free filing is on the table.  According to the agency, “the IRS is considering a number of new proposals that may become a part of the online services roadmap some time in the future. This may include a taxpayer account where up to date status could be securely reviewed by the account owner.”

Creating the ability for people to establish secure access to IRS.gov to review and download tax transcripts is a big step in that direction. Whether the IRS takes any more steps  soon is more of a political and policy question than a technical one, although the details of the latter matter.  

Is the federal government offering other services like this for other agencies or personal data?

The Obama administration has been steadily modernizing government technology, although progress has been uneven across agencies. While the woes of Healthcare.gov attracted a lot of attention, many federal agencies have improved how they deliver services over the Internet. One of the themes of the administration’s digital government approach is “smart disclosure,” a form of targeted transparency in which people are offered the opportunity to download their own data, or data about them, from government or commercial services. The Blue Button is an example of this approach that has the potential to scale nationally.