Welcome to the February 6, 2015 Media Law Roundup — a survey of the week’s developing media news.
FCC Chairman Proposes Title II Reclassification
FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler has officially stated that he will support net neutrality rules based on Title II of the Communications Act of 1934. The proposed changes apply to all internet services such as DSL, fiber, and cable, in addition to mobile broadband. These changes stand in stark contrast to those proposed in April 2014, which did not strictly prohibit paid prioritization, and do away with the “hybrid” solution proposed in October 2014. While several news outlets are reporting that the internet will now be classified as a utility, Ars Technica argues that it would be more accurate to describe the internet as a “common carrier” under Title II. This is an important distinction, as utility-status would bring rate regulation, tariffs, or unbundling requirements, while common carrier-status allows the FCC to regulate broadband in the same way that it regulates telephone companies. In his statement to Wired, Wheeler emphasized that his proposed changes (“the strongest open internet protections ever proposed by the FCC”) would “ban paid prioritization, and the blocking and throttling of lawful content and services.” Wheeler’s statement comes after a nearly decade-long debate on internet regulation and a public comment period that drew nearly four million comments, assisted in part by protests and a much-viewed John Oliver segment. The proposed changes still need to pass an FCC vote, which will take place on February 26, 2015.
Twitter Admits Failing to Protect Users from Abuse
On February 4, 2015, an internal memo from Twitter CEO Dick Costolo to the Twitter staff, in which Costolo claimed responsibility for Twitter’s less than stellar response to trolling and abuse on its service, was leaked to The Verge. “We suck at dealing with abuse and trolls on the platform and we’ve sucked at it for years. It’s not secret and the rest of the world talks about it every day.” Twitter has been making strides in recent months to improve the way it deals with abuse, including a partnership with advocacy group WAM! and an updated abuse reporting system. Despite the changes, the company has continued to face criticism and the loss of users from its service. Zelda Williams, the daughter of late comedian Robin Williams, withdrew from Twitter after receiving abusive messages regarding her father’s suicide, and video game activist Anita Sarkeesian recently documented a week’s worth of harassing messages received via Twitter. Costolo sent a follow-up memo emphasizing his personal responsibility in making Twitter a safer place. “I’m going to take full responsibility for making sure that the people working night and day on this have the resources they need to address the issue.”
GCHQ Surveillance Deemed Unlawful
The Investigatory Powers Tribunal (IPT) has ruled that the United Kingdom’s Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) was unlawful in its bulk collection of communications data. The IPT had ruled in December 2014 that GCHQ had not committed any human rights abuses, however, the most recent ruling states that GCHQ’s bulk collection program was unlawful until disclosures made in December. The tribunal said, “The regime governing the soliciting, receiving, storing and transmitting by UK authorities of private communications of individuals located in the UK, which have been obtained by US authorities pursuant to Prism and…Upstream, contravened articles 8 [the right to privacy] or 10 [the right to freedom of expression] [of the European Convention of Human Rights].” According to the IPT, the disclosures made in December 2014, the result of a lawsuit brought against GCHQ by Privacy International, have made subsequent data collection lawful. Both Privacy International and Bytes for All will challenge the December 2014 IPT ruling, stating that they “disagree with the tribunal’s earlier conclusion that the forced disclosure of a limited subset of rules governing intelligence-sharing and mass surveillance is sufficient to make GCHQ’s activities lawful as of December 2014.”
PEW SURVEY: Effects of Race and Ethnicity on Social Media Preference in the US
The Pew Research Center has published a new survey documenting the demographic breakdown of social media usage. Facebook is the most-used platform, regardless of background, with 71% of users responding that they use the site. Other sites, such as Instagram and Pinterest, are noticeably more popular with specific racial/ethnic groups. Instagram is used mostly by blacks (38% of black internet users) and Hispanics (34%) while Pinterest is used primarily by white internet users (32%), compared to 21% of Hispanics and 12% of blacks. The full findings of the survey can be viewed here.
China Enforces Real-Name Rules
On February 4, 2015, China announced that internet users would be required to register using their real names in order to utilize internet services such as blogs and messaging services. Users will also be required to pledge, in writing, that they will not participate in any behavior that “subverts state power or undermines national security.” The Cyberspace Administration of China stated that the changes will help fight “username chaos,” adding that some users registered with inappropriate names like Obama and Putin or acted as separatist agitators. Popular microblogging site Sina Weibo said that it “firmly supports” the new rules, while messaging group Tencent declined to comment. The new real-name registration rules and the pledge will require service providers to enforce compliance and come into effect on March 1, 2015.
White House Tweaks Surveillance Law
The White House announced impending data collection rule changes on February 3, 2015. These rules will require the deletion of private information that is irrelevant to intelligence purposes (within five years for non-US citizens) and will also create a review board, led by the White House, of the National Security Agency’s surveillance of foreign leaders. The Edward Snowden disclosures revealed that German Chancellor Angela Merkel was being monitored. In October 2013, the White House released a readout of a phone conversation between President Obama and Chancellor Merkel in which the President assured Chancellor Merkel that her communications were not currently being monitored and would not be monitored in the future, though it is not clear if other foreign leaders have been removed from surveillance. The changes will also require the ultra-secretive National Security Letter nondisclosure orders to be capped at three years after an investigation opens or closes, whichever comes earliest. Several concerns raised by the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board remain unaddressed, including those surrounding the bulk collection of metadata.