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POSTED: Tuesday, June 16, 2015, 12:11 AM
Will 'faceprints' be something consumers can opt into, or will the technology be applied without permission? (Source: Getty Images)

A group of privacy and consumer advocates has pulled the plug after 16 months of negotiations with the data industry over standards limiting the use of consumers' "faceprints" -- facial recognition data that the advocates say are far too sensitive to be governed by anything less than a strict "opt in" standard.

The advocates say that biometric data are more sensitive than other kinds of consumer data whose use and handling have raised major concerns about both privacy and security. "You can change your password and your credit card number; you cannot change your fingerprints or the precise dimensions of your face," the advocates said in a statement scheduled for release Tuesday.

"Companies are saying they don’t want to have to get people’s permission to enroll somebody in a facial-recognition database," said Alvaro Bedoya, executive director of the Center on Privacy & Technology at Georgetown University's law school and one of nine advocates quitting talks underway since February 2014. He said such businesses "are refusing to give consumers a choice about how this powerful technology is used on them."

POSTED: Thursday, June 11, 2015, 3:27 PM

T-Mobile CEO John Legere isn't quite Howard Beale of Network - yet. But give some time to the occasionally profane, repeatedly disruptive chief exec of the nation's number-four wireless carrier, and he might catch up.

Legere just posted his own version of Beale's fictional "Mad as Hell" rant under the headline "If You’re Not Pissed Off, You’re Not Paying Attention." He makes the case that anyone who wants the Federal Communications Commission to do everything it can to spare U.S. consumers from domination by a wireless duopoly of Verizon and AT&T should care about the coming auction of low-band spectrum - and should tell the FCC how much it matters. (Where is John Oliver when we need him?)

Legere has been trying for months to educate the public about this arcane topic - the sale of high-quality spectrum that easily penetrates walls, a spectrum category that the Big Boys ("Dumb and Dumber," he also calls them) already dominate and that their challengers desperately need. Legere writes today:

POSTED: Wednesday, June 10, 2015, 6:54 PM
A view of the headquarters of Comcast on JFK Boulevard in Philadelphia. (REUTERS/Tom Mihalek)

When is a poll not really a poll? When it’s a “push poll” that aims to mold public opinion rather than just measure it — which is what several Comcast customers familiar with the technique believe the company has been doing in Philadelphia.

The telephone survey, which a Comcast spokesman says is being conducted by “a reputable third-party, independent company,” starts with a round of service-related questions but then moves in questionable directions, say Temple University business and media scholar Chris Rabb and progressive advocate Eric Rosso, who both reported receiving the calls this week.

“The questions became increasingly biased, a la 'When did you stop beating your wife?'” said Rabb, author of “Invisible Capital: How Unseen Forces Shape Entrepreneurial Opportunity,” a fellow at Temple University’s Innovation & Entrepreneurship Institute, and a Democratic committeeman in East Mount Airy.

POSTED: Wednesday, June 3, 2015, 6:09 PM

The Federal Communications Commission drove the final stake today into the last vestige of cable price regulation: rules that allowed cities and municipalities to limit the price of barebones "basic cable" and equipment rentals unless a cable company applied for a declaration that it was subject to "effective competition" in that locality. On a 5-0 vote, the FCC gave the cable industry what it wanted: The whole country will now be considered subject to "effective competition" by default, unless a local franchise authority steps forward to argue otherwise.

Effective competition? As I wrote recently about Comcast's success in getting Philadelphia declared competitive - more than a year before Verizon was even due to finish its FiOS rollout here - the rules were already laughably weak. Just ask anyone who has watched a cable bill rise relentlessly, often at twice the rate of inflation, since Congress put all its faith in the power of telecom deregulation in the 1990s:

The FCC's definition, adopted more than two decades ago after one of Congress' many zigzags on cable policy, may not measure up with yours or mine. Or, say, English.

POSTED: Wednesday, June 3, 2015, 4:13 PM

The Pew Charitable Trusts have claimed a remarkable role in America in recent years, with a persistent, data-driven focus on abuses affecting consumers in the financial marketplace. Even before the financial crisis, Pew was out front in pushing for credit-card reforms that were finally adopted by the Fed in 2008 and strengthened by Congress in 2009. In recent years, Pew's work on overdraft-loan abuses has helped push regulators to do more they first thought would solve the problem, and hasn't let up.

So when Pew's intrepid policy wonks sent this video highlighting their idea for a solution to the dilemma presented by payday loans - that they're legal in 36 states (though not Pennsylvania or New Jersey) and inevitably draw millions of borrowers into a deep hole of debt - I figured it was worth sharing.  As the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau weighs new rules for these loans, one thing is clear: It could do worse than listening to the folks at Pew.

POSTED: Wednesday, May 27, 2015, 2:34 PM
File: FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler. (ANDREW HARRER / Bloomberg)

Sick of out-of-control robocalls - even to your cellphone?  So is FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler, who today announced plans for a crackdown that would enable phone companies to help by offering robocall-blocking technologies similar to spam-email filters. Under a proposal Wheeler plans to bring to a vote by the Federal Communications Commission on June 18, consumers would have clearer rights to block robocalls and phone companies would have a clear legal path to helping them.

Among Wheeler's proposals:

  • Consumers would be empowered "to say 'Stop.’" According to the FCC, "consumers would have the right to revoke their consent to receive robocalls and robotexts in any reasonable way at any time" - a protection the agency says would apply to both wireless and landline home phones.
  • Carriers would get "a Green Light for ‘Do Not Disturb’ Technology."  Carriers and 39 states have raised questions about whether call-blocking could run afoul of their common-carrier obligation to complete calls. Wheeler's proposal "would give the go-ahead for carriers to implement market-based solutions that consumers could use to stop unwanted robocalls" to either landline or wireless numbers..
  • Clarify that "reassigned numbers aren’t loopholes."  FCC officials say some marketers use consent that dates to the previous owner of a number. No longer.  "Consumers who inherit a phone number would not be subject to a barrage of unwanted robocalls to which a previous subscriber of the number consented. If a phone number has been reassigned, callers must stop calling the number after one call."
  • Allow "limited and specific exceptions for urgent circumstances."  Wheeler's proposal would still allow, for example, free calls or texts to wireless lines to "alert consumers to possible fraud on their bank accounts or remind them of important medication refills would be allowed." But the exceptions would not extend to calls for purposes such as marketing or debt collection. "In addition, consumers would have the ability to opt out of even these permitted calls and texts" on wireless phones, the FCC says.

In a call with reporters, a senior FCC offical said one complication of the proposal is differing rules for cellphones and landlines, and special protections for numbers on the national Do Not Call registry - a decade-old system that has been foiled by so-called "spoofing" - electronic systems that block the true source of a call.

POSTED: Tuesday, May 19, 2015, 3:37 PM
A logo of Takata Corp is seen with its display at a showroom for vehicles in Tokyo, Japan, May 8, 2015. (REUTERS)

Last year's Takata airbag recall, initially limited to especially hot and humid areas and then nationally to driver's-side airbags, now covers all U.S. cars that include the suspect safety devices, which can injure or kill people when their inflators break apart as they are triggered.

The Department of Transportation said that Secretary Anthony Foxx "announced that at the Department’s insistence, air bag manufacturer Takata has acknowledged that a defect exists in its air bag inflators. Takata has agreed to a national recall of certain types of driver and passenger side air bag inflators. These inflators were made with a propellant that can degrade over time and has led to ruptures that have been blamed for six deaths worldwide. The action expands the number of vehicles to be recalled for defective Takata inflators to nearly 34 million."

The agency said the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration would begin a process "to organize and prioritize the replacement of defective Takata inflators." Under a consent order, Takata has agreed "to cooperate in all future regulatory actions that NHTSA undertakes in its ongoing investigation and oversight of Takata," the DOT said. More information is available at this DOT website.

POSTED: Friday, May 15, 2015, 3:50 PM
A lot has changed since 2000, when Philadelphia last negotiated its cable franchise with Comcast. (DAVID MAIALETTI/File Photograph)

Last week, I wrote here about a Philadelphia-area couple, John and Carol Lehman, who'd been overcharged $600 by Comcast for a returned cable box, but were told they had to sign a strict nondisclosure agreement simply to get their money back. For a company that had just announced big plans to address customer dissatisfaction, evidence that Comcast might be trying to hide evidence seemed a bad sign.

I'm late with an important update: a response to my question about whether demanding customers' silence was now an ordinary practice or policy. Comcast says that particular use of an NDA was a mistake.  A company official said the form a service rep tried to require the Lehmans to sign, which you can read here, was intended for use in settling some of the more complicated cases that can arise in the cable business, such as claims of property damage.

In a formal statement emailed to me earlier this week, Comcast spokesman Jeff Alexander cited the company's plans "to significantly improve the customer experience [that] will go a long way to prevent these experiences from happening again." Then he said: "With regard to release forms and NDAs, we do not have a national policy regarding their use with customers and we don't think that confidentially agreements should be used in these situations. We are using this example to create a clear policy that will clarify this with our employees."

About this blog

Jeff Gelles, who writes the Inquirer's weekly Consumer 14.0 and Tech Life columns, takes a broad look at the marketplace of goods, services, and ideas.

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