Hundreds of scam apps caused a surprise $42 monthly charge to land on millions of Android users’ wireless bills

Android smartphone
  • Millions of Android users were plagued by scam apps that placed charges on their wireless bills.
  • Users were tricked by a fake prize into providing their phone numbers, Zimperium reported.
  • Google says that all of the apps identified by Zimperium have been removed from the Play Store.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

A massive scamming campaign recently plagued the Google Play Store, affecting millions of Android users.

The scam took place via more than 200 apps run by attackers to scam money from its downloaders, security firm Zimperium reported.

Zimperium, a member of the Google App Defense Alliance which scans applications before publishing in the Google Play Store, estimates that 10 million Android users globally were affected by this scam.

The applications posed as seemingly normal downloads, hiding under facades like “Photo Effect Pro,” “Daily Horoscope & Life Palmestry,” and “Free Coupons 2021.” The apps would notify downloaders that they won a prize and would redirect them to enter their phone number on a specific webpage.

However, by entering their information, users were actually submitting their phone number to an SMS service that would start charging their phone bill about $42 per month.

“Forensic evidence of this active Android Trojan attack, which we have named GriftHorse, suggests that the threat group has been running this campaign since November 2020,” Zimperium stated in their findings. “These malicious applications were initially distributed through both Google Play and third-party application stores.”

Scams like GriftHorse take advantage of small screens, local trust, and misinformation to trick users into falling for their scams and downloading their apps, Zimperium explained. They also prey on “frustration or curiosity” when they try to accept their fake prize. According to Zimperium, the “level of sophistication, use of novel techniques, and determination” of the threat actors had allowed them to remain undetected.

Google says that all of the apps identified by Zimperium have been removed and the developers of the apps have been banned, but the scam will have lasting effects, WIRED reported. Android users who have not stopped the charges have faced unwanted additions to their wireless bill of over $230.

To prevent scams, the Federal Communications Commission recommends consumers “think twice” before clicking any links and to report any unusual activity. If you sent money to a scammer, the Federal Trade Commission recommends your report the payment right away to reverse the transaction before filing a report with the FTC who can build a case against the scammers.

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How to keep scammers from infiltrating your text messages and making a fortune

glitching phone displaying a scam message that reads "enter for a chance to win", with many fishhooks coming out of the screen
For fractions of pennies, scammers can make hundreds or thousands of dollars from people clicking malicious links in text messages.

  • Scammers can exploit vulnerabilities in the phone system to blast dangerous links to your phone.
  • Insider got a look behind the scenes at an operation thwarting the scammers.
  • Scammers can make a significant payload off a small investment. Here’s how to stop them.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

They’re designed to strike the part of your brain that feels an instant obligation to fix something, and fix it now.

Your package has been lost. We noticed an error on your unemployment application. This message is from the CBE Group, a debt collector, please contact us. You have a package that is over a week old that will be returned to our warehouse. AT&T billed you incorrectly. Hi there, this is Jason from Walmart, you have an item addressed to you, can you please collect it by today?

Those messages aren’t really from the companies they purport to be. Manipulative, believable, and increasingly popular, criminals who want to bilk consumers out of money are orchestrating sophisticated phishing and scamming attacks using text messages.

For years, texts have become an increasingly integral part of commerce in America. Scammers, many of whom are ripping straight from the successful scam robocall playbook, are invading messaging apps with clever and deceptive messages designed to separate targets from their money or information, and the profits are ridiculous.

Essentially, the scammers have designed a computer that turns cents into dollars, and they’re only just getting started.

Because of the nature of the scams, it’s nearly impossible for the regulators or the carriers to stop them. Even when they do manage to slap them with a fine, the scammers just don’t pay it. But there are things consumers can do to stop them, and to protect vulnerable family members.

Scam texts 101

Aaron Foss, the founder of anti-spam app Nomorobo, offered Insider a look into the volume of scams coming into American phones.

Over the course of a week, Nomorobo observed 666,704 text messages come on to users’ phones from numbers that were not in their address book. About one in 10 – 9.98%, specifically – were flagged as malicious, attempts to scam the users, and were blocked by the service prior to hitting inboxes.

Foss and his company are constantly evaluating the flows of automated text messages across the system, identifying bad actors and shutting down their access in real time. It’s a never-ending fight, and the scammers are increasingly clever.

“We’re seeing that 10% of all unknown text messages, if they’re not in your contacts, are spam, scam, or phishing,” Foss said. “The vast majority do things like impersonate US Postal Service, Amazon, Costco. They usually have a link in there. They’ll say something like, ‘Congratulations, you’ve won some raffle,’ or ‘Thanks to COVID, Netflix is giving you a free account,’ or something like that.”

Your basic scammer is targeting someone who can be easily confused, who who isn’t attuned to the business practices of these companies. When they click the link, they’re sent to a “rewards” site, perhaps with the appearance of a game or a spinning wheel, and are told they won something.

In reality, after inputting their information, they’re signed up for a recurring app purchase.

The math is extremely simple for the scammers. If they spend a few dollars on the domain, send out hundreds of thousands, maybe millions of texts for a fraction of a penny apiece, even if just 0.1% click on it, and even if just five people get fooled, they’re up several hundred dollars.

“Once you have a system like that? You put $1 in one side, and it spits out $500 on the other side. You’re just gonna do every single thing that you can to find ways to do more and more,” Foss said. “Fine, I’ll work with six shady text messaging companies; fine, I’ll buy 1,000 domain names. It doesn’t matter at all, I’m not going to get caught. You’re not gonna catch me in this.”

But other, more sophisticated attacks can confuse and steal from people who aren’t so easily fooled.

Diagram of process that a robotext takes before making it to your cell phone, starting with a fake domain generator, followed by unique user codes, carried through a bad phone carrier on to your cellphone

Gone phishing

The goal of a phisher is to get personal information that can be used to steal. The modus operandi is to spam out a message that directly appeals to a subset of the population – something like “there’s an error on your unemployment form” or “your Amazon package is late.”

These are effective because text spam is a numbers game: Amazon sends out 1.6 million packages every day, and because of the pandemic, millions of Americans are on some form of unemployment right now. The low cost of text messages – a quarter of a cent per text, when bought in bulk – means that the numbers game favors the scammers.

“There’s going to be a good proportion of people who think, ‘Actually, yeah, COVID pandemic, I need that money to survive.’ They click and put in their information,” Foss said. “In a couple of these, we’ve done some digging where the scammers that put this together are very poor programmers, and left a lot their stuff open. You can see all the victims that they’ve gotten. There’s hundreds of people that have unfortunately fallen for the scam and put in their information.”

These are well-designed rip-offs. Can you tell the difference between the actual Ohio unemployment site, and a fake unemployment site Foss spotted last week?

A page that appears to be the Ohio Unemoployment site
A page that appears to be the Ohio Unemoployment site

Give up?

It’s the URL. The scammers are algorithmically buying up fake but similar URLs to actual websites, and then spamming them out en masse, with the understanding that they have just a few hours until they’re shut down.

This particular registration, per documentation Foss sent over, had an IP address in Russia and had been obtained very recently.

“They know that they’re only going to get a couple of hours out of that URL,” Foss said. “When we see that it’s usually automated, it is actually one registrar that particularly turns a blind eye to these kinds of things.”

The scammers send the messages out through wholesale carriers. Wholesale carriers are smaller providers that sell access to the same phone system used by your carrier, which could be AT&T or Verizon. There are thousands of theses smaller carriers: following the deregulation of the US telecommunications industry, anyone can technically set up a carrier that can get their message into the US phone system, at which point it’s treated equal to any other text. The scammers simply need to find the weak link in the chain, a carrier willing to take money from sketchy texters.

“These are resellers, a wholesale carrier might sell to another wholesale carrier, which sells to another company, and you might be three or four steps down,” Foss said. “In general, they will find overseas companies, or domestic companies that they’ll look the other way.”

The phone number they send the text from is spoofed, the imitation website they built is designed to last on the order of hours, and typically there’s a personal identification value somewhere on the URL so if a person clicks once, the scammer knows they’re a number that’s likely to click again, so even if they don’t get you this time, they’ll have plenty of other chances.

After all, when the texts are a quarter of a penny and the domain name is a couple dollars, they don’t need a lot of people to be fooled in order to break even.

And when state unemployment offices use Social Security numbers as their usernames, the effects of falling for a phishing attack can have substantial long-term impacts beyond a thief stealing unemployment payments.

“The part of this that’s really the worst? They really are taking advantage of people that are already down on their luck,” Foss said. “The pandemic comes in, and you lose your job, and you need a way to eat and afford rent, and now you get scammed from somebody trying to steal your unemployment benefits.”

How to spot scam texts and how to stop them

Operating a robotext operation is ridiculously profitable, but often low-risk. When operators work outside the United States, it can be incredibly difficult to enforce actions against them.

Even when there is enforcement, collecting sizable fines is a separate matter. The FCC ordered TCPA violators to pay $208 million in fines from 2015 to 2019, but it only collected $6,790 as of 2019.

A spokesperson for the FCC declined to comment about any specific company or FCC investigatory methods or challenges.

The FCC did send a number of recommendations, urging consumers to “think twice before clicking any links in a text message,” and to “report texting scam attempts to your wireless service provider by forwarding unwanted texts to 7726.” The Federal Trade Commission offers a number of resources explaining the package phishing scams and other fake calls from Amazon or Apple. The Department of Justice is currently investigating unemployment-related fraud, including phishing scams.

Texting STOP will put an end to any legitimate marketer – lest they face thousands of dollars in FCC fines – but a scammer won’t care in the slightest. It would have the same effect as saying “STOP” to a mugger. If they don’t care about the possible consequences of doing identify theft, they probably aren’t worried about an FCC fine they’ll likely never pay anyways.

Applications that insert a filter between your cellphone and the wild west of the text messaging infrastructure may be the most effective way to screen out malicious texts.

“These guys are criminals,” Foss said. “They’re criminal businesses. They’re really good criminals. And they’re really good businesses. And when you put them together, this is what we got.”

Read the original article on Business Insider

Amazon has filed a FCC protest against SpaceX’s plans for more Starlink internet satellites

Side-by-side close-up photos of Jeff Bezos Elon Musk
Amazon founder Jeff Bezos and SpaceX CEO Elon Musk.

  • Amazon’s Kuiper filed a protest against SpaceX’s plan for more Starlink satellites.
  • SpaceX broke FCC rules by proposing two satellite configurations, instead of one, Kuiper said.
  • Kuiper is Amazon’s internet satellite project.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

An Amazon subsidiary on Wednesday filed a protest letter against SpaceX’s plans for a network of second-generation Starlink internet satellites.

Elon Musk’s SpaceX wants to launch a second-generation Starlink constellation of nearly 30,000 satellites into orbit, adding to its 1,740 satellites already in space, the company said in a presentation to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) on July 29.

The aerospace company proposed two configurations for the network in an amendment to the FCC on August 18, but it only plans to use one. The second is a backup in case the FCC rejects the first, SpaceX wrote in the amendment.

Amazon’s satellite internet subsidiary Kuiper, which hasn’t yet launched any satellites, said in its Wednesday protest letter that SpaceX broke the FCC’s rules by submitting two configurations. SpaceX didn’t specify that it would submit two configurations in its original plans, Kuiper said.

“SpaceX’s novel approach of applying for two mutually exclusive configurations is at odds with both the Commission’s rules and public policy and we urge the Commission to dismiss this amendment,” Mariah Dodson Shuman, Kuiper’s corporate counsel, wrote in the FCC letter.

“The Commission’s rules require that SpaceX settle the details of its proposed amendment before filing its application- not after,” she added.

Read more: SpaceX and Amazon are making huge gambles on internet satellites that just might pay off – and transform where people live and work

SpaceX is also making it harder for FCC operators, who will have to evaluate potential orbit debris of the two configurations, Shuman wrote in the letter.

“The Commission should enforce its rules, dismiss SpaceX’s Amendment, and invite SpaceX to resubmit its amendment after settling on a single configuration for its Gen2 System,” she wrote.

Musk on Friday tweeted that Jeff Bezos, Amazon’s executive chairman, had stepped down as the company’s CEO “in order to pursue a full-time job filing lawsuits against SpaceX…”

The Amazon Kuiper letter is not a lawsuit.

Bezos’ rocket company, Blue Origin, has filed two complaints against NASA after the space agency chose SpaceX for a $2.9 billion lunar-lander contract. NASA said it will put the contract on hold while a court reviews Blue Origin’s protests.

Read the original article on Business Insider

Amazon has won permission to monitor your sleep using radar

An Amazon Alexa Device
An Amazon Echo.

  • The FCC gave Amazon permission to make a device that can remotely monitor people’s sleep.
  • The device will use radar to track a person’s sleep, per Amazon’s FCC filing.
  • Insider reported in January that Amazon was working on a sleep-apnea device.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

Amazon has won permission from the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to make a device that can monitor people’s sleep using radar, Bloomberg first reported.

The FCC approval document, published Friday, said Amazon’s description of its proposed device included “Radar Sensors to enable touchless control of device features and functions.”

It also said the device would be stationary, and Amazon “plans to use the radar’s capability of capturing motion in a three-dimensional space to enable contactless sleep tracing functionalities.”

Amazon filed for the FCC’s permission to develop its device in June, and said radar would help it monitor sleep “with a higher degree of resolution and location precision than would otherwise be achievable.”

“The use of Radar Sensors in sleep tracking could improve awareness and management of sleep hygiene, which in turn could produce significant health benefits for many Americans,” Amazon said in its June filing.

Amazon did not immediately respond to Bloomberg’s request for comment on exactly what kind of a device it’s making.

Insider’s Eugene Kim reported in January this year that Amazon was building an Alexa-enabled device for monitoring sleep apnea, internally codenamed “Brahms.” Amazon did not immediately respond when contacted by Insider on whether its FCC permission was linked to Brahms.

Read more: Amazon’s Prime Air drone-delivery team is in upheaval as launch delays, ‘expat’ execs, and a 20% turnover rate roil one of Amazon’s loftiest projects

This wouldn’t be the first health-monitoring device Amazon has released. In August 2020 it released the “Amazon Halo,” a wearable fitness-monitoring watch that claims to accurately judge the wearer’s emotional state from their voice, as well as calculating body fat.

The company has also developed biometric tech for its physical stores. Some Whole Foods outlets – Whole Foods is owned by Amazon – allow shoppers to pay by scanning their palms.

Read the original article on Business Insider

SpaceX got FCC permission to fly Starlink satellites at a lower orbit. Rivals who previously objected, including Amazon, say they’re happy with the decision.

Elon Musk
SpaceX CEO Elon Musk.

  • The FCC has approved SpaceX’s request to fly Starlink satellites at a lower orbit.
  • SpaceX rivals, including Amazon’s Project Kuiper and Viasat, are pleased the FCC put in conditions for Starlink satellites.
  • They had previously filed complaints about the size of the Starlink fleet and possible interference with other satellites.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) on Tuesday approved SpaceX’s request to fly satellites for its Starlink internet service at a lower orbit – but only under certain conditions.

Company rivals including Amazon, Viasat, Hughes Net, and OneWeb previously criticized SpaceX’s request to fly more satellites at a lower orbit. But they told Insider that the FCC’s conditions address their main concerns.

The approval means that SpaceX can eventually lower 2,814 satellites from 1,100 kilometres to 550 kilometres, although these satellites are not yet in orbit. The company already had permission to operate 1,584 satellites at this lower orbit.

Under the approval conditions, SpaceX must record how many times Starlink satellites come close to colliding with other spacecraft, and report it to the FCC every six months. Elon Musk’s aerospace company also must disclose the number of Starlink satellites that re-enter the Earth’s atmosphere.

Those conditions also say Starlink satellites must remain below 580 kilometres to keep away from Amazon’s planned rival internet service, Project Kuiper, and accept signal interference from Project Kuiper’s satellites.

All of these rivals are working to build satellite internet networks from low-Earth orbit satellites, geostationary satellites, or a mix of both. SpaceX currently has more than 1,350 satellites currently in orbit – the most of any of the companies. Amazon’s Project Kuiper hasn’t launched any satellites yet, but plans to have a fleet of 3,236 in total.

SpaceX’s ultimate goal is to have 42,000 Starlink satellites in space by mid-2027.

Competitors had filed various responses to SpaceX’s request for a modification to its licence. Amazon’s Project Kuiper said in January that the change of satellite position would interfere with their own satellites and “smother competition in the cradle.”

An Amazon spokesperson said in a statement to Insider that the FCC’s decision was a “positive outcome” because it “places clear conditions on SpaceX.”

The FCC’s conditions “address our primary concerns regarding space safety and interference, and we appreciate the Commission’s work to maintain a safe and competitive environment in low earth orbit,” the spokesperson said.

Read more: SpaceX is finalizing a massive new funding round. Here’s why investors are clamoring for one of the world’s most valuable startups.

Viasat, which plans on putting 288 satellites into lower orbit by 2026, was particularly concerned about the number of satellites that SpaceX was blasting into space.

Launching more satellites could lead to a greater chance of collision, resulting in more space debris, which could be a “doomsday scenario for space,” Mark Dankberg, ViaSat’s executive chairman and co-founder, told Insider on April 15.

Viasat was pleased the FCC confirmed Starlink satellites must be “reliable and safe,” John Janka, the company’s chief officer of global regulatory and government affairs, told Insider in a statement on Tuesday.

Viasat was also happy that the FCC recognized the need to monitor collision risk that Starlink’s constellation raised, Janka said.

In the filing, the FCC dismissed Viasat’s concerns about the collision risk of Starlink satellites and wrote “SpaceX’s debris mitigation plan is consistent with the public interest.” Viasat said in its statement that it was disappointed with the FCC on this point.

UK satellite company OneWeb, which has 182 satellites in orbit so far, also previously argued that SpaceX’s licence approval would create interference with other satellites.

OneWeb said in a statement to Insider that the FCC’s approval was “a totally different deployment to their original licence,” but it “looks forward to continuing amicable and close in-flight coordination with SpaceX.”

A spokesperson from Hughes, another satellite company that argued against SpaceX’s licence, told Insider the company was still reviewing the FCC order.

Read the original article on Business Insider

Loud commercials are infuriating Americans, and streaming TV is making them even worse

loud commercials 2x1
Loud commercials blowing out your eardrums lately? You’re not alone.

  • The CALM Act banned excessively loud television commercials, but it doesn’t apply to streaming TV.
  • Consumers lodge thousands of complaints annually about loud commercials, and they’re on the rise.
  • The FCC almost enforced the act twice in the past decade. Audio engineer experts are trying to fix it.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

On July 1, 1941, New York’s NBC station made history by airing the world’s first television commercial.

With about 4,000 televisions in the region at the time, audience-wise it was not all that different from paying a guy to yell about a product in Times Square. The ad for Bulova watches cost $9 and ran for 10 seconds. But the world changed forever.

A decade year later, in 1954, a similar moment occurred in the annals of television history. The Federal Communications Commission got its first consumer complaints about loud commercials on television.

Needless to say, it’s pretty much all gone downhill since.

The pandemic has forced people to spend more time in front of the television than they have in ages. Simple questions like “Is it just me or are the ads way louder than ‘Jeopardy!’ every night?” provoke evocative answers. Casually asking people if they’ve experienced loud commercials yields one of two general responses: “It’s so annoying!” and “It’s way worse on my streaming TV service.”

If you’re hearing things, you’re not alone: the four-month period from November 2020 to February 2021 saw FCC complaints of loud commercials up 140% compared to the same period a year ago, more than double the volume of complaints.

There is a law on the books – the CALM Act, passed in 2011 – that is supposed to rein in loud commercials. But the FCC hasn’t done any enforcement on it in the better part of a decade.

Most significantly of all, for the people angry about explosively loud ads on streaming, there’s absolutely nothing the FCC can do about that even if they were enforcing it. What’s more, it’s not entirely clear there’s any way to do anything about that even through Congress.

The CALM Act is supposed to regulate loud commercials but the FCC hasn’t enforced it

Anna Eshoo Sheldon Whitehouse loud tv commercials
Rep. Anna Eshoo and Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse mark the implementation of the CALM Act, the federal law that requires TV ads be no louder than the programs that accompany them, on Dec. 13, 2012.

The story goes that Rep. Anna Eshoo wrote the CALM Act after a loud television commercial interrupted dinner, which may be the single best argument for being an elected member of Congress I have ever heard.

It cascaded through the legislature, passing the Senate unanimously and the House in a voice vote before then-President Barack Obama signed it. Eshoo remarked at the time it was the most popular piece of legislation she had ever introduced in Congress.

The CALM act is actually fairly simple; it doesn’t say “commercials must be this loud” and it doesn’t get into the nitty gritty of how to measure that or enforce it or what consequences shall befall an operator who violates it. It’s fairly clever: all it actually says is that broadcasters and cable operators have to abide by the A/85 standard approved by the Advanced Television Systems Committee, and that the FCC has to enforce that.

A/85 is essentially an intricate, 72-page technical document that gets extremely specific about how things should sound. It’s not written for most of us to understand. But it does set acceptable bounds for the soundscape of television.

The experts wrote A/85, and Congress passed a law that said A/85 is mandatory, so Congress doesn’t have to learn about audio and the problem gets solved.

It’s a smart approach, because Congress is home to lawyers, doctors, activists, and people with all manner of expertise, but conspicuously no audio engineers, and the Advanced Television Systems Committee is understandably full of them. Congress took a standard that industry professionals had approved, and simply started requiring it.

A/85 required the average loudness of a commercial should be about as loud as the dialnorm, or the average dialogue level of a show. Because commercials can appear on your screen through a number of different ways from a number of different sources – such as being inserted by the local station or television provider, or embedded with the content itself – a standard for the whole system, top to bottom, at least formalizes the acceptable volume.

After an initial surge in complaints about loud commercials to the FCC following the Act’s passage and implementation, the bill largely had the desired impact, with complaints leveling off after a few years.

“FCC data I’ve seen shows consistent annual decreases in complaints since 2014,” Eshoo told Insider. “If that trend has changed, investigations are warranted.”

The past several months show complaints on the rise, according to an Insider analysis of the FCC database of complaints. Should the current rate hold, 2021 is poised to be the worst year since the initial rollout.

All that said, on a practical level, the CALM Act is not enforced.

There is no pipe exiting a cable company that says “out” and there is no meter on that imaginary pipe that says “too loud.” In reality, large stations and providers were supposed to spot-check once a year during the first two years of the rollout, doing 24 hours of monitoring over a seven-day period. If they found a problem, they were supposed to tell the FCC. You will be positively shocked to discover that only two small stations asked for a waiver while they fixed issues they found.

And since then? The FCC doesn’t audit stations. The agency will only investigate in the event that a pattern or trend emerges based on consumer-submitted complaints. From 2012 to 2019, consumers submitted 47,909 complaints to the FCC about loud commercials.

“In 2013, the Enforcement Bureau sent letters of inquiry to two separate companies addressing potential violations of the CALM Act and associated regulations,” an FCC spokesperson told Insider in an email, drawing from a 2020 letter from FCC Commissioner Ajit Pai responding to questions from Eshoo. “There were no violations found in either case and there are no public documents associated with these letters of inquiry. Since the 2013 letters of inquiry, the Enforcement Bureau analyses have not uncovered any pattern or trend of complaints supporting further inquiry.”

That is to say, the sum total of FCC enforcement on disproportionately loud commercials in the decade since the CALM Act has amounted to two letters – and no enforcement.

Federal Communications Commission (FCC) commissioner Ajit Pai arrives at a FCC Net Neutrality hearing in Washington February 26, 2015. REUTERS/Yuri Gripas
Then-Federal Communications Commission (FCC) commissioner Ajit Pai on February 26, 2015.

In 2014, the FCC did update their technical standards to address a clever workaround that some commercials had discovered. Basically, if the average volume of your commercial has to be on par with the average volume of the program, then you could hypothetically craft a 30-second advertisement that is 15 seconds of silence and 15 seconds at twice the volume of the program and technically not violate the standard, as you’ve technically maintained the average. The 2014 update discouraged this.

Despite thousands of complaints per year, the FCC has not discerned the kind of “pattern or trend of complaints” to support further inquiry.

The FCC declined to answer Insider’s questions regarding what precisely would qualify as a pattern or trend of complaints, whether the recent rise in complaints would qualify as a pattern or trend, or a question regarding the number of people working on CALM Act enforcement at a given time.

“If CALM Act-related complaints are increasing, the FCC should analyze the complaints to understand what is driving the shift,” Eshoo said. “If an analysis of the complaint data shows a pattern of legitimate complaints against specific companies, the FCC must investigate those companies. If the Commission finds violations through its investigations, it should bring enforcement actions.”

Increased enforcement could stymie the surge in complaints. However, as streaming television rises and cords are cut, more and more Americans are getting their television from services that are not covered by the CALM act, which applies to MVPDs, or multichannel video programming distributors, which is the official legal name for cable providers.

So, why not just pass a CALM Act for streaming?

The government can’t actually regulate streaming services

loud tv commercials
The loud commercials hurt his ears.

When Insider asked that question of experts in government, legislature, and the industry, the response was similar to asking “Why not legalize civil unions for leprechauns” or “When will the Federal Aviation Administration crack down on Pogo sticks,” in that it reveals a fundamental misunderstanding about what the FCC is.

“The FCC’s subject matter jurisdiction is communication by wire or radio,” said Gigi Sohn, a Distinguished Fellow at the Georgetown Law Institute for Technology Law & Policy. “The FCC doesn’t have jurisdiction over devices.”

The streaming landscape is vastly different from television. It may look like television, but it’s legally something else entirely, and while the offerings of a virtual over-the-top service may look nearly identical to the offerings of a traditional cable television service, legally it’s completely different, and not under the regulation of the FCC.

Streamers such as Netflix, Disney+, HBO Max, Youtube TV, FuboTV, Sling TV, and Hulu with Live TV may look aesthetically similar to a cable package, but from the perspective of the FCC, you may as well ask them to regulate your toaster. The FCC simply lacks jurisdiction over streaming services.

One side effect of this lack of jurisdiction is that for loud commercials, the FCC can’t do a thing. And the agency can’t address any of the other anxieties of modern streaming, including local blackouts, delivery issues, billing, usage caps, content exclusivity, bans, or any of the other policies enacted by fiat by the largest media companies on the planet.

Toward the end of the Obama administration, niche virtual streaming services sought classification as MVPDs. The companies – Pluto TV and Sky Angel – wanted the FCC to expand the definition of MVPD to include streamers like them, arguing that they should be under the FCC’s direction. In 2014, FCC chairman Tom Wheeler supported the move and the FCC began considering the shift.

“They determined the benefits that accrue to them justified the FCC oversight,” said Sohn, who was working for Wheeler at the time.

fcc chairman tom wheeler
Former FCC chairman Tom Wheeler.

But the move to expand the definition was opposed both by legacy MVPDs, as well as larger streaming companies, such as Amazon, which did not want the FCC encroaching on their business, with the main fear being that any regulation would open the door to further regulation.

Proponents of the change needed three of the five commissioners of the FCC to approve it.

“We didn’t have the votes,” Sohn said. The move never went through.

Commissioner Ajit Pai, who opposed the move, shortly after became the FCC chair, functionally killing the proposal. Last year there was some movement from network affiliates to reconsider it, but for the foreseeable future the virtual streaming services are unregulatable, and part of that means they can run commercials however loud they please.

While there is nothing to stop the FCC from adapting a definition of multi-channel video provider that would include the virtual providers, or even streaming services, the result would likely be a massive lawsuit that they would probably lose very badly.

In order for the FCC to have any authority over streamers, Sohn said, Congress would have to pass a law.

“I think this is a huge fight that might happen some day,” she said. “It’ll be a battle royale. Streaming services don’t want to be regulated.”

However, the difficulties that Congress faces in regulating streaming television doesn’t mean erratic commercial volumes on streaming is going to be a problem forever.

The small committee you’ve never heard of that might actually end loud annoying streaming ads

watching tv snack
She just learned about the Audio Engineering Society and she’s pumped.

When Congress passed the CALM Act, they passed a law that essentially took an existing audio industry standard and instructed the FCC to take the necessary steps to enforce that standard.

Right this moment, the Audio Engineering Society is designing a new audio standard for streaming television.

David Bialik is a systems engineer and the co-chair of the Audio Engineering Society’s Technical Committee on Broadcast & Online Delivery. If you’ve never heard of them, you’ve definitely heard them. This is the group of audio engineers who design the standards for much of how America’s media diet sounds.

The reason you change the channel and one isn’t materially louder than another, or if you’ve gone to a concert and not seen drastically different sounds between sets – all of that is genuine scientific work agreed upon by pros and at times set as standards.

And those standards may be the ticket to a better experience on web-based streaming.

The process by which an idea becomes a standard is not entirely like the serpentine process by which a bill becomes law. Think of it as a version of the Schoolhouse Rock song “I’m Just A Bill,” but instead of a bill it’s an intricate technical document, instead of congressional committees it’s a technical committee of audio experts, and in lieu of congressional votes it’s approval by the broader audio committee.

The equivalent of the presidential signature that makes it “law” is a vote that elevates the technical document to an official Standard, a move that in A/85’s case was carried out by the Advanced Television Systems Committee, but other standards go different routes.

Right now, the Audio Engineering Society’s technical committee is working on a new technical document that would address loudness on streaming services. And if it works, the issues of variable volumes on digital television could be solved without Congress at all.

“My hope is to see this released within the next 4 to 5 months,” Bialik told Insider. The gist is that programming material will come with loudness controls within metadata, indicating precisely how loud programming should be. They’re now getting comments from the 90 members of the committee. “It is our hope that our work gets elevated to a standard.”

“This isn’t something we’re taking lightly,” he added. The bigger players have good reason to play ball, namely because a unified consumer sound experience is good for the field as a whole.

“You want your content to be the same level as everyone else’s, on a level playing field,” Bialik said. A user touching the volume knob is bad. “When you invite the audience to touch the volume knob, you invite them to touch other knobs, too.”

Despite the many issues, Congress has been mulling an update to the 1992 Cable Act, which was the last major overhaul of the cable system. Needless to say, in the intervening years the landscape of television has changed somewhat, and to that end Republican Rep. Steve Scalise and Democratic Rep. Eshoo jointly introduced the Modern Television Act of 2019.

There’s little consumers can do outside of sending in official FCC complaints, or even just complaining about it on social media. In fact, those techniques are genuinely effective.

“I periodically hear from constituents about the annoyance of loud ads on streaming services and that worries me. I’ve also seen complaints on social media,” Eshoo said.

“Right now, I’m examining how large of a problem it is. If there is a real problem that we see beyond anecdotal reports, I will certainly consider legislation to address it.”

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The FCC just approved a $50 a month subsidy for low-income households to get high-speed internet, plus a $100 discount on a computer. Here’s who’s eligible.

Adjusting computer volume
A woman enjoying music while working in the office.

  • The FCC has approved a $3.2 billion federal initiative to give people better internet.
  • Eligible households can get broadband subsidies of up to $50 a month.
  • Households that receive a Federal Pell Grant or get free school lunches are among those eligible.
  • Visit the Business section of Insider for more stories.

A $3.2 billion federal initiative to subsidize high-speed internet for low-income households during the pandemic has just been approved, and applications could open within two months.

The program will offer eligible households discounts of up to $50 a month for broadband service, and up to $75 a month if the household is on Tribal lands, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) said.

The program will also provide a one-time discount of up to $100 on a computer or tablet for eligible households.

The program is the biggest one yet to help households nationwide afford broadband service, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) said Thursday, after it voted unanimously to formally adopt the Emergency Broadband Benefit Program.

Jessica Rosenworcel, the FCC’s acting chairwoman, said she expects the program to be open to eligible households within 60 days.

To be eligible, at least one member of the household must meet one of the following criteria:

  • Qualify for the FCC’s Lifeline program, including those that are on Medicaid or accept SNAP benefits.
  • Receive benefits under the free and reduced-price school lunch or breakfast program.
  • Have lost jobs and seen their income reduced in the last year.
  • Have received a Federal Pell Grant.
  • Meet the eligibility criteria for a participating broadband providers’ existing low-income or COVID-19 program.

The initiative forms part of the $7 billion in aid Congress approved in December to help lower-income Americans get internet access.

“It will help those sitting in cars in parking lots just to catch a Wi-Fi signal to go online for work,” Rosenworcel said. “It will help those lingering outside the library with a laptop just to get a wireless signal for remote learning. It will help those who worry about choosing between paying a broadband bill and paying rent or buying groceries.”

During the pandemic, many jobs, schools, and healthcare services have moved online – widening the digital divide. This is especially problematic in rural areas, which are more likely to both have limited broadband access and be located further from amenities.

The pandemic has led to what’s been dubbed the “homework gap,” where students without reliable home internet have struggled to keep up with remote learning.

An FCC member since 2012, Rosenworcel has pushed for the commission to use its authority and resources to expand internet access. She was appointed the commission’s acting chairwoman in January. 

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California’s net-neutrality rules clear major hurdle as Biden’s DOJ abandons its efforts to block them

GettyImages 974049450 An internet speed test website is seen on a mobile device in this photo illustration on June 11, 2018 in Warsaw, Poland. With the American Federal Communications Commission having repealed law's that protect consumers from companies themselves determining internet speeds, the so called net neutrality rules fears arise that the internet will more and more resembel cable TV where a handful of big companies dominate broadcasting. (Photo by Jaap Arriens/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
  • The DOJ dropped its legal challenge to California’s net-neutrality rules on Monday.
  • California lawmakers passed the rules in 2018 after Trump’s FCC overturned Obama-era rules.
  • This is a reversal from the Trump administration’s fight against popular net-neutrality policies.
  • Visit the Business section of Insider for more stories.

The Department of Justice has dropped its legal challenge to California’s net-neutrality rules, the agency said in a court filing on Monday.

The move clears a major hurdle that had prevented the state’s rules from going into effect, and represents a significant departure from the Trump administration’s approach to internet policy.

After the Trump-led Federal Communications Commission voted in 2017 to repeal widely popular Obama-era net-neutrality protections at the federal level, California lawmakers passed a law the following year that aimed to restore some of those protections within its own borders.

But the Trump administration challenged California’s rules, as did internet providers including AT&T, Verizon, Comcast, and Charter Communications (their legal challenge is pending, and a hearing is scheduled for February 23).

Read more: Everything you need to know about California’s tough net neutrality bill

The Biden administration’s decision to abandon the fight against net neutrality, which comes on the heels of President Joe Biden’s nomination of acting FCC chair Jessica Rosenworcel, signals it may take a tougher approach to companies that provide Americans with internet access.

“I am pleased that the Department of Justice has withdrawn this lawsuit,” Rosenworcel said in a press release.

“When the FCC, over my objection, rolled back its net-neutrality policies, states like California sought to fill the void with their own laws. By taking this step, Washington is listening to the American people, who overwhelmingly support an open internet, and is charting a course to once again make net neutrality the law of the land,” she said.

Public opinion polls have consistently shown that the overwhelming majority of Americans – including both Republicans and Democrats – support net neutrality, a policy that prevents internet providers like AT&T and Comcast from “throttling” customers’ internet speeds or forcing certain websites to pay more for “fast lanes.”

In addition to fighting net neutrality, the Trump administration mostly deregulated the industry. Under former FCC chair Ajit Pai’s leadership, the agency faced criticism for being overly friendly toward the companies under its purview, doing little to improve Americans’ internet speeds or ability to access the internet in the first place.

Despite industry arguments that deregulation promotes innovation and cost savings that benefit consumers, the US recently fell out of the top 10 countries for internet speeds globally, according to a report from DecisionData.org, and Americans still pay far more for that service.

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Biden appoints FTC and FCC acting directors in move that signals a more aggressive approach to regulating big tech

slaugher ftc rosenworcel fcc
FTC acting director Rebecca Kelly Slaughter and FCC acting director Jessica Rosenworcel.

  • Biden picked Rebecca Kelly Slaughter and Jessica Rosenworcel as acting FTC and FCC directors.
  • The two Democrats have been more aggressive regulating big tech in the past than Trump’s appointees.
  • They also favor many of Biden’s stances on issues like internet access, net neutrality, and privacy.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

President Joe Biden made two key agency appointments on Thursday that offer an early window into how his administration could approach regulating the tech and telecom industries.

Biden selected Democrat Rebecca Kelly Slaughter as acting director of the Federal Trade Commission and Democrat Jessica Rosenworcel as acting director of the Federal Communications Commission.

Slaughter began her term at the FTC in May 2018, after being nominated by President Donald Trump. Rosenworcel was first nominated to serve on the FCC by President Barack Obama in 2012, and is the longest-serving Democratic commissioner at the agency.

The appointments signal that Biden’s administration will likely continue to get tougher on regulating tech and telecom companies, building on the Trump administration’s mix of increasing antitrust enforcement, attempts to roll back Section 230’s legal protections for internet companies, and laissez-faire approach to telecom regulations.

The outgoing FTC Chairman Joe Simons, a Trump appointee, had begun to ramp up the agency’s antitrust and consumer privacy work, opening several landmark investigations into Facebook, Amazon, Google, and even started looking at past mergers and acquisitions by big tech.

Slaughter has supported the FTC’s increasingly hard line on antitrust issues as well as privacy, but she has also argued the agency should have taken action earlier and issued harsher penalties more likely to deter companies from future law-breaking, including holding executives personally liable for their companies’ privacy violations.

Slaugher has also said that the FTC’s enforcement efforts should be “anti-racist” through ensuring markets aren’t racially discriminatory and protecting consumers from algorithmic bias.

Rosenworcel’s appointment to the FCC, however, marks an even greater departure from her predecessor, the outgoing Chairman Ajit Pai.

A former Verizon lawyer, Pai drew criticism for being overly friendly toward the companies under his agency’s purview, opposing overwhelmingly popular net neutrality rules, and doing little to improve Americans’ internet speeds or ability to access the internet in the first place.

Rosenworcel has pushed for the FCC to use its authority and resources to expand internet access, particularly to students whose lack of home internet has prevented them from keeping up in school while participating in remote learning during the pandemic – the so-called “homework gap.” She has also voiced support for net neutrality in the past, and will likely face pressure to reinstate the policy.

Slaughter and Rosenworcel will likely play a key role in any efforts to modify Section 230, which some Democrats say lets tech companies off the hook for not doing enough to disincentivize hate speech, harassment, and violence on their platforms.

The appointments aren’t final, as Biden will still need to decide whether to nominate Slaughter and Rosenworcel as permanent chairs. They will also likely face delays implementing their more ambitious plans until Biden nominates additional commissioners to break the current 2-2 split between Democrats and Republicans at both agencies.

Both the FTC and FCC are led by as many as five commissioners, appointed by the president, and neither is allowed to have more than three members of one party. Biden’s appointments will need to be confirmed by the Senate, a likely prospect as Vice President Kamala Harris could break any tie between the evenly divided upper chamber.

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