OVERNIGHT TECH: FCC to probe spectrum, phone line transition

THE LEDE: The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) will hold its first meeting of the new year on Wednesday, and the agenda is chock full of big-ticket items.

The commission is set to examine its priorities for the “Internet Protocol (IP) Transition” for phone companies to adopt new technology and to get a much-anticipated update about the 2015 spectrum auction.

The IP transition trials will let phone companies like AT&T, which has pushed the FCC on the issue, rely on new Internet technologies that are more in demand. A split has already emerged: Republicans on the commission say a mandatory trial would move the process along quicker, while Democrats want a voluntary process so as not to leave consumers unprotected.

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There are also lingering questions about the extent of the FCC’s authority to regulate fiber lines. The lines “occupy a gray area in the law,” Brent Skorup, a research fellow at George Mason University's Mercatus Center, said in an email to The Hill. That’s because traditional rules are written for copper phone lines.  The discussion could draw upon the agency’s net neutrality rules, which were tossed out by a top appeals court this month.    

The commission’s incentive auction task force is also giving a presentation to help define the boundaries of the upcoming auction to free up space on the country’s airwaves.

“This update should be helpful, as all stakeholders seek to get a better handle on what to expect next,” wrote Rick Kaplan, the National Association of Broadcasters' executive vice president of strategic planning, on the group’s blog

He hoped that the FCC would “go beyond a discussion of dates and timelines” to talk about the substance of the auction, and wrote that FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler should appoint an outside panel of expert users to evaluate the auction, detail progress in talks with Mexico and Canada and move some parts of the auction sooner, rather than later.

For the auction, time is of the essence. If delays or an overly complex process discourage TV broadcasters from participating, “the incentive auction will be a failure,” Skorup wrote.

The FCC is also moving forward with its plan to allow 911 emergency responders to be contacted via text message and other “next generation” technologies. Currently, people who try to text 911 instead of call might not always be able to reach someone to get the help they need. Public safety advocates and people who are deaf have pushed for the FCC to adopt the rules quickly.

Leahy worries about drones: During a hearing Wednesday, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) said he is concerned about the use of unmanned aircraft, or drones.

“The Orwellian aspect I find very chilling,” he said, adding that he wondered what would stop someone from thinking, “this is the latest and greatest wizzbang, let’s just go spy on everybody’s backyard.”

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder — the sole witnesses at Wednesday’s hearing — said his agency is developing a “uniform system of rules and regulations” to govern drone use. “They can serve a useful purpose,” he said, citing an example where one was used to rescue a kidnapped child.

Rockefeller fears metadata changing hands: Private companies should not be put in charge of holding data about American’s phones for the government to search, Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) said on Wednesday. In an Intelligence Committee hearing with top leaders of the country’s intelligence agencies, Rockefeller said that he “absolutely opposes contracting out this inherently governmental function.”

“The collection and querying of this metadata is not a private sector responsibility. It is a fundamental core government function and should remain that way. I am concerned any change of our current framework will harm both national security and privacy,” he added.

Civil liberties advocates have opposed a White House review group’s recommendation for the president to shift the controversial National Security Agency collection to a third party or telecommunications companies’ control. The president himself has said he would like to eventually transition the program “without the government holding this bulk metadata.” He has left Congress and other arms of the administration to fill in the details about what that new situation might look like.

House Dems call for Neiman docs: The top Democrats on the Energy and Commerce Committee and its Commerce, Manufacturing and Trade subcommittee want Neiman Marcus to hand over documents about its recent data breach. Reps. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) and Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.) asked the retailer’s president and chief executive, Karen Katz, to share information about the hack and why it took so long to tell the public.

This month, Neiman Marcus disclosed that the financial information of as many as 1.1 million people may have been stolen starting last summer. The revelations came amid disclosures about other breaches at Target and the craft store Michaels.

“While the immediate concerns relate to securing customer information and preventing fraudulent charges, there are many unanswered questions about this cyberattack and its implications for consumer privacy and data security,” the lawmakers wrote. “Questions remain about how exactly this attack was carried out, who was responsible, whether it could have been prevented, how Neiman Marcus responded, and how retailers and customers can protect themselves going forward.”

The Energy and Commerce Committee is holding a hearing on data security next week. Executives from Neiman Marcus have been invited to testify.

New domain names roll out: The first new Latin alphabet domain names — the word to the right of the “dot” in a URL, like .com — became available for public registration Wednesday. Domain name registry Donuts announced that seven new domain names — .bike, .clothing, .guru, .holdings, .plumbing, .singles and .ventures  — are available.

“Starting this week, new, relevant and specific Internet naming options will be available on a scale never before seen,” Donuts CEO Paul Stahura said in a statement. Until Wednesday, the only available new domain names of the hundreds expected to launch were in non-Latin alphabets, including Arabic and Cyrllic.

 

ON TAP

The FCC is holding its monthly meeting at 10:30 a.m.

 

IN CASE YOU MISSED IT

Senators squared off against Attorney General Eric Holder and top intelligence agency heads over controversial snooping at the NSA. 

All five members of the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board will testify before the Senate Judiciary Committee next month, the panel's chairman announced on Wednesday.

Attorney General Eric Holder said the Department of Justice is investigating the data breach at retail giant Target. 

Two members of the Norwegian Parliament have nominated Edward Snowden for the Nobel Peace Prize. 

The two lawmakers driving the patent reform debate on the Hill — Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) and Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) — thanked President Obama for his continued calls for patent reform. 

 

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