The tools of technology are growing in importance to homeowners. Today more than half of all homes contain a personal computer. Most are connected to the Internet. Homeowners use both tools to pay mortgages and other bills, buy products and services, plan vacations and business trips, and increasingly telecommute, and/or facilitate home-based businesses. Their children use both tools to do school work and research.

For these reasons policies that impact these functions are of growing importance to homeowners.Telecommunications policy is equally important. Alternative ways to deliver telecommunications services should be promoted and barriers to competition removed. The Alliance supports the following positions on technology issues.

Privacy

Homeowners are entitled to control who may use private personal information and how it may be used. Especially sensitive are medical and financial data. The Internet facilitates the collection and use of data about homeowners, much of it personal. In many cases, such as when a company analyzes past customer buying habits in order to better serve their future needs, both parties can benefit. However there are many types of personal information that homeowners would prefer not be shared with other parties. The Foundation opposes the dissemination of personal information about homeowners without their express approval. Congress should enact legislation that requires clear and conspicuous disclose of company privacy policies on the home page. It should mandate straightforward opt out or opt in procedures that give consumers the ability to control the disclosure of any information they provide. The website operator should be required to employ verifiable assessment procedures that are sufficient to provide reasonable assurance that the site is managed in conformity to the stated policy.

The federal government should not tax Internet-based phone calls (VOIP).

Consumers should be provided increased representation on state regulatory bodies that determine telecommunications policy.

Stop the Internet Phone Tax!

Spam

New Spam laws requiring Internet vendors to use valid email addresses, provide effective opt-out procedures, identify their product offerings in their e-mails subject line, and provide the FTC the right to fine (and state attorney generals and consumers the right to sue) for violations will help reduce Spam, but may not be enough. Congress should be prepared to enact new anti-Spam laws to address problems not resolved by the recent bill.

Access to Computing Technology and Telecommunications

Because computing technology and communications are becoming essential services as well essential educational tools federal policies must assure that all students have access to these important tools. AHGA supports a telecommunications tax or other source of funding for the purpose of providing Internet access for the nation’s poorest schools and libraries. At the same time the existing “tax on talking”, originally enacted to fund the Spanish American War, should be repealed. Federal programs to provide rural residents and disadvantaged citizens access to broadband telecommunications services at affordable costs should be developed. Because instant messaging is also becoming an essential communications service international standards to provide functional interoperability between various instant messaging services should be implemented in 2001, with participation mandated by law if not achieved through voluntary means by 12/31/2001.

Digital Rights Management

Homeowners and their families are the major consumers of music and video products, and increasingly music and movies are in a digital format. The vast majority of homeowners use digital content in a responsible and legal manner. Music and entertainment companies are increasingly concerned about piracy of their intellectual property and have proposed legislation that would require manufacturers of equipment that plays digital entertainment products to incorporate Digital Rights Management (DRM) systems to prevent illegal copying of their products.

DRM systems restrict the use of digital files. DRM technologies can control file access (number of views, length of views), altering, sharing, copying, printing, and saving. These technologies may be contained within the operating system, program software, or in the actual hardware of a device. DRM systems take two approaches to securing content. The first is “containment,” an approach where the content is encrypted in a shell so that it can only be accessed by authorized users. The second is “marking,” the practice of placing a watermark, flag, or a XrML tag on content as a signal to a device that the media is copy protected.

AHGA respects intellectual property rights and copyright protections including the strong enforcement of piracy laws, and has no objection to additional funding for enforcement of these laws or to strengthening the sanctions against piracy if needed. AHGA does not object to digital rights protections developed by entertainment companies and incorporated into their products for the purpose of preventing piracy or to digital rights protection solutions developed voluntarily by hardware or software companies. Consumers may or may not purchase those products as they so choose.

AHGA objects strongly to government mandates that would require non-entertainment companies to modify hardware or software to some standard that would theoretically prevent piracy. Homeowners rather than entertainment companies would ultimately pay for those solutions. This would be akin to a state government sending a speeding ticket to every resident with a driver’s license on the theory that probably half of them exceeded the speed limit at some time last year, but only 10% got caught. Why should the 50% that didn’t speed be penalized, and for that matter, what about due process for the other 40%?

Entertainment products are different than computer software, which has always been licensed to users. Those licenses, provided with the software, define their rights of use. By contrast rights of use of entertainment products have evolved over time under the “fair use” concept. Although entertainment products are also protected by copyright laws, the fair use concept – the right of consumers to use lawfully owned entertainment products, to make backup copies, to share those products with family and friends, and to sell or trade their lawfully owned entertainment products has long been established by statutory and common law interpretations of copyright law. Fair use includes libraries’ and educators’ rights to provide content to users, the right to sell physical copies of certain content that one acquires lawfully (the “First Sale” doctrine), and the ability to make a backup copy of music. Fair use provides a potential defense to individuals who may be accused of an unauthorized use of protected content.

Fair use should not be abridged by federal legislation. DRM technologies should seek to allow for fair use rights. It is highly questionable as to whether government mandated directives and guidelines for digital rights management could accommodate fair use as it has been defined by statutory and common law interpretations of copyright law. For these reasons Congress should not enact mandated directives and guidelines for digital rights management .

Technology and Communications

Homeowners are major beneficiaries of the tools of technology. Homeowners use technology to pay mortgages and other bills, buy products and services, plan vacations and business trips, and increasingly telecommute, and/or facilitate home-based businesses. Their children use both tools to do school work and research. The Alliance recommends that:

Web sites should provide clear and conspicuous home page disclosure of company privacy policies and include procedures that give consumers the ability to control the disclosure of any information they provide.

Federal and state telecom regulatory bodies must protect the interests of consumers and recognize property rights. Consumer representation on state regulatory bodies should be increased.

Spam enforcement procedures should be included in international treaties. Congress should enact new laws to punish unauthorized use of spyware and phishing. Anti-Spam laws should be strengthened if necessary.

The Internet Tax Moratorium should be permanently extended and applied to Internet-based (VOIP) phone calls.

Federal programs and tax incentives to provide rural residents and disadvantaged citizen’s access to affordable broadband services at reasonable prices should be expanded. Power line broadband should be promoted.

Digital Rights Management (DRM) technology should not be mandated. Established consumer’ “fair use” rights to make digital backup copies of music, movies, and books for personal use should not be abridged.

Congress Should Set a Specific Early Date for the DTV Transition.

Current law requires termination of analog television broadcasting on December 31, 2006, or when 85 percent of the households in a television market can receive digital television (DTV) broadcast signals, whichever is later. After the DTV transition is complete all TV broadcasting will be in digital format, and when portions of the spectrum used for analog TV broadcasting will be available for other high value uses. The American Homeowners Grassroots Alliance (AHGA) believes that the transition will produce substantial consumer benefits for the nation’s 75 million American homeowners and other consumers. For that reason AHGA urges Congress and all stakeholders to work together in this Congress to reach a consensus on legislation setting the earliest practicable date certain for the completion of DTV transition.

Among the significant consumer benefits of the DTV transition are:

Facilitating the deployment of high-speed broadband connections, especially in rural areas where availability is most lacking.

Improvement of first responders’ communications systems, thereby enhancing homeland security and disaster response.

Increased competition and lower prices for high-speed broadband Internet access as new competitors enter the market.

More locally relevant media programming.

An estimated $28 billion in new federal revenue from the auction of the analog spectrum (according to the Brattle Group, a worldwide economic consulting firm).

An enhanced television viewing experience for American consumers.

The direct creation of new jobs for American workers, and indirect support of U.S. jobs through increased U.S. global competitiveness.

There are three major challenges that Congress will have to address as it develops legislation to implement the DTV transition. They are:

  • What we do to help the analog access only TV owners whose sets would no longer be able to function without digital-to-analog converter boxes after the DTV transition is complete?,
  • What is the appropriate balance of consumer benefits, such as improved first responder communications capabilities and corporate local programming requirements?, and
  • How do we provide marketplace certainty regarding the date of analog TV spectrum availability so companies will formulate the business plans and attract the investment required to deploy the new services as soon as possible?

All of these challenges are surmountable. The revenue raised in spectrum auctions is more than sufficient to fund the costs of converter boxes for those with analog access only TV sets. At $50 per converter box, assuming the participation of every eligible consumer, the cost of computer boxes would range from $750 million to $4 billion based on estimates from several sources, compared to the estimated $28 billion revenue from the auction’s proceeds. Given the significant consumer benefits from new services and the estimated auction proceeds, it would be good policy to devote what will be a modest percentage of the auction proceeds to an efficient converter box program. Moreover should budget and/or political considerations necessitate a smaller program, eligibility could be limited to mid and low income consumers.

AHGA believes that it is desirable to devote a reasonable amount of the cleared spectrum for unlicensed uses (e.g. community wireless networks which could provide more local news and information programming. Local governments, nonprofits and localities could use the spectrum to bring more local programming and high-speed Internet access to all residents at a reasonable cost. It is also very desirable to create incentives for new entrants and small players to enter the marketplace, thereby increasing competition. The amount of the newly available spectrum set aside for local governments, nonprofits and new/small competitors at the outset should be balanced against the other substantial benefits that will accrue to consumers from the DTV transition. Economic and legislative realities may make it necessary to defer the implementation of some of the social responsibility requirements into the future.

Companies with economic interests in the cleared spectrum advocate an early date-certain for the completion of the DTV transition. They argue that without the certainty provided by a hard date for completing the transition, it is much more difficult to develop business plans and attract investment to build and deploy innovative wireless broadband networks.

Given the wide array of significant benefits that will accrue to homeowners and other consumers from an early date certain for the DTV transition, AHGA supports the earliest possible specific transition deadline. To achieve that goal all stakeholders – consumers, businesses, and policymakers in both political parties must be flexible. All parties must be willing to make some compromises in order to reach a solution that provides a strong net benefit to society. Accordingly AHGA urges other members of the consumer and business communities and congressional republicans and democrats to work together in this Congress to reach consensus on legislation setting the earliest practicable date certain for the completion of DTV transition.

Computers, Telecommunications, and the Internet