Freedom From Cell Phone Surprises – Wireless Users To Get Alerts Before Overage Charges

November 2, 2011

It has only taken 15 years, and a ruling by the Federal Communications Commission  for the mobile industry to step up to voluntarily providing consumers with a notice when they are nearing their monthly limits on voice, data or text plans, and are therefore at risk of incurring extra charges.

Over the past 18 months, the F.C.C. has looked into the issue of consumer “bill shock” that nasty feeling one gets when opening your monthly wireless statement and find unexpected overage charges in the tens, hundreds or even thousands of dollars.

Wireless carriers will be able to choose from four methods of notifying consumers that they’re reaching their budgeted limits, but within the next twelve months the companies must have these notices started, and within 18 months all of the alerts must be in place. Equally important, the notices must be free of charge and automatic, though consumers can choose to opt out if they prefer.

This change in notification is critical at a time when smartphone and wireless tablet adoption is skyrocketing. As this illustration points out, smartphones use 24 times the data of a conventional cell phone, and tablets take 122 times more data than smart phones.

The enormous increase in data capacity and usage makes the risks of overage charges a significant and growing threat to consumer’s pocketbooks, particularly as the ‘all-you-can-eat’ phone plans are vanishing.

According to an FCC survey conducted in April-May of 2010, 30 million Americans have experienced cell phone bill shock. More than half those consumers saw an increase of $50 or more and 23% had unexpected charges of $100 or more.  In another report published in October 2010, the FCC data showed that 20% of the bill shock complaints it received during the first half of 2010 were for $1,000.

“Consumers have been telling us about ‘bill shock’ for a long time, and we’ve been pushing for reforms to crack down on the problem. Ultimately, this is about helping people protect their pocketbooks, so we applaud the F.C.C. and the industry for this effort to do right by consumers.” said Parul P. Desai, policy counsel for Consumers Union.

With hope on the horizon, it is still critical to keep a close tab on your data use.



FCC Voted on Net Neutrality; What Their Ruling May Mean to Consumers

December 23, 2010

Today the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) voted to “preserve the Internet as an open network enabling consumer choice, freedom of expression, user control, competition and the freedom to innovate.”

This overarching goal is admirable, and fortunately it is widely shared across service providers, content providers, and other industry players. There is however more contention over where the authority to regulate the internet lies, what level of management the internet needs, the impact to existing healthy and competitive business models and the US’s ability to remain a leader in internet innovation, how meeting the stated goals are defined, and so on.

The Safe Internet Alliance does not take a position on Net Neutrality per se; our concerns are with how Net Neutrality may impact the safety, security, and privacy of consumers. Thoroughly analyzing the FCC’s rules will take some time, but here is an overview of the key points of concern:

Transparency requirement:A person engaged in the provision of broadband Internet access service shall publicly disclose accurate information regarding the network management practices, performance, and commercial terms of its broadband Internet access services sufficient for consumers to make informed choices regarding use of such services and for content, application, service, and device providers to develop, market, and maintain Internet offerings.”

Concern: While transparency and informed choice are absolutely important for consumers, we should also expect, if not demand, that internet access providers also undertake several network management practices to protect our safety, privacy and security that they do not make public.

For example, ISP’s today have several mechanisms in place to identify images of child sexual exploitation, and it would seriously undermine this vital work to make public the ways in which they manage this on their networks. Additionally, there are many aspects of network management, performance that would be a boon to those interested in hacking, infecting or harming the networks to advance their financial or political goals.

The transparency rule therefore hinges on the concept of ‘sufficient’ information for consumers to make informed choices which is left undefined, while the overall directive makes a demand for transparency that may not serve individuals, companies, or the national security well. How this clause is further defined will be crucial to our safety.

No Blocking requirement: A person engaged in the provision of fixed broadband Internet access service … shall not block lawful content, applications, services, or non-harmful devices..[or], consumers from accessing lawful websites, subject to reasonable network management; nor shall such person block applications that compete with the provider’s voice or video telephony services, subject to reasonable network management.” This point carries the caveat “No Unreasonable Discrimination,” defined as follows: … [Access providers] shall not unreasonably discriminate in transmitting lawful network traffic over a consumer’s broadband Internet access service.  Reasonable network management shall not constitute unreasonable discrimination.

Concern: How the word “block” or the phrase “reasonable network management’ is defined raises safety concerns. ”Block” is generally used to suggest that one content type cannot be favored over another. While blocking legal content may be undesirable, slowing some content streaming in favor of other content types will be important for consumer’s overall experience – and safety.

For example, according to Cisco’s Networking Index Forecast, Internet traffic will more than quadruple by 2014, with some form of video content accounting for more than 90% of all content transmitted through the internet. While some of that video streaming will be for critical purposes like remote medical assistance, most will be for entertainment. Should these two types of content be given equal priority?

Should video streaming be given the same priority as phone calls (VoIP)? While a 5-second delay in video download means your video isn’t ready quite as fast as it might be, the same delay in a phone call is intolerable – and if that call is to 911, it is a clear a safety concern.  Again, there is a clear need to prioritize content types from a safety perspective, particularly given the exponential growth in bandwidth use, and the faltering economic model for bandwidth development (See “Will Video Kill the Internet, Too,” from the Dec. 2 issue of Bloomberg Businessweek)

Reasonable network management: is defined by the FCC as follows: A network management practice is reasonable if it is appropriate and tailored to achieving a legitimate network management purpose, taking into account the particular network architecture and technology of the broadband Internet access service. Legitimate network management purposes include: ensuring network security and integrity, including by addressing traffic that is harmful to the network; addressing traffic that is unwanted by users (including by premise operators), such as by providing services or capabilities consistent with a user’s choices regarding parental controls or security capabilities; and by reducing or mitigating the effects of congestion on the network.

Concern: This looks at three aspects of network management in narrowly defined categories: 1) technical management of a service, including security defenses 2) providing consumers with safety tools to manage their own content access, and 3) managing network congestion. The future may show that several additional categories are needed, and that there is more overlap between categories than suspected.

At a time when new threats emerge on a daily basis, and where entirely new categories of exploits continue to emerge, this definition has the potential to hamper proactive measures of defense in new and unforeseen areas. It also risks stifling healthy competition between service providers in areas of consumer safety, and discouraging innovation of new – or hybrid – safety, security and privacy solutions that would look beyond these narrow confines.

Our personal safety as well as the safety of the internet as a whole depends on ISPs taking strong protective measures on our behalf. We need to be pushing for greater safety measures, and creating an environment that encourages and rewards service providers for doing so.

An ‘open’ internet is an illusion if we do not have a secure environment in which consumers can safely embrace the web. Otherwise it’s only open to the crooks, scammers, and cyberthugs.

We urge all parties in this debate to place the safety of consumers first.


Net Neutrality – How This Debate May Affect Your Safety

December 3, 2010

Network neutrality has once again hit the news as FCC chairman Julius Genachowski offered a sneak peek at the Commission’s draft net neutrality proposal earlier this week.  Though this debate appears to be about as boring as watching snails cross a field, the outcome will have far reaching effects on your online safety.

What is net neutrality?

In simple terms, the philosophy behind network neutrality – which is also referred to as the ‘open internet’ –  is that Internet Service Providers (ISP’s) and governments should not be able to block or restrict consumer access to content, web sites, platforms, or competitors.

There are many other aspects to the net neutrality debate – including whether the FCC even has the authority to regulate ISP’s, the economics of internet transmissions, alternative proposals in Congress, conflicting political views,  but these areas will be left for others to debate.

Why safety needs to trump other considerations

On the surface, the net neutrality/open internet proposal sounds like a great benefit to consumers, ensuring that they can access any content as they see fit.  But not if it comes at the cost of safety. Any version of an open internet must first and foremost be a safe internet or consumers, businesses, and the country will lose.

Chairman Genachowski agreed with the concept of some network management when he suggesting ISPs can do “reasonable network management” to deal with traffic that is “harmful to the network or unwanted by users,” such as viruses and or graphic sexual content or to “address the effects of congestion.”

But this fails to go far enough. ISPs’ position at the edge of the internet ecosystem means they must be the front line of our safety, security and privacy defenses against the full range of online threats. They need to be able to fully manage their own networks and respond as needed to constantly evolving threats to:

  • Block or restrict content coming from a server that has been found to be malicious
  • Filter transmissions that contain viruses
  • Block spam and scams from overwhelming consumers (up to 90% of all email is spam)
  • Provide protection against spyware, viruses, and other malware by restricting the flow of these through their networks
  • Filter and block illegal content
  • Prioritize some types of data over others (for example, you want emergency 911 calls to take precedence over movie downloads so that your call isn’t dropped or your stuck waiting until bandwidth frees up)
  • Isolate and block content sent by botnets – possibly even block botnets entirely
  • Shut down data streams attempting to overwhelm websites in denial of service attacks
  • Respond to cyber warfare attacks
  • Continue to innovate on safety for the protection of consumers and the internet ecosystem
  • And so on…

We not only want ISPs to take these protective measures on our behalf, we should be pushing for greater safety measures to be taken on our behalf.   As long as an ‘open’ internet is synonymous with an ‘unmanaged’ internet, consumers will be left in a Wild West environment where their safety is constantly in jeopardy.

We urge all parties in this debate to place the safety of consumers first.


Cell Phone ‘Bill Shock’ Remedy; To Little? Too Much? To Early to Tell.

October 23, 2010

Consumer’s are complaining about their cell phone bills to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) in record numbers, and the agency has decided to take action. This week the FCC will release their proposal to require carriers to notify users of overage charges or sharp increases on their phone bills.

The FCC received 5,130 inquiries related to wireless charges In the first three months this year, representing a 28% increase over the same period in 2009. Furthermore, an FCC survey conducted earlier this year discovered that 30% of respondents claimed to have experienced “bill shock,” over unexpected charges related to data overcharges and other services that they only learned about when they received their bills.

According to the FCC, the most common issue for consumers are small charges and fees that consumers can’t figure out what they are for, according to Validas, a Texas-based company that audits telecom bills for corporations and individuals.

Edward J. Finegold, Validas’s chief analytics officer, said another key problem involves billing by third parties, such as a text-messaging service or ringtone provider, that piggyback on the carrier’s billing system and therefore land on user’s phone bills. For example, a user may send a text message to an outside service through an offer in, say, a videogame, expecting a one-time charge, but had the user read the fine print, they would have seen they actually authorized the service to automatically trigger a monthly subscription fee. “None of this is illegal, but most people would expect that if you have a trusted relationship with your carrier, it would have strict standards on third parties who add charges to its bills. But that is not happening.”

Advocacy groups don’t think the awaited proposal will go far enough, saying that with all the bundling of services, and the number of applications available for consumers to download, the ability for consumers to decipher the multi-page bills has become even more difficult.

The Wireless Association (CTIA) on the other hand, points to the fact that customers already have many ways to track their minutes and data usage. They have also advised against the legislation of billing practices proposed by Sen. Tom Udall (D-N.M.), that aims to require cell phone carriers to notify customers by e-mail or text message – free of charge – when they have used 80 percent of their monthly limits. CTIA said in a statement about Udall’s bill: “We are concerned that this bill has the potential to cause customer confusion and frustration.”

It will be interesting to see the actual FCC proposal later this week to see if it finds the balance between informing consumers and reasonable carrier actions.


Linda Criddle, President of the Safe Internet Alliance, Appauds FCC Broadband Plan, Urges Focus on Consumer Safety

March 17, 2010

Washington, D.C. (March 16, 2010) — The following is a statement by Linda Criddle of the Safe Internet Alliance in response to the FCC’s release of the Executive Summary of the National Broadband Plan to be presented to Congress today. Ms. Criddle notes that while the FCC’s Congressional mandate is to ensure that every American has access to broadband capability, inducing offline Americans to adopt available technology and use it productively depends on enhancing online safety.

“We are pleased that the FCC plan highlights the obligations of firms collecting online data to ensure consumer privacy. Likewise, we applaud the FCC’s call for a National Digital Literacy Corps to help break adoption barriers. But consumer safety, and consumer education in online safety, also need emphasis if the goal is to increase not only access but adoption.”

“The FCC’s own survey found that nearly half of those Americans who remain offline do so in part because they fear “all the bad things that can happen on the Internet.” Among those who are already online, the survey found that 65% strongly agree there is too much pornography and offensive material on the Internet. And 57% strongly agree that it is too easy for their personal information to be stolen online, while 46% strongly agree that the Internet is too dangerous for children. Such fears can be allayed by ensuring that every ISP provides robust safety tools to all users — and that users know how to protect themselves.”

“The FCC Report is to be commended for placing a strong emphasis on homeland security and public safety. At the same time, consumer safety deserves equal emphasis. The FCC should encourage service providers to enhance their services’ infrastructure to include robust security and safety functionality – such as built-in antivirus software and family safety settings – for all accounts. ISPs should be encouraged to innovate and seek competitive advantage on the safety front — and emphasize that innovation in their marketing.  Enforcement efforts should include improving technology to identify and respond to abuses as they occur, as well as providing parents with filtering tools and information enabling them to monitor and set clear rules for children’s use.”

“ISPs should be encouraged to provide site specific, easily discoverable safety information, in Spanish as well as English, on their websites, with material targeted  to specific demographic groups – not just kids and parents, but seniors, adults, and those with unique risks. Safety messaging should also be placed as ‘just-in-time’ content next to registration fields.  The FCC is creating an initiative to teach digital literacy skills, but those need to encompass digital safety skills such as recognizing a phishing scam or teaching consumers to identify how information leaks, and avoid posting personal information in public access websites.  These skills should also be driven home in public service announcements and public awareness campaigns.”

The Safe Internet Alliance is a broad private/public sector community committed to better protecting Internet users, especially children, teens and the elderly, from the real and worsening problem of Internet crimes and abuse.

SIA President Linda Criddle writes extensively about Internet safety issues on the Safe Internet Alliance blog, a rich source of information about safety risks and common-sense measures that individuals can take to protect their data and their families online and more information can be found on the website at

A pioneer in ecommerce and online safety at Microsoft, where she worked in senior positions for thirteen years, Criddle holds more than 35 patents or pending patents and is author of the award-winning consumer-oriented books, Look Both Ways: Help Protect Your Family on the Internet and Using the Internet Safely for Seniors For Dummies and maintains the website

Putting the FCC National Broadband Plan into Action

March 17, 2010

In connection with the FCC’s unveiling their National Broadband Plan this morning, Tony Bradly, of PC World, interviewed Linda Criddle to get her take. The entire article can be found here Putting the FCC National Broadband Plan into Action.

To add some additional perspective, Linda has inserted the excerpts from the PC World article, and with her comments:

A statement from Linda Criddle, President of the Safe Internet Alliance, applauds the FCC broadband plan, but also urges a strong focus on consumer safety. “The FCC’s own survey found that nearly half of those Americans who remain offline do so in part because they fear “all the bad things that can happen on the Internet.” Among those who are already online, the survey found that 65 percent strongly agree there is too much pornography and offensive material on the Internet. And 57 percent strongly agree that it is too easy for their personal information to be stolen online, while 46 percent strongly agree that the Internet is too dangerous for children.”

That online safety fears are a primary factor in nearly half of those polled who do not use the internet is dismaying. There are real risks that consumers need to be aware of and have the skills to master, there are security tools that need to be in place on every internet enabled device, and there are privacy precautions that need to be taken. That said, the fear mongering of programs like “To Catch a Predator” and the sensationalizing of tragic internet crimes has created a ridiculously skewed view of risks in many consumers minds.

If we used the same ‘shock factor’ reporting demonstrated by some opportunistic reporters – and internet safety companies and advocates pushing their own agendas – to report traffic accidents it would look something like this: 40,000 people DIE on our road annually!! Millions more Injured! Stay off Roads!

As we seek to address the very real safety issues we do have, we cannot allow sensationalism and fear to keep consumers from joining the internet.

Responding to the question of whether the National Broadband Plan is needed, I responded with the following:

The Safe Internet Alliance’s Criddle agrees that the United States is in danger of leaving a portion of the population on the wrong side of the digital divide. She also stresses user awareness education for those just joining the online community. “The FCC is creating an initiative to teach digital literacy skills, but those need to encompass digital safety skills such as recognizing a phishing scam or teaching consumers to identify how information leaks, and avoid posting personal information in public access websites. These skills should also be driven home in public service announcements and public awareness campaigns.”

We will be a nation where the divide between the haves and have-nots will widen if we do not ensure that every citizen has the skills and opportunity to leverage all the great things the internet offers. But access and education must go hand in glove. We don’t hand a teen the keys to the car and thrust them onto the freeway with no skills to defend themselves or understanding of how to be responsible to others.

The internet is no different. It is an incredibly powerful tool that requires skilled use for successful experiences. We must have practical, internet safety training based on teaching the skills needed to protect consumers’ devices, understand how to identify exploits, learn how to maintain personal privacy in a connected world, and how to be a responsible digital citizen.

This information should NOT be wrapped in fear, nor moralizing. Consumers are entitled to define their own level of morality online, as they do offline, for themselves and their families within the constraints of the law.

This education needs to be specifically customized to be relevant to different consumer segments. This means that what students in the third grade learn isn’t the same as what students in high school learn. It means that safety messaging targeting parents and youth isn’t the same material as what is provided to seniors or adults who are looking to protect themselves. It means education needs to be accessible to new immigrants who lack internet skills to help bring them, and their families, into the digital society as productive members.

I am very encouraged by the inclusion of safety considerations in the National Broadband Plan, and am optimistic about the opportunities to see this focus take on a broader role as the framework matures. I urge you to get involved. The regulations being created through this process will directly impact each and every internet user.