TIME 2014 Election

Teachers Unions Are Putting Themselves On November’s Ballot

Teachers' unions are spending big in an otherwise boring cycle

While many political power brokers have quietly agreed this year’s midterms are big snooze—boring, uncreative, and largely meaningless—the teachers unions stand out as a loud, insistent counterpoint.

The National Education Association (NEA), the nation’s largest teachers union, is on track to spend between $40 million and $60 million this election cycle, while the smaller American Federation of Teachers (AFT) plans to pony up an additional $20 million—more than the organization has spent on any other past cycle, including high-spending presidential election years.

While the issues at stake vary by state, a number of elections this cycle will hinge on a variety of education-related questions, including recent cuts to public schools, growing class sizes, Common Core State Standards, access to pre-K education and the availability of state-funded student loans for college. A June Rasmussen report found that 58% of total expected voters ranked education as “very important,” while local polls indicate that voters in Pennsylvania, Michigan, Kansas and Illinois rank education as among the top three most important issues this cycle.

NEA National Political Director Karen White called this election cycle “a perfect storm” for voters concerned with opportunities available to the next generation. “Public education has become a top-tier national issue for so many,” White said Tuesday. Meanwhile, AFT President Randi Weingarten said that she sees this year’s midterms as “the most important” in recent memory, and described a handful of state and local races as among the most “vicious” and “disingenuous” she’s seen.

The NEA Advocacy Fund is focusing most of its dollars on mobilizing grassroots campaigns—door-knockers, hand-shakers, and political ad buys—in at least a dozen states, including Kansas, Pennsylvania, Arkansas, Hawaii, and North Carolina. NEA president Lily Eskelsen Garcia has spent the last week personally campaigning for Democratic gubernatorial candidates Mary Burke in Wisconsin and Mark Schauer in Michigan, as well as visiting Arizona as part of an effort to mobilize Latino voters, a voting bloc that tends to see education as a primary reason for going to the polls. In the next three weeks, Garcia plans to return to Arizona and Michigan. She has also scheduled visits to Colorado, Florida, Pennsylvania, North Carolina and Maine.

Meanwhile, the AFT has prioritized races in six states: Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin, Florida, Connecticut and Illinois. Both the NEA and the AFT are expected to focus primarily on prying ambivalent, Democratic-leaning voters—so called “drop-out voters”—off their couches and into the voting booths.

Weingarten, who spent last weekend campaigning for Democratic Senator Mark Begich in Alaska, has also made multiple trips to Pennsylvania, where incumbent Republican Gov. Tom Corbett applauded the Philadelphia School Reform Commission’s decision last week to cancel its contract with the teachers unions. While some education reformers have applauded Corbett’s war on union contracts, which they argue divert cash from classrooms to teachers’ pensions, he still faces a tough race against Democratic challenger Tom Wolf. According to the most recent polls, Wolf is ahead by a slim but significant margin.

This past week, the NEA Advocacy Fund released its second ad in Kansas skewering incumbent Gov. Sam Brownback’s “failed experiment” in education. Brownback, who faces stiff competition from Democratic challenger Paul Davis, cut $56.6 million in public education in that state. Polls indicate Brownback and Davis remain neck and neck just three weeks before election day.

The NEA Advocacy Fund also has new ads this week in North Carolina, slamming Republican Thom Tillis on the issue of student loans. Tillis, who is challenging Democratic Senator Kay Hagan for her Senate seat, is nearly tied in the polls. Two more NEA ads went live today in Arkansas, where the battle between Republican challenger Tom Cotton and Democratic incumbent Mark Pryor remains a toss-up, and Hawaii, where the governor’s race favors Democrat David Ige by a narrow margin.

TIME 2016 Election

Elizabeth Warren and Suze Orman Call for Student Debt Reform

Democratic Senators Discuss College Affordability
U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) (2nd L) speaks as Senate Majority Whip Sen. Richard Durbin (D-IL) (L), and Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA) (R) listen during a news conference June 5, 2014 on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. Alex Wong—Getty Images

Warren didn't touch the question of whether she would run in 2016

Correction appended Sept. 17 at 2:40 p.m.

Senator Elizabeth Warren and personal finance expert Suze Orman teamed up Wednesday morning for a spirited, hour-long discussion about student loans, for-profit colleges and the staggering debt crisis facing tens of millions of Americans today.

The two women, who first met at a 2009 TIME 100 event, clearly saw eye-to-eye on nearly every issue, surprising absolutely no one, anywhere. They often echoed one another in their condemnation of “the biggest banks,” “the crooks” selling exploitative student loans, and corporate control over the lawmaking process.

“Washington works for those who have money and power, for those who can hire armies of lobbyists and lawyers,” Warren said.

“Private banks are financially raping—and I use that word truthfully—raping our children,” Orman said. “It’s ludicrous.”

The question of whether Warren will run for president in 2016 was defused right off the bat, when Orman jokingly announced her own candidacy. Warren remained silent on the issue throughout the panel discussion, hosted by Politico and Starbucks in downtown Washington, D.C., choosing instead to draw attention to her student loan reform bill, which was blocked by a Republican filibuster in June.

The bill would require the federal government and private banks to allow the roughly 25 million Americans, each of whom carry an average of $30,000 in student debt, to refinance their student loans at today’s lower interest rates. It would also cap undergraduate loans at interest rates below 4%. The current interest rate for federal Stafford student loans is as high as 8%; private loan rates often top 14%.

Warren and Orman argued that since Americans collectively carry more than $1.2 trillion in student debt alone—a sum that doesn’t take into account mortgages or other personal debt—they cannot buy houses or cars or make other purchases that would stimulate the economy. Senate Republicans blocked another effort to bring the bill to vote on Tuesday. Warren promised Wednesday to “keep hitting at” it this term.

Both Warren and Orman pointed out repeatedly that student loans, unlike any other type of loan, cannot be forgiven under any circumstances, including bankruptcy or death. Those carrying student debt through retirement “will have their social security garnished,” Orman said, as an appalled Warren echoed her: “Your social security check gets garnished!” Americans who die with student loans often pass on that debt to surviving family members.

One of the challenges in passing the student loan reform bill, Warren said, is that the U.S. government mades $66 billion between 2007 and 2012 off of the interest from federally-backed student loans. Her bill would reduce that profit substantially, but proposes making up the difference through a stipulation in the tax code requiring that those making more than a million dollars per year pay taxes at the same rate middle class families pay, she said.

Toward the end of the discussion, the moderators, Politico’s Mike Allen and Maggie Haberman, changed the topic to the upcoming 2014 and 2016 elections. Orman said that while she would vote for Hillary Clinton in 2016, she would much prefer to vote for Warren, who she described as her “political voice.” Warren smiled but didn’t respond.

Allen later asked Warren who her favorite Republican is, to which Warren quickly answered, much to the delight of the crowd, “Living or dead?” When Allen pressed her to come up with her favorite living Republican, Warren suggested Senator Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), who voted to advance debate of the student loan reform bill and is working on housing finance reform.

Allen later asked Warren what her reaction would be if Republicans win the majority in the Senate in November, and Mitch McConnell, who is facing a tight race in Kentucky, succeeds and rises to Senate majority leader. “I’ll be blunt,” Warren said. “I hope that he doesn’t come back.”

In one of the final questions, Haberman asked Warren which Republican she would like to see run in 2016. Warren just laughed. “No,” she said. “No.”

Correction: The original version of this story incorrectly said that Sen. Bob Corker voted for the loan reform bill. He voted to advance debate of the bill.

TIME technology

Cable Companies Prepared for HBO Go to Go Streaming-Only

Game of Thrones
HBO

HBO Go may soon be available to non-cable-TV subscribers as an online-only streaming product, just like Netflix. That’s cause for celebration for Game of Thrones fans, many of whom have been, ahem, “borrowing” a cable login from their friend’s room mate’s dad for the last few years, or outright pirating the goods on Sunday nights.

The move marks a major sea change for the TV industry. For the last year, Time Warner CEO Jeff Bewkes has repeatedly dismissed suggestions that HBO Go would become available on online-only streaming platforms. But at a Goldman Sachs communications conference last week, he said he was rethinking it. “Up until now” the idea wasn’t attractive, he said, but now that “the broadband opportunity is getting bigger,” it’s becoming “more viable and more interesting.”

Bewkes’ suggestion has ignited a debate among TV-industry insiders: Is this the beginning of the end for the traditional pay-TV model? If HBO goes the Netflix route, what’s to stop ESPN or Discovery or the Food Channel from following suit? And is this a nail in the coffin of “TV Everywhere,” the pay-TV industry’s online streaming collaboration that Bewkes himself has proudly backed?

The short answer to all those questions is that the doomsayers are generally right: the traditional pay-TV model—wherein customers are prodded into paying upwards of $150 a month for a bundle of thousands of channels they don’t watch—will meet increasingly steep resistance in coming years. After all, we live in world where we’ve all become accustomed to getting our media (songs, magazine articles, you name it) on-demand and a la carte. And if HBO Go and Showtime actually do “go rogue,” so to speak, it does amount to a major blow to the joint “TV Everywhere” campaign, which was designed to keep pay-TV subscribers loyal to their TV providers by allowing them to watch TV online through any device they wanted, but only after signing in through a pay-TV portal. Those customers who were paying for cable primarily to watch HBO will no longer have a reason to pay for traditional TV at all.

But the longer answer is that while we are undoubtedly standing on the precipice of major changes in the traditional pay-TV business model, the biggest players in both the TV distribution and programming markets are hardly in existential crisis.

For one, all the biggest cable and fiber companies—Comcast, Time Warner Cable, Charter, Verizon—are actually poised to benefit from Americans’ increasing demand for online streaming, a service that requires super-fast Internet connections. Unlike satellite TV companies, like Dish and DirecTV, which for technical reasons cannot offer fast, affordable broadband Internet, and are therefore most effected by the trend toward online video consumption, big cable companies have actually seen their total profits sky rocket in recent years, driven largely by broadband subscribers in search of the fastest-available service. Comcast in particular is in the cat-bird seat. If regulators approve its proposed $45.2 billion merger withTime Warner Cable this year, the new Comcast could control up to 70% of all the broadband Internet connections in the country that are fast enough to replace a household’s TV—i.e., to stream several HD videos simultaneously.

For another, even if HBO Go goes the way of Netflix tomorrow, the move is unlikely to catalyze a similar mass exodus among other smaller channels immediately, since they are unlikely to find in direct streaming the sort of revenue they can get from on the traditional pay-TV model. Even the biggest programmers, like Disney and Viacom, still make the bulk of their revenue from partnering with pay-TV distributors, like Comcast, Time Warner Cable, and Verizon, which pay them large “retransmission fees” to license their content. For example, pay-TV companies currently pay ESPN, which is owned by Disney, an average of about $7 per cable subscriber per month, even though the overwhelming majority of all pay-TV customers don’t even watch ESPN.

The TV distributors, meanwhile, still have the potential ability to punish smaller channels if they find other routes for distribution. As it stands, licensing agreements usually include language that limits a programmer’s ability to make its content available online. For smaller stations that stray, big pay-TV companies can try to reduce the amount they pay a programmer in retrans fees, thus levying a significant blow to a programmers’ revenue stream. Big pay-TV companies, like Comcast, which already controls access to more than 20 million households, can also “punish” a programmer by moving its channels from a popular bundle to another, less popular bundle in their pay-TV offerings. A demotion like that would have the effect of decimating the number of people who see a programmer’s content, which in turn, would wreak havoc on its advertising revenue.

Of course, as more and more people begin to stream online video, the power dynamic between programmers and pay-TV distributors will shift. Already, online video consumption grew by 71% in the U.S. between 2012 and 2013, according to Nielsen. And while the number of outright “cord-cutters”—customers who ditched their pay-TV bill completely in favor of streaming services—is still less than 5% of the population, it’s growing every year. According to a study released last week, 49% of TV watchers between the ages of 25 and 34 say they’re “likely” to stop paying for cable TV in the next year. A ClearVoice Research study this week indicates that one in eight users plan to discontinue their cable service; 74% plan to do so this year.

TIME technology

Most Americans Don’t Want Internet ‘Fast Lanes,’ Poll Finds

BU005714
Spike Mafford—Getty Images

A particularly timely finding, as the public comment period for Federal Communications Commission's proposed rule on net neutrality draws to a close

Two-thirds of Americans don’t like the idea of big web companies paying Internet service providers (ISPs) to deliver their content more quickly via so-called “fast lanes” on the Internet, according to a recent poll.

CALinnovates, a San Francisco-based coalition that works on public policy in technology, asked people earlier this month about whether they thought rules should be in place “prioritizing Internet traffic – such as one company willing to pay over another.” Well over half of the respondents–63%–replied either that all traffic should be treated equally or, if priority gets placed, the reason behind the prioritization shouldn’t be because one company pays for it.

The results of the poll, released Thursday, arrive just as the end of the public comment period draws near for the Federal Communications Commission’s sharply criticized proposed rule on net neutrality, the idea that ISPs cannot discriminate against certain web content. The deadline is Sept. 15.

The FCC’s proposed rule on net neutrality has come under fire in recent months, resulting in the Commission’s receipt of a record-breaking 1.4 million public comments.

On Sept. 10, a coalition of tech companies, consumer advocates and public policy groups organized a “day of action” called Battle for the Net, in protest of the FCC’s proposed rule, which generated nearly 2.5 million calls and emails to members of Congress and more than 700,000 comments to the FCC. That coalition advocates for the FCC to categorize ISPs under “Title II” of their statute, which would give the agency the legal jurisdiction to strictly regulate the broadband industry.

When it came to the concept of “net neutrality” within CALinnovate’s poll, however, Americans responded more ambivalently, CALInnovates Executive Director Mike Montgomery told TIME in a conference call. Two-thirds of those polled would like “new laws to deal with fast-paced changes that occur in technology,” but three-fourths weren’t sure the Federal government is capable of keeping up with the pace of technological innovation.

The Internet Association, an umbrella group that includes Google, Amazon, Ebay, Facebook and other web giants, also opposes the FCC’s proposed rule, but like many of those polled by CALinnovates, stops short of advocating for a specific solution.

“Protecting an open Internet, free from discriminatory or anticompetitive actions by broadband gatekeepers should be the cornerstone of net neutrality policy,” said Michael Beckerman, the President and CEO of the Internet Association. “The FCC should leave all of its legal authorities on the table to accomplish this goal.”

TIME technology

Net Neutrality Campaign Claims Victory in ‘Battle for the Net’

Protesters hold a rally before the FCC meeting on net neutrality proposal in Washington, DC.
Protesters hold a rally near the building before the FCC meeting on net neutrality proposals on May, 15, 2014 in Washington, DC. Bill O'Leary—The Washington Post/Getty Images

But the war over internet freedom isn't over

A coalition of tech companies and Open Internet activists claimed victory Wednesday evening after a day-long campaign, Battle for the Net, succeeded in swamping the federal government with millions of public comments demanding that the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) scrap its proposed rules governing net neutrality and write new ones.

By midday, members of Congress were receiving an average of 1,000 calls per minute, according to Free Press, a public advocacy organization that underwrote the campaign in support of net neutrality, the notion that Internet service providers (ISPs) must treat all web content equally.

Meanwhile, the FCC reported that its rule on net neutrality, which is open for public comments until Sept. 15, has officially
generated more public comments–1.4 million and counting–than any other rule making in its history.

The coalition of Internet activists that organized today’s campaign, Battle for the Net, includes 27 progressive advocacy organizations, including Common Cause and the American Civil Liberties Union, as well as dozens of tech companies, including Twitter, Tumblr, Netflix, Kickstarter and Etsy. Vimeo, which is also a member, produced its own net neutrality video Wednesday.

Those companies, along with thousands of smaller websites, took part in a “day of action” Wednesday in which they displayed on their home pages an icon symbolizing a slow-loading website. When visitors click on that icon, they are invited to sign the Battle for the Net’s letter to the FCC and to contact their member of Congress.

The campaign used a nifty new technology that allowed visitors to simply type-in their phone number and zip code, and the app would figure out who their member of Congress was. Almost immediately, a visitor’s phone would start ringing and when they answered–presto!–they were already connected to their member of Congress’s office.

The pro-net neutrality campaign has drawn an enormous amount of attention from the large cable and telecom companies in recent weeks, no more so than Comcast, the biggest ISP in the country.

Comcast, which is hoping that the FCC and the Justice Department will approve it’s $45.2 billion merger with Time Warner Cable in the next few months, has gone out of its way to underscore its support for net neutrality.

“We want you to know that Comcast has no desire to break the Internet – or to do anything else to disturb its fundamental openness,” wrote David Cohen, a Comcast senior vice president in a press release Wednesday evening. “We support maintaining an open Internet, and a role for the FCC ensuring that.”

Open Internet advocates dismissed Cohen’s promises as spin, arguing that Comcast and the FCC are simply using a different definition of “net neutrality” so that they can claim to support it.

Battle for the Net, which was joined by the Internet Association–an umbrella group that includes Google, Amazon and Facebook–says that net neutrality is fundamentally incompatible with so-called “paid prioritization” deals, which allow wealthy companies to pay ISPs to deliver their content more quickly on “Internet fast lanes.”

The FCC’s proposed rules on net neutrality, which Comcast supports, allow for “paid prioritization” deals.

TIME technology

Net Neutrality Advocates Turn Up the Volume

Top Congressional Democrats join a coalition of Internet businesses and activists in fighting to ensure Internet service providers treat all web content the same

A vast coalition of Internet businesses and activists, as well as two top Congressional Democrats, launched a series of loud new public relations campaigns Wednesday in support of “net neutrality,” the notion that Internet service providers (ISPs) must treat all web content equally, no matter the source.

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vermont) and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) called on the Federal Communications Commission Tuesday to prevent ISPs, such as Comcast, Verizon or Time Warner Cable, from treating web content differently.

Their appeals came just a day before the Internet Association, Battle for the Net, and the American Sustainable Business Council launched new campaigns Wednesday calling for the FCC to pass new Open Internet protections.

While Leahy, Pelosi, and the advocacy groups are not all united behind one solution, all have slammed the FCC’s current proposed rules on net neutrality, which were first presented in April and may be finalized as early as this year. The public comment period ends Sept. 15.

The FCC’s proposed rules have been sharply criticized for allowing web companies to pay ISPs to deliver their content more quickly and in higher quality than companies that do not pay for faster service. Internet advocates argue that allowing such “paid prioritization”—widely known as Internet “fast lanes”—would give the richest incumbent companies, which can can afford to pay a premium, an unfair advantage over struggling start-ups and mom-and-pop operations that often operate on shoestring budgets.

Others worry that such fast lanes would fundamentally undermine the Wild West-style free market of ideas and commerce on the Internet, where you don’t have to be a billionaire to attract millions of new customers overnight to your site.

FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler has insisted repeatedly that paid prioritization would help vital new industries that rely on lightning-fast download speeds, particularly in the e-medicine and online education spaces, to make their way online. Leahy will hold a Congressional hearing next week on the subject.

The Internet Association, an umbrella group uniting Silicon Valley’s biggest, most powerful tech giants—including Google, Amazon, Facebook and Ebay—launched a new campaign Wednesday afternoon. It includes a video and an online comic demanding better net neutrality protections. The association also submitted formal comments (PDF) to the FCC warning the agency to ignore the “flawed arguments of broadband gatekeepers that seek to control speech on the Internet, censor content, and segregate the Internet into fast and slow lanes.”

The Internet Association’s position on net neutrality is particularly important in the public dialogue because its member companies are mainly large incumbents that could theoretically benefit from paid prioritization deals edging out their smaller competitors. Instead, these large companies have insisted that the Internet marketplace must remain friendly to the tiniest start-ups, which are often the source of “the next big thing.”

Meanwhile, another coalition of Internet advocates convened Wednesday behind a different, similar campaign, Battle for the Net, which is also critical of the FCC’s proposed rules and calls for better ones. Battle for the Net includes 27 progressive advocacy organizations, including the American Civil Liberties Union and MoveOn.org, as well as dozens of tech companies, including Twitter, Tumblr, Netflix, Kickstarter, Etsy, and Vimeo.

Those companies, along with thousands of smaller websites, took part in a “day of action” Wednesday in which they displayed on their home pages an icon symbolizing a slow-loading website. When visitors click on that icon, they are invited to sign the Battle for the Net’s letter to the FCC and to contact their member of Congress.

While the Battle for the Net coalition’s gripes are similar to those of the Internet Association, the Battle for the Net goes farther in pointing at a specific solution. It, along with Pelosi, asks that the FCC categorize ISPs as a “Title II” industry, a move that would give the agency legal jurisdiction to strictly regulate the companies that own the Internet “pipes” — or the fiber that the Internet runs on. The Internet Association, while leaving what is known as the “Title II option” on the table, has stopped short of actively advocating for that end.

The debate over net neutrality is at this point intrinsically intertwined with a discussion of the Title II option, which itself hinges on a rather arcane detail in administrative law. In January, the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals overturned the FCC’s previous rules on net neutrality on the grounds that the agency does not have legal jurisdiction over ISPs since they do not fall under “Title II” of the regulators’ statute. Public advocacy groups, like Free Press, which organized Battle for the Net, argue that the FCC should simply fix that problem, since it’s up to the agency to decide how it categorizes different industries.

But here’s where the discussion really heats up. Big ISPs, like Comcast, Verizon and Time Warner Cable, as well as their trade associations, have said that the Title II option, which would allow the FCC to treat ISPs like telephone companies, would unleash a storm of suffocating regulation. They say that if they are regulated “like public utilities,” they would have no incentive to invest hundreds of millions every year in researching and developing new technologies, much less maintaining and improving the network of pipes and wires that connect American homes to the World Wide Web.

Advocates for the Title II option say the ISPs, which enjoy monopolies and duopolies in most American cities and towns, should be regulated strictly, but argue that categorizing ISPs under Title II would actually lead to fewer regulations. The categorization would allow the FCC to pass a simple, blanket, easy-to-enforce rule on net neutrality for all ISPs, they say, rather than going at it piecemeal. Some advocates say that by avoiding the Title II option, the FCC is wading into unnecessary red tape. The agency’s current proposed rules call for the formation of a special ombudsman office within the FCC where federal bureaucrats would manually review when web companies paid ISPs for premium service.

The issue of net neutrality rocketed into national headlines earlier this year after Netflix accused big ISPs, like Comcast and Verizon, of deliberately slowing down streaming speeds and causing streaming videos to buffer. After Netflix paid the ISPs a fee, the download speeds increased. ISPs say such deals are only fair now that a handful of companies, like Netflix and Google’s YouTube, dominate the majority of web traffic during primetime hours.

It’s unclear when exactly the debate surrounding net neutrality will end. The FCC could finalize its proposed rules on net neutrality in the next few months or, if public pressure mounts, it could be forced to return to the drawing board early next year. President Obama, who has been a vociferous advocate for net neutrality–and a critic of “fast lanes” on the Internet–has stopped short, but just barely, of condemning the FCC’s proposed rules.

With rising populist anger, a raft of new PR campaigns, and Silicon Valley tech firms set to be major political campaign contributors in 2016, something’s likely to break soon.

TIME Regulation

Regulators Promise to Be Tough on Big Banks

Senate Banking Committee Holds Hearing On Wall Street Reform
Federal Reserve Board of Governors member Daniel Tarullo testifies during a hearing before Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committeeon Sept. 9, 2014 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. Alex Wong—Getty Images

As implementation of financial reform law continues

A top Federal Reserve official said Tuesday that regulators would spend the next year holding the biggest banks’ proverbial feet to the fire, while working to exempt small, community banks from regulatory requirements designed for the goliaths of Wall Street.

At a Senate Banking Committee hearing, Fed Governor Daniel Tarullo said regulators will require the nation’s biggest, riskiest financial institutions—those deemed Too Big To Fail—to maintain generous “crash pads” to protect against potential losses in the case of the next financial crisis.

Meanwhile, he said, small, community banks would not be subject to those same requirements and, in fact, should also be exempt of other, paperwork-heavy regulations under the Dodd-Frank financial reform law, like the so-called Volcker Rule. Community banks’ “balance sheets are pretty easily investigated by us and their lending falls into discreet categories,” which makes many of the most burdensome regulations unnecessary, Tarullo said.

The biggest banks’ crash pads, known as “capital surcharges,” will exceed the minimal standards required by international regulators and may be as high as 3.5%, Tarullo said. Shares of the biggest banks, like Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley, which may find themselves subject to stricter requirements this year, dipped temporarily during Tarullo’s testimony, before climbing again and leveling off in the afternoon.

Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D-N.D.) and Sen. Mike Crapo (R-Idaho), the committee’s top Republican, both returned repeatedly to the need to scale back the regulatory burden on small, community banks. “Too big to fail has become too small to succeed,” Heitkamp said.

Tarullo’s tough talk on big banks comes just a month after 11 of the biggest banks in the country failed to produce workable plans, known as “living wills,” designed to help regulators shut them down should they find themselves at the brink of collapse, as they did in 2008 and 2009. Living wills are necessary, the regulators said, so that the burden of bailing them out does not fall on taxpayers. In August, the Federal Reserve and the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. dismissed the 11 biggest banks’ living wills as “unrealistic” and grossly inadequate.

Tarullo was joined by Martin Gruenberg, chairman of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation; Tom Curry, the Comptroller of the Currency; Richard Cordray, director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau; Mary Jo White, chair of the Securities and Exchange Commission; and Tim Massad, chairman of the Commodity Futures Trading Commission. Those six top regulators are in charge of writing, implementing and enforcing the bulk of the 400 some-odd rules mandated by the 2010 Dodd-Frank financial reform law.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) applauded the assembled regulators for requiring the biggest banks to take seriously their living wills, but worried that, unless regulators are willing to “use the tools they have at their disposal”—like limiting banks’ growth—the biggest financial institutions will simply continue to drag their feet throughout the process. She wanted to make sure, she said, that “we’re not going to be back here a year from now having the same conversation.” Both Tarullo and Gruenberg insisted they would use their agencies’ “tools” to force banks to come up with workable living wills by next August.

What was perhaps the dramatic highlight of a rather staid three-hour hearing came in the last 20 minutes, when Warren, joined by Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.), demanded to know why regulators had failed to refer bank executives to the Department of Justice for prosecution for crimes committed in the lead-up to the financial crisis. During Savings and Loan Crisis in the 1980s, 800 executives were convicted and the FBI investigated 5,500, all on referrals from banking regulators, Warren said—whereas this time around, JP Morgan chief Jamie Dimon actually received a $8.5 million raise after negotiating a successful settlement with the government.

“Banks have admitted to breaking the law and have settled with the U.S. for $35 billion dollars, but despite the misconduct at these banks, not a single senior executive… has been criminally prosecuted,” Warren said. “The message to every Wall Street banker is loud and clear: if you break the law, you will not go to jail, but you might end up with a much bigger pay check.”

Shelby, who had clearly been enjoying watching Warren berate the regulators, piped up. “People… whoever they are, shouldn’t be able to buy their way out of culpability, especially when it’s so strong it defies rationality,” he said, gesturing at Warren. “I agree with her on that.”

TIME technology

Discovery Channel Says No to Comcast Merger

The proposed merger, which could give the combined company control of up to 70% of certain high-speed broadband connections, has been widely criticized by the tech industry and consumer rights activists

After six months of simmering silence—punctuated by anonymous griping to regulators and reporters—big television content companies and programmers are beginning to speak out against Comcast’s $45.2 billion proposed merger with Time Warner Cable.

In a filing with the Federal Communications Commission last Thursday, Discovery Communications, which owns Discovery Channel, Animal Planet and TLC, wrote that the merger could create monopoly-like conditions in the TV space by giving the combined company unprecedented control over advertising, sports programming, broadband speeds, and what TV shows make it into American homes, at what price.

The merger, which would tie the biggest and second-biggest cable companies in the country, “could result in lower quality, less diverse programming, and fewer independent voices among programmers,” the statement said. Discovery is backed by Jon Malone, the billionaire former head of Liberty Media and Comcast CEO Brian Robert’s one-time mentor.

Silicon Valley tech firms, like Netflix, small regional cable companies, like RFD TV, and satellite TV distributors, like Dish, have already voiced their opposition to the merger, testifying before Congress on the subject since it was announced in February. But until last week, big TV content companies have remained silent on the issue.

While a Discovery Communications representative declined to explain the timing–why now?–industry analysts have suggested that a public statement from a behemoth like Discovery might prompt other large networks to pipe up in the last four to six months of the review. Opposition from large, influential companies, like Viacom, 21st Century Fox, Time Warner and Disney, could change the tenor at the FCC and the Justice Department, the two federal agencies that are in the process of reviewing the merger for anti-trust issues and consumer concerns. The agencies are widely expected to approve the deal as early as this winter.

The FCC has received roughly 75,000 complaints about the merger, mostly from the tech industry, consumer rights activists, and citizens concerned with dismal customer service experiences at both Comcast and Time Warner Cable.

One reason content producers and programmers have not said much thus far is likely because they rely heavily on payments from TV distributors—Comcast chief among them—for their bottom line. Last year, Comcast paid networks $9.1 billion in “retransmission fees,” a sum that makes up the majority of profits for even the nation’s largest programmers. Without those fees, many content producers’ business models would collapse, or they would be forced to join forces–Scripps and Discovery? Viacom and AMC?–to compete.

If the merger is approved, a new, even-larger Comcast will control 30% of the American TV market and dominate 19 out of 20 of the biggest cities in the country, giving it a much more powerful position at the negotiating table. Rivals fear that if Comcast chooses not to carry a network, or to relegate a channel to a cable tier that reaches fewer American homes, it could all but destroy a network’s ability to survive or receive adequate advertising.

Comcast, for its part, has said that its merger with Time Warner Cable would simply recalibrate what it describes as a grossly unequal balance of power in the TV marketplace. In April, Comcast’s man in Washington, David Cohen, said at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing in April that programming costs have gone up 98% in the last decade because “programmers have more power at the negotiating table” than distributors.

The debate is underscored by concerns about Comcast’s overwhelming dominance in the high speed broadband space. At a time when more and more Americans are shifting from watching traditional cable to watching TV over the internet (Netflix, Roku, Apple TV!), they are becoming more dependent than ever before on the high speed broadband pipes that deliver the internet to their homes–and those pipes are largely owned by Comcast too.

If the merger is approved, Comcast could control up to 70% of American broadband internet connections fast enough to stream or record several high-definition TV shows at the same time, according to recent studies. (Comcast says that it will control only 30% of broadband connections, but its definition of “high speed broadband” includes DSL connections that are too slow to stream multiple HD videos.)

Comcast’s dominance in the TV distribution space could give it the power to demand that content producers and networks do not distribute their content online, either via an independent website or through an existing platform, like Netflix. Programmers and content producers will inevitably see their industry shaped inexorably by a Comcast-Time Warner Cable merger. Whether it’s in their interest to speak out now–or to hedge their bets, stay on the giants’ good side, and wait for the merger to be approved–remains to be seen.

TIME Qatar

2 British Human Rights Workers Go Missing in Qatar

Ghimire Gundev, Krishna Upadhyaya
This undated combination photos released by the Global Network for Rights and Development (GNRD) shows GNRD employees, Ghimire Gundev, a photographer from London, left, and his colleague Krishna Upadhyaya, a researcher, both at unknown locations. AP

The Gulf state is slated to host the World Cup in 2022

Two British human rights workers went missing while researching the mistreatment of migrant workers in Qatar, colleagues of the missing workers said Friday.

Krishna Upadhyaya, 52, and Ghimire Gundev, 36, had been in Qatar since Aug. 27 working on a report for the Norwegian-based Global Network for Rights and Development (GNRD) before “vanishing” five days ago, according to the organization. On Friday afternoon, a small group of human rights advocates delivered an angry letter to the ambassador of Qatar in the United Kingdom demanding “that the government of Qatar discloses what it is doing to find the two workers and ensure their safety.”

Neither the U.S. State Department nor the British Foreign Office have released any information about the situation. The Gulf state is slated to host the World Cup in 2022.

The sudden disappearance of the two men underscores growing tensions in the small, gas-rich nation, the wealthiest in the world per capita, which has drawn withering criticism in recent months for its treatment of roughly 1.5 million foreign workers, many of whom are employed in construction projects related to the World Cup.

International human rights groups and newspaper investigations have accused Qatar of fostering “slave-like” conditions, stripping visiting workers of basic rights, and allowing companies to pay them as little as 85 cents a day. Other reports indicate that workers live in cramped, unsanitary and unsafe conditions, and are forced to labor without basic protections, like adequate water and shade, in sweltering and dangerous environments.

Critics have also pointed at Qatar’s flawed immigration system, which makes it possible for employers to effectively hold migrants workers ransom by refusing to allow them to obtain exit visas. That issue rocketed into headlines last fall after professional soccer player Zahir Belounis said he was “stranded” in the country and appealed for international help to return to his home in France.

According to the Qatari government, roughly 1,000 foreign workers died in Qatar in 2012 and 2013, but human rights groups say that number is low. An ESPN investigation estimated that, even by conservative estimates, at least 4,000 migrant workers will die while working in Qatar by the opening ceremony of the World Cup.

In a large part due to such international attention, the Qatari government announced in May that it would take steps to better protect migrant workers’ rights, but human rights activists say they have yet to see any significant improvements. Sepp Blatter, the president of football’s world governing body, FIFA, has said that migrant workers’ conditions in Qatar are “unacceptable,” but has stopped short of calling to move the 2022 tournament.

The debate over migrant workers’ rights comes just months after FIFA launched an investigation into allegations that a Qatari official paid more than $5 million to secure his country’s successful bid to host the tournament. Dozens of advocates have since called for a new vote on which country should host the 2022 event.

GNRD said it suspects that Upadhyaya and Gundev, who are of Nepali heritage, were detained—the letter delivered Friday to the ambassador points the finger at Qatari police—but Qatari authorities have said nothing about the men’s whereabouts.

Upadhyaya, a researcher, and Gundev, a photographer, sent text messages to colleagues Sunday saying that they believed they were under surveillance and being followed by plain clothes police officers. They were filming interviews with migrant workers before they went missing.

Qatar, which is about the size of Connecticut and has fewer citizens than Cincinnati, has been at the center of mounting tensions in the Middle East. Its vociferous support for the Muslim Brotherhood has put it at odds with its neighbors in the Gulf and led Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and the United Arab Emirates to withdrew their ambassadors from Doha this year in protest.

TIME technology

FCC Chairman Says All the Right Things, But Critics Remain Suspicious

US-POLITICS-BUDGET-FCC
FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler gives testimony before the Financial Services and General Government Subcommittee hearing on "Review of the President's FY2015 funding request and budget justification for the Federal Communications Commission (FCC)."on March 27, 2014 on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. Karen Bleier—AFP/Getty Images

America's lack of broadband competition is "intolerable," Wheeler said

Federal Communications Chairman Tom Wheeler gave an impassioned speech Thursday, saying it’s “intolerable” that 75% of Americans have no choice between Internet Service Providers offering fixed broadband at speeds fast enough for modern use. Wheeler also called for the government and industry to “do everything in our power” to increase competition among ISPs like Comcast and Verizon, and to create a robust public policy that protects a vibrant, dynamic, and open Internet.

On the surface, Wheeler’s speech hit all the right notes with tech entrepreneurs, open Internet advocates and consumer rights groups. But behind the scenes, it was met with a dose of cynicism.

Critics pointed out that Wheeler has previously sworn allegiance to popular concepts like “net neutrality,” the notion that ISPs must treat all web content equally, while simultaneously advancing federal rules that many tech entrepreneurs decry for betraying that concept. Advocates have submitted a record-breaking 1.3 million comments to the FCC in recent months over the issue, many of which pan Wheeler’s version of “net neutrality” rules.

Similarly, Wheeler’s fervent call for more competition–“competition, competition, competition!” he said repeatedly during his speech–in the broadband market was met with approval from most in the audience. But it seemed to some consumer advocates to be disingenuous in a climate where the FCC is widely expected approve of a massive planned merger between Comcast and Time Warner Cable in the next six months.

“The real proof will be in the agency’s actions and not just its speeches,” wrote advocacy group Free Press’ policy director, Matt Wood, in a prepared statement.

In one part of his speech that will likely draw support from many in the Internet advocacy community, Wheeler re-defined high speed broadband Internet as having download speeds of at least 25 megabits per second (mbps). The FCC’s official definition is still only 4mbps, which doesn’t make sense, Wheeler said, in a world where it takes 5mbps to download a single high-definition video, much less to access streaming apps for educational or healthcare purposes.

Quibbling over the definition of high speed broadband matters in this highly politicized space. Broadband service providers often claim at Congressional hearings and in legal filings that they have lots of competition from other ISPs, but they cite as examples rival companies that offer what most Americans would consider unacceptably slow service. For example, in the legal filing for its proposed merger with Time Warner Cable, Comcast claims that it’s engaged in “robust competition” with telecom and mobile phone companies, many of which offer DSL or other services with download speeds significantly slower than 25 mbps.

On this point, Wheeler was clear: “At 25mbps [download speeds], there is simply no competitive choice for most Americans,” he said, unequivocally.

Wheeler, who spoke at 1776’s start-up space in downtown Washington, D.C., spent a good portion of his speech laying out what he called his “Agenda for Broadband Competition.” It centers on not only encouraging competition between existing broadband service providers, but also creating new competition—a turn of phrase that seemed to suggest that the FCC may move more actively into citizen-supported municipal broadband.

“Where meaningful competition is not available, the commission will work to create it,” Wheeler said. He also cited recent petitions asking the FCC to review recent laws, most of which were underwritten by local cable and telecom companies, that make it illegal for cities to create their own broadband. Eliminating such local laws would allow municipalities, like Chattanooga, Tennessee, to build and maintain their own Internet networks, competing directly with incumbent telecom and cable companies–a highly controversial idea in this space.

Wheeler also pointed to the fact that in cities where Google Fiber has begun offering super-fast gigabit download speeds, local cable and telecom companies, which have balked in the past at the cost of investing in faster networks, have recently increased the speeds of their service. He added that while the majority of Americans have access to 100mbps download speeds, that’s just not enough.

“Just because Americans have access to next generation broadband doesn’t mean they have competitive choices.”

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