TIME Addiction

Health Experts Angry FDA Still Doesn’t Regulate E-Cigarettes

TIME.com stock photos E-Cig Electronic Cigarette Smoke
Elizabeth Renstrom for TIME

Prominent medical groups are asking the government to hurry up

A year has passed since the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) proposed new regulations for e-cigarettes, cigars and waterpipe tobacco, to prevent them from being sold to minors and to require manufacturers to add health warnings to labels—but the new rules still haven’t gone into effect.

Now, public health experts are urging action, arguing it’s unacceptable that it’s taken so long given data shows use of these products among minors has spiked.

Earlier this week, 31 health and medical groups including the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Academy of Family Physicians and the American Heart Association wrote a letter to President Obama asking for the federal government to finalize the “long-overdue” regulation. The medical groups say cigar and e-cigarette brands are using marketing tactics that they feel appeal directly to young people, like promoting candy and fruit-flavored products, and they want regulations to put an end to it.

“It’s no wonder use of e-cigarettes by youth has skyrocketed,” the letter reads. “This process has already taken far too long. We cannot afford more delays that allow tobacco companies to target our kids with a new generation of tobacco products.”

Health experts are concerned over a recent U.S. Centers of Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) report that showed e-cigarette use among middle school and high school students tripled between 2013 to 2014 and hookah use doubled. The report showed that e-cigarette use among high schoolers increased from 4.5% in 2013 to 13.4% in 2014, which is a rise from approximately 660,000 students to 2 million.

“My concern is always the first-time users,” says Shyam Biswal, a professor in the department of Environmental Health Sciences at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. “It’s bad it took so long to make a dent in [conventional] tobacco users, and we are now starting something else, and we are just waiting and waiting and waiting. We don’t have the data that e-cigarettes are a gateway [to other tobacco products], so we just wait. It should not be like that.”

In a statement sent to TIME, the FDA said it “remains concerned about the significant increase in e-cigarette and hookah usage among youth.” The agency wrote:

These staggering increases in such a short time underscore why FDA intends to regulate these additional products to protect public health. Rulemaking is a complex process, and this particular proposed rule resulted in more than 135,000 public comments for the agency to review and consider. FDA is committed to moving forward expeditiously to finalize the rule that will extend its authority to additional tobacco products such as e-cigarettes, cigars, pipe tobacco, and other currently unregulated tobacco products.

Stanton Glantz, a professor of medicine at the University of California, San Francisco Center for Tobacco Control Research & Education, said he hopes that when the regulation is finalized there are no loopholes. “Given that the White House has blocked eliminating menthol from cigarettes for years despite strong evidence—including from the FDA’s own analysis that doing so would protect public health—I am not holding my breath,” he said.

Several states and local governments have regulated items like e-cigarettes on their own. Data shows at least 42 states and 1 territory currently prohibit the sale of e-cigarettes or vaping/alternative tobacco products to minors.

“I just hope that the final FDA rule does not do anything to make that process more difficult,” said Glantz.

The medical groups concluded in their letter that “further delay will only serve the interests of the tobacco companies, which have a long history of using product design and marketing tactics to attract children to harmful and addictive products.”

When asked for a comment about the letter, the White House’s Office of Management and Budget referred TIME to the FDA.

TIME Innovation

Five Best Ideas of the Day: April 15

The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C.

1. The U.S. is safer than we’ve been in generations. So why do we see threats around every corner?

By Stephen Kinzer in the Boston Globe

2. Is college worth it? There’s a checklist for that.

By Brandon Busteed at Gallup

3. Life is teaching your kid the value of white lies.

By Melissa Dahl in the Science of Us

4. The secret to success for unregulated currencies like Bitcoin might be more regulation.

By Larry Greenemeier in Scientific American

5. Scotland’s new drunk-driving law works so well, it’s hurting their economy.

By Chris Green in the Independent

The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME Companies

Google to Face Antitrust Charges in Europe

The Google logo is seen inside the company's offices in Berlin on Mar. 23, 2015.
Adam Berry—Getty Images The Google logo is seen inside the company's offices in Berlin on Mar. 23, 2015.

European Union regulators will charge Google with anti-competitive behavior

After a five-year antitrust investigation of Google, European regulators are said to be ready to file formal charges against the company as soon as Wednesday.

The European Commission plans to accuse the online search giant of violating the region’s antitrust laws, according to reports from the Financial Times and The Wall Street Journal. European Union regulators will charge Google with anti-competitive behavior such as diverting online traffic away from rival companies toward its own services.

The European Commission has spent half a decade investigating Google’s online behavior in an effort to find evidence that the company takes advantage of its dominant position in the online search market. Google could end up facing a fine of up to $6.6 billion in what would be one of the EU’s largest-ever antitrust battles.

EU Competition Commissioner Margrethe Vestager is expected to announce the formal charges against Google in a statement Wednesday that will follow a meeting with other EU commissioners, according to the FT.

Rumors surfaced last month that the EU was wrapping up its investigation and that charges could be brought as soon as this month. WSJ reported earlier this month that the European Commission was requesting confidential information pertaining to Google’s online practices from companies that previously filed lawsuits against the U.S. tech company.

Last fall, European Parliament members voted overwhelmingly to approve a non-binding resolution that called for the break-up of Google in Europe, where the company has a nearly 90% market share, which is larger than its share of the U.S. market.

Google’s shares dipped 1.6% Tuesday afternoon before rising slightly in after-hours trading.

This article originally appeared on Fortune.com.

TIME Addiction

How a Big FDA Decision Could Change Tobacco Control

Swedish Match Targets Wall Street Smokers With Snus Tobacco
Ramin Talaie—Bloomberg/Getty Images

A Swedish Company that manufactures snus wants to change its label to indicate it's safer than cigarettes

An upcoming decision from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) could have significant implications on U.S. tobacco control.

On Thursday and Friday, an advisory committee to the FDA is meeting to review an application from the smokeless tobacco company Swedish Match. The Stockholm-based company wants to be permitted to legally claim that their tobacco product, called snus (pronounced “snoose”) is safer than cigarettes. The company disagrees with some of the warnings required for its label, and instead wants to use a warning that says “No tobacco product is safe, but this product presents substantially lower risks to health than cigarettes.”

Snus is a small cloth baggie that contains moist tobacco powder. They’ve been described as looking like mini tea bags. Users tuck the small pouches under the upper lip to get a buzz from the nicotine. It’s sort of similar to dip or chew, but without all the spitting.

The company’s argument is that snus is behind what’s called the “Swedish experience.” Sweden has a similar tobacco consumption rate compared to other European countries, but has the lowest smoking-related mortality rate. Snus has credited itself for offering Sweds (it’s used primarily by men) a safer alternative to cigarettes, becoming the country’s predominant product. The company wants to remove the required warnings that say the product causes mouth cancer, gum disease and tooth loss arguing there isn’t evidence to support that for their product and they would like to make the claim that the product safer than conventional cigarettes.

“Given all the science we have, it’s clear to me that the current label is misbranded. The label says a lot of things that there simply is no scientific basis for. We would like to be able to communicate that,” says Dr. Lars Erik Rutqvist, an oncologist and Swedish Match’s vice president of scientific affairs. Rutqvist was a cigarette smoker while in medical school (he says at the time that was still common), but wanted to quit when he decided to become an oncologist. He used snus to do so.

“I think it’s problematic that the only message that American smokers are left with today is you should quit,” he says.

The FDA panel is expected to make a vote after the hearing ends on Friday. The panel’s vote will provide a recommendation to the FDA. The agency could follow that recommendation or decide not to adopt it. If the committee agrees with Swedish Match, experts within the tobacco control community believe it could have some major implications for tobacco control regulation.

“This is a critical decision because of the precedent it sets,” says Kenneth E. Warner, a professor of public health focusing on tobacco control at University of Michigan. “It’s precedent setting in the sense that if this goes through it will be the first product to get this reduced risk authorization from the government. It would allow a tobacco harm reduction message to be placed on a product other than an FDA certified treatment such as nicotine replacement products. So it’s pretty important.”

Smokeless tobacco is considered less dangerous than cigarettes, since it doesn’t have toxic smoke. There are members within the public health community that believe that pushing consumers towards lower nicotine-containing products or products that put less harmful chemicals in buyers’ bodies is good for public health.Warner is among them. Others, including the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), have come down hard against such products like e-cigarettes for example, arguing using the products can lead to dual use instead of cigarette smoking cessation.

“Although there’s evidence snus may have reduced harm, reduced harm products are not the same as safe products,” Dr. Michael Steinberg, director of the Tobacco Dependence Program at Rutgers University told NPR.

Warner says the company will have to prove to the FDA that it can back up it’s claims, and the FDA must be confident that the changes wouldn’t have negative consequences. “If information about how snus lowers harms encourages kids to start using it because they don’t think it’s particularly dangerous, and then they graduate to cigarettes because they want the faster nicotine kick, that’s a bad thing,” says Warner. “If snus were to get former smokers to start using it and it has health hazards, that’s not good. It’s hypothetical. The best evidence we have comes from Sweden.”

What the advisory committee will decide and the reverberations of that decision remains unknown, but it it will further fuel the debate over modified risk tobacco products and whether harm reduction has a place in tobacco control.

TIME Retail

These Are the States Smoking the Most Smuggled Cigarettes

cigarettes
Getty Images

Great variation of cigarette taxes between states creates net inflows of smuggled cigarettes for some, while others report net outflows

Tobacco consumption in America has declined consistently since the surgeon general’s office published its first report in 1965. However, more than 18% of adults still identified as smokers in 2013, and in many states, demand for tobacco is high enough to justify large-scale smuggling operations. In New York, a nation-leading 58% of the cigarette market was smuggled in 2013. The share is so high that it hardly fits the description of an underground market.

Cigarette taxes vary greatly between states, and therefore, so do cigarette prices. According to the recent Tax Foundation report, “Cigarette Taxes and Cigarette Smuggling by State, 2013,” this creates arbitrage opportunities for smugglers — that is, the profiting from asset price differences. As a result, some states have net inflows of smuggled cigarettes, while others report net outflows. Based on smuggled cigarettes consumed as a percentage of total cigarettes consumed in 2013, these are the states with the highest cigarette smuggling rates.

Click here to see the states smoking the most smuggled cigarettes

Smuggling can take a variety of forms, from casual smuggling, when individuals purchase cigarettes at a discount across state lines for personal consumption, to commercial smuggling, which could mean large-scale criminal organizations. The severity of these crimes varies considerably, and depending on state regulations, many acts of smuggling go completely unnoticed. For our purposes, cigarette smuggling is defined broadly as an avoidance of cigarette taxes.

A state’s cigarette tax is the largest contributor to the smuggling rate. The tax rate on cigarettes in all but two of the nine states where smuggling is most common exceeded the national average rate of $1.44 per pack. In New York, the tax rate is $4.35 per pack, the highest in the nation. Neighboring Vermont, Pennsylvania, as well as nearby New Hampshire, all had much lower tax rates, as well as net outflows of contraband tobacco.

In an interview with 24/7 Wall St., Scott Drenkard, economist and manager of state projects at the Tax Foundation, as well as the author of the Tax Foundation’s report, explained that in states that have much higher taxes than other states, and not very much separation geographically, the likelihood of smuggling increases dramatically. The problem, according to Drenkard, “is that we have a price prohibition on these products because we’ve taxed them at such high rates in some states.” As in the 1920s, “when you have prohibition you’re going to have bootlegging [and] you’re going to have arbitrage,” Drenkard said. “You have the same economic engines at work that create these black markets.”

In addition to the high tax rate variance between states, there is the added opportunity for smugglers to buy cigarettes in Indian reservations where tobacco is often far less expensive. New York, New Mexico, Arizona, Wisconsin, and Washington are all near Indian reservations that likely influence the smuggling rate considerably.

While smuggling cigarettes was extremely lucrative for many smugglers, large-scale or small, smoking cigarettes was relatively uncommon in all of these states. The percentage of adults who identified as smokers in 2013 exceeded the national smoking rate of 18.2% in only two of the nine states reviewed. According to Drenkard, many states have increased excise taxes in order to generate revenue and bolster failing budgets. State reserves as a percent of general fund expenditures in fiscal 2014 — also known as a rainy-day fund — did not exceed the average for the nation in seven of the nine states with the highest smuggling rates.

For Drenkard, levying such so-called “sin taxes” is extremely problematic. For one, “it makes long-term planning for your budget very difficult, [especially] if you have such a large portion of your revenue coming from an activity that you’re actively trying to discourage.” Many of these states have generated relatively large shares of revenue from a tobacco tax. In 2012, state and local tax revenues accounted for at least 2.5% of total revenue in five of the nine states. By contrast, the national average tobacco tax contribution to revenue was 2.2%.

To identify the states smuggling the most cigarettes, 24/7 Wall St. reviewed smuggled cigarettes consumed as a percent of total cigarettes consumed in 2013 from the Tax Foundation’s February 2015 report, “Cigarette Taxes and Cigarette Smuggling by State, 2013.” Only states with smuggling rates greater than 25% were considered. For the Tax Foundation, a positive percentage is a measure of inflow, while a negative percentage indicates an outflow of smuggled cigarettes. Tax rates, smuggling rates from 2006, and percentage point change data also came from the Tax Foundation. Local tax rates, state and local tax revenue figures, and tax burdens are from the Tax Policy Center and are as of the most recent period available. The percent of adults who smoked in 2013 is from the Kaiser Foundation. Rainy-day funds, or reserves as a percentage of general fund expenditures in fiscal year 2014 were provided by Pew Charitable Trusts.

These are the states selling the most contraband cigarettes.

9. Utah
> 2013 consumption smuggled: 27.3%
> 2013 cigarette tax rate: $1.70 (14th highest)
> Smoking rate: 10.3% (the lowest)
> Pct. point change smuggling rate (2006-2013): 14.5 (6th highest)

More than 27% of all cigarettes consumed in Utah in 2013 were smuggled into the state, the ninth highest percentage among all states. The share of smuggled cigarettes consumed has also risen by 14.5 percentage points since 2006, the sixth largest surge nationwide. The increase is largely due to the state’s cigarette tax of $1.70 per pack, which was not only one of the highest such tax rates in 2013, but it had also increased 145% since 2006 — also one of the largest tax rate changes. As in many other states where smuggling cigarettes is common, criminals often buy cigarettes at a discounted price in nearby states and resell them in Utah. Neighboring Idaho, Nevada, and Wyoming, where cigarettes are taxed at less than $1.00 per pack, all reported net outflows of smuggled cigarettes. The high cost of tobacco may also have helped discourage smoking altogether. Roughly one in 10 Utah adults were smokers in 2013, the lowest smoking rate compared to other states.

ALSO READ: The Cities Where No One Wants to Drive

8. Texas
> 2013 consumption smuggled: 27.4%
> 2013 cigarette tax rate: $1.41 (22nd highest)
> Smoking rate: 15.9% (5th lowest)
> Pct. point change smuggling rate (2006-2013): 12.6 (8th highest)

While the cigarette tax rate of $1.41 per pack in Texas was slightly lower than the national average rate of $1.44 per pack, the tax rate rose 244% between 2006 and 2013, the third highest increase nationwide. The spike may be especially shocking to Texas residents, who are perhaps more accustomed to relatively low taxes. Texas residents paid just 7.5% of their average personal income in state and local taxes in 2011, nearly the lowest nationwide. Tobacco smuggling is on the rise. More than 27% of all cigarettes consumed in the state were smuggled in 2013, up nearly 13 percentage points from 2006, a larger increase than in all but a handful of states. While Texas’ smuggling rate was among the highest in the country, the smoking rate was not especially high. Less than 16% of Texas adults smoked in 2013, one of the lowest smoking rates in the country.

7. Wisconsin
> 2013 consumption smuggled: 31.2%
> 2013 cigarette tax rate: $2.52 (7th highest)
> Smoking rate: 18.7% (21st lowest)
> Pct. point change smuggling rate (2006-2013): 18.1 (3rd highest)

Cheaper cigarettes in comparatively low tobacco tax states are within reach of Wisconsin residents and businesses. Indiana and Missouri, for example, which both reported net outflows of smuggled cigarettes, and have lower tax rates, are less than a day’s drive from Wisconsin. With a 2013 cigarette tax rate of $2.52 per pack — the seventh highest rate nationwide — many people in Wisconsin likely purchase tobacco elsewhere. In 2013, more than 31% of all cigarettes consumed in Wisconsin were smuggled into the state, also the seventh highest share compared with all states. Despite the smuggling problem, however, Wisconsin’s tax revenue from tobacco grew by 115.8% between 2002 and 2012, higher than the national growth rate of 93.6%. By 2012, tobacco tax revenue accounted for more than 4% of total state revenue, the third highest proportion nationwide.

6. California
> 2013 consumption smuggled: 31.5%
> 2013 cigarette tax rate: $0.87 (18th lowest)
> Smoking rate: 12.5% (2nd lowest)
> Pct. point change smuggling rate (2006-2013): -3.1 (23rd highest)

The high frequency of cigarette smuggling did not prevent local and state tobacco tax revenues from growing substantially in most other states. California’s revenue from tobacco taxes shrank by nearly 19% between 2002 and 2012, however, nearly the largest decrease in the nation. The state’s exceptionally low cigarette tax rate of $0.87 per pack in 2013 — unchanged from 2006 — likely accounts in part for the decline in revenue. The state’s nation-leading sales tax of 7.5% is likely a greater factor contributing to smuggling opportunities. More than 31% of all cigarettes consumed in California were smuggled in 2013, the sixth highest share nationwide. Yet, Californians are among the the least likely to pick up smoking, with 12.5% of adults reporting a smoking habit, nearly the lowest smoking rate.

ALSO READ: Cities Where Crime is Plummeting

5. Rhode Island
> 2013 consumption smuggled: 32.0%
> 2013 cigarette tax rate: $3.50 (2nd highest)
> Smoking rate: 17.4% (16th lowest)
> Pct. point change smuggling rate (2006-2013): -11.2 (6th lowest)

In 2006, more than 43% of all cigarettes consumed in Rhode Island were smuggled into the state, the highest share nationwide at that time. By 2013, smuggling had become less common, dropping by 11.2 percentage points, one of the larger drops in the nation. The state’s cigarette tax increased by 42% over that period as well, to $3.50 per pack, the second highest such tax rate in the country. Rhode Island adults were less likely to be smokers than most Americans. Yet, 4.6% of the state’s total revenue in 2012 came from tobacco taxes, the second highest share in the country and more than double the national tobacco tax contribution of 2.2%. Smuggling cigarettes is perhaps further encouraged by Rhode Island’s sales tax rate, which at 7.0% at the beginning of 2014 was second only to California. The proximity of New Hampshire, which reported the largest net outflow of smuggled cigarettes nationwide, and does not have a sales tax, likely presents even more opportunities to bootleg tobacco.

For the rest of the list, please go to 24/7WallStreet.com.

TIME Regulation

Why Wal-Mart and Texas Are Headed for an Epic Showdown

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Alamy

Two icons of "real" America are at loggerheads over a surprising issue

No state is more “real America” than Texas. No retailer is more “real America” than Wal-Mart. And no political opinion is more “real America” than “regulation bad.”

So it might come as something of a shock to learn that Wal-Mart stores in Texas are forbidden by law from selling booze—anything other than beer and wine. Wal-Mart is paying trial lawyers to sue the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission in the U.S. District Court in Austin, challenging the law that forbids all publicly held corporations, hotels excepted, from selling hooch. The law violates the U.S. Constitution, Wal-Mart argues.

“One class of retailers—public corporations—[is] denied an opportunity to compete in the distilled spirits market, while another class of retailers—private corporations and publicly traded hotel corporations—are allowed to compete without similar restriction,” Wal-Mart argues in the lawsuit. “No other state in the nation allows private corporations to engage in the retail sale of spirits but prohibits some but not all publicly traded companies from doing so.”

And indeed, the distinction does seem odd—”irrational,” as Wal-Mart puts it. But as it turns out, it’s just another instance of one business interest versus another. In the lawsuit, Wal-Mart singles out the Texas Package Stores Association as the lobbying group that has fought hard to keep the law in place. It represents about half of the state’s approximately 2,500 liquor stores.

No retailer in Texas is allowed more than five package-store permits, so any chain that’s any bigger is barred from selling any booze other than beer and wine from its sixth store on up. Except that there’s a loophole. Wal-Mart notes in the lawsuit that families are allowed to “pool their package store permits into a single entity and collectively obtain an unlimited number of package store permits.”

A Wal-Mart spokesperson pointed out to the Dallas Morning News what for many people would be the most obvious argument against the law: “This is counter to Texas’ belief in free enterprise and fair competition, limits our customers’ choice[s] and keeps the price of spirits artificially high, all of which harm Texas consumers.”

TIME Regulation

FCC Chair Reveals Details of Net Neutrality Proposal

Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Chairman Tom Wheeler speaks during new conference in Washington on Oct. 8, 2014.
Jose Luis Magana—AP Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Chairman Tom Wheeler speaks during new conference in Washington on Oct. 8, 2014.

In an op-ed, FCC chair Tom Wheeler promised 'the strongest open internet protections ever proposed'

The push for net neutrality took another step forward Wednesday when FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler confirmed his plans to put forth “the strongest open internet protections ever proposed” by the independent agency.

“After more than a decade of debate and a record-setting proceeding that attracted nearly 4 million public comments, the time to settle the Net Neutrality question has arrived,” the FCC chair wrote in an op-ed published online by Wired. Wheeler promised he will submit a proposal this week for new FCC rules that would ban paid prioritization on both wired and mobile networks. The rules would ensure Internet service providers (ISPs) are prohibited from blocking any lawful Internet content or creating so-called Internet fast-lanes that allow certain companies and websites to pay for faster delivery of their content.

“The internet must be fast, fair and open,” Wheeler wrote.

Earlier this week, reports surfaced that Wheeler planned to propose that the FCC reclassify high-speed Internet service as a telecommunications service, rather than an information service, under Title II of the Communications Act. Those reports noted that the FCC would likely vote on the proposed rules later this month. Last year, a federal appeals court ruled that such a step would be necessary if the FCC wanted to treat ISPs more like public utilities, subjecting them to stricter regulation.

Wheeler’s op-ed did not specifically refer to reclassification of ISPs, but the chairman did write that his proposal would ask the FCC to “use its Title II authority to implement and enforce open Internet protections.”

Last year, the FCC chair also proposed a plan to side-step the reclassification issue by allowing cable companies and telecoms to negotiate contracts with content providers such as Netflix that would provide faster streaming speeds so long as the deals were “commercially reasonable.” Netflix did begrudgingly (it claimed) enter into several such pacts with providers such as Comcast and Verizon, but the arrangements drew heavy criticism from proponents of an open Internet.

Millions of people used a public comments period last year to bash Wheeler’s initial proposal and President Barack Obama even weighed in last fall to publicly urge the FCC to adopt the “strongest possible rules” to enforce net neutrality by regulating broadband providers more like public utilities.

Wheeler wrote on Wednesday that his new proposal takes into account “public input received over the last several months” as well as his own understanding of FCC regulations and the industry. And, while net neutrality opponents have argued that stricter regulation of broadband providers could impair growth and innovation, Wheeler wrote in his op-ed that it is possible to maintain an open Internet while also allowing for the growth of broadband networks. Wheeler wrote that his proposal would “modernize Title II” and would not include strict oversight of pricing as well as “no tariffs, no last-mile unbundling.”

Even as Wheeler’s op-ed made the Internet rounds Wednesday afternoon, stocks of cable and satellite Internet providers remained strong. Shares of cable companies Comcast, Time Warner Cable and Verizon were all up in recent trading, as were shares of satellite providers Dish Network and DirecTV.

This article originally appeared on Fortune.com.

TIME Regulation

U.S. Eyes Ban of Controversial Internet ‘Fast Lanes’

US-POLITICS-FCC
Brendan Smialowski—AFP/Getty Images Federal Communication Commission Chairman Tom Wheeler waits for a hearing at the FCC on Dec. 11, 2014 in Washington, DC.

Issues have been at the heart of an intense debate over so-called net neutrality

A new Federal Communications Commission proposal expected this week has the potential to be a game-changer in the debate over net neutrality.

FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler is expected to propose that high-speed Internet service be reclassified as a telecommunications service, rather than an information service, under Title II of the Communications Act, according to The New York Times, which cites various anonymous sources from the telecommunications industry.

The step would allow the FCC to regulate Internet service providers (ISPs) like public utilities, including ensuring that ISPs cannot block any Internet content. They would also be prohibited from creating so-called Internet fast-lanes for companies and websites willing to pay for faster delivery of their content.

These issues have been at the heart of an intense debate over so-called net neutrality, the idea that all Internet traffic be treated equally. The outcome could have profound implications for consumers and telecommunications companies.

In November, President Barack Obama publicly urged the FCC to adopt the “strongest possible rules” to enforce net neutrality by regulating broadband providers more like public utilities. He argued that “the Internet has become an essential part of everyday communication and everyday life” and therefore requires strict regulation. Opponents of net neutrality have claimed that stricter regulation of ISPs could impair growth and innovation.

The Times does note that the proposal from Wheeler — a former cable and wireless industry lobbyist appointed as FCC chairman by Obama in 2013 — is likely to stop short of some of the strictest forms of regulation reserved for public utilities, including oversight of pricing.

Last year, Wheeler offered a proposal that would have avoided reclassifying ISPs while allowing cable companies and telecoms to negotiate contracts that would let content providers like Netflix pay for faster streaming speeds, as long as the deals are “commercially reasonable.” Wheeler’s initial proposal sparked intense criticism from opponents who said it would give a huge advantage to wealthy companies that could afford to pay for faster Internet service while leaving everyone else in the slow lane.

Wheeler’s latest proposal, which should have the support of Obama and other proponents of an open Internet, is expected to be submitted to FCC commissioners on Thursday. A vote would likely come later this month, the Times reported.

This article originally appeared on Fortune.com

TIME Regulation

FCC Spectrum Auction Raises Over $30 Billion in Battle for Airwaves

FCC’s first spectrum auction in six years raised three times more than expected

Companies have bid more than $30 billion to get a slice of the mid-range frequency spectrum auctioned off by the Federal Communications Commission last week.

The FCC offered what is called AWS-3 frequencies, which are a mid-range spectrum similar to those controlled by Dish Networks. Auction 97, as it’s called, kicked off Nov. 13. It’s one of the first to offer that type of frequency and one of the biggest sales of new frequencies since 2008.

Pre-sale estimates put the value of the airwaves at $10.1 billion, but interest from companies pushed the bidding well over that value. The final and winners won’t be revealed until the auction ends and the FCC awards certain frequencies.

Certain airwaves are more valuable than others. A New York City block of frequencies sold for a reported $1.19 billion.

The spectrum is a valuable commodity because it allows wireless companies to add more capacity for cellular data and other wireless services. New frequencies, which may only be bought through an FCC auction, have been in short supply until now and companies are battling to get a slice to be able to increase their services and speed.

Dish, America Movil, T-Mobile US and AT&T are all said to be participating in the bidding.

This article originally appeared on Fortune.com

TIME privacy

What Is Uber Really Doing With Your Data?

The Hamptons Lure Uber Top Drivers Amid NYC Slow Summer Weekends
Bloomberg—Bloomberg via Getty Images Th Uber Technologies Inc. car service application (app) is demonstrated for a photograph on an Apple Inc. iPhone in New York, U.S., on Wednesday, Aug. 6, 2014.

"I was tracking you"

Uber has had a rocky few days. On Monday, it was revealed that the ride-sharing app’s senior vice president, Emil Michael proposed the idea of investigating critical journalists’ personal lives in order to dig up dirt on them. On Tuesday, the company published a blog post clarifying its privacy policy. And Uber is investigating its top New York executive for tracking a reporter without her permission, TIME learned Wednesday.

What is Uber really up to, and what are its employees allowed to do?

What Uber does with your data

Uber has a company tool called “God View” that reveals the location of Uber vehicles and customers who request a car, two former Uber employees told Buzzfeed. Corporate employees have access to the tool, though drivers do not. But a wide number of Uber employees can apparently view customers’ locations. (Uber did not confirm or deny the tool’s existence to TIME, but it’s worth noting that “God View” is a widely used term in the gaming world.)

Still, several previous incidents appear to confirm the existence of Uber’s so-called God View.

Venture capitalist Peter Sims said in a September blog post that Uber had once projected his private location data on a screen at a well-attended Chicago launch party:

One night, a couple of years ago, I was in an Uber SUV in NYC, headed to Penn Station to catch the train to Washington DC when I got a text message from a tech socialite of sorts (I’ll spare her name because Gawker has already parodied her enough), but she’s someone I hardly know, asking me if I was in an Uber car at 33th and 5th (or, something like that). I replied that I was indeed, thinking that she must be in an adjacent car. Looking around, she continued to text with updates of my car’s whereabouts, so much so that I asked the driver if others could see my Uber location profile? “No,” he replied, “that’s not possible.”

At that point, it all just started to feel weird, until finally she revealed that she was in Chicago at the launch of Uber Chicago, and that the party featured a screen that showed where in NYC certain “known people” (whatever that means) were currently riding in Uber cabs. After learning this, I expressed my outrage to her that the company would use my information and identity to promote its services without my permission. She told me to calm down, and that it was all a “cool” event and as if I should be honored to have been one of the chosen.

And this month, a Buzzfeed reporter arrived for an interview at Uber’s New York headquarters only to find the company’s top manager in the city, Josh Mohrer, was waiting for her. According to Buzzfeed, Mohrer said, “There you are,” while gesturing at his iPhone. “I was tracking you.” Mohrer didn’t ask for permission to track Johana, Buzzfeed reports.

Of course, Uber also uses customer data for the humdrum daily task of connecting riders with drivers as well as resolving disputes and reaching out to customers.

What Uber says it can do with your data

Uber says it only uses your data for “legitimate business purposes” and that its team audits who has access to its data on an ongoing basis. “Our data privacy policy applies to all employees: access to and use of data is permitted only for legitimate business purposes,” a spokesperson told TIME. “Data security specialists monitor and audit that access on an ongoing basis. Violations of this policy do result in disciplinary action, including the possibility of termination and legal action.”

And in its privacy policy, Uber says that it can use your personal information or usage information—that includes your location, email, credit card, name or IP address—”for internal business purposes” as well as to facilitate its service for pickups and communicating with customers.

Uber clarified in a blog post Tuesday that “legitimate business purposes” include facilitating payments for drivers, monitoring for fraudulent activity and troubleshooting user bugs.

Another important point: Uber says it can hold on to your data even if you delete your account. The company claims it keeps your credit card information, geo-location and trip history “to comply with our legal and regulatory obligations” and “resolve disputes.” Users have to provide a written request in order to completely delete an Uber profile along with all their data.

MORE: A Historical Argument Against Uber: Taxi Regulations Are There for a Reason

So did Uber do anything wrong?

Strictly by its own standards, it appears that Uber may not have violated its own rules when Josh Mohrer tracked Buzzfeed’s reporter. There’s no indication Mohrer shared the information outside Uber—which would disqualify it from being “internal”—but it’s hard argue that he tracked the reporter for a “business purpose.” (Maybe it saved Mohrer time? Or he was showing off the feature? It’s hard to say.)

At the Uber Chicago launch party where Peter Sims’ location was reportedly tracked, the data was shared with people outside the company, as non-employees were at the event. That’s hard to justify by Uber’s rules. However, Uber’s privacy policy was updated in 2013, and the Chicago launch party occurred “a couple of years ago,” by Sims’ telling. So it’s unclear whether the move violated Uber’s privacy rules at that time.

Should you delete your Uber account?

If you’ve lost all trust in Uber and think that other ride-share apps like Lyft (or plain old taxis) are better, than yes, perhaps. But there isn’t any evidence that Uber is inappropriately using customer data on a widespread scale. And if you do delete your account, remember: unless you write in, Uber will still have your data.

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