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Sports betting at SCOTUS

A case you might want to watch.

Internet gambling in the United States has been limited to just three states since it began in 2013, but it could soon get a big boost from an unlikely source: the U.S. Supreme Court.

Some gambling industry officials, regulators and analysts think that a favorable ruling by the high court in New Jersey’s challenge to legalize sports betting could also lead to an expansion of internet gambling.

“If we win sports wagering, online gaming will go to every state that adopts sports betting,” said David Rebuck, director of the New Jersey Division of Gaming Enforcement, who predicts a favorable sports betting ruling could help internet gambling “explode” across the nation. “As soon as sports wagering is legalized, online gambling will follow right behind it.”

The Supreme Court will hear arguments in New Jersey’s case on Dec. 4; a ruling could be weeks or months away. The state is taking aim at a 1992 law that forbids state-authorized sports gambling in all but four states that met a 1991 deadline to legalize it: Delaware, Montana, Nevada and Oregon. Nevada is the only state to allow single-game wagering.

The sports leagues oppose the lawsuit, arguing that legalized sports betting could taint the public’s perception of the integrity of their games.


Experts think that the sports betting legislative push would likely help expand internet gambling. David Schwartz, who runs the Center for Gaming Research at the University of Las Vegas-Nevada, says that offering online casino games and sports betting would go hand-in-hand online.

“It makes a lot of sense to offer sports betting over the internet,” he said. “Once you have the systems for letting people bet on sports in place, it isn’t a huge step to permit them to bet on casino games or poker as well.”

The law in question is the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act (PASPA). Texas doesn’t have a direct stake in this, just the same potential to allow online sports gambling if it wanted to if the plaintiffs succeed, but it does have a position, in favor of overturning PASPA.

Texas joined an amicus brief siding with New Jersey in favor of overturning the federal law, arguing that sports betting should be up to the states and not the federal government.

Attorney General Ken Paxton signed on to the brief, not to legalize sports betting, but to keep the federal government out of state decisions.

“PASPA is unconstitutional and tramples on state sovereignty,” Paxton told the American Sports Betting Coalition. “By ending PASPA, states can rightfully decide whether they want regulated sports betting or not.”

That means Paxton is on the opposite side of the debate from the White House. The U.S. solicitor general’s office has sided with the sports leagues and will join them for the court’s oral arguments Dec. 4.

But Paxton hasn’t shown any signs of wanting sports betting to be legal in the Lone Star State. In fact, the attorney general has been at odds with daily fantasy sports sites for years.

In 2016, Paxton issued an opinion that deemed paid fantasy sports sites to be illegal gambling.

If SCOTUS sides with the state of New Jersey and throws out PASPA, it would not change the debate about expanded gambling in Texas, but it would raise the stakes as there would be more things we could expand it to include. I could imagine there being more pressure on the Lege to take it up, but that doesn’t mean it would be any more successful than previous efforts. Like I said, worth keeping an eye on.

Houston Press ceases print operations

End of an era.

Voice Media Group announced today that the Houston Press ceased print publication with its November 2 edition, capping a 28-year run as one of the nation’s leading alternative weekly newspapers and concluding a wild ride as an irascible and irreverent part of Houston’s cultural fabric.

Although the Press successfully steered its way through turbulent times in the newspaper business over the past decade thanks to a strong online presence, in the end its print operations proved no match for Hurricane Harvey. The devastation wrought by that record-setting storm, the worst disaster in the city’s history, was the primary factor behind VMG’s decision to take the Press to a daily, web-only format, said VMG group publisher Stuart Folb.

“The loss in print revenue we suffered as a result of Harvey and the time it might conceivably take for that print business to come back was the final straw,” said Folb. “Thankfully we’ll be able to continue covering Houston with a streamlined approach online.”

Folb noted that the Press is the first VMG publication to move strictly online. He added that veteran Press editor-in-chief Margaret Downing will stay on to oversee the online operation, working with many of the same freelance writers readers have followed over the years and publishing fresh daily content consistent with the Press’s longtime mission of covering Houston news, food, music and culture.

I haven’t picked up a print copy of the Press in awhile – for what it’s worth, there just aren’t that many places I frequent in the course of my week that carried the Press, and like most people, I consume most of my news online now – but I’m sad to see this happen. The aforementioned Margaret Downing offers her obituary to the print edition.

[Hurricane Harvey] was the topper. The massive flooding destruction it caused appeared to directly target restaurants and the arts community – some of our biggest advertisers – who faced with declining revenues of their own found they had other, more pressing expenses to consider.

Despite all the millions of people who read us each month, or all the journalism awards we’ve won, or the successful public events our marketing department has presented, the fact is, we haven’t been making enough money to sustain ourselves in print and our parent company Voice Media Group decided it could no longer afford to be our enabler.

A new streamlined Houston Press will emerge starting next week, still presenting the cutting edge journalism that readers aren’t likely to get elsewhere, still questioning the status quo while highlighting what we think is great about Houston. The difference will be that a sole editor will be working with freelancers to produce editorial copy, rather than having a staff on hand.


When we eventually moved to an online component there was a huge adjustment as well. Suddenly we were back in the game – some of the staff for the first time in their careers – of responding quickly, of answering the bell, collecting thoughts rapidly while still writing clearly and cleverly.

As it turned out in most cases the online demands helped everyone become better, sharper writers. Readers engaged with us in ways they hadn’t in the past. Posts online led to tips that took us to larger stories. Photographs looked better online than they could ever look on newsprint. Cover stories found new homes in one of our four posting areas – food, news, arts and music – and Best of Houston was there to see for all time, not just a once-a-year special event.

Did I want to see the end of the print edition, the dreaded either-or instead of publishing in both forms? Well, of course not. Who wants to be the editor whose printing press was shuttered? Where was Warren Buffett when I could really have used him to swoop in?

But it is what it is. Our parent company could have killed this publication completely. Instead it listened to our Publisher Stuart Folb and kept it alive in digital form, with the company’s successful new digital advertising agency helping to buoy the new model.

A lot of good people here will no longer have jobs at the Houston Press and that for me is the saddest and most painful part.

Nearly all of our employees were handed their termination papers today. In several cases, whole departments are gone. These are people who in most cases worked above and beyond because they really liked working here, liked the camaraderie, the clients, the interesting people they got to meet.

In the newsroom that means that reporters who were more than competent, who could negotiate the most complicated business documents or talk with sensitivity to people who were going through the worst days of their lives – journalists with passion and discernment whose work has changed lives for the better — are suddenly without a platform, or a paycheck.

We rely upon a sizable number of freelance photographers, graphic artists and videographers whose work is also highly valued. This change will also affect them in the number of assignment opportunities available.

I feel terrible for the employees who are being laid off – that just sucks. I hope they are given some help to find other work. Harvey aside, the Village Voice ceased print operations a few weeks back, and if a venerable alt-weekly like that can’t make it work these days, it’s hard to see how anyone else can. Someone please keep an eye on the Austin Chronicle, San Antonio Current, and Dallas Observer. I have several friends who write for the Press but as freelancers, so they are probably not affected. For what I do, the Press does a lot of good work, though their publication schedule for regular news stories is kind of unpredictable. I wish them all the best, and look forward to seeing what comes next.

Snopes’ world

These are busy times for fact checkers.

The last line of defense against the torrent of half-truths, untruths and outright fakery that make up so much of the modern internet is in a downscale strip mall near the beach.

Snopes, the fact-checking website, does not have an office designed to impress, or even be noticed. A big sign outside still bears the name of the previous tenant, a maker of underwater headphones. Inside there’s nothing much — a bunch of improvised desks, a table tennis table, cartons of Popchips and cases of Dr Pepper. It looks like a dot-com on the way to nowhere.

Appearances deceive. This is where the muddled masses come by the virtual millions to establish just what the heck is really going on in a world turned upside down.

Did Donald J. Trump say on Twitter that he planned to arrest the “Saturday Night Live” star Alec Baldwin for sedition? Has Hillary Clinton quietly filedfor divorce? Was Mr. Trump giving Kanye West a cabinet position? And was Alan Thicke, the star of “Growing Pains,” really dead?

All untrue, except for the demise of Mr. Thicke, which was easily verifiable.

“Rationality seems to have fallen out of vogue,” said Brooke Binkowski, Snopes’s managing editor. “People don’t know what to believe anymore. Everything is really strange right now.”

That is certainly true at Snopes itself. For 20 years, the site was dedicated to urban legends, like the purported existence of alligators in New York City sewers, and other benign misinformation. But its range and readership increased significantly during a prolonged presidential election campaign in which the facts became a partisan issue and reality itself seemed up for grabs.


But the role of fake news and misinformation in Mr. Trump’s surprise win quickly reached a fever pitch, prompting questions about the extent to which Facebook, where many of these bogus stories were shared, had influenced the election. Reluctantly, the social media giant was forced to act.

The plan is for Facebook to send questionable links to a coalition of fact-checking sites, including Snopes. If the links are found to be dubious, Facebook will alert users by marking stories with a “disputed” designation.

Mr. Mikkelson, speaking from Washington State, declined to claim this new initiative was a potential turning point in the quest for truth on the internet, or even in the history of Snopes.

“I said, ‘O.K., we’ll give it a try,’” he said. “It doesn’t really involve us doing anything we wouldn’t already be doing.” As for Facebook, he thinks it had to do something but had few good options. Blocking content outright, for instance, would be a public relations minefield.

You know, I’m so old I was once subscribed to the soc.urban-legends Usenet feed, from whence David and then-wife Barbara Mikkelson got their start in this business. I’m glad that Facebook has enlisted Snopes’ services to try and separate truth from lies, but I wouldn’t hold out much hope that it will make much difference. People are going to believe what they want to believe, and when those too-good-to-be-true stories align with their politics, good luck with that. But you still have to do something, so we can hope this will help even a little bit.

Texas versus the feds: A Series Of Tubes edition

Ken Paxton will never run out of reasons to sue the Obama administration.

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton is jumping into Ted Cruz’s fight to stop what the U.S. senator calls President Barack Obama’s illegal internet “giveaway.”

Paxton and three other attorneys general filed a lawsuit Wednesday night aiming to halt the Obama administration’s plan to cede oversight of the internet domain-name system to an international body. Critics claim the transition, which is set to go into effect within days, could open up the Internet to censorship by countries like China and Russia.

“Trusting authoritarian regimes to ensure the continued freedom of the internet is lunacy,” Paxton said in a statement. “The president does not have the authority to simply give away America’s pioneering role in ensuring that the internet remains a place where free expression can flourish.”

The lawsuit argues that the transfer, among other things, violates the property clause of the U.S. Constitution by letting go of government property without Congress’ approval. It also says the plan will have a negative impact on Americans’ free-speech rights under the First Amendment.

Yeah, this is as dumb as it sounds. Let Ars Technica, which compares the hysteria over this to the Y2K scare, explain:

Overall opposition to the transition appears to be largely political. Many GOP lawmakers (and the Trump campaign) are seemingly arguing that without US oversight, foreign governments or hacking groups from the Internet’s dark corners might take over, control the Internet, and censor it dramatically. What’s more, these critics suggest that without US oversight, the Internet’s infrastructure might crumble entirely. The World Wide Web would be left in a state of anarchy.

That simply isn’t true. Ask other US officials, tech companies, or even Internet architects who helped build the current system, and they’ll say the US government’s oversight role of the Internet is too small for such doomsday scenarios to occur. In fact, these proponents of the transition even say that leaving the root zone under US control could cause more harm than good in the long run.

Regardless of who’s right or wrong in the ICANN changeover debate, one thing nobody can deny is that the United States will continue exercising a powerful hold over a great swath of the Internet—even under the transition. That’s because the companies that oversee the world’s most popular top-level domains (.com, .org, and .net) are based in the United States. These organizations must follow US law and abide by US court orders, and they have to remove websites from the global Internet when ordered to do so.

To date, these court orders are how the US government has seized thousands of websites it has declared to be breaking laws about intellectual property, drugs, gambling, and you name it. Kim Dotcom’s Megaupload file-sharing site fell because of this in 2012. The Bodog online sports wagering site was shuttered by the US that same year even though that .com domain was purchased with a Canadian register.

What’s more, even when a domain is registered under a handle that is outside of the United States’ official jurisdiction, the US government has international cooperation agreements with many countries that require foreign registries to abide by US directives. The most high-profile case of this kind was this summer’s shuttering of one of the world’s most notorious file-sharing sites—, or the KickassTorrents website. While the site had been playing a game of Internet domain Whac-a-mole to retain a leg up on global intellectual property authorities, it was registered with the .cr domain by the Costa Rican register called NIC when it was shuttered at the request of the US. The site’s alleged operator was arrested in July in Poland and charged by US authorities with varying criminal copyright infringement counts.

The US often leaves a landing page on shuttered sites notifying Web surfers that sites were “seized pursuant to an order issued by a US District Court.” Whether you call it censorship or just following the law, countries across the globe have similar domain-seizing powers that won’t be disturbed by the ICANN changeover.

The fact that .com, .net, and .org sites are run by US-based companies isn’t trivial, either. Verisign, of Virginia, maintains the global DNS Internet root zone system at the center of the ICANN transition debate, and the company has an indefinite contractual right from ICANN to manage the globe’s .com and .net domains. About 127 million of the world’s 334 million top-level domain name registrations worldwide are .com, according to Verisign. The .net domain comes in fifth place worldwide, and .org is sixth place. The .org domain is operated by the Public Interest Registry, also of Virginia.

There’s a lot more, so go read it all. This lawsuit is basically a confluence of stupidity, xenophobia, and Obama derangement. It deserves a quick and unceremonious death, and thankfully, it received one.

U.S. District Judge George C. Hanks Jr. turned down the request by Paxton and attorneys general from Arizona, Oklahoma and Nevada, saying they had relied on “hearsay” about possible repercussions of the contract’s expiration. The case, he ruled, lacked enough evidence to convince the court that harm would come from giving up oversight of the nonprofit.


During the hearing, Hanks said he was concerned whether his court has jurisdiction over the matter, and whether there was enough evidence of negative consequences that would result from the ending contract.

Attorneys representing Texas argued there is no getting control and oversight on the internet address book once the contract ends.

Lawyers representing the federal government contend the plaintiffs have “not one scintilla of evidence” something adverse would happen to the governments’ websites.

Thank goodness for sanity. The fact that you are able to read this post, or anything else on the Internet today, is proof that Paxton and Cruz were full of it. The Press and Politico have more.

Online voter registration bill appears to be dead


Still the only voter ID anyone should need

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

A group of Harris County officials have succeeded in scuttling a bipartisan bill that would have made Texas the 27th state to let citizens register to vote online.

The proposal was co-sponsored by a majority of the House, but stalled in the chamber’s Elections Committee after the Harris County Clerk and the Harris County Tax Assessor-Collector’s offices rallied opposition, arguing it would make Texas more vulnerable to voter fraud, even with the state’s controversial voter ID law.

Rep. Celia Israel, who sponsored the measure as a way to boost voter turnout and save the state millions of dollars, pronounced it dead Friday afternoon.

“Texas wants this. The majority of the people on this floor want this,” said Israel, D-Austin, gesturing to her colleagues. “But I can’t get it out of committee because of some partisan election officers from Harris County.”


Harris County Tax Assessor-Collector Mike Sullivan, a Republican whose job includes being the county voter registrar, denied that politics played any role in his position. He also denied that officials had organized a unified effort to derail the bill.

“Our state is not ready,” Sullivan said, arguing he had seen glitches from time to time in voter data that made him believe his office was not prepared to integrate information from the Texas Secretary of State and the Department of Public Safety into an electronic system.

Even a small risk of making it easier for fraudsters to falsely register to vote or steal information, or of software being compromised, is not worth the convenience for the few people that would sign up online, he said.

“I have a sworn duty to maintain the integrity of the voter roll,” Sullivan said. “I’ve sworn to do it. I campaigned to do it.”

National groups that have monitored the implementation of online voter registration in other states have dismissed the concerns as unfounded.

“No state with online voter registration has reported fraudulent activity or security breaches occurring through their systems,” according to a report by the Pew Charitable Trusts, a nonprofit based in Washington, D.C.

Online systems actually reduce fraud, according to the report, by virtually eliminating errors due to poor handwriting and other flaws of paper systems.

See here and here for the background. I don’t get this at all, and based on the reporting I’ve seen the objections seem a lot like foot-dragging to me. But perhaps there is a way to shed some light on this.

Sullivan, who said he opposed a similar measure last session, could see himself supporting online voter registration if his questions about voter data are addressed.

“I consider myself open to new technology, I consider myself open to new ways of doing business,” he said Saturday. “It would be a mischaracterization to say that I am forever opposed to online voter registration.”

I would have expected Mike Sullivan to be open to new technology, so I was disappointed to see that he opposed this bill. I wanted to understand why he took this position, so I emailed him to ask about it. He respectfully declined to comment, however, so for now at least we are left with speculation. Whatever the basis for this is, I hope we can get past it next time.

Trying again with online voter registration

My State Rep., Carol Alvarado, would like for you to be able to register to vote online.

Rep. Carol Alvarado

Rep. Carol Alvarado

Can I just state the obvious? Why can’t we register to vote online?

I manage my banking online, I do my taxes online, I can even buy and sell stock online; so why can’t I register to vote online? A 2014 survey of registered voters in Texas by the Pew Charitable Trust indicated that 34 percent mistakenly believed that online voter registration was already available. Georgia, Indiana, Arizona and Louisiana are just a few examples of the 20 states that have enacted legislation to modernize the way they register voters by offering an online application to register to vote.

In the social media era, it is hard to wrap my mind around why the movement to modernize the electoral process in Texas is moving at a snail’s pace. Which is why I have filed HB 953 this session to bring Texas into the modern era by allowing voters to register online.

Currently, to register to vote, one could find the time in their day to visit certain designated government offices to fill out a paper application. One could also download an application from the website of the Secretary of State, fill it out, print it out, and send your application through the mail. This feature is a step in the right direction but it requires readily available printing and postage. In such a digital world the current process is not only outdated, but inconvenient for the voters of today.

It’s not difficult to see why we had such a dismal 24.99 percent turnout of Texas’ voting age population in the latest mid-term election.


Arizona was one of the first states to transition to online voter registration. Officials in their largest county have reported the cost of a single registration dropped from 83 cents per card to 3 cents per card.

Allow me to put these figures into a Texas perspective. According to the Texas Secretary of State, at the time of the 2014 General Election, just over 14 million Texans were registered to vote. Using the Arizona estimate of 83 cents per card and assuming each registrant used the paper method, that would amount to a total cost of $11,641,116. Using the .03 estimate, that figure would plummet to $420,763.

I may not be a certified accountant, but if I could save the taxpayers over $11 million, I would make every effort to do so and be happy to take the credit.

Here’s HB953, which you will note includes Republican Rep. Patricia Harless as a coauthor. There were two bills that attempted to do the same thing in 2013. The good news is that SB315 from 2013, for which Rep. Alvarado was a sponsor in the House, passed the Senate and made it out of the House Elections Committee, but ran out of time before it could get a vote in the lower chamber. The bad news is that four Senators who voted for it (the bill passed by a 21-10 margin) are no longer there, and two of them (Sens. John Carona and Wendy Davis) were succeeded by people who (to me at least) seem less likely to vote for something like this. I could be wrong, so don’t give up hope. Honestly, I’m not even sure what the argument against doing voter registration online is. You have to think that one of these days we’re going to be voting online, perhaps via our own handheld devices or whatever comes next to replace them. It would be strange if at that time we’re still chained to paper and snail mail or fax machines for registration purposes, wouldn’t it?

Lawsuit filed against Comcast over residential WiFi hotspots

This ought to be interesting.

Two San Francisco-area residents are suing Comcast for plugging their home’s wireless router into what they call a power-wasting, Internet-clogging, privacy threatening network of public WiFi hot spots.

The class-action lawsuit, filed last week in U.S. District Court on behalf of Toyer Grear and her daughter Joycelyn Harris, claims Comcast is “exploiting them for profit” by using their home’s router as part of a nationwide network of public hot spots.

Comcast turned on the Xfinity WiFi hot spots for its Houston residential customers in June, and at the time a spokesman said 150,000 hot spots would eventually be enabled in the Houston area.


Although Comcast has said subscribers have the right to disable the secondary signal, the lawsuit claims the company turns the service on without permission and placed “the costs of its national WiFi network onto its customers.”

“Comcast’s contract with its customers is so vague that it is unclear as to whether Comcast even addresses this practice at all, much less adequately enough to be said to have obtained its customers’ authorization of this practice,” the lawsuit claims.

The lawsuit quotes a test conducted by Philadelphia networking technology company Speedify that concluded the secondary Internet channel will eventually push “tens of millions of dollars per month of the electricity bills needed to run their nationwide public WiFi network onto consumers.”

Tests showed that under heavy use, the secondary channel adds 30 percent to 40 percent more costs to a customer’s electricity bill, the lawsuit said.

The lawsuit also said “the data and information on a Comcast customer’s network is at greater risk” because the hot spot network “allows strangers to connect to the Internet through the same wireless router used by Comcast customers.”

The Chron’s Dwight Silverman was all over this when Comcast enabled this in Houston. Like Dwight, who blogged about the lawsuit here, I find the claim about a 30 to 40 percent increase in one’s electric bill to be dubious. That Xfinity router would have to be one hell of a power drain for that to be remotely true. The concern about a possible security breach is valid, though honestly anyone with an old home router, or one that uses default admin information, is at a greater risk. At least those Xfinity modem/routers have a complex password on them. As for the rest of it, we’ll see. I used the Xfinity router for awhile, mostly because when I plugged it in I didn’t realize it would make my existing router useless. (*) After a couple of weeks, I followed Dwight’s advice, bought an Arris Motorola Surfboard SB6141 modem, and had no trouble installing it or getting Comcast to activate it, and I’m back where I was before. Whatever does happen here won’t affect me, but I’ll be interested to see how it plays out, and to see if someone takes similar action here. What do you think?

(*) Once I installed the Comcast Xfinity modem/router, I had to switch nearly all my previously connected devices to it, as they wouldn’t connect to the Internet otherwise. The one exception was my TiVo, whose wireless network card continued to use the IP address it had gotten from my existing router with no problems. My theory was that its IP address was outside the range the Comcast router had allocated. It also continued to work with no intervention after I switched back. Who knows why for sure, but as that was the clunkiest interface to make updates to, I wasn’t complaining.

Comcast wants to use your routers

For a massive WiFi network.

Comcast is expected to flip a switch Tuesday in Houston that will turn 50,000 of its customers’ home Wi-Fi routers into a massive network of public Wi-Fi hotspots.

Comcast residential Internet subscribers with one of the newer cable modem/wireless router combos will show a public network called “xfinitywifi.” Other Comcast customers will be able to connect to it free.

By the end of June, there will be 150,000 such hotspots in the greater Houston area. It’s part of an initiative that will see 8 million Wi-Fi hotspots accessible to Comcast customers around the country by the end of the year.

The move could also lay the foundation for Comcast to get into the wireless phone business with a network that blends Wi-Fi and traditional cellular service.

Amalia O’Sullivan, Comcast’s vice president of Xfinity Internet Product, told the Houston Chronicle that the goal is to make it easier for “friends and family” to use each other’s Comcast home Wi-Fi networks.

“Instead of coming over to your house and saying, ‘Hey, what’s your Wi-Fi password?’ your friends can just connect to the Xfinity Wi-Fi hotspot,” O’Sullivan said.

The free network will be on by default for customers who have an Arris Touchstone Telephony Wireless Gateway Modem, which Comcast has been distributing for about two years in Houston. The black plastic device is tall, narrow and has the word Xfinity on the front. It costs $8 a month to rent, and is the standard equipment being issued to Comcast customers who don’t buy their own modems or routers.

Comcast spokesman Michael Bybee said the Xfiniti Wi-Fi hotspot will broadcast only in those cases where customers are using the Wi-Fi feature of the Arris device. Customers who have their own Wi-Fi routers won’t be broadcasting the hotspot.

Bybee said the network will be activated in “waves,” with the first 50,000 switched on Tuesday afternoon. The remaining 100,000 will be phased in through the month.

Customers were notified of the plan in a letter last month, Bybee said. An email notification will be sent after the service begins.

Remember the discussion about municipal WiFi a few years ago? That never happened, but this appears to be a successor to it. There are some details to be worked out, so we’ll see how it all goes. Dwight Silverman has been all over this, with technical details including how you can turn this off if you want to. One thing he clarified for me is that if you bought your own router, as I did, you’re not affected by this.

Extremetech considers some of the implications of this.

Will Comcast Xfinity WiFi slow down your connection to the internet?

The more curious bit is Comcast’s assertion that this public hotspot won’t slow down your residential connection — i.e. if you’re paying for 150Mbps of download bandwidth through the Extreme 150 package, you will still get 150Mbps, even if you have five people creepily parked up outside leeching free WiFi. This leads to an interesting question: If Xfinity hotspot users aren’t using your 150Mbps of bandwidth, whose bandwidth are they using?

There are two options here. Comcast might just be lying about public users not impacting your own download speeds. The other option is that Xfinity WiFi Home Hotspot uses its own separate channel to the internet. This is entirely possible — DOCSIS 3.0 can accommodate around 1Gbps, so there’s plenty of free space. But how big is this separate channel? 50Mbps? 100Mbps? And if there’s lots of spare capacity, why is Comcast giving it to free WiFi users rather than the person who’s paying a lot of money for the connection? And isn’t Comcast usually complaining about its network being congested? At least, that’s the excuse it used to squeeze money from Netflix, and to lobby for paid internet fast lanes.

With 50,000 hotspots enabled in Houston today, 150,000 more planned for the end of the month, and then 8 million more across Xfinity hotspots across the US before the end of 2014, we can only assume that Comcast has a lot of extra capacity. Either that, or it’s intentionally trying to clog up the network for its paying customers — perhaps so it can levy further charges from edge providers like Netflix, or so it has some ammo in the continuing battle for net neutrality.

I figure sooner or later there’s going to be some kind of vulnerability that may expose data on the accompanying home networks. I’m just cynical that way. Are you a Comcast user that has been or will be affected by this? What do you think about it?

Yik Yak

News flash: A new app that enables the posting of anonymous unfiltered thoughts can cause headaches for school administrators. Film at 11.

Not that Yik Yak

A recent bomb threat alerted many Memorial High School parents and administrators to something that many Houston-area students already knew about: Yik Yak, a smartphone app that functions as a kind of cyber-bathroom wall, allowing users to post anything at all anonymously.

The posts – “yaks” – are visible to other users within 1.5-mile radius. On Friday morning, a sampling of yaks from the Houston area included a parent-appalling mix of bullying, racism, sexism, profanity and drug references – not to mention blatant disregard for grammar and capitalization. Some were funny. Some were plain mean.

Late Wednesday night, a yakker threatened to bomb Memorial High School. A student reported the post to Memorial’s swim coach, who alerted the principal, who called in the Spring Branch ISD’s police department.

“We went straight into protocol,” said Jennifer Blaine, the district’s associate superintendent for administration and operations. The police department, including its drug and bomb dogs, swept the building twice, determining it to be safe at 4 a.m. School opened Thursday, with nothing unusual on the campus but a heavy presence of police and dogs.

Yik Yak threats of violence have spread as quickly as the app: High schools in Massachusetts and California have investigated threats, and just Tuesday morning, the University of Alabama investigated a yak that claimed someone was coming to “shoot up campus.”

Such threats appall the app’s creators, says Tyler Droll, one of the company’s young co-founders. He and Brooks Buffington, another 2013 graduate of Furman University in South Carolina, designed Yik Yak as a way for college students to reach each other in large numbers – “to say things like, ‘Free donuts at the library.'”

Yik Yak is also being blamed for the defeat of a ballot initiative at SMU to create an LGBT Senate seat. As someone who is old enough to have participated in Usenet discussion groups, color me unsurprised by any of this. Enabling people to say what’s on their mind has a lot of value, but it also means enabling those who don’t have anything worthwhile to say. The sooner you learn how to deal with it, the better. The HuffPo has more.

Annise Parker is in your Internets

She’s in mine, anyway. I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but an awful lot of the websites I surf to now feature a familiar face looking back at me:


Here’s another:


Clearly, she’s seeking to dominate the liberal nerd humor vote. Of course, there are Facebook ads:


Facebook is the one place I’ve seen other ads. Ben Hall has placed a few, mostly touting his Facebook page. I know some other candidates have spent money on Facebook ads, but as yet I’ve not seen them.

You know how at the bottom of articles on some websites there’s a listing of “related” stories that you might want to read, that are mostly sponsored links? She’s there, too.


And not just in the Chronicle:


Even out in LaLa Land:


Too bad they can’t control the stories they get associated with. Some of them might be hard to compete with for clicks.

Anyway. Web advertising is hardly new, though this particular tactic is one I don’t recall seeing before. They’ve clearly done a good job of targeting, since it’s hardly a coincidence all these things appeared for my benefit. I don’t know how expensive this is – clearly, Team Parker dropped a decent amount of cash on it – but it seems likely to me that doing this on a perhaps more modest scale would be viable for many campaigns. Of course, I’m assuming people take notice of these things, never mind click on them. Have you been noticing these ads? What do you think about them?

The buried lede on sexism in the Legislature

PDiddie thinks that the real shocker in that Observer story on sexism in the Texas Legislature wasn’t given the prominence it deserved.

Even the most powerful women in the Legislature experience it. When I started interviewing women lawmakers, they all—Republican and Democrat, House and Senate, rural and urban—said that being a woman in the statehouse is more difficult than being a man. Some told of senators ogling women on the Senate floor or watching porn on iPads and on state-owned computers, of legislators hitting on female staffers or using them to help them meet women, and of hundreds of little comments in public and private that women had to brush off to go about their day. Some said they often felt marginalized and not listened to—that the sexism in the Legislature made their jobs harder and, at times, produced public policy hostile to women.


Emphasis added by PDiddie. My takes on the story were here and here, though I didn’t mention this aspect. PDiddie correctly notes that getting caught surfing porn at work is very high on the list of things that tends to get one fired. That’s especially the case for government employees using government computers to do said surfing. Now, Senators aren’t government employees and they can’t be fired except by the voters, but I’m pretty sure that being caught visiting or whatever while supposedly conducting the people’s business would not be helpful for one’s re-election prospects.

Of course, we don’t know exactly what happened here. The information is presented in passing as an unsourced allegation, which could be exaggerated, mischaracterized, misremembered, or otherwise not quite what it looked or sounded like. The person in the best position to find out the specifics is story author Olivia Messer – and let’s face it, if there really was one or more Senators or their staffers actually surfing porn on the floor of the Senate, it’s news – but even if this turns out to not be what it was cracked up to be, there are some questions to be answered. Do legislators and their staff use a different network than reporters and other visitors? It must be the case that some form of proxy servers are used, so the next question is what sort of filtering is used, and how long are server logs kept? If someone had credible evidence that Legislator X visited Website Y on thus and such a date, what exactly would one need to do to get one’s hands on the details? I certainly don’t have a problem with people surfing to naughty websites – we’re all grownups here – but do it on your own time, and your own computer or tablet or smartphone. This is not anything that people living in the current century should be confused by. If that turns out to be too much to ask of one or more of our august lawmakers, we ought to know about it.sexism

Amazon fulfills its end of the deal with Texas

Good to see.

Nine months after it struck a deal with the state to bring thousands of jobs and invest millions of dollars in Texas, online retail giant on Wednesday unveiled the first steps toward keeping its end of the bargain.

Amazon said Wednesday it will build three fulfillment centers in Texas, creating about 1,000 jobs. The new facilities will include a 1.2 million square-foot site in Schertz, east of San Antonio; and two sites in the Dallas-Fort Worth area — a 1 million-square-foot center in Coppell and a 1.1 million-square-foot facility in Haslet.

The fulfillment centers in Schertz and Coppell will handle the shipment of “larger items—anything from televisions to bbqs, for example,” Amazon said. The Haslet center will ship smaller items like books, small electronics or DVDs, the company said.

“We look forward to putting more than 1,000 Texans to work at our new fulfillment centers in Schertz, Coppell and Haslet,” Mike Roth, Amazon’s vice president of North American fulfillment, said in a news release. “We appreciate the state and local elected officials who have helped us make this exciting investment in the state of Texas.”

In April of last year, Amazon struck a deal with Texas Comptroller Susan Combs, calling for the online retailer to bring 2,500 jobs and $200 million in capital investment to the state, and to start collecting tax on sales made to people in Texas. Amazon began collecting the sales tax on July 1.

See here, here, and here for the background. Amazon had announced the Schertz location in November. Barring anything unusual this ought to be the end of the story in Texas, but it remains the case that Amazon and other online retailers should be paying sales taxes on Internet transactions regardless of what deals have been worked out in what states. It also remains the case that the current Congress is never going to fix that, so this is the workaround for now.

When will we have truly electronic voting?

When will there be an app to cast a vote in a US election?

So at a time when we can see video shot by a robot on Mars, when there are cars that can drive themselves, and when we can deposit checks on our smartphones without going to a bank, why do most people still have to go to a polling place to vote?

That’s because, security experts say, letting people vote through their phones or computers could have disastrous consequences.

“I think it’s a terrible idea,” said Barbara Simons, a former I.B.M. researcher and co-author of the book “Broken Ballots: Will Your Vote Count?”

Ms. Simons then ran through a list of calamitous events that could occur if we voted by Internet. Viruses could be used to take over voters’ phones; rogue countries like Iran could commandeer computers and change results without our knowledge; government insiders could write software that decides who wins; denial-of-service attacks could take down the Internet on Election Day.

“It’s a national security issue,” Ms. Simons said. “We really don’t want our enemies to be able to determine our government for us — or even our friends for that matter.”


Ronald L. Rivest, a computer scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said that for now, the best technology out there is the one we’ve been using.

“Winston Churchill had a famous saying that democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried before,” Mr. Rivest said. “You can apply the same statement to paper ballots, which are the worst form of voting, but better than all the others that have been tried before.”

Mr. Rivest, who is the R in the name of the RSA encryption system, which is used by government institutions and banks, said that if things went wrong on Election Day, chaos could ensue, because doubts about the results would rattle the foundations of our democracy.

“One of the main goals of the election is to produce credible evidence to the loser that he’s really lost,” he said. “When you have complicated technology, you really do have to worry about election fraud.”

So what’s the solution? Ms. Simons and Mr. Rivest both seemed certain that the best alternative was to stick with a technology that’s a couple of thousand years old. “Paper,” they both said, as if reading from the same script. “Paper ballots.”

Voting by mail, which some cite as an option, lets people avoid the lines, but it is not so easy on the vote counters. In states where this is allowed, envelopes have to be opened and ballots sorted into precincts. Then the signature needs to be matched with that on the voter registration card. None of this is terribly efficient.

So in 10, 20 or 100 years, when our cars have been replaced with self-flying spaceships, robots take our children to school, and our smartphones are chips in our heads, will we still be using a pen and paper to choose our president? I sure hope not.

I presume the people who object to early voting are sputtering incoherently about now. There’s a fundamental tradeoff in the computing world between convenience and security. That which is more convenient is inherently less secure, and vice versa. I would not be so arrogant as to contradict Simons or Rivest on the concerns about conducting an election over the Internet or via smartphone. But I have a real hard time believing that forty years from now when my daughters are my age that they’ll be voting by the same means I do today. What do you think?

Alan Rosen: A Call To Protect Our Children

The following is from a series of guest posts that I will be presenting over the next few weeks.

Alan Rosen

Every day, the internet opens up new doors for communication, commerce, and the betterment of all our lives. But, with great advances in technology come huge risks and the responsibility rests with each of us to protect our greatest treasure: Our children.

Right here in Houston, a family told Channel 11 that their 12-year-old daughter had been lured into the sex trade by someone chatting with her on Facebook. KHOU reported the girl was taken to an undisclosed location and forced into prostitution. The girl was missing for 48 hours, which must have felt like an eternity to her parents. The family said they were able to finally track her down thanks to GPS on the girl’s cell phone. Technology was what led her astray, but technology is also what brought her back.

These stories make my heart sink – not only as a law enforcement officer, but as a father. I don’t mind telling you it keeps me up at night thinking that something might happen to one of my children. But, worrying isn’t what solves problems. We must all be more proactive and find the best ways to make the lives of our children safer and richer. We shouldn’t close them off from the learning opportunities presented online, but we can’t turn a blind eye to the dangers.

Here at home, I established the first Child Predator Apprehension Team at the Harris County Sheriff’s Office. Positive change can happen and it’s simply a matter of actually doing the work. We’ve done the work and it continues to this day. We increased warrant apprehension rates 161 percent and capture rates for the Child Predator Apprehension Team is 84 percent. Those are people who would otherwise be on the streets of Harris County preying on our children.

The next thing we need to do is create an Internet Predator Task Force. We have to take a stand and I propose we do it through the best use of technology. We can keep an eye on these child-targeted sites and let the bad guys know we’re watching them here in Harris County.

Local and state leaders are figuring out that a proactive approach is the best way to get real results. For example, our neighbors to the east in Louisiana are about to start requiring every registered sex offender to include their criminal status in their social media profiles. It may seem like a small step, but it’s a shield in the fight to keep our kids safe. It is up to us to work proactively with families, legislators and community leaders to stay ahead of those who would harm our most precious asset—our children.

Alan Rosen is a Candidate for Harris County Constable-PCT 1 in the July 31st Democratic Party Run-Off Election. His website is

Will SOPA sink Smith?

Probably not, but I sure don’t mind seeing his opponents use it against him.

Republican long-shot candidates are citing high-tech discontent over Rep. Lamar Smith’s proposed government regulation of the Internet in an attempt to knock off the 13-term incumbent in the primary election.

Even two Democrats, seeking to win their party’s nomination, have cited the proposed regulatory bill in their hopes to defeat Smith in the general election this fall.

But Smith, 64, has a campaign war chest of $1.3 million and has represented the Hill Country congressional district that includes North San Antonio since 1987. He will be hard to unseat in the 21st Congressional District on May 29, political experts say.

Smith was author of the Stop Online Piracy Act, which was designed to protect U.S. film, recording and intellectual property rights but opposed by Internet providers as censorship.

The bipartisan legislation was pulled after it was attacked by Google and other social media giants.

“Lamar Smith is completely out of touch with Texans. He will hurt Texas business,” said Richard Mack, 59, of Fredericksburg.

Richard Morgan, 24, a former software engineer in Austin, cited Smith’s SOPA bill as a reason he is running in the Republican primary, as well Smith’s long tenure in office.

“He’s been in Congress longer than I’ve been alive,” Morgan said.


In the Democratic primary, two candidates are vying for the nomination: Daniel Boone, a retired Air Force psychologist, and business consultant Candace Duvál.

Boone, 76, of Canyon Lake, a descendent of the Kentucky pioneer, ran unsuccessfully for the State Board of Education and was defeated in the 2008 Democratic primary for Texas House District 73.

He filed last year as a candidate for the U.S. Senate seat being vacated by Kay Bailey Hutchison, a Republican, but switched to the congressional race because he didn’t have the money to run a statewide campaign.

Both Boone and Duvál have raised less than $5,000 each, according to FEC records.

Both cite Smith’s SOPA bill and their opposition to it in their campaign literature.

None of these people are likely to be sworn into office next January, but this is the sort of issue that could at least be a little annoying for Lamar Smith to have to deal with. It may cost him a few votes, though it would have to be a lot more than that to make a difference in CD21. At least he’s being called out for his authorship of a lousy bill. It’s a start.

Amazon settles up with Texas

Good. will start collecting sales taxes from Texas customers this summer and agreed to make capital investments of $200 million and create 2,500 jobs in the state over the next four years, Comptroller Susan Combs announced this morning. In return, the state will drop its efforts to collect back sales taxes from the company.

The online retailing giant hasn’t been collecting sales taxes from customers in Texas (and in many other states), citing a provision in the law that exempts companies without a physical presence in the state from taking part. The comptroller filed a $269 million tax lien against the company, pointing to a warehouse operation in Irving and saying it should have been collecting and remitting taxes from December 2005 to December 2009.

That’s been in dispute for more than a year.

And just like that it no longer is. Seems like a fair settlement, as long as Amazon holds true to its hiring promise. I agree with Comptroller Combs and Amazon that this issue needs to be dealt with by Congress, and have been saying so all along. We’ll need a better Congress first, of course, but be that as it may, this is theirs to fix. For now, kudos to both parties for getting this done. A statement from Combs’ office can be found here.

Our long Amazonian nightmare may finally be over

Negotiations are in progress to get Amazon to pay something like its fair share. is negotiating with the state to start paying Texas sales taxes on online sales and to create some jobs in the state, reviving talks that fell apart at the end of last year’s legislative session, sources involved in the conversations said today.

A deal would apparently end the state’s attempts to force the company to collect sales taxes. Comptroller Susan Combs accused the company of ducking $269 million in sales taxes it should have paid from December 2005 to December 2009. The company threatened to close a warehouse operation in Irving that it said employed about 120 people.

The comptroller’s office had no immediate comment about the talks.

“There are meetings going on, but I can’t tell you much else about it,” said state Rep. John Otto, R-Dayton. He’s been involved in the online sales tax issue at the legislative level, but said he isn’t directly involved in current negotiations.

This week, the company reached agreement in a similar dispute in Nevada and is reportedly negotiating sales tax agreements with other states. No hard estimates are available on what such an agreement would bring into the Texas treasury. In its lawsuit, the state put the annual number at about $70 million. In Nevada, where the sales tax ranges up to 8.1 percent, officials expect the Amazon deal to bring $16 million annually into state coffers.


“As long as they’ll start collecting sales taxes this fiscal year or within the next four or five months, that’s really what’s important,” Otto said. “We’ve got to level this playing field.”

I presume this would also settle the ongoing litigation between Amazon and the state. This has been a long time coming, and I don’t really have anything to add other than I agree with what Rep. Otto says. See here for prior blogging on the subject.

A step forward for online gambling


The Justice Department has reversed its long-held opposition to many forms of Internet gambling, removing a big legal obstacle for states that want to sanction online gambling to help fix their budget deficits.

The legal opinion, issued by the department’s office of legal counsel in September but made public on Friday, came in response to requests by New York and Illinois to clarify whether the Wire Act of 1961, which prohibits wagering over telecommunications systems that cross state or national borders, prevented those states from using the Internet to sell lottery tickets to adults within their own borders.

Although the opinion dealt specifically with lottery tickets, it opened the door for states to allow Internet poker and other forms of online betting that do not involve sports. Many states are interested in online gambling as a way to raise tax revenue.

New York has offered an online subscription service since 2005 that allows state residents to enter a string of Lotto or Mega Millions drawings.

See here for some background. I don’t really expect anything to come of this here in Texas, but I won’t be too surprised if it’s part of the legislative conversation in 2013. If nothing else, I have to figure the Texas Lottery Commission would like to add online subscriptions to its bag of tricks. Worther keeping an eye on, in any event.

From the “More things you need to be slightly paranoid about” department

Nothing like a new domain suffix to remind you of the potential for creative malfeasance.

The University of Kansas is buying up website names such as and But not because it’s planning a Hot Babes of Kansas site or an X-rated gallery of the Nude Girls of the Land of Aaahs.

Instead, the university and countless other schools and businesses are rushing to prevent their good names from falling into the hands of the pornography industry. Over the past two months, they have snapped up tens of thousands of “.xxx” website names that could be exploited by the adult entertainment business.

“Down the road there’s no way we can predict what some unscrupulous entrepreneur might come up with,” said Paul Vander Tuig, trademark licensing director at the Lawrence, Kan., school.

The university spent nearly $3,000 in all. It plans to sit on the .xxx names and do nothing with them.

The brand-new .xxx suffix is an adults-only variation on .com. The .xxx name went on sale to the public for the first time this week, promoted as a way to enable porn sites to distinguish themselves and a means of making it easier for Internet filters to screen out things parents don’t want their children to see.

The Bryan-College Station Eagle notes that UT and A&M have also been taking this precaution. I guarantee you, it’s just a matter of time before this becomes an unwanted news story for a politician. Hijacking a rival’s domain name is a sport of longstanding, and even today campaigns that should have had more on the ball get caught flatfooted – go click on for an example of what I mean. It won’t just be politicians who get snared by this, but when one does it will result in some embarrassing news cycles. If you’re a domain owner, now is a good time to see if your “.xxx” counterpart is still available or if it’s already too late.

You may now be wondering if I have done this for myself. I have checked and verified that as of this moment, is unclaimed. Turns out that the cost of this particular insurance policy – the protection money, if you will – is $100 a year. That’s a tad bit more than I want to spend, so I’m taking my chances until the registry fee becomes a bit less extortionate. I think I can afford that risk as a non-candidate, but those of you who aren’t ought to look into it.

The check will be in the mail a little longer

The hard times keep coming for the Postal Service.

The U.S. Postal Service said a plan to save $2.1 billion a year and fend off possible bankruptcy would effectively put an end to almost all overnight delivery of first-class letters and postcards. Delivery would take at least two to three business days.

The postal service’s decision to relax delivery standards for first-class mail follows its determination in September to close 252 mail processing plants, about half its total. Altogether, about 28,000 employees would lose their jobs.

David Williams, a postal service vice president, said Monday that the agency has little choice but to take drastic steps to reduce operating costs by $20 billion by 2015 in a bid to become profitable. It doesn’t receive taxpayer funding, though it is subject to federal regulations and oversight.

The proposed changes to service standards would allow for “significant consolidation” of facilities, processing equipment, vehicles and the workforce, he said.

The USPS has two big problems: The Internet, and a law requiring them to pre-fund health benefits of future retirees, which the story notes adds an annual cost of about $5.5 billion. Congress could do something about the latter, but they haven’t. As for the former, it seems to me we once invested a lot of money bringing infrastructure to rural areas, which included heavily subsidizing postal service. Maybe we need to do another round of investment, this time in building out Internet bandwidth in these remote areas, so that we can dial back on the postal subsidies. That ought to be a better deal for everyone. Of course, that would take action from Congress as well. Good luck with that.

You can see a list of Texas-based mail distribution centers that will be affected by this here. And to tie things back to the title of this post, here’s a little classic Weird Al:

Don’t ever change, you know what I mean?

Put that wine bottle down and slowly back away

Don’t buy wine over the Internet, kids. The State of Texas says so.

State officials have teamed up with FedEx, UPS and other shippers to ferret out wines being sent to Texas by websites that don’t have proper permits.

That has prompted and several other resellers to restrict sales to consumers in the Lone Star State. has 30,000 active customers statewide, CEO Rich Bergsund told the American-Statesman on Thursday. Those customers were notified via email this month that the company had halted shipments of wine to Texas.

Other sites not currently shipping wine to Texas include,, and

A law blocking the deliveries isn’t new, but the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission has ratcheted up enforcement efforts this year.

“Anybody who is going to sell to Texans has to have a permit,” TABC spokeswoman Carolyn Beck said.

And, right now, Beck said, there’s no law enabling out-of-state resellers to obtain permits allowing them to sell wine here. “They haven’t been authorized by the Legislature,” she said.

Nasty little conundrum there, isn’t it? You need to get a permit to sell wine in Texas, but there’s no law that allows an out-of-state retailer to get such a permit. Thus are crackdowns like this born. There is one potential workaround for businesses like, but it’s at best a partial solution:

In its message to customers, indicated it was working to set up a warehouse in Houston in hopes of securing a state permit. A lease could be signed soon, Bergsund said.

“We are hoping the state government will see this as a win-win,” the company wrote in its email, “because we will bring valuable jobs into Texas, but there are no guarantees.”

A question-and-answer section on indicates the company has used a similar approach in other states with similar restrictions.

“We’ve opened a network of warehouses in a number of states, giving us a local presence in those states. This enables us to legally ship wine to our customers in those states while also reducing the shipping time to get you your wine. Unfortunately, in some states not even that will suffice, so keep those letters and emails flowing to your state legislators!”

Beck said would only be able to ship to residents of Houston, Harris County and areas within a two-mile radius of Houston’s city limits if its proposed warehouse materializes.

Given that Texas wineries can sell and ship to any customers within Texas, one presumes that would either have to open a storefront or start growing grapes here to qualify.

Unlike many industries, online wine sales are a minimal share of the total – about one percent, according to the story, though the potential for growth is there. It’s never going to be a dominant force, but that’s not stopping state regulators here and elsewhere from intervening. It’s hard to see this as anything but an anti-competitive move, one that like the byzantine restrictions we have on selling beer in this state will do nothing for the consumers. From my perspective, as long as the Internet retailers pay the same taxes as the brick and mortar folks, it’s all good. And speaking of such things, let me give the last word to the Austin Contrarian, from whom I saw this story:

Thankfully, Texas booksellers didn’t have the political clout wielded by wine merchants and wholesalers when Amazon was getting off the ground back in the 1990s, else the State would have banned buying books off the internet, too.

Good thing there isn’t a state agency equivalent to the TABC for books.

States looking at online gambling

Until the economy returns to the point where states aren’t completely strapped for revenue, I expect them to look at all possible sources of new money.

It’s an idea gaining currency around the country: virtual gambling as part of the antidote to local budget woes. The District of Columbia is the first to legalize it, while Iowa is studying it, and bills are pending in places like California and Massachusetts.

But the states may run into trouble with the Justice Department, which has been cracking down on all forms of Internet gambling. And their efforts have given rise to critics who say legalized online gambling will promote addictive wagering and lead to personal debt troubles.

The states say they will put safeguards in place to deal with the potential social ills. And they say they need the money from online play, which will supplement the taxes they already receive from gambling at horse tracks, poker houses and brick-and-mortar casinos.

“States had looked at this haphazardly and not very energetically until the Great Recession hit, but now they’re desperate for money,” said I. Nelson Rose, a professor at Whittier Law School, where he specializes in gambling issues.

When it comes to taxing gambling, he said, “the thing they have left is the Internet.”

I don’t really expect this to come up in the Texas Lege in 2013, because casino and horse racing interests have too much at stake to let it happen. While I am not an advocate of expanded gambling myself, if it ever does happen in Texas I would prefer it to be in the form of real casinos and/or slot machines at racetracks, on the grounds that they would provide more jobs than online gambling. Having said that, once this is up and running somewhere, it’s not really clear to me how you could prevent someone in Texas, or anywhere else, from playing.

There are other ways that a state could leverage the Internet to feed its own gambling habit:

Some states, including New York and North Dakota, already sell lottery subscriptions online. Since 2005, New York has offered a subscription service that allows people in the state to enter a string of Lotto or Mega Millions drawings. The state says 100,000 people subscribe.

New York is exploring whether to allow people to draw from an escrow account when they decide to buy into a single drawing — say, when the jackpot reaches alluring levels.

Again, I can’t recall hearing of anything like this in Texas. Unlike the virtual casinos, I could imagine something like this being implemented by the Texas Lottery Commission, without direct input from the Lege. I wonder if they haven’t thought of it, or if they think it’s illegal for them to try it. Anyone know anything about that?

Perry vetos Amazon sales tax bill

Of course he did.

Gov. Rick Perry has vetoed legislation that was aimed at tightening the state’s rules on when online retailers must collect sales taxes on Texas transactions, the bill’s author said this morning.

Perry had earlier criticized Comptroller Susan Combs for moving to collect $269 million from for uncollected sales taxes.

State Rep. John Otto, R-Dayton, said Perry’s office told him the governor had vetoed the measure, House Bill 2403, but did not tell him why.


Otto stressed that his bill did not call for creating a new tax, but rather intended “to put into statute the current rules and practices of the comptroller,” Otto said. “The bill simply defines physical presence, well within the Quill supreme court decision.”

The bill was good public policy that would raise a little bit of much-needed revenue while making the playing field more level for ordinary retailers. Vetoing the legislation was mostly a bit of leftover spite from Perry’s tete-a-tete with Combs. What did you think would happen? The Trib has more.

Lege approves separate online sales tax bills

It’s a start.

Taking a stand against Internet retailers like, the Texas House moved Tuesday to tighten the state’s rules on when online businesses must collect sales tax.

By voting 122-23 to pass House Bill 2403 by Rep. John Otto, R-Dayton, lawmakers made their clearest statement to date that they are siding with state Comptroller Susan Combs in her push to force Amazon and other online retailers to collect taxes on sales made to Texans.


Otto’s bill aims to eliminate what he has called loopholes in the law about what constitutes a physical presence.

The bill amends the state tax code to clarify that a “seller or retailer” is required to collect sales tax if:

• The business “maintains, occupies, or uses in this state permanently, temporarily, directly, or indirectly or through a subsidiary or agent by whatever name, an office, distribution center, sales or sample room or place, warehouse, storage place, or any other physical location where business is conducted.”

• The seller is “entrusted with possession of tangible personal property” through an agreement with another business or entity and is authorized to sell, rent or lease the property.

The bill also clarifies that a person or business is considered to be a retailer if they hold a “substantial ownership interest” in any entity that conducts those activities in Texas.

The final version of the bill removes language from the original version that would have designated the use of a website on a server in Texas as an activity that established physical presence.

Here’s HB2403. By my count, four Democrats voted against it. I don’t know if that’s because they agree with the position that Amazon should not be subject to sales tax, or if they wanted a bill that went further, like Rep. Elliott Naishtat’s HB1317. For what it’s worth, Naishtat was listed as a coauthor of HB2403, and voted for it. Otto’s bill doesn’t have a Senate sponsor yet, but Sen. Royce West’s companion bill SB1798 – which doesn’t yet have a House sponsor – was approved on Friday after sitting on the intent calendar for a couple of days, so now it’s just a matter of one of these bills getting voted on by the other chamber. I think one way or another this will get done, but the clock is ticking.

Amazon not gone yet

In case you were wondering.

Amid its fight with the state over collecting tax on online sales, had said it would close its distribution center in Irving this week, resulting in the loss of 119 jobs.

As of Wednesday, however, Amazon was still operating the Irving facility. Also, a hiring firm is interviewing to fill temporary jobs at the center, the Dallas Morning News reported.

Amazon confirmed Wednesday only that operations were winding down at the Irving center, and declined to give additional details. In a letter to the Texas Workforce Commission, the company had listed Wednesday as the center’s projected closure date.

Well, these things do take time, and if you’ve ever worked for a large corporation, you know how the best laid project plans often see their deadlines get pushed back. I wouldn’t read too much into this. Also in case you were wondering, one of the bills that would clarify the state law that says Amazon must pay sales taxes has passed out of committee and should get a full vote in the House. I doubt that will do anything to change their minds, not that this bothers me.

Taking sides on Amazon

The Lege weighs in on Amazon, with opposing bills.

House Bill 2719, filed [Wednesday] afternoon by state Rep. Linda Harper-Brown, R-Irving, would favor Amazon’s efforts to avoid collecting tax for online sales by amending the state tax code to say that a company or individual can’t be classified as a retailer if if they — or a subsidiary or affiliate — operate or use “only a fulfillment center… or a computer server.” The bill defines a fulfillment center as “an establishment in this state at which shipments of tangible personal property are processed for delivery to customers.” The bill would also exempt a company meeting those criteria from having to give any state agency information about purchases made in Texas.

That measure is directly at odds with House Bill 2403, filed Monday by Rep. John Otto, R-Dayton, which aims to close loopholes in the Texas tax code that Amazon could use to support its claims that it doesn’t have to collect sales tax.

Otto said his bill is intended “to clarify the meaning of Texas law to prevent Internet retailers from evading tax liability that, to me, is established under current law.” Otto said he has talked with Sens. Steve Ogden, R-Bryan, and Tommy Williams, R-The Woodlands, about drafting a companion bill in the Senate.

Here’s HB2719, here’s HB2403, and here’s some background on this. I like this development for two reasons. One, Harper-Brown is going to be vulnerable next year pretty much no matter what happens in redistricting, and I’d rather have her on the wrong side of an issue like this. A little extra ammunition never hurts. Two, Otto is a Norquist disciple, so if he’s on board and recruiting Senate allies that strikes me as being a great omen for success. I’ll be keeping an eye on this.

Teaching safe social networking skills

This seems like a good idea.

The all-boys San Antonio Academy has long used an internal e-mail system provided by a company called Gaggle. So when Gaggle launched the Social Learning Wall application this year, the private academy’s administrators jumped at the opportunity to train their students on safe and respectful social networking techniques. The social wall allows students to create profiles that can be viewed internally and be filtered and monitored for content.

“Does it not make sense for us to help prepare (students) for the world they’re already facing and help teach them to avoid pitfalls that could cost them dearly?” Head of School John Webster said after reflecting on reports of people who had lost jobs or marred reputations through inappropriate social networking.

The academy has about 350 students in pre-K through eighth grade. But only the 200 or so fourth-graders through eighth-graders are allowed to use the social wall, Webster said.


If students do get into trouble, Webster said there will be consequences. For example, a student may lose e-mail or social wall privileges for a week or two for spreading an inappropriate joke. But Webster said using the site is meant to be a learning experience where any missteps taken will be in the contained school environment.

Linda Gielen, the academy’s technology facilitator, monitors the site. Gielen said thus far she has only had to speak with students about such things as using too many exclamation points, rambling or typing in capital letters.

Frankly, just teaching proper use of the CAPS LOCK KEY makes this a worthwhile effort to me. I don’t know how practical this would be for a public school to attempt, but I’m glad to see someone is thinking about it nonetheless.

Driver records available online

You know how you need to mail a request to get a copy of your driver’s record when you request to take a defensive driving course to get a ticket dismissed? Now you can save yourself a stamp and order it online.

“We are pleased to offer this new service, which is available 24/7 to our customers,” said Rebecca Davio, the [Texas Department of Public Safety]’s assistant director for driver licenses. “The convenience of ordering your driver record online and then printing it out yourself will save everyone time and money.”

Drivers can place their order using a credit card and their driver license, and then print out their record, which is available in a certified version suitable for submitting to a court for permission to take defensive driving, officials said. Cost is $12.

Go to and click the link to order driver record. There’s other stuff on there as well. Looks like a useful service, if you can ignore the creepy photo of Rick Perry in the top right of the page.

No, I can’t hear you now

I haven’t attended that many events at Reliant Stadium – a couple of Rice football games, including the 2008 Texas Bowl, and a U2 concert – but that’s enough for me to confirm the lack of wireless coverage in the stadium from my experience. The main thing that I’m curious about regarding this is not answered in the story, however:

Reliant Park officials, however, say the stadium is configured along the lines of virtually every other stadium or arena, with a distributed antenna system that provides access to customers of all mobile providers.

Mark Miller, general manager of Reliant Park, said the DAS system at the stadium and at Reliant Center is designed to handle traffic for the more than 100,000 people who visit the area during the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo and for technology-heavy events such as the Offshore Technology Conference.

“Everybody works off one set of antennas, and I know that they are looking at a 4G upgrade to the system,” Miller said. “I don’t have a recollection of a lot of issues coming to our customer service people involving cell phone service. We work with the carriers to provide the best possible service.”

Cellular providers, given the competitive nature of the business, are reluctant to talk about the specific configuration of their networks or the demands required to service buildings such as Reliant Stadium.

There is, however, one constant to network designs, said Matt Melester, a senior vice president of Commscope, which installed the DAS system at Cowboys Stadium in Arlington and has provided similar systems for the last two World Cups.

“There is no bottom to capacity,” Melester said. “As soon as you get better capacity, it gets used. It’s been an impressive program to have to constantly add more capacity.”

The question is, how does the experience at Reliant compare to stadia in other cities? Heck, how does it compare to Minute Maid or the Toyota Center? Yes, I know Reliant has greater fan capacity than either of those two, but how much worse is it there? I get that there is going to be a problem any time you have a lot of bandwidth-demanding people in a small space, I just want to know if it’s any better or worse at this particular place. Anyone want to offer an opinion about that?

More on Latino turnout

Greg adds in his opinion on the Latino turnout question, and as usual it’s worth your time to read in full. Two things for me to comment on. First:

If there is a one point that I’ve been reluctant to air publicly, it’s this: The two worst classes of people to talk to about Hispanic outreach are 1) Hispanic politicians, and 2) Hispanic political consultants. While there is certainly insight to be gained from both, neither has much of an idea of how to make the dream of massive electoral turnout among Hispanics happen.

In discussing Kuff’s blog post from earlier this month on the topic with him a while back, I made the point that one reason you never hear the alleged master plans for ginning up turnout being talked about is because too often, there’s a golden goose at stake. In other words, there are groups and individuals out there that will promise you massive increases in turnout among Hispanics. And for a small (or large) sum, they’ll promise to put it into action. With their people, with their plan, with their supervision, and often … with little accountability. If the candidate wins, then no questions are asked. If the candidate loses, you just move on down the line and pitch the next moneybag candidate. This isn’t solely the case in Hispanic politics, mind you. It’s predominant among a number of base-partisan communities of all colors and all stripes.

One reason why I suggested that we begin thinking about this problem by thinking about raising money address it is because I think to some extent the question of Latino voting needs to be removed from individual candidates and campaigns in favor of a more holistic and ongoing approach. I don’t know how much the Democratic community as a whole learns about what works and what doesn’t from one campaign to the next, I don’t know how much of what does get learned gets transmitted from one campaign to another, and I don’t know how much of what gets learned is worth learning. Wouldn’t it be nice to institutionalize that? Tell me if you think I’m off base here.

I doubt that I’ll ever get too deeply into the retelling of events from the last campaign I worked on, but one move that I think served our opponent well was that he hired consumer marketers as part of their Hispanic outreach. For Dems, that type of move doesn’t fully substitute for the need to knock on doors and make phone calls. But I do think it’s a wiser move than relying on the conventional, in-house political wisdom of what moves Hispanic voters.

One point I’ll throw into the mix for now: the concept of where Hispanic voters are is something that tends to get oversimplified and this often skews the understanding of what issues, values, and language motivate them as well as what network of people they surround themselves with. In other words, East End or Northside activists probably aren’t your best bet to talk the talk to the more numerous number of Hispanic voters that live in the suburbs.

I’ll be introducing some research over the week to make this point more fully. For now, here’s three maps to compare and contrast some 2000 Census data for Harris County on where high-density concentrations of Hispanic population live and where the more diffuse populations are. They show census tracts where the Hispanic population represents 65% of the total population, 35% of the population, and 25% of the population. My point, boiled down to it’s core, is this: We do a great job as a part of speaking to those areas where we are at 65% and a not-so-good job to those where we are at 25% and 35%. And the scary part of that premise is that there are more Hispanics that live in the more diffuse areas than there are that live in the concentrated areas.

I made the point that Latinos are on average younger than us non-Latinos, and as such they don’t necessarily consume news and media the same way us old fogeys do. NewsTaco enhances that observation:

Latinos are the fastest growing digital technology user group in the country. It hasn’t taken long for someone to begin picking Latino on line behavior apart; proven markets with a potential for growth will do that. ComScore is the latest someone to do it. Here’s what comScore, that calls itself “a global leader in measuring the digital world and the preferred source of digital marketing intelligence,” has to say about Latino on line activity in a recent website post: “Hispanic consumers are more receptive to online advertising than non-Hispanic internet users.”

In other words, Latinos click and read on line advertisements more than others – what marketers call click rates. Or as puts it, “Whereas 31 percent of Hispanic Americans enjoy watching online advertisements, only 19 percent of the broader consumer audience agreed with that statement. Hispanics were also more likely to base their purchase decisions on digital marketing initiatives (30 percent compared to 15 percent) and remember advertised products when shopping (35 percent compared to 22 percent).”

Seems to me we could learn something from that.

More on Amazon and the sales tax

From Slate:

Amazon has aggressively fought state efforts to impose sales tax on its operations. In 2008, New York passed a law that required online companies to collect taxes if they had deals with marketing affiliates based in the state. The law was designed specifically to target Amazon and other large online retailers—many called it the “Amazon tax.” In response, Amazon sued New York over the law’s constitutionality—marketing affiliates, Amazon argued, did not constitute a significant presence in the state. (, another company that has carefully avoided collecting taxes, took a harder line. In response to the New York law, Overstock canceled its relationships with all New York affiliates, freeing it from collecting any taxes in the state.)

While Amazon is still fighting the New York tax law, the company has been collecting taxes in the state as per the legislation. But Amazon has pushed back against collecting taxes in three other states that passed similar laws—it told its marketing affiliates inColoradoNorth Carolina, and Rhode Island to take a hike, allowing the company to skirt tax collection there. And it has threatened to do the same in other states—including California—where legislators have proposed affiliate-related taxes.

So, is Amazon’s tax-free status unfair? Of course it is. As [Michael Mazerov of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities] points out, Amazon has physical operations in 17 states in which the company and its employees enjoy the fruits of local taxes—police and fire protection, roads, hospitals, and other infrastructure that make its operations possible. Yet Amazon skirts tax collection in most of these places through clever legal tricks. For instance, it has incorporated its warehouses and Web site as separate legal entities in order to argue that it doesn’t really have a presence in Nevada, Texas, and other states. The Kindle offers another example of that strategy—the e-book reader was developed at Lab126, an Amazon office based in Cupertino, Calif. But that office is actually a legal subsidiary, freeing Amazon of collecting any taxes in California.

Anything that drives a company to resort to such trickery cannot be good public policy. The solution will ultimately need to come from Congress, which means it won’t happen any time soon. Out of fairness to brick and mortar retailers, as well as to state and local governments, it needs to happen eventually.

Cutting the cord on cable

I have no plans to change the way I watch TV any time soon, but a lot of other people are at least thinking about it.

The Convergence Consulting Group of Toronto predicts that about 1.6 million U.S. households will “cut the cord,” or cancel monthly cable subscriptions, by the end of 2011, as more content becomes available online.

Time Warner and Comcast recently reported that third-quarter cable subscriber losses more than doubled from a year earlier, though both argued the economy was a bigger factor than cord-cutting.

Research firm Nielsen Co. also says the phenomenon is overstated. At a conference this summer, Howard Shimmel, a senior vice president at the company, said cord- cutting is mainly isolated to young, emerging households that aren’t watching much online programming either.

Nevertheless, media businesses have made strides to stay ahead of the issue, responding by offering on-demand services, digital video recorders and “TV Everywhere” options that allow paying customers to access content over the devices of their choosing.

Dwight recently ran a guest post from a cable cord-cutter. What was fascinating to me was all the comments from people had already done this or who were planning to. A lot of them sounded like too much work in return for the savings, plus a lot of experiences with Comcast that are worse than mine, but to each their own. I didn’t have cable until I was 31. It wasn’t available where we lived when I was a kid, it wasn’t available on the Trinity campus when I was in college, and I was too cheap to spring for it my first few years in Houston. Having finally taken that step, I have no plans to go back. I can see the appeal of just getting the shows you want via the Internet, especially since it’s a lot easier to watch them on a TV now, but for me the value of not having to change my habits outweighs that. My TiVo does what I need it to do, thanks. I know that nothing lasts forever and that sooner or later I’ll be forced to change, but I’m content to wait till that happens. What about you? All Things Digital nd Yglesias have more.a

Amazon was just the beginning

I agree with this.

By telling retail giant that it owes $269 million in uncollected sales taxes, the State of Texas has waded into the national debate over taxing Internet sales. The state comptroller’s office said it has sent similar demands for payment to other online retailers.

Allen Spelce, a spokesman for the comptroller’s office, said he could not release the names of the others, but he said they are “high-profile” online retailers that have not been collecting sales taxes in Texas.

Traditional merchants and industry groups have praised Texas’ recent demand to Amazon, saying it’s about time that the world’s biggest online retailer is made to play by the same rules as everyone else.

“It’s really just a fairness issue,” said Steven Bercu, CEO of Austin bookstore BookPeople. “The state, for some reason I don’t understand, has been picking its favorite retailer, and for some reason it’s been an out-of-state retailer.”

“People walk in here, talk to our booksellers, get recommendations, learn about what would be a better choice for reading material — and then it’s not uncommon to hear them say, ‘I think I’ll buy it on Amazon and not have to pay any sales tax,'” Bercu said.

Texas handed Amazon a bill for $269 million the other day. We don’t know yet how much the other retailers have been dinged for, but I’ll bet it’s a nontrivial amount, and I’ll bet there’s still more where that came from. The main question is if, not when, these retailers remit, and whether the matter will ultimately be settled in the courts or the legislatures. Former Deputy Comptroller Billy Hamilton sums it up, and I couldn’t agree with him more:

In the early years of Internet commerce, Hamilton said, political theory seemed to be that promoting online commerce was more important than any lost sales tax revenue.

“I can remember making a speech in 1995 where I said, this is going to be a big problem for states if this online retailing takes off,” he said. “And somebody stood up and said, ‘You’re trying to strangle the baby in the crib.'”

Hamilton, however, said he was bothered by online retailers who acted as if “they had invented manna from heaven and that it should exempt them from the rules of gravity.”

Amazon and other online retailers took the stance, Hamilton said, “that because this was on the Internet and was an incredible business model and this was the future, that somehow that exempted them from any social or any other kind of obligation. When you got right down to it, to me it was a kind of an arrogance.”

Hamilton said the state’s recent demand that Amazon pay up shouldn’t be seen as the endgame in the debate over the issue.

“The comptroller is taking a shot,” Hamilton said. “I wouldn’t hold my breath or imagine this is somehow going to help this budget problem that they’ve got right now — because it’s undoubtably going to be litigated.”

The original justifications for exempting Internet sales from taxation are at least a decade out of date, and are having a significant impact on state and local budgets. Last I checked, even online retailers benefit from things like roads and law enforcement and other things that state and local governments provide, too. The one thing I’ll add is that ideally this would be addressed by Congress, since as I recall the original prohibition on sales taxes for online purchases came from Congress. Unfortunately, I can’t see that happening any time soon, so off to the courts we will surely go. Dan Gillmor has more.

Texas tells Amazon to pay up

Well, that’s one way to attack the budget deficit.

Texas has sent Inc. a $269 million bill for uncollected sales taxes on purchases made by state residents from the Seattle-based Internet superstore over a four-year period.


R.J. DeSilva, spokesman for the Texas comptroller of public accounts, said the bill was sent to in August. It wasn’t publicly disclosed until Friday, when revealed it in a regulatory filing.

“The company has requested a re-determination, which means this is an ongoing audit and could be decided as part of the administrative hearings process,” DeSilva said in a statement. “The company would send documents, and this process will continue.”

DeSilva said he couldn’t answer any questions because sales tax and audit information is largely confidential under Texas law.


The Texas comptroller’s office began an investigation of Amazon’s taxing status in May 2008 after The Dallas Morning News questioned why Amazon didn’t charge sales taxes while maintaining a distribution center in Irving near Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport.

At the time, had sued New York over whether it needed to collect sales taxes there, arguing it had no “physical presence” in that state. That defense dates to a 1992 U.S. Supreme Court decision covering catalogs and direct mail-order companies but later applied to Internet retailers.

The News report said Amazon had been operating the Irving distribution center since at least 2006. Amazon contended the distribution center was owned by one of its subsidiaries called KYDC LLC, which is located at the same address as its corporate headquarters in Seattle.

In July, purchased the rest of Carrollton-based that it didn’t already own. had held a minority stake in the quirky deal-of-the-day website since 2006.

“I don’t know if this will encourage other states, but I hope it will,” said Michael Mazerov, senior fellow in the State Fiscal Project of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities in Washington, D.C. “Amazon is very legally vulnerable.”

The company’s defense that “the mere separation of a corporate subsidiary isolates a retail arm from having to charge sales taxes creates no limit to what any corporation could do,” Mazerov said.

He estimated in a 2009 study that state and local governments lose more than $7 billion a year in uncollected sales taxes.

I’ve already said that I don’t see any reason at this point why online sales are exempt from sales taxes. It made some sense in the 90s, but not any more. I’m rooting for the state on this one.