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About That Broadband Privacy Vote

Mari Silbey
3/29/2017

Following a Senate decision to repeal broadband privacy regulations passed last year by the FCC, the House signaled its support for the motion with its own vote late yesterday. The House passed the bill 215 to 205, and President Donald Trump has committed to signing a final bill when it reaches his desk.

To say that most broadband providers are pleased with the rollback of privacy regulations is an understatement of monumental proportions. Tucked in tightly beside the industry's desire to halt set-top and business data services reform (both successful), the goal to prevent former Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Chairman Tom Wheeler's new broadband privacy rules from taking effect has been a treasured regulatory priority of Internet operators since those rules were handed down in a 3-2 FCC vote last year. (See FCC Dems Pass Broadband Privacy Rules.)

Supporters of a repeal say that ISPs are being treated unfairly when they're subjected to regulations that don't apply to Internet companies like Facebook and Google (Nasdaq: GOOG). They also argue that regulatory oversight of Internet providers should be returned to the Federal Trade Commission from the FCC, which assumed jurisdiction after the Title II vote in 2015.

The argument that nobody seems to be able to make convincingly is why repealing privacy regulations is good for consumers. Howard Waltzman, General Counsel for the 21st Century Privacy Coalition (which is funded by ISPs), says uniformity creates simplicity, which helps consumers understand what privacy they can realistically expect online. Supporters also contend that by allowing companies like Facebook and Google to monopolize the market for targeting advertising based on behavioral data (the real benefit of tracking users online), consumers are under greater threat because there's limited competition, which means fewer companies wield more power over our information.

I have two issues with these assertions. First, if the goal is uniformity, then why are we not hedging toward more individual privacy rather than less? If consumers gain ground with ISPs, that should create pressure on industry and government to strengthen the privacy guarantees of Internet companies as well.

Second, while I appreciate that broadband providers believe they're not competing on a level playing field, there is a reason consumer expectations of ISPs and Internet companies differ. We pay ISPs for their services. We don't pay a subscription fee for access to social media or to search the web.


For more fixed broadband market coverage and insights, check out our dedicated Gigabit/Broadband content channel here on Light Reading.


Now I'll admit that I don't buy the argument that Internet companies have less access to our data than network service providers. I know I've sold out to Google, and that the Internet giant tracks me pretty much everywhere I go.

I also don't buy the argument that consumers have a choice about whether to use specific Internet services, but not about whether or not to buy broadband service itself from a small handful of ISPs. Broadband competition may be limited, but practically speaking, there's also very little option when it comes to using or avoiding many of the major Internet platforms. There's a reason nobody says, "Let me Yahoo that for you."

Still, any argument against possible privacy intrusion by Google isn't an argument for the same behavior practiced by an Internet service provider. A very old saying applies. Two wrongs don't make a right.

To give credit where credit is due, a small group of independent ISPs, including Sonic and Ting among more than a dozen others, did sign a letter to House Representatives asking them to retain the FCC's broadband rules. It wasn't enough to sway the House, but it is a testament to the fact that not all ISPs take the same position on consumer privacy.

That said, many cable industry folk cheered the latest regulatory ruling at today's ACA Summit, and numerous industry organizations put out statements yesterday praising the vote in the House.

For my part, while the privacy decision isn't my top worry at the moment, it is a concern as more and more of my life is lived online.

And it's certainly not something to cheer about.

— Mari Silbey, Senior Editor, Cable/Video, Light Reading

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brooks7
brooks7
4/29/2017 | 11:04:19 AM
Re: They do so anyway. But some still gives opt out.
"FCC was trying to reclassify the Internet as a service under Title II of the Telecommunication Act."

 

Correction...the FCC DID reclassify Internet Service under Title II.

seven

 
kevin.richards
kevin.richards
4/29/2017 | 7:57:03 AM
They do so anyway. But some still gives opt out.
FTC is the only federal agency that deals with the issues of competition jurisdiction and consumer protection in broad sectors of the economy. FCC was trying to reclassify the Internet as a service under Title II of the Telecommunication Act. Being the 'information services' FCC shouldn't have reclassified it under Title II. The result was the contradiction between privacy framework of two distinct agencies.

The privacy rules of FCC are geared more towards phone services and not the Internet. The rules didn't fit so FCC attempted to write the Internet specific regulations. So it was bound to happen sooner or later which would result in the authority over privacy.

Well, the repealed legislation probably would have not been active at first place imo. Even if you use HTTPS encryption, ISPs still can track the websites you visit and most advertisers already have this information since the beginning. 

However, the rigorous changes if allowed to go through would stifle the industry's use of data and makes a less safe environment. If you are really about your information not being safe and looking for ways to hide your browser history from ISPs then your best option is to use Virtual Private Networks. However, most ISPs are still open about you opting out of any data use and gives you control to do so.
kq4ym
kq4ym
4/11/2017 | 8:59:29 AM
Re: Dual libertarian approaches
Things at regulator's offices are certainly  going to be a bit surprising over the next four years I would guess. As "nobody seems to be able to make convincingly is why repealing privacy regulations is good for consumers," it doesn't seem to matter in the minds of industry and the new urge to lesson regulations for businesses in the next years. It will be interesting to watch if there's enough of a consumer reaction to modify some of this movement.
Joe Stanganelli
Joe Stanganelli
3/30/2017 | 8:08:03 PM
Re: War is peace
I talk to these PR people all the time, and it's hard enough to get these noodleheads to give a straight answer that directly addresses the question when the question isn't an uncomfortable one!
Joe Stanganelli
Joe Stanganelli
3/30/2017 | 8:05:23 PM
Re: Dual libertarian approaches
"The FTC AND FCC's oversight authority will both ultimately be on the chopping block."

In the case of the FTC, that *will* not happen.  The FTC still regulates against "unfair and deceptive trade practices" -- among a zillion other things -- as pertaining to all businesses/industries.  (The states have this authority too unto themselves.)  The FTC Act is *not* going away anytime soon.
R Clark
R Clark
3/30/2017 | 6:55:49 PM
War is peace
The industry's messaging is possibly more disturbing than the change in regulation.

Here's an Intercept reporter's funny-if-it-weren't-so-sad attempts to ask how this helps consumer privacy.

https://theintercept.com/2017/03/29/i-spent-a-week-trying-to-make-internet-providers-answer-a-simple-question-about-selling-your-data/
KBode
KBode
3/30/2017 | 3:36:43 PM
Re: Dual libertarian approaches
"Personally, though, I think legislation is a better and more solid and sustainable approach than regulation.  It'd be nice to see legislation from Congress on privacy protections -- and then see the FTC step up its enforcement game."

I think it's important not to fool ourselves. The goal here is little to no oversight of this industry down the road, solely to maximize revenues at the cost of consumer welfare. The FTC AND FCC's oversight authority will both ultimately be on the chopping block.

We MIGHT see Congress finally pass a rule down the road, but only after some large ISP gets caught doing something incredibly stupid. Even then, with this cash-soaked Congress, there's no guarantee.

These FCC rules were relatively simple and while not perfect, would have provided a layer of protection the FTC (which many ISPs can dodge oversight from via common carrier exemption) can't and won't provide down  the road.

This vote was a god-damned embarrassment this week.  
KBode
KBode
3/30/2017 | 3:33:54 PM
Re: Push <-> Push
"I expect that VPNs, browser proxies, and TOR will see a sharp increase over the next year. The more intrusive companies and governments become, the less available information becomes. We saw that with HTTPS Everywhere, Let's Encrypt, and similar movements after the Snowden disclosures."


Of course many of these tools don't fix things like Verizon installing stealth bloatware on your device, or AT&T and Comcast charging more to opt out of data collection. Tools help, but these rules were useful -- especially as these companies merge and consolidate in the wake of less regulatory oversight overall. 
colnelb
colnelb
3/30/2017 | 3:01:27 PM
Will ISPs now charge end users for services like Google
If the reason for the roll back of the Internet Privacy rules regarding the ISPs was to give them a more level playing field with the on line services providers like Google, will the ISPs start charging the end users the same amount that Google does, nothing.  I doubt it.  I tend to think that the data that the ISPs can now collect and sell will be considered to be a wind fall profit which the end user will see little benefit from.  One can say that this is a Libertarian approach to government, but it is deffinately a big business approach to government at the expense and danger to the consumer.
Joe Stanganelli
Joe Stanganelli
3/30/2017 | 2:16:55 PM
Re: Push <-> Push
@macemoneta: But, of course, anyone who uses those technologies must be up to no good,  right?  ◔_◔
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