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.
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