FCC Proposed Privacy Rules More Dangerous Than Meets the Eye

FCC Proposed Privacy Rules More Dangerous Than Meets the Eye

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As the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) inches closer to making a decision on its proposed privacy rules for broadband internet access service providers, economists, civil rights groups, and consumer advocates alike have been weighing in opposing the Commission’s plan.

On April 21, 2016, the FCC released a Notice of Proposed Rule Making (NPRM) calling for different applications of privacy rules for internet service providers (i.e. AT&T, Verizon, Comcast) and edge providers (i.e. Amazon, Facebook, Google).  Historically, privacy regulations for the internet ecosystem fell under the ambit of the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), but once the FCC passed it’s Open Internet Order (net neutrality rules), the Commission gained jurisdiction over internet service providers, and has since claimed authority to regulate their privacy practices.

Supporters of the FCC’s proposed privacy framework claim that internet service providers have access to a lot of sensitive information and, as such, need to be regulated with more intense scrutiny than what is currently called for by the FTC’s rules.  Opponents emphasize the converged and interconnected nature of today’s internet ecology and say that consumers have uniform expectations that their privacy rights will be protected consistently, whether an internet service provider or edge provider is handling their private information.

In July, a group of nine civil rights, social justice and economic-empowerment organizations filed comments in the FCC privacy docket urging the Commission to “embrace a common sense approach to privacy built on multi-stakeholder input that has led to technology-neutral and consumer-friendly practices.”  Just last week, FTC Chairwoman Edith Ramirez, speaking at the Technology Policy Institute’s 2016 Aspen Forum said that “‘if you have basic privacy laws across the board, you then wouldn’t have…as large a discrepancy between’ agencies.”  And Shane Tews, a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute’s Center for Internet, Communications, and Technology Policy, opined in a recent article that based on “data before the FCC, 94 percent of internet users believe ‘[a]ll companies collecting data online should follow the same consumer privacy rules’ and 83 percent think privacy protections should be based on the sensitivity of their data, rather than who collects or uses it.”

Small, rural internet service providers even weighed in expressing their concern that the FCC’s proposed departure from more uniform rules would be bad for business. “At a time when small rural providers are seeing decreasing federal and state universal service support while subject to increasing deployment obligations, overly restrictive privacy requirements that necessitate expensive compliance programs will only divert funds towards regulatory compliance and away from broadband buildout in rural areas where such investment is critically needed,” said WTA-Advocates for Rural Broadband.

It is unclear whether the Commission will find these arguments in opposition to its plan compelling, but the agency is expected to make a decision on its proposed privacy rules in the coming days.

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