Opinion

A Roadmap for Broadband Privacy

 

This week, committees in the House and Senate will hold hearings on key technology issues, including the FCC’s proposed privacy rules the agency is seeking to impose on broadband providers. While all will agree about the importance of protecting consumer privacy online, I expect there will be ample debate about the best approach to achieving it.

When consumers talk about their expectations for online privacy, they are just as likely to reference Google, Apple, Netflix, Amazon and Facebook as Verizon, AT&T and Comcast.  Yet the FCC proposes to apply heightened regulations that will apply only to Internet service providers—and not to the search engine, online shopping, streaming, and social media leaders that also have ready access to consumers’ private information.  Instead, those companies will continue to follow the well-established, effective Federal Trade Commission framework. 

This attempt to single out broadband providers for a heightened layer of regulation is baffling.  At a time when consumers want and need clarity, precision, and smart thinking from our government regulators, especially on an issue as critical as privacy, the FCC’s departure from the existing privacy framework creates only confusion.  It also risks distorting competition across the Internet economy and amid fast-changing technologies.

For two decades, the FTC has taken an even-handed and consistent approach to privacy across the Internet ecosystem—allowing for the development of innovative products and services for consumers, while protecting and enforcing privacy across online companies and technologies.

The FTC rightly focuses on preventing potentially harmful uses of consumer data—for example, inappropriate use of sensitive information—regardless of the technology used or company vantage point in the marketplace. This technology and platform agnostic approach has protected consumers and allowed for pro-consumer innovation, for example, the plethora of popular online offerings —from Facebook to Instagram to Pandora—that provide free options to consumers in an ad-supported environment customized to their interests. 

New FCC rules that are harmonized with the FTC’s proven approach will ensure  consistent expectations among consumers about how their  information will be handled.  This in turn bolsters an essential cornerstone of our information-centric economy—consumer confidence in it.  The FTC’s path allows all market participants to bring innovation to consumers while upholding one common standard for privacy.  Equally important, a synchronized approach will remove uncertainty about asymmetric regulation to America’s mobile sector, which is preparing to invest massive sums in our nation’s wireless future.

I am hopeful both committees keep consumer interests front and center in the conversations this week.  Consumers deserve a single, transparent, coordinated and consistent framework that protects privacy and allows all parts of the Internet ecosystem to keep innovating on our behalf.  What we don’t want—and what effective privacy policy doesn’t need—is regulatory overreach  and the confounding red tape that comes with it.

Jonathan Spalter is the chairman of Mobile Future.

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