FCC Chair Agit Pai is suggesting a rollback of net neutrality protections designed to prevent discrimination based on content.
AFTER not quite three months in office, the Trump administration and the Republican Congress seem hellbent on reversing two of the signature achievements of President Obama in the realm of telecommunications — the pending Federal Communications Commission’s privacy rules regulating broadband-service providers and the FCC’s “net neutrality” policy.
These landmark rule changes will influence the evolution of a digital world that increasingly governs our information, entertainment, employment and purchasing habits. Consumers will face new challenges regarding data protection and content choice.
Let’s start with the action to roll back implementation of the FCC’s privacy rules, which would have required Internet Service Providers — such as Verizon, Comcast and AT&T — to obtain a consumer’s “opt in” consent before sharing or selling data derived from a household’s internet browsing or TV viewing habits.
The potential for such comprehensive user profiling has accelerated with the bundling of services such as voice, broadband and cable television in so-called “triple play” packages. Just as a website targets an advertisement to an individual based on her page-browsing habits and personal data, the ISP’s wanted to build profiling machines that drew both on knowing what she watches on TV and also knowing which websites she accesses on the internet.
Companies frequently match these content consuming habits with other data points to build a rich and predictive model of a user’s preferences and behavior.
Supporters of the joint resolution signed by President Donald Trump on April 4 claimed that the same rules should apply to both ISPs and to pure internet companies, which are covered by much less precise Federal Trade Commission regulations. This calls into question the scope of FCC authority in this area and creates a vacuum with respect to consumer protection. As a result, we are left with a lower level of privacy protection across the board.
After being designated to serve as the new FCC Chair, Ajit Pai stated: “We need to fire up the weed whacker and remove those rules that are holding back investment, innovation and job creation … ” Such language is code for the rollback of net neutrality and other protections designed to prevent discrimination based on content and would allow ISPs to create “fast lanes” for delivery of data-intensive content, such as high definition video streams.
Proponents for ending net neutrality, such as Pai’s former employer, Verizon, contend that regulating their internet services like a utility under the Communications Act would have stifled their incentive to invest in laying new fiber and creating faster data networks. This argument ignores the current levels of investment by the carriers in 5G technology and their rollout of unlimited data plans for consumers. It seems that competition was already working quite well under the old regime.
Against this backdrop, several trends have emerged that will reshape the economics of the telecom industry and underline the need for both fairness and data protection. First, consumers object to forced bundling of hundreds of TV channels. New offerings from platforms such as Apple, Amazon and Direct-TV, among others, allow consumers to select “slim bundles” and pay only for what they want, undermining the prevailing subscriber model and freeing content producers to strike more flexible distribution deals. As a policy, government should encourage content choices for consumers and prohibit discrimination based on paid access to bandwidth.
Second, data mining has become more sophisticated, allowing companies to match a person’s geolocation to their personal data and buying habits. In a privacy environment where few companies offer user control over their personal data, this type of user profiling will accelerate and make citizens subject to the gravitational pull of Big Data.
Finally, the divisions between the “haves” and “have nots” in the broadband world will deepen as faster, more-expensive services come online. In a world where a person needs a fast and reliable internet connection to seek employment, secure health care treatment and get an education, this digital divide will emerge as a true crisis for those left behind in our digital economy. We need to pay more attention to access inequality with respect to media and communications.
Just as our state has attempted to pave its own way on climate change and immigration, it is time to consider how we might preserve both privacy and digital access in an increasingly hostile national environment. Last week, Washington state legislators introduced two new bills to reinstate the protections of the now dead FCC privacy rules. Gov. Jay Inslee supports this effort and is working with lawmakers. In the absence of federal protection, let’s hope states can use their delegated powers to protect personal rights.
Information in this article, originally published April 11, 2017 was corrected April 17, 2017. A previous version of this story misspelled FCC Chair Ajit Pai’s name.