Panic in Privacy Park

As the dust continues to settle on Congress’ rollback of young — and still unimplemented — broadband privacy rules enacted by the previous FCC, it’s worth taking a breather from the tweet storm of outrage and listening to calmer voices in the debate.

For example, a recent editorial in the Wall Street Journal (behind a paywall), cuts through the phony outrage rather succinctly:

The House voted this week to rescind an Obama Administration regulation requiring that cable customers “opt in” to allow data mining of their preferences, which allows companies to feature targeted ads or improve service. The rule passed in a partisan FCC vote last year but never took effect. This belies the idea that Comcast and other invented villains will have some “new freedom” to auction off your data. President Trump is expected to sign the bill, which already passed the Senate. The result will be… the status quo.

The FCC didn’t roll out these rules in response to gross privacy invasions. The agency lacked jurisdiction until 2015 when it snatched authority from the Federal Trade Commission by reclassifying the internet as a public utility. The FTC had punished bad actors in privacy and data security for years, with more than 150 enforcement actions.

Emphasis mine above, because through all the fire-breathing the fact that rolling back to the FCC rules will only keep privacy oversight the same as it’s been tends to be lost. Congress — and the FCC — haven’t suddenly blessed ISPs with new invasive powers, they’re simply keeping the same watchdogs at the Federal Trade Commission in place.

Later in the WSJ op-ed:

What this week’s tumult means for your privacy online is nothing. FCC Chairman Ajit Pai and FTC Chairwoman Maureen Ohlhausen issued a joint statement saying they’d work together to build a “comprehensive and consistent framework” for privacy that doesn’t favor some tech companies over others. The interim is governed by FCC guidelines that have been in place for years.

Again, emphasis mine. Going back to when the FCC, then under Tom Wheeler, first moved forward with their privacy rules, the objection from ISPs — and organizations such as this one — wasn’t that they didn’t believe consumer privacy was important. The objection was due to the fact that the FCC was going to treat ISPs differently from other tech companies without reason. Not only would it be the FCC putting its thumb on the scale in favor of the likes of Google and Facebook, it would likely create consumer confusion over their own online privacy.

Everyone agrees online privacy is important and that rules governing privacy should be malleable due to changes in technology — see the quote “comprehensive and consistent framework” above. But in this debate, the cooler heads have it right. Congress didn’t suddenly throw consumer privacy to the wolves.

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