FCC head wants businesses to step up online security

Federal Communications Commission Chairman Tom Wheeler wants companies to up their game and take the lead on warding off hackers.

Wheeler on Thursday called for a “new paradigm” where private businesses take the reins and understand “how easily cyber threats cross corporate and international boundaries,” but also where the FCC stands as a backstop in case companies don’t hold up their end of the bargain.

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The Internet grows too quickly for government agencies to set the rules of the road, he said, but online users need more security than blind trust in the market.

“We believe there is a new regulatory paradigm where the commission relies on industry and the market first, while preserving other options if that approach is unsuccessful,” Wheeler said in remarks at a forum on cybersecurity at the American Enterprise Institute.

Smart cars, refrigerators and other devices, he said, on the so-called “Internet of things” are leading to billions of new ways for hackers to sneak in and attack individual and corporate networks. As technology evolves, so will online attackers.

“We live in an age when a few smart 20 year-olds in somebody’s garage can render standard technology obsolete within months,” Wheeler said. “And the same is true for the pace of threat technology.”

“The pace of innovation on the Internet is much, much faster than the pace of a notice-and-comment rule-making.”

To help the effort, the commission is taking a close look at its rules to make it easier for companies to share information about hacker threats and weak points in their systems, Wheeler said. A panel of more than 100 experts is also working on ways that TV, radio and other communications companies can take advantage of a Commerce Department framework for protecting their networks from attacks. 

The call was quickly cheered by a Comcast executive, who said the company considers online security “a key component of our overall enterprise risk management.”

“We have and will continue to be committed to taking a leadership role in establishing practices that meet the dynamic and ever-changing nature of these threats,” senior vice president Myrna Soto said in a statement after the speech.

Part of Wheeler’s stance is due to the practical limits of the FCC.

The five-member commission can take years to finalize regulations, and high-profile issues like its rules on net neutrality, the idea that all traffic online should be treated equally, can get roped up in political bickering.

Updated with the comment from Comcast at 12:35 p.m.