Privacy please, not lobbyists’ phony pleas for consistency

Right now, your internet service provider has access to virtually all of your personal data, even if you take steps to protect it from its prying eyes. Your ISP serves as the conduit for everything you see and say online. And at the moment, it can sell that data freely without your permission, and without respect for your privacy.

The Federal Communications Commission is poised to address that problem. This week the agency will propose final rules giving people more choice about how ISPs use their data.

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Cable and tech industry lobbyists are determined to halt this progress with a carefully crafted misinformation campaign. Henry Waxman, the former chair of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, is part of this effort. On Tuesday, he published an industry-friendly Op-Ed bemoaning the supposed dangers of the FCC’s approach.

The FCC’s efforts, Waxman writes, could “undermine consistency in consumer protection.” That’s because the FCC has clear authority to adopt new rules for broadband providers like Comcast and AT&T, but internet companies like Facebook and Amazon would not be subject to the same rules.

The upshot is his claim that even the Federal Trade Commission calls the FCC’s approach “not optimal,” arguing that the FCC should defer to its fellow agency.

Trouble is, that’s not what the FTC actually said. Waxman blatantly mischaracterizes the FTC’s comments on the current rulemaking, which in fact express “general support” for the FCC’s approach. In its filing, the FTC acknowledged that inconsistent privacy protections may not be the optimal outcome. But it lays the responsibility for that inconsistency at the door of Congress, which has ignored the FTC’s repeated calls for new laws strengthening privacy standards for all companies.

As a former chair of the congressional committee that writes these laws, Waxman was once in a position to answer these calls and craft strong, broadly applicable privacy protections. His lobbying today for an FTC-centered approach is disingenuous at best. What he’s really trying to do is cap all privacy safeguards at the lowest common denominator.

Unlike Mr. Waxman and others who’ve left government to work for industries they previously regulated, Rep. Frank Pallone understands that consumer protections shouldn’t be a race to the bottom. Nearly three-quarters of internet users in the United States aren’t happy with the status quo: They want more control over their digital information.

“The optimal solution would be to adopt strong privacy rules for both ISPs and websites,” Pallone notes in the Huffington Post this week. “[U]nfortunately,” he writes, “this is easier said than done.” That’s why, as Pallone says, “the FCC must act now to finalize strong, new privacy rules” using the authority it has thanks to the overwhelmingly bipartisan 1996 Telecom Act.

Pallone joins lawmakers like Sens. Ed MarkeyEd MarkeySenators seek to curb counterfeit toys and goods sold online Senate GOP blocks defense bill, throwing it into limbo Equilibrium/Sustainability — Presented by Southern Company — Pledged money not going to Indigenous causes MORE, Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth WarrenRegulators investigating financing of Trump's new media company Warren calls on big banks to follow Capital One in ditching overdraft fees Crypto firm top executives to testify before Congress MORE, Bernie SandersBernie SandersStudy: Test detects signs of dementia at least six months earlier than standard method The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Uber - Omicron tests vaccines; Bob Dole dies at 98 Democrats see Christmas goal slipping away MORE, Patrick LeahyPatrick Joseph LeahyVermont Lt. Gov. launches bid for US House Lawmakers remember Bob Dole: 'Bona fide American hero' Biden signs four bills aimed at helping veterans MORE, Tammy BaldwinTammy Suzanne BaldwinWisconsinites need infrastructure that is built to last  Wisconsin senators ask outsiders not to exploit parade attack 'for their own political purposes' Senate Democrats call on Biden to push for COVID-19 vaccine patent waivers at WTO MORE, Al FrankenAlan (Al) Stuart FrankenFranken rules out challenge against Gillibrand for Senate seat Franken targets senators from both parties in new comedy tour Al Franken on another Senate run: 'I'm keeping my options open' MORE and Richard Blumenthal, who wrote the FCC this summer seeking the strongest rules possible.

Waxman’s piece relies on warmed-over statistics that are both unsurprising and misleading. The think-tank survey he cites doesn’t support the outlandish argument that people want weaker privacy protections for some kinds of information. The survey suggests that people want “fair and equal” standards, which sounds like a great idea unless the standards in question are equally toothless.

Protecting data based on its sensitivity, as Waxman and several companies propose, might seem sensible on the surface. But allowing ISPs to protect data differently based on its sensitivity could mean enabling these companies to inspect all of your data to determine whether it’s sensitive. That’s like giving the post office permission to read all your mail in order to determine which mail they shouldn’t read.

The FCC’s approach would give people much-needed control over how their ISPs use their data. Waxman and his fellow lobbyists claim the value of this progress is outweighed by the so-called dangers of inconsistent standards.

Consistency is not a virtue when you’re consistently failing to protect consumers.

If the cable and tech industries are so concerned about regulatory imbalance, they should throw their lobbying weight behind stronger privacy protections for all. Let’s treat the FCC’s pending rules as a floor instead of a ceiling.

Internet users demand stronger privacy protections, and the FCC is ready and able to deliver them using the authority Congress granted. Waxman and other lobbyists should quit peddling the industry’s false narratives and let the FCC do its job.

Dana Floberg is the C. Edwin Baker Policy Fellow at Free Press


The views expressed by authors are their own and not the views of The Hill.