Tom Wheeler’s moment of truth
© Greg Nash

The past decade in Washington has been marked by a series of titanic battles over the future of the internet and the best way to protect and empower people online.

But as the FCC considers sweeping new broadband privacy rules that would radically change the rules for consumer data, a remarkable consensus has emerged warning the FCC against an ill-considered policy shift that would threaten the free internet every one enjoys.

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From Google to Comcast to AT&T, to thousands of other tech and internet companies, there’s a growing concern that a “hear no evil" FCC has shut its ears to a dire warning about the impact of its proposed new rules on internet commerce and the basic operation of the world wide web. They certainly don’t seem to be listening to the online advertisers and everyone in our lengthy supply chain explaining the need for technology neutral and evenhanded regulation to protect consumers and keep the digital economy chugging along. “Don’t Break The Internet,” is an over-used canard, but in this case it most definitely applies.

Here’s the problem.

Everyone who uses the internet understands the power of data to improve the internet experience and keep the internet experience affordable.  Amazon depends on data to recommend new products and services, Google relies on data-driven advertising to keep Gmail and its other services free, banks analyze data patterns to sound the alarm when grandma’s credit card starts running up charges at the mall, and countless other companies rely on data to find new customers and offer them discounts, products and services they might like.  It’s a pretty basic trade off and one that has thrived for years under a mix of strong self regulation as exemplified by the Digital Advertisers Alliance and oversight by the FTC.  With strong disclosure and consumer choice, this model has worked incredibly well to protect the privacy of genuinely sensitive consumer information while propelling the internet economy forward.

But Chairman Wheeler has proposed new roles that would blow up that model for broadband providers, making it virtually impossible for them to use even the most mundane web or app based information.  That will hurt consumers in myriad ways, shutting off the flow of information about discounts and new services to their customers, and undermining security by blinding broadband companies to the basic kinds of information that every other company on the internet can use.  It will slam the door on start ups who often depend on data collection and ad sales to get off the ground.

The FCC proposal simply makes no sense.  It conflicts with the principles of transparency and choice that have been at the core of the Obama Administration’s privacy policies for years. 

Consumers won’t be better protected by that chaos.  They will only be confused.  Many will believe they have made choices to protect their data and be shocked to learn those choices only cover some of the information, some of the time. 

And innovation itself will be dragged down as the friction of these different and conflicting rules grinds new developments and ideas to a halt.

Fortunately, as the united tech and internet community has explained, there is a better way.

The Federal Trade Commission already has a framework for online privacy that protects consumers’ most sensitive data and gives internet users meaningful control.  That framework recognizes that some web and app information will be sensitive – like information about children’s activities, health, or personal finances – but some will not – like routine web surfing or shopping. 

The FCC should simply harmonize its rules with this approach, which already applies to huge chunks of the internet and the Obama Administration has supported for years.  It should abandon its misguided idea to deem all web and app based information automatically sensitive in all cases, no matter how mundane the subject.  And it should stick with the north star of technology neutrality.

Chairman Wheeler has had to navigate some tough issues and take sides in huge clashes between important industries over the years.

But he doesn’t have to do that on online privacy – where a vast coalition of experts and stakeholders touching virtually the entire internet ecosystem are united in urging him to adopt the successful, well-tested privacy approach already working at the FTC.

Dave Grimaldi is Executive Vice President, Public Policy at the Interactive Advertising Bureau.


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