Broadband network expansion has to tackle digital privacy protection

Broadband network expansion has to tackle digital privacy protection
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Today marks the 10th anniversary of the National Broadband Plan. It was mandated by law with the bipartisan passage of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act signed by President Obama. Congress vested the Federal Communications Commission to oversee the report, along with significant advice from the White House and a broad range of executive branch and regulatory agencies. The framework was developed so all Americans across the country have “access to broadband capability.”

Though the growth of high speed broadband networks was impressive in the ensuing decade, the Federal Communications Commission estimates that some 21 million Americans still lack broadband access. Indeed, what had been once viewed primarily as a federal policymaking responsibility to enhance broadband availability, however, is now being passed on to individual states that are better able to deal with their local situations.

Regardless of who takes charge, a key aspect of the National Broadband Plan remains unfulfilled. As the Pew Charitable Trusts has recently noted, “Communities without reliable high speed internet service cite a growing gap between the resources and opportunities available to their residents and those in communities that have a robust network,” and “Recognizing the importance of broadband responding to such frustrations, states are now seeking to close this gap.” Finally, “Most have established programs to bring broadband to the communities that lack it or are underserved.”

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The National Broadband Plan recognized that many users are concerned about the lack of control over sensitive personal data. That certainly has not decreased over time, as more data is collected, stored, and sent to third parties, often without knowledge or consent of consumers. But the framework did not address how the legal landscape should be reformed. This partly explains the flurry of legislative interest in motion around the world, especially since enactment of the European Union General Data Protection Regulation as well as the California Consumer Privacy Act.

The National Broadband Plan is interesting to review today beyond simply the numerical benchmarks for broadband expansion or what gaps in rural areas need to be closed when market forces are unlikely to do so on their own. A renewed focus has to be devoted to the three central questions in the National Broadband Plan that are importantly aimed at clarifying the existing patchwork of all the potentially confusing privacy regulations.

First, what obligations do firms that collect, analyze, or monetize personal data or create digital profiles of individuals have to consumers in terms of data sharing, collection, storage, protection, and accountability? Second, what, if any, new obligations should firms have to transparently disclose their use of, access to, and retention of personal data? Third, how could informed consent principles be applied to data usage and disclosures?

These remain key issues for policymakers at all levels to address because, as the National Broadband Plan concluded, increased privacy protection could address the “digital interaction and seamless content sharing” that could inevitably “drive more Americans online, increase the utilization of the internet, and help American businesses and organizations to develop deeper and more trusted relationships with their customers and clients.”

One specific set of privacy recommendations deserves closer attention in this regard. The National Broadband Plan called for spurring development of trusted “identity providers” to assist consumers in managing their data in a manner that maximizes the privacy and security of their information. Standard safe harbor provisions in legislation could permit companies to be designated trusted intermediaries that properly safeguard information, following strict guidelines and audits on data protection and privacy. The National Broadband Plan also rightly called for the creation of a legislative program that provides insurance to these special trusted intermediaries.

It is clear that increasing the number of Americans who have broadband network availability at home remains a worthy goal. However, it must be pursued within a larger context that links network expansion with more digital privacy protection. As the National Broadband Plan wisely noted, “Broadband networks only create value to consumers and businesses when they are used in conjunction with broadband capable devices to deliver useful applications and content.” Surely the future health of our broadband ecosystem will also require more holistic thinking about the critical link between network expansion and digital privacy protection.

Stuart Brotman is a former government official and fellow in digital privacy policy issues with the Science and Technology Innovation Program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars based in Washington.