Federal Communications Commission Chairman Tom Wheeler defended his proposal to enforce new privacy rules for broadband providers on Wednesday while sparring with opponents at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing.
The proposal — which the commission voted to formally consider in March — would require internet providers to get their customer’s affirmative consent for most uses of their information.
That’s led opponents to claim that Wheeler is unfairly targeting internet providers for tougher regulations, instead of applying the same standards that regulate companies like Google and Facebook.
“First, it makes little sense to give some companies greater leeway under the law than others when all may have access to the very same personal data,” said Republican Commissioner Ajit Pai at the hearing, held by the Subcommittee on Privacy, Technology and the Law. “This disparate approach does not benefit or the public interest. It simply favors one set of corporate interests over another.”
Wheeler told the committee that internet providers were in a privileged position when it came to accessing consumer information.
“I go to WebMD, and WebMD collects information on me. I go to Weather.com, and Weather.com collects information on me,” he said. “I go to Facebook, and Facebook collects information on on me. But only one entity collects all of that information, that I’m going to all of those different sites, and can turn around and monetize it."
He also argued that it had always been the case that networks — including the phone networks where the FCC has long policed privacy — didn’t have access to the personal information that was shared over their infrastructure.
“My network delivered me there without taking my information,” he said, of placing an order for an item on the phone and getting added to the store’s mailing list. “That’s the change that is trying to be perpetrated at this point and time.”
The hearing also featured testimony from Federal Trade Commission Chairwoman Edith Ramirez and FTC Commissioner Maureen Ohlhausen, a Republican.
It marked the first time that lawmakers have devoted a hearing to the proposal, which is one of a handful of controversial FCC proposals expected to be considered before the end of the year. The commission is currently considering comments on the plan.