Privacy, at least as was defined by Obama’s FCC, is under imminent threat, with the focus being squarely on the FCC and net neutrality. The Republicans, stung by failure to dismantle Obamacare this week because of a rebuke by a wing of their own party, may look for easier pickings to register a needed political victory.
As a result, they may well turn their full attention to wrecking one of Obama’s few privacy successes - net neutrality and the other privacy protections engineered at the FCC.
This shouldn’t come as a shock, as the notion has been bandied about ever since Donald Trump was elected president. But the hour, it would appear, is now at hand. Congress will likely vote soon to roll back privacy rules imposed during the end of Obama’s tenure as president by his FCC Chairman, Tom Wheeler. The ballots could be cast as early as this week. Thus, what has been rumored for months and reported in this space more than a few times is about to become a reality.
The new FCC “sheriff in town, Ajit Pai, has left no doubt where his loyalties lay nor of his intentions. He was a lawyer for one of the ISPs, Verizon, which was negatively impacted by Wheelers’ regulations, and who expectedly opposed the privacy rules last year. He sees the commission’s role and his mandate to be regulating technical standards. as opposed to advocating for consumers or regulating the telecommunications industry.
This may be good news for the broadband behemoths but not for us, the consumers.
These giant firms are pleased because, it could translate into less red tape, and would make it easier for them to use consumers’ browsing history to help target more ads. More ads mean more revenue. And, bonus - it might mean they could do this without the customer’s permission. The latter point was a bone of contention for the ISPs, which argued that it put them at a competitive disadvantage under Obama’s FCC regulations when it came to competing for ad dollars.
But even the likes of Facebook and Google saw the rules as imposed by Wheeler as an opening of the door to further regulations in the consumer data area. Republicans are notoriously anti-regulation because any regulations, they say, inhibit free enterprise and the capitalist engine of innovation and growth.
Democrats, on the other hand, the GOP argues, seemingly never tire of a piece of government they can gain greater control over in order to grow the size of government. But even in these two competing and conflicting philosophies, there sometimes can be a common ground. If so, it is hard to see it in this debate.
This hope is expressed by Democratic Senator, Ed Markey, who created the 1996 Telecommunications Act,
“Yes, there are two sides to this. You want the entrepreneurial spirit to thrive, but you have to be able to say no, I don’t want you in my living room. Yes, we’re capitalists, but we’re capitalists with a conscience.”
But in what increasingly appears to be a clash of ideologies as well as political will, with Republicans holding the majority now in the FCC and Congress, the chances for compromise are not encouraging.
The prospect for the proposed dismantling has left consumer protection and privacy advocates apoplectic. They fear “…your private information being at the complete mercy of cable and telephone companies, who would face no federal repercussions from monetizing and reselling your personal information without your permission and without your knowledge,” the Electronic Frontier Foundation opined recently.
Of course, ISPs would counter that the likes of Facebook and Google have been doing just that for years, with impunity and without adequate regulation... and to the detriment of their bottom line.
In the ensuing days, it is hoped that there might be some moderating of the GOP position, but I wouldn’t hold my breath. So what we can cling to now is the realization that pre-2015 and Tom Wheeler’s rules, the world functioned fine and innovation flourished. The hope is that Pai’s imprint won’t smear that.