The Big ISPs and Regulation

FCC_New_LogoLast week Chairman Ajit Pai halted the impending implementation of the new privacy rules that were to stop the big ISPs from monetizing customer data without customer permission. The Chairman’s stated reason is that he didn’t want to see different rules applied to the big ISPs than to big web companies like Facebook and Google. That argument sounds like a valid reason, but as you will see below, there is no easy path towards treating all of these companies the same.

The stay applied to FCC rules covering a wide variety of privacy issues. The rules were to require the big ISPs to get customer permission to use their data. The rules also created specific security requirements at the ISPs defining how ISPs have to protect customer data and how and when they had to disclose data breaches to customers.

So here is where the confusion starts. The FCC clearly has no authority to regulate the web and what it calls edge-providers – companies like Facebook and Google. It would take an Act of Congress to give the FCC any authority to regulate the web – something that neither Democratic nor Republican administrations have had an appetite for.

Chairman Pai did suggest that perhaps the easiest solution is to hand ISP security issues to the Federal Trade Commission. But the new head of the FTC said this the agency would have no authority to regulate ISPs as long as Title II authority gives this authority to the FCC. So perhaps this action is an indicator that Chairman Pai intends to reverse Title II regulation. He’s said that he is against net neutrality and the FCC used the tool of Title II regulation to implement it. So killing Title II regulations would also get rid of net neutrality.

But what is not being talked about is that the FTC has never contemplated privacy rules as sweeping as the ones implemented by the FCC. The FTC already could impose these rules on Facebook, Google and everybody else on the web, but has never taken any serious steps towards doing so.

Because of that, halting the privacy rules feels like Chairman Pai is just letting the big ISPs off the hook. The big ISPs have been lobbying against these rules from the second they were passed. The ISPs are jealous of the giant revenues that the web companies are making from data mining of consumer data. And the ISPs want to protect what they’ve already been doing. It’s been well known, for example, that AT&T has been monetizing customer data. The leaks from Edward Snowden showed that AT&T has been supplying far more data to the NSA than is required by the Patriot Act. There are reports of a lucrative multi-billion dollar AT&T product line called ‘Hemisphere’ that has been selling customer phone and internet records to the federal government and to local law enforcement agencies.

What I think all of this means is that we have seen the end, for a while of any government agency trying to provide privacy protection for customers. This mainly bothers me as a consumer more than as a consultant. I work entirely with smaller ISPs and none of them have the ability to use customer data in the same way that the big companies do. This latest FCC action only immediately affects perhaps the dozen largest ISPs.

There is a big functional different between ISPs and edge-providers like Facebook. An ISP can see every keystroke a customer makes on the web, except for those that are made inside some encrypted program. But almost nobody uses encryption and so your ISP knows every web site you visit, the contents of every email you write, and every query you make to a search engine. And they know even more about you from your cellphone records – where you traveled and when.

But the difference between Facebook and the ISPs is that nobody makes you use Facebook. I really hate the way that the big companies like Facebook and Google track everything you do inside their platforms. I dropped off Facebook last year partly for this reason.  I also rarely use Google as a search engine and don’t use Gmail or Google’s Chrome web browser. I can largely avoid the big web companies, but I can’t avoid my ISP. And like most Americans I don’t have any real option but to use a big ISP for broadband access.

I’m probably like most Americans and don’t feel like I have a lot to hide. But that still does not mean that I want big companies following my every movement, my every purchase, my every email and every web site I visit. That has far too much “big brother” about it for my liking. I know today that this data is mostly being used to develop targeted marketing, but this information could also easily be used for nefarious purposes, and some of that is starting to happen.

As much as this reversal of the privacy rules bothers me as a consumer, the big picture here is that, for now, the big ISPs finally have the FCC they want. This FCC has already said it’s going to reverse or gut net neutrality. This FCC just said they aren’t going to review the AT&T and Time Warner merger. Killing the privacy rules is final proof, only a month after the new Chairman has been in charge, that the big ISPs are likely to get everything they want. And I don’t think that is a healthy thing for the industry or for consumers.

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