Regulators Set Their Sights On an Internet Industry
Perhaps the most important currency in the Internet age is our personal information. We constantly provide information about ourselves to content providers in exchange for the services we use. We use social media, e-mail, and web-search tools for free because we allow companies such as Microsoft, Yahoo, Google, Facebook, and Twitter to use our personal information.
But bureaucrats at the Federal Communications Commission are currently considering a proposal that would heavily regulate our ability to trade information on the Internet. What’s more, the regulations would only apply some companies, putting them on unequal footing with their rivals and creating an inefficient and unfair marketplace.
The FCC’s reclassification of Internet service providers (ISPs) as telecommunications services in 2015 has opened the door for a very broad swathe of unilateral regulatory moves by the FCC, including their new information proposal. Under this proposed framework, there would be a heavy regulatory burden for ISPs — such as Comcast, AT&T, and Verizon — that would not apply to other companies that similarly trade personal information for communications services.
There are legitimate concerns at the heart of this matter. Americans are very worried about their privacy online, especially how much control they have over their own information. But a few key facts cloud the FCC’s proposal.
First, Americans’ concerns about their personal information are not, in fact, growing. We live in an unprecedented age of information sharing: Americans are giving out more and more of their information online, on social websites, shopping websites, and search engines, while giving those companies the ability to tailor their web experiences and advertising based on that information. But — perhaps surprisingly — since the turn of the century, Americans’ concerns about their online privacy have not actually increased. While privacy remains an important American value, the level of concern among the public is roughly the same as in the year 2000, despite an overwhelming increase in the flow of information.
Second, people don’t trust the government with their information, either. In fact, the Pew Research Center has found that people don’t trust the government any more than they trust their cell phone companies or third-party websites with information security. (Nor is it clear that Americans trust ISPs any less than giant communications corporations such as Facebook or Google.)
Third, while the FCC claims that the regulations are intended to bring a universal standard to privacy and information security online, that’s impossible by definition. Why? Precisely because the FCC doesn’t have authority to regulate companies that aren’t classified as ISPs (such as Facebook or Google). In reality, the FCC is simply trying to exert regulatory control over the only companies it has power over: common carrier telecommunications companies.
This selective regulatory approach will result in a two-tiered regulatory regime in which consumers are left in the dark about who is allowed to do what. And it will the disproportionately empower content corporations, such as Facebook and Google.
To create genuinely universal standards, Congress would have to pass new laws. And that’s how it should be: Accountable politicians with the power to create law — rather than the unelected bureaucrats at the FCC — should be the ones proposing any necessary regulations.
There’s good reason for Americans not to trust the FCC with the kind of power they’re trying to exert. The FCC has been anything but transparent during this process: There have been thousands of comments made to the FCC during the comment period that have not been made public, counter to the FCC’s standard procedure. Given that track record on transparency, it makes sense to be skeptical about the FCC’s claims that its privacy standards will benefit consumers.
Americans are rightly concerned about their privacy online. But why should they put their faith in the government to keep their information secure?
Kevin Glass is the Director of Policy and Outreach for the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity, a nonprofit that publishes public-interest journalism at Watchdog.org.