The Wall Street Journal:
Perhaps you’ve read that Congress voted to empower cable providers to collect your personal information and sell it, unraveling “landmark” privacy protections from the Federal Communications Commission. The partisans and reporters pumping this claim are—let’s be kind—uninformed, so allow us to add a few facts.
The House voted this week to rescind an Obama Administration regulation requiring that cable customers “opt in” to allow data mining of their preferences, which allows companies to feature targeted ads or improve service. The rule passed in a partisan FCC vote last year but never took effect. This belies the idea that Comcast and other invented villains will have some “new freedom” to auction off your data. President Trump is expected to sign the bill, which already passed the Senate. The result will be . . . the status quo.
The FCC didn’t roll out these rules in response to gross privacy invasions. The agency lacked jurisdiction until 2015 when it snatched authority from the Federal Trade Commission by reclassifying the internet as a public utility. The FTC had punished bad actors in privacy and data security for years, with more than 150 enforcement actions.
One best privacy practice is offering customers the choice to “opt out”—most consumers are willing to exchange their viewing habits for more personalized experiences, and the Rand Pauls of the world can elude collection. Cable customers have this option now. For sensitive information like Social Security numbers, consumers have to opt in. This framework protected privacy while allowing innovation.
The FCC ditched this approach and promulgated a rule that, curiously, did not apply to companies like Google or Amazon, whose business model includes monetizing massive data collection—what panda videos you watch or which gardening tools you buy. The rule was designed to give an edge to Twitter and friends in online advertising, a field already dominated by Silicon Valley.
The crew pushing the rule say cable companies deserve scrutiny because it is easy to change websites but hard to change internet-service providers. The reality is the reverse: The average internet user connects through six devices, according to a paper last year from Georgia Tech, and moves across locations and networks. But which search engine do you use, whether on your home laptop or iPhone at work? Probably Google. Plus: Encryption and other technology will soon shield some 70% of the internet from service providers.
What this week’s tumult means for your privacy online is nothing. FCC Chairman Ajit Pai and FTC Chairwoman Maureen Ohlhausen issued a joint statement saying they’d work together to build a “comprehensive and consistent framework” for privacy that doesn’t favor some tech companies over others. The interim is governed by FCC guidelines that have been in place for years.
These details haven’t stopped headlines like “How the Republicans Sold Your Privacy to Internet Providers.” That one ran atop a piece by President Obama’s FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler, who continues to shore up his legacy as a partisan. The misinformation campaign is an attempt to bully Republicans and Chairman Pai out of reversing eight years of capricious regulation. Both deserve credit for not buckling amid the phony meltdown.