New Federal Privacy Bill Further Erodes FCC Oversight Of Big Telecom. You Know, For Freedom Or Whatever.

from the this-is-why-we-can't-have-nice-things dept

Telecom lobbyists are exploiting the creation of a new federal privacy bill, using the opportunity to further lobotomize the FCC and ensure the broken, uncompetitive U.S. telecom sector sees even less oversight than ever before.

For years telecom giants, the entire GOP, and some key Democrats have worked tirelessly to gut oversight of a very broken and uncompetitive business sector (broadband). They worked together to gut modest FCC broadband privacy rules in 2017. They also worked in perfect synchronicity during the Trump era to kill both net neutrality, and much of the FCC’s broadband consumer protection authority.

In lockstep, the GOP and telecom even tried (and failed, so far) to ban states from protecting broadband consumers from fraud and predatory behavior by the likes of Comcast and AT&T.

The justification for these moves were self-serving bullshit, wrapped up in the rhetoric of noble “deregulation” (read: doing whatever AT&T lawyers told you to do).

The Trump FCC, you’ll recall, literally claimed it was lobotomizing the FCC for “freedom” and because stuff like net neutrality was “stifling broadband investment” (data showed this was never true, but it didn’t matter). Kissing AT&T’s and Comcast’s asses, and ensuring U.S. telecom regulatory oversight was a feckless mess, was framed as a patriotic quest to thwart “heavy handed regulation.” Aka, bullshit.

The real goal: to hamstring the FCC, a regulator with the specific expertise to oversee a highly-consolidated, uncompetitive U.S. broadband sector. Then shovel any remaining authority to an over-extended, understaffed FTC responsible for everything from accuracy in bleach labeling to auto-mechanic scams, whose authority is constrained only to very obvious instances of “unfair and deceptive” behavior.

In short, the telecom industry wants to weaken the FCC, then hopes that meaningful accountability falls through the cracks at the FTC. They can then focus their singular lobbying attention on eroding FTC staffing, resources, and authority even further. Several former FCC officials warned this was happening years ago, but were ignored.

Which brings us to this week. As the government works to belatedly craft a new privacy bill for the Internet era (HR 8152), telecom lobbyists are busy at work exploiting it to push this desired outcome further along the tracks. The House Energy and Commerce Committee greenlit the nation’s first ever privacy bill for the Internet era, which is incredibly important.

To get the bill across the finish line, numerous industries are having their loyal congressional marionettes ask for some significant carve outs. One of those carve outs? Further gutting of the FCC’s privacy and consumer protection authority:

The latest version exempts small businesses from facing lawsuits by individuals. It also makes the Federal Trade Commission the sole enforcement agency overseeing data privacy, with a few exceptions, preempting the role of the Federal Communications Commission. Republicans have long challenged the FCC’s ability to enforce privacy rules in the telecom sector. 

This is kind of a throwaway mention by the Washington Post, but it’s important. Experts I’ve spoken to say the law would effectively pre-empt the FCC’s authority under the Cable Privacy Act and Satellite Privacy Act, much of the FCC’s authority over customer proprietary network information (CPNI), and even some of the agency’s consumer protection authority. The impact is far reaching.

It would hugely curtail the FCC’s expert authority over telecom, and prohibit it from doing even the fairly basic things it’s doing now, like the recently announced FCC inquiry into location data abuse by U.S. wireless carriers. And it could have been worse; Representative Richard Hudson at one point pushed an amendment that would have pre-empted all FCC authority under the Communications Act.

Again, the goal here for telecom is to shovel all oversight over to the FTC, then focus all of their resources on making sure the FTC lacks the authority, resources, staff, and funding to actually do its job. This, again, has been a decade-long quest that’s seen little meaningful resistance because, if you hadn’t noticed, the United States is grotesquely corrupt.

A few widely respected experts in telecom oversight issued warnings about the move, but they’re likely to be ignored under the din of excitement about the nation’s first ever privacy bill:

These experts are likely to be ignored because caring about big telecom in the era of big tech just isn’t fashionable. They also face being potentially ignored because many groups and organizations think a long overdue privacy bill of any type is worth a few sacrifices here and there. But this isn’t some small sacrifice, it’s a major handout to a monopolized sector with a terrible track record on privacy.

To get the GOP (and many key Democrats like Joe Manchin) on board the privacy train is going to require all kinds of utterly senseless and counterproductive carve-outs and exemptions that risk undermining the entire purpose of even having a privacy bill. Hopefully demolishing FCC authority just because AT&T told some lawmaker it was a good idea — won’t be part of the final bill language.

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