from the seems-a-bit-late dept
We just got done noting how the FCC has spent most of the last decade under the bootheel of the telecom lobby, and in an era where all DC policy is fixated on “big tech,” (often for very good reasons) nobody much seems to care or have noticed. For four years under Trump, the FCC was little more than a rubber stamp, approving every terrible idea the industry had.
Under Biden, telecom lobbyists and the GOP then worked in unison to prevent the agency from being staffed (see the successful coordinated smear campaign against FCC nominee Gigi Sohn) or having a voting majority. Not that the agency’s Democrats — who have a weird aversion to even acknowledging the US broadband monopoly problem — would put that authority to use anyway.
Keenly aware they’re increasingly viewed as feckless on consumer protection, the FCC under Jessica Rosenworcel put on a bit of a performative show last week. One, by announcing a hollow “investigation” into broadband usage caps (as if data hadn’t made it clear for decades such caps are a technically pointless way monopolies ruthlessly exploit of limited competition). I’ll have another post on that.
And two, by launching a new “privacy task force” the FCC claims will belatedly start protecting consumer privacy and policing corporate malfeasance. The announcement is rather ambiguous and contains zero meaningful insight into what this new committee might actually do given its ongoing 2-2 voting gridlock caused by industry lobbying:
“We live in an era of always-on connectivity. Connection is no longer just convenient. It fuels
every aspect of modern civic and commercial life. To address the security challenges of this
reality head-on, we must protect consumers’ information, ensure data security, and require
cyber vigilance from every participant in our communications networks,” said Chairwoman
Rosenworcel. “This team of FCC experts will lead our efforts to protect consumer privacy.”
If you’ve been asleep on telecom privacy issues, don’t worry, so has the FCC. For decades the U.S. telecom industry has been plagued by major SIM hijacking and identity theft scandals, location data scandals, domestic surveillance scandals, major unfixed wireless vulnerabilities, and repeated, avoidable hacks (like T-Mobile being hacked eight times in just fives years).
But the problem hasn’t been a lack of meeting minutes. The problem has been a steady parade of corruption at the hands of telecom lobbyists looking to lobotomize all oversight of some of the least liked corporations in U.S. history (looking at you, AT&T, Comcast, and Verizon).
In 2017 the Wheeler FCC tried to pass basic broadband privacy laws that at least required that telecoms be transparent about what data they collect. That effort was quickly crushed by telecom lobbyists, the GOP, and a corrupt Senate wielding the CRA. In the years since, the FCC’s response to endless privacy scandals has been a rotating crop of half-assery, uncollected fines, and bureaucratic gibberish.
Occasionally, the FCC at least makes a half-assed effort to appear like it’s doing something useful on consumer protection. Like last January, when the agency finally proposed (in 2023!) requirements that telecom providers actually inform consumers on a timely basis when their data is compromised.
Of course because the Biden FCC lacks a necessary 3-2 voting majority to do anything (again thanks to the telecom industry’s political ratfucking of Gigi Sohn) few policies with actual teeth emerge. For example, the FCC can’t actually implement the timely disclosure requirements above without said voting majority. Nor can it collect on the location data abuse fines it tried to hit carriers with years ago.
As the GOP and telecom industry worked in unison to wage a homophobic smear campaign against Gigi Sohn over the last year, neither of her would-be Democratic colleagues, Jessica Rosenworcel or Geoffrey Starks, could be bothered to issue a single solitary peep of meaningful support. Either because they didn’t agree with Sohn’s reformist views, or they lacked the political backbone to wade into the fray.
Most of the current FCC’s consumer protection actions are pantomime for appearance’s sake. This isn’t an agency that’s been willing to stand up to giant telecom monopolies on any substance of note since the net neutrality fracas, and you saw how that turned out.
While the agency does perform essential technical functions on spectrum and engineering issues, its function as a meaningful consumer protection watchdog has been dead as a doornail for a decade due to corruption. At this point we’re just pretending otherwise.
In response, much of the onus to consumer protection has shifted to a shoddy patchwork of state AGs who may or may not actually have the resources for the job. That, in turn, results in some patchy state privacy laws of inconsistent quality, and a ton of corrupt states with zero meaningful consumer protection standards whatsoever. Again, all by telecom and media industry design.
An ambiguous “task force” probably isn’t going to meaningfully address the underlying rot on privacy and consumer protection accountability, which is soon to get worse courtesy of several looming Supreme Court rulings aimed at undermining federal regulatory authority even further.
At this point, the federal consumer protection movement desperately needs less hollow bureaucracy and more fierce reformers and fighters with political courage. But as the Gigi Sohn fracas demonstrates, it’s abundantly clear what happens to those kinds of candidates when they attempt to run the nomination gantlet.
Filed Under: broadband, consumer protection, fcc, geoffrey starks, gigi sohn, high speed internet, jessica rosenworcel, privacy, security, sim hijacking, ss7 flaw, telecom