THERE are times when the art of politics involves pretending trivial events are actually earth-shaking. That certainly seems to be the case with the reaction to a congressional vote repealing a Federal Communications Commission rule on customer privacy.
As many have noted, the FCC rule had not yet taken effect, so no one lost any existing privacy protections. And the proposed rule actually exempted many online entities, so even had it taken effect the alleged benefits were far less than suggested.
Larry Downes, project director of the Georgetown Center for Business and Public Policy, put it bluntly at Forbes.com, writing “The net impact on your privacy of this action, assuming President Trump approves the resolution, will be absolutely zero.” (Trump approved it Monday.)
The FCC rule would have required that customers provide affirmative consent by specifically opting in to any collection or use of their information, including browsing history. Such data is routinely used to target online advertising to specific audiences. Those who shop for specific products online are thus more likely to see other, targeted ads.
Yet Downes notes the FCC rule applied only to internet service providers (ISPs), “who currently do little advertising.”
As The Wall Street Journal noted in an editorial, the rule “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.”
Citing a study from eMarketer, Downes writes that Google accounts for over 40 percent of the $83 billion digital ad market while Facebook will earn $16 billion from display ads.
So for those distressed that their browsing history could be monetized for advertising purposes, the FCC rule was inconsequential, the hype of activists notwithstanding.
Furthermore, the FCC still retains the power to address abuses.
Ryan Radia, research fellow and regulatory counsel at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, writes that federal law still gives the FCC the power “to police ‘unjust’ or ‘unreasonable’ practices by broadband providers, including conduct related to data privacy.”
In 2016, a top FCC official said the agency had brought more than 150 “privacy and data security-related enforcement actions” annually.
The aforementioned reasons, and others, explain why former Federal Trade Commission Chairman Jon Leibowitz, who led the FTC under President Obama, recently dismissed the furor over the FCC rule repeal as “hyper-partisan hyperbole.”
Most people not only understand the slight privacy trade-off involved with their online usage, but also appreciate the related service improvements generated as a result. Critics of repealing the FCC rule are making a mountain out of a molehill.