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FCC claims to protect consumers' privacy, but aims for market control

By Katie McAuliffe, Andreas Hellmann | October 26, 2016

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) will vote on new privacy guidelines for broadband Internet Service Providers (ISPs) on October 27th. 

The FCC claims, that Internet Service Providers have access to customer’s geo-data, browser-history and much more data, that they use without providing any notification. The FCC’s intention may sound very honorable, but privacy is a hot button issue cloaking other aims. 

This is not their first intrusion into the Internet, and the Commission has been the champion of regulatory overreach over the past years, hindering American businesses and consumers with absurd rules and regulation. This has placed an immense burden on the American economy.

The FCC fails to show definitive examples of ISPs abusing the data they claim these rules will protect. In fact the ISPs already don’t collecting data about your web-surfing habits without your explicit permission. That is the bottom line of a Federal Communications Commission vote from March 31st 2016. Regardless of demonstrated actual harm, the FCC can regulate because it has authority, under the Open Internet Order.  In fact, there are many reports that state that the ISPs don’t have access to all this data that is described by the FCC. Furthermore the regulations in question will block ISPs from bringing competition to the online advertising market that would benefit consumers and help to empower top players like Google and Facebook that have more aces to user data than ISPs.

Encryption, diverse access points, VPNs and other applications that compete in the market based on privacy offerings prevent ISPs from accessing the data that the FCC points to as justification.

Encryption, such as HTTPS, blocks ISPs from having the ability to see users’ content and detailed URLs. In the past ISPs may have had more access to our information, but today they have very little. As of June 2016, 53.3% of the Internet's 141,387 most popular websites have a secure implementation of HTTPS or use it as default, and 45% of page loads (measured by Firefox Telemetry) use HTTPS. So 97.3 % of the internet’s website are secured. Famously, WhatsApp or Apple’s iMessage are entirely end-to-end encrypted. The infrastructure cannot have “comprehensive” visibility into user activity flowing over the network when encryption blocks ISPs from a growing majority of user activity.

Furthermore, ISPs only support a fraction of a consumer’s internet data usage because users connect to the internet from changing locations and multiple devices.  Devices which use different ISPs and have different IP addresses. Twenty-five years ago, a typical user accessed the Internet from a single, stationary home desktop computer connected by a single ISP. Today, the average Internet user has more than six connected devices.  "By 2014, 46 percent of mobile data traffic was offloaded to WiFi networks, and that figure will grow to 60 percent by 2020.” If an ISP collected any kind of data, it would not have a comprehensive picture of a user’s habits. 

More and more users “protect” themselves by using Virtual Private Networks(“VPN’s”) or other new proxy services offered companies such as Norton Internet Security which   to create a secure connection to another network over the Internet. VPNs can be used to access region-restricted websites, shield your browsing activity from prying eyes on public Wi-Fi. When a user accesses the Internet through such an encrypted instrument the ISPs cannot even see the domain name that a user is visiting, nor the content.

Non-ISPs often have greater access to user Information than ISPs, because the user provides information by using social networks, search engines, webmail and instant messaging, operating systems or other mobile apps.  However, these edge providers, who actually have the most access to this data are not regulated this stringently, because the Federal Trade Commission, which is generally agreed to be the expert agency on privacy chose opt-out regulations as the appropriate way to regulate privacy in this space like the Google Maps app, that requires location services to be turned on, the Facebook app using not only your location, but access to contacts and more personal information or your iPhone collection all your locations with time and date.

If the Federal Trade Commission, the expert agency on consumer privacy chose opt-out regulations for over the top services, like mobile apps, why is the FCC going against the FTC model for ISPs?

They say the rules are “designed to ensure broadband customers have meaningful choice, greater transparency and strong security protections for their personal information collected by ISPs” and “to provide consumers more control over the use of their personal information – and enforce the broadband provider’s responsibility to safeguard such data.” (FCC-Statement)

The FCC's consumer protection angle is not about protecting consumers.  It is about inserting itself further into the regulation of the Internet infrastructure. It is about the FCC gaining so much control that the Internet really will be regulated like a Hugo Chavez utility.