NBP identifies on-line privacy as important – but questions abound as to what steps to take and who to take them

The FCC’s National Broadband Plan calls for the extension of broadband into virtually every facet of American life.  While ubiquitous connectivity has many benefits, it also raises questions about how to maintain the privacy of those who enter this brave new world.   The FCC astutely recognized that people’s concerns in this regard could be a significant barrier to adoption and utilization of on-line systems, and it has therefore offered some recommendations on how to create an on-line environment which will provide more consumer protections. But lest you think the FCC has suddenly gone soft and consumer-oriented, the National Broadband Plan (NBP) recommendations for on-line privacy place a hefty emphasis on the need to encourage commercial services which harness “digital identities” to provide customized services (and make a lot of money). These seemingly contradictory goals actually serve the same common purpose, according to the plan: firms with greater access to greater amounts of personal information can offer better targeted services, which in turn increase consumer use and utility.

So how do we reconcile these apparent cross-purposes to reach the FCC’s goal? Generally, the theme seems to hinge on two notions: (1) ensure competition and innovation in the data-collection and data-mining industry, and (2) ensure that individuals can manage their own “digital identities”.

Noting that the “existing regulatory frameworks provide only a partial solution to consumer concern and consist of a patchwork of potentially confusing regulations”, the NBP suggests, but does not outright recommend, that someone (Congress? It is unclear.) should sort out and clarify the roles of the FTC and FCC with respect to on-line privacy.  In a side-bar, the FCC tiptoes around asking Congress to help, but suggests that maybe the legislative branch ought to look into revision of the Privacy Act to, at the very least, grant consumers more control over their personal data.

Whichever branch of government or executive agency actually acts, the FCC makes recommendation is in the following areas:

Federal Framework – First, the FCC calls for laws or regulations that more specifically address the obligations data-collection and data-mining firms have to consumers with respect to use, sharing, collection, and storage of personal data.

Second, the FCC thinks Congress should help develop trusted “identity providers” to assist consumers in managing their data. Apparently the FCC believes that Congress is the best vehicle for adopting a regime in which safe harbor provisions, guidelines and audits could permit companies to become “trusted” safe-guarders of personal information. The FCC feels that Congress should also ensure that such companies can get insurance for their trouble.

Finally, the FCC recommends that it work with the FTC to develop principles to require consent before broadband service providers share certain personal data with third parties. Why this concept falls under the rubric of “principles” rather than “rules” is not explained, nor are potential enforceability issues.

Identity Theft and Fraud – Given that the FTC is mandated by Congress to act as the identity theft complaint clearinghouse and consumer guidance counselor, the FCC is all too happy to let the FTC continue to bear that burden.  The NBP does recommend some changes: first, the FTC should be given additional resources to battle identity theft and fraud.  These efforts should include amping-up OnGuard Online (an FTC-administered website that provides practical tips to consumers on internet privacy), maintenance of a database sorting out which agency is responsible for what when it comes to consumer protection on-line (back to that hot potato problem), and greater education and outreach.  Finally, the FCC recommends that the FTC coordinate more closely with the national security apparatus.

Child Protection – Citing the lesson that the best way to make swimming pools less dangerous for children is to teach children how to swim, the FCC recommends that the federal government (presumably the White House) create an interagency working group to coordinate child on-line safety and literacy efforts, and to spearhead a national education campaign.

[Blogmeister note: This is one in a series of posts describing the range of regulatory and societal areas in which the National Broadband Plan could, and likely will, affect us all. Click here to find other posts in this series.]