But the FCC wants to know, and is willing to put consumer privacy at risk to find out.

The FCC cares deeply about broadband. We know that because it released a 360-page report called The National Broadband Plan and set up a website called www.broadband.gov. Also, the Commissioners nowadays pepper their speeches with references to the importance of broadband.

Harder to find is evidence of similar interest outside the Beltway. Or even outside FCC headquarters. When the FCC went looking, it found mostly apathy.

The FCC conducted a survey of broadband service. Not of how many people receive broadband, or what speeds they get, these being issues the FCC has long tracked. Rather, it looked into whether people know their broadband speeds. In case the importance of this datum is not obvious (it wasn’t to us), FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski explains: “The more broadband subscribers know about what speeds they need and what speeds they get, the more they can make the market work and push faster speeds over broadband networks.”

If the Chairman is right, the market is not working. Eighty percent of U.S. broadband users do not know the speed of their Internet connections. We are shocked! Well, not really, but we might be shocked if were not part of the ignorant 80%.

With all the earnestness of a middle-school science fair project, the FCC breaks down these numbers by population groups. The results are about what you would expect. Most likely to know their broadband speeds are men, young people, whites, and people with higher incomes – the same groups, by and large, that show the most interest in technology generally. (Note to emailers: yes, we know there are many exceptions.)

But there is also good news. Even though many of us may not pay much attention to the details, we still know what we like. Ninety-one percent of users report being satisfied with their broadband speeds (whatever those are). This is a startling statistic. It is hard to imagine anything else that satisfies 91% of Americans. A person handing out free money on the street would not draw that high an approval rating. The broadband industry must be doing something right.

The not-so-satisfied nine percent are not further identified, but we think we know who they are:  namely, people with teenagers who incessantly download Facebook videos and watch TV over YouTube and Hulu. These are people who need twenty minutes to open an ordinary email. As to them, the FCC might as well give up. Teenagers can consume bandwidth as fast as providers can install it.

The data show an interesting anomaly. Seventy-one percent of respondents say they actually receive the speed their broadband provider promises, either “always” or “most of the time”. Combine this with the reported fact of 80% cluelessness as to speed. The result? Fully half the broadband-using population have no idea what their speed is, yet are confident that it equals the advertised speed!  How can that be? Maybe Americans just have implicit trust that their phone and cable companies always deliver what they promise. Or maybe, after long enough on the phone answering silly questions, people start giving the interviewer random answers out of sheer boredom.

At any rate, having found that unsuspected vein of ignorance, the FCC also has ideas to attack it.

For one thing, the FCC offers a website that blows back the curtains of darkness and reveals your own broadband speed. Just browse to this FCC-provided link and click a few buttons. When you do, the FCC will collect your address before it tests your speed. The FCC “may use this [address] data to analyze broadband availability on a geographic basis.” Not a systematic technique for gathering data, but harmless enough.

Harmless, that is, so long as the FCC does not use the information for anything else. But when we click through to the fine print, we find eight different situations in which the FCC can disclose your address. Read them here.  None requires a warrant, or even a subpoena. This is just one of them: “Where there is an indication of a violation or potential violation of a statute, regulation, rule, or order . . . .” That alone covers a lot of ground. Considering how hard it is to know exactly what on the Internet is legal, some people may not want the FCC to have their address on file along with their connection details. More cautious broadband users can bypass the FCC address screen and go directly to the identical speed test sites by clicking here and here. The Internet also offers many other free speed tests, including this one and this one. (Commlawblog does not endorse any of these.)

Alternatively, instead of just telling the FCC your address, you can invite them over to your house to install a box that monitors and reports your Internet activity.  

You think we’re kidding, right? We’re not.

The box – which the FCC refers to as the “SamKnows Whitebox” (seriously, we couldn’t make this stuff up) – will report data on your web surfing, peer-to-peer video download, video streaming, file download and upload, online gaming, and VoIP. The FCC emphasizes how secure the system is against outside hackers. But frankly, it’s not outside hackers that concern us most. The FCC has not yet told us how it will use the collected information, or when it might disclose the details to law enforcement. Presumably it will let us know before installation. We suspect the more sophisticated users will keep the FCC at a safe distance. In consequence, whatever data result from these boxes are not likely to be representative.

The FCC is also trying to figure out how to get comparable data from mobile broadband users. Among its questions: “Are there any legal, security, privacy or data sensitivity issues with collecting device level data? If so, how can these issues be addressed?” The simple answer is apparent: don’t collect any personal information on the person using the device.

When George Orwell published 1984, the most intrusive technology he could think of was a two-way TV that monitored citizens’ activities. Orwell would have loved (or hated) the Internet. Not that the FCC is in any danger of morphing into Big Brother. But it should be possible for the government to promote broadband, and even monitor its deployment, without gathering data on individual users. Or, if such data are essential to the FCC’s mission, it could ask Congress to authorize an absolutely airtight, no-exceptions privacy protection. The only alternative is to trust the Government’s competence and discretion. That has not always worked out so well in the past.