FCC Chairman Wheeler’s claimed fealty to FTC privacy standards is belied by the rules he actually proposes

Geoffrey Manne —  21 October 2016

Next week the FCC is slated to vote on the second iteration of Chairman Wheeler’s proposed broadband privacy rules. Of course, as has become all too common, none of us outside the Commission has actually seen the proposal. But earlier this month Chairman Wheeler released a Fact Sheet that suggests some of the ways it would update the rules he initially proposed.

According to the Fact Sheet, the new proposed rules are

designed to evolve with changing technologies and encourage innovation, and are in harmony with other key privacy frameworks and principles — including those outlined by the Federal Trade Commission and the Administration’s Consumer Privacy Bill of Rights.

Unfortunately, the Chairman’s proposal appears to fall short of the mark on both counts.

As I discuss in detail in a letter filed with the Commission yesterday, despite the Chairman’s rhetoric, the rules described in the Fact Sheet fail to align with the FTC’s approach to privacy regulation embodied in its 2012 Privacy Report in at least two key ways:

  • First, the Fact Sheet significantly expands the scope of information that would be considered “sensitive” beyond that contemplated by the FTC. That, in turn, would impose onerous and unnecessary consumer consent obligations on commonplace uses of data, undermining consumer welfare, depriving consumers of information and access to new products and services, and restricting competition.
  • Second, unlike the FTC’s framework, the proposal described by the Fact Sheet ignores the crucial role of “context” in determining the appropriate level of consumer choice before affected companies may use consumer data. Instead, the Fact Sheet takes a rigid, acontextual approach that would stifle innovation and harm consumers.

The Chairman’s proposal moves far beyond the FTC’s definition of “sensitive” information requiring “opt-in” consent

The FTC’s privacy guidance is, in its design at least, appropriately flexible, aimed at balancing the immense benefits of information flows with sensible consumer protections. Thus it eschews an “inflexible list of specific practices” that would automatically trigger onerous consent obligations and “risk[] undermining companies’ incentives to innovate and develop new products and services….”

Under the FTC’s regime, depending on the context in which it is used (on which see the next section, below), the sensitivity of data delineates the difference between data uses that require “express affirmative” (opt-in) consent and those that do not (requiring only “other protections” short of opt-in consent — e.g., opt-out).

Because the distinction is so important — because opt-in consent is much more likely to staunch data flows — the FTC endeavors to provide guidance as to what data should be considered sensitive, and to cabin the scope of activities requiring opt-in consent. Thus, the FTC explains that “information about children, financial and health information, Social Security numbers, and precise geolocation data [should be treated as] sensitive.” But beyond those instances, the FTC doesn’t consider any other type of data as inherently sensitive.

By contrast, and without explanation, Chairman Wheeler’s Fact Sheet significantly expands what constitutes “sensitive” information requiring “opt-in” consent by adding “web browsing history,” “app usage history,” and “the content of communications” to the list of categories of data deemed sensitive in all cases.

By treating some of the most common and important categories of data as always “sensitive,” and by making the sensitivity of data the sole determinant for opt-in consent, the Chairman’s proposal would make it almost impossible for ISPs to make routine (to say nothing of innovative), appropriate, and productive uses of data comparable to those undertaken by virtually every major Internet company.  This goes well beyond anything contemplated by the FTC — with no evidence of any corresponding benefit to consumers and with obvious harm to competition, innovation, and the overall economy online.

And because the Chairman’s proposal would impose these inappropriate and costly restrictions only on ISPs, it would create a barrier to competition by ISPs in other platform markets, without offering a defensible consumer protection rationale to justify either the disparate treatment or the restriction on competition.

As Fred Cate and Michael Staten have explained,

“Opt-in” offers no greater privacy protection than allowing consumers to “opt-out”…, yet it imposes significantly higher costs on consumers, businesses, and the economy.

Not surprisingly, these costs fall disproportionately on the relatively poor and the less technology-literate. In the former case, opt-in requirements may deter companies from offering services at all, even to people who would make a very different trade-off between privacy and monetary price. In the latter case, because an initial decision to opt-in must be taken in relative ignorance, users without much experience to guide their decisions will face effectively higher decision-making costs than more knowledgeable users.

The Chairman’s proposal ignores the central role of context in the FTC’s privacy framework

In part for these reasons, central to the FTC’s more flexible framework is the establishment of a sort of “safe harbor” for data uses where the benefits clearly exceed the costs and consumer consent may be inferred:

Companies do not need to provide choice before collecting and using consumer data for practices that are consistent with the context of the transaction or the company’s relationship with the consumer….

Thus for many straightforward uses of data, the “context of the transaction,” not the asserted “sensitivity” of the underlying data, is the threshold question in evaluating the need for consumer choice in the FTC’s framework.

Chairman Wheeler’s Fact Sheet, by contrast, ignores this central role of context in its analysis. Instead, it focuses solely on data sensitivity, claiming that doing so is “in line with customer expectations.”

But this is inconsistent with the FTC’s approach.

In fact, the FTC’s framework explicitly rejects a pure “consumer expectations” standard:

Rather than relying solely upon the inherently subjective test of consumer expectations, the… standard focuses on more objective factors related to the consumer’s relationship with a business.

And while everyone agrees that sensitivity is a key part of pegging privacy regulation to actual consumer and corporate relationships, the FTC also recognizes that the importance of the sensitivity of the underlying data varies with the context in which it is used. Or, in the words of the White House’s 2012 Consumer Data Privacy in a Networked World Report (introducing its Consumer Privacy Bill of Rights), “[c]ontext should shape the balance and relative emphasis of particular principles” guiding the regulation of privacy.

By contrast, Chairman Wheeler’s “sensitivity-determines-consumer-expectations” framing is a transparent attempt to claim fealty to the FTC’s (and the Administration’s) privacy standards while actually implementing a privacy regime that is flatly inconsistent with them.

The FTC’s approach isn’t perfect, but that’s no excuse to double down on its failings

The FTC’s privacy guidance, and even more so its privacy enforcement practices under Section 5, are far from perfect. The FTC should be commended for its acknowledgement that consumers’ privacy preferences and companies’ uses of data will change over time, and that there are trade-offs inherent in imposing any constraints on the flow of information. But even the FTC fails to actually assess the magnitude of the costs and benefits of, and the deep complexities involved in, the trade-off, and puts an unjustified thumb on the scale in favor of limiting data use.  

But that’s no excuse for Chairman Wheeler to ignore what the FTC gets right, and to double down on its failings. Based on the Fact Sheet (and the initial NPRM), it’s a virtual certainty that the Chairman’s proposal doesn’t heed the FTC’s refreshing call for humility and flexibility regarding the application of privacy rules to ISPs (and other Internet platforms):

These are complex and rapidly evolving areas, and more work should be done to learn about the practices of all large platform providers, their technical capabilities with respect to consumer data, and their current and expected uses of such data.

The rhetoric of the Chairman’s Fact Sheet is correct: the FCC should in fact conform its approach to privacy to the framework established by the FTC. Unfortunately, the reality of the Fact Sheet simply doesn’t comport with its rhetoric.

As the FCC’s vote on the Chairman’s proposal rapidly nears, and in light of its significant defects, we can only hope that the rest of the Commission refrains from reflexively adopting the proposed regime, and works to ensure that these problematic deviations from the FTC’s framework are addressed before moving forward.

Geoffrey Manne



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