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An FTC report on big telecom puts Biden’s inaction on net neutrality in the spotlight

Some members of the FTC and one senator say its time for the FCC to get its authority over broadband back.

 

Andrew Wyrich

Tech

Published Oct 22, 2021   Updated Oct 22, 2021, 12:13 pm CDT

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) released a report on Thursday about the “staggering” data collection practices of internet service providers (ISPs). But two members of the FTC and at least two senators said the report highlights why the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) needs to regain its authority over broadband providers.

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The report went into detail about how AT&T, Verizon, Comcast, Charter, Google Fiber, and T-Mobile used personal data they collect from customers and how that data is often used for advertising purposes. The report also said that the data is used in “unexpected ways that could harm consumers” and that the companies can be “at least as privacy-intrusive as large advertising platforms.”

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But the report was compiled by the FTC because the FCC had already abdicated its authority over the broadband industry. In 2017, the FCC—then under Chair Ajit Pai—repealed the 2015 Open Internet Order. That order enshrined net neutrality rules and classified ISPs under Title II of the Communications Act, giving the FCC authority to oversee and regulate the industry.

The repeal got rid of that authority. In fact, the FCC passed privacy rules for ISPs in 2016 that would have blocked ISPs from collecting, sharing, or storing personal information without users’ consent. Those rules were overturned by Congress, and the Republican-led FCC then rescinded its Title II authority over broadband.

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Since then, experts have noted repeatedly that the FCC’s authority over the broadband market was essential. Thursday’s FTC report was no different, with FTC Chair Lina Khan, Commissioner Rebecca Kelly Slaughter, Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.), and Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) all saying that it showed how the FCC’s authority over broadband needed to be restored.

Slaughter, in remarks made during Thursday’s hearing, essentially said the report’s findings of enormous data collection was the result of the FCC not having oversight of the industry.

“This report shows how, absent the FCC’s oversight, many ISPs participated in a race to the bottom to partake in a lucrative market of monetizing their customer’s personal information. I hope the FCC is able to return ISPs to their proper classification as telecom services under Title II and to provide appropriate protections for these essential services,” Slaughter said on Thursday.

Khan similarly said that the FCC had the “clearest legal authority and expertise to fully oversee internet service providers” and would “fully support” efforts to reassert that authority.

It isn’t even the first time the FTC has mentioned the need for the FCC to have authority over broadband providers. In May, the FTC filed a complaint against Frontier Communications for allegedly not providing customers with internet speeds it promised.

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Slaughter, acting chairwoman of the FTC at the time, said while the complaint was “important,” it also showed “why the FTC can never fully fill the regulatory gap left in the wake of the repeal of net neutrality at the FCC, the expert agency on telecommunications services.”

Slaughter continued by saying oversight from the FCC “may have prevented these violations” from Frontier.

Similarly, Markey—who has long championed a restoration of net neutrality rules—weighed in on the FTC’s report. While he said the FTC needed to “use every tool at its disposal” to protect privacy online, he felt the report showed that the FCC’s authority over ISPs needed to be restored.

“This report underscores the need to protect consumers from all sorts of harmful internet provider practices. That means restoring the FCC’s rightful authority over broadband,” Markey said in a tweet.

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In 2019, Markey sponsored the Senate version of the Save the Internet Act. That bill would have codified net neutrality rules like prohibiting blocking, throttling, and paid prioritization of internet traffic.

The Save the Internet Act passed in the House of Representatives in April 2019, but languished in the then-Republican-controlled Senate, despite numerous attempts from Markey and others to force a vote on the bill.

Markey has repeatedly said that he intends to introduce legislation, but will do so once the FCC is fully filled. The Daily Dot reached out to representatives for Markey for further comment, but did not get a response by publication.

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On Friday, Wyden also said in the wake of the FTC report it was “worth remembering” that the Republican-led FCC “opened the floodgates to ISPs’ unchecked use of browsing data when he repealed the Obama-era broadband privacy and net neutrality regulations.”

“The FCC needs every tool available to stop cable companies from gouging consumers and selling their data,” Wyden said in a statement.

While there were several calls for the FCC to get its authority back, there’s an added wrinkle: President Joe Biden has been inexplicably slow in deciding how to fill out the FCC.

The FCC is currently deadlocked in a 2-2 partisan tie. As president, Biden has the ability to nominate commissioners to fill out the five-person agency and name someone as the chair. However, he has yet to do either of those things, only naming Jessica Rosenworcel, who was already a commissioner, as the acting chair.

Any kind of vote on restoring net neutrality rules and reasserting authority over broadband would almost assuredly take a 3-2 vote. Biden’s inaction at the agency has delayed a host of issues that Democrats would like the FCC to tackle. The months-long delay has also caught the attention of some members of Congress, who have expressed frustration over it.

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When asked for comment on the FTC report by the Daily Dot, a representative for Rosenworcel provided a statement from the acting chair. Rosenworcel said the agency was taking a “close look” at the FTC report.

“Protecting consumer privacy is a key priority for the FCC. I appreciate the FTC’s work to evaluate ISP privacy practices. We’re taking a close look,” Rosenworcel said.

The representative for Rosenworcel did not address questions about the FTC’s remarks about wanting the FCC’s authority to be restored over ISPs.


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*First Published: Oct 22, 2021, 11:42 am CDT