Results tagged “Jeff Flake”

June 19, 2017 12:48 PM

Rep. Marsha Blackburn Exposes Hypocrisy on Broadband Privacy

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                                                     photo credit: Gage Skidmore Marsha Blackburn via photopin (license)

As noted previously, the FCC's "broadband privacy" rulemaking was really a shadow war, fought by third party advocacy groups funded by the Internet giants, like Google, Facebook, and others.  The recent legislative battle to repeal the FCC Privacy rules was no different.  Yet, within the past month, Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-TN) "introduced the Balancing the Rights of Web Surfers Equally and Responsibly ("BROWSER") Act of 2017 to protect the online privacy of Americans."  In doing so, Blackburn has revealed what these previous "privacy" battles have been about: protecting the Internet giants' commercial advantage in the online advertising market. 

"Broadband Privacy" Is Not Online Privacy

Remember the flood of news stories fueled by interest-group-manufactured outrage about how Congress didn't care about your privacy online?   The ostensible basis for this outrage was that Congress used its authority under the 1996 Congressional Review Act to eliminate the Wheeler FCC's efforts to further advantage the biggest online advertisers (i.e., Google and Facebook) under the guise of "protecting" the privacy of ISP customers.  

Commonly omitted from those stories--and the legislative debate as well--was the fact that the FCC's "privacy" rules did not apply to consumers' information online, but only regulated the ISPs' use of this information (on a non-user-specific basis) to compete with Google/Facebook for online advertising revenue. Yet, at the first mention of using the CRA to repeal the FCC's ISP-specific rules, Rep. Frank Pallone (D-NJ) stated, "[c]onsumers should not have to worry about their financial, medical and other personal information begin shared without their permission." 

Likewise, after the Senate voted to repeal the Wheeler Commission's privacy rules (on March 23), Sen. Edward Markey (D-MA) issued this statement:

The American public wants us to strengthen privacy protections, not weaken them. We should not have to forgo our fundamental right to privacy just because our homes and phones are connected to the internet.

Reading these statements, one might reasonably assume that Congressman Pallone and Senator Markey care, generally, about protecting your personal information--regardless of who is collecting and selling that information.

However, after the CRA was adopted by the House, and the FCC's ISP-specific rules were repealed, Sen. Markey pivoted away from consumers, and their general online privacy, and toward his most important constituents--the Internet giants.  Rather than work toward legislation that would create online privacy rights for consumers, Markey instead declares his intention "to introduce legislation that directs the FCC to reinstate strong broadband privacy rules." (Emphasis added)  On April 6th, Sen. Markey did exactly what he promised, and introduced legislation that would merely direct the FCC to impose its prior regulations on ISPs. 

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The PR Campaign: Chicken-Little Meets Michael Corleone

As FCC Chairman Pai noted, the FCC's 2015 rules were driven by "hypothetical harms and hysterical prophecies of doom."  This was fueled by the Internet giants that fought the CRA legislation by using their surrogate groups to successfully plant similarly-exaggerated, chicken-little stories through friendly media outlets, such as Motherboard and DSL Reports.   

The media frenzy they created essentially promoted hysterical speculation without regard for facts.  My personal favorite is "Internet Activists Plot 2018 Electoral Revenge Against Republican Sellouts," from Motherboard.  The article, cites the "usual" sources (the tech giants' third party advocacy groups), and prominently features a picture of House Communications & Technology Subcommittee Chair Marsha Blackburn (R-TN) as the putative target for this "electoral revenge" (which subsequently occurred when Silicon Valley-funded Fight for the Future put up a misleading billboard in Rep. Blackburn's district).

Like the Silicon Valley advocacy groups he loves to cite, Motherboard tech policy contributor, Sam Gustin really doesn't like Rep. Blackburn.  Whether through a subconscious desire to appeal to the sexist bias of its Silicon Valley idols, or purely unintentional, Motherboard's privacy articles provide a good illustration of what the NY Times calls "sexist political criticism" that uniquely plagues strong female politicians, through its practice of always introducing Blackburn by immediately putting her character/competency in question.

For example, in this article the Senate sponsor of the CRA repeal of the FCC broadband privacy rules, Sen. Jeff Flake (R-AZ) is introduced simply as "the Arizona Republican."  Rep. Blackburn, however, is introduced as "the Tennessee Republican who has received colossal sums of campaign cash from the telecom industry."  The reader is left to imply that Rep. Blackburn--as opposed to Sen. Flake--is either corrupt, or only interested in furthering her personal ambition; though she and Sen. Flake are described as doing the exact same thing.

Haters Gonna Hate

When Rep. Marsha Blackburn introduced the BROWSER Act (that would re-apply the FCC's rules to ISPs as well as the Internet giants), one would have expected the self-proclaimed "consumer online privacy" groups to immediately declare victory.  None of the Internet giants' big 3rd party advocacy groups (EFF, Free Press, New America's OTI) has even commented on privacy since Blackburn introduced her bill--except for this press release by Google-supported Public Knowledge, to "clarify" that it "did not support" Blackburn's bill, as a Boston Globe article had reported.  If you hadn't noticed so far, this issue was never really about consumers.  

Rather, as the Washington Post's Brian Fung explains, the issue was always about politics and money.  Ironically, to improve consumers' privacy rights online would be for Democrats to cede the privacy issue for the election.  Worse still, it would put Democrats on the wrong side of their core "Silicon Valley" constituency; the tech giants. Thus, Rep. Frank Pallone seems to have moved past his concerns about consumers' personal information, given that Rep. Blackburn has exactly 0 Democratic co-sponsors of her Browser Act.

Consequently, the tech giants' media outlets--so aggressively pro-privacy when it was just an ISP/Republican issue--have been largely silent on Blackburn's bill.  Motherboard's Gustin has written nothing on privacy since his "plotting revenge" article.  DSL Reports' Karl Bode--with his characteristic tin-foil hat logic (see, e.g., "AT&T Fools Entire Media With Giant Gigabit Fiber Bluff" arguing that AT&T's ultra-fast "Gigapower" Internet service is a PR hoax)--faults Blackburn for introducing a bill that "she knows won't pass."   Advocate journalist Bode quickly concludes that Blackburn, of course, knows that her bill won't pass because--back to Gustin's only biographical point--she's in the pocket of ISPs, and they won't like the bill, because they...and her...are just, you know, evil.

What Is Privacy Worth?

Google, and Facebook, et al., were mad enough, when Congress eliminated the regulatory barriers to entry that the Wheeler FCC had imposed on ISPs, but to give consumers any  control over the heretofore unfettered ability of the online ad giants to use and monetize personal consumer data was more than they could handle. So, the web giants now argue, according to the Business Insider, that if consumers are in control of their privacy, "Facebook won't be free."  

This statement calls to mind the laughably-superficial reasoning, by Public Knowledge President Gene Kimmelman, as to why the proposed AT&T/Time Warner combination should be regarded with greater suspicion than other firms also competing for consumers' leisure attention, like the Internet platform giants.  Kimmelman dismisses the Internet giants as "competitors" to traditional content, because "none of them charges me $200/month to access their online content." (See, 12/07/16 Senate Judiciary Committee Hearing  at 2:21:50-2:23:30)

Sen. Jeff Flake perceptively identifies the flaw in this logic, asking witness Mark Cuban if it matters who is actually "paying" when considering whether firms compete in the same market for consumers' attention.  Cuban succinctly observes that, "if you're not paying for content, you are the content." Hearing video at 2:23:44 (emphasis added).  Cuban's point is that online consumers are giving the platform giants something these companies can readily exchange for cash--their personal information. 

The Internet giants' argument (and that of their surrogate groups) rests on the notion that consumers' personal information is of little value, and therefore the content that the consumer receives from the platform giants is a great deal.  Yet, if the Internet giants' services are indeed valued more by consumers than the consumers value their own privacy, then what's the harm in letting consumers decide how they wish to pay--in terms of  cash or personal data--for these services?  

The beauty of Blackburn's bill is that it gives consumers the right to make that decision, and for this she deserves more credit than she's gotten.  Let's hope that at least some Democrats agree this is a choice that should be returned to consumers.