Critics of the Federal Communications Commission's proposed privacy rules appear to have found at least one of the main talking points: The rules will harm consumers.
AT&T, Comcast, the CTIA, USTelecom and the Application Developers Alliance Association are among the various groups that have made that argument in the 24 hours since the FCC voted to move forward.
The proposed rules, as outlined Thursday, will require broadband providers to obtain consumers' opt-in consent before using data about their Web-surfing activity to send them targeted ads. The potential regulations grow out of the FCC's ability to require common carriers to protect consumers' privacy.
The rules will only apply to broadband providers, and not the so-called "edge providers" like Google, Facebook, Netflix and ad networks. This distinction makes sense, given that the FCC has no authority to impose privacy obligations on companies that aren't common carriers.
But the broadband industry (and other critics) say those rules will cause confusion by imposing privacy standards on ISPs, but not on other companies that are in a position to collect data online.
"The FCC’s approach will ... confuse consumers who could fairly read today’s proclamations and conclude that the FCC has dramatically increased consumer privacy on the Internet," AT&T says on its corporate blog. "This type of one-sided approach will cause customer confusion and will ultimately lead to higher broadband prices and less broadband deployment in the United States.”
USTelecom added that the rules "will create a morass of regulations in the Internet privacy space and fail to provide a platform allowing consumers to count on privacy rules that are evenly applied across the Internet economy."
"The unfortunate result of the FCC’s extreme regulatory proposals will be more consumer confusion and less competition -- and a bunch of collateral damage to innovation and investment along the way," Comcast exec David Cohen writes on the company blog.
The Application Developers Alliance calls the proposed rules "heavy-handed," adding that they "will ultimately confuse innovators and consumers and drive up costs for everyone."
CTIA chimed in that not only will the proposed rules "confuse consumers" but that they will also "undermine consumer privacy in the mobile economy" -- though how, exactly, the rules will undermine privacy is not explained by the organization.
Despite the critics' sweeping conclusions, they have not produced a shred of evidence showing that consumers actually will be confused by the different standards. What's more, there are good reasons to treat ISPs differently from Web content companies, ad networks and other non-ISPs. Among the most significant is that ISPs have access to far more information about subscribers' Web activity than any one content company, social media service, or ad network.
FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler emphasized that distinction yesterday. "Our ISPs handle all of our network traffic. That means an ISP has a broad view of all of its customers’ unencrypted online activity," he stated. "Even when data is encrypted, our broadband providers can piece together significant amounts of information about us -- including private information such as a chronic medical condition or financial problems -- based on our online activity."