Comcast Says FCC Privacy Rules Will Hurt Consumers By Not Allowing Them To See More Comcast Ads

Image courtesy of knittinandnoodlin

The number-one complaint we get from Consumerist readers is “You guys just don’t have enough ads on your site! Where are all the pop-ups, roll-overs, pop-overs, auto-play videos, and page-crashing ad units that make surfing the web so dang enjoyable?” We hear you, we do; we just don’t have the staff to sell all those ads you want bogging down your browser and tracking you across pages and platforms. And even if we did, those pesky jerks at the FCC are trying to rob us — and consumers — of more options to be marketed to, and commodified by, our Internet service providers.

Thank heavens there is David Cohen, Comcast’s “Chief Diversity Officer” who seems to spend a lot more time arguing for mergers and raging against industry regulation than doing anything about diversity, who went online yesterday to explain the inevitable Orwellian nightmare that will result from the FCC’s recent decision to devise privacy regulations on ISPs like Comcast.

For those coming late to the game, when the FCC reclassified broadband providers as utility-like “common carriers” in 2015, it meant that the Federal Trade Commission no longer had privacy-related oversight on the industry. So recently the FCC began the process of filling that gap, voting to merely move forward with the process of drafting privacy regulations.

Even though the final rules are months — and possibly a new slate of FCC commissioners — away, the broadband industry has been dyspeptic, arguing that any restriction on their use of customer information would only help big online ad networks run by Google and Facebook.

Cohen, taking yet another break from all that wonderful diversity work, argues — reminder: this blog post was published on March 31 so it’s not an April fool’s joke — that it’s “competitive startups” like Comcast, and ultimately the consumer, who will be hurt by these rules.

He accuses FCC Chair Tom Wheeler — himself a former frontman for the cable and wireless industries — of “inexplicably” targeting ISPs with the privacy rules.

Perhaps Mr. Cohen needs to look up the definition of “inexplicably,” as Wheeler and others have explained numerous times that consumers have a right to privacy, and the FCC has the authority to regulate broadband providers.

Cohen also claims that ISPs “have been responsible stewards of consumers’ privacy for decades,” without mentioning previous efforts by Comcast to block or throttle customers from accessing certain content, and how the broadband industry is once again fighting to overturn net neutrality rules so that it can block and throttle with impunity.

Telling a broadband customer which sites they can and can’t visit is as much of a privacy violation as a telephone company deciding who you should be allowed to call.

The real problem, argues Cohen, is that these new privacy rules — which, again, do not even exist yet and are currently nothing more than a series of possible questions to be investigated and asked — could prevent Comcast from being a disruptive force that competes with Google or Facebook in the ad network.

“The unfortunate result of the FCC’s extreme regulatory proposals will be more consumer confusion and less competition,” writes Cohen, without explaining how in the world consumers might actually be confused by the fact that their ISP could possibly be restricted from tracking and reselling users’ browsing data without permission.

He calls for a “uniform and consistent privacy regime,” but really means “we want to be able to do what Google and Facebook do,” when what many consumers really want is for all of the above to stop invading their privacy.

Interestingly, both Cohen and the FCC commissioners who oppose these privacy rules have been eager to cite a March 18 memo [PDF] from the Electronic Privacy Information Center that criticizes the Commission for only going after ISPs. What they gloss over is the fact that EPIC memo is explicitly in favor of regulating ISPs’ data collection; it just just believes that focusing on ISPs still leaves most of the bad actors in play.

Cohen repeatedly beats the drum that ISPs are only a small part of the privacy invasion problem and that they do nothing more nefarious than other online companies. But if Comcast and other ISPs are doing so little tracking and reselling of customer info, why then are they putting up such a big fight about the mere possibility of being told they might have to follow some rules?

Because they want to do more.

AT&T is already blatantly using customer data in markets where it offers its GigaPower fiberoptic service. To entice customers to make their browsing habits available to marketers, the company offers a nearly 30% discount off the price of service, while charging top dollar to those who want to retain some shred of privacy.

Cohen contends that the FCC regulation (even though it doesn’t exist and will probably be challenged in court for years if and when it does get enacted) “places a thumb on the scale of competition in the online advertising marketplace in favor of the entrenched incumbents.”

So Comcast — the company that believes it’s okay for there to be virtually no fixed broadband competition in many of the markets in which it operates, and which has successfully lobbied to scuttle competition from community-owned ISPs — is now trying to make the case for a diverse marketplace?

And what wondrous new advertising units would Comcast be able to provide with the help of data gleaned from customers (full disclosure: I live in Philadelphia and have no real choice but to be a Comcast customer)?

“One example of the extreme nature of the FCC’s proposal and how it would negatively impact competition and consumers relates to cross-marketing of our competitive products and services to existing ISP customers,” writes Cohen. “Under the FCC proposal, Xfinity Internet customers could miss out on learning about lower prices for taking bundles of services like Xfinity Home Security.”

That’s right — Cohen is arguing that the FCC should scrap its plan to regulate ISPs’ data collection so that Comcast can sell you more Comcast services.

And besides, writes Cohen, industry lobbyists have already sorted out this privacy thing. In early March, the National Cable & Telecommunications Association, American Cable Association, USTelecom, CTIA, and the Competitive Carriers Association outlined what they call a “framework” [PDF] for what the FCC should consider:

“(1) transparency; (2) respect for context and consumer choice; (3) data security; and (4) data breach notification.”

But apparently “transparency” does not include the core idea of the FCC’s proposal — giving consumers the right to opt out of being tracked.

Will the FCC rules put an end to broadband privacy concerns? No. But saying that the rules aren’t worth pursuing because they won’t eradicate privacy invasions is like arguing that there’s no point in having traffic lights because people still get into car crashes.