By Tim Sparapani
Innovators and startups welcome the news that policymakers are taking a fresh look at how to protect consumers’ privacy online. While the headlines may try to spin this as just another partisan food fight, in truth it’s an incredibly important opportunity to restore balance and clarity to consumer privacy rules in the online ecosystem.
As we’ve said from the start, the privacy rules adopted late last year by the Wheeler FCC were clearly flawed and the ongoing jurisdictional tussle over privacy needs to be resolved for the benefit of consumers and companies alike. The Wheeler rules created an inconsistent, confusing patchwork, in which consumers’ private information on the internet would be protected differently depending on which servers and routers their data happened to be crossing. Yes, the exact same data would arbitrarily enjoy different levels of protection. 94% of consumers believe that all companies collecting their information online should face the same set of rules – and they’re right. The Wheeler rules break from the bipartisan FTC privacy framework that has seen the internet thrive and grow in other ways, introducing new friction and erecting confusing and unjustified new obstacles to even the most mundane uses of data any consumer would see as non-sensitive. This kind of regulation is bad for consumers, bad for entrepreneurs, and bad for innovation.
In addition, a little known consequence of the Wheeler rules was that they jeopardized the United States’ privacy agreement with the European Union. The Privacy Shield is predicated in part on the United States having a single, lead consumer privacy agency, and the dilution of the FTC’s authority puts this agreement at risk.
We’re glad that policymakers at the FCC and in Congress will have an opportunity to review the rules again and, hopefully, correct these flaws. A return to the FTC’s role as the lead privacy enforcer would allow innovators to do what they do best: innovate. In addition, a consistent set of rules would do well to assuage consumer advocates’ concern that gaps in enforcement would delay critical privacy actions when companies are ignoring or outright abusing their data responsibilities to their customers.