September 4, 2013
Telecommunications giants such as Comcast and Verizon are lobbying Washington to change privacy rules to allow the sale of potentially sensitive information of customers by telecommunications companies. These telecommunications companies argue that it is unfair for them to be subject to these rules while newer Internet companies like Facebook and Google are not. Such companies have increasingly blurred the lines between their services and those offered by more “traditional” companies in the telecommunications industry, yet are not required to comply with the stringent standards set by the Federal Communications Commission (“FCC”). Instead the comparatively more lenient Federal Trade Commission (“FTC”) regulates those companies, though the FTC has recently promised strict regulation of Internet companies when it comes to matters of consumer privacy.
The telecommunications industry would similarly like to be regulated by the FTC, as the FTC is considered the chief privacy regulator in the nation. The FTC seems to share this goal, with one key official claiming, “[the FTC’s] laws should apply to everyone.” However, critics argue that such a change would result in telecommunications companies selling private consumer information to other companies, a practice currently forbidden by the FCC.
One difficulty lies in the current political climate, particularly with respect to the issue of privacy. Edward Snowden’s revelations of the National Security Agency’s domestic surveillance program have already raised public concerns about the storage of public consumer data. The FTC itself has recently brought cases against Facebook and Google stemming from the lack of protection of consumer privacy. Further, any such change in the current regulatory scheme would require new legislation, which seems improbable in light of the recent deadlock found in Congress. Still, the White House endorsed such a change last year, albeit as part of a broader privacy overhaul. With such support, this significant regulatory change could become a reality in the near future.