OTI to FCC: Protect Americans from Digital Gatekeepers

Photo: WOCintech

Earlier this week, New America’s Open Technology Institute joined dozens of organizations in calling upon the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to take action on several telecommunications priorities that threaten American consumers. Specifically, OTI and the coalition urged prompt action on three items: (1) the set-top box monopoly, (2) broadband privacy, and (3) abusive data caps and zero-rating plans.

Set-Top Box Monopoly. Consumers widely loathe their set-top boxes—the clunky, expensive devices most Americans rent from their cable provider to connect to television programming. The FCC has been on notice for 20 years to end the cable industry’s monopoly on these devices, ever since Congress passed a law in 1996 authorizing the FCC to promote competition in this broken market. Earlier this year, FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler unveiled a proposal to finally comply with this decades-old law, dubbed “Unlock the Box,” that would require cable and satellite providers to make their content available on apps that will work on third-party devices like a Roku or Apple TV. The proposal has been praised by OTI, editorial boards, and President Obama. “Unlock the Box” was slated for a final vote at the FCC on September 29, only to be pulled from the agenda at the last minute. The FCC should reschedule the vote as soon as possible and approve this long-overdue measure.

Broadband Privacy.  From their position as gatekeepers of the internet for millions of Americans, internet service providers (ISPs) like Comcast and AT&T have a uniquely comprehensive view of their customers’ online activity. From emails to financial transactions to browsing histories, Americans have little choice but to share this information with their ISPs. For decades, telephone companies have been required to protect the basic information they gather about their customers’ activity, but ISPs have no similar requirement . The FCC could change that if it adopts a new proposal to require ISPs to protect the confidentiality of the information they collect from their customers. This common sense proposal is not only good for consumers—it’s required by law. Since the passage of last year’s net neutrality order, ISPs have been under a new legal regime that mandates protection of customer information. ISPs need guidance on what this requirement means for them, and consumers need assurance that their data will be protected. The FCC should approve this measure at its next public meeting.

Data Caps and Zero-Rating. ISPs are experimenting with new ways to meter their customers’ data usage. Data caps are even starting to appear on wired residential internet service. OTI’s research indicates these data caps have little technical justification and are instead designed to create artificial scarcity for consumers. Broadband providers are capitalizing on this scarcity by exempting certain content from data caps, also known as “zero-rating.” Zero-rating can distort competition, restrict consumer choice, and thwart innovation—all serious threats to the FCC’s net neutrality rules, which were specifically designed to protect the internet as an open platform for commerce, innovation, and free speech. The FCC should examine critically the imposition of data caps and restrict zero-rating plans so that consumers control the content they access, not ISPs.

The gatekeeper power of the telecommunications industry is a serious threat to consumers. The harms of the set-top box monopoly, broadband privacy, and abusive data caps all stem from this gatekeeper power, and they must be addressed promptly. The FCC has studied all of these issues for years; the time for action is now.

Author:

Joshua Stager is policy counsel and government affairs lead at the Open Technology Institute, specializing in telecommunications law and policy.