The Federal Communications Commission voted 3-2 today to move forward with a controversial plan for new cable box rules that would let people more easily watch TV on smartphones, tablets and other devices.
The vote sets up a battle reminiscent of the recent fight over net neutrality regulations. Cable companies adamantly oppose the proposal; consumer groups back the move, as does Google and the Silicon Valley lobbing group Internet Association.
For now, the "unlock-the-box" initiative is in an early phase: The agency voted today to approve a "Notice of Proposed Rulemaking" for regulations enabling Google and other companies to develop boxes that can access pay-TV programs. The FCC says those regulations will give consumers new options to access pay-TV through devices and apps.
FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler has repeatedly said that new options could save consumers significant costs. Currently, around 99% of pay-TV subscribers rent at least one set-top box, at an average price of $231 per year.
Sen. Ed Markey (D-Massachusetts), who supports the proposal, quickly praised the FCC's move, stating that it will "help ensure that consumers are not captive to high video box leasing fees forever."
Walter McCormick, president of the industry group USTelecom, just as promptly denounced the agency, predicting the FCC "will inevitably straightjacket innovation and harm competition, neither of which will serve the public interest.”
When Wheeler first unveiled the plan, the cable industry said it wasn't necessary because consumers can already stream many programs to tablets and smartphones via apps.
Several days ago, the cable industry came out with its newest argument against the rule change: It will compromise users' privacy, because the FCC can't require Google and other third parties to follow the same privacy rules as cable and satellite companies.
"The Chairman’s approach creates a gaping hole in consumer privacy where none exists today, and leaves our personal viewing histories at the mercy of vast businesses built almost entirely on mining, exploiting, and profiling our personal data," the cable group Future of TV Coalition said Monday. "It would be the biggest step backwards for consumer privacy ever enacted by the FCC."
It's worth noting that despite the cable industry's apparent condemnation of data mining, the cable and telecom industry also opposes any attempts by the FCC to restrict their ability to track broadband users for ad-targeting purposes.
The FCC counters that it may require Google or other device and app developers to certify that they comply with similar privacy rules as cable and satellite providers. -- though whether those certifications will be enforceable is another question.
The FCC will accept comments on the proposal for at least several months, and could vote on it by the end of the year.