Commentary

Amazon: FCC Should Unlock Set-Top Boxes, Privacy Protections Not Needed

Amazon is joining Google in asking the Federal Communications Commission to issue new set-top-box rules that would enable more companies to develop boxes that can access pay-TV programs.

"Increasing genuine competition will spur new competitive navigation solutions that can enable consumers easily to price-compare for content, devices, and applications, discover new content, and engage with their content providers and fellow consumers (with features that, for instance, identify popular programing) through an easily integrated interface," Amazon says in FCC comments made public on Thursday. "Consumers will be able to choose among more viewing experiences and prices for the navigation device that offers their preferred combination of functionality and value."

Also like Google, Amazon argues that unlocking set-top boxes will not pose a threat to consumers' privacy because it will be bound by its existing privacy policy.

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Amazon says it currently "gives consumers protection over the collection, use, and distribution" of their personally identifiable information, and will apply that policy to new services tied to set-top boxes.

"Like any other privacy policy, Amazon’s privacy policy is and will remain subject to FTC enforcement actions," Amazon writes. "Consumer privacy concerns should therefore not preclude the development of a healthy navigation device market."

The comments come in response to an FCC proposal for rules enabling companies other than cable and satellite providers to develop boxes that can access pay-TV programs. The FCC says those regulations will give consumers new options to access pay-TV on a variety of devices.

Currently, cable and satellite customers typically rent set-top boxes, at an average cost of $231 a year. Many people who also watch online video on a TV screen use separate streaming devices -- like Rokus or Amazon Fire TVs -- while people who watch TV shows on tablets or smartphones often do so via apps.

The cable industry, which opposes the FCC's proposal, argues that unlocking set-top boxes will enable Google (and other Web companies) to collect more data about consumers. Cable and satellite providers that offer set-top boxes are subject to restrictive privacy rules, but the Communications Act doesn't empower the FCC to impose those same rules on other types of companies.

Proposal critic AT&T pressed its privacy arguments this week in a blog post criticizing Google. "What they suggest, amazingly, is that a customer’s info will have onerous restrictions and be subject to opt-in requirements if they use our set top box. But if they use Google’s box, the same info from the same customer has far fewer restrictions, and Google is free to monetize it any way they want unless a customer opts out," AT&T senior executive vice president Jim Cicconi writes. “Putting aside the stunning chutzpah behind such an argument, it should be very clear to everyone, especially consumer advocates, that this means a customer’s private info would be subject to an anti-consumer double standard depending on which set top box they choose."

FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler has said that Web companies who create set-top boxes should certify that they will follow the same privacy rules as cable and satellite providers. But the Federal Trade Commission wants tighter rules. That agency recently said app and device makers should have to publicly promise to follow the same privacy standards as cable and satellite providers.

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