The Federal Communications Commission should refine its proposal to unlock set-top boxes by beefing up privacy protections for consumers. That's according to Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), ranking member of the Judiciary Committee.
"Consumers should not be forced to make the false choice between proprietary set-top boxes and applications that may not meet their needs, or competitive options that do but come without all the tools available to protect and enforce their privacy rights," Leahy says in a letter to the FCC.
His letter comes as the FCC is weighing a rule change that would make it easier for consumers to watch TV programs on tablets, smart TVs and other devices.
As of now, people who purchase pay-TV subscriptions from cable and satellite providers 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 FCC's proposed rules would enable Google, Amazon and other non-cable companies to develop boxes that can access pay-TV programs.
The White House supports the proposal, as do consumer advocacy organizations and editorial boards of major newspapers, including The New York Times, USA Today, and Chicago Tribune.
The cable industry, which stands to lose an estimated $20 billion a year in rental fees, opposes the potential rule change. Cable companies raise numerous arguments, including that the proposal undermines consumers' privacy, because the FCC can't subject Google and other third parties to the same privacy rules as cable and satellite companies.
The FCC has said it may require Google or other device and app developers to certify that they comply with privacy principles. But the cable industry argues that won't be enough to stop "privacy scofflaws like Google" from collecting data about consumers.
For its part, Google says that devices and apps already are "subject to robust privacy laws at the federal and state levels."
But Leahy suggests that more stringent regulations may be appropriate. He writes: "The patchwork of state privacy laws and Federal Trade Commission enforcement alone are not adequate protections and would leave consumers guessing about which set of laws apply depending on where they live and from whom they purchase a navigation system."