Wireless Lobby Wants FCC To Block Privacy Laws

A lobbying group for wireless providers is joining Verizon and Comcast in asking the Federal Communications Commission to prohibit states from subjecting broadband providers to privacy rules.

"The Commission ... should preempt any state or local broadband-specific regulation, irrespective of whether the state or locality claims that its regulation promotes or supplements federal goals," CTIA - The Wireless Association says in a new filing. "Thus, for example, state 'network neutrality' regulations addressing the treatment of traffic on the network would be preempted, as would state broadband-specific privacy requirements."

Verizon, Comcast, the CTIA and others make the request as the FCC is preparing to roll back the net neutrality rules. Those rules, passed in 2015, classified broadband as a utility service, and imposed some common carrier regulations on providers -- including bans on blocking or throttling service, and charging higher fees for prioritized delivery.

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FCC Chairman Ajit Pai has proposed reclassifying broadband as an "information" service, which arguably would also eliminate the agency's ability to enforce other open Internet rules. CTIA, which approves of Pai's proposal, says in its new filing that state broadband laws are "incompatible with the federal policy favoring nonregulation of information services."

The relatively recent industry effort to push the FCC to block state privacy rules comes as state lawmakers have become increasingly interested in crafting privacy protections.

This year, lawmakers in more than 20 states, including California and New York, proposed privacy bills that would have restricted broadband providers' ability to draw on subscribers' web activity for ad purposes. State officials introduced those measures after Congress repealed federal privacy rules.

Internet service providers, as well as the ad industry, have opposed the state bills. In California, opponents made the extraordinary claim that the bill would create cybersecurity risks. They argued that the bill would lead to a deluge of pop-up ads, which would "be desensitizing and give opportunities to hackers."

CTIA now characterizes the state privacy proposals as attempts "to countermand Congressional action on broadband privacy regulations." The organization argues that even when efforts to pass such laws fail, the attempts still "require providers to divert resources toward political and legal battles."

Despite the broadband industry's requests, digital rights groups say it's not clear that the FCC is empowered to block state privacy laws. "The Communications Act does not give the FCC the express power to bar states from protecting the privacy of Internet users," the Electronic Frontier Foundation writes.

"The FCC should reject the request outright and not cut ISPs’ state lobbyists a break by unlawfully stepping in on state power," the EFF adds. "Not only would such a move be ill advised legally, but it would actively harm the privacy rights of all Americans and frustrate their right to seek a response from their locally elected state legislatures."

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