Former FCC Chief Bashes Privacy Report

Former Federal Communications Commission Chairman Tom Wheeler is joining consumer advocacy groups in blasting the Federal Trade Commission over its recent report on privacy.

“If the American people and Congress are looking to the Federal Trade Commission ... for leadership in the protection of personal privacy, they should prepare for disappointment,” Wheeler writes in a post for the think tank Benton Foundation, where he is a visiting fellow.

Wheeler -- like the Center for Digital Democracy, Consumer Federation of America, Electronic Frontier Foundation and other watchdogs -- is particularly critical of the FTC's apparent opposition to the idea that companies should obtain consumers' explicit consent before tracking their activity in order to serve them ads.

Earlier this month, the FTC said in a staff report submitted to the National Telecommunications and Information Administration that an opt-in regime for online tracking would likely lead to the loss of ad-funded content. The agency cited a 2013 study by the ad industry group Digital Advertising Alliance for that proposition -- even though that study focused on consumers' attitudes toward the internet, as opposed to whether online tracking fueled free material.

Wheeler, who served as head of the FCC until last year, challenges the FTC's premise that an opt-in system would lead to a drop in advertising.

“A consumer making a choice about what information to disclose does not mean there will not be information for the platform companies to use,” he writes. “It only means that the consumer has asserted ownership over his or her digital information. The platform companies will still have ample information to use to sell targeted advertising and messaging.”

The FTC staff report comes as elected officials are gearing up to tackle online privacy. Senator Ron Wyden (D-Oregon) recently floated a bill that would create a national “do not track” regime, while Senator-elect Marsha Blackburn (R-Tennessee) proposed that all online companies should obtain consumers' opt-in consent to tracking. Senators John Thune (R-South Dakota), Jerry Moran (R-Kansas) and Richard Blumenthal (D-Connecticut) are also among the lawmakers said to be drafting online privacy bills.

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