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FCC chief outlines new plans to protect consumer data online

October 27, 2016 at 6:25 PM EDT
There are new rules for broadband providers when it comes to collecting and sharing consumer data. On Thursday, the Federal Communications Commission voted for the first time to create protections on the transmission of personal information for broadband providers. Hari Sreenivasan speaks with Tom Wheeler, chairman of the FCC.
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HARI SREENIVASAN: Now: new rules for broadband providers when it comes to collecting and sharing customer data.

The Federal Communications Commission voted for the first time today to create protections on the transmission of personal information from broadband providers.

Tom Wheeler is the chairman of the FCC. And he joins me now.

What is a provider going to have to do under these new rules?

TOM WHEELER, Chairman, Federal Communications Commission: Well, the key thing is that it is the consumers’ information. It’s not the network’s information.

And the consumer now has the choice to say how they want that information to be used and if they want it to be used. So, there are really three key things. One, there has to be transparency, that the consumers have to be told, here’s what we’re doing with your information. Two, they have to have choice. So, do you want to opt in or opt out of this kind of service?

And, three, that data, when it’s stored someplace, has to be stored securely and consumers have to know if there is some kind of data breach.

HARI SREENIVASAN: So, you have also expanded the definition of what is sensitive data. And some businesses have pushed back, saying, the browsing history, the app usage, Internet companies like Facebook and Google, they already have all that, and you’re placing undue burdens on companies like Verizon, AT&T, et cetera.

TOM WHEELER: But what we’re talking about is not the fact that you may go to a dozen sites that each will get a little bit of information.

We’re talking about the network that takes you to every site and knows everything you’re doing. And that’s the big difference. You hire the network to deliver you to those sites. You don’t hire the network to take your information without your permission and turn around and resell it.

HARI SREENIVASAN: So, businesses are also saying, listen, this is part of our marketing. Our — how we actually make money is off of this consumer data.

And if you do this, if the FCC does this, what about if the consumer gets charged more, almost a privacy fee, a tax, if I want to stay private?

TOM WHEELER: Well, let’s go back to the fact that nothing says that they can’t use this information, just that they have to ask permission, OK? So that’s step one.

Step two is that pay for privacy — we don’t want privacy to become some kind of a luxury item, but we ought to look at that on a case-by-case basis in terms of, how does any policies that affect pricing, what are the specifics of those, rather than looking at them on some kind of a broad basis.

HARI SREENIVASAN: But, right now, this is limited to kind of broadband providers. There are a lot of companies now who are more than just a broadband provider. They also own content creators, so they do both the distribution and the creation. Right?

So, what about the fact that if I’m with AT&T, there is also the satellite, there is also the cell phone, there is also all kinds of things where my data could be stored, transmitted? This just seems to just cover a small sliver.

TOM WHEELER: So, if your communications company is engaged — has other communications activities, they can share the information.

But if they have non-communications activities, such as their own Web site and — or they’re taking you to other Web sites, that information is your information, and it’s not information that they have the ability to turn around and sell without your permission.

HARI SREENIVASAN: What have you learned now, looking back five years ago, the merger of Comcast or the acquisition of NBC by Comcast?

It’s not on your desk yet, but more likely than not AT&T is trying to buy Time Warner, and it’s going to show up in the FCC. What have you learned in those past five years of what worked and what didn’t work? And what would you differently?

TOM WHEELER: Well, you’re right. It’s not on our desk yet. And we don’t know what the parameters are.

And so what our job is, is to develop the facts of the case, and to make a decision based on those facts. And I think what’s more important is to say, five years is a long tame. Let’s look at specifically what’s happening today, what the marketplace looks like today. And let’s make a decision based on that, if, in fact, this ends up on our plate.

HARI SREENIVASAN: So, is there something that you can say that, you know what, these kind of restrictions didn’t pan out, or these restrictions that are only going to be in place until, let’s say, 2018, if that’s what the structure of that deal was, they need to be changed because the market has changed so much already?

TOM WHEELER: Well, first, you have to say, what are the specific circumstances in the item that you’re looking at right then, and then go from there. And we don’t have that basis yet.

HARI SREENIVASAN: OK.

Finally, you have had a lot come on your plate, reclassifying broadband as a utility, net neutrality. And when you came in, you came from the cable industry. And people said, well, look at this, he’s going to give them a free pass.

Has being on this job changed how you think about these things, especially considering all the public comments that you see and hear?

TOM WHEELER: Well, that is a really interesting question, Hari.

But I think I’m always — I’m the same person that I always was. My career has been representing the insurgents against the incumbents. I was always for the folks who were bringing more competition. And the mantra of my term at the FCC has been competition, competition, competition.

HARI SREENIVASAN: All right, Tom Wheeler, chairman of the FCC, thanks for joining us.

TOM WHEELER: Thank you.

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