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Posted at 3:28 PM ET, 12/ 1/2010

Feds pledge some action on privacy, less on net neutrality

By Rob Pegoraro

The top two three-letter agencies in the U.S. government--as far as tech policy goes--each launched separate initiatives today.

The Federal Communications Commission moved first, releasing a drastically scaled-back proposal for network-neutrality rules. FCC chair Julius Genachowski--after months of hemming and hawing--has given up on earlier ambitions of putting wired and wireless Internet providers under the same "Title II" regulatory framework as traditional phone services.

Instead, as my colleague Cecilia Kang writes, he will seek to craft new rules on a different legal foundation (a version of which was rejected by a court this spring). They would require all providers to document how they manage their networks and prohibit them from blocking any legal sites or services.

But while wired providers couldn't engage in "unreasonable discrimination," wireless providers could as long as they didn't interfere with competing voice and video services. I criticized that sort of split regime as a market-distorting mistake back in September and still think it is, not least since the FCC's own plans for broadband expansion lean heavily on wireless.

Former FCC adviser Kevin Werbach may be right in saying that this limited proposal is the best the FCC can do, but that doesn't mean I have to like it.

Other observers like the FCC's new deal even less. Net-neutrality advocate and law professor Marvin Ammori called it "garbage" in a blog post. Conversely, the Competitive Enterprise Institute called the new proposal "destructive" rulemaking by a "renegade agency."

(Oddly enough, Comcast--the company that's been at the center of these discussions lately for charging the content-delivery network Level 3 to compensate for all the increased data it's been providing to Comcast's customers--seems fine with the FCC's new proposal.)

The Federal Trade Commission followed the FCC late this morning with a more ambitious proposal for new online privacy regulations. As my fellow cubicle dweller noted, the FTC proposal would require sites and services to refrain from monitoring the online movements of users who had opted into a "do not track" mechanism. It would also mandate that sites design to protect privacy from the start, in the same way that good software programmers build resilient systems that resist hacking attempts and, even if they fail, limit the amount of damage possible. Finally, companies would have to offer simpler and stricter privacy disclosures and policies.

I'm still making my way through the FTC's 100-plus-page report (PDF), but those goals make eminent sense to me. Between poorly-worded privacy documents written by lawyers for other lawyers, frequently changing default settings at social-media sites and the confusion many people exhibit in the face of all this, online privacy has become a mess.

And yet most of these free Web services and applications expect us to trade information about us. The situation begs for simpler, more human-readable rules enforced by something more than cranky blog posts and newspaper columns.

I'm heartened to see that before launching this effort, the FTC had the sense to hire one of the smarter people in technology, Princeton computer-science professor Edward Felten, as its first chief technologist last month.

But good intentions and smart advisers aren't enough; the FCC has had both for years, and look where it's at now. What are your expectations for today's two tech-policy initiatives a year from now?

By Rob Pegoraro  | December 1, 2010; 3:28 PM ET
Categories:  Policy and politics, Social media, Telecom  
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My expectation is that a year from now, the Republican House will have voted to overturn whatever rules the FCC and FTC tried to enact, and if that measure fails in the Senate, will vote to withdraw funding for their implementation and enforcement. Expectations are not, of course, the same as desires.

Posted by: 54Stratocaster | December 2, 2010 3:09 PM | Report abuse

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