Tech and policy: the FTC on privacy; Comcast, Xbox and net neutrality

What’s cooking at the intersection of tech and policy:

• The new consumer privacy standards unveiled Monday by the FTC — what good will they do?

As Mike Swift of the Mercury News reported, the Federal Trade Commission’s report establishes best practices for companies that collect data, and urges federal comprehensive privacy legislation. The report, released after a study that spanned two years — during which many privacy issues and breaches popped up — calls for, among other things, a Do Not Track button on Web browsers by the end of the year.

The standards, which would apply to Web companies such as Google and Facebook as well as offline data brokers used by marketers, are largely voluntary. Although the FTC threatens sanctions for non-compliance, its authority is limited because of the lack of a federal law.

That’s the key here. In the past few years, the Commerce Department, the Obama administration, states and countless lawmakers have weighed in on growing privacy issues. Facebook and Google have agreed to high-profile settlements with the FTC over their privacy practices. (See From Uncle Sam, frameworked online privacy and Facebook sorry? Sharing skepticism over settlement.) But there are nagging questions amid the rise of Big Data. (See On Big Data, Google’s new privacy policy and more.) It might be true, as the Center for Digital Democracy says, that “the FTC’s call for legislation is a digital wake-up call to Congress.” But writing a comprehensive federal privacy legislation will be tough, and actually passing a law will be tougher. The “do not collect” component of the privacy guidelines is “basically death for online advertising,” one unnamed tech executive told the New York Times. Expect the many, many industries that rely on advertising to fight measures they deem too heavy-handed. Striking a reasonable balance that protects consumers but gives businesses leeway will be nothing short of a miracle. In the meantime, the oops-we’re-sorry cycle of privacy breaches and issues will keep turning.

• Speaking of issues that aren’t likely to go away, remember net neutrality? Comcast is now offering streaming content on Microsoft’s Xbox, and the cable/Internet access provider says the traffic consumed from watching shows and games from HBO Go, MLB.TV and other channels it offers won’t count against customers’ data caps. That’s bringing up questions about net neutrality, the idea that all Internet traffic should be treated equally. There’s that wake-up call again: “This is nothing less than a wake-up call to the Commission to show it is serious about protecting the Open Internet,” Gigi Sohn of Public Knowledge told Ars Technica’s Timothy Lee. The Commission she’s referring to is the Federal Communications Commission, which in 2010 established net-neutrality rules. (See Internet rules with no bite seem a tad heavy on the ‘neutrality’.) Comcast’s argument, according to Lee, is that the content is it exempting from its data caps is being delivered over its own network, not over the public Internet.



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  • RedRat

    And why shouldn’t streaming content be applied to your monthly limit? A data bit is a data bit whether it is part of a movie, game, or downloaded music. Why should I be penalized for downloading web pages or non-Xbox material. Why is Microsoft getting a free ride here? Data is data, it matters not who send it.