FTC Asserts Authority in Broadband Plan Comments

The Federal Trade Commission has suggested that the Federal Communications Commission consider issues related to online data privacy and behavioral targeting in its Broadband Plan. However, as the FTC reaches out to collaborate with its fellow regulatory body, it also aims to assert its own authority in the advertising, consumer protection, and competition arenas.

“The FTC has committed substantial research and law enforcement resources to the Internet, broadband, and consumer privacy. The FTC pledges continued vigorous law enforcement and consumer education to protect consumers and foster competition in these markets. It welcomes the opportunity to directly assist the FCC as it develops the Broadband Plan,” wrote the commission in comments it sent to the FCC last week.

The FCC must devise its national plan for broadband Internet access by February. The two agencies have a history of working together on initiatives.

By submitting comments to the FCC regarding the plan to regulate broadband services, the Trade Commission has some wondering how each might differ when it comes to considering online privacy and data usage. For one thing, the FCC may be able to uncover more information than the FTC has about emerging ISP-based ad targeting practices. The FTC hopes the FCC will gather “empirical data” to answer a series of questions, including, “What privacy and data security protections are currently provided for data obtained from behavioral advertising? Are additional protections needed?” The hope is that the answers “may help illuminate the competitive and consumer impact of these practices,” wrote the FTC.

The comments also cite concerns that “broadband providers may be able to track a consumer’s online activities to deliver targeted advertisements… These practices have the potential to benefit consumers, but also pose some risks.”

While the FTC’s comments submission doesn’t exactly represent a turf battle, the commission wants to make sure it’s not left out of the discussion. The Trade Commission would prefer to have more authority over broadband issues, but is often dismissed because it lacks jurisdiction over common telecom carriers. As the telecommunications landscape shifts and those traditional voice carriers broaden their services to include Internet access, the Trade Commission wants more authority over their activities.

The Trade Commission is due for reauthorization soon, and supports the repeal of the common carrier exemption from the FTC Act. The FTC also wants to ensure that broadband issues affecting consumer protection and privacy are dealt with in the FCC plan; some believe the FTC has more expertise in issues related to consumer protection and privacy than the FCC.

“Inadequate protection of personal information and data security in the broadband Internet context could hamper consumer confidence and undermine the benefits of broadband Internet service,” stated the FTC’s comments. “To combat these harms, privacy has been one of the FTC’s highest consumer protection priorities for more than a decade.”

As the FTC pushes to extend its jurisdiction to common carriers, it also worries its power could be weakened if a new Consumer Financial Protection Agency is created. The Obama administration argues a new agency would more effectively monitor providers of financial products such as credit cards, mortgages, and other loans.

The FCC also recently requested comment from communications firms, researchers, consumer groups, and analysts to determine how best to ensure consumers have appropriate information to make informed decisions about communications services.

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