Sen. Reid: Set-Top Plan Lacks Content, Privacy Protections

Related: NCTA Pitches 'Ditch the Box' Set-Top Proposal

Senate minority leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has asked FCC chairman Tom Wheeler to make sure that consumer privacy and program content are protected in the set-top box proposal.

Wheeler has said they will be but has not convinced cable operators, many Republicans and some in his own party that his proposal to "unlock" the set-top will do so.

Add Reid to that list.

"I am concerned that your proposal does not contain mechanisms to ensure that third-party set-top box providers will be required to adequately protect programming content or consumer privacy," he wrote Wheeler, according to a copy of the letter obtained by B&C.

Related: Rosenworcel: FCC Needs ‘Another Way Forward’ on Set-Tops

Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has already told Wheeler he thinks the chairman should rethink the proposal.

Reid is concerned that the proposal, as drafted, does not specifically extend contractual protections of programming to those third parties, saying that programmers "do not rely on copyright laws alone to protect their content."

Related: Wheeler: Set-Top Proposal Doesn't Undercut Copyright

He said it is not clear what, "if any" duty third parties would have to protect content or honor contracts. "As a result," he wrote, "programmers may be forced to rely primarily on costly and lengthy litigation to protect their content." That is one of the arguments cable operators have made in opposing the proposal. Another is that third parties are more interested in the data than the device. Reid agrees.

"[I]t has become increasingly clear that, for third-party box providers, the real value is not in producing or selling the box but in the data that the box will collect," he said. "Consumers will be handing over a significant amount of information about their viewing habits and, as the television interface is used more expansively, about themselves."

The FCC has authority over MVPD consumer data collection, it does not over edge providers. Wheeler has proposed making adherence to those MVPD-like privacy protections the quid pro quo for getting access to the programming and data streams. But that voluntary approach does not sit well with MVPDs, nor with Reid, who says it could leave the FCC "in the position of mandating privacy protections that it has not jurisdiction to enforce and leaving consumers without any meaningful remedy."

Reid said Wheeler needed to resolve those issues before moving forward with a vote on a final order.

John Eggerton

Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.