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Spectrum Hearing Reveals Raw Wounds From Broadband Privacy Rule Rollback

The House Communications Subcommittee held a hearing on wireless spectrum and the economy, but it had to wait for Democrats and Republicans to air out their grievances over the passage last week of the Congressional Review Act (CRA) resolution rolling back FCC broadband privacy regulations.

The back-and-forth was particularly heated and even personal, illustrating the widening political divide on Capitol Hill.

Ranking member Mike Doyle (D-Pa.) and parent Energy & Commerce Committee ranking member Frank Pallone (D-N.J.) used their opening statements to weigh in on Republicans "ramming" the CRA down the "public's throat," as Doyle put it.

Doyle also called out CTIA (though not by name)—a CTIA witness, the only association witness, was at the table—for supporting the CRA, saying the industry association had acted in a "selfish and irresponsible way." He said he expected more from it and its members, and the American people did as well. Saying that CTIA's support for the CRA meant that there were no privacy protections, Doyle said: "Believe me, my constituents and your customers are not happy about this."

Doyle called the CRA a draconian instrument the Republicans had used to smash the FCC rules.

House Energy & Commerce Committee chairman Greg Walden (R-Ore.) shot back that the issue had been "horribly spun" and that the FCC created the problem when it reclassified ISPs under Title II and took over regulation of broadband privacy form the Federal Trade Commission.

He pointed out that the rules did not apply to data collection and sharing by Google (85% market share of search, he said) or Facebook. "How do you think they make their money," he asked.

He also pointed out that the FCC rules had never been in effect. He said those companies had never been under the FCC rules "period," then repeated "period" even louder to put an exclamation point on the period. "That's where the searches are," he said, suggesting Doyle needed a little educating—a comment that drew some groans.

Rep. John Shimkus (R-Ill.) also defended the CRA rollback, saying the reality was Congress made a great decision in rolling back the regs. 

A visibly excited Pallone put the move in context with other Republican/Trump Administration efforts on healthcare, energy and the environment. He said that no one believes the Republican "mumbo jumbo" about still protecting privacy, or clean air or affordable health care.

"Everyone understands when you go home that the Republicans are trying to do harm to every health, safety, privacy and environmental protection that exists in the federal government. And that is what they are all about." He said that through executive action and CRAs like the one on privacy, the Republicans are trying to unilaterally "tear down everything the American people care about." 

Subcommittee chair Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) emphasized as she moved to witness testimony that it was going to be a hearing about "spectrum."

Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.), former ranking member of the subcommittee, brought the issue back to privacy during her questioning. She asked CTIA witness Scott Bergman whether the FTC could come up with new privacy rules given that they lack rulemaking authority.

Bergman said his companies are commited to their subs' privacy but that they also follow and support the FCC's and FTC's enforcement authority over privacy.

Eshoo said that there is a hue and cry from constituents and that his companies had damaged their brand with support of the CRA.

Bergman said his companies depend on the trust of their customers. Eshoo said if that is the case they had "more than chipped away at that. I think this is going to haunt the companies."

Rep. Jerry McNerney (D-Calif.) also talked privacy, saying he was worred that promises are all consumers have left to protect their privacy.

He asked Berman whether companies could now change those policies if they wanted to.

Bergman would only say that their policies were the same today as they were before. He said the FCC still has authority under sec. 222 of Title II to enforce broadband privacy and that his members were working with the relevant agencies on a path to make sure that the FTC has a consstent and clear framework across the entire ecosystem.

John Eggerton
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.