When it comes to the internet, the importance of privacy may be the one thing nearly all Americans agree on. Earlier this year, Pew Research found that nearly three-quarters of internet users want more control over who can get their information. Consumers don't want their financial, medical and other personal information shared, at least not without their permission.
Consumers' concerns about privacy aren't academic -- they can have real consequences on our economy. Studies show that when consumers are concerned about their privacy, they limit their online economic and civic activities.
Americans have made it clear that they want more control over their personal information. It's time for the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to act quickly and finally put in place strong rules for internet service providers, or ISPs, to protect consumers' privacy.
Unfortunately, when the FCC announced more than a year and half ago its intention to adopt new privacy rules for ISPs, the rebuke from critics was swift. The proposal was an important step forward, but the critics argued that because consumers could be confused, the government should not adopt new rules for ISPs unless those rules were imposed on everyone at the same time. In other words, because websites would not operate under the stronger rules, ISPs should not have to either.
Weakening consumer protection is not the way to alleviate confusion. Limited privacy protections are what we have now, and nearly half of internet users surveyed say the current privacy regime leaves them confused, discouraged, and impatient.
The optimal solution would be to adopt strong privacy rules for both ISPs and websites, but unfortunately, this is easier said than done. Today, the FCC can adopt rules of the road to protect people's privacy only when it comes to ISPs.
Websites, on the other hand, are overseen by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). Unlike the FCC, the FTC must follow an arduous process that makes it virtually impossible to adopt similar rules. Moreover, a recent court decision has thrown the legal landscape into chaos by potentially undermining the FTC's already limited ability to protect consumers without the FCC's help.
Even worse, some Congressional Republicans are actually trying to gut the FTC of its existing authorities, while simultaneously arguing that the FCC should model its rules on the FTC's existing practices. These conflicting arguments defy logic. Their efforts also run counter to the public interest -- consumers are demanding that Congress provide more privacy protections, not less.
The constraints on the FTC should not force us to throw our hands up and leave the public vulnerable. The cost on our economy is too high.
We need to make sure consumers' privacy is protected, no matter where they go on the internet or how they connect. Congress should take this opportunity to fully empower the FTC, and give it the tools it needs to protect consumers from the unscrupulous practices of any company that can collect and monetize their data -- whether it is a website or a cable company.
To fully answer the public's call and maximize the economic power of the internet, the two agencies must do all they can to protect consumers by using the tools that they have today. That means the FCC must act now to finalize strong, new privacy rules.
When consumers are safe, we are all better off.