Consumer Groups Discuss Broadband at Workshop

Transparency, consumer control, education, and better data among the groups watchwords

Transparency, consumer control, education, and better data, were some of the watchwords from consumer groups at an FCC broadband workshop Wednesday.

Taking dead aim at broadband data-collection efforts to date was Sascha Meinrath, director of the Open Technology Initiative at the New America Foundation.

He said that nobody really knows the impact of broadband on the consumer because networks have refused to provide sufficiently granular data and the FCC has "facilitated that uncertainty" by refusing to mandate the kind of data collection that leads to informed policy, saying instead that broadband policymaking "continues to exist in a self-imposed veil of ignorance."

He said the current $350 million broadband data mapping effort--funded by the economic stimulus package--is too little, if not too late, though the privatization of broadband data in the 1990's had sacrificed transparency and access.

Among the consumer unfriendly aspects of the current state of broadband, he argued, were the lack of a Carterfone mandate for wireless telephony, the above-mentioned privatization of broadband data, and what he said was a lack of information on which consumers could make choices about their internet service.

Joel Kelsey, policy analyst for Consumers Union, focused on three areas: cyber crime, behavioral tracking, and deep packet inspection. He acknowledged that surfers had to take some responsibility for protecting themselves from cyber crimes, but that government and industry, which collects and and shares sensitive information, also bears some

He called for legislation establishing baseline security standards for those collecting sensitive information, and requirements of notification of any breaches in that security.

He also said government could do a better job of informing consumers through public information campaigns.

Ari Shcwartz, of the Center for Democracy and Technology, agreed. He said companies had failed to respond to consumers' basic concerns and that they were still working from a 1980's direct marketing playbook that the data belonged to the companies doing the marketing rather than the users from whom it was collected.

But he also said those baseline laws should be sufficiently flexible so that they would not have to go back to Congress or the regulatory agency every time there is a technological change. "The FCC should stand up for consumers," he said.

Debra Berlyn, who heads up the FCC's Consumer Advisory Committee, said the committee had shifted its focus from the DTV transition to broadband, particularly helping older populations adapt to and adopt broadband.

That concern was somewhat in contrast to an earlier workshop on "big ideas" in broadband. At that workshop, several participants said, if somewhat apologetically, that the adoption problem for seniors would essentially take care of itself. Translation: eventually, they won't be around to have to educate or spur to adoption.

By contrast, she emphasized not leaving any senior behind and helping boost their broadband use--70% of seniors 65-plus don't have broadband in their homes she said--to help with home shopping, reducing isolation, connecting with family and friends, telemedicine, and the government services that are moving online. "It won't make the wrinkles go away," she said, but maybe they can find a cream online to reduce them.