FCC Releases Consumer Report

Wheeler pitches set-top revamp, broadband privacy regs pending consumer-focused actions
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Even as FCC chairman Tom Wheeler was visiting the headquarters of Consumer Reports this week, the commission released its own consumer report, Empowering the 21st Century Consumer, chronicling actions under the chairman that he argues demonstrate that consumer protection is part of the agency's DNA.

Wheeler has long said the FCC was chiefly a consumer protection agency and pointed to various rulemakings, fines and settlements to make his point.

In an op ed published on CNET Wednesday, Wheeler announced the report's release and cited Wednesday's $48 million settlement with T-Mobile over its unlimited data plan and last week's settlement with Comcast ($2.3 million) over phantom fees as examples of the FCC's consumer focus.

He also used the opportunity to pitch the upcoming vote on broadband privacy and the currently circulated set-top box revamp update as two more pending blows for consumers.

He talked at length in the piece about ISPs' ability to track and collect consumers "every time we go online" or track their location and every time they go somewhere else "throughout the day in real time."

Wheeler has argued that unique view is what distinguishes ISPs from the data tracking by edge providers like Google or Facebook.

"[Y]our broadband provider can piece together significant amounts of information about you—including private information such as a chronic medical condition or financial problems—based on your online activity," he warned.

"The problem is, there are currently no rules in place outlining how ISPs may use and share their customers' personal information. This, while overwhelming majorities express concern that they have lost control of how their personal information is used. In today's digital world, consumers deserve to be able to make informed choices about their privacy and their children's privacy online."

Wheeler pivoted to set-tops and the "inconvenience of having to rent a set-top box to watch the television programming you've already paid for."

He said his set-top proposal would end the "stranglehold" of ISPs over fees estimated at $20 billion annually.

"If adopted," he said, "consumers would no longer have to pay monthly fees to rent a box. Instead, they would be able to access their pay-TV content via free apps on a variety of devices, including smart TVs, streaming boxes, tablets and smartphones. Consumers would also enjoy a better viewing experience thanks to integrated search and new innovation that will flow from enhanced competitive choice."

ISPs and programmers are worried that all that innovation and choice could come at the cost of their contractual arrangements, copyright protections, and ad-supported business models.

While a vote on broadband privacy is still scheduled for Oct. 27, there is no word on when, and if, the current set-top box proposal will have the three votes needed for passage.

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