Online Privacy Regulation: A Tale of Two U.S. Agencies (and Some Foreign Bureaucrats)

COMMENTARY Technology

Online Privacy Regulation: A Tale of Two U.S. Agencies (and Some Foreign Bureaucrats)

Oct 21st, 2016 6 min read
COMMENTARY BY
Alden Abbott

Deputy Director of Edwin Meese III Centerfor Legal and Judicial Studies

Alden Abbott serves as Deputy Director of Edwin Meese III Center for Legal and Judicial Studies at The Heritage Foundation.

In recent years much ink has been spilled on the problem of online privacy breaches, involving the unauthorized use of personal information transmitted over the Internet.  Internet privacy concerns are warranted.  According to a 2016 National Telecommunications and Information Administration survey of Internet-using households, 19 percent of such households (representing nearly 19 million households) reported that they had been affected by an online security breach, identity theft, or similar malicious activity during the 12 months prior to the July 2015 survey.  Security breaches appear to be more common among the most intensive Internet-using households – 31 percent of those using at least five different types of online devices suffered such breaches.  Security breach statistics, of course, do not directly measure the consumer welfare losses attributable to the unauthorized use of personal data that consumers supply to Internet service providers and to the websites which they visit.

What is the correct overall approach government should take in dealing with Internet privacy problems?  In addressing this question, it is important to focus substantial attention on the effects of online privacy regulation on economic welfare.  In particular, policies should aim at addressing Internet privacy problems in a manner that does not unduly harm the private sector or deny opportunities to consumers who are not being harmed.  The U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC), the federal government’s primary consumer protection agency, has been the principal federal regulator of online privacy practices.  Very recently, however, the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has asserted the authority to regulate the privacy practices of broadband Internet service providers, and is proposing an extremely burdensome approach to such regulation that would, if implemented, have harmful economic consequences.

In March 2016, FTC Commissioner Maureen Ohlhausen succinctly summarized the FTC’s general approach to online privacy-related enforcement under Section 5 of the FTC Act, which proscribes unfair or deceptive acts or practices:

[U]nfairness establishes a baseline prohibition on practices that the overwhelming majority of consumers would never knowingly approve. Above that baseline, consumers remain free to find providers that match their preferences, and our deception authority governs those arrangements. . . .  The FTC’s case-by-case enforcement of our unfairness authority shapes our baseline privacy practices.  Like the common law, this incremental approach has proven both relatively predictable and adaptable as new technologies and business models emerge.

In November 2015, Professor (and former FTC Commissioner) Joshua Wright argued the FTC’s approach is insufficiently attuned to economic analysis, in particular, the “tradeoffs between the value to consumers and society of the free flow and exchange of data and the creation of new products and services on the one hand, against the value lost by consumers from any associated reduction in privacy.”  Nevertheless, on balance, FTC enforcement in this area generally is restrained and somewhat attentive to cost-benefit considerations.  (This undoubtedly reflects the fact (see my Heritage Legal Memorandum, here) that the statutory definition of “unfairness” in Section 5(n) of the FTC Act embodies cost-benefit analysis, and that the FTC’s Policy Statement on Deception requires detriment to consumers acting reasonably in the circumstances.)  In other words, federal enforcement policy with respect to online privacy, although it could be improved, is in generally good shape.

Or it was in good shape.  Unfortunately, on April 1, 2016, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) decided to inject itself into “privacy space” by issuing a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking entitled “Protecting the Privacy of Customers of Broadband and Other Telecommunications Services.”  This “Privacy NPRM” sets forth detailed rules that, if adopted, would impose onerous privacy obligations on “Broadband Internet Access Service” (BIAS) Providers, the firms that provide the cables, wires, and telecommunications equipment through which Internet traffic flows – primarily cable (Comcast, for example) and telephone (Verizon, for example) companies.   The Privacy NPRM reclassifies BIAS provision as a “common carrier” service, thereby totally precluding the FTC from regulating BIAS Providers’ privacy practices (since the FTC is barred by law from regulating common carriers, under 15 U.S. Code § 45(a)(2)).  Put simply, the NPRM required BIAS Providers “to obtain express consent in advance of practically every use of a customer[s] data”, without regard to the effects of such a requirement on economic welfare.  All other purveyors of Internet services, however – in particular, the large numbers of “edge providers” that generate Internet content and services (Google, Amazon, and Facebook, for example) – are exempt from the new FCC regulatory requirements.  In short, the Privacy NPRM establishes a two-tier privacy regulatory system, with BIAS Providers subject to tight FCC privacy rules, while all other Internet service firms are subject to more nuanced, case-by-case, effects-based evaluation of their privacy practices by the FTC.  This disparate regulatory approach is peculiar (if not wholly illogical), since edge providers in general have greater access than BIAS Providers to consumers’ non-public information, and thus may appear to pose a greater threat to consumers’ interest in privacy.

The FCC’s proposal to regulate BIAS Providers’ privacy practices represents bad law and horrible economic policy.  First, it undermines the rule of law by extending the FCC’s authority beyond its congressional mandate.  It does this by basing its regulation of a huge universe of information exchanges on Section 222 of the Telecommunications Act of 1996, a narrow provision aimed at a very limited type of customer-related data obtained in connection with old-style voice telephony transmissions.  This is egregious regulatory overreach.  Second, if implemented, it will harm consumers, producers, and the overall economic by imposing a set of sweeping opt-in consent requirements on BIAS Providers, without regard to private sector burdens or actual consumer welfare (see here); by reducing BIAS Provider revenues and thereby dampening investment that is vital to the continued growth of and innovation in Internet-related industries (see here); by reducing the ability of BIAS Providers to provide welfare-enhancing competitive pressure on providers on Internet edge providers (see here); and by raising consumer prices for Internet services and deny discount programs desired by consumers (see here).

What’s worse, the FCC’s proposed involvement in online privacy oversight comes at a time of increased Internet privacy regulation by foreign countries, much of it highly intrusive and lacking in economic sophistication.  A particularly noteworthy effort to clarify cross-national legal standards is the Privacy Shield, a 2016 United States – European Union agreement that establishes regulatory online privacy protection norms, backed by FTC enforcement, that U.S. companies transmitting data into Europe may choose to accept on a voluntary basis.  (If they do not accede to the Shield, they may be subject to uncertain and heavy-handed European sanctions.)  The Privacy NPRM, if implemented, will create an additional concern for BIAS Providers, since they will have to evaluate the implications of new FCC regulation (rather than simply rely on FTC oversight) in deciding whether to opt in to the Shield’s standards and obligations.

In sum, the FCC’s Privacy NPRM would, if implemented, harm consumers and producers, slow innovation, and offend the rule of law.  This prompts four recommendations.

  • The FCC should withdraw the NPRM and leave it to the FTC to oversee all online privacy practices, under its Section 5 unfairness and deception authority. The adoption of the Privacy Shield, which designates the FTC as the responsible American privacy oversight agency, further strengthens the case against FCC regulation in this area. 
  • In overseeing online privacy practices, the FTC should employ a very light touch that stresses economic analysis and cost-benefit considerations. Moreover, it should avoid requiring that rigid privacy policy conditions be kept in place for long periods of time through consent decree conditions, in order to allow changing market conditions to shape and improve business privacy policies. 
  • Moreover, the FTC should borrow a page from former FTC Commissioner Joshua Wright by implementing an “economic approach” to privacy. Under such an approach:  

o             FTC economists would help make the Commission a privacy “thought leader” by developing a rigorous academic research agenda on the economics of privacy, featuring the economic evaluation of industry sectors and practices; 

o             the FTC would bear the burden of proof of showing that violations of a company’s privacy policy are material to consumer decision-making;

o             FTC economists would report independently to the FTC about proposed privacy-related enforcement initiatives; and

o             the FTC would publish the views of its Bureau of Economics in all privacy-related consent decrees that are placed on the public record.   

  • The FTC should encourage the European Commission and other foreign regulators to take into account the economics of privacy in developing their privacy regulatory policies. In so doing, it should emphasize that innovation is harmed, the beneficial development of the Internet is slowed, and consumer welfare and rights are undermined through highly prescriptive regulation in this area (well-intentioned though it may be).  Relatedly, the FTC and other U.S. Government negotiators should argue against adoption of a “one-size-fits-all” global privacy regulation framework.   Such a global framework could harmfully freeze into place over-regulatory policies and preclude beneficial experimentation in alternative forms of “lighter-touch” regulation and enforcement. 

While no panacea, these recommendations would help deter (or, at least, constrain) the economically harmful government micromanagement of businesses’ privacy practices, in the United States and abroad.

This piece first appeared in Truth on the Market.