Comcast, Time Warner Cable, Verizon and Other Telecoms Fighting to Cash In... on You

They call it "modernizing the rules." We call it "cashing in on your privacy."

Comcast, Time Warner Cable, Verizon, DIRECTV, and other giant U.S. cable and telecommunications companies are going hard-core with an aggressive anti-consumer agenda aimed at turning your private behavior into dollar signs. Citing antiregulatory buzzwords like "competition" and "economic growth', they are lobbying hard to loosen privacy rules in Washington for a very simple reason: They’ve got their hands on the wires that connect millions of homes with Internet and television services, and they want to sell information about your use of them to the highest bidder.

These companies are trying to move away from their traditional treatment as public utilities and get treated more like Google and Facebook. The shift they seek would strip authority from America’s privacy watchdog, the Federal Communications Commission and expand the mandate of the Federal Trade Commission. The FTC has brought privacy cases against Google and Facebook, but it lacks authority to be a truly effective privacy enforcer and has been seen as unresponsive to public pressure to get tough on powerful Internet players. The FCC, on the other hand, strengthened privacy rules in 2007 and has extracted large fines from Big Telecom for violating customer data-protection protocol. The FCC has a tendency to look at the potential for wrongdoing before it happens, whereas the FTC tends pay attention only after the fact.

Naturally, Big Telecom would rather interact with the FTC. It must be pointed out, however, that Obama has picked Tom Wheeler, an industry insider, to be the next head of the FCC, and it looks like he's going to get the job. Wheeler is, among other things, a venture capitalist, an Obama fundraiser, and a former top telecom lobbyist — not exactly the qualities one wants in a watchdog. Obama has referred to Wheeler as “the only member of both the cable television and the wireless industry hall of fame.” Very reassuring.

Writing in the Financial Times, Stephanie Kirchgaessner explains telecom logic for selling your private information, which is essentially, “hey, everybody’s doing it”:

“Proponents say the move would simplify an antiquated regulatory structure that has not kept pace with the changing media landscape. Traditional media companies face tougher restrictions than their new media rivals even though the services they offer are becoming increasingly similar.”

Oh, really! Actually, the move is simply a strategy to create a Wild West regulatory atmosphere in which your private information is, well, no longer private.

There’s plenty of dough to be made for Big Telecom from third-party marketers and others who would like to know who you’re calling and how often and for how long, what TV shows you watch, and so on. What happens to that information once it gets sold? Might identity thieves or other nefarious entities like to get their hands on your data? We already know Big Telecom has been implicated in NSA spying. They don’t exactly have your back. Perhaps executives are thinking, why not get paid for what we give away to the government for free? And that, ladies and gentlemen, is yet another reason that government spying is so dangerous. It's contagious.

The regulatory change would mean getting a new law passed in Congress. So the industry has gotten up a new lobbying group with an Orwellian name: the 21st Century Privacy Coalition. It is led by two revolving-door champions, Jon Leibowitz, who just left his post as chairman of the FTC and former Rep. Mary Bono Mack, a California Republican, who, as Mike Ludwig of Truthout put it “raked in thousands of dollars of donations from the telecom industry before leaving Congress last year.”

Barack Obama has very close ties to the cable industry, which lavished his campaign with money in the 2012 election cycle. Recently while vacationing in Martha’s Vineyard, he hit the golf course with Comcast CEO Brian Roberts, who also came over to the house for a friendly visit.

Gee, wonder what they discussed over lemonade?

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