FCC Revs Up Regulations

Votes on broadband privacy rules, boosting video-description mandates

Washington — Cable operators face some new regulatory obligations that could cost them time and money and, if you ask them, even threaten their business model in the case of their very public pushback on new broadband-privacy rules.

That was the product of one of the most contentious and unusual Federal Communications Commission meetings in recent memory.

A strongly divided commission voted along party lines to propose new broadband customer- privacy rules that include, among other things, a requirement that Internet-service providers get customer opt-in permission before sharing information with third parties.

Cable operators, led by the National Cable & Telecommunications Association, had sought a lighter hand. The NCTA said in a statement after the vote that the FCC had mistaken a headline — the commission’s own headline was “FCC Proposes to Give Broadband Consumers Increased Choice, Transparency and Security for Their Personal Data” — with headway.

The NCTA is particularly unhappy with the uneven playing field vis a vis edge providers. Under the proposal, ISPs would have far more onerous requirements than the ones imposed on other large online entities that have access to a wider range of user information than ISPs.

Wheeler re-emphasized last week that edge providers, like Google or Netflix, are outside the FCC’s broadband regulatory purview.

The new broadband privacy regime is an adjunct of the FCC’s reclassification of ISPs as Title II common carriers. That classification cut the FTC out of primary responsibility for broadband privacy and gave the FCC that responsibility.

The vote was on a notice of proposed rulemaking, so there will be time for stakeholders to weigh in and try to make adjustments.

Also at the FCC’s March 31 open meeting, delayed by several hours over the collapse of a Lifeline compromise, a somewhat-less-divided commission voted to increase the number of hours of narrated video programming (described programming for the blind, akin to closed captioning for the hearing impaired) by the maximum the law allows — from 50 hours per year to 87.5 hours (a 75% increase).

It also proposed to double the number of cable networks subject to the mandate from the top five to the top 10, and to increase from four to five the number of broadcast networks that must provide the programming.

As expected, the FCC voted to expand its Lifeline low-income subsidy to broadband Internet service, which cable operators generally support. What was not expected was a compromise between Democrat Mignon Clyburn and Republicans Pai and Michael O’Rielly that would have capped the fund. That bargain fell apart at the last minute amid Republican accusations of meddling by the chairman — “balderdash” was his response — and pressure from the Hill, which was in indeed present, tangibly, in the form of a letter asking the chairman to oppose any cap.

Republicans on the House Energy & Commerce Committee responded to the kerfuffle with the signal they would consider a bill setting their own cap on the fund.