Jonathan Spalter

How to Catch Up on Digital Protections for Consumers? Look to ISPs

Tomorrow, in the most public way possible, Congress will turn its focus to Facebook, social media privacy, and user’s data security. With the klieg lights on, they will debate two profoundly important questions at the heart of the integrity and viability of the internet: how can we better protect the digital rights of America’s consumers, and what are the proper responsibilities both of government and industry in doing so?

Of course, all consumers who care about their digital privacy will expect their representatives in Washington to be tough, dogged, and fair both in their demands for accountability, and the search for solutions. But Congress’s task at the hearings this week will be to do more than merely assess what is happening with customer data in the internet ecosystem, and identify any failures that contributed to the recent break-downs in public trust. Our policymakers also must look to privacy practices and principles that are actually working for consumers, and should pass pro-consumer legislation that is based on best practices that are evenly and consistently applied across our online marketplace.

And, in the search for privacy best practices, Congress need look no further than America’s broadband providers. For over twenty years, internet service providers (ISPs) have protected their consumers’ data with strong pro-consumer policies. ISPs know the success of any digital business depends on earning their customers’ trust on privacy.

And that is why broadband providers large and small, serving communities both urban and rural, chose to “lean in” proactively and voluntarily around a core set of shared privacy principles to ensure their consumers receive the protections they expect and require.

These principles include specific policies on transparency, choice, security, and notifications in the case of a data breach. They reaffirm and restate  ISPs’ longstanding, pro-consumer privacy practices based on the highly respected Federal Trade Commission (FTC) framework that has protected internet users for years and provided the flexibility necessary to innovate new product solutions to enhance consumers’ online experiences.

And they advance the common-sense – and highly achievable idea – that consumers and the companies serving them overwhelmingly expect a level playing field when it comes to the application of consistent, clear, enforceable, online protections.

The answer is for our policymakers to step up and do the hard work of coming up with a modern framework to protect consumer privacy while encouraging the growth and evolution of the most powerful tool in our modern lives. The internet must be freed from outdated and outmoded regulations that have no place in today’s world outside the Smithsonian. In its place, fresh, modern and constructive principles must be applied in an even-handed way across the entire ecosystem.

On privacy, on openness, on all these important issues—consumers and innovators alike deserve one set of protections and rules of the road. Congress would do well to hold up as a model the pro-consumer principles ISPs have adopted to advance these protections. In the best interest of our nation’s online users, and the health and vitality of America’s online leadership, the rest of the internet ecosystem would do well to catch-up.