May 31, 2017

ISPs tip-toe around contentious privacy bill

Jeff Fusco / AP

Major internet service providers are treading carefully around a new proposal from conservative Rep. Marsha Blackburn that would place strict privacy restrictions on their networks as well as the web platforms that use them.

The details: Comcast's top policy executive David Cohen said at a Wednesday event that "we'll see how it plays out" and said it was an "appropriate inquiry" as to whether privacy regulators should treat all web browsing data as equally sensitive, as the proposed bill does.

AT&T's Bob Quinn said that it was "the first draft of the bill, we'll see where it all goes" but noted that the company's priority is to be subject to the same rules as web services.

Why it matters: The carefully phrased responses reflect providers' tricky position in the privacy debate. They like the idea of requiring Facebook and Google, which dominate the online ad industry, to play by the same rules when it comes to privacy. And having federal rules rather than varying state statutes would create fewer compliance headaches. But they don't like the idea of having to comply with regulations themselves.

Key context: Blackburn's bill comes after she and Republican colleagues voted to dismantle the FCC's ISP privacy rules. Those rules did not apply to tech companies like Facebook and Google, but those firms supported the rollback of the FCC's rules out of fear that similar rules would someday apply to them.

Worth noting: FCC Chairman Ajit Pai argues every company involved in the internet ecosystem should be subject to the same rules.

But he clarified that he isn't endorsing the the bill: "To be honest I haven't had a chance to review the legislation closely, but just my message that I was trying to convey in there [during the event] is that the uniform expectation of privacy is an important thing."

Note: Comcast's NBC is an investor in Axios and NBC's Andy Lack is a member of the Axios board.

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