FCC Looks Ahead to Net Neutrality, Privacy

WASHINGTON — Few tech policy debates are plumped up with more rhetoric than those concerning Net neutrality and privacy restrictions for advertisers. It should be a noisy year at the Federal Communications Commission.

Here at the Cable Show, the annual conference hosted by the National Cable and Telecommunications Association, advisors to the three current commissioners outlined some of the simmering issues that are likely to boil up at the FCC this year, and those two are on the short list.

Rick Chessen, acting chief of staff for interim FCC Chairman Michael Copps, said the agency could move toward adding to its Internet policy statement a fifth principle that would explicitly bar ISPs from discriminating against certain traffic on their networks.

“The principle would be one of nondiscrimination, but you would recognize the need for reasonable network management,” Chessen said.

The FCC’s broadband principles comprised the policy document that was at the center of last year’s action against Comcast, where the agency found that the cable giant had unfairly blocked peer-to-peer traffic on its network without notifying its subscribers it was doing so. The new principle Chessen suggested would seek to clarify the agency’s stance against the selective blocking of traffic.

Comcast is challenging last year’s ruling in a court case where the outcome could broadly shape how Congress proceed with Net neutrality policy.

Rosemary Harold, the legal advisor to Republican Commissioner Robert McDowell, said her boss is more cautious than the two Democrats on the matter.

“He’s on a different page,” Harold said. “He doesn’t think at this point there’s a need to move forward before we get some guidance from the court.” McDowell voted against the motion to punish Comcast in August.

At the moment, the FCC is in shape-shifting mode thanks to the post-election bureaucratic shuffle in Washington. With the departures of two Republican commissioners, the five-person agency is down to three.

Of those, Commissioner Jonathan Adelstein has been appointed to head the Rural Utilities Service, a division of the Department of Agriculture, and Copps will only head the agency until Obama’s pick for chairman, Julius Genachowski, is confirmed by the Senate.

As a practical matter, Chessen said the commission wouldn’t take any actions to shore up its position on Net neutrality until the new leadership was in place.

Aside from the staffing upheaval, the commission also has some more pressing issues than Net neutrality on its plate. Chief among them is the transition to digital television set for June 12.

The commission is also deeply involved in the broadband portion of the economic stimulus package, serving as a technical advisor to the agencies that will be dispersing the $7.2 billion for new networks and other projects. The bill also directs the FCC to develop and report to Congress a comprehensive national broadband strategy by next February.

But the cable folks on hand for the show may have already heard enough about that. From the outset, today’s panel was designed as a welcome break from the steady drumbeat of discussions on the disposition of the stimulus grants.

For the FCC to wade into the privacy debate would be a bit of a departure. The Federal Trade Commission has generally run herd on questions about how much personal information Web companies should be able to collect, store and sell.

While the FCC isn’t likely to get into the weeds about whether IP address should be considered personally identifiable information or how tracking cookies should be properly handled, Chessen suggested that it could become more active in the broader privacy debate that is expected to spill into other types of media.

“I think it’s been a sleeper issue for a while,” he said. “At the FCC it may be the online stuff, but it may also be interactive television.”

Interactive television is one of those technologies whose hype preceded its fruition by many years. Today, firms like TiVo are still tinkering with advertising and e-commerce applications for the television, and the Internet-enabled living room is still a long way off for most households.

But things are changing. Friday morning at the NCTA show, the CEO of Canoe Ventures talked up his company’s progress in bringing new, data-rich advertising technology that promises to target TV ads to the viewers most likely to be interested in a model very similar to the behavioral targeting already in wide use on the Web today.

And with data-driven ad targeting comes concerns over consumer privacy, which, in the case of the television industry, could be red meat for the FCC.

“It hasn’t really happened with television yet, but I think we’re going to get there,” Chessen said.

News Around the Web