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Guest Blogger



03/04/2017

Persons with Disabilities Need Consistency, not Confusion, in Privacy Rules

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Online privacy is an issue of real concern to all people, and especially for persons with disabilities, whose information disseminated online might be of very sensitive nature. We believe government should make sure companies are protecting their customers’ sensitive information.

In the United States, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has been enacting, and successfully enforcing, privacy policies since the 1970s. Those rules have support from a wide cross-section of consumer advocates, regulators and businesses.  

It was somewhat of an anomaly, then, that a different federal agency, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), developed its own set of rules late last year that apply to broadband service providers, and only to broadband service providers. That means that these rules don’t apply to so-called “edge providers” like Google and Facebook, but do apply to companies like Comcast and Verizon, even if each company is taking the exact same action in its relation with customers. 

For consumers and especially for persons with disabilities who are more exposed than others to breaches of their privacy,  what’s needed is a single clear and uniform standard for all types of online activity, under the monitoring of a single agency.

This is further obvious as Internet service providers and e-commerce websites are increasingly operating as part of a single company.  To promote clarity for consumers, Internet Service Providers had already, in good faith, agreed upon a set of privacy principles to protect consumers based on the well-accepted guidelines of the FTC. These principles, which include transparency, choice, and security, would continue protecting on an equal basis all consumers and players of the internet ecosystem.

But instead of pursuing an approach consistent with the FTC framework, which would have been easier for consumers to understand, the FCC last year developed entirely new and complex privacy rules applicable exclusively to internet service providers.   With a fast moving Internet eco-system where distinctions between different types of players are evolving, risks abound to see an uneven playing field develop among competitors with greater confusion for consumers.

The result pleases almost no one.  Broadband service providers are concerned about additional costs, which will may end up being passed on to consumers, and an uneven playing field between ISPs and other online stakeholders.  And consumer organizations are concerned that online privacy rules become unnecessarily complicated.

Thankfully, the new FCC Chairman, Ajit Pai, has already pressed “pause” on these rules before they come into force, giving the Commission time to rewrite the rules to be consistent with the FTC’s successful approach. 

On January 18, 2017, the Access Board published a final rule that jointly updates requirements for information and communication technology covered by Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act and Section 255 of the Communication Act.  The U.S. Access Board abstained to include Real Time Text (RTT) in its final document and deferred to the FCC so that one only set of RTT rules would be applicable to better serve persons with hearing loss, service providers and participants in the telecommunication eco-system.  One would expect the FCC to adopt a similar approach when dealing with privacy rules established since many years by the FTC.

For those with disabilities who depend on the Internet for living and medical needs, this is much more than an “inside Washington” issue.  The stakes are significant if the privacy rules become more complex and access to the Internet more expensive.

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai has pledged to offer a better solution. Let us hope he succeeds!