The 21st Century Privacy Coalition doesn't really care about your privacy

By James Robinson , written on June 3, 2014

From The News Desk

You could be excused for mistaking a group with a grandiose name like the 21st Century Privacy Coalition for being fierce advocates for better privacy standards.

You’d be wrong though.

On a surface level, yes, the 21st Century Privacy Coalition -- a pack of seven major US telecommunications companies, Verizon, Comcast and AT&T and their ilk, alongside industry groups -- talks a grand game about acting in the consumer’s interest. It wants one privacy standard for all communications companies, be they phone company or search engine, overseen by the FTC.

The trick here though is that the FTC’s authority over privacy practices is not great. For example, if a website has a privacy policy and we as consumers agree to it than anything is fair game. In contrast, under the thumb of the FCC, what companies like Verizon and Comcast can do with sensitive customer information is governed strictly by laws with names like the Telecommunications Act of 1996 and The Cable Communications Act of 1984. Real, official stuff.

At a time when your phone companies are doing a better and better trade in selling your data to advertisers, the 21st Century Privacy Coalition’s “one law for all” maxim can be read as really more “one much, much less strict law... for all.”

As Jeffrey Chester, executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy, commented about the Coalition to the Financial Times last September, “The companies know the FTC is basically toothless. They have Facebook and Google envy.”

Although disclosure forms show that it had hired lobbyists early in March 2013, the Coalition didn’t make news until the June with an unassuming, few lines long brief in Politico. Coming three weeks after Edward Snowden’s NSA disclosures broke large, much of what little media attention the Coalition’s launch received linked the two.

Many privacy watchdogs were not amused. The Free Press’ Tim Karr commented on Twitter that “AT&T launching ‘21st Century Privacy Coalition’ is like Ted Nugent launching the ‘21st Century Wildlife Coalition.’”

The group is headed by up former Congresswoman Mary Bono Mack, now of FaegreBD Consulting, and former FTC Chairman Jon Leibowitz. Most of Leibowitz’ lobbying to date has been for the MPAA, but Mack is a close friend of the telecommunications industry. She served 12-terms in Congress before being defeated in 2012, receiving $275,000 in contributions from individuals and PACs in her last election, including many from the same organizations that are now members of the Coalition.

Mack declined a request for comment on this story. Likewise, Leibowitz did not respond to a request for comment.

To say that the Coalition has laid low in the year since its quiet unveiling would be a massive understatement. It has left a positively ghostly footprint. But it is evidently a well funded effort. Lobbying disclosure forms filed by law firms Mayer Brown and Ryan, MacKinnon, Vasapoli and Berzok on behalf of the Coalition show that between Q2 2013 and Q1 2014 it spent $880,000 in search influence.

According to memos supplied to Pando, which are believed to be from the Coalition itself, the group’s central argument is that in 2014, when you can watch videos and make calls online, the line between telecommunications and Internet company is extinct. Thus the telecom industry should be as free to use information about our viewing preferences and who we call, as Facebook is to do with our social graph and preferences.

The current situation, with both the FCC and the FTC controlling different parts of the telecommunications market is “duplicative federal oversight” and an “inefficient use of scarce resources," it argues. The memo further states, “The Coalition is focused on advocating for a consumer-centric federal privacy and data security framework that will govern the protections afforded to consumers by commercial entities." Similarly, “Consumers benefit from having the same privacy and security requirements apply to their information regardless of the entity.”

The memos don’t mention the FTC’s weaker level of oversight, but they’re clear that the FTC is the organization that should be doing the regulating and steers well clear of insinuating that companies like Google and Facebook should be subject to the stricter level of regulation that Verizon and Comcast have to deal with.

It would be a seismic shift in the policy behind how telecommunications privacy is governed in America, and the 21st Century Privacy Coalition would like to argue that it is in all of our favor. It’s a sentiment that has support in high places. President Obama endorsed such a measure in 2012 as part of wider privacy overhauls. Senator Toomey’s Data Security and Breach Notification Act of 2013 was introduced a week before the Coalition went public and remains before the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee. Section four of Toomey’s bill would grant the Coalition’s wishes almost to the letter, transferring oversight of all common telecommunication carriers from the FCC to the FTC.

Verizon, Comcast, AT&T and its 21st Century Privacy Coalition buddies could advocate for stronger privacy standards for everyone. But it’s hard to argue that its cries of  “let’s push this situation towards a place that’s good for everyone” aren’t merely the industry looking out for itself.

It is really hard to find the hidden altruism in covert congressional lobbying.

The shady US data brokering industry is worth tens of billions of dollars in part thanks to the very toothlessness of the FTC. Now the Coalition wants to extend its domain to cover the entirety of the communications industry. If successful, this new move would give phone companies wider reign in cashing in on your personal information like Google does on your search history.

Sure, if the Coalition get its way Verizon and co. will still have put down on paper what they plan to do with your information. But when was the last time you read your privacy policy in full before signing blindly? And what alternatives will we have if the industry as a whole adopts these privacy-eroding policies.

Yeah. Thought so.

The 21st Century Privacy Coalition, ladies and gentleman. Don’t judge a book by its cover.

[illustration by Brad Jonas for Pando]