ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
The company that provides your Internet access is between you and everything that you do on the Internet. Whether you're visiting the website for your bank or accessing your health records or anything else, your Internet service provider has a record of that trip that you took in cyberspace. And that company is likely selling your data to data brokers who in turn sell it to marketers and credit reporting agencies and so on.
Well, now, the head of the Federal Communications Commission is proposing to give you a say in what data your provider can sell about you. Chairman Tom Wheeler joins us now from his office to talk about it.
TOM WHEELER: Hello, Robert, how are you?
SIEGEL: What exactly are you proposing in terms of Internet privacy?
WHEELER: All we're saying in our proposal is that you the consumer ought to have a say in whether they can repackage and use information which is your information, not their information.
SIEGEL: Now, as I understand the proposal, if what the Internet service provider is gathering is just information to see if I might want to buy a higher level of service, for that I might have to check a box to opt out. But for anything else, I have to check a box to opt in. Are you proposing that consumers should have to opt in for the provider - Verizon, Comcast - to keep a record of their website visits or just to sell them?
WHEELER: Just to be able to turn around and sell them. The consumer ought to have the ability to say it's my information and whether I want that information to be sold or repurposed for commercial purposes by my network provider should be my decision as a consumer, not the network's decision.
SIEGEL: Internet service providers say that the Federal Trade Commission, the FTC, not the Federal Communications Commission - your body, or the FCC - the FTC has a balanced set of regulations that address privacy and also the company's interest in new Internet business models. What's the problem with saying, hey, we're already regulated by this other commission?
WHEELER: Because they aren't regulated by the FTC. The FTC's statute specifically precludes the FTC from regulating common carriers. And in our open Internet order, these Internet service providers were made to be common carriers, so the FTC has no jurisdiction.
SIEGEL: But the Internet service providers are already in court challenging the FCC's authority over them. Are you in effect adding fuel to the fire here by making this proposal now when that issue isn't fully settled?
WHEELER: Well, I think we're going to find a decision coming out of the court in the next few weeks, and we're confident of our authority in this matter.
SIEGEL: If Internet service providers are selling our information, then it's obviously something of value to them. If they're deprived of that value, will they then charge more for the service?
WHEELER: Well, the threshold question is we get to make the decision as consumers, and I can think of reasons why I would want my Internet service provider to do this.
So I don't think that this is going to end up shutting down their ability to monetize the information that they see going over their pathways. But it's going to give me a choice.
SIEGEL: But can the difference be one of cost as well? That is, would it qualify, in your view, as an opt in if in fact one option, that is, keep selling my information, would be cheaper than the privacy option, you can't sell my information?
WHEELER: I understand your point. And what we're saying is that first you empower consumers to say, do I want my information used? Then you empower consumers to say, is there a value that I put on my information? And work some kind of a deal with the Internet service provider to reflect that value.
SIEGEL: So you're saying the price in that case could be reduced if the Internet service provider were selling the information to third parties.
WHEELER: Yes. And the important thing is that consumers are the ones that make that choice because it's the consumer's information.
SIEGEL: This is a proposed rule. Assuming that a majority of FCC commissioners vote for it at the end of the month, what happens after that?
WHEELER: We'll put it out for public notice and collect input from all parties on all sides of the issue. Then we'll give everybody a chance to comment on everybody else's comments. And then we'll sift through all of those and hopefully be making a decision later this year.
SIEGEL: Just a question - before you became chairman of the FCC, you represented some of these Internet service providers.
SIEGEL: If you were still on the other side, what would you be saying about your proposed rule?
WHEELER: You know, at that point in time, I had as a client the Internet service providers. Today, I have as a client the American people. They'll go do their advocacy, but my job right now is to say, OK, what should I do as an advocate for the American consumer? And I think the key to that is to say that the American consumer controls the information that they create.
SIEGEL: Chairman Tom Wheeler of the Federal Communications Commission, thanks for talking with us today.
WHEELER: Thanks, Robert.
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