Google opposes new privacy protections for set-top boxes

Google is a big fan of the Federal Communications Commission’s plan to open up cable boxes so that any company can tap into TV streams and make a new interface for them. There’s just one little thing that’s bothering Google about the proposal: consumer privacy rules. It thinks the FCC is too concerned with them.

Google wants today’s rules to stay as they are

“Imposing new privacy rules specifically directed to new generations of devices and applications is unnecessary given the comprehensive scope of the FTC Act and state privacy laws,” Google writes in a filing with the FCC. Essentially, Google says that there are already plenty of privacy safeguards in place, so there’s no need to make more of them specifically for companies making new set-top boxes, like Google almost certainly will.

That’s not to say Google is entirely opposed to privacy safeguards. It supports what the FCC is currently proposing: an extension of the rules that already govern today’s set-top boxes, so that they’ll cover new boxes as well. But the filing indicates that Google believes those rules are sufficient, both for protection and enforcement.

It’s certainly not a great look for a monolith like Google, which — like most of today’s huge tech companies — the public already questions on its commitment to privacy. Google makes it money by targeting ads based on precise user data, and there’s no doubt it would like to collect more from TV viewing habits.

“Nothing short of a new digital data power grab”

At least one privacy advocacy group is already unhappy with Google’s remarks. “It’s outrageous that as Google expands the data it collects for targeting video advertising, it opposes having the FCC ensure through stronger rules that set-top boxes … can actually protect consumer privacy,” says Jeff Chester, executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy. In a statement, Chester argues Google’s comment here “is nothing short of a new digital data power grab by the country’s leading digital marketing company.”

The FCC hasn’t proposed broader privacy rules yet, but it’ll very likely take a look at expanding them in small but meaningful ways. Right now, the FCC intends to let the Federal Trade Commission handle enforcement issues when companies violate their commitments. The FTC is cool with that — it filed a comment saying as much — but the agency does ask for one important change: it wants the FCC to require that new set-top box makers declare their privacy commitments to consumers. That way, the agency will have very clear grounds on which to take action if one of the privacy promises is broken.

Given that even Google is encouraging a tight relationship between the FCC and FTC, it seems likely that the FTC’s proposed rule expansion will be taken to heart. Google just might not be happy with the outcome.

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