HolidayBuyer's Guide

FCC chief: We're here to reinforce consumer rights

Commentary: Chairman Tom Wheeler says the FCC is working hard to protect your privacy and allow you to watch pay-TV programming without renting a set-top box.

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FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler.

Photo by Maugerite Reardon/CNET

If you are a consumer who feels like you're being taken advantage of, where do you turn for help?

The Federal Communications Commission is the nation's expert agency on communications technology and has a mandate to protect consumers who rely on our nation's networks. In recent years, the commission has moved aggressively to meet our consumer protection responsibilities, whether it's adopting net neutrality protections that preserve the right of internet users to access a fair, fast and open Internet without the fear of gatekeepers, or pushing the NFL to suspend its TV blackout policy. In the coming weeks, the commission is poised to take significant actions to further these obligations, saving consumers money and securing fundamental consumer rights for the digital age.

Our core mission is two-fold: we work to promote innovation and investment in world-class networks, products and services, while preserving principles that have long defined our networks -- principles like universal access, consumer protection and public safety. I believe that policies that are pro-innovation and pro-competition are pro-consumer, which is why we work to preserve and promote competitive markets.

It was FCC action that induced wireless companies to unlock mobile phones, so you can switch carriers and keep your phone. More recently, we spurred an industry-led effort to give consumers more call-filtering options to block the scourge of unwanted robocalls. And the commission has consistently pushed a series of initiatives to promote transparency in the telecom sector, so consumers have the information they need to make smart decisions, all while making the market work more efficiently.

The FCC also works aggressively on a variety of fronts to make sure consumers are treated fairly and get what they pay for. The commission has repeatedly stepped in to stop unfair business practices and, in many cases, required the companies to take concrete measures to prevent future indiscretions. In recent years, the commission has reached settlements that stop companies from overcharging consumers and failing to protect consumers' personal information. Today, we reached a settlement with T-Mobile requiring the company to pay a fine and provide consumer benefits totaling $48 million for misleading consumers about restrictions on its "unlimited" data plans. Just last week, Comcast agreed to pay $2.3 million in fines for billing consumers for services they didn't order, the largest penalty ever for a cable company.

Currently, there are two more issues before the commission that will have a real impact on American consumers: protecting consumers' privacy on broadband networks and giving consumers alternatives to renting costly set-top boxes.

Seldom do we stop to realize that our internet service provider -- or ISP -- is collecting information about us every time we go online. Your ISP handles all of your network traffic. That means it has a broad view of all of your unencrypted online activity -- when you are online, the websites you visit, and the apps you use. If you have a mobile device, your provider can track your physical location throughout the day in real time. Even when data is encrypted, your broadband provider can piece together significant amounts of information about you -- including private information such as a chronic medical condition or financial problems -- based on your online activity.

The problem is, there are currently no rules in place outlining how ISPs may use and share their customers' personal information. This, while overwhelming majorities express concern that they have lost control of how their personal information is used. In today's digital world, consumers deserve to be able to make informed choices about their privacy and their children's privacy online.

Later this month, the commission will vote on rules to give consumers the tools they need to make informed decisions about how ISPs use and share their data. These rules will also give consumers confidence that their ISPs are taking steps to keep their data secure, and will provide ISPs the flexibility they need to continue to innovate. It's your data -- it's about time you had a say over how it's used.

Whereas many of us don't realize how our personal data is used by ISPs, just about everyone recognizes the inconvenience of having to rent a set-top box to watch the television programming you've already paid for. With no meaningful alternatives to choose from, 99 percent of pay-TV subscribers still lease a set-top box from their provider, despite the statutory mandate that they must have commercially available options. The average American household spends $231 every year to rent these devices, according to one analysis. Collectively, the bill comes to about $20 billion annually.

There is currently a proposal before the FCC that would end the set-top box stranglehold. If adopted, consumers would no longer have to pay monthly fees to rent a box. Instead, they would be able to access their pay-TV content via free apps on a variety of devices, including smart TVs, streaming boxes, tablets and smartphones. Consumers would also enjoy a better viewing experience thanks to integrated search and new innovation that will flow from enhanced competitive choice.

Thanks to advances in communications technology, there's never been a better -- or more complex -- time to be a US consumer. Faced with many challenges, Americans should know that the FCC works every day to protect consumers.

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