The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has recently announced a proposal concerning the set-top boxes consumers rent or buy from their cable or satellite TV provider. Although the proposal won’t be formally released until February 18th, the overall approach has been announced. Consumers need to know about it since it could seriously and negatively impact the privacy of their personal information.

At a high-level, the proposal, per FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler, is intended to encourage the non-cable tech industry to develop their own set-top boxes and other navigational devices. The intend is to give consumers more options with potentially lower costs (; “FCC Chairman Proposal to Unlock the Set-Top Box: Creating Choice & Innovation”; January 27, 2016). These are worthwhile goals but, as noted above, the means for achieving them raise significant consumer privacy issues.

Not unexpectedly, the proposal is generating vigorous discussion about its merits, necessity and impact on consumers. I’ll leave the debate about the economic and technical issues to those experts. What concerns me greatly is the critical question of the impact on consumers and what this proposal means for the protection of their personal information and data.

Why is this so important? Pay TV providers such as cable and satellite companies already operate under strong privacy rules concerning their collection and use of consumer information. They have to notify customers about the types of personally identifiable information they collect or will collect; the purposes for which this information might be used; and the persons or companies to whom this information might be disclosed. Equally important, consumers have to give prior written or electronic consent before their information can be disclosed or sold. If a consumer’s information is used or disclosed in ways that violate his consent, he can file a complaint with the FCC or sue in federal district court.

There have been general statements by Chairman Wheeler and others that similar, but not exact, privacy rules will be formulated for new third-party providers under this proposal. Those broad statements provide only cold comfort to consumers. The very vagueness and lack of specificity could result in weaker privacy obligations for these third-party providers.

The reality is that the FCC’s proposal will give these third-party companies the ability to collect even more data on consumers than they currently do. They could, for example, harvest valuable data on consumers’ viewing habits across multiple devices. This could translate into wider use of this data in ways consumers neither wanted nor intended (e.g., unwanted targeted ads and offers).

Before rushing to adopt rules about this proposal, the FCC first needs to assess whether it even has the legal authority to regulate the new universe of potential providers. Then it owes consumers a thorough analysis of such key foundational privacy questions as the following:

: Is there an existing, more privacy protecting, technology that can be used that would also achieve the FCC goals?

: What gaps in consumers privacy protection and coverage will be created by rules that are similar, but not exact, to existing ones for the cable industry?

: To which provider (e.g., cable or satellite or third-party) will consumers turn if their personal information is used contrary to their selected privacy and consent preferences?

: Are there going to be conflicting privacy laws and regulations created by this proposal, particularly between the FCC and the Federal Trade Commission (FTC)?  And how will consumers know to which agency, the FCC or FTC, to turn to for privacy complaints?

It is not sufficient from a consumer perspective to make overarching statements that personal information will be protected. Privacy and data protection issues demand more than cursory attention. They are too important and warrant detailed discussion and analyses that should not be overshadowed in a rush to attain the “more options, less cost” results that seem to be driving the FCC’s proposal.