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These Wireless Location Data Scandals Are Going To Be A Very Big Problem For Ajit Pai


It took the press the better part of a decade to finally realize that cellular carriers have been routinely hoovering up and selling your daily location data to every nitwit on the planet with zero meaningful ethical guidelines or oversight. And while this stuff is certainly nothing new, the recent Motherboard report showing how cavalierly your private data is bought and sold along a massive chain of shady operators seems to have finally woken everybody up on the subject.

Whether we actually do something about it is another issue entirely.

Pressure has started to mount on FCC boss Ajit Pai in particular. Why? While people rightfully obsessed on Pai's attacks on net neutrality, the repeal itself effectively involved neutering most FCC oversight of ISPs and wireless carriers, then shoveling any remaining authority to an FTC that lacks the authority or resources to really police telecom. This neutering of already tepid oversight was always the telecom lobby's plan, and unless you've got a severe case of denial, it's obvious the Pai FCC acted as a mindless rubber stamp in helping the industry's biggest players achieve this goal.

Of course the GOP helped as well, by quickly kowtowing to telecom sector lobbyists and, in March of 2017, voting to kill some fairly modest FCC privacy rules before they could take effect. Those rules, in addition to some other requirements, would have given consumers far more power over how their location data is shared and sold among what, in some instances, has been proven to be a chain that in at least one case was some 70 companies long.

The problem for Pai is he now has to go before Congress and explain how demolishing the FCC's ability to actually police this problem serves the common good. And, as Gizmodo notes, how he worked very closely with industry to specifically ensure these companies can't be seriously held accountable for a long, long history of really dubious behavior:

"To put it another way, the feckless ineptitude displayed by Pai since this phone-tracking scandal first broke nine months ago is not unintentional but reflects the precise level of power major telecoms wanted him to wield and no more. This circumstance, under which virtually anyone can pay money to physically locate the owner of a mobile phone, was engineered—as was the crippling of the agency that, under the former administration, would have had complete authority to pursue and punish those responsible."

Pai likely realizes the bad optics of this perfect storm. Under Pai, the FCC has largely ignored media requests for comments from reporters over the last few years, unless they were coming from outlets unwilling to criticize the agency (The Daily Caller comes quickly to mind). That changed this week however, when Pai was literally forced to directly answer the FCC press mailbox to assure everybody he'd be getting to the bottom of the location data scandal just as soon as the government re-opens:

It's going to take a thorough investigation to explore the scope of the problem and ensure carriers are living up to their promises to cease this data collection and sale. The problem: you'd be pretty hard pressed to find a lawyer that believes the FCC has enough remaining authority to actually do anything about this, thanks in large part to Pai's efforts to neuter the agency at carrier lobbyist request. The FCC does have some remaining authority under Customer Proprietary Network Information (CPNI) rules (expanded in 2005 to include location data), but it's far from clear that's enough, or that Pai would act anyway.

While Pai is busy trying to tapdance around those questions, the lawsuit over net neutrality will also be heating up, showcasing how Pai's FCC engaged in all manner of dubious behavior from concocting a DDOS attack to blocking inquiries into comment fraud to try and downplay massive backlash to his assault on net neutrality. On top of the fact his agency made up tons of data to justify the extremely unpopular decision. None of this is going to be a particularly enjoyable ride for Mr. "internet freedom," whose post-FCC political ambitions couldn't be more obvious.


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