It might not seem all that exciting on the surface, but the Federal Communications Commission’s recently announced Data Innovation Initiative may be one of the Commission’s most significant efforts in recent years. The initiative is intended to modernize and streamline how the Commission collects, uses, and disseminates data. This initiative comes in the wake of the Commission’s controversial National Broadband Plan, which focuses on ensuring widespread and affordable broadband access. One of the less-discussed items in the Plan is the Commission’s intention to “Collect, analyze, benchmark and publish detailed, market-by-market information on broadband pricing and competition.”
Together, these items highlight the increasing importance of good data to good policymaking. In trying to make policies that encourage broadband diffusion, it is very important to have thorough and reliable information about the penetration and pricing of these services. This is the only way to determine which areas of the country should be points of focus, as well as the only way to determine whether specific policies are actually working.
It’s obvious that policymakers need this information. What is less obvious, but equally important, is the fact that the public needs access to this information as well.
This, however, is where things have gotten a bit sticky. Broadband providers do not want the public to have complete access to the information that they provide to government agencies such as the FCC and the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA). They argue that making such information publicly available represents the disclosure of trade secrets. These providers express particular concern about potential competitors learning about—and then targeting—areas that are not currently being served.
The FCC has thus far largely accommodated these concerns. The NTIA is spending $350 million to gather similar information to what the FCC has gathered, but has not made public. It is unclear at this point whether the NTIA is going to be more forthcoming with the information they gather than the FCC has been.
I understand the idea that companies want to keep some of the information about what they do confidential for strategic reasons. But trying to hold on to information about what they don’t do, about the customers they don’t serve, far exceeds the boundaries of how much regulators need to accommodate the firms they regulate. The reasons why companies would like to keep such information confidential pales in comparison to the reasons why it’s important for such information to be made public.
First, if potential competitors—or even municipalities or community groups—use the information about underserved areas to then target and serve those areas, then public access to this information has probably provided as much or more bang for the buck in terms of advancing the Commission’s Broadband Plan as any tax dollars could.
The public interest in rapid broadband deployment and uptake in underserved areas far exceeds the interests of individual companies who don’t want their competitors to be the ones to provide it. Today, concern is growing about possible “red-lining” in broadband deployment, in which broadband providers systematically neglect low-income or minority communities.
If a broadband provider is worried about competitors serving communities that they do not serve, there is a simple solution: serve those communities. Keeping the public and potential competitors ignorant of your failure to do so is not a viable strategic response.
Second, public access to such information is a cornerstone of any federal commitment to governmental transparency and openness. Public policy should be made with publicly available data. If it isn’t, then the public is left to wonder if the “books have been cooked” in order to achieve politically desirable outcomes, or whether the information has been thoroughly analyzed from all relevant angles.
The Obama administration has made a priority of bringing such transparency and openness to the information that guides governmental decision-making (see, for example www.data.gov), as part of their overall commitment to governmental transparency and openness (see www.whitehouse.gov/open). And with its new Data Innovation Initiative, hopefully the FCC will follow this example.
These concerns are particularly important in the context of broadband penetration, where there is already a troubling history of governmental shortcomings in both the gathering and analysis of the data. Public access allows for the kind of supplementary and confirmatory analyses that are fundamental to the public’s ability to hold its policymakers accountable.
It is important to recognize that the broadband data controversy is part of a broader, ongoing pattern in the communications sector. Regulated industries have historically fought tooth and nail not only to avoid providing information to regulators, but also to then have any such information shielded from public access.
Broadcasters continue to resist providing the FCC with basic information about their programming. They are also resisting making such information available to the public online. Broadband providers don’t want us to know where they do and don’t have subscribers; nor do they want us to know the speed of the service they’re providing. The list goes on.
There are a variety of possible solutions to these problems. For instance, regulators can maintain a system of controlled access to information that is determined to be truly confidential, so that the information can only be used for aggregate analyses and cannot be kept and disseminated by those doing the analyses (the FCC has done this in the past with commercially sensitive media ownership data).
However, the most basic and most important solution is for policymakers to simply recalibrate the burden of proof when weighing claims of industry self-interest against the public interest. Today, broadband providers need only place a check mark in a box on their filing with the FCC for the Commission to treat their submitted data as confidential. This, obviously, is not an appropriate burden of proof.
More often than not, under a little scrutiny it quickly becomes clear that the regulated firms’ claims of the substantial economic harm they will suffer if such information is made public simply do not hold water. Much of the information that broadband providers want to keep private is often obtainable via other means—in some cases via the websites or advertising materials of these providers. In addition, it’s often the case that by the time the information is gathered, while it’s still recent enough to facilitate the relevant policy analyses, is often not recent enough to cause any meaningful harm to the firms providing the information.
In the end, the overwhelming public interest in this information being more publicly accessible far outweighs the commercial interests in keeping this information private. As the FCC revisits its data practices, hopefully they will keep this point in mind.