Policy Challenges IEEE Privacy and Broadband Examples

Jim Isaak

Chair IEEE USA Committee on Communications Policy

IEEE is the largest global society for technical professionals with thousands of conferences and peer reviewed publications every year.  We also create standards (WiFi, and Operating Systems and AI Ethics for example.)  As a U.S. not-for-profit educational organization, IEEE has constraints on the type of political advocacy it can do in the U.S. Similarly, operating in most countries in the world also creates local constraints on advocacy. However, IEEE does engage where it can with both global and U.S. specific policy positions.  The IEEE Global Public Policy Committee (GPPC URL) is the clearing house for positions at that level, and assures consistency of IEEE-USA policy statements (URL) which take on U.S. specific characteristics.

A critical point of understanding is that all policy advocacy and practical influence is “local”.  The variations in culture, legal perspectives and economics are simply too great to provide viable focused recommendations that can be applied in every context.  One example is the IEEE position on Internet Access (URL).  This asserts the value and need for access in every community.  However, it is clear that priorities such as electricity, water and sanitation would seem more critical.  However, even when these are in limited supply, many rural communities have cell phone access, even smart phones with network access.

The examples here, privacy and broadband, provide a basis for outlining some of the challenges and considerations in seeking to develop technology policy recommendations.  In IEEE-USA, the Committee on Communications Policy has developed position statements in these areas (URL). Each reflects a different context in terms of technology, economics and timing, all of which are significant factors in identifying viable opportunities for policy advocacy.


The need for a 21st century privacy policy has grown out of increasing technical capabilities.  The significant reduction in the costs of mass storage (big data), with computational capability to analyze this data are one factor.  The emergence of “free” (advertising funded) services in search and social media are a second factor.  Finally the application of analytics and artificial intelligence to develop profiles on every individual and target them with the most effective advertising is a key consideration.  Note that most of these factors are being driven by private industry, not governmental interest, in the U.S.  Other countries and cultures have different responses to these technologies.  The current disputes between the U.S. and China with respect to social media platforms, data collection and use of that data reflect these different approaches.

The key concepts that IEEE-USA is advocating in the U.S. political environment include: transparency, disclosure, control and notification.  These are the basis for governmental policies, but are directed at protecting consumers in the context of private corporate collection and uses of data.  These parallel many of the policy positions already established in the E.U. and more recently in California at the state level. In the U.S. policy can occur at Federal, State and more local levels, with some pre-emption possible from the higher levels of government.  Since many high-tech entities are headquartered in California, it has a degree of influence and potential enforcement that might not be available for other jurisdictions.  The U.S. Constitution is the highest legal level in the U.S. It has limited protection for privacy, and guarantees a level of free speech. Corporations are recognized as “persons” and as such are granted these protections.  Another clause grants the federal government control over “interstate commerce” which has been determined to include communications facilities, in many cases including the Internet.  All of this creates a fairly unique mix of protections and possible bases for action in either challenging state or federal legislation, or providing a basis for legislation or regulation.

Since many of the protections apply to action by the government, it is unclear that private corporations are constrained by these protections.  Similarly, issues involving “freedom of speech” can pit the “right of corporate speech” – for example in advertising or in blocking access to a corporate communications channel against the right of a person (again, including corporations) to express their views using corporate controlled communications channels.  Where these channels are ‘licensed’ from the federal government (the FCC for example licenses radio communications channels) regulations can be applied.  The ability to do this for non-radio communications is a current political issue.

Current privacy issues in the U.S. include questions of government use of facial recognition, a capability implemented by online suppliers.  Facial analysis is not just a factor in identifying persons, even those who are not “online”, but also identifying non-obvious characteristics.  Even when these have modest accuracy, they can become part of corporate profiles on individuals that would not meet the criteria for court-room evidence, but will be applied in advertising and other situations.  Characteristics such as gender, race, age, and more are both advertising criteria, and also discrimination criteria in the context U.S. employment and housing.  Again these add challenges to the collection and uses of personal data.

An emerging technical component in the mix is the emergence of artificial intelligence (again a topic of IEEE-USA policy positions (URL)).  The use of individual profiles combined with AI may lead to highly effective advertising, persuasion or “nudging”.  This is a topic of IEEE’s standards projects involving technology ethics, and in particular “The IEEE Global Initiative on Ethics of Autonomous and Intelligent Systems” initiative (URL). The increasing capability of corporations to develop personal profiles and apply these to generate increasingly effective personalized persuasion are a concern that will continue to engage these IEEE-USA committees as well as much broader policy communities.


The challenges of broadband communications and the Internet reflect a different aspect of the history and economics of U.S. communications policy. Specific technologies have been identified at the federal level as “essential utilities”. These include electrical service, telephone service and transportation/road infrastructure.  Different incentives have been applied to facilitate universal access to each of these.  In most cases, these have included supporting activities at the municipal, state and federal levels. Where private industry has been a key supplier, monopolies have been granted in return for assuring the level of service sought. Even with the breakup of the primary telephone monopoly, the dependence of this on physical wiring created a natural monopoly for use of the utility poles. Allocation of the space on these poles typically includes exclusive space for phone, cable TV, electrical and in some cases a “municipal” slot for town use.  With the emergence in the 21st century of broadband via Cable, telephone DSL services and now wide spread “smart” cell phone services, the landscape has changed. Many suppliers have “bundled” phone service, internet access and television into product packages that essentially have a high base rate and marginal pricing for the other options. If you want TV you can get the Internet for a few dollars more, if you want Internet you can get basic TV service for a few dollars more.

In the last few years, streaming services such as Netflix, and now many “networks” (HBO, CBS, Disney…) and even less obvious sources like Amazon have entered markets, but often they must access the customer via a monopoly controlled broadband channel.  Incumbent suppliers have sought exclusive arrangements with municipal entities, housing developments and apartment buildings.  In some states legislation has been adopted to block municipalities from directly offering Internet service.  An interesting example of this is Colorado, where the legislation had an “escape clause” that allowed municipalities or counties to “opt out” by a majority vote.  The result has been a number of local jurisdictions that have initiated over-ride referendums and received an effective mandate to provide a municipal broadband service.  Towns like Fort Collins (URL), Loveland (URL), and even Estes Park (URL) – nested deep in the Rocky Mountains with limited line of sight, and long distances between residences.  These factors have discouraged for-profit entities from providing cost-effective universal access in these areas.  With the opportunity to install 21st century technology, towns have been rolling out “fiber to the premises” services with 1 Gigabit full-duplex service at costs comparable or lower than slower “cable” options.  Emerging 5G cell service is another entry into this space, but with line-of-sight and antenna spacing challenges to reach rural or mountainous areas. 

Into this contested arena the 2020 pandemic has added both incentives and clear applications that make the value of universal broadband clear. The need for at-home education, work, health care and an increased load of entertainment and social interactions are all unambiguous needs for many communities nationwide and world-wide. 

IEEE-USA had a policy paper in 2004 advocating for 1Gigabit service to every residence, with a then-current rationale.  IEEE’s GPPC more recently has adopted policies advocating universal access and community “hot spots” – which is aligned with their global perspective.  The CCP committee has put forward a more U.S.-focused position calling for communities to evaluate their needs, available services, current technology and practical user-costs to determine how to meet the needs going into the next decade(s).  Clearly the demand for broadband service will increase in all of the application areas identified during the pandemic.  Innovation based on increased broadband can be expected as well. Communities with sufficient service and reasonable costs will have an advantage in attracting new businesses, employers and residents.  Other countries, such as Singapore and South Korea, have taken a more “national strategy” approach to assure broadband access on a country-wide basis.


Technology policy development is only viable when various factors converge.  A given area of technology may evolve slowly for decades, and then explode with capabilities, applications and resulting social impact.  Telephone services moving from wires to cells to smartphones reflect this type of “supernova” (the term adopted by Thomas Friedman in his book “Thank You for Being Late”, which points out 2007 as a year of emerging, high impact, technology.)

Once social impact starts to become evident, the window of opportunity for policy impact is limited. At this point you need relevant technical experts who can understand the technology at a sufficient level and anticipate possible responses to social impact on the other. At times the target for policy constraints (or investments) may be governmental agencies.  At other times, the target needs to be corporate entities — with the added factor that such corporate entities may not “reside” in the jurisdiction where the constraints might be targeted.  Finally, investing in education and continuing education is essential. Technologists need to maintain a level of awareness of both related areas to their work, and the applications that are emerging for use and abuse.  The public needs a level of education to understand how the technology may be impacting their lives, and their opportunities.  And of course policy makers need insight on the issues as well as practical guidance on steps they might take to address these.

Finally, all of these factors will vary from country to country, culture to culture and by history and economic factors.

From the IEEE-USA Digital Privacy Position Statement:

The public must be able to learn: the types of data being collected by any web site or other electronic means; what data is retained; how it is used; and what is shared with third parties, directly or indirectly. The same information must be available from those third parties. · All data collection mechanisms must be disclosed to users, including web beacons or other mechanisms for tracking user activity or data. Disclosed information must be sufficient for users to identify and utilize their privacy rights. ·  Each web site and application must disclose ongoing content placed on the user’s device and the uses of that content. · These disclosures must be accessible and comprehensible to the average user without specialized knowledge. 

Disclosure for Users: · For each web site and application, users must be able to obtain complete disclosure of the information that is retained by the site, application or third party accessing the user’s information – directly or indirectly. 

Control: · Users must be able to remove personally identifiable data easily from any site, cloud or collection devices. ·Users must easily be able to identify, terminate, delete and/or uninstall any content or applications placed on their devices or cloud. · Disputes related to purging user data or applications must not default to licenses and arbitration processes that restrict the user’s legal options. · Users’ consent for a web site to collect data about them may not be interpreted to extend to information about their “friends,” or “contacts.” · A legally mandated age of consent must protect minors by restricting their release of private information. 

Notification: · Users must be informed promptly and directly, should their private information be lost or misused. Organizations collecting or storing that information are responsible for the notification. · Users must have the right to know the source of privacy violations and the responsible parties, whenever possible. · Clear information must be available notifying recipients of paid advertising and content, along with a clear link to the source of that material and the intended beneficiary of the desired consumer action. · For online content, available metadata should lead to sponsoring site(s), allowing the user to utilize the transparency and disclosure rights indicated above

Jim is retired from 30 years in the computer industry and six in academia. He chaired the IEEE and ISO POSIX (UNIX/Linux) Standards committees, is President Emeritus of the IEEE Computer Society, past Vice President of the IEEE Society on Social Implications of Technology, and currently the Chair of the IEEE-USA Committee on Communications Policy as well as a participant in the IEEE Global Initiative on Ethics of Autonomous and Intelligent Systems.  

Leave a Reply