Why Is the FCC Handing Google Your TV?

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Google CEO Eric Schmidt introduces Google TV, blending Web technology and television, in San Francisco on May 20, 2010. A new FCC rule would force TV providers to install a new box that would give tech companies like Google access to their programming. Robert Galbraith/Reuters

Regulation is supposed to protect us, whether from changing climate or lead in our water or speculators who crash financial markets.  

But the FCC has proposed a regulation that hands control of your TV to the country’s biggest monopolist, Google.  

It’s a regulatory giveaway to the richest company in the world that would pile new costs and risks on TV viewers—standing the very concept of regulation on its head.  

And aside from its grotesque economics, it’s a political snare for Democratic politicians (like myself) who will be stuck defending this mess.

The FCC rule would force TV providers to buy and install a new box that would give tech companies access to their programming—live and in real time—for them to use to launch competing services.

These new “AllVid” boxes (named after a comparable proposal the FCC rejected in 2010) would let Google put the TV channels you pay for up alongside its YouTube programs or other searchable content, as if anyone was having trouble finding that stuff.  

The FCC argues this must be done in order to make TV more “competitive,” a euphemism for making you buy new Google TV boxes that compete with the ones you already use.

The idea that TV needs government regulation to become competitive is on its face absurd. Apple and Roku boxes and Web-based streaming services with their massive “binge ready” libraries are winning the competition with cable and satellite already as cord-cutting booms.  

You can search the Internet on a SONY flat-screen or any other smart TV and almost every new screen you own is an app-powered digital TV. Netflix and Hulu and Amazon are winning awards that were created for the big networks, and there’s no telling where the next Jane the Virgin or Mr. Robot is going to come from.

So why do we all have to buy a box the FCC tells us to buy, particularly one that won’t create a single new program or lower anyone’s bills?

The sad answer appears to be because Google and its buddies want it, and the FCC is happy to play along.

Google’s bread and butter is knowing what you’re thinking and what you’re about to buy. Like Santa, Google knows if you’ve been sleeping, awake, bad or good, but, unlike Santa, it also knows what websites you visit, searches you run and emails you write.  

Now this new AllVid box will allow it to add “what you watch on TV” to this list of its probes into you and your life. And the FCC—and the politicians who permit it—now want to be their enablers, giving them a free pipeline into private viewing of TV at home?

Because that’s what the FCC intends to do—let Google and a few other companies scrape the programming you paid to see (and that your cable company paid to get for you—and they pay plenty, ask ESPN!) and monetize it for their own purposes. And thanks to the FCC and this nutty regulation, they won’t pay a dime for the privilege.

The FCC says this risk is worth it because consumers will supposedly save money on their AllVid Google boxes. But the less-complicated TiVo box costs far more than the $7.50 most viewers pay on average for their set-top box today. And some engineers believe the AllVid rule would also require a second in-home adapter device that consumers are going to get stuck paying for as well.  

The FCC also claims this new system will promote diversity—a claim most of the existing networks and programmers serving communities of color reject out of hand.  

Quick—who’s more diverse? Today’s new Golden Age of Television (where Orange Is the New Black, Uzo Aduba, Violet Davis, Idris Elba and Queen Latifah just won Screen Actor Guild awards) or White-as-a-Trump-rally Google? It’s amazing the FCC has the nerve to say it!

Starting with President Clinton, Democrats have made the progressive case for smart regulation of telecommunications, which brought us the remarkable results we enjoy today. It would be shame if we now lost our way on this issue and validated Republican criticisms of regulation by using the power of the FCC just to give a corporate crony like Google a leg up.

Not just because it would make Google more powerful and interfere with the incredibly vital and healthy market for TV we enjoy today. (Although it would.) But because it would cost we Democrats our credibility when truly vital regulation is needed to protect our climate, to stabilize financial markets, or to clean up our food and water.

On AllVid, the FCC should change course before it makes a massive technological, economic and, yes, political mistake.

Ev Ehrlich is president of ESC Co., an economics consulting firm, and was undersecretary of commerce from 1993 to 1997.