By Cecilia Kang
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 24, 2010; A09
Apple purged several sexually explicit applications from iTunes this week. Parents had complained that children were getting hold of apps such as Naughty Trivia and Sexy Scratch Off in the freewheeling online marketplace.
But the company's attempt at self-policing highlighted a debate raging in government about who should enforce such standards on the Internet.
As iTunes, Facebook, YouTube and Amazon have become embedded in the daily routines of Americans, the Web has largely remained a regulatory Wild West, with little oversight. But as greater concerns emerge over online privacy, open access to Web sites and child safety, regulatory agencies are jockeying for clearer authority over the Web and the companies that provide access to it. In some cases, they are fighting to preserve the power they already have, while corporate lobbyists argue that Washington needs to keep its hands off the dynamic industry.
"The reality is that jurisdiction is king in Washington, D.C., and agencies always want to stake out greater authority," said Mike Zaneis, vice president of public policy at the Interactive Advertising Bureau, a trade group. "Sometimes the door gets cracked, and that's fine, but what they are trying to do is blow the door off the hinges."
He was referring to a push by the Federal Trade Commission to expand its rulemaking authority. The agency is largely a law-enforcement body that addresses online-privacy violations, competition concerns and Web fraud when petitions are brought to it. But FTC Chairman Jon Leibowitz has asked Congress for greater latitude in making rules to protect consumer privacy on the Web and over mobile devices. Earlier this week, the agency announced that a sweeping investigation had unveiled widespread data breaches stemming from file-sharing Web applications. An FTC spokesman declined to comment.
Meanwhile, the Federal Communications Commission faces a court challenge to its authority over broadband Internet service providers. The agency has said that if it loses the case, which involves the appeal of an FCC ruling issued three years ago, it will consider ways to make clear its regulatory authority. Analysts say that could include the reclassification of broadband services.
"Given the importance of broadband to job creation, small businesses and economic growth, the FCC will make sure it has the necessary authority to implement the national broadband plan," said Colin Crowell, a senior advisor to FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski.
Telecom and cable giants warned the FCC this week against any such move, saying too much control would deter investment in networks. That complaint echoes a widespread industry sentiment that the marketplace will force companies to regulate themselves.Move follows complaints
Apple, for instance, removed about 5,000 adult applications made for iPhones and iPods after complaints by women, parents and developers that they were degrading and inappropriate for children. The decision came before sales of the iPad tablet, which will use the same application store. Some experts complained about the decision, saying it highlights the extraordinary control Apple exerts over the iTunes store at a time when the rest of the Web has few restrictions.
But even Google, one of the loudest voices calling for online freedom, recently introduced parental controls over YouTube to block inappropriate videos from computer browsers.
"This is definitely a time of flux, with new and evolving technologies and business practices, and there are also aggressive arguments from companies like Internet service providers that no one can regulate them," said Marvin Ammori, a telecommunications law professor at the University of Nebraska. "But as a result, there needs to be clear and delineated authority to make sure consumers aren't harmed."
Some companies have pushed for greater oversight in areas that suit them. Microsoft argued for stronger privacy controls over cloud computing, to make data on cloud-based applications such as Gmail and Amazon.com available to law enforcement under certain circumstances. Some telecom and cable operators say popular search engines such as Google and application stores such as iTunes should be considered networks and subject to net-neutrality rules being crafted by the FCC. Most social-networking sites and Google collect data on users unless they are explicitly told not to -- a standard that Congress has debated and regulators say is troubling.
All of this makes for a confusing marketplace where even government agencies can't agree who has jurisdiction.
"We've got the added ambiguity of the relative roles of the FCC and FTC," said Rebecca Arbogast, head of tech policy research at Stifel Nicolaus. "And it appears that at least for the time being, Congress isn't likely to legislate. So that creates the possibility of a real pullback on regulation."