The Cable Act of 1984, personal privacy protections

The Cable Act of 1984, personal privacy protections

The Cable Communications Policy Act of 1984 or the Cable Act of 1984 for short is a law passed by the U.S. Congress in 1984. The Cable Act of 1994 was passed to provide a comprehensive regulatory framework for cable television, as well as provide federal protections for the privacy of cable television subscribers through the means of restricting the collection, maintenance, and disclosure of subscriber information or data. To this point, the Cable Act of 1984 prohibits cable companies from using their systems to collect personally identifiable information from any of their subscribers without their consent, unless such collection of information is necessary to render cable related services.

How is cable service defined under the Cable Act of 1984?

While cable television has undergone numerous innovations and improvements since 1984, the Cable Act of 1984 defines the term basic cable to include “any service tier which includes the retransmission of local television broadcast signals”, as well as “subscriber interaction, if any, which is required for the selection of such video programming or other programming service”. What’s more, the term cable channel is defined to mean “a portion of the electromagnetic frequency spectrum which is used in a cable system and which is capable of delivering a television channel (as television channel is defined by the Commission by regulation)”.

Alternatively, the Cable Act of 1984 does not provide a definition of what constitutes personal information under the law. Conversely, the law defines what personal information is not. Per Section 631 of the Cable Act of 1984, Personally Identifiable Information (PII) does not include “any record of aggregate data which does not identify particular persons”. As such, there is some ambiguity with respect to what forms of personal information are covered under the law. For example, some online advertisers have countered lawsuits filed on the basis of the Cable Act of 1984, on the grounds that said advertisers did not collect and personally identifiable information during the course of their operations.

As it relates to cable television subscriptions services, the Cable Act of 1984 mandates that cable companies provide consumers with written notice when collecting their personal information for subscription purposes. These written notices detail the following:

  • The nature of personally identifiable information collected or to be collected with respect to the subscriber and the nature of the use of such information.
  • The nature, frequency, and purpose of any disclosure which may be made of such information, including an identification of the types of persons to whom the disclosure may be made.
  • The period during which such information will be maintained by the cable operator;
  • The times and place at which the subscriber may have access to such information.
  • The limitations provided by this section with respect to the collection and disclosure of information by a cable operator and the right of the subscriber.

Why was the Cable Act of 1984 needed?

A primary reason for the passing of the Cable Act of 1984 was to amend the Communications Act of 1934, which “organized federal regulation of telephone, telegraph, and radio communications”. As telephone, telegraph, and radio communications represented some of the first mass communications and in turn, disclosures of personal information in human history, the FCC passed the Communications Act of 1934 for the purposes of regulating these forms of communication. However, as cable television was developed and ultimately rose in popularity and prominence in the fifty years between 1934 and 1984, new legislation was needed to govern cable television providers throughout the country.

Subsequently, the Cable Act of 1984 “established policies in the areas of ownership, channel usage, franchise provisions and renewals, subscriber rates and privacy, obscenity and lockboxes, unauthorized reception of services, equal employment opportunity, and pole attachments. The new law also defined jurisdictional boundaries among federal, state and local authorities for regulating cable television systems”. Furthermore, the Cable Act of 1984 also set forth the penalties that can be imposed against cable companies and providers in instances when said parties are found to have violated the privacy rights of American citizens.

Moreover, while the Cable Act of 1984 does not explicitly prohibit the collection of personal information as it relates to broadband internet services, section 631 of the law “may prohibit the disclosure of such information to third parties regardless of whether the information was collected over the cable system”. In this way, the Cable Act of 1984 provides American citizens with a general level of privacy protection, despite the fact that the law was passed in the context of personal information that subscribers shared with cable companies and provides no explicit definition of personal information.

In terms of penalties that can be levied against agencies and individuals found to be in violation of the law, the FCC has the authority to impose monetary fines of up to $50,000, as well as a term of imprisonment of up to two years. The Cable Act of 1984 also provides American citizens with the right to bring private right of action lawsuits against individuals and agencies who violate the provisions of law. In such instances, aggrieved persons “may recover an award of statutory damages for each violation involved in the action in a sum of not less than $250 or more than $10,000, as the court considers just”.

While Cable Television has become a somewhat outdated form of entertainment when compared to the social media sites and various other forms of amusement that can be found elsewhere on the internet, cable providers nevertheless continue to collect personal information from American consumers. As such, the Cable Act of 1984 not only protects this personal information, but also protects personal information that is collected via other means through the provisions of Section 631 of the law. In this way, American citizens have the right to protect the personal information they share with big name companies and corporations for entertainment purposes.