FCC’s ISP Privacy Proposal Draws Mixed Reviews

A plan by the Federal Communications Commission to limit the amount of tracking that ISPs can do with their customers' data was roundly criticized by some groups, though others applauded the agency for following the lead of the Federal Trade Commission, which has successfully dealt with similar issues in the past.

The Federal Communications Commission’s plan to boost the privacy of internet users’ personal information has the telecom world buzzing this week, but it’s not all positive chatter. Revealed by FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler in a piece for Huffington Post, the plan highlights a fact that some people may be unaware of: That is, your internet service provider (ISP) knows a lot about your web-surfing habits, and it is allowed to sell that data or use it for advertising purposes, with no ramifications.

“Think about it. Your ISP handles all of your network traffic. That means it has a broad view of all of your unencrypted online activity—when you are online, the websites you visit, and the apps you use. If you have a mobile device, your provider can track your physical location throughout the day in real time,” Wheeler wrote last week. “Even when data is encrypted, your broadband provider can piece together significant amounts of information about you—including private information such as a chronic medical condition or financial problems—based on your online activity.”

The new proposal, announced by the commission last week, would require consumers to opt in by giving consent for their ISP to share their personal data with outside parties. Customers would still have to opt out if they wished to avoid having their provider use and share information with their affiliates in order to market their services. Wheeler characterized this strategy as similar to the one used to regulate phone providers. The plan drew a variety of responses, including:

National Cable & Telecommunications Association (NCTA): Calling the proposed ISP rules “at odds with the requirements imposed on other large online entities,” the association emphasized in a statement last week that the FCC should make its decision carefully. “As the full Commission considers further action, we hope that it will engage in a more sober assessment—one guided by facts and not demonstrably false claims and fears—to promote an approach that will ensure greater consistency in consumer privacy protection and fair competition among all Internet participants.”

American Cable Association: ACA, which represents smaller cable providers, made clear that it plans to make its voice heard in the debate over the proposed rules, highlighting the work its members are already doing on the consumer-privacy front. “ACA’s intention also is to ensure that the rules adopted allow for innovation, do not disadvantage ISPs compared with other Internet actors, including edge providers, and are not burdensome for smaller ISPs,” ACA CEO Matthew Polka said in a statement.

CTIA: The Wireless Association: The mobile-provider trade group seemed to welcome the proposed changes, noting that the FCC’s willingness to model its plan on the Federal Trade Commission’s approach to privacy would make it an effective tool for mobile providers. “By adopting the FTC framework, the FCC would allow the continuation of a dynamic marketplace that supports the emergence of innovative new business models and consumers would have meaningful privacy protection,” Debbie Matties, CTIA’s vice president for privacy, said in a statement.

Consumer Technology Association: CTA, which joined a number of telecom groups in penning a letter last month to Wheeler, urging the FCC to adopt a plan that achieves the need for strong consumer privacy but also doesn’t hamper ISPs from delivering innovations, emphasized the need for the FCC to maintain consistency with the Federal Trade Commission. “The Privacy Framework correctly suggests the FCC should maintain consistency with the long-standing principles that the Federal Trade Commission uses to guide its enforcement actions,” Julie Kearney, CTA’s vice president of regulatory affairs, said in a statement. “As devices become more integrated and multi-functional, there is an increased risk of fragmented regulatory regimes, and avoiding a patchwork of requirements will benefit consumers and industry alike.”

Public Knowledge: The digital-privacy consumer group supports the plan, with its senior vice president, Harold Feld, telling The Wall Street Journal that because of the mammoth amount of data that ISPs parse daily, it makes sense to subject them to different regulations from those covering social networks such as Google and Facebook. “The larger and deeper the data set, the more able I am to target you personally,” Feld said.

Wheeler says that the commission will vote on the ISP privacy proposal March 31, and if approved, it would face a comment period.

Editor’s note: The Consumer Technology Association item was clarified to better highlight the association’s stance.

Ernie Smith

By Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is a former senior editor for Associations Now. MORE

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