FCC Rules Landmark Protection for Internet Users

fccHere’s a WIN for the little guys! Federal regulators have approved new broadband privacy rules that require internet service providers like Comcast and Verizon to ask for customers’ permission before using or sharing much of their data, potentially making it more difficult for them to grow their advertising businesses.

Under the new measure, for example, a broadband provider has to ask a customer’s permission before it can tell an advertiser exactly where that customer is by tracking her phone and what interests she has gleaned from the websites she’s visited on it and the apps she’s used.

For some information that’s not considered as private, like names and addresses, there’s a more lenient approach. Customers should assume that broadband providers can use that information, but they can still “opt-out” of letting them do so.

The final Federal Communications Commission’s measure was scaled back from an earlier proposal, but was still criticized by the advertising, telecommunications and cable industries.

Cable and phone companies want to increase revenue from ad businesses of their own — AT&T has said increasing advertising tailored to customers’ preferences is one of its goals with its $85.4 billion purchase of HBO, CNN and TBS owner Time Warner; Verizon has bought AOL and agreed to buy Yahoo in order to build up its digital-ad business.

But the new rules could make doing that more difficult. Companies and industry groups say it’s confusing and unfair that the regulations are stricter than the Federal Trade Commission standards that digital-advertising behemoths such as Google and Facebook operate under. The FCC does not regulate such web companies.

FCC officials approved the rules on a narrow 3-2 vote Thursday, its latest contentious measure to pass on party lines.

“It is the consumer’s information. How it is to be used should be the consumers’ choice, not the choice of some corporate algorithm,” said Tom Wheeler, the Democratic chairman of the FCC who has pushed for the privacy measure and other efforts that have angered phone and cable companies. AT&T and other players have fought the “net neutrality” rules, which went into effect last year, that say ISPs can’t favor their internet traffic. Another measure that could make the cable-box market more competitive is still waiting for an FCC vote.

Industry groups representing the cable, phone and advertising industries criticized the outcome of Thursday’s vote, while several consumer-advocacy and civil liberties groups hailed it.

Today’s vote is a historic win for privacy and free expression and for the vitality of the internet, said a spokesperson from the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). Just as telephone companies are not allowed to listen in to our calls or sell information about who we talk to, our internet providers shouldn’t be allowed to monitor our internet usage for profit.

The FCC order is not airtight so we can expect the industry to try and exploit every crack in these protections – time will tell. In the future, I fully expect that their “opt out” process will be buried deep within their 6,000 page “terms of service” document hoping we don’t take the time to find the instructions and make the request.

 

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