FCC Urged To Rein In Broadband Providers On Privacy Grounds
More than 50 U.S. consumer and privacy organizations including the Center for Digital Democracy and the Electronic Frontier Foundation have co-signed a letter to FCC chairman Tom Wheeler calling for “strong rules” to protect the privacy of broadband users by reining in ISPs’ and telcos’ ability to harvest user data without explicit consent.
Last year, as part of its Net Neutrality rulemaking, the FCC reclassified broadband as a so-called ‘Title II telecommunications service’ under the 1934 Communications Act — a move that also paves the way for a more active regulation of how ISPs use consumer data, given that the FCC can issue proper privacy regulations, vs the FTC only being able to do so for minors (under the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act).
Susan Grant of the Consumer Federation of America, another of the organizations co-signing the letter, cites the Verizon* super-cookie smartphone tracking system as an example of the kind of problematic behavior the NGOs are keen to see reined in by proper regulation. Initially Verizon offered no way for smartphone users to opt out of being tracked by its technology. (*NB: Verizon is the parent company of TechCrunch’s parent, AOL.)
“What tracking is going on now and how the info is being used is in most cases not readily apparent,” argues Grant.
The letter calls for the FCC to “move forward as quickly as possible on a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking proposing strong rules to protect consumers from having their personal data collected and shared by their broadband provider without affirmative consent, or for purposes other than providing broadband Internet access service”.
It also calls for data breach notices to be included in rules, and for broadband providers to be held accountable for any failure to take suitable precautions to protect personal data collected from users. And for providers to be required to “clearly disclose their data collection practices to subscribers, and allow subscribers to ascertain to whom their data is disclosed”.
Grant suggests it is widely known the FCC has been considering establishing privacy rules for broadband providers, noting it held a public workshop last year to discuss the issue.
“I expect that the FCC will be very receptive to this call as it has long regulated privacy in the other communications services that come under its jurisdiction,” she tells TechCrunch.
Also commenting on why there’s a need for pro-privacy rules to protect broadband users at this point in time, Jeff Chester of the Center for Digital Democracy argues the techniques being used by ISPs to track users have become as sophisticated as those being deployed by big data powered Internet giants like Google and Facebook.
“ISPs are using the same Big-Data tracking and targeting techniques that have raised privacy concerns about Google and Facebook when we go online,” he says, arguing these companies pose a new threat to consumer privacy because they can have such in-depth access to data — including from computers and mobile phones but also because they can know what people watch via set-top boxes and connected TVs.
“Phone and cable broadband companies (such as Verizon and Comcast) are connecting our TV sets, for example, to vast databases of information that enable advertisers and programmers to engage in ‘microtargeting’ us commercials, ads, political messages, and other content,” he notes. “[They] are retooling their technology so they can engage in what’s called ‘programmatic’ advertising, that uses sophisticated data tools to target us in milliseconds, regardless of what digital device we use.”
Chester points to various acquisitions — including last year’s Verizon-AOL purchase — as having enabled ISPs and their partners to build out fine-grained data-driven advertising capabilities in recent times, with user targeting techniques and technologies driving multiple developments in the space.
Verizon-AOL, for example, merged their ad networks last October to step up their ability to track users for ad targeting purposes — widely seen as the primary motivator for the $4.4 billion acquisition.
“With ISPs positioned to have so much information about our online use, and further expand data surveillance when we view video programming, the FCC must step in and create a set of fair consumer safeguards,” adds Chester.
The full letter and list of co-signing organizations follows below in full.
January 20, 2016
Federal Communications Commission
445 12th St., SW
Washington, D.C. 20554
Re: Broadband Privacy Rulemaking
Dear Chairman Wheeler:
The undersigned organizations urge you to commence a rulemaking as soon as possible
to protect the privacy of broadband consumers. As Commissioner Julie Brill of the
Federal Trade Commission (FTC) stated in a recent speech on broadband and privacy, the
Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) reclassification of broadband as a Title II
common carrier service adds it as “a brawnier cop on the beat” on privacy issues. She
welcomed the opportunity for the two agencies to work in cooperation to create “strong
consumer privacy and data security [that] are key ingredients of our data-intensive
economy, including the practices of broadband providers.”
Providers of broadband Internet access service, including fixed and mobile telephone,
cable, and satellite television providers, have a unique role in the online ecosystem. Their
position as Internet gatekeepers gives them a comprehensive view of consumer behavior
and until now privacy protections for consumers using those services have been unclear.
Nor is there any way for consumers to avoid data collection by the entities that provide
Internet access service. As the role of the Internet in the daily lives of consumers
increases, this means an increased potential for surveillance. This can create a chilling
effect on speech and increase the potential for discriminatory practices derived from data
use. By contrast, commonsense protections may lead to a broader adoption and use of the
Internet, as individuals gain confidence in conducting everyday business and exploring
new services online.
With the recently signed Memorandum of Understanding on Consumer Protection
between the FCC and FTC outlining continuing interagency cooperation on privacy, the
FCC is now well positioned to take its place as that “brawnier cop on the beat” focusing
on broadband providers. We therefore strongly urge that the FCC move forward as
quickly as possible on a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking proposing strong rules to protect
consumers from having their personal data collected and shared by their broadband
provider without affirmative consent, or for purposes other than providing broadband
Internet access service. The proposed rules should also provide for notice of data
breaches, and hold broadband providers accountable for any failure to take suitable
precautions to protect personal data collected from users. In addition, the rules should
require broadband providers to clearly disclose their data collection practices to
subscribers, and allow subscribers to ascertain to whom their data is disclosed.
We thank you for your continuing commitment to consumer privacy protection. In
addition to the Commission’s important decision last year to retain authority to protect
consumer privacy on broadband telecommunications services, the FCC has worked
diligently under your administration to enforce existing privacy protections for voice
communication, and to require greater transparency for broadband provider service
practices. We look forward to working with you to modernize these existing rules to
clarify crucially important protections for consumers online.
Access Sonoma Broadband
American Association of Law Libraries
American Civil Liberties Union
Ashbury Senior Computer Community Center
California Center for Rural Policy
Campaign for Commercial-Free Childhood
Caney Fork Headwaters Association
Center for Democracy & Technology
Center for Digital Democracy
Center for Science in the Public Interest
Chicago Consumer Coalition
Common Sense Kids Action
Consumer Assistance Council of Cape Cod and the Islands of Massachusetts
Consumer Federation of America
Consumer Federation of California
Cornucopia Network NJ/TN Chapter
Cumberland Countians for Ecojustice
Electronic Frontier Foundation
Institute for Local Self-Reliance
Kentucky Equal Justice Center
Maryland Consumer Rights Coalition
Massachusetts Consumer Council
Maui County Community Television
National Association of Consumer Advocates
National Consumer Law Center (on behalf of its low income clients)
National Consumers League
National Digital Inclusion Alliance
National Hispanic Media Coalition
Network for Environmental & Economic Responsibility of United Church of Christ
North Carolina Consumers Council
Oklahoma Policy Institute
Open Technology Institute at New America
Oregon Consumer League
Privacy Rights Clearinghouse
Public Health Advocacy Institute at Northeastern University School of Law
Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity, University of Connecticut
Texas Legal Services Center
United Church of Christ, OC Inc.
World Privacy Forum
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