Commentary

Advocates Urge FCC To Leave Privacy Rules In Place

The Federal Communications Commission should let stand new privacy rules that require carriers to obtain consumers' consent before drawing on their Web-surfing behavior for ad targeting, the Center for Democracy & Technology, Free Press and other advocacy groups say.

Staying the regulations "would leave consumers unprotected unless and until new rules are established, during which time ISPs could use the troves of sensitive information they collect without giving their customers a choice about whether or how it can be used or disclosed," 11 organizations argue in papers filed with the FCC Friday and made public today.

The advocacy groups filed their arguments in response to a request by the cable and telecom industry to stay the rules, passed 3-2 last year.

The industry says the rules unfairly disadvantage broadband providers by subjecting them to tougher standards than search engines, social networking services and other Web companies. Those companies, known as "edge providers," aren't subject to FCC jurisdiction and therefore need not obtain users' explicit permission to draw on data about their Web use for ad purposes. As a practical matter, many edge providers allow consumers to opt out of receiving behaviorally targeted ads.

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A number of industry associations and individual carriers, including AT&T Comcast and Verizon, said in an FCC filing they would voluntarily follow privacy principles that are consistent with the approach set out by a different agency -- the Federal Trade Commission.

Specifically, the carriers said they will notify consumers about how they collect, use and share information, and will allow consumers to opt out of the use of their non-sensitive information for ad targeting. The carriers also promised to obtain opt-in consent before using or sharing information considered "sensitive" by the FTC.

It's worth noting that the FTC's definition of "sensitive" is still in flux. Just today, the agency for the first time in a complaint against Vizio that people's TV-viewing records are "sensitive."

But Free Press and the other groups also urge the FCC to reject the idea that voluntary privacy policies can substitute for regulations. "Contrary to their assertion, ISPs lack the market incentives to protect customer information," the organizations write.

The consumer groups point out that Internet service providers have an "expansive window into the lives of Americans across the country."

"ISPs use consumers’ web browsing history and application history to determine very personal information about the consumer’s life," the groups write. "This information can be used to discriminate against, embarrass, or intimidate individuals. Because this information cannot be made private again once it is known, it can also result in psychological harm."

As of this afternoon, the FCC hasn't yet acted on the carriers' request for a stay. But Chairman Ajit Pai, who voted against the rules, signaled last year that he supports a repeal.

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