Commentary

FCC To Consider Privacy Protections For Broadband Users

It's no secret that broadband providers would like to draw on their trove of data about which sites users visit in order to serve them targeted ads.

So far, attempts to do so have been met with criticism by privacy advocates as well as lawmakers. In some cases, the pressure alone has been enough to force companies to retreat. Verizon, for instance, recently agreed to let its customers opt out of a controversial ad-targeting program that involved adding tracking headers to all mobile traffic.

But even if initiatives like Verizon's have been controversial, this type of ad-targeting program doesn't appear to violate any regulations.

Now, however, that could change.

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The Federal Communications Commission is poised to craft new rules that could limit broadband providers' ability to share information about users' Web-surfing activity with advertisers.

As a first step, the agency's Wireline Competition and Consumer & Governmental Affairs Bureaus intend to convene a workshop addressing the privacy rights of broadband users.

Subscribers' "privacy needs are no less important when consumers communicate over and use broadband Internet access” than when they communicate via telephone, the FCC said today in its announcement about the workshop.

The FCC's focus on broadband privacy stems from its recent decision to reclassify Internet access as a utility service. When the FCC did so last month, the agency suggested that broadband carriers would have to follow some of the same privacy standards as telephone companies.

Specifically, the FCC said in its net neutrality order that it will apply Section 222 of the Telecommunications Act to broadband providers. That provision broadly limits carriers ability to use or disclose some type of information about customers, without their consent.

While the FCC has developed numerous rules governing the privacy of telephone users, the agency says those restrictions won't necessarily protect broadband users, given the vast amount of Web-browsing data available to providers.

The FCC said today that workshop participants will “have the opportunity to address whether and to what extent the Commission can apply a harmonized privacy framework across various services within the Commission’s jurisdiction.”

The workshop will take place on April 28.

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