Senators Want FCC To Restrict Behavioral Advertising By Broadband Providers

The Federal Communications Commission should prohibit broadband providers from sharing information about customers' Web activity without their consent, a group of lawmakers says.

"ISPs should gain affirmative express consent from consumers before using or sharing information beyond what a consumer would reasonably expect an ISP to use and share in order to deliver service and mange its networks," Sen Ed Markey (D-Mass.) and others say today in a letter to the FCC. "This includes sharing information with affiliates, as well as for advertising or marketing purposes."

The letter was co-signed by Sens. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), Al Franken (D-Minn.), Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), Bernard Sanders (I-Vt.), Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), Cory Booker (D-N.J.), and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.).

The lawmakers are weighing in several weeks after FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler said the agency intends to move forward with new privacy rules for broadband providers.

The FCC's new focus on broadband privacy stems from its decision to reclassify Internet service providers as common carriers. One result of that move is that broadband providers will be subject to some of the same confidentiality requirements as telephone companies, which must keep subscribers' personal information confidential.

Exactly how the telephone-centric rules will apply to broadband isn't yet clear. When the FCC released its net neutrality order, the agency said that the existing telephone rules don't address many forms of "sensitive information" that travels over broadband. One example cited by the FCC was "customers’ web browsing history."

For their part, Internet service providers are already criticizing the FCC's decision to enact privacy protections. AT&T, CenturyLink and others recently complained in court papers about the possibility that new privacy rules could curb efforts to send ads to subscribers based on their online activity.

“Today, broadband providers can lawfully use information about customers’ Internet access services and usage to develop customized marketing programs that benefit both the provider and its customers,” AT&T and the others argued in their failed effort to delay the net neutrality rules. “The FCC’s reclassification creates significant uncertainty as to what the new rules of the road will be for broadband -- and whether existing practices will subject providers to liability.”

One of those existing practices already is sparking controversy: AT&T recently rolled out a pricing model that imposes higher fees on U-Verse subscribers who opt out of receiving targeted ads. The carrier charges U-verse subscribers in Austin and Kansas City an extra $29 a month for declining to participate in the “Internet Preferences” ad program, which involves sending targeted ads to people based on their Web browsing information, search queries and pages visited.

Consumer advocates argue that the $29-a-month price tag turns privacy into a luxury service.

The lawmakers joined in that criticism today. "Privacy protections ought to be considered a fundamental, built-in component of broadband service," they wrote. "Consumers should not have to pay an ISP an additional amount in order to protect their privacy."

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