Commentary

Privacy Group Pushes FCC For Tougher Restrictions On Online Data Collection

Broadband providers have made no secret of their opposition to Federal Communications Commission Chairman Tom Wheeler's proposed privacy rules, which would require them to obtain subscribers' opt-in consent before tracking them in order to send them targeted ads.

Internet service providers argue that the rules will unfairly impose new obligations on them, while leaving Google, Facebook and other so-called edge providers to continue collecting data about consumers for ad purposes.

Now, some privacy advocates are making similar arguments -- although with a different purpose in mind: The privacy advocates want the FCC to impose privacy rules on all Web companies, not just ISPs.

The Electronics Privacy Information Center argues in a new memo that ISPs aren't the only ones with "extensive and detailed views of consumers’ online activities."

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EPIC adds: "Many of the largest email, search, and social media companies exceed the scope and data collection activities of the ISPs. A failure to protect the privacy of consumers from these Internet-based services is a failure to provide meaningful communications privacy protections."

The group, which says it's circulating the memo to all "interested persons," wants the FCC to require all Web-based services providers to obtain people's opt-in consent before collecting or using their data for behavioral targeting.

EPIC, of course, can advocate for whatever rules it believes makes sense. But the organization likely is fighting a losing battle, given that the FCC has already rejected a request to impose privacy rules on edge providers.

Last year, the agency refused to consider a request by advocacy group Consumer Watchdog for new regulations that would limit data collection by Facebook, Google and other Web companies. "The Commission has been unequivocal in declaring that it has no intent to regulate edge providers," the Wireline Bureau said at the time.

The FCC's authority to impose privacy rules stems from its net neutrality order, which reclassified Internet service providers as common carriers. That move subjected broadband providers to some of the same confidentiality requirements rules as telephone companies.

When the FCC issued the net neutrality rules, the agency said it would consider issuing new broadband-specific rules, as opposed to applying the same rules imposed on telephone companies.

Earlier this month, Wheeler unveiled a plan that would require ISPs to obtain people's opt-in consent before tracking them in order to compile profile for ad-targeting purposes.

Today, he elaborated on why key differences between ISPs and edge providers justify different privacy rules.

"Everyone in this room probably knows that the social media we join and the websites we visit collect our personal information, and use it for advertising purposes. Seldom, however, do we stop to realize that our Internet Service Provider -- or ISP -- is also collecting information about us," he said in prepared remarks delivered at Georgetown's GnoviCon. "What’s more, we can choose not to visit a website or not to sign up for a social network, or we can choose to drop one and switch to another in milliseconds. But broadband service is different. Once you subscribe to an Internet Service Provider -- for your home or for your smartphone -- you have little flexibility to change your mind or avoid that network rapidly."

Wheeler added: "Your ISP handles all of your network traffic. That means it has a broad view of all of your unencrypted online activity -- when you are online, the websites you visit, and the apps you use... Even when data is encrypted, your broadband provider can piece together significant amounts of information about you -- including private information such as a chronic medical condition or financial problems -- based on your online activity."

The FCC is slated to vote on March 31 about whether to move forward with Wheeler's proposal.

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