The Federal Communications Commission voted late last week to move forward with a privacy proposal that would require Internet service providers to obtain consumers' opt-in consent before drawing on their Web-surfing activity for ad purposes.
But the privacy proposal doesn't stop there. The FCC also is considering whether certain types of tracking technology, including Verizon's infamous "supercookies," pose a serious enough privacy risk that they should be banned altogether.
"We seek comment on whether the use of persistent tracking technologies may expose ... customers to unique privacy harms and as such, whether the Commission should prohibit (Internet service) providers from employing such practices," the FCC says in its official notice of proposed rulemaking, unveiled after last week's vote.
"Alternatively, should the use of persistent tracking technologies be subject to opt-in or opt-out consent? ...What are the benefits to customers of such technology, if any? What would be the benefits and drawbacks to prohibiting such practices, or subjecting their use to opt-in or opt-out approval?"
The documents refer specifically to Verizon's unique identification headers -- 50-character alphanumeric strings that the company used to inject into all unencrypted traffic on its mobile network. Ad networks were able to use those headers to send targeted ads to mobile users, even when they tried to avoid tracking by deleting their cookies.
"Unlike cookies, which are located in a web browser and may be controlled locally, [unique identification headers] are injected by carriers at the network level, thereby preventing customers from removing them directly," the FCC writes.
The FCC also is asking for comment about whether to limit, or ban, the use of deep packet inspection technology -- which enables broadband providers to analyze the contents of traffic.
AT&T's practice of charging some U-Verse customers $30 a month to avoid online behavioral advertising also could be banned under the new regulations.
The FCC's notice of proposed rulemaking specifically seeks comment about those kinds of financial incentives. "We recognize that it is not unusual for consumers to receive perks in exchange for use of their personal information," the FCC writes. "In the broadband ecosystem, 'free' services in exchange for information are common. However, it is not clear that consumers generally understand that they are exchanging their information as part of those bargains."
The FCC adds that others -- including the Federal Trade Commission -- have argued that financial inducements "unfairly disadvantage low income or other vulnerable populations who are unable to pay for more expensive, less-privacy invasive service options."
The agency is calling for initial comments by May 27 and reply comments by June 27.