Internet service providers are ratcheting up their efforts to defeat a Federal Communications Commission proposal for tough new privacy rules.
The potential rules would require broadband providers -- but not companies like Google or Facebook -- to seek consumers' explicit consent before tracking their Web activity for ad purposes.
This morning, a coalition of trade groups called on the FCC to "abandon its flawed approach." The groups, including CTIA and USTelecom, say the FCC should "harmonize" privacy standards so that all Internet companies -- broadband access providers as well as "edge" providers like Google -- follow the same principles.
"Consumers will be confused - one set of rules will apply to data collected by their ISPs, but an entirely different set of rules will apply to that very same data as it is collected by their browser, mobile operating system, search engine, or social media service," Comcast's David Cohen chimed in last week on the company blog.
Others, including some Republicans on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, are making similar arguments.
"Creating a disparate set of rules for some members of the Internet ecosystem is the wrong approach and ignores the last four decades of development in the U.S.," Reps Fred Upton (Michigan), Greg Walden (Oregon) and Michael Burgess (Texas) wrote to the FCC last week. They will hold a hearing -- titled "FCC Overreach: Examining the Proposed Privacy Rules -- on Tuesday.
FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler points out that users have different relationships with ISPs than Web sites. "We can choose not to visit a Web site 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," he recently stated. "Once we subscribe to an ISP -- for our home or for our smartphone -- most of us have little flexibility to change our mind or avoid that network rapidly."
Critics of the proposed rules apparently want broadband providers to follow the same privacy standards as Google, Facebook and other Web content companies. Those types of online enterprises typically allow consumers to opt out of receiving targeted ads. In some situations, app developers and other so-called edge providers ask for consumers' explicit permission before collecting data considered sensitive, like precise geo-location coordinates.
Despite the current custom, no federal law requires companies to let consumers opt out of online behavioral advertising. But the Federal Trade Commission can bring enforcement actions against companies that dupe users by failing to follow privacy promises, and also can charge companies with engaging in unfair business practices by collecting particularly "sensitive" data -- although that term doesn't lend itself to easy definitions.
Privacy advocates stress that there are good reasons to subject Internet access providers to tougher standards than content companies and apps.
"Your internet service provider provides the conduit for everything you see, say and share online," writes Free Press. "It can monitor the sites you visit and the content you access -- and even if you use encryption or other measures to safeguard your identity and information, your ISP can piece together a ton of private information about you."