Commentary

NY Attorney General Backs Broadband Privacy Rules

New York state's top law enforcement official is urging the Federal Communications Commission to enact tough privacy rules that would restrict broadband providers from using subscribers' Web activity for ad purposes.

"In our digital, interconnected world, protecting consumer privacy is essential," an official with the New York Attorney General's office says this week in a letter to the FCC. "There is a need for enhanced regulation in this area."

The letter, signed by Kathleen McGee, head of the AG's Internet and Technology bureau, argues that the FCC should move forward with Chairman Tom Wheeler's proposal requiring broadband providers to obtain people's opt-in consent before using their Web activity for ad purposes.

Wheeler's proposed privacy rules would only apply to Internet service providers, and not so-called "edge providers" -- meaning companies that offer Web content or services, like Google, Facebook, Netflix and ad networks.

Privacy advocates support the proposal, while Internet service providers and various ad organizations oppose it.

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Cable companies, telecoms and other opponents say the proposal unfairly subjects them to tougher rules than the edge providers.

But Wheeler and consumer advocates counter that many consumers don't have much choice when it comes to broadband providers, but can easily navigate away from Web sites like Google or Facebook.

The New York Attorney General obviously agrees with Wheeler and the advocates on that point. "Consumers cannot avoid a [broadband] provider the way consumers can avoid (without penalty), or otherwise freely and easily choose between, search engines or other websites, or smartphone applications," she writes.

McGee also notes that broadband providers function as the gateway to the Web -- meaning that they're able to gather far more data about subscribers than any single edge provider. She writes that broadband providers can collect "an unprecedented breadth of electronic personal information including not only a consumer’s name, address and financial information but also every website he or she visited, the links clicked on those websites, geo-location information, and the content of electronic communications."

The letter goes on to urge the FCC to require broadband providers to explain their privacy policies in clear and concise language -- as opposed to the wordy legalese that so many companies tend to use.

The FCC is accepting comments on the proposed rules until Wednesday.

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