People's Web-Browsing History Isn't 'Sensitive,' ISPs Argue

Broadband providers AT&T, Comcast and T-Mobile have officially asked the Federal Communications Commission to retreat from a privacy proposal that could limit online behavioral advertising.

The proposal, unveiled this month by FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler, would require Internet service providers to obtain consumers' explicit consent before drawing on their app usage or Web-browsing histories for ad targeting. That proposal applies only to companies that offer Internet access services like Verizon and Time Warner as opposed to online publishers, search engines and other so-called "edge" providers.

Google, Facebook and other Web site operators currently let people opt out of receiving behaviorally targeted ads, but don't seek people's advance permission unless drawing on data the ad industry considers "sensitive." In general, that ad industry says the concept includes precise geolocation information, financial account numbers and health-care data.

AT&T, Comcast and T-Mobile are now lobbying the FCC against the proposed rules. AT&T vice president Joan Marsh spoke with the agency last week, and espoused the view that customers "do not expect different rules to apply to the various entities within the internet ecosystem."

T-Mobile argued in a separate filing for "a level playing field among ISPs and edge providers." The company adds that it should not have to obtain consumers' opt-in consent before drawing on their "non-sensitive" Web browsing and app usage history.

Comcast senior vice president Kathryn Zachem likewise told FCC last week that broadband providers should be able to draw on subscribers' "non-sensitive" Web-browsing and app usage history for ad targeting on an opt-out basis.

But proponents of the regulations counter that ISPs should have to follow more stringent rules than "edge" providers, because ISPs have access to more data about consumers than any single search engine, social network or other Web company.

New America's Open Technology Institute urged the FCC to craft even tougher rules that would also prohibit ISPs from using metadata -- including what time of day people go online -- without people's opt-in consent.

The FCC is scheduled to vote on the proposal on Oct. 27.

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