ISPs' Data About Consumers Is Worth 'A King's Ransom,' Privacy Guru Says

Broadband providers have spent months complaining that proposed new privacy rules would unfairly subject them to more stringent privacy rules than Google, Facebook or other online companies.

Today, privacy guru and law professor Paul Ohm -- an outspoken proponent of tough privacy rules -- answers that objection. Internet service providers, Ohm says, should have to follow tough standards because ISPs pose a greater threat to privacy than other companies.

"Your ISP is the mandatory first hop to the rest of the Internet, and everything you do while connected to a particular ISP flows first through its servers," he writes in a post at Benton Foundation. "Your ISP can develop a nearly-comprehensive picture of what you do that other companies would pay a king’s ransom to be able to access."

The Federal Communications Commission's proposed privacy rules would require ISPs to obtain consumers' opt-in consent before drawing on their Web-browsing activity 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 edge providers currently allow people to opt out of receiving behaviorally targeted ads, but don't seek people's advance permission unless drawing on data that the ad industry considers "sensitive."



Carriers lobbying against those rules have argued that different privacy standards for different companies will confuse consumers.

Ohm dismisses that contention as "simply silly."

"Consumers have long understood that hospitals have one set of privacy rules, schools another, and banks a third," he writes. "Privacy shifts with context, and it makes sense that our privacy rules should do the same."

Broadband providers aren't the only ones objecting to the proposed rules. The ad industry also criticizes the FCC's proposal.

Representatives from the Association of National Advertisers, Interactive Advertising Bureau, Direct Marketing Association and American Association of Advertising Agencies met in person with an FCC official on Thursday to lobby against the rules.

"Restricting the ability of entities to engage in the collection and use of web browsing and application use data for advertising purposes would limit consumer choice, and ultimately harm consumers by interrupting the well-functioning Internet economy that provides consumers with free and low cost products and services," the groups argued, according to a filing summarizing the meeting.

The FCC has said it will vote on the proposed rules on Oct. 27.

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