Twenty-one organizations are urging Congress to scrap new privacy regulations that limit broadband providers' ability to use data about their customers' Web-surfing behavior to send them targeted ads.
Those rules, passed last year by the Federal Communications Commission, are "counterproductive to actual consumer privacy protections," Americans for Tax Reform, TechFreedom and other largely conservative and libertarian organizations say in a letter sent to lawmakers today.
Like other critics, the groups note that the Federal Trade Commission, which historically polices privacy practices, has never recommended that online companies obtain consumers' opt-in consent before drawing on all Web-surfing activity for ad targeting. Instead, the FTC recommends that companies obtain opt-in consent only before targeting ads based on "sensitive" data -- a vague term that many companies interpret as including precise geolocation data, financial account numbers and some types of health information.
"The FTC's approach to privacy does a better job of balancing protection of consumers’ privacy online with economic incentives to innovate in consumer products and services," the organizations write. "The FTC focuses on what data are held, the level of data sensitivity, and how consumers are affected if the data are misused. This outcomes-based approach takes consumers’ preferences into account while preventing actions that harm consumers."
Privacy advocates, on the other hand, point out that Internet service providers can potentially glean far more information about individuals than other types of Web companies, because ISPs have access to every unencrypted site users visit, as well as data about their usage patterns.
The privacy rules grew out of the FCC's net neutrality rules, which reclassified broadband as a "telecommunications" service. With that shift, broadband providers became obligated to protect users' privacy -- though the FCC didn't spell out its expectations until last October, when it issued new regulations.
Ajit Pai, the new FCC chairman, has signaled that he wants to repeal the net neutrality rules as soon as possible. If he succeeds, the privacy rules would automatically be vacated. But the process of repealing net neutrality is expected to take some time.
For now, Americans for Tax Reform and the other groups are asking Congress to immediately vacate the broadband privacy rules under the Congressional Review Act -- a rarely used 1996 law that allows federal lawmakers to overturn recent agency decisions.
Even if Congress does so, the current net neutrality rules still require ISPs to protect consumers' privacy -- though what that would mean in practice is an open question, according to Public Knowledge policy fellow Dallas Harris.
"ISPs would essentially be in a data Wild, Wild West," Harris tells MediaPost. "There would be more uncertainty for the market."