Charter Endorses Opt-In Approach To Privacy

The Internet service provider Charter told lawmakers today that companies should obtain consumers' explicit consent before using their data.

"We believe the best way to ensure consumers have control over their data is through opt-in consent," the company said in prepared testimony submitted to the Senate Commerce Committee for Wednesday's hearing about online privacy. "That means no more pre-ticked “boxes,” take-it-or-leave-it offers, or other default consents. It also means that the use of personal data should be reasonably limited to what the consumer understood at the time consent was provided."

Rachel Welch, Charter's senior vice president for policy, reiterated that position during the Senate hearing, which also featured testimony from AT&T, Google, Twitter, Amazon and Apple.

Many of the biggest tech companies are now saying they support a federal privacy law that would preempt state privacy laws, including a new measure in California that will allow consumers to learn what personal information about them is held by businesses, and to opt out of the sale of that information. The California law is slated to take effect in 2020.

But many tech companies, as well as ad organizations, argue that opt-in consent should only be required when companies draw on "sensitive" data.

AT&T specifically said in its written testimony that a privacy framework should base protections "on the sensitivity and use of consumers' information," and that legislation "should define sensitive and non-sensitive data and its appropriate treatment (e.g., opt-in/out) consistent with the FTC’s established framework."

FTC staff previously endorsed the idea that ad companies obtain consumers' explicit consent before drawing on their "sensitive" data -- but also said that type of data could include search queries, email messages, social media posts, and titles of books read or movies viewed.

In 2016, the Federal Communications Commission passed regulations requiring broadband providers like Charter and AT&T to obtain consumers' opt-in consent before using their web-browsing history for ad purposes. Those regulations -- which didn't apply to search engine operators like Google or social networking services like Facebook -- were repealed by Congress last year.

Some watchdogs criticized lawmakers for failing to include any consumer advocates at Wednesday's hearing. “Without consumer voices, the hearing unfortunately provided an echo chamber for large tech companies to further reiterate what they desire in a federal privacy bill, such as ensuring a ‘level playing field’ between ISPs and tech companies," Eric Null, Senior Policy Counsel at New America’s Open Technology Institute, stated.

Sen. John Thune (R-South Dakota), Commerce Committee Chairman, said the committee has invited Andrea Jelenik, who leads privacy enforcement for the EU, and Alastair MacTaggert, the California entrepreneur who helped architect that state's new law, to a second hearing next month.

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