The Federal Trade Commission said Tuesday it has launched an investigation into the privacy practices of seven large broadband providers.
“The FTC is initiating this study to better understand Internet service providers’ privacy practices in light of the evolution of telecommunications companies into vertically integrated platforms that also provide advertising-supported content,” the agency stated.
As part of the investigation, the agency has ordered AT&T, Comcast, Google Fiber, T-Mobile and Verizon to answer a host of questions about their data practices. Specifically, the FTC wants to know what kind of data is collected, how it's used and whether it's shared with third parties.
The agency is also examining how broadband providers notify consumers about data collection and use, whether consumers can refuse to have their personal information used, and whether service is degraded or denied to consumers who decline to allow data collection.
In October of 2016, the Obama-era Federal Communications Commission passed privacy rules that would have required carriers to obtain opt-in consent before drawing on subscribers' web-surfing data and app usage history for ad targeting.
But the following year, Congress voted to repeal those rules.
Privacy advocates generally approved of the 2016 rules, arguing that broadband providers should be held to higher privacy standards than other web companies, given that broadband providers have a comprehensive view of people's online activity. Not only can they see all unencrypted traffic on the network, but they also can make inferences about users based on encrypted traffic, according to the consultancy Upturn.
But the ad industry and broadband carriers opposed the Obama-era privacy rules, as did current FCC Chairman Ajit Pai. Critics of the former rules said the opt-in consent mandate subjects carriers to tougher standards than search engines, social networking services and other web companies.
Three years ago, Comcast argued in favor of privacy rules that would have allowed the company to charge higher fees to subscribers who refuse to allow their web-surfing activity to be used for ad targeting. AT&T previously charged some U-Verse subscribers higher fees to avoid targeted advertising, but stopped doing so in 2016.