Commentary

Advocate Group Calls For ISP Transparency

Advocacy group Free Press is calling on the Federal Communications Commission to order broadband companies to disclose any efforts to monitor or interfere with their subscribers' Web activity.

"A severe lack of transparency pervades the entire industry," Free Press wrote in its filing to the FCC. "ISP terms of service, the primary method of disclosure of network interference to consumers and to the Commission, are too vague to provide useful information to consumers."

Free Press' request was triggered by two relatively recent developments. The first was Comcast's decision to interfere with peer-to-peer traffic, discovered last year after users began noticing problems. Secondly, there was NebuAd's plan to purchase information about users' Web activity from ISPs and use that data to send people targeted ads. NebuAd tested its platform, more or less secretly, with several ISPs, before Congress got involved. Ultimately, ISPs retreated from the plan and NebuAd said it would investigate new business models.

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And, as Free Press points out, those were only two of the most highly publicized instances of ISPs' high-handedness. "In June of 2007, Verizon's terms of service reserved the right to permanently change, limit, or terminate any subscriber's service without notice, while Comcast's terms asserted the right to change a user's upstream or downstream bandwidth limitations without notice, and to monitor the user's usage and content," the organization complained in its FCC filing.

On one level, it should be astounding that the ISPs feel free to sell information about users, or cut off their service, independent of whether users are notified. That ISPs can do these things without telling consumers, or by making mouseprint disclosures, shows a need for federal intervention.

If there was more competition among broadband service providers, perhaps ISPs wouldn't be as quick to degrade their users' traffic, or sell information about their Web activity. But the reality is, many consumers have just two choices for broadband -- their local cable or telecom provider. The least these companies can do is notify users about business practices that directly affect them.

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