FCC Urged To Rein In Broadband Providers On Privacy Grounds

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More than 50 U.S. consumer and privacy organizations including the Center for Digital Democracy and the Electronic Frontier Foundation have co-signed a letter to FCC chairman Tom Wheeler calling for “strong rules” to protect the privacy of broadband users by reining in ISPs’ and telcos’ ability to harvest user data without explicit consent.

Last year, as part of its net neutrality rule-making, the FCC reclassified broadband as a so-called ‘Title II telecommunications service’ under the 1934 Communications Act — a move that also paves the way for a more active regulation of how ISPs use consumer data, given that the FCC can issue proper privacy regulations, vs the FTC only being able to do so for minors (under the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act).

Susan Grant of the Consumer Federation of America, another of the organizations co-signing the letter, cites the Verizon* super-cookie smartphone tracking system as an example of the kind of problematic behavior the NGOs are keen to see reined in by proper regulation. Initially Verizon offered no way for smartphone users to opt out of being tracked by its technology. (*NB: Verizon is the parent company of TechCrunch’s parent, AOL.)

“What tracking is going on now and how the info is being used is in most cases not readily apparent,” argues Grant.

The letter calls for the FCC to “move forward as quickly as possible on a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking proposing strong rules to protect consumers from having their personal data collected and shared by their broadband provider without affirmative consent, or for purposes other than providing broadband Internet access service”.

It also calls for data breach notices to be included in rules, and for broadband providers to be held accountable for any failure to take suitable precautions to protect personal data collected from users. And for providers to be required to “clearly disclose their data collection practices to subscribers, and allow subscribers to ascertain to whom their data is disclosed.”

Grant suggests it is widely known the FCC has been considering establishing privacy rules for broadband providers, noting it held a public workshop last year to discuss the issue.

“I expect that the FCC will be very receptive to this call as it has long regulated privacy in the other communications services that come under its jurisdiction,” she tells TechCrunch.

Also commenting on why there’s a need for pro-privacy rules to protect broadband users at this point in time, Jeff Chester of the Center for Digital Democracy argues the techniques being used by ISPs to track users have become as sophisticated as those being deployed by big data powered Internet giants like Google and Facebook.

“ISPs are using the same big-data tracking and targeting techniques that have raised privacy concerns about Google and Facebook when we go online,” he says, arguing these companies pose a new threat to consumer privacy because they can have such in-depth access to data —  including from computers and mobile phones but also because they can know what people watch via set-top boxes and connected TVs.

“Phone and cable broadband companies (such as Verizon and Comcast) are connecting our TV sets, for example,  to vast databases of information that enable advertisers and programmers to engage in ‘microtargeting’ us commercials, ads, political messages, and other content,” he notes. “[They] are retooling their technology so they can engage in what’s called ‘programmatic’ advertising, that uses sophisticated data tools to target us in milliseconds, regardless of what digital device we use.”

Chester points to various acquisitions — including last year’s Verizon-AOL purchase — as having enabled ISPs and their partners to build out fine-grained data-driven advertising capabilities in recent times, with user targeting techniques and technologies driving multiple developments in the space.

Verizon-AOL, for example, merged their ad networks last October to step up their ability to track users for ad targeting purposes — widely seen as the primary motivator for the $4.4 billion acquisition.

“With ISPs positioned to have so much information about our online use, and further expand data surveillance when we view video programming, the FCC must step in and create a set of fair consumer safeguards,” adds Chester.

The full letter and list of co-signing organizations follows below.

January 20, 2016
Tom Wheeler
Federal Communications Commission
445 12th St., SW
Washington, D.C. 20554

Re: Broadband Privacy Rulemaking

Dear Chairman Wheeler:

The undersigned organizations urge you to commence a rulemaking as soon as possible

to protect the privacy of broadband consumers. As Commissioner Julie Brill of the

Federal Trade Commission (FTC) stated in a recent speech on broadband and privacy, the

Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) reclassification of broadband as a Title II

common carrier service adds it as “a brawnier cop on the beat” on privacy issues. She

welcomed the opportunity for the two agencies to work in cooperation to create “strong

consumer privacy and data security [that] are key ingredients of our data-intensive

economy, including the practices of broadband providers.”

Providers of broadband Internet access service, including fixed and mobile telephone,

cable, and satellite television providers, have a unique role in the online ecosystem. Their

position as Internet gatekeepers gives them a comprehensive view of consumer behavior

and until now privacy protections for consumers using those services have been unclear.

Nor is there any way for consumers to avoid data collection by the entities that provide

Internet access service. As the role of the Internet in the daily lives of consumers

increases, this means an increased potential for surveillance. This can create a chilling

effect on speech and increase the potential for discriminatory practices derived from data

use. By contrast, commonsense protections may lead to a broader adoption and use of the

Internet, as individuals gain confidence in conducting everyday business and exploring

new services online.

With the recently signed Memorandum of Understanding on Consumer Protection

between the FCC and FTC outlining continuing interagency cooperation on privacy, the

FCC is now well positioned to take its place as that “brawnier cop on the beat” focusing

on broadband providers. We therefore strongly urge that the FCC move forward as

quickly as possible on a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking proposing strong rules to protect

consumers from having their personal data collected and shared by their broadband

provider without affirmative consent, or for purposes other than providing broadband

Internet access service. The proposed rules should also provide for notice of data

breaches, and hold broadband providers accountable for any failure to take suitable

precautions to protect personal data collected from users. In addition, the rules should

require broadband providers to clearly disclose their data collection practices to

subscribers, and allow subscribers to ascertain to whom their data is disclosed.

We thank you for your continuing commitment to consumer privacy protection. In

addition to the Commission’s important decision last year to retain authority to protect

consumer privacy on broadband telecommunications services, the FCC has worked

diligently under your administration to enforce existing privacy protections for voice

communication, and to require greater transparency for broadband provider service

practices. We look forward to working with you to modernize these existing rules to

clarify crucially important protections for consumers online.



Access Humboldt

Access Sonoma Broadband

American Association of Law Libraries

American Civil Liberties Union

Appalshop, Inc.

Ashbury Senior Computer Community Center

Benton Foundation

Broadband Alliance of Mendocino County

California Center for Rural Policy


Campaign for Commercial-Free Childhood

Caney Fork Headwaters Association

Center for Democracy & Technology

Center for Digital Democracy

Center for Rural Strategies

Center for Science in the Public Interest

Chicago Consumer Coalition

Children Now

Common Sense Kids Action

Consumer Action

Consumer Assistance Council of Cape Cod and the Islands of Massachusetts

Consumer Federation of America

Consumer Federation of California

Consumer Watchdog

Cornucopia Network NJ/TN Chapter

Cumberland Countians for Ecojustice

Electronic Frontier Foundation

Free Press

Institute for Local Self-Reliance

Kentucky Equal Justice Center

Maryland Consumer Rights Coalition

Massachusetts Consumer Council

Maui County Community Television

Mountain Area Information Network

National Association of Consumer Advocates

National Consumer Law Center (on behalf of its low income clients)

National Consumers League

National Digital Inclusion Alliance

National Hispanic Media Coalition

Network for Environmental & Economic Responsibility of United Church of Christ

North Carolina Consumers Council

Oklahoma Policy Institute

Open Library

Open Technology Institute at New America

Oregon Consumer League

Privacy Rights Clearinghouse

Privacy Times

Public Citizen

Public Health Advocacy Institute at Northeastern University School of Law

Public Knowledge

Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity, University of Connecticut

Schools, Health & Libraries Broadband Coalition (SHLB Coalition)

Southern California Tribal Digital Village

Texas Legal Services Center


United Church of Christ, OC Inc.

World Privacy Forum


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