Rules will give in­ter­net users more power over pri­vacy

Con­sumers must opt in to share their data

The Washington Times Weekly - - National - BY STEPHEN DINAN

Broad­band providers such as Com­cast and AT&T will have to get cus­tomers’ per­mis­sion be­fore they can share per­sonal data with other com­pa­nies, the FCC ruled Thurs­day, mark­ing a ma­jor ex­pan­sion of pri­vacy pro­tec­tions and per­haps shift­ing the bal­ance of power in the on­line mar­ket­place.

Those brows­ing on mo­bile de­vices could refuse to have their lo­ca­tions shared, while all users could in­struct their in­ter­net ser­vice providers not to trade their web brows­ing his­tory or in­for­ma­tion about what apps they are us­ing un­der the rules, which the Fed­eral Com­mu­ni­ca­tions Com­mis­sion adopted on a 3-2 vote.

“It’s the con­sumer’s in­for­ma­tion. How it is used should be the con­sumer’s choice, not the choice of some cor­po­rate al­go­rithm,” said FCC Chair­man Tom Wheeler, who led the push for the changes.

The rules will need to be pub­lished, and the in­dus­try will have a year to com­ply. In ad­di­tion to in­ter­net use, the ISPs would have to al­low cus­tomers to opt in to share their geo­graphic lo­ca­tions, their fi­nan­cial or health in­for­ma­tion, and the con­tents of their com­mu­ni­ca­tions.

Ad­di­tion­ally, cus­tomers must be al­lowed to opt out of hav­ing in­for­ma­tion about their plans, such as the types of ser­vices they buy, shared.

Ad­ver­tis­ers com­plained that buy­ing and sell­ing in­for­ma­tion about web brows­ing has fu­eled the In­ter­net’s growth and warned that could slow down. ISPs said they are be­ing sin­gled out while com­pa­nies that run pop­u­lar web­sites and apps, such as Google and Face­book, won’t be af­fected.

That means the web­sites will con­tinue to track users and sell the in­for­ma­tion they col­lect, giv­ing them a fi­nan­cial ad­van­tage over the ISPs.

“The FCC’s or­der falls short of rec­og­niz­ing that con­sumers want their in­for­ma­tion pro­tected based on the sen­si­tiv­ity of the in­for­ma­tion col­lected, not the en­tity col­lect­ing it,” Joan Marsh, a se­nior vice pres­i­dent for reg­u­la­tory is­sues at AT&T, said in a state­ment. “The FCC’s di­ver­gent ap­proach will ul­ti­mately serve only to con­fuse con­sumers, who will con­tinue to see ads based on their web brows­ing his­tory gen­er­ated by edge providers even after they have been told by their ser­vice provider that their con­sent is re­quired for use of such in­for­ma­tion.”

The in­ter­net is re­shap­ing the pri­vacy de­bate, giv­ing both the gov­ern­ment and cor­po­ra­tions a chance to peek at be­hav­ior of Amer­i­cans and tech­no­log­i­cal tools to col­lect, store and an­a­lyze that in­for­ma­tion in bulk.

For com­pa­nies, that means the abil­ity to con­struct a pro­file of each on­line user based on brows­ing his­tory, shop­ping and other on­line ac­tiv­i­ties.

The dif­fer­ence for com­pa­nies be­tween opt-in and opt-out re­quire­ments could be huge.

One study showed that less than 20 per­cent of users agree when they are asked to opt in, but more than 80 per­cent re­main when given the chance to opt out.

“This isn’t con­sumer choice; it’s recog­ni­tion of con­sumer ap­a­thy,” said Michael O’Reilly, one of the FCC mem­bers who voted against the change.

With­out rev­enue from sell­ing cus­tomers’ in­for­ma­tion, he said, the ISPs may raise rates on con­sumers them­selves.

The com­mis­sion­ers who voted to im­pose the rules said ISPs are dif­fer­ent from web­sites or other on­line com­pa­nies. Be­cause they are the on-ramps to the in­ter­net, ISPs see all of the traf­fic.

Mr. Wheeler, at Thurs­day’s meet­ing, re­counted see­ing a re­frig­er­a­tor that tracked its own con­tents and shared it on­line. Even if that in­for­ma­tion went straight from the fridge to an iPhone, it still went via some­one’s band­width, mean­ing “the ISP knows what goes in and out of a re­frig­er­a­tor,” he said.

Mr. O’Reilly, though, said given the ex­plo­sion of en­crypted data on web­pages, it’s not true that ISPs see as much any­more.

In­ter­net ser­vice providers wanted the FCC to keep out of the is­sue al­to­gether. They said the Fed­eral Trade Com­mis­sion had al­ready is­sued rules of the road re­quir­ing com­pa­nies to abide by their stated pri­vacy poli­cies and in­sisted that was enough pro­tec­tion.

Pri­vacy ad­vo­cates, mean­while, cheered the rul­ing but said they wished it had gone fur­ther.

Claire Gart­land, a lawyer at the Elec­tronic Pri­vacy In­for­ma­tion Cen­ter, said the rules let com­pa­nies share data as long as they strip out iden­ti­fiers that tie it to a spe­cific per­son. She said that would ap­pear to al­low com­pa­nies to sell the in­for­ma­tion tied to an ad­ver­tiser ID num­ber, which, while it lacks a name, can still track a per­son.

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