Coalition Urges FCC To Set Strong Broadband Privacy Rules

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Under the Open Internet order issued last year by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), broadband service providers can't block or throttle content or create priority "fast lanes" for higher-paying customers. However, now a coalition of consumer advocacy groups is also calling on the agency to adopt strong privacy protections for broadband customers. 

In a letter sent today to FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler, 59 different organizations urged him to "commence a rulemaking as soon as possible to protect the privacy of broadband consumers." Urgency is needed because of the unique and wide-ranging access to consumer information that broadband providers have, according to the groups. 

Currently, broadband customers have no way to avoid data collection by their service providers, and the continued growth in online services means "an increased potential for surveillance," the organizations said in the letter. 

Warning that such capabilities could lead to a "chilling effect on speech" or the potential for discriminatory practices, the groups said the FCC must set rules preventing broadband providers from collecting or sharing any more customer Relevant Products/Services data than necessary to deliver their services. 

FCC Now a 'Brawnier Cop on the Beat'

"With the recently signed Memorandum of Understanding on Consumer Protection between the FCC and FTC (Federal Trade Commission) 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," the letter to Wheeler stated.

In the letter, the groups urged the FCC to move as quickly as possible to propose "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." 

Among the groups signing the letter are the American Civil Liberties Union, the Campaign for Commercial-Free Childhood, the Center for Science in the Public Interest, Consumer Watchdog, the Electronic Frontier Foundation and the nonprofit association the Consumer Federation of America (CFA). 

"By implementing commonsense privacy rules, the FCC would enable consumers to use broadband services with more confidence, knowing that the data that their service providers can collect won't be used or shared for purposes that they didn't agree to," noted Susan Grant, director of consumer protection Relevant Products/Services and privacy for the CFA. "Broadband service providers, which have a unique view of customers' online activities, will also benefit from clear rules about how that information can be used and their responsibility for safeguarding it." 

Broadband Providers 'in a Position To Know Everything'

Consumer Watchdog Privacy Project Director John Simpson told us the urgency for establishing clear privacy protections stems from the fact that broadband service providers have access to such large volumes of customer information. 

"They're in a unique position to know absolutely everything you send over the network," Simpson said. If broadband companies use any of that data for anything other than providing their services, "they should have to get affirmative consent to use that information," he added.

Last year, Consumer Watchdog also petitioned the FCC to require so-called "edge providers" — companies like Google and Facebook — to honor "do not track" requests by their customers. The agency denied that petition, but Consumer Watchdog said it will continue to press regulators and lawmakers to adopt such rules.

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