FCC Urged To Impose Privacy Rules On Web Publishers, Ad Networks

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The advocacy group Consumer Watchdog wants the Federal Communications Commission to regulate how Facebook, Google and other Web companies protect consumers' privacy.

The organization argues in a petition filed today that Web companies shouldn't be allowed to share data with ad networks about consumers who have activated do-not-track. The group also says that ad networks shouldn't be able to “track” consumers who have turned on their do-not-track settings.

“Do Not Track requests — if required to be honored — give consumers increased control over their data and would build trust in the Internet and spur broadband use,” Consumer Watchdog says in a petition filed today with the FCC.

The organization adds that “ensuring consumer privacy will ensure the openness of the Internet and the ability of consumers to access all the legal content and applications of their choice, which will drive consumer demand for broadband Internet access.”

In the past, the FCC wasn't responsible for policing privacy on broadband networks. But now that the FCC has reclassified broadband as a common carrier service, the agency can subject broadband providers to the same kinds of privacy regulations followed by telephone carriers.

The FCC's plans regarding broadband privacy are hazy for now. Back in March, the agency said it wouldn't subject Internet service providers to the precise regulations that telephone carriers must follow, but will instead consider issuing new, broadband-specific rules. So far, however, the FCC has only told broadband providers that they should follow the “core tenets” of privacy protections.

For its part, Consumer Watchdog argues that the FCC shouldn't just impose privacy rules on broadband providers but also on content companies. The group says that “edge providers,” like Google and Facebook, also should be required to protect consumers' privacy. Otherwise, according to the advocacy organization, edge providers will gain an unfair advantage over broadband carriers.

“Edge providers collect the same sensitive personal information that broadband Internet access service providers collect, and that the Commission is committed to protecting,” Consumer Watchdog argues in a petition filed today. “If the Commission does not act to regulate the collection of personal information by edge providers, the Commission will in effect be granting a regulatory advantage to the edge providers.”

That point might be worth discussing. As a practical matter, however, the request for a rulemaking seems likely to face some major hurdles — including that a federal appellate court already said the FCC can only impose common carrier rules on common carrier services. That ruling, issued in January of 2014, spurred the FCC to issue its historic net neutrality order that reclassified broadband as a utility service.

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