FCC to vote this month on privacy rules for internet providers

FCC to vote this month on privacy rules for internet providers
© Greg Nash

Internet service providers would be required to get customers’ permission to use certain types of “sensitive” data under proposed rules Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Chairman Tom Wheeler released on Thursday.

Sensitive data include information on a person’s web browsing history, according to the commission, as well as health information, financial data and the substance of communications sent over the internet. The proposed rule would also cover location data, the commission said, and data related to children or collected on application usage.


“Calibrating consent requirements to the sensitivity of the information aligns with consumer expectations and is in harmony with other key privacy frameworks and principles — including those outlined by the [Federal Trade Commission] and the Administration’s Consumer Privacy Bill of Rights,” Wheeler said in a blog post.

“The proposed rules are designed to evolve with changing technologies, and would provide consumers with ways to easily adjust their privacy preferences over time.”

Other data, like a person’s name and home and internet protocol addresses, would not be considered sensitive. Internet providers would simply need to give consumers a chance to opt-out of having that data used.

Internet providers such as Comcast or Verizon would have to tell customers which data they were collecting and for what use. The rules would apply to both traditional wired broadband and mobile internet service.

They would have to seek a customer’s permission before utilizing their data in most cases.

The commission will also offer internet service providers guidelines on data security through the proposed rules and require internet providers to notify the commission and customers of data breaches within a certain amount of time.

The FCC voted earlier this year to formally consider the new rules.

That proposal frustrated the internet providers, who said it was confusing and unfair that companies such as Google and Facebook — which have built their businesses by targeting ads based on user data — would be subject to a less strict standard used by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC).

Though the rules will not apply to services hosted on the web, rather than providing the internet infrastructure, Google said in a Monday letter that it thought the FCC “should reflect in any new privacy rules for Internet service providers the same balance that the FTC successfully strikes in its framework.” Google’s own limited broadband offering, Google Fiber, would be subject to the rules.

The rules proposed on Thursday would also not cover non-internet products from providers that offer broadband.

Though industry critics have pushed for the commission to apply its strictest rules only to sensitive data and to follow the FTC's lead, it was not immediately clear whether they would be satisfied with the details of the commission's new approach.

The regulations are an outgrowth of the strict net neutrality rules the commission approved last year. They will be considered later this month at an open meeting.

They would be implemented as many internet service providers look to leverage data, much like Google and other companies, to target advertisements at their customers. Verizon has been particularly aggressive in this respect, moving to acquire AOL and Yahoo to build a bigger ad technology operation. Analysts have said the value of such moves may be called into question by stricter privacy rules.