FCC approves new privacy rules for 'sensitive' internet data

FCC approves new privacy rules for 'sensitive' internet data
© Greg Nash

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) voted Thursday in favor of a new rule meant to give consumers more control over how internet service providers (ISPs) use their personal data.

The final rule, opposed by several industry groups, is in step with details released earlier about the proposal by commission Chairman Tom Wheeler.

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Under the rules, internet providers will need their customers' permission to use data the commission has labeled "sensitive." That category is broad, including things like web browsing data and app usage history, rankling businesses.

Certain types of data, such as a customer's email address, have been deemed nonsensitive.

Prior to this regulation, ISPs were under the privacy jurisdiction of the Federal Trade Commission, which uses a less stringent standard. ISPs usually record information like websites visited, but the extent and duration that data is collected varies from company to company.

Republican Commissioners Ajit Pai and Michael O’Rielly issued lengthy dissents of the final proposal before Democratic Commissioners Jessica Rosenworcel, Mignon Clyburn and Wheeler voted to pass it. Pai and O’Rielly said that barring ISPs from collecting data that internet companies — like Facebook and Google — are free to collect was inconsistent.

“Nothing in these rules will stop edge providers from harvesting and monetizing your data, whether it’s the websites you visit or the YouTube videos you watch or the emails you send or the search terms you enter on any of your devices,” Pai said.

“So if the FCC truly believes that these new rules are necessary to protect consumer privacy, then the government now must move forward to ensure uniform regulation of all companies in the internet ecosystem at the new baseline the FCC has set,” he continued.

Wheeler defended the proposal.

“There is a basic truth. It is the consumer’s information. It is not the information of the network the consumer hires to deliver the information,” he said. “The bottom line is that broadband subscribers will finally be in the driver’s seat.”

The final version of the regulations is out of step with the desires of the broadband industry. Groups like NCTA-The Internet and Television Association and the American Cable Association voiced their concerns and pushed to separate sensitive and nonsensitive information.

“The Commission’s decision to break with the FTC’s proven privacy framework in favor of a cobbled-together approach that abandons principles of fair competition is profoundly disappointing,” NCTA said in a statement after the vote.

“Instead of creating a consistent and uniform approach to privacy that consumers can easily understand, today’s result speaks more to regulatory opportunism than reasoned policy.”

The group and others had previously hammered Wheeler’s fact sheet.

Sen. Ed MarkeyEdward (Ed) John MarkeyGreen New Deal vote tests Dem unity in Senate Booker takes early lead in 2020 endorsements Overnight Energy: Interior reverses decision at heart of Zinke criminal probe | Dem divisions deepen over approach to climate change | GM to add 400 workers to build electric cars MORE (D-Mass.) and consumer advocacy groups like Public Knowledge, Color of Change and the Consumer Federation of America defended the delineation between sensitive and non-sensitive data on conference call with reporters prior to the vote.

“We know that every click an American makes online paints a detailed picture of their personal and professional lives, and an ISP has the ability to see that personal, sensitive information,” Markey said.

“Consumers should have the power to stop ISPs from collecting and using their browsing information, app usage data, and other sensitive information without their express consent.”