Here's possible good news for Internet users: yesterday the Federal Communications Commission issued an Enforcement Advisory (available in .pdf form here) warning Internet service providers (ISPs) that “broadband providers should take reasonable, good faith steps to protect consumer privacy.”
Of course, the terms “reasonable” and “good-faith” are widely open to interpretation. What does the FCC mean? Basically, since ISPs are being reclassified as “common carriers” next month, similar to telephones in the pre-Internet era, they must respect similar types of privacy protections.
“The Commission has found that absent privacy protections, a broadband provider’s use of personal and proprietary information could be at odds with its customers’ interests,” as the FCC noted in an admirable example of understatement.
It's not just a hypothetical problem. In February, for example, AT&T introduced its high-speed GigaPower home Internet service to Kansas City residents (who already had the option of buying high-speed Internet through Google Fiber for $70 per month).
AT&T, by contrast, offered a two-tiered GigaPower price plan: $70 monthly for a standard GigaPower connection, or $99 per month to “opt out” of what AT&T called its “Internet Preferences” program — “Internet Preferences” basically being a euphemism for “tracking and monitoring your online activities”:
When you select AT&T Internet Preferences, we can offer you our best pricing on GigaPower because you let us use your individual Web browsing information, like the search terms you enter and the web pages you visit, to tailor ads and offers to your interests.
How thoughtful of them.
Not that AT&T deserves to be singled out; as early as 2013, Verizon was (among other things) offering select advertisers a then-new service called Precision Marketing that allowed sports clubs and athletic venues to track their smartphone-owning fan's activities before and after a game. When Pizza King, for examples, buys ads on the in-game scoreboards, are sports fans more likely to actually visit a Pizza King afterwards? Precision Marketing could let you know!
For modern Americans, the Internet (and any devices connected to it) arguably plays a much bigger role in everyday life than old-fashioned landline telephones ever did — and as a result, the potential privacy violations that arise from monitoring people's online activities is correspondingly greater than what applied to telephones.
For now, as the FCC explains in its Enforcement Advisory, the Commission has not gone so far as to take the specific telephone-based privacy regulations currently in existence and explicitly apply them to ISPs. The FCC does have the option of setting broadband-specific standards later, if necessary — but first, it's giving ISPs the benefit of the doubt and giving them the chance to take “reasonable, good faith steps” toward doing so on its own.