The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has gotten mostly praise from privacy and consumer groups for its new rules giving internet users more control over how their internet service provider (ISP) uses their personal information.
On one hand, they say the rules are a huge improvement over the status quo. On the other hand, they say the protections could have been more extensive.
There are three main provisions that give consumers the power to determine whether, and to what extent, their ISP may profit from the information it collects about them.
What the rules do
First, consumers must specifically agree, by “opting in,” to allow their sensitive information to be shared with anyone else. The rule specifies what categories of information are considered sensitive. These include your location, financial data, health information, children’s information, social security numbers, web browsing history, app usage history, and the content of communications.
ISPs would be allowed to use customers' non-sensitive data unless the customer specifically opts out. Non-sensitive information might include email addresses or service tier information.
ISPs do not need permission to use customer data to bill and collect for services. For consumers, no action is required to block ISPs from profiting from personal information. Consumers must take the step of “opting out” if they want to block ISPs from using non-sensitive information.
Privacy advocates generally hailed the move. Guarav Laroia, policy counsel for Free Press, said the new rules aren't perfect but make big strides forward.
“That’s because under any sensible interpretation of the communications laws that govern the FCC, the companies that carry all of our speech online have no business profiting from all the information they gather without our consent,” he said in an email to ConsumerAfffairs. “Today’s rules simply give people more choice when it comes to safeguarding their most private conversations and decisions online.”
Consumer Watchdog also welcomed the new policy, but said it would like to see these rules extended to cover the rest of the internet.
"Today's FCC action gives broadband users significant control over their information. It's a major step forward in protecting consumers' privacy," said John M. Simpson, Consumer Watchdog privacy project director. "But the FCC action only covers ISPs.”
Simpson said the rules should also cover the so-called internet edge providers like Google, Facebook, Twitter, and Amazon. He held out the possibility that extension could take place through legislative action.
Even parts of the industry found things to like in the rules. The Wireless Internet Service Providers Association (WISPA) said the final rules are much better than the FCC's original draft, and praised the agency's “sensitivity” to the concerns of small, mostly rural wireless ISPs.
But the group said it remains concerned that certain uses of non-sensitive customer information will be subject to opt-in consent.