Should your web browsing be private? ISPs say it shouldn't

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Broadband providers argue against rule that could limit behavioral advertising

What happens in your browser stays in your browser, right? Wrong. Your browsing history is tracked by broadband providers like AT&T, T-Mobile, and Comcast and used to serve "behavioral" ads that reflect your recent browsing history.

Besides using the information themselves, internet providers can and do sell it to market research firms that combine the information with other scraps gathered from here and there, forming the so-called Big Data that drives a lot of today's marketing and advertising strategies.

Federal Communications Commission Chairman Tom Wheeler has proposed a rule that would require broadband providers to get your consent before using information about your app usage and web-browsing history to target ads.

It seems a modest enough proposal and would apply only to internet service providers like AT&T, Verizon, and Comcast, not to website operators, which are beyond the FCC's jurisdiction. And that distinction is being used by the ISPs to argue against the proposal.

Unfair to ISPs

The argument is that by regulating the entities it is authorized to regulate -- namely, ISPs -- the FCC would be unfairly singling them out for tougher rules against Google, Facebook, and other website operators, which it is not authorized to regulate. Most websites allow their users to opt out of targeted ads, but they may still draw on the data they collect in one way or another.

In a filing with the FCC, T-Mobile dragged out the "level playing field" argument that is heard whenever one industry segment is jockeying for advantage over another.

T-Mobile said it shouldn't have to obtain consumers' permission before rummaging around in their "non-sensitive" browsing history if unregulated websites are allowed to do so. AT&T and Comcast made similar aguments.

Supporters of the rule, however, say that ISPs have access to more data about consumers than any single search engine or other website and should be expected to abide by stricter rules.

Advertisers object

Wheeler's plan isn't making any friends in adland either. Major advertising trade groups swarmed the FCC last week, saying the plan was a threat to consumers because it would "undermine the internet economy."

Protecting consumers online privacy would "limit consumer choice, and ultimately harm consumers by interrupting the well-functioning Internet economy that provides consumers with free and low cost products and services," the ad group spokesmen told FCC officials, according to Broadcasting & Cable magazine. 

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) previously regulated consumer privacy issues involving telecommunications carriers, but when the FCC declared the internet to be a public utility in 2015, it assumed that role and Wheeler's proposal is similar to rules the FTC previously had in place.

Technically, the question is what constitutes "sensitive" information. Wheeler's proposal would include web-browsing and app usage in the sensitive categories. Broadband providers say that's unnecessary and puts them at a competitive disadvantage, since they would have less personal information about their customers that they could sell to third parties.

Consumer and privacy advocates generally argue that rule is not only reasonable but necessary to protect individuals' privacy rights.

“These rules will extend crucial protections to broadband customers, who have no choice but to disclose many of their digital activities and communications to broadband providers,” said Chris Calabrese, vice president for policy at the Center for Democracy and Technology.

“Our web browsing and app usage history represents some of our most personal data, making strong privacy protections for it essential. Today’s proposal from the FCC represents real progress in empowering consumers to take control of their data,” Calabrese said.

A vote by the full FCC is expected before the end of the year.

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