Does the idea of your Internet service provider tracking your online whereabouts and selling it to the highest bidder give you the heebie-jeebies? The Federal Communications Commission has a fix that might make you feel better.
The agency voted this week on a proposal for rules that will govern how broadband and wireless providers handle your personal online data.
These rules, championed by FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler, would also establish the strongest set of privacy regulations ever for Internet service providers. And they'd put the agency in charge of consumer privacy, a duty previously handled by the Federal Trade Commission.
"Every broadband consumer should have the right to choose how their information bits should be used and shared," Wheeler said in an op-ed published on The Huffington Post.
The Internet service providers question the FCC's authority to make these rules and argue that they leave out other Internet players, which follow separate rules.
Wheeler contends that consumers may have options with search engines or social networks, but often have little choice when it comes to the company providing access to those services.
Here's a rundown of what these new rules mean to you.
What will the FCC privacy rules do?
The new rules prohibit broadband providers from sharing your information, such as your name, location or online activity, with third parties without your consent. It's meant to provide the same kind of protection offered to telephone customers.
The rules would also require broadband and wireless providers to disclose in plain language how consumer data is collected, how it's shared with third parties and how it's used by outside firms. The plan also calls for broadband companies to strengthen security practices for customer data.
What does that mean for me?
Your broadband or wireless service provider will have to explicitly ask for your permission before any of your personal data can be shared with an advertiser. But those companies will still be able to use that information to send targeted advertising to you about their own services. If you're a Verizon Fios TV customer, Verizon can still use your data to send you relevant advertisements about its wireless service.
What if I want those relevant ads or a cheaper ad-sponsored service?
Remember that these requirements are about giving consumers a choice. You can opt in to programs that offer that information to third parties. The difference is that the Internet provider can't assume you are OK with this data being shared, and it must give you the option to say no.
For instance, you can pay AT&T $70 a month for an ad-sponsored version of its Gigapower Internet service. For $100, you can remove the ads.
Will I still see creepy ads on Facebook about the shoes I just searched for on Zappos?
Probably. That's what upset a lot of critics. The rules only cover broadband and wireless service providers. But online companies such as Facebook and Google or device makers such as Apple are excluded from the rules. That means these companies are still able to collect data about your location and Internet surfing habits and sell it to advertisers or other third parties.
Why aren't these other companies included in the new rules?
The FCC regulates phone, cable and wireless companies. It doesn't have the legal authority to regulate Internet companies or device makers.
Are they subject to any privacy rules?
The Federal Trade Commission is the primary agency in charge of protecting online consumer privacy. It focuses on potentially unfair and deceptive activities like failing to inform consumers of how their privacy might be affected or changing their terms of service without notice.
As with the FCC's plan, the FTC requires companies to be open about what they're doing with your data. But its authority is more reactive than proactive. It steps in after a company has already deceived customers or mishandled customer data, typically issuing a fine for harming customers. The FCC is now outlining a more concrete set of rules.
Over a year ago when the FCC passed its Net neutrality rules, it reclassified broadband as a telecom service, which makes it a public utility. The law requires that the FCC regulate privacy concerns rather than the FTC. It had been talking about coming up with privacy rules for a year.
But aren't those Net neutrality rules being challenged in court?
Yes. If the federal appeals court throws out the Net neutrality regulation or even upholds pieces of the rules but questions the FCC's authority to reclassify broadband, then the privacy rules would also be thrown out. At that point, the FCC wouldn't have the authority to apply privacy regulations on network providers like those on phone and cable TV companies.
When will the privacy rules take effect?
The vote on Thursday was just the beginning of the process. The FCC opened up its proposal for public comment. Then there will be another period to comment on the comments. After that, the agency will draft its final rules and vote on them. The whole process could take six months or longer. But keep in mind that this is an election year, and the current FCC chairman will likely leave when a new president takes office in January. So there's an incentive to get the rules voted on before he leaves.