FCC proposes stricter privacy rules for Internet service providers

The new rules would ensure your broadband or wireless service provider couldn't share your personal data with marketers without permission.

Marguerite Reardon Former senior reporter
Marguerite Reardon started as a CNET News reporter in 2004, covering cellphone services, broadband, citywide Wi-Fi, the Net neutrality debate and the consolidation of the phone companies.
Marguerite Reardon
3 min read

You should be able to decide what data your broadband or wireless provider shares with marketers. Period.

FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler has proposed new regulations to protect broadband and wireless customers' private data.

That's the message the Federal Communications Commission is sending with a proposed regulation intended to safeguard private customer information and to require broadband and wireless companies to get consumers' permission before sharing data with third parties such as marketers.

Chairman Tom Wheeler circulated his proposal among the other four FCC commissioners on Thursday. He expects the entire FCC to vote to open the proposal for public comment at its meeting on March 31. Actual rules would likely be voted on later this year after the comment period ends.

If approved, Wheeler's proposal would establish the strongest set of privacy regulations that has ever been in place for Internet service providers. The proposed broadband and wireless rules, which would give you more control of your data, are in line with cable TV and voice telephony services, which the FCC already regulates. Wheeler's move comes amid heightened concern over personal privacy, due in part to the ongoing fight between Apple and the FBI over whether the government has the right to compel a company to create a "back door" into our devices.

The rules would require broadband and wireless service providers to clearly disclose how personal consumer data is collected, how it's shared with third parties, and how it's used by these outside firms. The rules would also require that customers actively choose to participate in the program rather than be automatically enrolled, and they call for broadband and wireless companies to strengthen security practices for customer data.

"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 Huffington Post.

The regulations would also set these providers apart from Internet and social media sites, such as Google or Facebook, which also collect vast amounts of personal data from consumers that's used for marketing. These companies are currently monitored by the Federal Trade Commission, which has limited authority to create specific regulation. Instead, the agency monitors data collection practices to ensure there's no misuse or fraud.

The FCC signaled earlier this week that it planned to offer a stricter set of privacy regulations. after it brokered a deal with Verizon, which agreed to pay $1.35 million for using technology that allowed marketers to track its customers' online activity.

The agency has long protected personal information that your telephone or cable companies might otherwise garner about you. These rules prevent phone companies and cable operators from repurposing and reselling what it learns about your phone or TV viewing activity to marketers.

But the broadband and wireless industries said the FCC has gone too far and called for rules consistent with those of the FTC.

"We are disappointed by Chairman Wheeler's apparent decision to propose prescriptive rules on ISPs that are at odds with the requirements imposed on other large online entities," said cable lobby group NCTA.

AT&T argues that Internet service providers collect less data than sites such as Google or Facebook. The company believes that it's unfair to impose stricter regulation on AT&T and other broadband providers while Google and others, which base their business on advertising, are subjected to less stringent regulation.

"Consumers expect and deserve consistent privacy protections for their online data, regardless of which company is collecting it and the technology used to collect it," Bob Quinn, senior vice president of AT&T's federal regulatory affairs, said in a blog post on Wednesday.