Services & Software

That FCC plan to protect your privacy? Not everyone's a fan

The feds' proposal has come under fire as some argue broadband providers should not be held to higher standards than other companies in the Internet ecosystem.

Critics of the Federal Communications Commission's proposal to regulate Internet privacy argue the agency's new rules will confuse consumers and ultimately lead to higher prices.

CNET/Marguerite Reardon

That's the message from many of those who filed more than 45,000 public comments in reaction to the proposal, which was introduced in March and would require broadband and wireless companies to get user consent for most uses of their data, preventing them from freely sharing that info with third parties such as advertisers.

Now that the comment period on the proposal has ended, the agency will sift through what critics and others have to say. Final rules could be voted on later this summer.

It's the strongest set of privacy regulations ever for Internet service providers, but the rules don't apply to companies such as Amazon, Facebook or Google, which also collect and share customer information with advertisers. Those companies follow guidelines established by the Federal Trade Commission, which is the crux of the contention over the proposal.

"Consumers will be confused -- one set of rules will apply to data collected by their ISPs, but an entirely different set of rules will apply to that very same data as it is collected by their browser, mobile operating system, search engine, or social media service," Gerard Lewis, Comcast's chief privacy officer, said in a blog post describing the company's filing to the FCC.

Other critics agree. Jon Leibowitz, the former Federal Trade Commission chairman under President Barack Obama, who is now a lawyer, said the FCC has veered too far from the FTC's privacy guidelines.

"In many important areas it overshoots the mark, proposing regulations for broadband providers that go well beyond those imposed upon the rest of the Internet economy and which, if adopted, undercut benefits to the very consumers it seeks to protect," Leibowitz said in his filing.

Having two different privacy standards could hamstring broadband and wireless providers who are trying to get into the advertising market to compete against Google and Facebook, he said. If they're unable to crack this market, they'll spend more to deliver service. That will ultimately lead to higher prices for consumers.

Even lawyers working at the FTC agree that having two different privacy standards for the Internet is not "optimal." In general, the agency backs the FCC's proposed rules. In the filing, the agency suggests tweaks that would bring the FCC's proposal more in line with how the FTC regulates privacy.

The sentiments have been echoed by some Republican members of Congress. Earlier this week, Fred Upton (R-Michigan), Greg Walden (R-Oregon) and Michael Burgess (R-Texas), wrote a letter warning the FCC that its position is too confusing for consumers.

"The inconsistencies in the proposed rules undermine the public's expectation of a seamless and contextually relevant online experience," they said.

The FCC said it will review the letter from Congressional leaders.

But supporters of the FCC proposal say it makes sense that Internet service providers are scrutinized more, since they are the "gatekeepers" to the Internet. Consumer advocacy group Public Knowledge said this is especially problematic because these companies are trying to break into the advertising market.

The American Civil Liberties Union agrees. In its filing, it said that broadband and wireless companies "wish to grab short-term profits by eavesdropping on communications, as they look jealously at booming online companies such as Google and Facebook." It argues that while customers can click away from sites like Google or Facebook, they cannot get away from their Internet service provider.

In the wake of the Edward Snowden leaks, the ACLU believes that citizens are concerned about what personal information is collected and shared by their Internet service providers.

"A telecommunications infrastructure that is not regarded as solidly trustworthy and private will also create significant chilling effects on self-expression," it said in the filing.