Consumer groups urge FCC to establish online privacy rules

Consumer and privacy groups are calling on the Federal Communications Commission to extend strong privacy protections to broadband customers.

In a letter sent Wednesday the groups, which include the American Civil Liberties Union, the Consumer Federation of America and the Center for Democracy and Technology, urged FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler to start a rulemaking process that would bar broadband providers from sharing the data they’ve collected on their customers’ online activities with other companies or organizations without the customers’ consent. The groups also want the FCC to establish rules that would hold providers responsible if their customers’ data is compromised due to a preventable data breach.

By being the channel through which consumers access the Internet, broadband providers have a unique window into consumers’ online activities, one that consumers generally can’t obscure, the groups noted.

“Until now privacy protections for consumers using those services have been unclear,” the groups wrote. “As the role of the Internet in the daily lives of consumers increases, this means an increased potential for surveillance. This can create a chilling effect on speech.”

“By contrast,” they added, “commonsense protections may lead to a broader adoption and use of the Internet.”

The groups’ letter was echoed by the Electronic Privacy Information Center, which submitted its own missive to the FCC. EPIC urged the FCC to take an even broader stance on online privacy and look beyond just the data collection by broadband providers to that done by other Internet companies.

“We write to you also to recommend that the FCC take this opportunity to address the full range of communications privacy issues facing US consumers,” EPIC wrote. “From government access to CPNI (customer proprietary network information; the data collected by telecommunications providers on their customers), to the use of email content for advertising, to the interception of wireless communications, it is clear that there are a broad range of communications privacy issues within the jurisdiction of the FCC that could be addressed in the context of this new rule making.”

Last year, in a controversial move, the FCC reclassified broadband as a so-called common carrier service, a move that gave the agency much greater latitude to regulate Internet access. The groups called on the agency to ground the proposed privacy rules in its power over common carriers, echoing a recent call by Julie Brill, a commissioner on the Federal Trade Commission.

As envisioned by the groups, the new rules would require broadband providers to disclose what data they collect from customers and make clear how and to whom they share that information. Broadband providers would also be required to disclose when they have had data breaches. The rules would apply to all broadband providers — whether they deliver the service wirelessly, via landlines or via satellites.

The proposal comes amid growing concern about the amount of data that’s being collected on online consumers and the failure of Congress to update privacy laws to protect citizens’ online activities. It also comes as some broadband providers, notably AT&T, have started to charge customers extra to opt out of having their online activities tracked for marketing purposes.

File photo: FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler. (Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images)


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