Broadband Providers Face New Limits on Sharing Web Tracking

  • FCC proposes rules to demand more customer notification
  • Agency to consider rules with initial vote on March 31

Internet providers such as AT&T Inc. and Comcast Corp. face new federal restrictions on distributing information about their customers’ Web browsing.

Broadband providers would need to get permission from consumers before divulging online habits to other companies under the proposal from U.S. Federal Communications Commission Chairman Tom Wheeler. The rules need to succeed in two votes, including an initial test at an FCC meeting on March 31, before becoming final.

“Every broadband consumer should have the right to know what information is being collected and how it is used,” Wheeler said in an article on the Huffington Post website.

The proposal focuses on information collected by network providers, and doesn’t cover the privacy practices of websites that consumers visit, Wheeler said. The Federal Trade Commission and other agencies deal with companies and their privacy practices, he said.

The proposed rules would “empower consumers to ensure they have control over how their information is used by their Internet-service provider,” Wheeler said.

Search Engines

Even before the FCC released its proposal, AT&T said it objects to imposing “unique” requirements on Internet service providers, since Web companies such as search engines have access to more information about online behavior.

“Consumers expect and deserve consistent privacy protections for their online data, regardless of which company is collecting it,” Bob Quinn, the company’s senior vice president-federal regulatory, said in a blog post.

Companies want a less prescriptive approach that would say privacy can’t be deceptive or unfair, trade groups said in a Feb. 11 letter to the FCC. The groups include USTelecom, representing companies led by AT&T and Verizon Communications Inc., and the National Cable & Telecommunications Association, with members including largest U.S. cable provider Comcast.

Policy groups want strong rules to protect consumers from having their personal data collected and shared by broadband providers without consent, according to a January letter with signers including Public Knowledge, the American Civil Liberties Union and the Consumer Federation of America.

New policy could offer consumers clarity about how companies handle their data, said Harold Feld, senior vice president at the policy group Public Knowledge. “Part of the issue is, people don’t at all know what’s going on,” Feld said in an interview.

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