FCC Passes Sweeping New Rules to Protect Online Privacy

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Federal regulators have approved unprecedented new rules to ensure broadband providers do not abuse their customers’ app usage and browsing history, mobile location data and other sensitive personal information generated while using the Internet.

The rules, passed Thursday in a 3-to-2 vote by the Federal Communications Commission, require Internet providers, such as Comcast and Verizon, to obtain their customers’ explicit consent before using or sharing that behavioral data with third parties, such as marketing firms.

Also covered by that requirement are health data, financial information, Social Security numbers and the content of emails and other digital messages. The measure allows the FCC to impose the opt-in rule on other types of information in the future, but certain types of data, such as a customer’s IP address and device identifier, are not subject to the opt-in requirement. The rules also force service providers to tell consumers clearly what data they collect and why, as well as to take steps to notify customers of data breaches.

“It’s the consumers’ information,” said FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler. “How it is used should be the consumers’ choice. Not the choice of some corporate algorithm.”

In the near term, what consumers see and experience on the Web is unlikely to change as a result of the rules; targeted advertising has become a staple of the Internet economy and will not be going away. But the regulations may lead to new ways in which consumers can control their Internet providers’ business practices. That could mean dialogue boxes, new websites with updated privacy policies or other means of interaction with companies.

The fresh regulations come as Internet providers race to turn their customers’ behavioral data into opportunities to sell targeted advertising. No longer content to be the conduits to websites, social media and online video, broadband companies increasingly view the information they collect on users as they traverse the Web as a source of revenue in itself.

With its move, the FCC is seeking to bring Internet providers’ conduct in line with that of traditional telephone companies that have historically obeyed strict prohibitions on the unauthorized use or sale of call data.

But the Internet era has brought new challenges, in some cases creating different categories of personal information — and ways to use it — that did not exist in the telephone era. And as the line increasingly blurs between traditional network operators and online content companies, regulators have struggled to keep pace.

For example, Verizon’s acquisition of AOL and potential purchase of Yahoo are both aimed at monetizing Internet usage beyond the straightforward sale of broadband access.

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SOURCE: Brian Fung 
The Washington Post