The FCC's Sweeping New Rules to Protect Your Online Privacy

Daily Herald (Arlington Heights, IL), October 30, 2016 | Go to article overview

The FCC's Sweeping New Rules to Protect Your Online Privacy


Byline: Brian Fung and Craig Timberg The Washington Post

WASHINGTON -- Federal officials delivered a landmark ruling in favor of online privacy Thursday, limiting how Internet providers use and sell customer data, while asserting that customers have a right to control their personal information.

Under the Federal Communications Commission's new rules, consumers may forbid Internet providers from sharing sensitive personal information, such as app and browsing histories, mobile location data and other information generated while using the Internet.

The fresh regulations come as Internet providers race to turn their customers' behavioral data into opportunities to sell targeted advertising. No longer satisfied with being mere conduits to the Web, these companies increasingly view the information they collect as a source of revenue.

The 3-to-2 party-line vote by the FCC's five commissioners, led by Chairman Tom Wheeler, a Democrat, was a major blow to some of Washington's most politically powerful companies, including AT&T, Verizon and Comcast, which had hoped to use their privileged access to user data to build lucrative businesses by targeting advertising across multiple devices. It also was a rare win for privacy advocates, who had struggled to convince the Obama administration and its recent predecessors that the Internet age requires a major overhaul of privacy laws and regulations.

"This was probably the best day we've had on Internet privacy -- commercial Internet privacy -- maybe ever," said Jeffrey Chester, executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy. "We got a breakthrough."

Chester and other consumer advocates predicted that Thursday's ruling will impart momentum to long-stalled efforts to create even more sweeping online privacy rules, like those common in other advanced nations.

Ordinary consumers are unlikely to see an immediate impact from the FCC ruling, but privacy advocates had warned that allowing Internet providers to sell customers' location information, browsing histories and other online data could have taken online tracking to a troubling new level, leaving those who wanted to obscure their online activities -- or even their physical movements -- few options to protect their privacy.

"If this was not done, it could have really hard-wired a surveillance infrastructure into the Internet itself," said Jay Stanley, a senior policy analyst for the American Civil Liberties Union.

The new rules, which could face a legal challenge from affected companies, require Internet providers to obtain their customers' explicit consent before using or sharing sensitive data with third parties, such as marketing firms. That could require dialogue boxes, new websites with updated privacy policies or other means of interaction with companies, which may offer discounts or other incentives to customers who voluntarily consent to online tracking.

The FCC vote also restricts trading in health data, financial information, Social Security numbers, and the content of emails and other digital messages. The rules force service providers to tell consumers what data they collect and why, and to take steps to notify customers of data breaches.

"It's the consumers' information," said Wheeler, a former cable-industry lobbyist who shepherded the rules through a deeply divided FCC. "How it is used should be the consumers' choice, not the choice of some corporate algorithm. …

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