FCC Privacy Rules Gets a Makeover in the U.S. – And It’s Not Pretty

Google and Facebook comparison

The NCTA does make one very good point. They claim that so called ‘edge providers’ like Facebook are already selling information to advertisers – so why should ISPs be held to a greater level of responsibility? However, it still does not explain just how the ISPs can reconcile a commitment to privacy with a stated aim of selling customer data. It’s patently obvious that they want a slice of the pie by monetising customer browsing habits – it’s really that simple.

There is of course an enormous difference between companies like Google and Facebook using customer data. Facebook and Google can capture and sell information generated by individual activity on their particular owned sites. The ISPs are a whole different kettle of fish. They carry all of an individual’s network traffic – in essence they track absolutely everything that the individual does online, making into very easy for them to build an extremely detailed profile of the client. You could choose not to use Facebook – but you simply cannot choose not to use your ISP’s services. That profile, including subscribers’ home address, telephone numbers and other details are collected when they sign up for services. This can augment and enrich the online data that is gathered.

This information is worth significant amounts of money and it is difficult to imagine that they will not mine that data for all that it is worth.

The ISPs are of the opinion that a level playing field is required. To paraphrase their opinion – ‘what is good for the goose (Google and Facebook for instance) should be good for the gander’. The point may be valid, but the outcome of the FCC privacy rules repeal seems obvious to any user of the Internet – it’s going to significantly erode Internet user’s right to privacy and indeed the ownership of their personal data.

The fight continues

Consumer advocacy groups are fighting tooth and nail to apply more stringent privacy requirements to ISPs. Their argument is simple. Although the Internet user can migrate away from sites like Google and Facebook with little effort, changing their ISP is considerably more challenging, especially for users who may have fewer choices due to limitations, for instance in rural areas. They also add that services like Google and Facebook offer free services in exchange for pushing advertising and using personal information – a trade-off that those using the social media and the world’s most popular search engine seem willing to tolerate. ISPs on the other hand charge for their services. This makes the argument from the ISPs about ‘levelling the playing field’ far less compelling.

Privacy takes a body blow

Until the repeal of the FCC privacy rules, the FTC had at least some control over the ISPs – under Title II, Section 222 of the Communications Act – commonly referred to as 2015’s ‘Net Neutrality Order’. In a bizarre twist, ISPs like Verizon and AT&T are referred to as ‘Common Carriers’ due to the fact that they also offer telephone services. This designation means that no regulatory body has clear authority over their activities related to privacy.

The coming months following the repeal of the FCC privacy rules will indicate if the ISPs live up to their promise to handle privacy in a sensitive manner. However, given the overriding profit motive it seems that Internet users are going to have to get used to the fact that privacy is now a privilege that is not in any way, shape or form inviolate. It’s going to be a bumpy ride.

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