When Tom Wheeler was appointed chair of the FCC, many feared his history as CEO of the Cellular Telecommunications & Internet Association (CTIA) would taint his ability to head an organization tasked with regulating those industries. Instead, Wheeler has proven to support both net neutrality and now, more robust privacy protections for online users.
In a recent Huffington Post op/ed, Wheeler discussed how ISPs gather enormous amounts of information about their users, who have little recourse in the services they use or what information is gathered about them in the process:
“Think about it. Your ISP handles all of your network traffic. That means it has a broad view of all of your unencrypted online activity — when you are online, the websites you visit, and the apps you use. If you have a mobile device, your provider can track your physical location throughout the day in real time. Even when data is encrypted, your broadband provider can piece together significant amounts of information about you — including private information such as a chronic medical condition or financial problems — based on your online activity.
“The information collected by the phone company about your telephone usage has long been protected information. Regulations of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) limit your phone company’s ability to repurpose and resell what it learns about your phone activity.
“The same should be true for information collected by your ISP.”
Wheeler goes on to say he’s proposing rules to the FCC that would give consumers control over how ISPs can use their data, including new rules that would require ISPs to disclose what information they gather and how they use it, and that users should have final say over how that information is used.
Wheeler notes that ISPs would continue to have the right to use your information to deliver broadband service to your personal location, and for customer service purposes, and for billing. The new rules would also be allowed to use and share customer information with their affiliates to market other communications-related services (Triple Play services and DVR rental would both seem to fall under this category) unless customers opt-out of receiving such communication.
Wheeler writes that “All other uses and sharing of your personal data would require your affirmative “opt-in” consent.”
A potentially significant change to the status quo
Wheeler’s proposal is sure to face stiff opposition from ISPs, many of whom are pushing forward with various plans to track users non-anonymously and to sell that information. Verizon has already announced that it shares personal information with its advertising affiliates through the AOL network — which reaches an estimated 40% of websites. AT&T has long sold its service at a discount, provided customers agree to be tracked and targeted for advertising. Even non-ISPs have begun to get in on the action; Vizio was caught operating a tracking service that was reporting personal viewing habits whether a person had actually signed up for the company’s services or not.
Criticism of Wheeler’s proposal is aligning along corporate and party lines. The National Cable & Telecommunications Association is against the rules change, while Ars Technicaquotes Republican FCC Commissioner Michael O’Rielly as saying Wheeler has taken a “reckless approach to an important topic, especially where it clearly lacks expertise, personnel, or understanding.”
From where we sit, Wheeler seems to understand the situation perfectly. And these rules, while they wouldn’t apply to the data collection activities of websites or other services, are still a positive step in the right direction.