FCC scraps consumer privacy rules for ISPs

by Steve Blum • , , ,

Internet service providers won’t be held to a higher privacy standard. In a two to one party line vote, the Federal Communications Commission put consumer privacy rules it adopted in October on indefinite hold, and passed the buck over to the Federal Trade Commission. The new rules would have, for example, required ISPs to get affirmative, opt-in permission from customers before selling sensitive personal data, such as web browsing history.

In a joint statement, FCC chair Ajit Pai and (temporary) FTC chair Maureen Ohlhausen said consumer protection rules shouldn’t be in the FCC’s domain…

We still believe that jurisdiction over broadband providers’ privacy and data security practices should be returned to the FTC, the nation’s expert agency with respect to these important subjects. All actors in the online space should be subject to the same rules, enforced by the same agency.

Until that happens, however, we will work together on harmonizing the FCC’s privacy rules for broadband providers with the FTC’s standards for other companies in the digital economy.

The joint statement also points out that scrapping the FCC rules leaves a big gap: the FTC’s privacy standards don’t apply to ISPs yet.

On first glance, it might seem eminently fair to apply the same rules to everyone in the Internet ecosystem. But there’s a big difference between ISPs and, say, Amazon. You choose to buy something from Amazon. If you don’t like its privacy policy, you can buy the same thing, probably for about the same price, from any number of other websites. Your ISP is another matter. Out of necessity, it knows that you’ve surfed to Amazon and can see what you’re doing there. And what you’re doing with any other web service that’s out there.

When someone has as much access to your private and personal information as an ISP does, a higher standard should apply. Your doctor has to follow different, and stricter, privacy rules than your auto mechanic. So should the companies and public agencies you use to communicate with your doctor. Or anyone else.