Consumers must have clear choices under new broadband privacy rules

4 November 2016 by Steve Blum
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Gobbledygook not allowed.

The Federal Communications Commission has finally published the actual privacy rules for Internet service providers it approved at last week’s meeting. In more than 200 tightly packed pages, the FCC tries to offer detailed definitions of what kind of information ISPs can’t share or use without explicit, opt-in approval from customers, what kind is usable with assumed, opt-out permission, and what kind is exempt from either.

There’s a big loophole that the FCC only partially closes: charging customers different prices based on whether or not they give up their privacy rights.

ISPs can’t refuse to offer service on the basis of customers’ privacy choices – the new rules are very clear on that point – but the degree of financial incentives they offer is pretty much up to them, so long as customers have a fair chance to make choice. The only hard requirement is that the deal on offer has to be “explained in a way that is comprehensible and not misleading” and ISPs “must also provide at least as prominent information to customers about the equivalent plan without exchanging personal information”.

And, subscribers have to be able to change their mind at any time…

If customer opt-in approval is given, the [Internet service] provider must make available a simple, easy-to-use mechanism for customers to withdraw approval for participation in such financial incentive program at any time. Such mechanism must be clear and conspicuous, in language that is comprehensible and not misleading, and must be persistently available on or through the carrier’s website; the carrier’s application (app), if it provides one for account management purposes; and any functional equivalent to the carrier’s homepage or app. If a carrier does not have a website, it must provide a persistently available mechanism by another means such as a toll-free telephone number.

If an ISP does have a website, then customers must be able to make their opt-in/opt-out choices online, with a simple click. Requiring them to call a toll free number and run the gauntlet of manipulative, hard sell agents is not allowed.

Report and Order In the Matter of Protecting the Privacy of Customers of Broadband and Other Telecommunications Services, 2 November 2016