FCC's unwritten privacy rules will have an equally ill-defined effect on Internet business

25 May 2015 by Steve Blum
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We can hope.

Your Internet service provider collects a lot of information about you and they use some of it for marketing purposes. AT&T is getting particularly aggressive about doing so, offering a discount on its GigaWeasel service to customers who agree to let it watch what they’re watching, and target ads accordingly..

Assuming that the Federal Communication Commission’s new, common carrier Internet regulations go into effect next month, the restrictions on what ISPs can do with their knowledge of you will get tighter. How tight? No one, not even the FCC’s enforcement bureau, knows. The only guidance they’ll offer publicly is to point at section 222 of federal telecoms law and say follow that.

That has some interesting tidbits in it. For example

A telecommunications carrier that receives or obtains proprietary information from another carrier…shall not use such information for its own marketing efforts.

Except as required by law or with the approval of the customer, a telecommunications carrier that receives or obtains customer proprietary network information…shall only use, disclose, or permit access to individually identifiable customer proprietary network information in its provision of the telecommunications service from which such information is derived.

On the other hand…

Nothing in this section prohibits a telecommunications carrier from using, disclosing, or permitting access to customer proprietary network information…to provide any inbound telemarketing, referral, or administrative services to the customer for the duration of the call, if such call was initiated by the customer and the customer approves of the use of such information to provide such service.

Those are, in fact, the kind of “telephone-centric rules” that the FCC “declined to apply” to broadband. So it’s really not clear what phrases like “with the approval of the customer” mean for the online world. Does navigating to a web page with a disclaimer at the bottom count? What about clicking on a discount package without reading the fine print?

There’s a devil of a lot of detail that’s still to be determined. And by determining it, the FCC will put itself in the position of managing a lot of the details of the business of running the Internet. Given the overwhelming role that customer data plays in driving online revenue, it’ll be difficult to square that level of oversight with the FCC’s promise of “light touch” regulation.