NCTA — The Internet & Television Association

An Existing Internet Privacy Plan That Works for Everyone

An Existing Internet Privacy Plan That Works for Everyone

Internet Privacy Plan

Almost everyone agrees that the internet is a phenomenal success that has changed our lives in many important and entertaining ways. Superfast networks built and continually upgraded by internet service providers (ISPs) have provided consumers with an exciting platform to find just about any content or experience imaginable.

When taking a closer look at why the internet has thrived, privacy has been a critical issue. For ISPs, privacy has been a top priority for more than two decades as these companies have worked hard to successfully preserve and protect the private data of consumers. And just like everyone else in the internet ecosystem, ISPs and content developers have been governed by the Federal Trade Commission’s (FTC) privacy policies.

Under the FTC’s regime, which has resulted in some significant enforcement actions when violations occur, the Internet has thrived under uniformity. Which is why it makes little sense that the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is pursuing a new and different set of privacy rules that only applies to ISPs. While the current privacy regime is working well for everyone on the internet, this new set of rules will make internet interactions more difficult, more cumbersome, and more confusing for everyday users.

A host of important voices have expressed their concern about the FCC’s proposal. Groups ranging from the FTC itself to various business and technology groupsacademics and security specialists, online advertisers, software and equipment providers, civil rights organizations, and former government officials have all highlighted how the current privacy approach not only works well, but that the FCC’s unworkable proposal of requiring “opt in” for virtually all ISP data uses regardless of sensitivity would have far-reaching ill effects on the internet.

Here are just a few of the reasons why the FTC approach is working well and should be retained:

It’s Consumer-Friendly
Under the FTC privacy approach, all parts of the internet – from ISPs to shopping sites – are held accountable to the same privacy policies when it comes to protecting consumers. It’s that simple.

The FCC proposal, on the other hand, would create separate online privacy protections based on which online service the consumer is interacting with. Because there would be more stringent rules applicable only to ISPs, internet users would have to complete opt-in authorizations for everyday online practices that currently take place without interruption. Sounds cumbersome and unnecessary when the FTC approach has been working for the past 20 years, doesn’t it? Consumers will be frustrated, annoyed and fatigued with all the opt-in requests for non-sensitive data that is routinely used by other online players.

ISPs Don’t Have Access to A lot of Consumer Info
ISPs already have limited visibility into individual consumer internet usage. Think about it – how much time online do you spend using your home wireline ISP? Today, the average internet user has more than six connected devices, many of which are mobile and utilize Wi-Fi hotspots served by multiple ISPs. So no single ISP has access to as much information as a browser, an e-commerce site, or a social media site, which are all accessed by their users from multiple ISPs. But the FCC’s privacy rules would not apply to those sites or browsers. The rise in encrypted data and tools to collect data across devices by a range of large internet companies — who are not ISPs — means that ISPs have no greater (and often much less) visibility over consumer data. It makes no sense to create privacy rules for ISPs that have access to less information than other online services.

It Encourages Competition and Innovation
The FTC privacy model builds in the flexibility that ISPs and other online companies need to continue delivering innovative products and services. The FCC’s proposed rules, however, take away this flexibility for ISPs, limiting their ability to innovate with new data-driven offerings for their customers, and hindering their ability to compete with other internet companies. And complicated new rules always impose new costs that are borne by consumers. Imposing harsh privacy requirements only on ISPs will unfairly harm them, their customers, and continued robust investment in the internet.

Privacy Should Be Based on the Sensitivity of Data
Key survey research reveals that 83 percent of consumers believe privacy protections should be based on the sensitivity of data being used and not on who collects it, whether that be your ISP or Facebook. And this is how the FTC’s privacy regime operates. It’s a consistent privacy policy that applies to all players in the internet world. As the FTC recently told the FCC in comments, the FCC’s proposal is in conflict with the “different expectations and concerns that consumers have for sensitive and non-sensitive data.” Consumers expect to learn about new products and services through marketing or advertising based on non-sensitive data. This means that non-sensitive, routine usage-type information should not be treated the same as a customer’s highly sensitive health records. Currently, non-sensitive customer information is used by ISPs to improve network operations and to create a seamless internet experience. The FCC’s proposed new regime to combine this non-sensitive data with more sensitive personal data would massively disrupt routine ISP operations.

Experience shows that the internet has thrived under a privacy policy that is consistent, consumer-friendly, and provides the necessary protections and flexibility for all actors to deliver an optimal internet experience and innovative new services. And the FTC approach to privacy delivers all of that.

This blog also appeared in CTAM Smartbrief. To sign up, click here.