Do you get annoyed by website ad banners that keeping showing the shoes you browsed on Amazon or the armchairs on Wayfair that are sitting in your shopping cart? The reminders of unpurchased items in your shopping cart are the result of careful targeting based on your search results. Telecommunications companies can do the same thing with the data it collects on your internet usage such a streaming videos or browsing online.
Washington doesn’t think there’s enough protection in place to protect consumer privacy and is planning new regulations over the industry, but opponents don’t think more rules will accomplish this.
The Federal Communication Commission is expected to vote today on new rules about how internet service providers (ISPs, or cable and wireless companies that provide internet service) can use customer data. If approved, ISPs will need your permission before using or sharing several kids of personal data.
As Fox News reports the new regulations do a few things:
- Increase transparency from your internet providers on what kind of information they are collecting, what they are using the data for, and which other companies have access to that data.
- Require that you provide opt-in consent before using and sharing your sensitive information (such as Social Security numbers, health and financial information, and information on your kids), which the FCC broadens to include your web browsing history, app usage, and information on connected mobile devices.
- Beef up cybersecurity measures to protect against data breaches as well as requiring notification to customers of data breaches within one month.
Transparency, control over your private information, and cybersecurity all sound like good things for women who often shop online and search for cures ailments and health issues.
Companies like AT&T, Verizon, Comcast, and Google have vast amounts of information at their disposal which they sometimes sell to outside vendors without the permission of customers. Currently, a different agency, the Federal Trade Commission (FCC), regulates what data they can share with third parties requiring. Consumers must provide opt-ins only if internet companies share their private data.
These providers say that the FTC shouldn’t be sticking its nose in their business because the FCC already oversees them. Furthermore, if the FTC does have new rules, they should dovetail with what’s already in place.
In particular, the group argued that ISPs should be governed by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC)—as they were until 2015. The FTC regulates internet companies such as Google, Facebook, and Amazon.
"Consumers would be better served if the FCC were to defer to the expertise of the FTC in this area, and the two agencies were to pursue a uniform approach,” USTelecom President Walter McCormick said in a statement.
The problem is that the FCC doesn’t see it that way. First, the FCC is flexing new authority over internet providers thanks to net neutrality rules adopted last year. Second, the FCC says that the gap between how internet companies handle consumer data and phone companies handle consumer data is wide:
FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler says the agency, which has rules limiting how phone companies can use consumer data, needs to move forward because there are currently no similar rules in place for ISPs. "That’s a gap that must be closed — consumers who use the network of the 21st century deserve similar protections," he said in a blog post on the FCC site this month.
“Consumers deserve to be able to make informed choices about their privacy and their children’s privacy online," Wheeler said. "After all, it’s your data — shouldn’t you have a say over how it’s used?"
We have to ask, if regulations are already in place, why introduce a whole new set from an entirely different federal agency? That sounds like double the red tape for companies and greater likelihood of conflicting regulations to comply with.
And then there will be unintended consequences that threaten our online experience. American Enterprise Institute scholar Roslyn Layton explains how cumbersome such added regulation has made using the internet in some European countries:
Unfortunately, it appears the FCC may break with the FTC's balanced approach by adding a layer of obligation on broadband providers with an unjustified, "immediate and persistent" opt-in consent requirement to all web browsing information. For anyone who has experienced a European website, now marred with regulatory notices for the "cookie law," will know how annoying and cumbersome it is to click on a pop-up on every single website visit. Many people just leave the website rather than click on the various notices to opt-in. The regulation costs European enterprises billions of dollars annually in IT development costs, not to mention lost sales and traffic.
Common sense regulations that serve to protect consumers can be helpful, but adding unnecessary regulations that could curtail our freedom online, stymie business operations, and slow the growth of technology doesn’t seem like help for Americans but a greater burden.
We’ll see how today’s FTC vote goes. We hope that whatever happens we consumers aren’t the losers.