For the first time since the US Federal Communications Commission (FCC) repealed net neutrality last year, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) is moving to exercise oversight over broadband providers, with a focus on the collection and use of personal data.
The move comes as data privacy issues have become a focus for debate in the House of Representatives in the wake of major privacy scandals like Facebook’s Cambridge Analytica scandal.
Recent content acquisitions by Verizon and AT&T have raised concerns about enabling big-data analysis to identify users individually. Such acquisitions leave users vulnerable to privacy violations by both legal and illegal entities.
During the Obama administration, the FCC had instituted “opt-in” rules for data collection, requiring explicit consent from users. But, under the Trump administration, they overturned those rules in 2017.
With the FCC no longer administering oversight, the FTC is the next logical government entity to protect consumers from data violations, not only from giants like Facebook and Google but also broadband providers. These providers have access to an enormous amount of user data, much of which can be aggregated to identify users and shared with third parties without consumers’ knowledge.
This data is generally used for targeted, personalized advertising. But in addition to the potential neglect of individual privacy, a collection of user identities, if stolen, can turn up for sale on the “Dark Web,” placing the identities of thousands or even millions at risk.
In a press release on Tuesday, the FTC announced that it had “issued orders” to seven broadband providers to provide details on their collection and monetization of user information, a process that until now has been largely hidden from users. The letters were sent, the FTC said, to “AT&T Inc., AT&T Mobility LLC, Comcast Cable Communications doing business as Xfinity, Google Fiber Inc., T-Mobile US Inc., Verizon Communications Inc., and Cellco Partnership doing business as Verizon Wireless.”
The FTC said the move included requests for the categories of data collected and whether it is shared with third parties; whether the information is “aggregated, anonymized or deidentified”; copies of the privacy notices shared with consumers; whether or not the consumer is offered a choice about the data collection practices; and the access the consumer has to the data collected on him or her.
The letter states:
“The FTC is initiating this study to better understand Internet service providers’ privacy practices in light of the evolution of telecommunications companies into vertically integrated platforms that also provide advertising-supported content. Under current law, the FTC has the ability to enforce against unfair and deceptive practices involving Internet service providers.”
Verizon and AT&T have acknowledged receipt of the letters from the FTC and said they are reviewing them and will respond accordingly.