ACLU, Others Urge FCC Privacy Rules for Broadband Providers

More than 50 privacy, digital rights and consumer groups are urging the Federal Communications Commission to propose rules “as soon as possible” that would protect consumers’ information from being collected and shared by broadband providers without consent. 

“As the role of the Internet in the daily lives of consumers increases, this means an increased potential for surveillance. This can create a chilling effect on speech and increase the potential for discriminatory practices derived from data use,” the groups wrote to FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler. The groups said broadband providers' role as "Internet gatekeepers gives them a comprehensive view of consumer behavior." 

An FCC spokeswoman did not comment on the groups' letter, but referred to recent statements from Wheeler, who has said he plans to address the issue soon. At the commission’s open meeting in November, Wheeler said privacy issues related to broadband are “something we are looking at right now.” 

The letter to Wheeler was signed by the American Civil Liberties Union and digital rights advocates Access, the Center for Democracy and Technology, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, Public Knowledge, and Free Press. 

The FCC has expanded power to apply privacy rules to Internet service providers after it voted in February 2015 to reclassify and regulate Internet services under Title II of the 1934 Communications Act (PL 73-416), in which Congress granted the FCC power to oversee telecommunications. 

The FCC says its net neutrality rules, which took effect in June, are designed to prevent Internet service providers from discriminating between content creators. Broadband providers argue the move was an overreach, and they brought a lawsuit asking a federal appeals court to overturn the rules. A three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit heard oral arguments in the case in December, and a decision is expected early this year.

Supporters of the net neutrality rules say the FCC can now step in to protect the privacy of broadband consumers in addition to the Federal Trade Commission’s work in the arena. The FCC and FTC signed a memorandum of understanding in November to formalize their cooperation on consumer protection, share data about consumer complaints and take on joint enforcement when necessary. 

“Congress made strong privacy laws for telecom users, and the FCC’s decision to treat broadband as a telecom service again restores these protections for broadband users,” Free Press Policy Director Matt Wood said in a statement. “Even though technology evolves, people still need and deserve the safeguards and benefits of timeless common-carrier principles that prevent network gatekeepers from violating their rights.”

The groups also asked the FCC to craft rules that would require broadband providers to disclose their data collection practices and provide notice to consumers of data breaches.