Opinion

Why Consumers Demand and Need Strong Broadband Privacy Now

As the Federal Communications Commission prepares to vote on its proposed broadband privacy rules, internet service providers that would be covered by them and “edge providers” such as Google, which would not be directly affected but are concerned about the precedent that would be set, are stepping up their opposition.

Advertisers are also upset, fearing loss of revenue.  These companies claim that consumers are satisfied with the current approach to privacy in the United States, which, with few exceptions, leaves it up to businesses to decide what personal information they will collect about us, how they will use it, and what control, if any, we will have.

However, as poll after poll shows, consumers are not satisfied with the status quo.  Studies by the Pew Research Center confirm that the vast majority of Americans have strong views about the importance of privacy in their daily interactions.  In a 2015 Pew survey, 90 percent of respondents said that it is important to control what information is collected about them, and 93 percent said that it is important for them to control who can obtain this information.

Another Pew poll in 2014 revealed that only 9 percent of consumers feel that they have ”a lot of control” over the collection of their personal data, and few are confident that this information will be kept private and secure. Moreover, a large majority worry about how this information will be used. A recent study by Professor Joseph Turow and his colleagues at the University of Pennsylvania found that 72 percent of Americans reject the idea that “what companies know about me from my behavior online cannot hurt me.”

That concern is well-founded.  For instance, some major auto insurers are using information about consumers’ shopping habits and other factors unrelated to driving risks to determine the prices that they will charge them for coverage.  Increasingly, the products or services that consumers are offered are ancillary to the real commodity, their personal data.

Online, offline, and across platforms, companies collect information about individuals including their financial situations, health conditions, sexual orientations, relationships, affiliations, interests, and political positions. They then analyze these data and combine them into digital dossiers that the companies and their affiliates and business partners use themselves or sell to other companies. As Target’s efforts to predict if women were pregnant in order to market to them illustrated, even seemingly innocuous information such as whether consumers have purchased scent-free lotion and cotton balls can be used to infer things about them that are very sensitive and that they may wish to keep private.

Some critics of the FCC’s proposal also argue that the rules will confuse consumers because they will not apply to social media sites, search services, data brokers, and others that are not subject to the agency’s jurisdiction. We reject that argument. A strong broadband privacy rule from the FCC would be a critical first step in the right direction. Consumers will understand and welcome the fact that they will have more control over the collection and use of their personal information by their broadband internet service providers. They will then demand that others in the online ecosystem respect their privacy in the same way. The prospect of broad privacy protections, not concern about consumers, is the real reason for the strident opposition to the FCC rules.

Stephen Brobeck is executive director and Susan Grant is director of consumer protection and privacy at the Consumer Federation of America, an association of more than 250 non-profit consumer groups that, since 1968, has sought to advance the consumer interest through research, education, and advocacy.

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