How Much Personal Data Do You Give Your ISP?

The Chairman of the FCC is proposing significant new rules that allow consumers to better protect their data from ISPs.

This week Tom Wheeler, the Chairman of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), proposed rules that would require Internet service providers (ISP) to obtain the consent of their customers before the broadband provider can use or share user data. Similar to how the phone company is limited in how it can use information about your telephone usage, Wheeler argues that ISPs should be required to do the same, or at least seek the permission of their customers before using their data.


“Today, I’m proposing to my colleagues that we empower consumers to ensure they have control over how their information is used by their Internet service provider,” he writes in an opinion piece for Re/code. “Every broadband consumer should have the right to know what information is being collected and how it is used. Every broadband consumer should have the right to choose how their information bits are used and shared. And every consumer should be confident that their information is being securely protected.”

For most of us, the Internet provider we use from home knows a lot about our unencrypted browsing habits. They know the websites we visit, when we visit them, and how long we stay there. And even when our browsing is encrypted, there are ways for the ISP to determine our online activity. To be sure, there are applications that help hide our online behavior. Anonymizing apps like Tor for example. Unfortunately, by simply using and accessing the Internet through our home Internet service provider or through our mobile phones we end up sharing lots of personal, private data.

Indeed, what Wheeler is arguing is that even if ISPs can figure out who we are and what we’re interested in based on our browsing habits, we should at least have a say in how that data is used. We should be able to control how that data is shared with marketers and others who would use it to sell us things.

“ISPs would be able to use and share customer information with their affiliates to market other communications-related services unless you “opt out” and ask them not to,” says Wheeler. “All other uses and sharing of your personal data would require your affirmative “opt-in” consent.”

This idea of “opt-in” consent is significant.  To be clear, under Wheeler’s proposal “ISPs would be able to use information about where you want to go on the Internet in order to deliver the broadband service you signed up for, just as phone companies can use the phone numbers you dial to connect you to your calls. They would also be able to use customer information for other purposes that are consistent with customer expectations; for example, to market higher-speed connections and to bill for their services.” But, for all other uses, you’d have to opt-in and allow the ISP to use your data for those cases.

It’s uncertain where this will end up. On March 31, FCC commissioners will vote to seek comment on the proposal. After that, Americans will have the opportunity to weigh in and add their comments about the proposition. What is evident, however, is that for many people, including Wheeler, our data is our data and shouldn’t be controlled by anyone but us.

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