A coalition of privacy groups including the American Civil Liberties Union, the Electronic Privacy Information Center, and New America's Open Technology Institute wrote to the Federal Communications Commission Monday calling on the telecom regulator to limit how broadband and cable providers use personal data about viewing and browsing habits.
"ISPs currently play a leading role in the complex ecosystem of online behavioral
advertising and related forms of data-driven, targeted marketing," the groups warned. "These companies are showing an increased interest in monetizing the data they collect about their customers, and they are leveraging their position as gatekeepers to the Internet to harness this data in powerful and invasive ways."
Verizon has in place sophisticated ad-targeting and consumer-tracking technology for mobile users, and Comcast has said it would share cable set-top box analytics data with its NBCUniversal content division, the groups said.
"Comcast is able to harvest 'terabytes of unstructured data' from the set-top boxes it controls, which it then enriches with demographic information to provide data
'more meaningful to advertisers,' including those targeted via 'Comcast’s IP-based systems,'" the groups wrote.
And even when consumers connect to websites through encrypted connections, Internet providers can still track which sites are visited when, potentially revealing data like "when a user has recently become employed or given birth to a child," the groups warned.
They called upon the FCC to adopt stricter rules than those often imposed by the Federal Trade Commission, which they said typically emphasizes notifying consumers of privacy practices.
"Research shows that consumers rarely read privacy policies; when they do, these complex legal documents are difficult to understand," the groups wrote. "Moreover, emphasizing notice or disclosure favors the interests of businesses over consumers and fails to establish meaningful privacy safeguards."
The FCC has lately expressed an interest in adopting privacy rules for broadband providers. A group of telecom industry groups, including the American Cable Association and CTIA—the Wireless Association, sent their own letter last week to FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler urging the commission to adopt policies similar to those now favored by the FTC for other industries.
"Consumers should have consistent and predictable privacy protections for the information they deem private and sensitive, no matter how or with whom they share it," the industry groups wrote. "Consumers also will benefit from a consistent privacy framework that promotes the emergence of new business models and innovative uses of data that foster increased consumer choice and service customization."