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FCC proposes new restrictions on how broadband providers share data

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As of today, there's a new set of rules for how your internet provider can collect and share information about you. In a 3-2 vote, the Federal Communications Commission agreed to propose new privacy rules for broadband providers like Comcast and Verizon, as part of the FCC's new powers under Section 222 of Title II. The proposal will now enter a comment period, in which providers and other stakeholders will weigh in, before the commission can vote on whether to approve it.

If adopted, the proposed rules would place significant new restrictions on how data can be collected and shared by broadband providers. Crucially, consumers would be required to opt in for any data-sharing that is not related to communications services, and more transparency would be required in how the data is shared. As FCC Chairman Wheeler described it in an interview with The Verge earlier this year, "they’re collecting data on me and they ought to be telling me what they’re collecting and what it's being used for."

"our providers can track our physical location throughout the day in real time"

Under the proposed rules, providers would have implicit permission to collect any data necessary for providing internet service, typically including name, IP address and other basic subscriber information. Unless the customer opts out, providers would also be able to collect and share data specifically for the purpose of marketing other communications services. Any other use of the data, like sharing it with third-party marketing programs, would require explicit consent from the customer. The rules would also institute new transparency and data security requirements.

In an accompanying statement, Wheeler argued that service providers should face heavier restrictions on data collection than the online ad platforms run by Google and Facebook, which currently collect the bulk of the marketing data on the internet.

Most of us understand that the social media we join and the websites we visit collect our personal information, and use it for advertising purposes. Seldom, however, do we stop to realize that our ISP is also collecting information about us. What’s more, we can choose not to visit a website or not to sign up for a social network, or we can choose to drop one and switch to another in milliseconds. But broadband service is different. Once we subscribe to an Internet Service Provider—for our home or for our smartphone—most of us have little flexibility to change our mind or avoid that network rapidly.

Our ISPs handles all of our network traffic. That means an ISP has a broad view of all of its customers’ unencrypted online activity – when we are online, the websites we visit, and the apps we use. If we have mobile devices -- and I have had a mobile device since 1983 – our providers can track our physical location throughout the day in real time. Even when data is encrypted, our broadband providers can piece together significant amounts of information about us – including private information such as a chronic medical condition or financial problems – based on our online activity.

The new rules could pose problems for cable providers looking to leverage subscriber data in the web advertising business, one possible result of a number of recent investments and acquisitions. After acquiring AOL last year, for example, Verizon announced its plan to share subscriber data with AOL's advertisers. That plan might now require an opt-in from customers. The broadband provider Comcast has also made significant investments in both Buzzfeed and Vox Media, which is the parent company of The Verge.