Comcast, AT&T, and Verizon published blog posts this morning responding to the backlash they’ve been receiving since Congress voted to revoke a strong set of internet privacy rules that would have prevented internet providers from using or sharing their customers’ web browsing history without permission. The companies take different approaches when responding, but the takeaway from all three is that they think customers should stop worrying.
Comcast takes a friendlier approach and actually makes some basic commitments to customers. “We do not sell our broadband customers’ individual web browsing history,” writes Gerard Lewis, Comcast’s chief privacy officer. “We did not do it before the FCC’s rules were adopted, and we have no plans to do so.”
“The Congressional action had zero effect.”
Of course, “no plans to do so,” is not the same thing as “we will never do so,” but Comcast is largely indicating here what we’ve suspected: that people’s worst fears — ISPs letting people buy their web history — isn’t likely to happen for any number of reasons.
That’s helpful. But Comcast isn’t making commitments that’ll make it easier for customers to protect their data from being used. The rest of its blog post largely consists of Lewis explaining the weaker privacy rules the FCC is now reverting to in terms that make them sound much tougher than they actually are. He does note, however, that Comcast offers an option for customers to opt out of seeing its targeted ads.
Verizon’s approach is similar. The company’s chief privacy officer, Karen Zacharia, offers a fairly clear statement: “Verizon does not sell the personal web browsing history of our customers,” she writes. “We don’t do it and that’s the bottom line.”
Zacharia also notes that Verizon actively gives customers a choice to participate in its ad programs that rely on web browsing data — that is, customers have to opt in, instead of opt out.
Verizon says consumers will benefit by not having these privacy rules
But Zacharia also makes the same arguments about the removal of these privacy rules being good for consumers. “Consumers benefit and innovations flourish when there is one consistent consumer privacy framework that applies to all internet companies and users in the internet ecosystem,” she writes. “That is what Congress voted for this week.”
But consumers don’t sit around thinking about privacy frameworks — internet providers do. And the one that the US is returning to includes much more leeway for internet providers and, despite what they’ll tell you, actually puts them at an advantage over companies like Facebook and Google when it comes to collecting data.
AT&T’s response has the same message at its core, but the tone couldn’t be more different: it’s standoffish and argumentative, with AT&T’s public policy chief, Bob Quinn, trying to explain why nothing has changed and the FCC was wrong in the first place.
“The Congressional action had zero effect on the privacy protections afforded to consumers,” Quinn writes. “It is also flatly untrue that the Congressional action eliminated all legal protections governing use of consumer information.”
AT&T again complains that the privacy rules were unfair to internet providers
Most of the post is spent complaining about the FCC’s approach under Obama, and Quinn even gets a dig in at Title II reclassification, indicating that AT&T would like to see it reversed.
So what privacy rights does AT&T say its customers have? Quinn doesn’t actually get into that in the blog post, aside from saying that existing statutes still offer them protection. That’s true, to a point. But the existing statute is distinctly weaker than what the new rules would have offered. Like Comcast said, “sensitive” information is still protected, but that only includes very specific categories of information.
Trump has yet to sign the resolution reversing the FCC’s privacy order, but he’s expected to do so in the coming days. On Thursday, White House spokesperson Sean Spicer said that killing the rules “will allow service providers to be treated fairly and consumer protection and privacy concerns to be reviewed on an equal playing field.”
For more on what the death of these privacy rules will and won’t allow internet providers to do, you can read our story breaking down what it means for your privacy.
Disclosure: Comcast is an investor in Vox Media, The Verge’s parent company.
Update March 31st, 2:04PM ET: This story has been updated to include comments from Verizon.