Privacy SOS

How the ‘net neutrality’ vote might help advance consumer privacy online

Last week's FCC vote to reclassify broadband as a telecommunications service under Title II of federal communications law gives the regulatory body more power to ensure companies like Comcast and AT&T don't censor, slow down, or charge a premium for the delivery of certain internet content. The net neutrality victory substantially advances the First Amendment in the digital age.

But according to some experts, the FCC neutrality vote might also have huge, positive privacy implications. The LA Times' David Lazarus reports:

At issue is Section 222 of the Communications Act. It requires that telecom companies protect customers' "proprietary information," such as how you use their services.

It defines such information as relating to "the quantity, technical configuration, type, destination, location and amount of use of a telecommunications service subscribed to by any customer."

It also applies to information "that is made available to the carrier by the customer solely by virtue of the carrier-customer relationship."

In the context of telephones, for which the provision was created, Section 222 is relatively benign. It empowers a telecom company to market different services to you based on, say, how many long-distance calls you make.

In the context of the Internet, however, Section 222 takes on more sweeping significance, covering almost everything you might do online, from the sites you visit and searches you perform to the things you buy.

The FCC has indicated that it will include consumer privacy protections under Section 222 as applied to broadband. But the devil will be in the details, and as Lazarus writes, those are far from worked out.

Also late last week, the White House released a long awaited draft bill to deal with consumer privacy issues related to 'big data' online. Privacy groups and even the FTC have criticized the proposal as weak, and some say, potentially even harmful.

Meanwhile, Massachusetts Senator Ed Markey plans to introduce a separate bill, which he says will allow consumers to access and correct data held about them, as well as to stop companies from selling or sharing their information for advertising purposes.

© 2021 ACLU of Massachusetts.