FTC Orders Broadband Firms to Reveal Data Collection Info

The Federal Trade Commission ordered Comcast, Verizon, AT&T and other broadband providers to file reports within 45 days on why and how they collect consumer data and if they allow consumers to block such collection. The federal agency’s chair Joseph Simons said the move was “the first shot out of the box” in an investigation into the collection and use of personal data, with the potential aim of creating enforcement rules and helping Congress develop legislation on data privacy. Simons also promised more action.

The Wall Street Journal reports that the FTC also contacted Google Fiber, T-Mobile US and Cellco Partnership doing business as Verizon Wireless. The FTC’s investigation “comes at a time when federal regulators already have been ramping up their scrutiny of privacy practices among major players in the electronic data markets amid growing public concern.”

Simons noted in a speech that, “consumers often don’t understand what information is being collected about them.” “Further compounding this lack of understanding is the fact that many of the companies at the heart of this ecosystem operate behind the scenes and without much consumer awareness,” he said.

Simons, a Republican, “in response to a question from Sen. John Thune (R-South Dakota),” said the reports could provide transparency about “the data practices of large technology companies.” Rohit Chopra, a Democratic member of the five-member commission, suggested that the FTC’s orders “only scratch the surface on what the public needs to know,” later stating that “more needs to be done to confront possible competition problems and automated bias in big tech, among other issues.”

The action also draws attention to the fact that “while much of the privacy-regulation debate has focused on web giants like Facebook and Google so far, broadband carriers also hold vast information about consumers and their web usage patterns.”

In 2017, Congress overturned “an Obama-era regulation that required telecommunications firms to get customers’ permission to market their app and web-browsing history to third parties.” Cable companies, facing competition from streaming content, now hope to use that data to launch personalized ads and, in other ways, are “aggressively seeking ways to capitalize on their broadband business and their customer data.”

At WPP’s media agency conglomerate GroupM, global president of business intelligence Brian Wieser noted that, “every participant in advertising, let alone digital advertising, has to consider whether or not their actions would pass the Page Six test: whether or not an action described in its least charitable light would look good,” referring to The New York Post’s gossip column. “What’s legal and what a consumer might expect can be two different things,” he concluded.