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October 31 2016

Feds Green Light Added Website Privacy Rules

Patrice L. Onwuka

Washington has added new hurdles and more red tape for online marketing in the name of protecting your privacy.

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) approved a new rule forcing internet providers to ask permission from customers before collecting and using their personal information.

In a partisan vote, the commissioners approved the rule 3-2, and granted the FCC new regulatory authority over companies that are currently overseen by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). Yes, that means double the red tape.

Providers of fixed and mobile broadband – think Verizon and Google – will now have to secure opt-in consent from you before using your data for marketing purposes. The data we’re talking about includes web browsing history, app usage, health and financial information, information about your children, and content of online communications. Customers must also be notified how their information is being used and who it’s being shared with.

Consumer advocates are heralding the new rules as returning control over your personal information to you, which at first blush sounds reasonable. The Democratic commissioners who voted to approve these measures explained their support:

"Consumers care deeply about their privacy and so should we," said Commissioner Mignon Clyburn Clyburn, who joined fellow Democrats Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel and FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler in approving the measure with a 3-2 vote at the agency's monthly meeting.

Wheeler described the adoption of new consumer privacy rules as a "common sense step ... because before today there were no protections."

However, the new op-ti requirements will likely usher in a different browsing experience from the one to which Americans are currently accustomed. Once the rules are published, online providers will scramble to figure out how to interrupt them with regard to user experience with opt-in requirements and notifications.

"Consumers will be bombarded with opt-in notice requirements every time they search online, however innocuous the data they seek might be," said the Association of National Advertisers in a statement. The group said it planned either a court challenge or congressional action to reverse the FCC's rulemaking.

As tech experts note, Europe’s “cookie law” for privacy has led to slow websites with annoying pop-ups on every website someone visits.

In addition, there’s concern that internet providers may scale back the valuable offers and discounts. That’s important for families who are trying to stay connected on a budget and for competition in the broadband world.

The two Republican FCC commissioners who voted against the rule are concerned that the FCC overstepped its authority in flexing regulatory muscles over broadband companies:

The two Republican Commissioners, Ajit Pai and Michael O'Rielly, expressed concerns that the FCC had overreached its authority and confused the issue. For instance, the FCC's privacy rules differ from how the FTC handles the privacy of information collected by Web sites, apps and other Internet destinations. "In creating this disparate system of regulation, (the FCC) is both confusing consumers and likely to create an unlevel playing field," Pai said.

Opt-in requirements could cause consumers to miss out on potential features and developments under the new opt-in requirements, O'Rielly said. "Broadband providers will be reluctant to extend, and may even forgo, valuable offers and discounts that consumers would want for fear," he said.

Consumer protection is a noble goal. Moms and dads surely don’t want information about their kids landing in the wrong hands. The ad banners reminding us of unpurchased items in a shopping cart can feel creepy – as though our web browser is tracking our movements and using them against us.

A common-sense approach is the right approach if warranted.

The concern is that new regulations are unwarranted by the FCC when the FTC is already regulating activity. It seems the FCC is doubling up on rules already in place by the FTC. Once they’ve reached into this area, they are unlikely to scale back their efforts. What happens when FCC and FTC rules come into conflict?

Add to this the change in user experience and customers will be left wondering if the added red tape makes things any better than before.

Independent Women's Forum is an educational 501(c)(3) dedicated to developing and advancing policies that aren’t just well intended, but actually enhance people’s freedom, choices, and opportunities. IWF is the sister organization of the Independent Women’s Voice.​
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