New FCC rules will tighten the reins on ISP tracking of customer usage

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Internet service providers’ ability to track what you do online will soon become much more difficult. The Federal Communications Commission released proposed new regulations Monday that could all but stop the practice in, and compel ISPs to allow consumers to either opt out, or opt in, otherwise.

Consumers have complained for awhile about non-consensual tracking by ISPs, even in cases where doing so was not necessary to provide better service to all customers. Most of the time, these customers had no idea they were being tracked, nor did they have a way to opt out.

“If anything, privacy issues are even more important when consumers use broadband connections to reach the Internet,” FCC chair Tom Wheeler said in a statement. “When consumers sign up for Internet service, they shouldn’t have to sign away their right to privacy.”

Under the new proposed rules, only information directly related to maintaining or improving service would be allowed without customer consent. Any marketing for communications-related services from the ISP or its affiliates must allow the user to opt out, while any other uses would be strictly opt-in.

Why so strict? Wheeler sees privacy issues when it comes to ISPs a bit differently. With websites, we have the choice to not use the service if we don’t agree with how it uses our data. “Broadband service is different,” he argues. “Once we subscribe to an ISP—for our home or for our smartphone—most of us have little flexibility to change our mind or avoid that network rapidly.”

While these rules do put a significant constraint on how ISPs can collect data about you, they do not limit how your information is shared. For example, government surveillance is exempt, as are “edge services” — Twitter, Facebook and so forth. All the proposed rules do is make sure you know that it’s happening.

ISPs are sure to attempt to block the rules, and they still have time. At this point the rules are merely “proposed,” so there could be changes before the new rules take effect. However, a majority of FCC commissioners favor the proposal, so there’s unlikely to be substantial changes to the bill that would dramatically change the agency’s stance on ISP privacy.