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Privacy Update Doesn’t Go Far Enough to Suit Cable

WASHINGTON — Cable operators (and Internet service providers overall) could be forgiven for experiencing some déjà vu after Federal Communications Commission chairman Tom Wheeler unveiled his professed pivot toward an FTC model of broadband privacy.

While billed as such, the new policy appeared to NCTA – The Internet & Television Association and others to be another case of taking the sleeves off a vest.

The new item purports to gauge how to protect broadband customer privacy based on the sensitivity of the data, as the Federal Trade Commission does, rather than requiring user opt-in for most sharing of their information with third parties.

But the breadth of what the FCC is classifying as sensitive amounts to about the same thing, critics said.

Key are the item’s definition of Web browsing history, app usage history and geolocation information as sensitive information requiring ISPs to get opt-in consent from users to share. That is the information many targeted marketers use to tailor ads to Web users.

The FCC will not allow ISPs to require sharing of user information as a quid pro quo for service, but ISPs can offer incentives to share information. Wheeler early on suggested that as a way to let users put a value on that data. But the FCC can look at those offers on a case-by-case basis.

NCTA had proposed a more FTClike model to better harmonize the regulation of ISP data sharing with edge providers, like Google or Facebook. Privacy guidelines for those providers fall under the FTC, and edge providers are under no obligation to get user consent for sharing their data.

Senior FCC officials explained the difference is the “special” relationship ISPs have with their customers, because ISPs have a window on everywhere customers go on the Web.

NCTA recommended that if Wheeler stays the present course, the other commissioners should opt out because the new approach “departs from past FTC practice in ways that violate principles of fair competition and deny consumers the benefit of a consistent approach to online privacy protection.”

As for déjà vu: After NCTA suggested an apps-based approach to set-tops instead of the FCC’s “unlock the box” proposal, the chairman pivoted toward that approach — but with elements that troubled ISPs enough that they would not support it.