Oct 22, 2021 - Technology

FTC warns of internet providers' data trove

Illustration of a woman looking out a window with open curtains build into a computer screen

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Internet service providers like Comcast or AT&T are able to invade users' privacy just as aggressively as digital advertising giants like Google and Facebook, the Federal Trade Commission said in a report Thursday.

Why it matters: The report signals that any privacy rules the FTC imposes won't just place Big Tech giants in the agency's crosshairs — broadband providers could find their own practices targeted as well.

"ISPs today have access to not only what websites you visit and your location at any given moment, but also the content of the emails you write, the videos you stream and the devices you wear," FTC Chair Lina Khan said during the agency's meeting to review the report.

Driving the news: The FTC in 2019 began an inquiry into the data collection and use practices of six of the country's largest internet service providers — AT&T, Verizon, Charter, Comcast, T-Mobile and Google Fiber. The subsequent report found that some ISPs are using consumers' data to target ads, and:

  • ISPs amass a vast trove of sensitive and highly-granular data, and use it in some cases to create advertising segments based on race or sexual orientation, including "viewership — gay" and "Asian Achievers."
  • The choices ISPs offer consumers over how their data is used are often "illusory" because of problematic and confusing interfaces that nudge users toward data-sharing options.
  • The privacy concerns at play in the digital advertising ecosystem can be magnified by ISPs because the companies have access to their customers' unencrypted internet traffic, they are able to verify the identity of their subscribers and track them across websites and geographic locations, and they can combine browsing history with information they obtain from their other products and services.

What they're saying: Khan said the "hyper-granular" dossiers that ISPs collect could enable potentially illegal forms of discrimination.

  • "The collection and use by ISPs of data on race and ethnicity raises the risk of digital redlining and other practices that undermine civil rights," Khan said.
  • "Although enforcers must scrutinize these practices, there are serious questions around whether the type of persistent commercial tracking we see employed by internet service providers and other market participants across the economy creates inherent risks."

The other side: In response to the FTC's study, USTelecom, a broadband providers trade group, called on Congress to enact a "national, comprehensive federal privacy framework that puts consumers first and applies uniformly to all companies operating online.”

  • Comcast noted in a 2019 blog post that it doesn't track the websites or apps its customers use through their internet connection. "Because we don’t track that information, we don’t use it to build a profile about you and we have never sold that information to anyone."
  • "Charter has long called for strong national online privacy rules based on an opt-in approach that protects consumers’ privacy across the internet ecosystem," a Charter spokesperson said in a statement.
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