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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.

Go deeper

FTC launches supply chain disruption study

Photo illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios. Photo: An Rong Xu/Washington Post via Getty Images

The Federal Trade Commission announced Monday it is launching a study into supply chain disruptions across the country.

Why it matters: As FTC Chair, Lina M. Khan is fiercely focused on competition issues and how they impact consumers. Issuing this inquiry makes it clear she is seeking to illuminate how competition may factor into the supply chain.

What's happening: The FTC is sending inquiries to Walmart, Kroger, Amazon, C&S Wholesale Grocers, Associated Wholesale Grocers, McLane Co., Procter & Gamble, Tyson Foods and Kraft Heinz.

  • The inquiries, due 45 days from the date received, ask the companies to give information on factors disrupting the ability to ship products, the impact on prices, which suppliers are most affected, what is being done to alleviate disruptions and other issues.
  • The FTC is using Section 6(b) of the FTC Act, which allows the agency to conduct studies and gather information about business practices without a specific law enforcement purpose.
  • The move comes as supply chain disruptions get attention from the Biden White House and retailers struggle to fulfill orders ahead of the holiday season due to global strains and shortages of workers.

What they're saying: "I am hopeful the FTC’s new 6(b) study will shed light on market conditions and business practices that may have worsened these disruptions or led to asymmetric effects," Khan said in a release.

Axios Visuals Deep Dive: Pandemic eating

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

A food revolution began pre-pandemic and COVID has only accelerated that. See how America's food industry is transforming, from farm to your table.

Abrams’ campaign manager rules out 2024 run if she wins governor's race

Photo: Jessica McGowan/Getty Images

In her first major interview since the official announcement, Stacey Abrams' campaign manager Lauren Groh-Wargo quashed speculation that the Georgia Democrat would interrupt a theoretical gubernatorial term to run for president in 2024.

Why it matters: Abrams' name has come up repeatedly as a top 2024 Democratic contender given President Joe Biden's age and Vice President Kamala Harris's low favorability rating.

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