Federal regulators on Thursday approved tough new rules requiring high-speed internet service providers to get customer permission before using or sharing sensitive personal data, such as web browsing or app usage history and the geographic trail of mobile devices.
Cable and wireless companies that offer broadband service would not have to first get a customers approval before using or sharing any non-sensitive data, such as a persons name, address and type of data plan. Consumers would have to opt out of the sharing of that information.
But such information is limited most customer data will be considered sensitive and internet service providers have not had to get permission to use or share that data.
The privacy regulations approved by the Federal Communications Commission on a partisan 3-2 vote will be phased in over the next two years.
Consumer advocates applauded the agencys action.
As the internet has become ubiquitous, broadband providers have gained a unique, all-encompassing window into our daily lives, said Jonathan Schwantes, senior telecom policy counsel for Consumers Union. We think these new rules are strong, fair and necessary as we live more and more of our lives online.
But the rules were strongly opposed by cable and wireless companies, including AT&T Inc., which wants to expand its media empire and its trove of consumer data with the proposed purchase of Time Warner Inc.
The broadband providers complained that they now will face tougher restrictions on the sharing of valuable customer data than Google Inc., Facebook Inc. and other internet companies.
The FCCs definition of sensitive data also includes the content of communications, Social Security numbers and information about financial activity, health or children.
FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler, a Democrat who proposed the rules, said broadband subscribers will finally be in the drivers seat in deciding how their sensitive personal information is used.
It is the consumers information. It is not the information of the network the consumer hires to deliver that information, Wheeler said. The consumer has the right to make a decision about how her or his information is used.
Wheeler and the two other Democrats who make up the commissions majority, Mignon Clyburn and Jessica Rosenworcel, said consumers have fewer choices about how they access the internet either from their home or via mobile devices and the agency was required to enact new rules for broadband providers under the expanded authority over the companies gained under net neutrality rules adopted last year.
The FCCs rules dont apply to individual websites or social networks, which are overseen by the Federal Trade Commission. Before the net neutrality rules, the FTC also oversaw internet service providers.
The rules approved Thursday were softened from a proposal made by Wheeler in March that would have required customers to opt in before any of their personal information could be shared by their internet service provider.
After complaints from the broadband industry, Wheeler proposed distinguishing between types of information, as the FTC does.
But the communications commission expanded on the FTCs definition of sensitive data, including information about web browsing and app usage.
That was a key reason why the FCCs two Republicans, Ajit Pai and Michael ORielly, said they voted against the new rules. They said broadband providers should not face tougher privacy restrictions than internet giants such as Google and Facebook.
Consumers should not have to be network engineers to understand whos collecting their data, Pai said, calling the FCCs actions corporate favoritism.
ORielly said there were very lucrative categories of consumer information that broadband providers will have more difficulty using and sharing than website operators. And the FCCs privacy rules endanger the advertising-supported online ecosystem, he said.
There is a trade-off, ORielly said. You are willing to trade your information for certain services.
Broadband providers and industry trade groups said that consumer privacy is important but that the FCC went too far.