Understanding The FCC’s New Online Privacy Rules

November 1, 2016 • Devin Partida


Many of us use the internet without a passing thought about the privacy of our personal data. Recently, though, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) moved forward with a previously proposed decision to require internet service providers (ISPs) to get users’ consent before accessing or sharing their sensitive information. Let’s take a look at what this means for internet users and how it may affect you and online security.

What Is Considered Sensitive Information?

The FCC’s decision outlines the type of information that’s considered sensitive, and some of it should come as no surprise. For example, an ISP needs to get your permission before sharing details about your health, children, finances or precise geo-location. A Social Security number is also off-limits without consent.

Other types of sensitive data protected by this rule include historical information about how you use apps, your browsing history and the content of your online communications.

What About Non-Sensitive Information?

Based on the above insight, the most likely question now on your mind is, “What kind of information isn’t sensitive?” It basically includes very simplistic details, some of which is already widely distributed with your knowledge, such as your email and IP addresses, the amount of bandwidth you use and the service tier you subscribe to through the ISP.

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Separate Rules for Three Categories of Information

According to an FCC press release about the new internet laws, usage and sharing specifics for customer information falls into three categories. In addition to the affirmative opt-in requirement for sensitive information, ISPs can share the previously described non-sensitive information unless a customer specifically opts out.

There is a final category that describes exceptions to those rules. For example, there are certain cases where a customer’s consent is assumed, particularly when such permission is required before an ISP can provide service. An ISP is also not mandated to obtain further consent for matters related to billing or collections.

How You Could Be Affected by the New Rules

Since news broke about the privacy rules, tech experts have been eagerly weighing in with their thoughts. Supporters say the updated legislation is welcome because it modernizes the way we handle communications by taking online correspondence into account.

In the same way we can send a letter to a friend and not worry about someone intercepting it before it arrives, these rules prevent an ISP from tracking our browsing habits without consent and selling that data to advertisers.

A statement from an FCC commissioner who voted in favor of the tightened privacy rules mentioned that 91 percent of consumers feel they have lost control of how companies collect and use their data. The commissioner said this ruling empowers consumers to control access and usage of their personal information. Although his sentiment seems heartfelt, some people believe these new privacy rules aren’t so helpful after all, unless changes are made to the ways consumers provide consent.

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Whether you’ve purchased a Kindle book or signed up for Spotify recently, you’ve probably agreed to a lengthy terms of service agreement before finalizing the transaction. Since some of those documents span dozens of pages, many people just hastily scroll to the end and click the “I Accept” button without even skimming the content.

You can probably relate. But, to really take control over how ISPs use your information, you’ll likely have to get into the habit of enduring several minutes of scrolling through legal jargon and doing your best to truly understand what you’re consenting to, rather than just blindly providing acceptance.

Some analysts worry ISPs might just bury the section about data consent deep into service agreements, reducing the chance consumers will actually take the time to read it. If the FCC were to enforce a rule whereby ISPs had to outline data usage specifics within a brief, user-friendly document, it’s easy to see why this new ruling would likely have an even greater impact.

For now, unless consumers pore over a wordy legal agreement, they’re likely quickly consenting to their sensitive information being used by ISPs. Even if people read over the section that details data use policies, but do not agree to it, there’s always the possibility ISPs could stipulate that people who don’t agree won’t be eligible to receive internet service.

Although the FCC’s ruling on online privacy may be beneficial, the truth should come out once we start to see how ISPs communicate the new privacy rules. Depending on how that goes, you may see few or no changes in how you use the internet, and probably no shortage of multi-page usage agreements.