Mobile Future

Protecting Consumer Privacy Online

In our always-connected world of ubiquitous data, consumer privacy continues to be a hot topic in Washington and across the country.  Internet users want — and deserve — to know that our sensitive and private information is safe and secure, regardless of which company, app, service, or public institution handles that information.

There is a widely held, but erroneous view that Internet service providers have broader access to this private information compared to other companies in the Internet ecosystem.  But two important new contributions to the privacy conversation released this week set the facts straight and offer a thoughtful roadmap for protecting our sensitive information, regardless of which type of service or provider may handle it.

First, a paper published Monday by respected privacy expert Peter Swire, “Online Privacy and ISPs,” analyzes how different types of companies access and use consumer information across the Internet ecosystem. While there is a false assumption that Internet service providers have complete and unfettered access to users information, the report corrects the record by laying out the facts showing how ISP access to user data is neither comprehensive nor unique.

With so much at stake for consumers, it was also good to see a new proposed privacy framework released yesterday outlining a set of principles developed by a diverse range of companies and stakeholders to maintain consistency across the Internet ecosystem for securing consumer data. The proposal advances a unified set of guidelines for all companies handling sensitive data to help keep consumers protected, engaged and well informed.

If various types of Internet companies are subject to different rules on how to protect user data, it will be extremely confusing for consumers. With technology lines blurring, consumers no longer see a meaningful distinction between companies which carry Internet traffic and the websites and apps we rely on to connect the dots in our everyday lives when it comes to protecting our privacy.   What consumers want — and need — is not a hodgepodge of bespoke rules and differing regulations governing various parts of our connected lives; we want consistency, uniformity, simplicity and transparency.

Today, the Federal Trade Commission already has oversight on privacy issues. If the courts find that the Federal Communications Commission also should have the authority to regulate broadband privacy, the FCC must adopt smart, flexible rules that are harmonized with the FTC’s existing framework to avoid confusion and overlap, as well as ensure that consumer data is uniformly protected.

Whether at the edge or core of the Internet — companies compete vigorously to provide an array of choices to consumers and will continue to respond to and anticipate our changing preferences, demands and usage. To help consumers understand the rules and feel confident that our sensitive information is protected, policymakers must ensure that all players in the ecosystem abide by the same rules.  What we need is a uniform gold standard for our nation’s privacy policies  — not a double standard.