As we spend more of our time and money on the Internet, the big companies responsible for connecting you to it are becoming more interested in using your browsing history and online habits in the same way that Google or Facebook does — turning that valuable behavioral information into ad dollars and using the data to power new online services to compete with Web companies.
Now, Internet providers are working to thwart a federal proposal aimed at enhancing your online privacy, in the latest battle between industry and government regulators over the future of the Web.
The proposal from the Federal Communications Commission could put limits on some of that commercial activity, requiring broadband companies, such as AT&T and Comcast, to obey some of the same privacy regulations that govern traditional phone companies. Under the existing rules, carriers have to protect personal information that you provide as a part of receiving the service you pay for — things like your name, address and credit card information, among other types of data. And they can't share that information unless you actively say so.
Internet providers have not historically been required to follow these regulations, although they are legally obligated to carry out any commitments they make to consumers in their privacy policies and certain state laws. So it's no surprise to see broadband industry groups pushing back, arguing the proposed rules would be unconstitutional and illegal, not to mention burdensome. And it's raised a big debate over just how different, if at all, Internet providers are from digital media companies.
You see, if companies like Google basically know everything about you already, then an Internet provider that knows everything about you isn't all that different, and shouldn't have to live by different rules. That's the argument from the industry, which was laid out Friday in a blog post from AT&T.
The FCC is under "a wrong-headed conclusion … that ISPs are uniquely in a position to develop highly detailed and comprehensive profiles of their customers," wrote Bob Quinn, AT&T's senior vice president of federal regulatory affairs. "It is just not true."
The FCC argues that Internet providers are indeed in a "unique position," to use Quinn's words, because whereas Google might be able to capture a lot of information about you when you use Google's services, Internet providers can gather information about you no matter whose websites you visit. Their whole job is to take your requests about where you want to go on the Internet and what you want to do, as part of providing your service.
"An ISP handles all of its customers’ network traffic, which means it has an unobstructed view of all of their unencrypted online activity — the websites they visit, the applications they use," the agency said in March.
We've seen glimmers of how Internet providers would like to monetize your data. Companies, such as Verizon, have been buying up advertising technology and content companies, such as AOL, and rolling out new video services, such as Go90, that it hopes to begin selling ads against. AT&T offers discounts to some customers who agree to let the company track their Web history for advertising purposes.
The industry says new government privacy rules would constrain how its ad-supported programs can work, which would put it at a disadvantage relative to Internet companies.
"The commission’s proposed rules," according to the wireless trade group CTIA, "would prevent ISPs from adopting this business model, while allowing other online entities to continue doing so."
For better or for worse, that single sentence just sums up how similar Internet providers and Internet businesses have become.