© 2024 Michigan State University Board of Trustees
Public Media from Michigan State University
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

FCC Proposal Would Let Consumers Weigh In On Internet Privacy


When you go online on your computer or mobile device, you do it through Internet service providers or ISPs. They're the gatekeepers to the Internet, and they're often big companies like Comcast, AT&T, Verizon. These companies know a lot about what you do online. Now, the chairman of the FCC says it's time to limit how the ISPs use your personal information.

NPR's Brian Naylor reports.

BRIAN NAYLOR, BYLINE: We're going to start with a little demonstration. We asked Peter Swire, a professor at Georgia Tech, to sit down with us at a computer and go online.

PETER SWIRE: My local NPR station, Atlanta's WABE.


NAYLOR: Now, this could be any website - your bank, Amazon, Match.com. He just used what first popped into his mind.

SWIRE: If I went to WABE.org, the ISP who connected me would be able to see that I was going to that website. If I went to a subwebsite, such as the schedule for this week, they would see the detailed URL, the detailed link.

NAYLOR: Swire has conducted a study and found that nearly half of the data passing through the Internet these days is encrypted by websites. Still, your ISP knows at least the website you landed on, the domain, if not, for example, the color of jeans you looked at on Amazon.

The ISP knows how long you stayed on the website and the other sites you may have visited last night. What do the ISPs do with that information? Well, for one thing, they can sell it to advertisers. There's a virtual stock market for such data according to Jules Polonetsky who heads the Future of Privacy Forum, a tech think tank.

JULES POLONETSKY: If I have a credit card, I can show up at a data exchange and bid for information, almost like, sort of, bidding for pork bellies or for stocks in the commodity market. I can say I want users who are likely to buy a car, who all make more than $100,000 and who are female. And all sorts of providers will bid to show me that data.

NAYLOR: And here's what troubles privacy advocates. Consumers have no say in which of their data gets sold and how it's used. Katharina Kopp is with the Center for Democracy and Technology.

KATHARINA KOPP: It's really important to give Internet users a sense of control and be back in the driver's seat to - or be in the driver's seat to use this information as they see fit, as they see in their own best interest.

NAYLOR: And that's what FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler says he wants to. Wheeler has proposed a new set of privacy rules for ISPs, requiring they get consumers' permission before giving out their data, a so-called opt-in provision. Here's what he told All Things Considered.


TOM WHEELER: All we're saying in our proposal is that you, the consumer, ought to have a say in whether they can repackage and use information which is basically your information, not their information.

NAYLOR: Now, the ISPs don't like Wheeler's proposed new rules because they argue they're being singled out. There's a lot of online data available to advertisers from sites like Google and Facebook, and ISPs provide only a fraction of it. But they're the only ones subject to the FCC's jurisdiction. Jim Halpert is an attorney who represents a number of ISPs.

JIM HALPERT: Would effectively say that not only does the ISP have to carry everybody else's advertising, but the ISP itself cannot be involved in advertising on its network. So it almost doubles down on a principle of net neutrality to come up with something that really isn't neutral.

NAYLOR: The FCC is expected to take up Wheeler's proposal at the end of the month.

Brian Naylor, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR News' Brian Naylor is a correspondent on the Washington Desk. In this role, he covers politics and federal agencies.
Journalism at this station is made possible by donors who value local reporting. Donate today to keep stories like this one coming. It is thanks to your generosity that we can keep this content free and accessible for everyone. Thanks!