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Regulation

Consumer Privacy Still an Elusive Goal

AT&T's decision to halt its practice of charging Gigapower customers $30 a month to keep their browsing habits private is ending and is another indication of how convoluted the whole notion of Internet privacy had become.

As explained in this Ars Technica article, AT&T Inc. (NYSE: T)'s Internet Preferences "feature" allowed customers to choose between keeping their browsing habits private or allowing them to be used to generate targeted advertising.

Virtually all the coverage of AT&T Internet Preferences described it as controversial or worse, even though on the face of it, it seemed like a pretty straightforward deal that let consumers decide for themselves what degree of privacy they want.

In reality, there is nothing straightforward about the entire Internet privacy issue, and that includes the rules the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is considering for US ISPs.

The FCC's new rules, proposed last March and expected to be finalized by year's end, would require explicit consent by a consumer before any information could be used by a broadband ISP. Most consumers would be reassured by that, and they would be disappointed to learn that it will do nothing to stop Facebook and Google (Nasdaq: GOOG) from sending targeted ads based on their browsing habits because those companies answer to a different master, the Federal Trade Commission . The FTC's privacy rules only extend to more sensitive data such as financial data, identity data such as Social Security numbers, and geolocation data.

Trying to distinguish between broadband ISPs and online service providers is getting harder, however, particularly with Verizon Communications Inc. (NYSE: VZ)'s purchase of Yahoo. Having two separate sets of rules will make less and less sense as time passes.


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Then there is the "explicit consent" process itself. Does every individual in a household have to provide such consent or just the person paying the bill? Once consent is given, can it be retracted? How and when is it given?

And finally, for all of this to matter, consumers themselves have to care about their privacy and want to protect it. For that to happen, they have to understand what is at stake, and at risk, based on their browsing behaviors.

As this Pew Research look at consumer attitudes toward privacy shows, US consumers are almost evenly divided between caring a lot about protecting their personal privacy and caring almost nothing at all. And among those who do care, many say they don't know what to do about it, or wish they had better privacy tools.

If the FCC wants to address privacy issues in a way that doesn't confuse folks even further, they should be working however possible with their fellow bureaucrats at the FTC to figure out a more general approach that addresses the issues across the board and is a genuine answer that consumers can understand.

— Carol Wilson, Editor-at-Large, Light Reading

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