The FTC has sent letters to all of the major ISPs and telecom providers in the U.S., requesting detailed breakdowns of all the information they collect about their customers and their devices, as well as information on how the companies notify customers about data collection and whether the information is aggregated or anonymized in any way.
The letters went to AT&T, AT&T Mobile, Comcast, Google Fiber, T-Mobile, Verizon, and Verizon Wireless, and the commission is demanding quite a bit of information from the companies. The FTC is conducting a study into the privacy policies of ISPs and broadband providers and collecting this information from the companies is the first step in that process.
“The FTC is initiating this study to better understand Internet service providers’ privacy practices in light of the evolution of telecommunications companies into vertically integrated platforms that also provide advertising-supported content,” a post by the commission says.
In the letter, the FTC asks the companies to provide quite a bit of specific information, including:
a. the purpose(s) for which the information is collected or used; b. how such information is used or has been used; c. the techniques used to collect such information; d. the sources from which such information is obtained. If the information is obtained from a Third Party: (i) Identify Each Third Party that provided or disclosed such information; (ii) Describe in Detail the types of information obtained from Each Third Party; (iii) produce Documents sufficient to detail the types of information obtained and the manner it was or is obtained (e.g., table, spreadsheet, database); and (iv) Describe in Detail any contractual or technical restrictions or limitations placed on the collection, retention, use, or disclosure of such information.
The commission’s letter also asks the companies to disclose how long they retain customer data, whether and how it is destroyed, and whether any customer data is disclosed to third parties and for what purpose. The disclosure of customer data to third parties, regardless of whether it’s with customer notice, has become one of the more sensitive issues in the privacy arena. People rarely read privacy policies and so are often surprised to discover that their information is shared with the partners or suppliers of companies they deal with. This is one of the many problems that privacy advocates have with the current model of notice and consent for privacy policies, which relies on people reading policies and then agreeing to whatever data collection and sharing is spelled out in them. That generally is effective only at covering the company collecting the data, and doesn’t do much in the way of actually informing people about what they’re agreeing to share.
One of the many ideas that have emerged to help address the ineffectiveness of most privacy policies is the concept of giving individuals the choice of sharing more information in return for a discount on services. The FTC is asking ISPs whether any of them have tried this program and what the results of it were.
“Irrespective of whether on a trial or test basis, regional level, or national level, has the Company ever offered different levels of service, quality of service, rates, pricing, rewards, or other incentives for consumers who opt-in to the collection of information about themselves, their Devices, their communications, their viewing history, or their online activities?” the letter says.
On the flip side, the commission also wants to know whether the companies have “ever denied service, or otherwise degraded the quality of service, for consumers who fail to opt-in to the collection of information about themselves, their Devices, their communications, their viewing history, or their online activities, beyond information that is necessary for the provision of Internet or cable services”.
The move by the FTC comes at a time when ISPs and cable providers are struggling to retain customers in the face of a big shift away from traditional cable bundles and toward more customizable streaming and mobile video services. Broadband providers are looking for ways to adjust their business models and provide more options for customers, and some of those may include the offer of different pricing tiers depending upon the level of data sharing.