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A New Tool to Protect Your Privacy

Information privacy button on computer keyboard
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In today’s digitally connected world, I worry about the lack of control I have over the privacy of my personal information. And I’m not alone. A Pew survey found 91 percent of adults strongly agree that consumers have lost control of how companies collect and use their personal information.

With so many consumers feeling helpless, we could use a privacy victory.

As luck would have it, a victory did come recently. New Federal Communications Commission (FCC) rules give consumers using high-speed internet access more control over the use of their personal information by offering them meaningful choices about how internet service providers (ISPs) use and share their personal data. ISPs lie at the hub of privacy and information; they are the companies that give you access to the internet (e.g., telecommunication and cable companies).

What the rules mean

Perhaps the biggest consumer victory is that the rules prevent ISPs from sharing “sensitive information” without formal opt-in consent from the consumer. In other words, consumers must make an affirmative choice to allow ISPs to share this information.

And what information does the FCC consider sensitive? More good news: It’s a broad list of information — your precise location, health and financial information, children’s information, app usage, web browsing history and the content of online communications.

While some welcome the FCC rules as a leap forward in consumer privacy, others are not so sure.

The biggest concern is that ISPs will hide the opt-in permission deep within those long, difficult-to-comprehend privacy policies we’re all so good at ignoring. Let’s be honest, we’ve all clicked on the “I agree” button without reading the privacy policy details.

Because ISPs have a year (two years for smaller ISPs) to meet the new regulations, it’s unclear how this “notice and choice” will play out in practice. Ultimately, educating consumers to help them understand their new privacy options and how to exercise them will be an important part of the process.

Another concern is that the rules apply to ISPs and not the popular websites that the FCC does not have regulatory control over. That means web companies providing services like internet searches, online retail shopping and social media do not have to get consumer opt-in before sharing details like app usage and web browsing history.

While this may disappoint some, it’s important to recognize ISPs are fundamentally different from those types of websites. We can choose not to visit a particular website or use a social network, but we all need an ISP to access the internet. And switching ISPs is a far more complex task than switching search engines or online stores.

Proper perspective

In the end, the FCC rules aren’t a panacea for consumers looking to control the use of their personal information. Yet they’re significant because they represent an influential and widely publicized acknowledgment that consumers deserve more say in how online providers use their personal information.

We, as consumers, can only hope this message will resonate loudly among regulators, legislators and internet companies everywhere.

Photo courtesy of iStock.

Neal Walters is a policy research senior analyst for the Financial Security Team who publishes on topics including information privacy and security, technology, identity theft, affordable home utilities, prepaid cards, and credit reporting.

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