Overturning current privacy rules and practices, the Federal Communications Commission voted 3-2 today to stop broadband companies such as Comcast, AT&T, and Verizon from collecting sensitive data about users such as what websites they visit, as well as personal information such as health information or Social Security numbers--unless they obtain users' permission. Under the new rules, they will also no longer be allowed to give or sell such information to other organizations.
It's a sweeping change which has won praise from consumer and privacy groups and--predictably--condemnation from broadband and internet-based companies. Here's what the new rules mean to you:
1. Broadband companies now have to ask your permission to gather data--and they will.
Many in the tech industry think of data as something akin to an underground oil reservoir--an infinitely valuable resource that can be tapped for great financial gain. Right now, much of that gain comes from targeted advertising--something these companies want to do more of, not less. But that data could have other uses as well. Your broadband provider wants it, and wants it bad. So expect them to try hard to get you to "explicitly" agree to data collection, perhaps within the boilerplate of a service agreement or with a pitch promising you great benefits if you agree to let them gather your data.
2. Some of the companies with the most data about you can keep right on gathering it.
The new rules only affect broadband providers such as Comcast and AT&T, not web-only companies such as Google and Facebook. Those types of companies can keep on gathering, storing, and selling whatever they wish under the law. That's because they're outside the jurisdiction of the FCC.
3. This could spell trouble for the proposed AT&T-Time Warner merger.
Last week, AT&T entered into an agreement to purchase Time Warner for $85.4 billion. The deal can't go through without Justice Department approval, which might not be forthcoming given the reduction in competition it would create. But with the new rules in place, the two companies may decide on their own that they'd rather not merge after all. That's because a stated goal of the merger was to do more and better targeted advertising, which will be harder without gathering data.
4. It means your data belongs to you.
"There is a basic truth," FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler said when announcing the vote. "It is the consumer's information. It is not information of the network the consumer hires to deliver that information."
The principle that you own such data as your web browsing history, health information past shopping behavior, and so on is a great precedent that I'm hoping will take hold. Just consider the implications for a moment. If a company that gathered data such as your browsing history makes millions selling data to, say, an advertiser, wouldn't it be nice if some of that cash came back to you to pay for the data you created?
5. It may not stick.
The affected broadband providers can challenge the new rule in court and it seems likely that they will. They don't have to fully comply with the new rule until about a year from now. And in the meantime, a new president will likely replace Wheeler with someone else. So the future of this new rule is far from guaranteed.
6. But you better hope it does.
Most of us (myself included) have been fairly lackadaisical about online privacy on the theory that we don't have much to hide. But the fact that, without this rule in place, ISPs and mobile companies have the right to gather information and sell it to others is something we probably should worry about.
Privacy has been a dwindling concept for years and these days it's frightening to contemplate what companies willing to purchase your data--let alone governments--can know about you. This rules puts just a little of that control back in your hands.