ISPs: We Care About Your Privacy (Pinky Swear!)

By Tom Brant Features PCmag

Congress's recent decision to allow internet service providers to sell their customers' browsing data won't adversely affect people's online privacy, according to cable industry executives.

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Comcast Chief Privacy Officer Gerard Lewis touted his company's privacy rules in a blog post on Friday, explaining that Comcast has no plans to sell its customers' individual web browsing history despite a vote to overturn data privacy rules proposed by the FCC that would have prevented it and other ISPs from doing so.

"We do not sell our broadband customers' individual web browsing history," Lewis wrote. "We did not do it before the FCC's rules were adopted, and we have no plans to do so."

Still, Lewis admitted that Comcast does share much of the data it collects on its customers with third parties. Sensitive data, such as banking, children's, and health information, can be shared if the customer opts in, while Comcast uses other, "non-sensitive data" to serve customers targeted advertising unless they opt out.

Lewis said Comcast will revise its privacy policy to make it clear that "we do not sell our customers' individual web browsing information to third parties and that we do not share sensitive information unless our customers have affirmatively opted in to allow that to occur."

Robert Quinn, AT&T's VP of external and legislative affairs, echoed Lewis's claim. In a blog post on Friday, he touted AT&T's privacy protections as "a consistent framework that focuses on the sensitivity of the data, not the service or entity that obtains the data."

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Had the FCC's proposed rules gone into effect, Quinn wrote, they would have prevented AT&T from harnessing customer data while leaving the data access of Facebook, Google, and other internet companies untouched.

"If the government bans the ISP from that data but allows, for example, OS providers, app developers and everyone else who has software running on your phone to collect your location and internet data, use it, share or sell it, that does not protect but rather confuses the consumer," Quinn wrote.

Privacy watchdogs, meanwhile, have downplayed the argument that Congress's vote ensures a level playing field for which companies get access to internet users' data. While you can chose not to use Facebook or Google, you probably only have access to one ISP, which is your gateway to the entire internet, the Electronic Frontier Foundation argued.

"ISPs are in a position to see a lot of what you do online. They kind of have to be, since they have to carry all of your traffic," EFF senior staff technologist Jeremy Gillula told PCMag.

Both Quinn and Lewis complained that the uproar surrounding the recent privacy vote was full of misinformation and inaccurate statements. They said that the existing protections afforded by the Federal Trade Commission were adequate, and Lewis also noted that his company's privacy policy is legally enforceable in state courts.

This article originally appeared on PCMag.com.