FTC report highlights lack of consumer choice, access to data collected by internet providers

WASHINGTON — As Facebook faces a firestorm over leaked documents about how it impacts users, there are also questions about how well our internet service providers (ISPs) are protecting our privacy.

A report from the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) details how widely used ISPs including AT&T Mobility LLC., Verizon Wireless, T-Mobile US Inc., and Google Fiber Inc. are collecting and sharing user data.

The report said in many cases, the consumer may not know how the data is being used.

“While several ISPs in our study tell consumers they will not sell their data, they fail to reveal to consumers the myriad of ways that their data can be used, transferred, or monetized outside of selling it, often burying such disclosures in the fine print of their privacy policies,” the report said.

The FTC said the privacy options that are available are often confusing for consumers to navigate.

“Some of these choices were not offered clearly and indeed, nudge consumers toward greater sharing,” said Andrea Arias, a Senior Attorney in the Division of Privacy and Identity Protection in the Bureau of Consumer Protection at the FTC. “We found interfaces that buried or hid certain choices from consumers and we even found unclear toggle settings that led to the selection of unintended privacy settings.”

The report raises concerns about the ability of consumers to access, correct, and delete the data that has been collected.

“Although many of the ISPs in our study purported to offer consumers access to their information, the information was often either indecipherable or nonsensical without context, potentially leading to low access requests,” the report said.

It said some ISPs are categorizing people to use the information for targeted ads.

“Many of the ISPs in our study group consumers using sensitive characteristics including race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, economic status, political affiliation or religious beliefs to target ads,” said Arias.

The collection of that sensitive data can lead to potential harm for users, according to the report.

“More concerning, this data could be used in a way that’s harmful to consumers, including by property managers, bail bondsmen, bounty hunters, or those who would use it for discriminatory purposes,” the report said.

Protecting user privacy online has been a bipartisan issue on Capitol Hill this year.

“The need for strong data privacy rules has become more urgent,” said Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) on September 29 during a Senate hearing on protecting consumer privacy.

“Companies collecting this information are not doing enough to safeguard the information they collect or keep their privacy promises,” said Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) during that hearing.

The latest FTC report calls for more restrictions on data collection.

“This further demonstrates the importance of restricting the collection and uses of data, rather than allowing ISPs to dictate how consumers’ information is used by obscuring how they will use their information,” the report said.

In response to the report, the CTIA, which represents the wireless communications industry association, said: “Consumers’ online safety and privacy is a top priority for the wireless industry, and federal legislation that uniformly protects users across all platforms is the best way forward. We are looking forward to continuing to work with the FTC, lawmakers and companies across the ecosystem to ensure consumers are protected.”

A spokesperson for T-Mobile said: “T-Mobile shares the FTC’s focus on consumer privacy and building trust, and we also support federal legislation that would create one uniform standard for all online companies.”

Several ISPs said they support lawmakers establishing federal legislation to address online privacy concerns with a spokesperson for USTelecom saying: “As the FTC has called for numerous times, and as previously urged by USTelecom, Congress must enact a national, comprehensive federal privacy framework that puts consumers first and applies uniformly to all companies operating online.”