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FTC orders broadband providers like Comcast to detail data collection practices

Federal regulators have ordered several major broadband providers, including Comcast, to explain how they collect and use personal information about their customers.

The Federal Trade Commission said it issued the orders Tuesday to examine the privacy policies of internet service providers. The companies have 45 days to submit reports detailing their data-handling practices. Among other questions, the FTC has asked the companies what information they collect, whether the data is shared with third parties, and whether they offer consumers options about how their data are handled. The agency also wants to know whether consumer data are anonymized and has demanded copies of the companies’ disclosures to consumers about their data collection practices.

The orders were sent to AT&T and subsidiary AT&T Mobility, Comcast, Google Fiber, T-Mobile, Verizon Communications and subsidiary Cellco Partnership, also known as Verizon Wireless.

An FTC spokesperson said the seven companies represent a “range of large and small ISPs, as well as fixed and mobile internet providers.”

“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,” the agency said in a statement.

The FTC’s order comes as lawmakers in Congress consider internet privacy legislation. Web giants such as Facebook have come under scrutiny for the way they handle consumer data. In April 2018, Facebook disclosed that Cambridge Analytica, a political consulting firm, harvested data from an estimated 87 million Facebook users.

In 2018, the Federal Communications Commission repealed an Obama-era order that would have put more restrictions on how broadband providers collect and use personal data. The order would have, among other things, required carriers to get explicit consent from consumers before using or selling personal data, said Dylan Gilbert, a policy fellow at Public Knowledge, a consumer advocacy group. The order would have classified broadband internet service as a telecommunications service.

The repeal returned broadband to its original classification as an information service, which put consumer protection back under the jurisdiction of the FTC. That agency has “much weaker,” privacy rules, Gilbert said.

“Certainly, making this non-public information public is great,” Gilbert said of the FTC’s action on Tuesday. “But the rules that are currently in place at the FTC are insufficient to adequately protect consumer privacy, so we need a comprehensive federal privacy bill that will truly protect consumers.”

A Verizon spokesperson confirmed that it was contacted by the FTC and “will be looking at their request.”

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