Consumers Sound Off On The FCC’s Privacy Proposal And They’ve Got Some Serious Qualms

trustissuesIf the comments submitted to the Federal Communications Commission in response to its broadband privacy proposal are any indication, consumers feel a deep mistrust of the online ad industry.

As Rick from Arizona declared: “There’s already too much theft of my personal information from internet advertising, etc. and it must be STOPPED.”

The public comment period on the FCC’s proposal – which would require internet service providers to obtain clear opt-in from customers before collecting and sharing their data for marketing purposes – ended on Friday.

The FCC denied requests for an extension, including one from Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), who noted in a January letter to FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler that “the proposed rules will impose unnecessary and static regulations on a dynamic and innovative internet ecosystem.”

In total, there were 53,085 comments submitted. (By comparison, the Federal Trade Commission only received 47 during the public comment period before and after its cross-device tracking workshop in late 2015.)

Although academics and industry organizations like the Interactive Advertising Bureau and the Direct Marketing Association were responsible for some of the comments – many of which were opposed to the FCC grabbing regulatory authority away from the FTC to become what Flake called its “overreaching attempt to make itself the policeman of the internet” – most of the comments came from individual consumers.

A number of advocacy groups, including Privacy Revolt and StandUnited, allowed users to submit prepared comments through a web form on their respective websites, which comprised hundreds, if not thousands, of the comments submitted. (This reporter gave up after combing through more than 600 records.)

Although the comments were quite different in tenor – Privacy Revolt, for example, supports the FCC’s proposal, whereas StandUnited called it a “sham” for not including edge providers like Google, which arguably have more access to consumer data than ISPs – the main takeaway was the same: Consumers have profound misgivings around sharing their data.

Jeffery from California put it this way: “Information about my family and our online activities should remain private and must not be sold to marketers or others who would use it for commercially exploitative purposes.”

In late March when the FCC voted to approve its privacy proposal for public comment in a 3-2 party line vote (Democrats for, Republicans against), FCC Commissioner Michael O’Rielly, one of the two dissenters, raised what he called “a reality check” about how most ISPs use collected information.

“Unlike government entities using the information to potentially threaten or undo the freedom of individuals, the high crime and misdemeanor at issue here is the ultimate desire of some to want to market commercial products to others,” O’Rielly said. “Simply put, they want to try to sell you something that you may actually enjoy purchasing. It’s as if we’ve all forgotten how the internet economy actually works – there is a trade-off.”

A Pew study in January found that many Americans are willing to share their personal information or be tracked in exchange for something of value, although it depends on the context of the situation.

For example, 47% of people are cool with being tracked by retailers in exchange for loyalty card perks, while 55% of people said “hell no” when asked if they would let their energy company install a smart thermostat to track their movements around the home to save on their bill.

One respondent to Pew’s survey put it like this: “There will be no ‘SMART’ anythings in this household. I have enough personal data being stolen by the government and sold [by companies] to spammers now.”

And therein lies the rub. Tracking and data collection are seen by many as nefarious no matter who’s doing it.

At AdExchanger’s Clean Ads IO on Tuesday, IAB President and CEO Randall Rothenberg made the distinction between what he called “creepy” ads and “crappy” ads, noting that crappy ads and bad experiences are primarily what lead most consumers to download ad blockers, more so than any sort of privacy issue.

But Anne from California would beg to differ in her comments to the FCC: “I have no idea why we have privacy laws regarding medication information when the whole world knows in seconds what medical condition or medication is being looked up. Then there is the added irritation of constant popups blocking the screen selling whatever one looked up earlier. There is no privacy. One should look at the internet as the town gossip not to be trusted with any information.”

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