Divided FCC passes ISP privacy rules, overhauls LifeLine

Poor to get break on broadband prices

The US Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has passed a pair of important new rules designed to extend broadband service in the US and protect user data.

The commission's rulings came after a last-minute delay in its scheduled March 31 meeting, but ultimately ended with both proposals passing.

The LifeLine rules will overhaul the discounted service program to add broadband service along with voice phone plans. The program will allow low-income households to receive $9.25 per month to help cover the cost of broadband data service, either fixed or wireless.

The move is part of a larger "modernization" plan that FCC chairman Tom Wheeler has been pursuing for LifeLine in recent months. To help cover the subsidy, the FCC will increase the annual LifeLine budget to $2.25bn, with room to add more funds if need be.

The FCC will also begin phasing out support for stand-alone voice service, reducing the voice-only subsidy to $7.25 in 2019, $5.25 in 2020, and eliminating it all together in 2021, at which point only data or bundled voice and data will be covered.

The plan was approved in a 3-2 vote, with commissioners Ajit Pai and Michael O'Rielly dissenting. Each had previously said they wanted a hard cap on the budget and Pai claimed that the commissioners on both sides had a "deal" in place that Wheeler overruled.

Also passing by a 3-2 vote were proposed rules on how service providers can use customer data. Under the new rules [PDF], ISPs will still be able to use the information customers provide when signing up for their internet service for the purpose of marketing new or additional services, unless otherwise requested. Any other use of that information for marketing purposes without an opt-in, however, is forbidden.

In other words, unless you say otherwise, your ISP can only use your contact info to pitch you on their own services, and you can opt out of that as well. The rules would place additional requirements on service providers to protect personal data on their servers and notify customers when data breaches occur.

That news was welcomed by privacy advocates, including the Center for Democracy and Technology, whose director, Katharina Kopp, said "The Commission's proposal recognizes that broadband providers must respect their subscribers' reasonable expectations of privacy and choice while using their services."

Telco industry groups, meanwhile, were less enthusiastic about the proposed rules.

"Unfortunately, the FCC proposed rules may not advance either consumer privacy or security because they apply 20th Century models to new 21st Century technology," said Tim Sparapani, policy adviser for advocacy group CALinnovates.

"With its proposed rules, the FCC is creating a confusing mish-mash of privacy regulations with different and inconsistent sets of rules based on whether consumer data is shared through an app or website, over telephone lines, or transported via an ISP." ®

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