In mining user data, US ISPs must weigh cash vs. privacy

Some experts worry that broadband providers will go too far in monetizing customers' data with the privacy rule repeal

U.S. internet service providers are about to face temptation.

Now that the broadband privacy rule repeal is almost certain, will they sell their customers' data to marketers, or will they keep it private?

The U.S. broadband industry is telling consumers not to worry. Verizon, for instance, said that it remains committed to protecting users’ privacy.

What that exactly means is unclear, and some in the industry are skeptical.

Major broadband providers will be enticed to monetize their customers’ data in ad-heavy ways, said Dane Jasper, CEO of Sonic, a small ISP in California.

He should know. Jasper routinely receives pitches from marketing firms that want to use his ISP to serve his customers targeted ads. The catch: the marketing firms want to monitor every user, to learn their internet habits, and what they’ll likely buy.  

“That’s the temptation facing carriers and advertisers,” he said. “The carrier is the one point where everybody’s internet behavior can be observed.”

Although Jasper’s ISP is focused on protecting customers’ privacy, one man’s nightmare may be another man’s dream. Other broadband providers have been known to claim their advertising efforts, produce better, relevant ads for consumers, despite the data collection.    

Nevertheless, critics say the practices behind these ads can be creepy.

Often, the data collection can occur in secret and involve inserting cookies into customers’ mobile traffic or using bloatware on Android phones, according to Jeremy Gillula, a technologist at the privacy advocate the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

He’s come up with a list, chronicling how broadband providers have been found monitoring customers in the past, but now fears history will repeat.

“Everything on this list is likely to make a resurgence,” he said.

Under federal law, broadband providers still have to protect a customer’s “individual identifiable” information. But when it comes to handling aggregate internet browsing history, ISPs might find interested buyers from advertising firms, or law enforcement, he said.

“I don’t see them saying no to that money,” Gillula said.

For broadband providers, the privacy rule repeal gives them more confidence to ramp up user-tailored marketing efforts that send ads to phone, TV and PC, said Fatemeh Khatibloo, an analyst with Forrester.

However, “it might be a crummy experience, when you take that to the next level,” she said. Imagine your past internet searches on sensitive topics, such as diabetes or domestic violence, suddenly reflected over multiple devices through online ads.   

Khatibloo said consumers will probably find that disturbing.

The U.S. broadband industry is quick to point out that online advertising and data collection is nothing new. Google and Facebook, for instance, have made billions selling targeted ads. 

"ISPs believe that everyone should follow the same privacy rules," said USTelecom, a trade association and lobbying group that represents broadband providers. 

"They are not selling customers’ browsing history to the public," it added. 

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