Internet Service Providers Are Collecting — And Sharing — Vast Amounts Of Information About Customers, FTC Report Finds

Topline

A Federal Trade Commission staff report released Thursday found that the six major internet service providers in the U.S. are gathering and selling more information about their customers than many may know — including their race and sexual orientation — with the agency describing some of their data collection practices as “troubling.”

Key Facts

Federal Trade Commission Chair Lina Khan said at an agency meeting on the staff report that internet service providers are “surveilling” consumers in a wide array of their online activities, and thanks to their expansion into other businesses such as cable services and production of entertainment content, they’re able to collect a “staggering” amount of data, according to prepared remarks.

The FTC said it found some internet service providers engaged in “several troubling” data collection practices to target advertisements, categorize consumers by race and sexual orientation, and share real-time location with third-parties.

Many internet providers make it challenging for consumers to choose how companies use their information, the FTC said in the press release, adding that companies even “nudge” consumers to share more data.

The FTC obtained information from AT&T, Verizon Wireless, Charter, Xfinity, Google Fiber and T-Mobile – which account for 98% of the market — and advertising firms tied to AT&T and Verizon.

Comcast declined to comment to Forbes; Wireless, Charter, Google Fiber and were not immediately available for Forbes’ request for comment; T-Mobile said in a statement to Forbes it “shares the FTC’s focus on consumer privacy and building trust” and supports federal legislation for a “uniform standard” in the industry. 

Trade groups for the wireless industry CTIA and USTelecom each said in a statement to Forbes that Congress should enact federal legislation that prioritizes consumers.

Crucial Quote

“The report found that even in instances where internet service providers purported to offer customers some choice with respect to how their data was collected or used, in practice users were often thwarted by design decisions that made it complicated, difficult or near impossible to actually escape persistent tracking,” Khan said in her prepared remarks.

Key Background

Khan came to her current post as FTC chief in June 2021 after serving as a professor at Columbia Law School. She is known as an advocate for stricter antitrust and data privacy enforcement and wrote a paper for the Yale Law Journal titled “Amazon’s Antitrust Paradox” in 2017. According to Politico, any moves by the government to regulate internet providers have prompted responses divided along party lines. Privacy rules for internet service providers were passed during the Obama administration, and was later scrapped by Republicans in 2017.

Further Reading

Internet providers collect “staggering” amounts of data — U.S. FTC chair (Reuters)

Internet Providers Have ‘Staggering’ Consumer Data Trove: FTC (Bloomberg)

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