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FCC Moves Forward on Broadband Privacy Proposal

The FCC is moving forward with a proposal to limit Internet service providers from using consumer data without their consent.

The proposal, approved at an FCC open commission meeting on Thursday, would require that ISPs provide their customers with “clear, conspicuous and persistent notice” about the information they collect and share with third parties, as well as how subscribers can change their privacy preferences.

ISPs will be allowed to use consumer information to market other communications-related services, and to share it with affiliates, unless the customer opts out. All other uses and sharing of information would require consumers to give their consent.

The rules would apply only to ISPs, not social media or websites.

FCC chairman Tom Wheeler said it “does not prohibit ISPs from using and sharing customer data — it simply proposes that the ISP first obtain customers’ express permission before doing so.”

Consumer groups praised the move.

The commission voted 3-2 in favor of the proposal, which will now go through a period of public comment. Commissioners Ajit Pai and Michael O’Rielly voted against the proposal.

David L. Cohen, senior executive VP at Comcast, wrote in a blog post that the proposal is “inexplicably targeted to block ISPs, who have been responsible stewards of consumers’ privacy for decades, from entering and competing as disruptors and upstarts in the online advertising marketplace, which is dominated by edge providers and other non-ISPs.”

He said that under the proposal, Comcast’s Xfinity Internet customers “could miss out on learning about lower prices for taking bundles of services,” like Xfinity home security.

The FCC also approved an expansion of the Lifeline program to provide subsidies for low-income consumers to supply broadband service. The program has provided subsidies for phone service for decades, and now will be expanded to support the purchase of standalone broadband service as well as bundled voice and data packages. Households would be eligible for a $9.25 monthly subsidy.

The FCC’s meeting was delayed for 3 1/2 hours on Thursday. Pai said that he, O’Rielly and commissioner Mignon Clyburn had reached a compromise agreement on the Lifeline program, but that Clyburn backed out of it under pressure from Wheeler.

In a press conference with reporters, Clyburn said that she was unable to agree with her Republican colleagues on the plan, as she had concerns that a spending cap on the program would “not meet the needs of those potential 39 million households who are eligible.”

“This was a strong, bipartisan agreement that would have delivered digital opportunity to millions of Americans,” Pai said, calling the failure of the compromise proposal “the worst of government.”

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