Internet providers want to know more about you than Google does, privacy groups say

Internet providers want to know more about you than Google does, privacy groups say

Most of us know, at least in the abstract, that Google and Facebook are tracking our every move online. Even Netflix collects detailed information on our binge-viewing habits, the better to make decisions about which films to drop from its catalog or what new TV series to invest in.

But what if I told you there are companies that can go much deeper than firms like Google and Facebook in their data-gathering prowess? Companies that not only know that you watch Netflix for two hours a day but also how long you spent reading this article before going back to Twitter and, at the same time, that you soon intend to go on a vacation because of all the time you spend browsing airfare sites?

Tech companies might enjoy access to a handful of these insights based on the data they gather when you visit their properties. But telecom and cable companies are in a position to learn much more about you, policy analysts say. That’s because Internet providers can see that you’re listening to Spotify while watching Netflix and Googling for reality TV shows at the same time — whereas each of those sites might only capture a slice of your overall Internet habits. And that gives Internet providers a major potential advantage.

“An ISP has access to your full pipe and can see everything you do” online if you aren’t taking extra steps to shield your activities, said Chris Hoofnagle, a law professor at the University of California Berkeley. Other than corporate privacy policies, he said, nothing under current law prevents broadband companies from sharing information with marketers about what types of Web sites you visit.

With behavioral data becoming central to the Internet economy, roughly 60 privacy and consumer groups are now calling on federal regulators to fast-track rules aimed at preventing Internet providers from using that data unfairly. In a letter to the Federal Communications Commission on Wednesday, the organizations called for clearer rules governing when and how an Internet provider may gather and share personal information.

Broadband companies have shown an increasing interest in consumer data. Verizon last year bought AOL in a $4 billion deal that allowed the telecom firm to integrate AOL’s substantial advertising technology into its own business, improving how it targets ads on Internet videos. AT&T runs a program that offers a monthly discount on Internet service in exchange for letting the company track your online behavior. And Comcast made a series of acquisitions last year to boost its own targeted-advertising efforts.

“Verizon’s acquisition of AOL speaks to their ambition to make advertising a bigger part of their business, and ultimately selling advertising is the way they’re going to monetize all of that customer data,” said Craig Moffett, an industry analyst at MoffettNathanson. Expect cellular carriers such as Verizon and T-Mobile to move faster toward a data-driven business model, Moffett said, while providers of fixed broadband may move more slowly.

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