#CyberFLASH: Canada lags U.S. privacy rules for ISPs

web-na-bell-hacker13nw1As the U.S. communications regulator unveiled a plan last week to hold Internet providers to a higher standard on customer privacy, Canadians might have felt a sense of déjà vu.

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) announced a proposal on Wednesday that, if finalized, would require U.S. broadband Internet service providers (ISPs) to obtain “opt-in” consent from customers before sharing their information with third parties such as advertisers.

Under the proposal, ISPs could still use customer information for their own billing and marketing purposes – for example, an ISP that sees a customer is streaming a lot of data would be permitted to offer that customer an upgraded service package. However, broadband providers would have to expressly ask for consent before they share customer data. “When consumers sign up for Internet service, they shouldn’t have to sign away their right to privacy,” the FCC said in a statement.

It’s an issue that already came to the fore in Canada after BCE Inc.’s targeted online-advertising program, which tracked cellphone users’ browsing habits, app usage and phone calls to provide information to third-party advertisers and display specially tailored ads. That program sparked an investigation by the federal Office of the Privacy Commissioner (OPC) and a complaint to the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC).

The OPC inquiry concluded last April that BCE should have given its users the chance to opt-in to having their behaviour tracked rather than automatically tracking them. The federal privacy watchdog had no power to impose an order on BCE that would have forced it to change its approach (which did allow users to opt-out from consent), but the OPC said it was considering taking the matter to court. BCE eventually said it would withdraw its “Relevant Ads” program.

Internet users are often asked to surrender a certain amount of personal information – such as location data, browsing habits and demographic details – in exchange for using a “free” service such as Google’s e-mail platform or an app such as Facebook. But the BCE targeted-ads case raised the difficult question of why Internet users should sacrifice some of their privacy to a service provider they are already paying.

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