FTC Report Finds ISPs Collect and Share Vast Amounts of Web Browsing Data

On Thursday, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) issued a report examining broadband companies’ advertising services and privacy practices. The FTC uncovered several “troubling aspects” of the major internet service providers’ (ISPs) data collection and use practices and ultimately emphasized the need for oversight.

According to the accompanying press release, FTC staff examined the top six ISPs, comprising about 98% of the mobile Internet market: AT&T Mobility LLC, Cellco Partnership, which does business as Verizon Wireless, Charter Communications Operating LLC, Comcast Cable Communications, which does business as Xfinity, T-Mobile US Inc., and Google Fiber Inc. Many of the studied ISPs infringe privacy as much or more than the nation’s largest advertising platforms such as Google, Facebook, and Amazon, the FTC found.

According to the report, ISPs gather and disseminate data using several methods, including that they combine data across product lines, combine personal, app usage, and web browsing data to target ads, and share real-time location data with third-parties. In addition, the providers reportedly use information to place consumers into “sensitive categories” that for example divide them by race or sexual orientation.  

In addition, privacy protections leave much to be desired, the report found. “Even though several of the ISPs promise not to sell consumers personal data, they allow it to be used, transferred, and monetized by others and hide disclosures about such practices in [the] fine print of their privacy policies,” the press release explained.

Though the ISPs claim to offer consumers the opportunity to choose how their data is used and permit them access to it, the report revealed that companies make it difficult to exercise these options and in some circumstances, even push consumers to share more information. Finally, several ISPs say that they will only retain the data for as long as needed for business purposes, however the meaning of “business purpose” varies widely among providers, the report said.