Earlier this week, Verizon and Verizon Wireless began sending notices to their customers announcing a change to the privacy practices of the companies and a new program of targeted advertising. The letter informed customers that Verizon would be using information about the customers, including geographic location and which websites they visit, and would be sharing that information with outside companies.
While the letters state that no identifying information will be shared with third parties, we are extremely concerned about this change in policy. As CCIA has articulated many times in the past, the privacy threat posed by Internet Access Providers cannot be underestimated. An IAP performing what is called Deep Packet Inspection will have access to every website that a user visits (including the content of each unencrypted page), every email and instant message he receives, and every file he downloads. While DPI can be useful and even vital for managing a network, for example by identifying malware and providing the right quality of service for VOIP calls, streaming video and other low latency apps, if this technology is used to collect information about users for commercial gain or other purposes it can be devastating for privacy.
This sort of privacy invasion from IAPs is even more concerning because the state of the broadband market in America – which in most places is a duopoly at best – does not give customers many choices of provider if they dislike the practices of their current one. They certainly cannot just “click away” from their IAP. Verizon has attempted to address this lack of choice by offering users the opportunity to opt-out of the sharing of information. This option, while a step in the right direction, still falls short of what we would like to see. Consumers should have to affirmatively opt-in to tracking by their IAPs. Such a privacy invasion as this cannot be cured by some small print offer that requires users to take affirmative steps to remove themselves from the program.
This is why we are encouraged to see that Congressmen Joe Barton and Ed Markey are asking some hard-nosed questions. In a letter sent yesterday to Verizon and Verizon Wireless, they share their concerns about the program and ask who is going to benefit most from the changes, why the program isn’t opt-in instead of opt-out, and how this program will comport with current privacy laws that apply to telecommunications carriers. We applaud Reps. Barton and Markey, and eagerly look forward to seeing more information from Verizon about this alarming new program.