Verizon has agreed to notify consumers about its targeted advertising programs and gain their consent before sharing its tracking data with third parties, the FCC announced Monday.
The news comes as part of a settlement resolving the FCC’s investigation into the carrier’s controversial “supercookie” tracking program, in which Verizon attached unique, undeletable identifiers to customers without their knowledge to gather information about their Internet browsing habits.
The settlement, which was announced Monday, will also see the carrier pay a $1.35 million fine, the FCC said.
“Consumers care about privacy and should have a say in how their personal information is used, especially when it comes to who knows what they’re doing online,” FCC Enforcement Bureau Chief Travis LeBlanc said in a statement. “Privacy and innovation are not incompatible. This agreement shows that companies can offer meaningful transparency and consumer choice while at the same time continuing to innovate.”
According to the FCC, Verizon will now have to let consumers know about its targeted advertising programs and gain their opt-in approval before sharing the identifiers – known as UIDH – either internally within Verizon or with third parties. The change is part of a three-year compliance plan agreed to in the settlement that will be overseen by a Compliance Officer at Verizon, the FCC said.
“Verizon gives customers choices about how we use their data, and we work hard to provide customers with clear, complete information to help them make decisions about our services,” a Verizon spokeswoman said Monday. “Over the past year, we have made several changes to our advertising programs that have provided consumers with even more options. Today’s settlement with the FCC recognizes that. We will continue to give customers the information they need to decide what programs and services are right for them.”
Tracking the “supercookie”
The settlement follows more than a year of investigation into Verizon’s “Relevant Mobile Advertising” program.
First launched in April 2014, Verizon’s “enhanced” Relevant Mobile Advertising program automatically assigned Verizon Wireless customers a UIDH and enrolled them in a system that gathers information about what websites a consumer visits. Though used to deliver target ads on a user’s mobile device, the program was extended to track browsing habits on a customer’s laptop or PC after they registered on a Verizon website.
The implementation of the program without consumer knowledge sparked a backlash, notably from a group of Democratic Senators in February 2015.
“This whole supercookie business raises the specter of corporations being able to peek into the habits of Americans without their knowledge or consent,” Sen. Bill Nelson of Florida, the top Democrat on the Senate Commerce Committee, said at the time.
As early as December 2014, the FCC said its Enforcement Bureau began investigating whether Verizon Wireless failed to disclose “accurate and adequate” information to consumers about the program.
The commission’s investigation found Verizon began inserting the identifiers into consumer Internet traffic as early as December 2012, but didn’t notify users of the practice until October 2014.
In January 2015, evidence also surfaced that Verizon Wireless had failed to properly protect its customers’ proprietary information when news outlets reported a Verizon partner used customer UIDHs to restore cookie IDs that had been cleared from their browsers. The move effectively allowed the third party to override customer privacy choices, the FCC said Monday.
According to the FCC, Monday’s settlement addresses Verizon’s violations of Section 222 of the Communications Act as well as Section 8.3 of the Commission’s Open Internet Transparency Rule.
The FCC said Verizon cooperated with its investigation.
The agreement represents the second Open Internet enforcement action taken by the FCC, following a $100 million fine against AT&T Mobility in June for misleading customers about data speed limits on its unlimited data plans, the commission said.
More information for consumers on how the tracking program works can be found here. Consumers who wish to unsubscribe from the service may do so by visiting www.vzw.com/myprivacy or by calling 866-211-0874.
Filed Under: Industry regulations