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FTC initiates probe of privacy practices of 7 US broadband providers

The U.S. Federal Trade Commission announced on March 26 that it has issued orders to seven U.S. broadband providers seeking additional information about each company's privacy practices, policies and procedures.

The orders were sent to AT&T Inc. and its wireless unit, AT&T Mobility LLC; Comcast Corp.; Alphabet Inc.'s Google Fiber; T-Mobile US Inc.; Verizon Communications Inc. and its Verizon Wireless unit.

"The FTC is initiating this study to better understand Internet service providers' privacy practices in light of the evolution of telecommunications companies into vertically integrated platforms that also provide advertising-supported content," FTC officials said in a March 26 news release. "Under current law, the FTC has the ability to enforce against unfair and deceptive practices involving Internet service providers."

The agency has broad authority to investigate and gather information from companies under Section 6(b) of the Federal Trade Commission Act.

Specifically, the orders direct the companies to provide a range of information about their privacy practices including the categories of personal information collected about consumers or their devices and the purpose for that collection, information about the techniques for collecting that information, clarification on whether that information is shared with third parties and additional details about internal policies for access to the data and how long the data is retained.

Additionally, the orders ask for copies of notices and disclosures to consumers about the companies' data-collection practices. They also ask the companies if customers are offered choices about collection, retention and use of personal information, among other questions.

Companies issued orders have 45 days from the date of service of the order to respond to the inquiries with a special report.

In a document obtained by S&P Global Market Intelligence on March 21, FTC Chairman Joseph Simons told members of the Senate Commerce Committee that he believes the commission could use its Section 6(b) authority to gather "much-needed" information for consumers about data practices at large technology companies.

CTIA, a trade group representing large U.S. wireless companies such as AT&T, Verizon, T-Mobile and Sprint, could not be reached for comment in response to the orders.