March, 2018

This report ranks New York City’s major Internet Service Providers based on the degree of privacy control and consent they offer consumers. Our goal is to determine whether New York’s Internet users can exercise choice with regard to data and information privacy.

To advance digital equity, it is critical to anticipate possible digital harms that may emerge—especially for vulnerable communities—as digital access expands. The New School’s Digital Equity Laboratory has demonstrated across our research and collaborations that digital privacy risks disproportionately impact marginal and vulnerable populations, and present a particularly urgent problem for them as technology increasingly transforms cultural, social, and civic participation.

To develop this report, researchers examined the publicly available privacy policies of New York’s eleven major ISPs: four residential providers (RCN, Verizon, Optimum/Altice, and Spectrum) and seven mobile providers (AT&T, Verizon Wireless, US Cellular, Metro PCS, T-Mobile, Boost Mobile and Sprint Mobile).

Our findings show that, overall, New York City’s major telecommunications providers do not provide sufficient information for users to make informed choices about digital privacy. Instead, consumers are left with a “take-it-or-leave-it” choice when purchasing Internet services. Even when privacy policies expressed an intention to convey transparency, our analysis indicates that it would not be possible for most consumers to understand the specific consequences of their choices; e.g., to decide how and if they are comfortable with their browsing history, personally identifiable information, and other data being tracked, sold, or shared as permitted by stated policies.

Further, we found that language employed in ISPs’ policies is legally vague, lacking detail and specificity regarding practices and purposes of data collection as well as user notification regarding collection. Users’ information is harvested and aggregated without their informed consent, and with no opt-out option for particularly sensitive data. Privacy policies are not available in many of NYC’s official languages, leaving almost a million New Yorkers whose primary language is not English or Spanish in the dark when making a choice.

In terms of security, users are not informed about the procedures that companies would take in case of data breach, and are not offered detailed explanation regarding providers’ security audits and practices. Additionally, users are not informed of any standard practices regarding liability, litigation, or mandatory arbitration in the case of digital privacy harms.

To address these issues, the Digital Equity Laboratory identified opportunity areas for the City of New York, its ISPs, and other partners: A) Leverage municipal contracts with ISPs to improve privacy practices; B) Include privacy protections in franchise agreements with ISPs doing business with New York City residents; and C) Continue to create municipal, and public-private programs to promote awareness campaigns, public audits, online privacy policy forums, and education and training programs for vulnerable populations. Overall, we see this as an opportunity to replace take-it-or-leave-it policies with consumer choice-based options that would increase trust between consumers and ISPs.

Full Paper

"TAKE IT OR LEAVE IT: How NYC Residents Are Forced to Sacrifice Online Privacy for Internet Service"

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