Consumer Privacy

Communications Privacy

Background

Communications privacy laws limit the interception, use, and disclosure of communications and what service providers can do with their customer’s information.

Communications privacy laws protect the content of communications and the personal information about communications service customers. 

The Communications Act of 1934 marked the dawn of modern communications privacy law. The Act established the Federal Communications Commission, which administers federal communications privacy laws. Several states also have their own communications privacy laws, which expand on or complement federal rights.

Regulating Interception, Use, and Disclosure of Communications Content

One of the original provisions of the Communications Act limits the interception, use, and disclosure of private telephone communications. The Electronic Communications Privacy Act added protections for the content of electronic communications. 

Several states recognize even more expansive rights to control the content of communications. For instance, some states require that both parties to a call consent to its recording. These states are commonly referred to as “two-party consent states.”

Regulating Flow of Customer Data

Laws regulating the collection, use, and disclosure of customer data are tailored to specific sectors of the communications market—that is, there is not one overriding law governing the flow of communications customer data, but many sectoral ones. Here are some examples of federal communications privacy laws:

  • The Cable Communications Policy Act, which restricts the information cable providers can collect, retain, and disclose about their subscribers;
  • The Electronic Communications Privacy Act, which restricts electronic service providers’ ability to access and disclose both the contents of customer communications and other information about customers’ electronic communications;
  • The Telecommunications Act, which restricts telecommunications providers’ use and disclosure of “consumer proprietary network information,” or information the providers keep on their customers, such as their calling plans and information generated from the customers’ use of the telephone;
  • The Video Privacy Protection Act, which restricts disclosure of individuals’ video viewing histories.

Many of these laws contain private rights of action, which allow individuals to sue for violations of their privacy rights.

EPIC’s Work

EPIC supports strong enforcement of communications privacy rights. EPIC files amicus briefs supporting individual litigants and government agencies, petitions the FCC to pursue enforcement actions against violators, and files comments supporting strong FCC regulations.

Recent Documents on Communications Privacy

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