Arizona Senator Jef Flake does not believe in your privacy on the Internet. In fact, he believes that everything you do on the Internet, from your personal information, browsing history, the apps you use, etc. is fair game for your Internet service provider (ISP) to compile a personal profile on you and to use that information for their profit, as well as to sell to third parties.
Senn. Flake introduced S.J.Res. 34, a joint resolution of congressional disapproval of the FCC rule relating to “Protecting the Privacy of Customers of Broadband and Other Telecommunications Services.”
Last week the Senate voted on a party-line vote of 50-48 to undo landmark rules covering your Internet privacy:
U.S. senators voted 50 to 48 to approve a joint resolution from Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) that would prevent the Federal Communications Commission’s privacy rules from going into effect. The resolution also would bar the FCC from ever enacting similar consumer protections.
Flake’s measure aims to nullify the FCC’s privacy rules altogether.
Today, House Tea-Publicans voted overwhelmingly, by a margin of 215-205, to to wipe out the FCC’s landmark Internet privacy protections:
The resolution marks a sharp, partisan pivot toward letting Internet providers collect and sell their customers’ Web browsing history, location information, health data and other personal details.
The measure, which was approved by a 50-48 margin in the Senate last week, now heads to the White House, where President Trump is expected to sign it.
Congress’s joint resolution empowers Internet providers to enter the $83 billion market for online advertising now dominated by Google and Facebook. It is likely to lend momentum to a broader GOP rollback of Obama-era technology policies, and calls into question the fate of other tech regulations such as net neutrality, which was approved in 2015 over strident Republican objections and bans Internet providers from discriminating against websites. And it is a sign that companies such as AT&T, Comcast and Verizon will be treated more permissively at a time when conservatives control both the executive and legislative branches.
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No longer satisfied with selling access to the Web, Internet providers are increasingly invested in the data their users generate as they visit one website after another. By understanding what content they consume — whether that be Netflix, WebMD or PornHub — providers may glean an enormous amount of information about Americans.
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And unlike search engines or streaming video sites, which consumers can easily abandon if they do not agree with their privacy practices, it is far more difficult to choose a different Internet provider. Many Americans have a choice of only one or two broadband companies in their area, according to federal statistics.
Privacy advocates called the House vote “a tremendous setback for America.”
“Today’s vote means that Americans will never be safe online from having their most personal details stealthily scrutinized and sold to the highest bidder,” said Jeffrey Chester, executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy. “Donald Trump, by giving away our data to the country’s leading phone and cable giants, is further undermining American democracy.”
The rules were repealed using the Congressional Review Act, which was used only once before the Trump administration, but has been implemented seven times since January. This means the FCC cannot issue any “substantially similar” rules in the future.
The acronym “ISP” should now stand for “Information Sold For Profit” and “Invading Subscriber Privacy,” said Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) during last week’s debate over the bill in the Senate. (h/t MotherJones).
So, what does this mean for consumers? Congress Just Gave Internet Providers the Green Light to Sell Your Browsing History Without Consent:
Dallas Harris, a policy fellow at the privacy advocacy group Public Knowledge, told Gizmodo that they’ll “have to take their privacy into their own hands.” Practically speaking, Harris said, this means you should “get online right now, get on your ISP’s website” and opt out of having your data sold. It might also mean getting a VPN—a private network that routes all traffic through its servers—though you’d have to pick one you trust not to sell your data, too. Harris also fears that the repeal will have a “chilling effect” on broadband adoption among those who still aren’t online.
As the Electronic Frontier Foundation has pointed out, there are also serious implications for security: If ISPs look to sell consumer data, “internet providers will need to record and store even more sensitive data on their customers, which will become a target for hackers.” Even if they anonymize your sensitive data before they sell it to advertisers, they need to collect it first—and these companies don’t exactly have a perfect track record in protecting consumer data. In 2015, for example, Comcast paid $33 million as part of a settlement for accidentally releasing information about users who had paid the company to keep their phone numbers unlisted, including domestic violence victims.
This is all made much more difficult for consumers by the dearth of broadband competition. More than half of Americans have either one or even no options for providers, so if you don’t like your ISP’s data collection policies, chances are you won’t be able to do much about it, and providers know that. It’s highly unlikely that providers, particularly the dominant companies, will choose to forego those sweet advertising dollars in order to secure their customers’ privacy, when they know those customers don’t have much choice.
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All is not completely lost. Your ISP still has to allow you to opt out of having your data sold, so you can call them or go online to find out how to do that. . . . But today’s news is devastating for privacy overall. Consumers could have had more control over their privacy; your data could have been safer. Things could have been better, if Congress had done what it usually does and done nothing. Instead, they made things worse for anyone who doesn’t run an internet company or an advertising agency. There’s no policy justification and no public interest in doing this; consumers are deeply fearful, in fact, about their privacy online. It was an action solely designed to benefit some already very rich companies that barely anyone wanted.
If you care about your privacy online, you should contact Senator Flake to give him a piece of your mind, as well as every Tea-Publican in the Arizona congressional delegation who voted in favor of his resolution.