Blog

Congress Votes Against Consumers and Internet Privacy

By Kara Cook-Schultz
Toxics Program Director

Most Americans use the internet on a daily basis to complete necessary tasks like online banking, job searching, homework, or to get directions. And while Americans browse the web, their Internet Service Provider (ISP) is collecting their browser information.

These ISPs — like Comcast, AT&T, Verizon and Time Warner - collect information about all our online desktop and mobile interactions. They know every click we make, including our search history, our app usage, our social security number, and even our geo-location. According to Gigi Sohn, who served as counselor to former Federal Communications Commission (FCC) chairman Tom Wheeler: “They know every website you visit, how long and during what hours of the day you visit websites, your location, and what device you are using.”

Once you are online, you can choose whether to join Facebook or use Google, but you need an ISP to get online. Because these firms were not seen as telecommunications or broadband providers, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), not the FCC, regulated them.

Under the previous FCC rules, the ISPs could not sell your information unless you affirmatively agreed to let them (opted-in). Those rules existed because who you called on the phone, how long you spoke with them, and similar information about your calling habits was considered highly personal. No more.

Presumably, some of the ISPs may offer their customers an opt-out. The firms know opt-out rates are very low.

So most consumers, unless they act, will allow their personal information that the ISPs collect to be be exploited and sold to the highest bidder, and consumers are left with no say in how their personal information is used. The buyer could use it for identity theft, to make employment decisions, or to publicly embarrass someone.

So, to protect consumers in the new and growing digital marketplace, the FCC passed rules in October 2016 expanding previous longstanding telephone service rules to prevent ISPs from selling this information without permission.

But now, thanks to Congress, those protections have been gutted and our  personal information will be  for sale — whether we like it or not — unless the president vetoes the disapproval actions. Yesterday, the House voted 215-205 to roll back the FCC regulations. This follows a Senate vote, where the vote was 50-48 to undermine the privacy rule. You can see how your member of Congress voted here. If President Trump signs the legislation, as he is expected to do, providers will be able to use and sell consumers’ personal information without their permission.

To roll back these FCC rules, Congress used the Congressional Review Act, which allows Congress to undo any regulation within 60 days of its finalization, while also keeping agencies from writing any “substantially” similar rule after the original one has been overturned.

Thus, based on the Congressional Review Act, “the FCC could be prohibited from regulating these ISP privacy issues in the future,” said Mike Landis, U.S. PIRG’s Litigation Director. “This is a huge blow for consumer privacy.”

Why would Congress choose to overturn such a commonsense rule? One likely reason is pressure from large telecom and cable companies. Overturning the rules is a huge win for the 21st Century Privacy Coalition, which has spent millions of dollars on lobbying and is backed by major telecom and cable companies.

The next theoretical step to protect consumers would be to hold companies who sell this information accountable. The ISP industry claims that allowing providers to use data-driven targeting could benefit consumers by leading to more relevant advertisements — that this breach of privacy will not be severe, but instead advantageous to consumers. But the companies hope that individual consumers won’t be able to put pressure on their ISPs to protect this data and to make decisions that help, not hurt, their customers.

There is no way around the fact that this is a huge blow to consumers. Repealing internet privacy protections has one purpose: to increase the profits of internet providers. The trove of personal information that buyers will have access to is disturbing. Consumers should retain control of their most personal information, from social security numbers to financial data. In yesterday’s vote, Congress put corporate profit over the privacy of the American people. As more and more people spend more and more time online, the battle for internet privacy is more important than ever, and despite this blow, it will continue.

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