Any day now the president will probably be signing a law that allows internet service providers (ISPs) to gather and sell your browsing history without your permission.
Last year, the Federal Communications Commission (“FCC”) enacted a rule that required ISPs to get internet users to actively opt in before their data could be sold, but, on March 28, the House passed S.J. 34, revoking that FCC rule and giving ISPs, like Verizon, Comcast, and AT&T, free reign to collect information on everything their customers do online and then sell it to advertisers or other buyers without customer consent.
According to the bill’s author and other supporters, the FCC rule was unfair because it held ISPs to a higher privacy standard than sites like Google and Facebook, which operate under looser Federal Trade Commission (“FTC”) rules and can currently gather data about what users do on their sites and then sell it. This is a weak justification for the rule rollback for a couple reasons. First, if there is a discrepancy between how different actors are handling citizens’ information, the default should be to adjust to the rule that protects privacy, not the rule that erodes privacy. In other words if there is some need for ISPs to have the same rules as sites like Google and Facebook, then it would have been better to change the FTC rules governing those sites, so that they are more protective of consumer information, not change the FCC rule to be less protective of consumer data.
The second problem is that this justification for the rule change is based on a false premise. There is no good reason that ISPs and individual sites have to have equivalent privacy rules. In fact, there are good reasons that the rules for ISPs are stricter. ISPs can monitor gather and sell literally everything you do online. Google can only gather information about what you do on Google, which is probably a lot, but is not everything. If, for some reason, you don’t want Google to have access to a search, there are other search engines. The same holds true for social media sites – they can know about what you do on the site and sell that info to advertisers, and they do, but that is still a limited amount of information. ISPs on the other hand can track and sell everything we do online, all the Google searches, all the Facebook posts and likes, and everything else. This is a tremendous amount of information; it’s often very personal; and it’s very, very valuable.
The telecommunications companies that provide internet have spent millions of dollars lobbying for this kind of change. ISPs have also donated millions to Senators’ and Representatives’ campaigns, but, to the credit, of some lawmakers, those donations did not seem to guarantees a yes vote on this legislation and some who have received money from companies that will benefit from the bill did not back it. The votes for S.J. 34 broke mostly along party lines, with all Democrats and a few pro-privacy Republicans voting against and the majority of Republicans voting yes.
Those who did vote yes on the bill may soon wish that they hadn’t. There are currently three different plans to buy and publish the browsing history of lawmakers who passed the bill once it’s signed into law. But even without having their individual browsing history published online, lawmakers who supported this bill may soon realize that they, too, are internet users and their privacy will be threatened just as much as everyone else’s, once this law takes effect.
Alexis Chapman is a Political Consultant and Writer specializing in policy analysis, from international law to local ordinances. She’s lived in Australia, Ghana, Vermont, Hawaii, and Texas and has worked for small and large NGOs, state legislature, industry associations, and a variety of publications. She is a regular contributor to Political Storm and you can find her on Twitter @AlexisAPChapman.