Bill Overturning Internet Privacy Rules Signed Into Law

Yesterday President Trump signed Senate Joint Resolution 34 into law, effectively overruling outstanding legislation that protected online user data.

Previously, a Federal Communications Commision (FCC) privacy rule required companies to inform site visitors when their information was going to be sold, allowing consumers the opportunity to opt out of such communications and data sharing. Now, those protections outlined in the FCC’s prior ruling, “Protecting the Privacy of Customers of Broadband and Other Telecommunication Services,” have been overturned.

Due to legal provisions included in previous bills pertaining to user privacy that successfully passed through Congress earlier this year, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC)’s scope of overseeing buy and sell practices is now extremely limited. This paired with the passing of the resolution, leaves Internet Service Providers (ISPs) without any significant system of checks and balances.

Although lawmakers treat ISPs uniquely to non-data driven companies when it come to legal matters, many argue that this special treatment shields telecommunications companies from the types of regulatory scrutiny that is standard among more traditional consumer industries. Advocates for internet privacy and user protections believe it is necessary to take into account the size and scope of ISPs and the amount of consumer data that passes through them -- but without allowing the sheer scope to distract from the fact that each subset of data correlates to an individual consumer entitled to basic rights and protections, as in any other industry.

Once it became clear that the resolution would in fact be signed into law, the big players in internet such as Verizon, AT&T, and Comcast stepped forward with statements claiming that they do not sell personal information.

Verizon Chief Privacy Officer Karen Zacharia said in a statement that, “Verizon does not sell the personal web browsing history of our customers. We don’t do it and that’s the bottom line.”

But with the resolution passed, there are no protections in place to keep companies like Verizon to their word.

Later in Zacharia’s statement, she admits that the company does in fact participate in two different advertising programs that involve an aggregation of user data. What she does not explain is the distinction and similarities between personal data and anonymous data; the first refers to raw data that contains trackable user information such as ISP address. The second refers to data that does not contain data components which are traceable, and is the kind that programs like Google AdSense use to group you with users who have similar browsing habits and eventually, targets specific types of advertisements to you.

Generally, the type of data that is made available to programs like Google AdSense is in this sense, anonymous. But that information is still being collected from your browsing habits, and even if it’s being sold and utilized anonymously -- it’s still being sold.

With a legislative body and FCC Head seemingly determined to open up gateways for a lucrative data market, focus may fall on company accountability for maintaining ethical consumer practices moving forward -- practices that enforce policies pertaining to best practices for maintaining trust between company and consumer.

As the next Congressional recess approaches (beginning next week), senators and House reps may begin receiving a flood of calls from unhappy voters demanding stronger consumer representation, particularly in the face of companies such as Verizon that so carefully (and cryptically) weigh the terms and definitions with which they describe the exchange of user data as outlined in their privacy policies. There’s a chance that elected representatives concerned with constituents’ privacy concerns may focus their energies on legislation advocating for corporate transparency when it comes to the purchasing of telecommunications data between ISPs and companies -- but they will only feel the pressure to do so if their constituents, in turn, feel threatened by the increasingly open data market that the new administration is beginning to design, and quickly realize.

Photo courtesy of @epicantus.

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