On Tuesday, the U.S. House of Representatives approved legislation to revoke new online privacy rules the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) adopted in 2016 to protect consumers by govern the data collection and sharing of consumers' personal information by Internet Service providers (ISPs). Several cable, telecommunications, and advertising lobbies sent a letter in January asking Congress to remove the new broadband privacy rules, which they viewed as burdensome.
Congress quickly complied. The new legislation consisted of two companion bills: Senate Joint Resolution 34 (S.J. Res. 34) and House Joint Resolution 86 (H.J. Res. 86). The House vote was close: 210 to 205 with 215 Republican representatives voting for S.J. Res. 34. 190 Democratic and 15 Republican representatives voted against it. Consumers can view H.J. Res. 86 votes by their elected officials.
Representative Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) introduced the legislation in the House. Blackburn said plenty in an interview published on Breitbart News:
"What we are doing is recalling a privacy rule that the FCC issued right at the end of the Obama administration, and the reason we are doing this is because it is additional and duplicative regulation... What the FCC did was clearly overreach. It gives you two sets of regulators that you’re trying to comply with, not one. So we are recalling the FCC’s rule, and that authority will go back to the FTC...”
"What the Obama administration did... they reclassified your Internet service as Title II, which is a common carrier classification. It is the rule that governs telephone usage... Those rules were put on the books in the thirties. So what the Democrats did... they reclassified Internet, which is an information service, as a telephone service, and then put those 1930s-era rules on top of your Internet service... They did that so they could tax it, so they could begin to regulate it..."
"You don’t need another layer of regulation. It’s like flashing alerts: We don’t need net neutrality. We don’t need Title II. We don’t need additional regulations heaped on the Internet under Title II. The Internet is not broken. It has done just fine without the government controlling it."
Not broken? Really? The founder of the internet, Tim Berners-Lee gave three solid reasons why the internet is broken. His number one reason on his list: consumers have lost control over their personal information.
Plus, Representative Blackburn either doesn't know history or has chosen to ignore it. Several problems have plagued the industry: a lack of ISP competition in key markets, consumers in the United States pay more for broadband and get slower speeds compared to other countries, and numerous privacy violations and lawsuits:
Clearly, the FCC had to act; and it did. Congress held hearings, too.
The Senate passed S.J. Res. 34 about a week before the House vote Tuesday. The Senate vote was also close: 50 to 48. Senator Jeff Flake (R-Arizona) introduced the legislation in the Senate, and he repeated the same over-reach claims:
"The FCC’s midnight regulation has the potential to limit consumer choice, stifle innovation, and jeopardize data security by destabilizing the internet ecosystem. Passing my resolution is the first step toward restoring a consumer-friendly approach to internet privacy regulation that empowers consumers to make informed choices on if and how their data can be shared. It will not change or lessen existing consumer privacy protections.”
Consumers can view S.J. Res 34 votes by their elected officials. The press release by Senator Flake's office also stated:
"Flake’s resolution, S.J.Res. 34, would not change or lessen existing consumer privacy regulations. It is designed to block an attempt by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to expand its regulatory jurisdiction and impose prescriptive data restrictions on internet service providers. These restrictions have the potential to negatively impact consumers and the future of internet innovation."
Flake's spin of "midnight regulation" is unfair and inaccurate. The new FCC privacy rules were proposed in April 2016, and enacted in October. That provided plenty of time for discussion and input from consumers, experts, and companies. In March 2016, the FCC released a broadband privacy Fact Sheet, which explained the need for the new privacy rules:
"Telephone networks have had clear, enforceable privacy rules for decades, but broadband networks currently do not... An ISP handles all of its customers’ network traffic, which means it has an unobstructed view of all of their unencrypted online activity – the websites they visit, the applications they use. If customers have a mobile device, their provider can track their physical and online activities throughout the day in real time. Even when data is encrypted, broadband providers can still see the websites that a customer visits, how often they visit them, and the amount of time they spend on each website. Using this information, ISPs can piece together enormous amounts of information about their customers – including private information such as a chronic medical condition or financial problems. A consumer’s relationship with her ISP is very different than the one she has with a website or app. Consumers can move instantaneously to a different website, search engine or application. But once they sign up for broadband service, consumers can scarcely avoid the network for which they are paying a monthly fee."
To distinguish spin from facts, it is critical to read the FCC announcement of its new broadband privacy rules from last year:
"Opt-in: ISPs are required to obtain affirmative “opt-in” consent from consumers to use and share sensitive information. The rules specify categories of information that are considered sensitive, which include precise geo-location, financial information, health information, children’s information, social security numbers, web browsing history, app usage history and the content of communications.
Opt-out: ISPs would be allowed to use and share non-sensitive information unless a customer “opts-out.” All other individually identifiable customer information – for example, email address or service tier information – would be considered non-sensitive and the use and sharing of that information would be subject to opt-out consent, consistent with consumer expectations.
Exceptions to consent requirements: Customer consent is inferred for certain purposes specified in the statute, including the provision of broadband service or billing and collection. For the use of this information, no additional customer consent is required beyond the creation of the customer-ISP relationship.
Transparency requirements that require ISPs to provide customers with clear, conspicuous and persistent notice about the information they collect, how it may be used and with whom it may be shared, as well as how customers can change their privacy preferences;
A requirement that broadband providers engage in reasonable data security practices and guidelines on steps ISPs should consider taking, such as implementing relevant industry best practices, providing appropriate oversight of security practices, implementing robust customer authentication tools, and proper disposal of data consistent with FTC best practices and the Consumer Privacy Bill of Rights.
Common-sense data breach notification requirements to encourage ISPs to protect the confidentiality of customer data, and to give consumers and law enforcement notice of failures to protect such information."
Sounds clear, reasonable, and appropriate. Not perfect, but an improvement of what was before. Addressed transparency concerns, too. To summarize, the new FCC broadband privacy rules kept consumers in control of their sensitive personal information. By revoking those rules, Congress is effectively telling consumers they shouldn't be in control of their own information and ISPs should be in control.
Do you want to be in control of your personal information online? I do, and I suspect you do, too.
Think about the consequences. Once the legislation is signed by President Trump, ISPs will be free to collect, use, and share information describing your online activities. Your ISP is in a unique position because it can scan all un-encrypted data flowing through your internet connection. That typically includes: a) the websites you visit and apps you use; b) which items in "a" you use repeatedly, when and how long; c) the searches you perform online at search engine sites, and via personal assistants, d) activity generated by appliances, televisions, thermostats, security systems, and other devices connected to your home WiFi; and d) the geo-location or where in the physical world your perform online activities. (Besides your smartphone, several devices including your car, fitness bands, smart watches, and wearables collect and share your geo-location data.) Perhaps most importantly, your ISP won't need your consent and probably won't tell you what it is sharing and with whom.
Think about the consequences.
It's not just porn. Your online activities reveal plenty: 1) appointment confirmation emails from your doctor reveal the type of doctor and imply certain medical conditions or procedures; 2) online visits to your bank(s) reveal the types of money and the location of your bank accounts; 3) online activities by your CHILDREN reveal much, including the types of toys and devices they use; 4) work-from-home can reveal proprietary information your employer does not want disclosed; and 5) simple curiosity becomes dangerous. Example: a rash appears on your skin, so you surf over to WebMD to read about symptoms and what it might be. Or, maybe you're reading about a condition of an elderly parentor family member. Problem is: your ISP can infer from your online activities conditions and diseases relate to you, even though they may not. Another example: health care organizations have to comply with HIPPA regulations to protect patients' privacy. Many patients use online healthcare portals by their hospital to coordinate care by several doctors and surgeons. Will your ISP honor HIPPA regulations? They probably won't.
Think about the consequences.
All of that information collected about your online activities could be used against you someday... when you apply for a job, when you sign up for insurance, when you apply for a loan, when you try to adopt a baby or child. Remember, two huge industries exist to help companies buy, sell, and trade information (data brokers); the second (data mining) to help companies merge, manipulate, and analyze the data they've collected and bought.
Think about the consequences. Your ISP may not allow you to decline (e.g., opt out of) the data collection, tracking, usage, and sharing. Or your ISP may charge more fees for online privacy. Don't think that can't happen. Comcast and industry lobbyists have already stated that they want "pay-for-privacy" schemes. So, with Congress' latest action, consumers may soon see price increases and higher monthly internet and wireless bills.
Some consumers are worried, and are exploring technical solutions to thwart ISPs that snoop. The problem: there is no cure-all solution. Some people are angry. To show lawmakers how terrible their decision was, a crowd-funding campaign was started to raise money to buy (and then publish publicly) the internet histories of leading Republicans (e.g., Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, House Speaker Paul Ryan, House Representative Marsh Blackburn) and FCC members who voted for and support the privacy-busting legislation. So, we may then learn which members of Congress watch the most porn.
Lawmakers in some states are already responding to voters' online privacy concerns. In Illinois, lawmakers have introduced two items of legislation: the Geolocation Privacy Protection Act (GPPA) and the Right To Know Act (RTKA). Lawmakers in Nevada introduced geolocation privacy legislation. More states will likely follow.
With the FCC broadband privacy rules revoked, there are five creepy things your ISP could do. What are your opinions of Congress revoking FCC broadband privacy rules?
[Editor's note: this blog post was revised on Friday, March 31 with links to new legislation in Illinois and Nevada.]