Last week both the house and the senate passed a bill that weakened the FCC rules for internet privacy. Unfortunately, the majority of our lawmakers are not tech savvy—let alone competent with your average desktop—and they are also heavily lobbied by telecommunication companies (and Silicon Valley, but that’s for another time).
To understand the impact of this, and why it passed, we must first understand the original Communications Act of 1934. The act established the Federal Communications Commissions (or FCC) to regulate existing industries—meaning telephones, telegraphs, and radios. Importantly, it requires carriers to keep customers’ information confidential. The act had been used to interpret how modern technology and data such as browsing history can be used, but since the laws were written long before the advent of google the laws were a little fuzzy.
That changed under the Obama administration back in 2015, if anyone recalls the fight for net neutrality. Some consequences of the new restrictions meant that the ambiguity left by the 1934 Act were cleared up: your provider could not use any information that they had collected on customers without getting permission from that customer. There were other nebulous aspects of the new rules, but at its simplest that is what it meant.
It was these rules that were killed in Congress and Senate last week. Meaning that we were once again left with the ambiguity of the Communications act of 1934. Corporations argued that the rules enacted in 2015 were unfairly applied to them, and that they inhibited their ability to be competitive with Google and Facebook when it came to advertising. The thought on the part of lawmakers was the usual catch phrase: the free market will correct for any unruly behaviors on the part of corporations. The flaw in this thinking is that unlike Facebook or Google, where the consumer can choose to use another social media platform or search engine, is that in many parts of the country there is only one internet provider. There is no “opt out” or even option to switch providers. Telling people to simply choose not to have internet access is obviously not a solution, nor is it a natural way for the market to “sort itself out” because of how much we rely on the internet today.
Your internet provider has legitimate reasons to collect data in order to provide you with a service. It needs to know your location, and what you are trying to do, and what server you are trying to connect to is located, so that it can find the most efficient way of connecting you. So, if you are playing World of Warcraft it needs to know this to create the quickest path between you and WoW server. Your provider can also see when you have connected to a domain, so say The Wall Street Journal. It cannot however see individual pages you have looked at. Still though, that’s an awful lot of information they have on you.
The most likely thing providers like Comcast, Verizon, AT&T, etc. will use your data for, is to provide more specific ads catered to consumers. These companies were just getting into their advertising stride when the new FCC rules came into place. They were purposefully buying up other corporations, like Verizon buying out AOL, to obtain advertising technologies. Shutting down the FCC’s laws had little positive impact outside of lining the pockets of telecommunications companies. It had a great deal of impact on the rights of consumers to the security of their private internet use.
Minnesota’s House and Senate came to the defense on Friday (March 31st) of internet privacy. It approved new legislation to prevent providers from using the collected data without customer permission. It was added on as an amendment to the state budget. It goes on to prevent providers from refusing to serve anyone who opts out of their data-sharing programs.
It is nice to see a state stand up make rules like this, but one state is not enough. If enough states get together and add similar legislation it could force companies to comply, but legislation passed in Minnesota will have no direct effect on customers living in Texas. Our lawmakers need to decide that internet security is as important as physical security, and to take it seriously. Sadly, far too many do not understand the technology in play, so it might be some time before we see more security protections put in as federal law.
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