US politicians voted Tuesday to kill privacy rules meant to prevent internet service providers (ISPs) from selling users’ web browsing histories and app usage histories to advertisers.
The planned protections, proposed by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and scheduled to take effect by the end of 2017, would have forced ISPs to get people’s consent before hawking their data.
Republicans in the House of Representatives followed their colleagues in the Senate with a vote – of 231 to 189 – to approve a resolution that uses the Congressional Review Act to prevent the privacy rules from taking effect.
Without these protections, ISPs such as Comcast, Verizon and AT&T are free to track your browsing behavior and sell that data to advertisers without consent. This represents an enormous treasure trove of personal data, including your health concerns, shopping habits and visits to porn sites. ISPs can find out where you bank, your political views and sexual orientation simply based on the websites you visit. The fact that you’re looking at a website at all can also reveal when you’re at home and when you’re not.
“Give me one good reason why Comcast should know what my mother’s medical problems are,” said congressman Mike Capuano during the hearing before the vote, explaining how he had researched her condition after a trip to the doctor. “Just last week I bought underwear on the internet. Why should you know what size I take? Or the color?”
“Consumers should be in control of their own information,” added congressman Jared Polis. “They shouldn’t be forced to sell it to who knows who simply for the price of admission to access the internet.”
Others argued that repealing the privacy rules would be anti-competitive and give more power to a handful of companies.
Democrat Ro Khanna pointed out that Americans already pay much more for broadband than Europeans thanks to “monopolistic, anti-competitive practices”.
“Instead of making the industry more competitive, what this bill wants to do is give these four or five ISPs even more power,” he said.
“These companies are not going broke,” Capuano added. “The internet is not in jeopardy.”
Those in favor of repealing the privacy rules argued that it levels the playing field for internet service providers who want to get into the advertising business like Google and Facebook. According to ISPs, scrapping the rules will allow them to show the user more relevant advertising and offers, which would give the companies better return on the investment they have made in infrastructure. They argue that web browsing history and app usage should not count as “sensitive” information.
In the run-up to the hearing, privacy campaigners argued that ISPs should be treated differently from Google and Facebook, as in many cases consumers only have one choice of broadband provider. You can choose not to use Facebook or Google’s search engine, and there are lots of tools you can use to block their tracking on other parts of the web, for example, Privacy Badger from the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), a nonprofit civil liberties group.
It’s much harder to prevent ISPs from tracking you. To mask all of your browsing behavior you can use a VPN service (which incurs a subscription cost) or try using Tor, both of which make browsing more complicated.
What’s the next step for privacy campaigners? The EFF’s Jeremy Gillula said: “It’s certainly a bit of a Hail Mary, but I think we’d try to convince President Trump that signing a bill that helps big corporate interests by eliminating Americans’ privacy and weakening their cybersecurity isn’t exactly ‘draining the swamp’.”
“If that doesn’t work, then we can still try to make some headway with state legislatures; continue working to encrypt the entire web; and work harder on creating other, easy-to-use tools people can use to protect their privacy from the snooping eyes of their internet provider.”
Unfortunately for the EFF, the White House issued a statement before the vote stating that the Trump administration supported the repeal.