ISPs, the FCC, and the Stuff You Do on the Internet: A Rundown of Congress’ New Internet Privacy Law

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Nowadays, people are willing to publicize a vast amount of private information. From locations and dates of birth to sexual orientation and relationship status, almost every aspect of a person’s life can often be found online with a few clicks. Yet, there is one area of our lives that we generally try to guard—our online search histories. I, for one, get a little nervous when someone asks to borrow my computer, just in case they open up my search history (not because there’s anything particular damning or deviant, I’m not that interesting).

If you’re judging me and thinking that you’ve got nothing to hide, I have great news: President Trump just signed legislation that eliminate FCC protections against ISPs (like AT&T and Comcast) collecting and using customer information, such as browsing history, location information, and Social Security numbers. The legislation will allow providers monitor their customers’ behavior online and use that information to sell targeted advertisements. The providers would also be able to sell user information to companies that “mine” personal data, who could then use the information without consumer consent.

For context, the FCC issued a rule in October that allowed consumers to bar ISPs from sharing their personal information. Critics of this regulation pointed out that companies like Google were not required to ask users’ permission to collect their data, so the regulation arguably removed a level playing field. They now argue that the new legislation will do away with this discrepancy without jeopardizing consumer privacy because the FCC is already empowered to protect user privacy.

Critics of the new legislation argue that ISPs have access to far more information than search engines or streaming sites, and that consumers are often unable to opt out of using their service provider (although they can theoretically opt out of using a search engine, like Google). Moreover, critics assert that rolling back the regulation takes away any meaningful power on the part of the FCC to protect consumer privacy. Without the regulation, and without the prospect of any future regulatory guidance, the FCC is left without any guidelines or standards as to how it should act.

As is the case with most political matters, there is probably a path somewhere in the middle that makes more sense than buying into either sides’ argument wholesale. Given that companies like Google have access to a large measure of consumer information, it isn’t quite accurate to portray the legislation as completely jeopardizing consumer privacy. Nevertheless, the degree of information available to ISPs far surpasses that available to other companies. The legislation does strip away our privacy, and it strips the FCC—the regulatory agency in charge of this area—of its ability to enforce consumer privacy.

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