A major event occurred last October when a federal agency delivered a ruling in favor of protecting our privacy. As reported in The Washington Post:
Federal officials delivered a landmark ruling in favor of online privacy Thursday, limiting how Internet providers use and sell customer data, while asserting that customers have a right to control their personal information.
Under the Federal Communications Commission’s new rules, consumers may forbid Internet providers from sharing sensitive personal information, such as app and browsing histories, mobile location data and other information generated while using the Internet.
The fresh regulations come as Internet providers race to turn their customers’ behavioral data into opportunities to sell targeted advertising. No longer satisfied with being mere conduits to the Web, these companies increasingly view the information they collect as a source of revenue.
The 3-2 party line vote by the FCC’s five commissioners, led by Chairman Tom Wheeler, a Democrat, was a major blow to some of Washington’s most politically powerful companies, including AT&T, Verizon and Comcast, which had hoped to use their privileged access to user data to build lucrative businesses by targeting advertising across multiple devices. It also was a rare win for privacy advocates, who had struggled to convince the Obama administration and its recent predecessors that the Internet age requires a major overhaul of privacy laws and regulations.”
But now, just five months later, this has all changed. With a new head of the FCC and a new Congress, these privacy regulations to protect our privacy have been thrown out.
The Senate just voted to rescind the regulations and to give the Internet providers what they’ve been lobbying for. The House still needs to vote, but it’s a forgone conclusion that it will pass.
The providers can now track all of our web browsing and use that information however they choose, including selling it to advertisers, insurance companies, and essentially anyone else. They don’t need our permission, nor do they need to tell us they are doing this. And if this new law wasn’t bad enough, it also prevents the FCC from ever enacting new privacy laws in the future, even if the lawmakers change their mind.
The providers, including Verizon, Comcast, AT&T, and Charter, contend that Google is able to track us, and they simply want to do the same. They see how successful Google has been in monetizing our information, and they want their share as well.
But there are differences. We don’t have to use Google and can opt out of being tracked if we chose. And we allow Google to track us in exchange for free services they provide us, including directions, email, apps, storage, and much more. It’s a trade-off we choose, knowing the arrangement beforehand.
In the case of carriers, we don’t have a choice; we need them to go on the Internet and we pay them for that service. For them to now monetize our browsing habits without our permission and with no choice to opt out seriously affects our privacy. In fact, few customers will know that they are being tracked.
What’s ironic is that when I traveled to China for business, I would use a VPN (virtual private network) instead of the country’s networks that were known to track users and block many of the sites we use. Who would have thought we’d need to do the same in this country to avoid being tracked?
With a new chief of the FCC, Ajit Pai, and new Congress, this is just the beginning of major changes to the regulations governing the Internet. The next big change is expected to be a reversal of net neutrality, the current law that prevents providers from blocking lawful content, throttling data, and prioritizing data from one company over another. It’s the law that treats the Internet much the way phone lines are regulated, allowing all communication to pass without favoritism, and for all companies to be treated equally.
But the Internet providers have fought this law as well. They want the flexibility to charge different rates to different companies for different speeds. Eliminating net neutrality is of particular interest to those providers that own entertainment companies that provide content, because it means they can provide favorable rates for their own programs, giving them an advantage over other content companies. Net neutrality also protects small, innovative companies that rely on the Internet to deliver their products and services from much larger companies that can afford to pay much higher rates.
These are just two examples of how forces are at work to change the Internet as we know it; expect to see some heated debates in the coming months.