Senate OKs Sale of Your Web History To Advertisers

All your data are belong to us: If the GOP has its way, your web browsing history, log-in and log-out times, and applications use information will be for sale.

The Senate voted along party lines to abolish an Obama-era rule that required internet service providers (ISPs) to get their customers’ consent before selling their web browsing history and other personal information. According to Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), the privacy rules that were adopted in the waning days of Obama’s presidency “hurt job creators and stifle economic growth.”

“Job creators” is the GOP’s preferred euphemism for corporate interests. Senator Cornyn did not offer any estimate on how many jobs would be created or how much the economy would grow by allowing ISPs to auction off their customers’ internet behavior to the highest bidder.

Senator Bill Nelson (D-FL) sketched out several plausible results of allowing ISPs to market people’s personal information. He noted that your ISP “may know immediately if you are not feeling well—assuming you decide to peruse the internet like most of us to get a quick check on your symptoms. In fact, your broadband provider may know more about your health—and your reaction to illness—than you are willing to share with your doctor.”

Although websites such as Google and Facebook can freely sell their pages’ visitors’ information to advertisers, the Obama rules would have prevented ISPs from doing so. Republicans argued that this discrepancy between what’s allowed by websites and what’s allowed by ISPs would create “confusion” in consumers’ minds.

“American consumers should not have to be lawyers or engineers to figure out if their information is protected,” said Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai, a Republican who has strenuously opposed privacy protections. His solution to this alleged consumer confusion, though, is to create an internet environment where all user information is for sale.

The problem, though, from a consumer protection point of view, is that while people can freely choose which websites to visit, it is much more difficult to choose or to switch ISPs. Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR) noted that few consumers have a choice of ISPs. People concerned about protecting their privacy may then face a choice between “giving up their browsing history . . . or having no internet at all.”

To make matters worse for consumers, the back-and-forth political wrangling over the question of privacy on the internet may create a legal environment in which no government agency has the power to regulate ISPs and protect consumer privacy. Internet regulation is shared between the Federal Communications Commission and the Federal Trade Commission. The Senate vote to roll back the Obama privacy rules forbids the FCC from adopting similar regulations in the future. And last year, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that AT&T’s ISP operations were exempt from FTC regulation because ISPs are “common carriers” more properly regulated by the FCC. It is unlikely that the anti-regulation GOP majorities in Congress would support giving either agency more rule-making power to protect consumer privacy.

ISP now stands for “information sold for profit” and “invading subscriber privacy,” argued Senator Ed Markey (D-MA) in the debate over the Senate bill.

The measure will now move to the House of Representatives. If passed there, it will be presented to President Trump for signature or veto.

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