Assuming President Donald Trump signs the legislation that Congress sent to him Tuesday, March 28, our internet privacy will be taking a huge hit in the very near future. The House of Representatives voted to free internet service providers like AT&T, Verizon, and Comcast of protections the Obama administration put into place in 2016. As a result, your internet browsing history could start being sold to the highest bidder.
What Changed, and Why?
During the Obama administration, rules were set by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to govern what companies could do with information such as your browsing history, app usage history, location data, and even your Social Security Number. Those rules were supposed to go into effect at the end of 2017.
As Bryan Wolfe pointed out yesterday, the bill the House voted on today allows internet service providers to sell your personal data without your consent. In essence, the rules were killed to allow the internet service providers to compete with the likes of Google and Facebook in the $83 billion online advertising market.
Wait, the Rules Aren't in Effect Yet?
It’s the consumers’ information. How it is used should be the consumers’ choice. not the choice of some corporate algorithm.- Former FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler
Yes, you read that correctly. The rules enacted by the Obama administration aren’t even in effect yet, so there wasn’t yet much protection for Internet privacy. The reason for them was fairly clear, as then-FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler pointed out. The Commission wanted to give companies enough time to adapt to the policies, so it set the rules to go into effect 12 months after the ruling passed the FCC’s vote.
In other words, Congress has taken away privacy rights we never really had. Also, the rules enacted by the FCC weren’t going to apply to providers like Google and Facebook, something internet service providers complained about. We were supposed to get some privacy protections, though, and it’s tragic that the ruling has been repealed.
Good Bye Internet Privacy, Hello Big Brother
It’s no secret that search engines, social media sites, and streaming video sites already collect information on what we do on the Internet. Imagine, though, that everything you did online was visible to them. Every email you send, every web site you visit without using a search engine, and even every torrent you download. All of that information, thanks to the US Senate and House, is now available to the highest bidder.
This recent vote could easily be a sign of worse things to come. It shows that internet providers are going to be given a lot more freedom to do what they will. Not only is our privacy at stake, but the FCC’s rules on net neutrality could be rolled back. That would mean a return to the days when internet providers could block content they don’t like, or charge web sites a fee to reach their consumers over faster internet speeds.
Does Online Advertising Really Matter?
As previously stated, the online advertising business is an $83 billion industry. Bear this in mind: just about every web site you visit is already sharing your data with other advertising networks or other third parties. The name of the game is measuring or targeting ads that will appeal to you. The predominant business model online is already supported by advertising, so you’re not likely to notice any obvious changes.
The problem, here, is that it’s one more way that your personal data can be sold without you even knowing about it, much less consenting to it. More ethical web sites display a disclaimer letting you know that they’re tracking you and possibly sending your personal information to advertising networks. That’s not required by law for advertising, though. Service providers won’t be required to let you know if they’re violating your Internet privacy by sharing your data, either.
I Don’t Like Where This is Headed
Companies like Verizon and Comcast stand to gain a lot from this legislation. They want to become online advertising behemoths, and this latest vote could enable that. The worst part of it is that there’s precious little any of us can do about it. Sure, we can reroute some of our internet traffic through Virtual Private Networks (VPNs), but quite a few sites block those. Netflix is one of them. I wish I could hope that President Trump wouldn’t sign the bill, but it’s a pretty sure thing at this point. So much for internet privacy.