Consumer privacy seems a thing of the past.

The U.S Senate overturned Obama-era broadband privacy rules that required internet providers to seek permission to share their users’ web browsing history. “A victory for internet service providers and a blow to privacy advocates“, wrote David Shepardson of Reuters commenting on the development.

In an effort to level the playing field for the ISPs (Internet Service Providers), and bringing regulatory oversight of ISPs at par with other internet-based companies (Google, Facebook, Bing), the U.S Senate did what no consumer asked for. They changed the privacy rules to let ISPs use private data and sell it at will.

Companies such as AT&T, Comcast, and Verizon Communications will be able to sell consumers’ browsing history without users’ consent. It is a major departure from the previous rules that prevented the broadband companies from selling/share data with third parties without the express approval of consumers.

The Opposing Camp

The opposing camp’s hue and cry started when the FCC (led by Obama-administration) put ISPs under more stringent regulatory rules in October 2016 compared to other internet-ecosystem companies such as Facebook, Snapchat, Google, and Pandora.

The argument of anti-privacy camp, which includes AT&T, Verizon, and Comcast, was that they should be subjected to similar regulations as being used for other internet companies.

The FCC’s laser focus on ISPs, it turns out, has little to do with the agency’s losing argument that broadband providers have “unique” access to “comprehensive” consumer information. Nor is it because, as the FCC also claims, consumers can’t change ISPs as easily as they can “instantaneously (and without penalty) switch search engines (including to ones that provide extra privacy protections), surf among competing websites, and select among diverse applications.” wrote Larry Downes in Harvard Business Review.

What Downes fails to appreciate is that ISPs do have unique access to comprehensive consumer information, and they can couple it with their ability to throttle or fast track content from certain providers (say Google, Facebook or Amazon). It is not possible vice versa (Google throttling Comcast/Verizon’s content).

Therefore, the alternative viewpoint, peddled by telecom and broadband companies as well as the House Republicans fail to consider that an ISP has a far greater leverage on consumers (switching cost for consumers is higher) and therefore should be treated differently.

Why ISPs Lobbied Against Obama-Era Rules?

At the heart of this tug of war is a multi-billion dollar online advertising industry. Until now, Google and Facebook have ruled it. Now, broadband companies want to share the pie and Trump administration, especially FCC and its new chairman Ajit Pai are helping them. They’re overturning privacy laws.

We discussed in another post about Net Neutrality that regulation of ISPs under Title II of The Communications Act of 1934 is a major cause of concern for broadband companies and President Trump’s anti-regulation aides. The Title II adopts a stringent regulatory regime whereas FCC wants to implement a light-touch regulatory approach. It’s not only about the privacy laws and adopting a ‘light touch’ approach. It’s also about ensuring ‘net neutrality’ which has come under attack both from FCC and broadband companies.

It’s a no-brainer that the telecom companies are praising President Trump. Randall Stephenson, Chairman, and CEO of AT&T dubbed President Trump “as a positive development for the industry

Stephenson heaped praise on FCC’s chairman Ajit Pai for clearing up all the regulatory issues of Telecom companies that were queued up at the FCC including consumer privacy, net neutrality, and business data services. Pai is an ex-Verizon lawyer.

Pai and the broadband companies are also misleading the consumers by giving complicated statements about FCC’s previous regulations. For instance. Ajit Pai proposed to eliminate net neutrality by stating that his measure will enhance net neutrality. It was far from the truth. John Oliver’s show on Net Neutrality is a good start to understanding how FCC is screwing up the consumer privacy and net neutrality.

Consumer Privacy Advocates

However, the privacy hawks and people conscious of their online security and privacy oppose the liberal regulatory regime peddled by President Donald Trump and his aides. And, rightly so.

At stake is the personal information of millions of people such as their email addresses, geolocation data, financial information, and health information.

The American Civil Liberties Union also condemned the elimination of privacy regulations.  “ISPs should not be able to use and sell the sensitive data they collect from you without your permission“, the union commented.

A democrat senator observed that “Just last week I bought underwear on the internet. Why should you know what size I take? Or the color?” Capuano asked. “They are going to sell it to the underwear companies.”

The privacy-minded people are probably right. “ISPs will be able to see their users’ visits to porn sites, health concerns, political views, shopping habits and sexual orientation“, wrote Olivia Solon from The Guardian.

U.S Representative for Minnesota Kieth Ellison ripped GOP for loosening the privacy laws in favor of telecom and broadband companies. His short speech is worth watching.

What Can Consumers Do?

Consumers need to be mindful of the fact the ISPs spent north of $8 million on lobbying for the repeal of Section 222 of The Communications Act. And, there’s nothing that corporate America or the U.S House of Representatives will do to save their privacy.

There are examples from the recent past, such as an attempt to recategorize ISPs under Title I of The Communications Act, and the repeal of Obama-era privacy laws that will gut the net neutrality. It will tilt the balance of power in favor of ISPs.

No surprise that privacy advocates have termed the attempt as “surrendering the internet” to ISPs.

You’ll have to take charge of your online privacy and make sure your activity is not monitored by hackers, government agencies, and snoopers.

This is where steps such as using VPNs and antivirus software can save your data being sold to greedy 3rd parties. Here’s a list of VPNs that will get you up to speed when you want to ensure your online privacy. A VPN hides user identity by anonymizing IP addresses.

You may go through a detailed review of VPNs and privacy tools. This will help you assess the pros and cons of each and make an informed decision.

 

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