On Tuesday, House Republicans joined the Senate in undoing rules that keep internet service providers from selling your personal online data – a landmark victory for telecommunications agencies.
In a mostly party-line vote of 215 to 205, they repealed Federal Communications Commission rules created in the waning moments of Barack Obama’s presidency in October that were set to go into effect later this year.
Those rules barred ISPs – such as Comcast, Charter, AT&T and CenturyLink – from selling browsing history, location data, shopping habits and other information without user’s permission, similar to how Facebook and Google collect and build data profiles that they sell to advertisers.
The repeal also prohibits the FCC from enacting similar laws in the future.
All that’s left before ISPs can theoretically start collecting data is a signature from President Donald Trump – which is expected to come in the near future.
For the average resident in the Inland Northwest, what does this mean and how does it affect you?
Internet Privacy 101
Odds are, if you use Facebook or Google – companies that are not regulated by the FCC – your online data is already being collected and sold. Ever wonder why a recent search on Amazon results in an advertisement of that product on your Facebook page or Instagram account?
That’s because by using these products and agreeing to the terms of service, you’re also agreeing to allow them access to some of your data – shopping habits, what you’re searching on Google, the friends you’re stalking on Facebook, etc.
Users who are against this practice can simply opt out by not using the product or visiting the website, explained Elizabeth Blanks Hindman, an associate professor of media law at Washington State University in Pullman.
But with ISPs, there’s no way to “opt out” in the traditional sense, since most people connect to the internet through them, which is why some online consumer activists are upset, Blanks Hindman said. And simply opening a web browser in private mode won’t hide your activity, some blogs say.
“If Google or Facebook knows what I do on Google or Facebook, they don’t know what I do on my work email,” she said. “Whereas an ISP is going to be able to sell all of my information to somebody.”
Tom Wheeler, who was the chairman of the FCC from 2013 to 2017, also took issue with the repeal and lambasted it in a New York Times column that ran Thursday.
“Here’s one perverse result of this action,” he wrote. “When you make a voice call on your smartphone, the information is protected: Your phone company can’t sell the fact that you are calling car dealerships to others who want to sell you a car. But if the same device and the same network are used to contact car dealers through the internet, that information – the same information, in fact – can be captured and sold by the network.”
In an article on Vox, technology and economics writer Timothy Lee wrote that “ISPs could have a unique advantage in this market” because they monitor all of the websites their customers visit, not just the ones in a company’s ad network.
“If you visit a lot of travel sites, for example, your ISP might have software that tells ad networks to show you more ads for airline flights or hotel rooms,” Lee wrote.
Lee noted the FCC already featured an “opt-in” rule that allowed ISPs to collect data if consumers explicitly signed up, but if Trump signs the bill, “ISPs could potentially start sharing customer information by default, with the only notification being some boilerplate buried in the terms of service that few customers ever read,” he wrote.
How does this affect me?
In a statement released after the vote by USTelecom – the nation’s leading telecommunications trade association – CEO Jonathan Spalter praised the decision Congress made, saying it was “another step to remove unnecessary rules and regulations that handicap economic growth and innovation.”
“Consumers can rest easy today knowing their privacy is protected under existing FCC authority, which requires companies to keep consumers’ data safe,” he said.
But that doesn’t have some Washington state lawmakers convinced. A day after news of the House’s vote came down, U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell, who voted against the repeal, tweeted “Republicans want to allow ISPs to sell off your private data & personal info to the highest bidder, and it’s wrong.”
She also linked to an editorial in the Walla Walla Union-Bulletin newspaper that called for more privacy laws rather than eliminating them.
Meanwhile, U.S. Reps. Cathy McMorris Rodgers and Raul Labrador voted in favor of the repeal.
McMorris Rodgers said privacy protections remain in place.
“Those concerned about their privacy can rest assured knowing that consumer privacy protections are still in place. The vote we took yesterday, and one that I support, is to repeal the Federal Communications Commission rules that overturned the Federal Trade Commission’s longstanding, successful framework for protecting consumer privacy,” she said in a statement released by her office. “The vote by Congress reaffirms the FTC’s role as the primary regulator, and maintains the long-established framework for regulating Internet Service Providers and protecting customers’ personal network information.”
In Spokane County, the two largest ISPs are CenturyLink and Comcast, according to www.highspeedinternet.com. Comcast provides service to about 100,000 homes in Spokane County, according to numbers provided by Walter Neary, Comcast’s Washington market senior communication director.
Comcast also contributed about $7 million in campaign contributions and spent another $14 million in lobbying last year, according to www.opensecrets.org.
In Idaho, the largest ISPs are Frontier and Time Warner Spectrum.
Under the banner “What information does CenturyLink have?” the company admitted to looking at specific websites being visited and types of applications being used in order to “check for viruses, to control spam, to prevent attacks that might disable our services.”
Under “How does CenturyLink use customer information?” the company also noted it “may use customer information to provide our services and keep you informed of changes to them, to market our services and sometimes those of others.”
Comcast had a similar privacy statement. Time Warner Spectrum and Frontier also had similar terms of service, and all three denied requests for comment.
What can I do to avoid data collection?
Avoiding a company or website is easy. But avoiding connecting to the internet altogether is tricky.
On Reddit and other forums, message boards and blogs, one of the top recommendations for people wishing to avoid having their data collected is to set up a Virtual Private Network – or VPN.
A VPN, as Blanks Hindman puts it, is a way for users to mask their online identity by essentially connecting to a virtualized extension of a private network.
“The best example I can give is my daughter who studied abroad in China,” she said. “In China there’s pretty clear restrictions on internet use – they block a lot of sites. What my daughter would do is, she would be on a computer in China and she would ‘VPN’ into her college website. It looked like she was in the United States and she could access a lot of sites even though she was in China.”
While it sounds complicated, there are multiple how-tos and guides that have popped up in wake of the vote with step-by-step directions. However, most premium VPNs cost money and the whole process does have a learning curve.
But, “there’s no other way around it,” Blanks Hindman said. “If you’re upset about Google … knowing everything you do, you use one of the others. You can go somewhere else. But it’s really hard to get another internet service provider. It’s complicated.”