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The Senate Just Sold Out Your Privacy Online to Corporations Like Comcast

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Neema Singh Guliani,
Former Senior Legislative Counsel,
American Civil Liberties Union
Nathaniel Turner,
Lobbyist Assistant,
Washington Legislative Office
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March 24, 2017

Should companies like Comcast be able to sell your internet browsing history without your permission? Most Americans would say “no,” yet the Senate voted to allow just that.

A resolution, passed by a thin margin of 50-48 in the Senate, could overturn rules developed by the Federal Communications Commission last year, which required most internet service providers (ISPs) to get your consent before using and selling your web browsing history and other sensitive data. The resolution also prohibits the FCC from issuing rules that are substantially the same in the future.

The FCC rules are necessary to ensure that large companies like AT&T, Comcast, and Verizon don’t put their profits above our right to choose how our online information is used and shared. Here are three reasons why the House of Representatives should vote no to overturning the FCC rules.

1. Companies would be able to sell your sensitive data to advertisers, big data brokers, and even the government.

Without the FCC rules, ISPs won’t have to ask your permission before passing along deeply revealing data — your browsing history, IP address (which can indicate your location), app usage, and the times you log in and out of services — to third parties. These third parties could be advertising firms and big data brokers, both of which have a troubling history of discrimination. With the data they get from ISPs, these third parties could get insight into your religion, sexual orientation, or even how often you binge-watch Netflix. Even more disturbing, the government could also purchase this data for law enforcement or other uses.

2. A huge gap would be created in consumer protection online — opening the door to abuse.

The FCC is the only agency that can proactively protect your online privacy. Other government bodies, such as the Federal Trade Commission, cannot issue proactive rules that require companies to obtain consent before sharing customer information. Moreover, as a result of recent court cases, the FTC lacks jurisdiction over some internet service providers, such as AT&T. As a result, if Congress eliminates the FCC rules, no existing regulations would require companies to provide opt-in consent to consumers before sharing their information, creating an enormous privacy gap.

3. The FCC might not be able to remedy future privacy abuses.

Under the fast-track procedure being considered by Congress under the Congressional Review Act, the FCC rules would be eliminated and the agency would be prohibited from issuing rules that are “substantially the same” or similar in the future. Prior to this Congress, this procedure under the Congressional Review Act had only been used once before. Thus, it is unclear how the term “substantially the same” will be interpreted. However, it is a fair bet that companies will use this language to argue against the ability of the FCC to issue rules in the future. Moreover, the FCC may interpret this language in a way that forecloses it from addressing future privacy abuses or changing business practices.

Most Americans believe that their sensitive internet information should be closely guarded — and Congress’ votes should reflect that same belief. The House should stand up against industry pressure to put profits over privacy and reject the resolution to overturn the FCC’s privacy rule.

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