Last month, President Donald Trump signed a bill repealing rules that had been passed by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) under the Obama administration to protect the privacy of Internet users.
Those rules would have required companies to get customers’ permission before selling their personal information to marketers. Such data as health and financial information, geographic location, apps used, and websites visited are a literal goldmine to marketers who want to pinpoint potential customers for their wares.
Republicans and industry officials complained that these rules were unfair, because rivals such as Google and Facebook aren’t bound by them. As Sally Greenberg, Executive Director of the National Consumers League, wrote recently in The Huffington Post, the comparison is false. “It is far easier for consumers to simply not use services like Facebook or Google than it is for them to avoid using an Internet service provider (ISP).”
The repeal of these rules should come as no surprise given an article in the newspaper The Hill, which last month reported that three of the largest telecom companies—AT&T, Verizon, and Comcast—collectively spent a total of $11.2 million during the first three months of the year, according to disclosure forms filed to Congress.
“These guys spend a fortune in D.C., they’re very plugged in on the Hill and this was clearly their priority,” Craig Aaron, president of the consumer-advocacy group Free Press, told the Associated Press.
According to the money-influence research group Center for Responsive politics, the overall lobbying total for telecom and telephone companies in 2016 surpassed $123 million, making them one of the highest-spending lobbying groups in Washington. The opposition—various privacy and consumer groups—spent just over $1 million.
Speaking to the Associated Press, Dallas Harris, a policy fellow at Public Knowledge which organized against the privacy repeal, said, “It’s the classic story where the side with more money has more influence here.”
Indeed it is. Even though the Obama-era rules had not yet taken effect, The New York Times wrote, “The new FCC rules would have given consumers stronger privacy protections—without such restrictions, Internet providers may decide to become more aggressive with data collection and retention.”
Your personal information is worth literally billions to ISPs and other sites (such as Google and Facebook) who collect it, and to the advertisers who purchase it. How fair is it that not only do you not make a dime off your own data—which, by the way, you pay them to collect (through your monthly ISP bill)—but that you can’t even control who gathers it, compiles it, and sells it?
As if these issues weren’t enough to catch your attention, what about the hacking issue? Sally Greenberg reminded readers of the recent Yahoo! data breach that compromised as many as 1.5 billion users’ names, email addresses, telephone numbers, encrypted and unencrypted security questions and answers, dates of birth, and encrypted passwords. “As bad as those breaches were, they only affected the users of one online service,” she wrote. “Now imagine what the fallout would be if a similar hack had occurred at a major ISP, which now has the ability to collect practically any data sent over its networks.”
Billshark will continue to highlight such issues, because our whole purpose is to look out for the consumer—meaning you!