PINDROP BLOG

Users Face Uncertain Future After Rollback of Broadband Privacy Rule

The House of Representatives on Tuesday to repeal a set of landmark privacy protections for Internet users, issuing a total rebuke of Internet policies enacted under the Obama administration. Privacy advocates had worked frantically to urge voters to contact their representatives about the resolution, which allows broadband providers to sell customers’ data without prior consent.

The Senate last week passed the resolution, and on Tuesday the issue moved to the House floor where Democratic lawmakers mounted a massive campaign to defeat the measure, calling their Republican colleagues “anti-consumer” and in favor of “big money”. Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.), Deputy Chair of the Democratic National Committee, said the conflict was a “classic fight between the big money and the many”. Many others echoed similar statements during the debate, with Rep. Jared Polis (D-Colo.) laying out much of the opposition sentiment during the protracted debate in the House.

“The answer is not to turn over the keys to the Internet to the broadband providers and say you can sell it as you see fit without even having users opt in,” Polis said. “This bill would hurt the entire Internet ecosystem by breaking down the trust between providers and users.”

“Consumers should have the right to choose how they share the information.”

The resolution that passed Tuesday rolls back a rule submitted last year by the FCC that, among other things, grants wide latitude to broadband providers to sell users’ browsing histories and other data. The vote in the House was 215-205, and President Trump has signaled his support for the resolution, making it likely to become law.

Many ISPs have been silent about the Congressional resolution but the industry’s lobbying group has been supporting the effort since late November, shortly after Republicans took complete control of Congress. As Jeremy Gillula, senior staff technologist with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, explained to NPR last weekend ahead of the vote, the Congressional resolution “really is changing the status quo. It is essentially dismantling years of privacy protection that people have had in this country.”

The EFF and other groups have encouraged consumers to use tools such as VPNs to protect themselves from unwanted data collection by ISPs. While VPNs are not a complete option, there are a number of other ways to stay protected. The first and most basic choice is to “opt out” by switching providers. For users who don’t like the privacy policy of their provider, there are a number of options available to most people across the country. However, most of the large providers have similar policies and for users in rural areas, there are typically only one or two providers available. Even with VPNs, there is a caveat: you must trust the VPN company. In addition, many popular sites, including YouTube and Netflix, block VPN traffic, making that a problematic choice.

Polis, the congressman from Colorado, said the result of the resolution would be less choice for consumers.

“It simply makes no sense. Consumers should have the right to choose who and how they share the information,” he said. “Not having Internet access is imply not an option for most Americans. This isn’t the time to get rid of privacy rules.”

Image: Andrew Hart, CC By-sa license