In late March, the Senate voted to throw away internet privacy rules that had been approved in October, and last week the House of Representatives decided the same. The measure now goes to President Donald Trump, who is expected to sign it into law.
What happens then?
This bill gives your internet service provider (ISP) the ability to collect and sell your online browsing data and behavior to sell ads. There is no provision for consumers to opt-out of this type of marketing, either. Your ISP would not need your permission to collect this information about you because the U.S. Congress just gave them permission!
Proponents of the bill argue that services such as Google and Facebook already collect such data to sell targeted advertising to their users. They argue that allowing ISPs to do the same would create greater competition, would level the playing field between the two types of entities and would allow ISPs to more quickly generate revenue to cover network expenses (such as the cable that brings the internet into your home).
While the bill would create greater competition in the internet advertising market, consumers’ loss of privacy is too high of a cost to pay for greater competition. Also, ISPs are suspiciously interested in creating competition in advertising but will openly attempt to suppress new service providers from forming.
Take the case of Chattanooga, Tennessee. As I’ve written about previously, when the city decided to start providing fiber internet to its citizens, Comcast sued the Chattanooga Electric Power Board. It was a frivolous lawsuit intended to block competition from entering the market because the new fiber internet is markedly better for the citizens and businesses of the city.
“Leveling the playing field between ISPs and service providers” would be a good argument if the two entities were playing the same sport. Service providers, such as Google and Facebook, are optional. You can choose not to use products from either of these companies.
Don’t want Google to use your information for marketing? Use FireFox, search using DuckDuckGo.com, buy an iPhone or basic flip phone, use Microsoft’s email service. You do not have to interact with Google in any way.
Don’t want Comcast to use your information for marketing? Hope you live in an area where Comcast hasn’t blocked competition, hope that there is at least one ISP that isn’t taking advantage of the new law to collect your information or uproot your life to move to a city like Chattanooga.
Switching your ISP is sometimes just not an option, and without an opt-out clause built into this bill, you have no way of controlling where your data is going.
And, finally, the revenue argument. I have no doubts that this bill will increase revenue for ISPs. (I also have no doubt that they will take full advantage of it.) But do ISPs need this money? Will it be used to cover the expenses they claim they are struggling to pay?
Let’s look back to January of this year, when the Attorney General of New York filed a law suit against Charter and Time Warner Cable for failing to provide the internet speeds they had promised consumers. The suit alleges that the company provided consumers with older equipment that was known to be incapable of providing the internet speeds consumers thought they were receiving.
As of last week no decision had been made on the case because the judge assigned to hear the case had to recuse due to his status as a subscriber to one of Charter’s internet services.
However, this single suit is an incredibly small indication of the ways in which ISPs have been taking advantage of consumers for years. The companies have not been leaders in innovation. Though they may claim to offer high speed internet, the speeds they advertise are far below what today’s consumers should expect.
In 2017, we should have speeds of 1000 Mbps (or 1 gigabit), but instead 25 Mbps is considered “fast” in my area.
There are no valid reasons why ISPs needed to have access to my data. We deserve privacy in our internet browsing. ISPs do not serve the same function or have the same escapability as services such as Google or Facebook. ISPs are anti-competition and anti-consumer, focused on their profits while providing a quality of service that should be blatantly unacceptable in 2017.