The House Just Voted Away Your Internet Privacy Protections

gavel shown on top of a computer keyboard

We’re sure your tech teams and departments have been buzzing over the lead-up and final result of the controversial vote in the House of Representatives surrounding U.S. Internet privacy protections this week, as were we. The result? The Internet privacy protections put into law in late 2016 were just eliminated. That’s right; they’re gone, and they aren’t coming back.

In an attempt to create a better, more competitive market in online advertising against online marketing giants like Google and Facebook, the Republican-supported response that passed this week allows ISPs or broadband providers the same “freedoms” granted to these online platforms, specifically the ability to sell your data to the highest bidder. It’s important to note that both Google and Facebook don’t follow the practice of selling your data to the highest bidder. Facebook keeps data secure and instead forces advertisers to come to their platform. Google provides users with detailed data profiles that allow them to opt out of sharing sensitive information.

But I digress, let’s discuss what just happened as many people are concerned over this topic and left wondering where it leaves them, as well as why it matters to your business and what it means for the future of the Internet and how companies and consumers continue to use it.

Wait, What Happened to My Internet Privacy?

Let’s go back to Oct. 2016. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) passed the law, which would’ve taken effect by the end of 2017, that would have forced ISPs to get clear permission from users to share personal data such as your or your company’s precise location, financial information, health information, children’s information, Social Security numbers, web browsing history, app usage history, and the content of your communications. They also would’ve been legally required to tell you if your information gets hacked under the data security provision.

Ajit Pai, the new head of the FCC, felt this was Federal overreach and has thus led the repeal of these protections that was passed in the House on Tuesday, March 28. Where is this support coming from? Well, top broadband providers (Think: AT&T, Comcast, and Verizon) used to profit solely from selling access to the Internet. Now, similar to how Google and Facebook function, they want to tap into the $83 billion online advertising market by selling the vast amounts of consumer data they have to whoever is willing to pay the most.

Now, the new FCC has adopted the Federal Trade Commission’s definition that browsing history or app usage is not sensitive and doesn’t need to be protected. A definition that many tech companies, like your own, and individuals would be quick to disagree with.

Why It Matters

For starters, the argument that this now puts both ISPs and online websites like Google and Facebook, that are far less regulated, on the same playing field when it comes to online advertising is controversial at best. The market for ISPs is incredibly limited. Consumers often have one or two choices of broadband providers in their area if they are lucky. These consumers will then be forced to compromise their Internet privacy to use the Internet, which is arguably just as essential in today’s digitally-driven world as a telephone or car used to be.

However, Google and Facebook are independent online websites that users can simply stop using. They also make clear how data is being used and allow users to opt out at any point. Basically, you can choose not to go on Facebook, but you can’t manufacture a new broadband provider in your area that will protect your Internet privacy.

Another reason this is so significant is because of the way the repeal was passed. Once the President signs the order, this will now be what you call “the law of the land” because the representatives who approved this ruling used the Congressional Review Act to do so. This is a tool that allows lawmakers to expedite bills to reverse recent regulations, while also prohibiting the FCC from adopting “substantially similar” rules to the original law in the future. (AKA it will be nearly impossible to undo these anti-Internet privacy rules.)

All of this is incredibly surprising considering a recent 2016 survey by TRUSTe/National Cyber Security Alliance (NCSA) Consumer Privacy Index that showed Americans are more worried about their data privacy than they are about losing their main source of income. Yet, it seems that the representatives elected to vote in line with their constituents beliefs and needs are doing the opposite, which begs the question: Why?

Another interesting element of this discussion is the lack of commentary by the major players involved, including AT&T, Verizon, Facebook, Google, and other leading tech businesses that deal primarily with consumer and business Internet data. Is this the quiet before the storm when this repeal actually takes place later this year? Or do these companies quietly want to keep themselves and their brands as far away as possible from the controversial topic of Internet privacy protections and their obligations, or lack thereof, to uphold them?

This repeal should also matter to every single Internet user because it eliminates the data security provision that would’ve made it harder for hackers to access your sensitive information, you know things like your Social Security number or specific geo-location.

Is There a Way to Maintain Your Internet Privacy?

Yes, but it isn’t easy, costs money, and differs by state. Broadband providers may provide, but will not legally be required to allow an “opt-out” feature. But finding it and figuring out how to implement it will be intentionally challenging and confusing. Your next best bet is paying to use a VPN (virtual private network). But good, reliable VPNs are hard to find, and it’s difficult to ensure they aren’t also selling your sensitive data on the sly. Setting up a home router is another option, which is not an easy or straightforward task, and for full Internet privacy protection, you would need to set them up for every device you use.

Since most Americans and thus U.S. companies are limited to one or two Internet providers, the odds are likely that you’re stuck with your current broadband provider despite being against their anti-privacy policies.

Looking Ahead

Momentum in the political realm has reversed and is now moving in the direction of anti-Internet privacy regulation. The success of this repeal could make room for the FCC to push back on newly passed net neutrality laws that forbid Internet providers from blocking content they don’t like or charging websites a fee to reach consumers over faster Internet speeds. The net neutrality laws mentioned here allowed the FCC to fine AT&T $25 million in 2015 for failing to protect consumer information, including Social Security numbers. A breach that any tech company should be incredibly concerned over.

This could very well be the first step in a massive rollback on regulations for ISPs and a huge step backward for Internet privacy and consumer and business data protection in the U.S.

While we can’t alter the new and incoming anti-Internet privacy legislation, we can help your company better face these changes by providing you with the talent you’ll need to explore alternative broadband provider networks and fully understand who your sensitive business data is being sold to, as well as where it ends up. Contact us today to get matched with the high-end, dedicated Cybersecurity experts you need to ensure your employee’s, consumer’s, and business’s Internet activity and data stay protected.

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