US hands ISPs blank cheque to sell your browsing history

The House of Representatives has concluded its vote to axe privacy rules protecting US broadband subscribers, passing 215 to 205.

It’s only been a matter of months since his departure, but new FCC Chairman Ajit Pai is doing his best to wipe Tom Wheeler and every piece of legislation passed during his tenure from memory. The latest move will see Section 222 of the Communications Act for broadband ISPs reversed, dealing a potential killer blow to privacy advocates throughout the US.

“Should President Donald Trump sign S.J. Res. 34 into law, big Internet providers will be given new powers to harvest your personal information in extraordinarily creepy ways,” said Ernesto Falcon, Legislative Counsel at the Electronic Frontier Foundation. “They will watch your every action online and create highly personalized and sensitive profiles for the highest bidder. All without your consent.”

The agenda of the Electronic Frontier Foundation does demand a bit of scare-mongering. It is hardly an organization that will have neutrality and measured opinions at the core of its message, but it does have a point, albeit an exaggerated one. The process of checks and balances has been removed and the ISPs have been given a blank cheque to monetize any and all personal information which it collects on its customers.

Under previous rules, ISPs would have had to seek permission to monetize certain types of customer data, essentially, information which is considered more sensitive. Precise geo-location, financial or health info, social security numbers, web browsing history, app usage history and the content of communications, are a couple of examples, but no longer. This information can now be sold to the highest bidder without the consent of the customer.

While reversing Wheeler’s privacy rules has been strongly pushed by Republican politicians, it was not received well by Democrats. Ahead of the vote in the Senate last week, FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn stated:

“This legislation will frustrate the FCC’s future efforts to protect the privacy of voice and broadband customers. It also creates a massive gap in consumer protection law as broadband and cable companies now have no discernible privacy requirements. This is the antithesis of putting #ConsumersFirst.”

Whether you agree or disagree with the decision to reverse the legislation depends on your opinion on the commercialization of customer data. Republicans argue the decision will level the playing field against OTTs, while offering commercial organizations the opportunity to generate cash and fund innovation. On the other side of the fence, Democrats believe there is a duty to protect the privacy of consumers, and this was one of the final safeguards.

President Trump’s signature is the final hurdle for the legislation reversal, but that seems to be a formality.

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