Wolverton: Trump’s signature means no broadband privacy for you

It’s official now: Your protection from the prying eyes of your broadband provider has been revoked.

President Trump on Monday signed a resolution that repeals privacy protections voted in place last year by the Federal Communications Commission. Due to take effect later this year, those resolutions would have required broadband providers to seek customers’ permission before collecting or sharing information about their online activities and would have required them to take reasonable measures to protect the data they did collect.

The resolution that Trump signed not only overturns those rules, it also bars the FCC from putting in place new ones.

But that’s a good thing, say the agency’s two Republican commissioners, because it means that the Federal Trade Commission can go back to overseeing online privacy. They said they’re working on a plan to do just that.

“President Trump and Congress have appropriately invalidated one part of the Obama-era plan for regulating the Internet,” FCC Chairman Ajit Pai said in a statement. ” We need to put America’s most experienced and expert privacy cop back on the beat.”

That may sound well and good — who wouldn’t want the “experts” in charge — but it’s really misleading.

The FCC actually has a long history of enforcing privacy rules. In fact, when it comes to telecommunications companies, the agency is — by law — the cop on the privacy beat. Except now, it has no rules to enforce when it comes to broadband providers.

Putting the FTC in charge will take more than a little doing. The FTC is actually barred from regulating telecommunications providers. As long as broadband providers are officially considered telecommunications companies — which they obviously are, but which wasn’t recognized by the FCC for more than a decade until it put in place its strong new net neutrality rules — the FTC can’t do anything about what data they collect. So, right now, there’s actually no cop policing broadband companies’ data collection practices.

Even if it did have the authority to regulate broadband privacy, the FTC is something of a toothless tiger. Because there’s no overarching privacy law to enforce, the agency is basically limited to making sure companies disclose what data that collect and that they keep to the terms of their so-called privacy policies. That means companies policed by the FTC can generally collect whatever data they want. They just have to disclose what they’re doing first, usually in the form of an unreadable and largely unread privacy policy.

But that’s just how the broadband industry and its allies want it. Many have argued that it was simply unfair that broadband companies would face greater restrictions when it came to spying on their customers than do Google or Facebook.

“In striking the Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) inconsistent broadband privacy rules, Congress and the Administration have now paved the way to return to a comprehensive, consistent and straightforward privacy framework for the internet ecosystem,” said Rick Boucher and Bruce Mehlman, the honorary chairman and founding co-chairman, respectively, of the Internet Innovation Alliance, a lobbying group that represents broadband industry interests, said in a joint statement.

By “consistent,” they of course mean that broadband companies will have the same leeway to track customers as Google, Facebook and other web companies.

What makes that idea pernicious is that broadband companies generally have a much greater view into customers’ online activities than do web companies. Google and Facebook can only see what you are doing on their own sites and those of their affiliates. They often can’t see what apps you’re using, what movies you’re streaming or the email you’re sending. Your broadband provider can see all of that and more.

Plus, Google, Facebook and other web companies offer their services free of charge to customers. The implicit trade off is that customers allow those companies to track their activities for the purpose of targeting advertisements to them. If consumers don’t like those terms or aren’t comfortable with that tracking, they can choose to use other companies’ services.

But there’s no such understanding with broadband companies. Those companies generally aren’t offering their services for free and there is no similar bargain. Worse, consumers often don’t have a choice. At most, most Americans consumers only have one provider offering true broadband speeds in their area.

As consumer advocacy groups who pushed for the rules noted, it’s clear that Trump and his fellow Republicans in Congress are slavishly acquiescing to the demands of the big broadband companies, rather than listening to everyday citizens.

“It’s shocking that of all the challenges facing this country the Trump administration would prioritize taking away people’s privacy,” Craig Aaron, CEO of advocacy group Free Press, said in a statement. “There is literally no public support for this bill.”

Aaron and his compatriots in the consumer advocacy community vowed to fight back. Last week, Fight for the Future announced it would be publicly shaming members of Congress who voted for the resolution overturning the privacy rules by posting their names on billboards highlighting their perfidy. On Monday, the group announced it would put Trump’s name on a billboard too.

“Donald Trump said he was going to drain the swamp, but it didn’t take long for the swamp to drain him,” Evan Greer, the group’s campaign director, said in a statement. “The only people in the United States who want less internet privacy are CEOs and lobbyists for giant telecom companies who want to rake in money by spying on all of us and selling the private details of our lives to marketing companies.”

She added: “President Trump has misjudged his base on this issue. No one wants their Internet Service Provider to sell their information without their permission.”

Amen to that.

File photo — President Donald Trump signs an executive order in January in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)


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  • sd

    More bulls–t from the “wreck-it-and-THEN-remodel” it Republican regime. “It’s not their job so we’ll take it away from them. We ‘plan’ (heh-heh) to give it to the people who already do it” (except that they don’t actually do it; net result, it doesn’t happen but it makes lovely soundbites for re-election campaigns and it keeps fat-cat political contributors happy).

    We truly DO have the best government money can buy. Too bad hardly any of it is money from ordinary citizens.

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  • Jennifer Hudson

    ISPs have been selling our online data even before this disgusting bill passed. The main issue is what we can do to prevent them from doing so. PureVPN a reliable VPN service is the only way to go when it comes to protecting our privacy.