Consumer Broadband Privacy Protections Are Dead

from the dysfunction-junction dept

Last week, the Senate voted 50-48 along party lines to kill consumer broadband privacy protections. That vote then continued today in the House, where GOP lawmakers finished the job, apparently happy to advertise how ISP campaign contributions consistently, directly manifest in anti-consumer policy with a 215 to 205 vote (you can find a full vote breakdown here). The rules, which were supposed to take effect this month, were killed using the Congressional Review Act -- which not only eliminates the protections, but limits the agency's ability to issue similar rules down the road.

The broadband industry's effort to kill the rules is one of the uglier examples of pay-to-play government in recent memory. The protections, originally passed last October by the FCC, have been endlessly demonized by the broadband industry, despite the fact that they're relatively straight forward. The rules would have simply required that ISPs are transparent about what they collect (and who they sell it to), and provide working opt out tools. ISPs were also required to have consumers opt in for more sensitive data collection (financial, browser history data).

Large ISPs, however, consistently whined about the rules, insisting the rules would "confuse" consumers, and hamper "innovation" in the advertising and telecom space. They also tried to claim that ISPs don't really collect much data on consumers, and what collection that does happen can be easily dodged by using a VPN (neither of which is true). ISPs also tried to claim it was unfair to saddle them with additional privacy regulations not seen by Google and Facebook, intentionally ignoring that the often stark lack of broadband competition makes this an apples to oranges comparison.

In an last-ditch attempt to try and convince the House that ISP revenues shouldn't take priority over consumer privacy, a group of around twenty smaller ISPs sent a letter to the House (clearly promptly ignored) trying to explain to them how the lack of competition in broadband made the rules necessary:

"Perhaps if there were a healthy, free, transparent, and competitive market for Internet services in this country, consumers could choose not to use those companies’ products. But small ISPs like ours face many structural obstacles, and many Americans have very limited choices: a monopoly or duopoly on the wireline side, and a highly consolidated cellular market dominated by the same wireline firms.

Under those circumstances, the FCC’s Broadband Privacy Rules are the only way that most Americans will retain the free market choice to browse the Web without being surveilled by the company they pay for an Internet connection."

And now those rules are dead, courtesy of lawmakers that put fattening AT&T and Comcast quarterly earnings above consumer privacy and the health of the entire internet.

ISPs have consistently tried to argue that killing the FCC's rules is no big deal because the FTC will somehow magically pick up the slack. But as former FCC boss Tom Wheeler recently noted, the FTC lacks rule-making authority, and ISPs know that privacy issues are going to quickly fall through the cracks at the over-extended agency. There's also rumblings that the GOP wants to push additional bills that hamstring both the FCC and the FTC consumer protection authority. If that doesn't work, they can dodge FTC oversight via common carrier exemptions patiently carved out by AT&T lawyers looking to dodge accountability for fraud.

During an early afternoon floor debate, Massachusetts Representative Michael Capuano had perhaps the most amusing and heated opposition to the effort (video here), citing his online underwear purchases while mocking the lack of public support for the rules' repeal:

...When I was growing up, one of the tents of the Republican party that I admired the most was (dedication to) privacy. Please give me one, not two, one good reason why all these people here, why all these people watching, would want Comcast or Verizon to have information -- unless they give it to them. We're talking medical information, we're talking passwords, we're talking financial information, we're talking college applications -- there is nothing in today's society that every one of us doesn't do every day on the internet -- and yet Comcast is gonna get it. Not because I said it's ok.

...Go out in the street! Please, leave Capitol Hill for five minutes -- go anywhere you want -- find three people in the street who think it's ok. And you can explain to them "ROIs, and the company has to make progress, and we have to make money." You'll lose that argument every single time, as you should. And I guarantee it you won't find anybody in your district who wants this bill passed.

It's consistently disappointing that ideas like net neutrality and privacy get mired in partisan politics, despite the broad, bipartisan consumer support both concepts enjoy. What happens next won't be pretty, regardless of your political ideology.

Congress has intentionally and repeatedly ignored the lack of broadband competition that makes net neutrality, privacy, and other bad behavior possible. Now, as cable's monopoly over broadband grows faster than ever, ISP-loyal lawmakers are rushing to strip away any and all government oversight of one of the least-liked, and most anti-competitive business sectors in American history. ISPs recently busted for covertly modifying packets to track users, charging an additional fee for privacy, or giving worse customer support based on credit score now have carte blanche to misbehave.

Thanks to a cash-soaked Congress there will be neither broadband competition, nor functional regulatory oversight of an industry with a documented history of aggressive, anti-consumer and anti-competitive behavior. What could possibly go wrong?

Filed Under: broadband, competition, congress, fcc, isps, privacy

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  1. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 29 Mar 2017 @ 4:18pm

    Re: Re: Re: 'Difficult' isn't 'Impossible', but it's better than nothing

    "People shouldn't have to jump through multiple hoops just to keep ahead of companies on something as simple as privacy."

    You have very good and valid points. I appreciate where your coming from and I really don't think our views are that far apart. I also believe that enforcement is the key. Unfortunately, it seems the penalties seem to also be at the whims of the politicians as Trump has already shown us. I have hopes too, but if history is any indicator, I am better off taking ownership of my own privacy then letting the Gov do it for me.

    I guess I'm a little tired of expecting politicians to do the right thing as they tend to do whatever is best for them at the time, not us. The tools are out there for the people to secure their privacy. They are not full proof, but they will make it significantly more costly and difficult for the Gov and Corporations to snoop. That added cost may be enough to put a stop to the need to have regulation.

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