Fallout from a vote to roll back the Federal Communications Commission's broadband privacy rules continues to ripple through the U.S. Of course, many of the headlines and stories misconstrue this week's vote as a move that will now allow ISPs to sell users' browsing histories. Many of our readers surely know that's not entirely true, that ISPs tend to share data in aggregate and not on an individual level, and, on the whole, offer opt outs that allow users to prevent such data sharing. Further, the rules hadn't even come into force yet.
The Federal Trade Commission's Justin Brookman tweeted out several links to ISP opt outs:
Regulations aside, several (most?) ISPs allow you to opt out of the use of your internet history for ads.
— Justin Brookman (@JustinBrookman) March 29, 2017
Though many of us in the privacy world have been discussing the FCC's privacy rules and the recent roll backs of those rules, popular culture is catching on to the Republican-led effort to de-regulate the space. Late night television host Stephen Colbert eviscerated the rollback earlier this week, noting that "not one person, not one voter of any political stripe anywhere in America ... asked for this ... No one in America stood up in a town hall and said, 'Sir, I demand you let someone else make money off my shameful desires. Maybe blackmail me someday.'"
All joking aside, even my friends and family are aware of this week's vote and question what it means for their privacy. The unpopularity of the roll back could have some very real repercussions. Advocacy group Fight for the Future plans to put up billboards in Washington and specific districts targeting Republicans who voted for the bill. And though they would not actually be able to do what they intend, two different groups have raised more than $250,000 to buy the browsing histories of lawmakers who voted to repeal the privacy rules.
Gigi Sohn, a former FCC staffer and advisor to previous FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler, said, "I think the fervor over this is not going to die down anytime soon," adding, "I think it's going to become an election issue. This is something everybody can understand."
To wit, political machinations are under way. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee is already robocalling voters in districts with vulnerable Republicans who voted for the repeal.
Following a larger trend in contemporary American politics, some states are pushing measures to improve privacy protections for residents just as they've been rolled back at the federal level. Though many states, like California and Illinois, have passed or are working to pass privacy legislation, Minnesota's legislature debated this week whether it should require ISPs get state residents' consent prior to sharing their data. Sen. Ron Latz, D-FL-St. Louis, offered an amendment to an economic development budget bill that would do just that. The state Senate voted 66-1 to approve the measure. Latz said the amendment was "about standing up and saying that our online privacy rights are critically important ... It won't circumvent the federal government, but it will give Minnesotans a legal recourse to protect their privacy."
The roll back could have broader surveillance fallout as well. At least, that's what law professor Paul Ohm contends in an op-ed for The Washington Post. Not splitting hairs whatsoever, Ohm writes, "Once Trump signs the bill, diminishing the FCC's power to police privacy online, ISPs will feel empowered — perhaps even encouraged – by Republicans (no Democrats voted for this measure) to spy on all of us as they never have before. And spy they will."
Ohm goes further, however, and argues the move will also give agencies like the Federal Bureau of Investigation more power to track user behavior online. "By adding a single short paragraph to an applications for a court order through the Stored Communications Act (this wouldn't even require a search warrant), the FBI would be able to order your ISP to divulge every website you have contacted and every app you have used."
Some websites are also raising their privacy and security profile in light of this week's vote. The world's most popular pornography website, Pornhub — which receives 75 million visitors per day — announced Thursday that it has adopted HTTPS. "With HTTPS, users can rest assured that their browsing data is encrypted, not visible to anyone and, therefore, cannot be sold. While this transition ... was in the works before Congress' appeal, the timing is good," the company said.
The repeal is prompting smaller ISPs to advertise on privacy, as well. Sonic, which has about 100,000 customers, and Monkeybrains, with 9,000 users, have both promised not to sell user browsing history, subscriber information, or usage data.
Of course, these are mostly available only to California residents and lack broader availability. It will be interesting to see whether such ISPs have staying power when facing larger ISPs and telecoms. After the Snowden revelations, smaller search engines promising privacy protection rose in some popularity, though Google Search, Bing, and Yahoo still dominate the market.
It's too early to tell whether this week's rollback will ultimately cost Republicans political capital, but for now, the headlines are still humming — right or wrong.
Top image from federal government site, fair use
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