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Privacy Perspectives | Will the FCC rollback have political consequences? Related reading: Residual issues in Indonesia’s forthcoming Personal Data Protection Law




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: 

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." 

This week's vote has also brought back the popularity of virtual private network services and debate about which services (most say don't use free ones) to use.

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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  • comment Geoffrey Nathan • Mar 31, 2017
    I am amused at the full-frontal panic this decision has caused. It gives ISP's the same power that folks have always granted to Google, Facebook, LinkedIn, Snapchat etc. And, as Jedidiah points out, ATT is probably less likely to sell my search activities to Facebook than Google is, and I know Google sells that stuff because what I search for in Google ends up on my FB page. I don't like the decision particularly, but the train left the station probably a dozen years ago, and telling Comcast to stop aggregating searches and selling them won't protect my Pornhub searches (NTTAWWT). You can't put the genie back in the toothpaste tube (seems like an appropriate mixed metaphor... :-) )
  • comment Jaipat Jain • Mar 31, 2017
    I would put a pause button right after the opening statement ("...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.").  What we do know is the following:
    1. Big broadband ISP Verizon actually had a robust ad campaign in place called Precision Market Insights where it marketed its unique capability to package PII already known to it with the browsing history of its consumers.  Verizon actually entered into a settlement with FCC for its unabashed marketing uses of customers PII.  See in this regard (before it is removed) the following two videos:, and 
    2. Consumers pay charges to ISP for services.  They furnish their PII to ISPs in order for ISPs to be able to render services and bill them for it.  Google and other edge providers are not in the same league.  They are not paid services provider.  To the extent ISPs need a consumer's PII in order to render services, it makes sense to provide PII.
  • comment Lisa L • Apr 4, 2017
    Geoffrey - I can choose to use or not use Google, Facebook, etc.   I don't use Google as search engine, I use duckduckgo and oscobo.  I use Facebook to keep up with family and share travel photos, but have NO personal information in that app. No work, no school,  nothing as I trust Zuckerberg as much as I trust Republicans.   And I never click on any of their annoying ads as I don't want them tracking anything.   So facebook gets very little from me. 
    But most of us have no choice when it comes to ISPs.   Instead of weakening these regulations, Congress should have put the same regulations on Google, Facebook, etc.   Aggregated or not, we deserve privacy, my data is not just a marketing tool to be sold.   Web sites & searches can tell a lot about a person,  and should be protected.
  • comment Sam • Apr 4, 2017
    Hi Jaipat, 
    I'm sorry your comment didn't go through right away. Sometimes, posts with URLs in them get flagged as spam. I found this in the spam folder and approved.
  • comment Jaipat Jain • Apr 5, 2017
    Thanks Sam.  Good to know about urls...