FREEPORT — Companies like Charter, Comcast and others want to sell your browsing history without your consent – and a resolution introduced in Congress last week will let them do just that.
Sen. Susan Collins hasn’t made her position on this issue clear, but she needs to stand up to these internet providers and ensure that Mainers’ privacy is not sacrificed in the name of profits. This issue could receive a vote as early as next week, and given the margins in Congress, she could easily be a deciding vote.
A rule adopted by the Federal Communications Commission last year requires internet providers to ask customers’ permission to use or sell their sensitive data – such as their Web browsing history, when someone signs in and out of an account, or even their location information. Taken together, this data could paint an intimate picture of a person’s religion, medical conditions and even their hobbies, like visits to a gun range. This is why the rule also contains important data security requirements, to ensure that companies appropriately protect their customers’ information.
But providers like Charter, AT&T and Verizon want to protect their profits. That’s why they’ve spent tens of millions of dollars lobbying Congress – including tens of thousands donated to Sen. Collins – and have repeatedly urged the FCC and Congress to halt the rule. Unfortunately, these companies could get their wish now that a group of senators has introduced a resolution to overturn the rules wholesale, using a rare expedited procedural maneuver contained in the Congressional Review Act. If passed by both chambers, the resolution will not only kill the rules, but also prevent the FCC from making similar privacy-protective rules in the future.
This anti-privacy approach robs consumers of their choice. For many people in our state, there are few options for getting broadband internet service. This fact cuts at the arguments made by some that the free market will correct these types of abuses. Customers may not be able to simply pick another provider that better respects the privacy of their information. And anyone who has ever tried to negotiate their terms of service or bill with one of these companies knows what an uphill, and often impossible, challenge that it can be.
While internet service providers are by no means the only companies collecting our data, they have a unique vantage point into our lives. Companies like Charter and Comcast, by the nature of being gatekeepers to the internet, are able to comprehensively see what we do online. And using their services is not just a luxury we choose. We need high-speed and reliable Web access to pay bills, study for school and shop online – no Mainer should have to choose between getting internet and giving up privacy.
Even more, for many in our community, this privacy is essential to protect against discriminatory pricing and advertising. There is a long history of companies discriminating against individuals based on their location, age, gender or race – in some cases even advertising higher prices based on some of these attributes. Consumers can and should be able to prevent this data from being sold without their permission and being used to discriminate against them.
Passage of the Senate resolution would leave an enormous regulatory gap when it comes to internet service providers and privacy. As a result of recent court decisions, some companies, such as AT&T, do not fall under the jurisdiction of the Federal Trade Commission, who many in industry have suggested should be responsible for policing privacy abuses of internet service providers. Even if it did have jurisdiction, the FTC lacks the appropriate authority to create rules and take other actions that are necessary to proactively protect Mainers’ privacy.
The privacy of internet users in Maine is at stake. Susan Collins must take a stand against business interests that would auction off your personal information to the highest bidder. Customers deserve a choice in how their data is used and sold, and the FCC’s rules are an important step to ensuring just that. Sen. Collins should stand up and vocally state her opposition to this resolution.