The heads of two Maine-based internet service providers blasted an ongoing congressional effort to repeal privacy protections for their customers Friday, saying it is wrongheaded and an invasion of privacy.
Sen. Susan Collins joined her Republican colleagues Thursday in voting to overturn landmark privacy protections for broadband internet customers, making it easier for internet service providers to collect, sell and share detailed information about individuals’ web browsing, app usage, personal movements and internet search terms without their consent.
The vote broke along party lines, with 52 Republicans voting in favor of repealing the protections. Sen. Angus King, an independent who caucuses with the Democrats, voted against it.
Fletcher Kittredge, founder and CEO of Biddeford Internet Corp., which does business as GWI, said the vote was “absolutely appalling” and a threat to everyone who uses the internet.
“This is very, very bad,” he said. “Your ISP can look at your traffic and discover the most intimate details of your life, and selling that information will ultimately be more valuable than selling the internet connection, which is something libertarians and civil libertarians ought to worry about, especially as the government and hackers will ultimately have access to it.”
The House, which also is controlled by Republicans, is expected to take up the measure early next week.
The privacy protections, which were to go into effect later this year, would require that internet providers obtain permission from subscribers before sharing or selling data on their users’ browsing, internet use, geo-location history and other information. Currently, broadband providers can collect all of that information unless a user tells them not to collect it.
The adoption of the rules in October by the Federal Communications Commission was bitterly opposed by major internet providers like Comcast, AT&T and Verizon Communications, which argued they would result in higher costs for consumers because they would reduce the opportunity to profit from the sale of precision-targeted advertising.
But Kittredge and the head of a Machias-based internet provider, Susan Corbett of Axiom, disagree with their national competitors, saying the measures are a clear threat to their customers. They note that internet providers – unlike web services like Google or Facebook – have the ability to collect the full picture of everything you do, from the video feed of your smart television to what disease you just looked up on the internet.
“As an internet service provider we have access to individual’s data, where and how they surf the web, the sites they frequent and other important information most customers would be uncomfortable sharing,” Corbett said in an email. “We believe customers have a right to know if a company is selling or using their data in a way that invades their privacy and should be given a choice to decide for themselves.”
Kittredge said the situation will get worse with the continued expansion of the “internet of things,” where cars, household appliances, home security cameras, baby monitors, and other devices become connected to the internet.
“If you’re monitoring someone’s web connection, you know what they think, who they associate with and every intimate detail about them,” he said. “When you add access to video and audio feeds of what is going on in the house, they will know more about you than you know about yourself.”
He said history suggests all that data, if collected by your internet service provider, will be available to the government and hackers, and for sale. “I’m sure my competitors are seeing dollar signs, but in the long run I think it’s a really bad idea because it reduces the value of an internet connection when you can’t trust your ISP.”
He said his company would collect and sell such information “over my dead body,” but it puts GWI at a competitive disadvantage against its competitors.
He also said he found it “deeply upsetting” that Collins voted for the measure. “As a Republican who is very close to becoming a former Republican, this goes against every principle and precept I thought the party had.”
Collins spokeswoman Annie Clark defended Collins’ vote in a statement to the Portland Press Herald, saying that the Obama administration’s “new so-called ‘privacy’ rule” had “created an inconsistent, confusing standard.”
“This new rule put extensive restrictions on internet service providers like Verizon and Comcast, while leaving much less strict standards in place for edge providers like Google and Facebook,” Clark said. “This inconsistency created confusion for consumers, competitive disadvantages for internet service providers, and limited broadband innovation without ensuring privacy for internet users. Therefore, Senator Collins voted to eliminate this misguided rule and looks forward to internet privacy rules that apply consistently to all providers.”
But Kittredge says that argument doesn’t hold water, for two reasons: First, he said, you can avoid using Facebook or Google, but everyone has to have an internet provider. Second, internet providers like his company collect everything, whereas web service providers like Google and Facebook have only a partial picture of an individual’s online activity.
“An ISP sees everything and can put it all together and draw inferences,” he said. “If you’re worried about inconsistency then the thing to do is apply the same rules to Google and Facebook, not say, ‘Geez, someone else is robbing you, so our remedy is to allow everyone to rob you.”
King’s spokesman issued a statement on the senator’s vote that echoed many of the same points.
“Broadband providers can see nearly everything that someone does online, from what sites they access to where they are physically located when they do it, which is why Senator King believes that they must be required to obtain a person’s consent before sharing that data with third-parties,” spokesman Scott Ogden said in an email.
He said King understands the concerns of those looking for consistent standards, but noted that repealing the rule does not accomplish it, since the Federal Trade Commission, the agency that regulates web services like Google, has no jurisdiction over internet providers.
“The result will be that broadband subscribers are left with no privacy or data security protections at all, and he thinks that’s a mistake that will compromise the personal information of millions of Americans,” Ogden said.
The cable industry’s trade association applauded the repeal, describing it as a “step toward reversing the FCC’s misguided approach” and “restoring a consistent approach to online privacy that consumers want and deserve.”
The Republican sponsor of the bill and President Trump’s new FCC chairman, Ajit Pai, have both said that the rules are onerous, and that it is unfair that internet providers would face these regulations when web companies like Google or Facebook do not.
“It’s unnecessary, confusing, and adds another innovation-stifling regulation,” bill sponsor Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Arizona, said when he introduced the measure last fall.
Civil liberties groups have opposed the effort to repeal the privacy rules.
“We’re disappointed that the Senate – including Senator Collins – voted against protecting the basic privacy of Mainers and all constituents in favor of protecting corporate profit,” said Oamshri Amarasingham, advocacy director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine. “We believe we should have to consent to sharing sensitive information with the rest of the world when we use the internet. We hope that the House will stop this from moving forward.”
Rep. Chellie Pingree of Maine, D-1st District, said she will oppose repealing the regulations when the bill comes before the House.
“It is unconscionable that the House and Senate leadership have chosen to make repealing broadband consumer privacy rights a top legislative priority in Congress when there is so much to be done to bring broadband access to Americans,” Pingree said via email. “I do not support this invasive resolution and strongly believe that internet service providers should not be given a blank check to collect data on their customers just to help companies boost their advertising.”
A spokesman for Maine’s other House member, Republican Rep. Bruce Poliquin, said he was undecided.
“The congressman will closely review the legislation if it is brought up in the House,” Brendan Conley said via email. “He wants to ensure that the internet remains a level playing field where consumers are protected consistently across the internet and gaps in consumer protection are not created.”
Colin Woodard can be contacted at 791-6317 or at: