A person’s internet activity – the websites they visit, the apps they use, the places they carry their phone – should be their own property.

They can give it away for the convenience of mapping a travel route, or they can hand it over to otherwise free apps like Facebook for the right to use a service. But that should be the individual’s decision, made when fully informed of the scope of the information in question and the potential ramifications of sharing it.

Instead, in practice, your privacy is in the hands of private companies, many of which have shown that they care more about exploiting it for monetary gain than protecting it. Often, customers don’t have much of a choice about it.

That should change, and it should change nationwide. But with that off the table for now, Maine should act on its own.

On Wednesday, the Legislature’s Energy, Utilities and Technology Committee will hold a public hearing on L.D. 946. From Sen. Shenna Bellow, D-Manchester, the bill would prohibit broadband internet service providers from using or selling a customer’s personal information unless the customer gives consent. It also requires internet service providers to protect customer data.

The bill was made necessary after Congress and President Trump in 2017 blocked the implementation of an Obama-era rule that included the same provisions. The Federal Communications Commission now is prohibited from bringing forward any similar rules anytime soon, and legislation proposed in Congress has little chance of passing.

The Trump administration says the rules were unfair to internet service providers such as AT&T, Verizon and Spectrum because it banned them from using customer data in the same way that Google and Facebook – their competitors for internet advertising dollars – have done to great profit.

However, Google, a search engine, Facebook, a social media site, and others like them are different from internet service providers. As intertwined as those giant companies are with the internet as a whole, they are still avoidable by users who don’t want to give up their data. They are also free, so customers are in effect paying for the use of those sites with their privacy.

Those companies still need oversight and a strong regulatory environment. But there’s a difference between a website, which you can use or not use, and an internet service provider, which controls the entirety of a customer’s online experience, and which may be the only good option for accessing the internet in a particular community.

Even with the defeat of the Obama-era rule, the big internet service providers say they will not sell customer data. But they do use it for other purposes, including targeting ads, and the last few years are full of instances in which tech companies have pushed the limits of law and propriety in using and handling private data. We should not rely on the companies to police themselves.

Your internet activity is valuable – that’s why so many companies want to get their hands on it. It should be yours, first and foremost, to use how you please.

That’s what L.D. 946 would do, and Maine would be better off for it.

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