Internet service providers may soon be able to sell your internet history and other sensitive information.
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The U.S. House and the Senate have both voted in recent days to kill rules that would have forced internet service providers (ISPs) to get consumers’ permission before sharing users’ data with third-parties, such as advertisers.
The bill, which President Donald Trump is expected to sign in the coming weeks, has prompted a backlash online and among privacy advocates.
The rules, adopted by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) in late October, would require ISPs to give consumers’ the option to “opt in” to sharing information sensitive information -- defined as including “precise geolocation, financial information, health information, children’s information, social security numbers, web browsing history, app usage history and the content of communications.”
Under the rules, “ISPs would be allowed to use and share nonsensitive information unless a customer ‘opts out,’” the FCC said in a statement in October. Nonsensitive information, it said, included a user’s “email address or service tier information.”
The Senate voted 50-48 on Mar. 23, along party lines, to approve a bill that would eliminate the FCC rules. The House followed suit on Tuesday, voting 215-205 -- similarly, mostly along party lines -- to approve the bill.
“Should President Donald Trump sign S.J. Res. 34 into law, big Internet providers will be given new powers to harvest your personal information in extraordinarily creepy ways,” said Ernesto Falcon, legislative counsel for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a privacy advocacy group. “This breaks with the decades-long legal tradition that your communications provider is never allowed to monetize your personal information without asking for your permission first.
“It won't be long before the government begins demanding access to the treasure trove of private information Internet providers will collect and store,” he added.
On the other side, the Data and Marketing Association, advocates for data-driven marketing and engagement lauded the move by Congress, saying the FCC rules would have disrupted their industry's ability to self-regulate and that hindrances on the ability to market hamper the economy as a whole.
"Today’s vote brings an end to a year of discussion over whether it was appropriate for the FCC to upend the longstanding, successful privacy framework to adopt an entirely new set of rules, which would unnecessarily burden the booming digital economy," said Emmett O’Keefe, the Data and Marketing Association's senior vice president of advocacy, in a statement.
In a hearing before the vote, Congressman Mike Capuano, D-Massachusetts, asked “why Comcast should know what my mother’s medical problems are?” after explaining that he had searched for information about her medical condition online, according to The Guardian.
Consumer rights and civil liberties advocates predict that internet users will face an increase in targeted advertisements as marketers interested in understanding consumer behaviors purchase browsing and search histories. The Electronic Frontier Foundation additionally noted the possibility of ISPs utilizing undeletable cookies to continuously monitor web traffic.
Should Trump sign the bill, internet users interested in preventing the use of their information will have to individually contact their ISP to opt out of the arrangement. Another preventative measure is the use of a Virtual Private Network (VPN) -- essentially a network within the public internet -- which adds a layer of privacy that ISPs could be unable to tap. Instead, the provider would only see that a user accessed the VPN, but not what they browsed beyond that point.
White House press secretary Sean Spicer declined to provide comment when asked about the bill at Wednesday's press briefing. He said the administration will have "further updates" once it reaches the president's desk.