Republican Law on Internet Privacy: There Shall Be No Law at All

Vicki Johnson

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Republican Law on Internet Privacy: There Shall Be No Law at All

There is no more time to be passive about internet privacy.

Whether using cell phones, laptops, or hard drives, doing internet searches, online banking, shopping, or health care management, by e-mail, texting, or social media, at airports, in your car, at home or at work, Internet Service Providers (ISPs) can now legally track, monitor, collect, and sell peoples’ personal data.

Congressional Republicans passed the measure through the Senate and then quickly through the House.  President Trump, behind closed doors, quietly signed the congressional resolution into law.

The Republican law rescinds Federal Communication Commission (FCC) rules imposed on ISPs in 2016.  The Obama-era rules were highly praised at the time as a strong step in the right direction on internet privacy concerns.

Internet providers can see everything a person does on the internet and can track people’s every move.  There were no rules in place to regulate how ISPs may collect, use and sell that personal information, which is why the Obama rules were drafted.

As reported by CNN, the 2016 rules would have required broadband companies to receive permission before collecting data on a user’s online activities. Customers had to opt-in and give express permission for the provider to gather and sell the information.

Those rules had not even gone into effect yet.  Not only will the rules not go into effect, there are now no restrictions in place to regulate ISPs and protect people’s personal information from misuse.

Internet Service Providers, and anyone with the capability can collect, use and profit from customer’s personal information such as social security numbers, financial information, medical information, web browsing history, mobile app usage, emails, and online chats.

ISPs have the capability and now authorization to profile people and sell their personal information to anyone, for any price, to use for any purpose, without permission.

BuzzFeed was one of the first to report on Trump’s middle of the night secret signing of the bill.  In a detailed accounting, the article explains how the Republican bill also makes it legal for ISPs to install hidden tracking cookies on people’s cell phones and computers.

Republican reasoning for throwing the rules in the trash is that the 2016 rules were unfair because they did not apply to internet companies like Facebook and Google.  However, the Federal Communication Commission (FCC) does not have the authority to create rules for web companies.  It is the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) that regulates these type of telecom businesses.

Based on that reasoning, rather than create a law that would strengthen regulation on both web companies and broadband companies, Republicans decided there should be no rules at all: allow the invasion of privacy or don’t use the internet.

Customers cannot easily walk away from one ISPs and switch to another.  Broadband choices are limited, and some areas have only one option of internet providers to use.

Clearly, the new Republican law creates wrinkles.  There is ironing work to do.  As government and society find the right balance on internet privacy issues, there are security measures people can take immediately.

The New York Times’ Jonah Engel Bromwich published an informative article summarizing encryption features, hard drive protections, passwords, e-mail accounts and authentication, browsers and plug-ins, VPNs (Virtual Private Networks), as well as other applications such as “Incognito” and DuckDuckGo, for performing internet searches privately.

These may seem like flimsy old tools, but experts are adamant about how helpful even basic security measures can be in protecting online privacy.

Unfortunately, none of these privacy features can block the ISPs, which is the problem in the first place.  Internet Service Providers can see everything, and have the ability to override most of the available privacy protections.

The Chicago Tribune reported on concerns that businesses have about the “no rules” rule. Internet Service Providers have access to information that is inarguably valuable to marketers and advertisers, yet there are no restrictions on ISPs from collecting, using, and selling the data.

Without rules, business leaders are also concerned about hacking and the damage that could be done as a result.  The internet is a vital telecommunication infrastructure.  Businesses and individuals cannot be left in such a vulnerable position without privacy rights and government protections.

A fix will need to follow.  If not having regulations on Internet Service Providers is what the majority of the American people want, Republicans would not have quietly passed the bill to the President, and President Trump would not have signed it in private, with no discussion or accountability.

It is hard to imagine at this point what that fix might look like.