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House Vote Could Allow Internet Providers to Sell Browsing Habits

31-Mar-2017

In a blow to online privacy, the U.S. House of Representatives voted to block online privacy regulations issued by the Obama administration near the end of his term.

The regulations were in the form of a Federal Communications Commission (FCC) rule that was intended to allow consumers control over how their information was used, and it would require internet providers to protect user information.

However, House Republicans argued that this rule "played favorites" with internet companies. For example, Google does not have to get user permission before tracking which sites consumers visit. By allowing them to collect this information, and not internet providers such as Cox, At&T, and Comcast, critics say, they create an unfair discrepancy. Voting to block this regulation, they say, levels the playing field.

But online privacy advocates say that blocking these regulations creates a significant gray area in which internet companies are told to protect consumer information, but they are not specifically told what must be protected or how it must be protected. In other words, it paves the way for internet providers to sell consumer information. 

The House voted 215-205, almost straight party line, to reject the FCC rule, and the measure now passes to President Donald Trump for his signature.

Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., supported the rule and opposes the Republican vote to reject it, saying, "Overwhelmingly, the American people do not agree with Republicans that this information should be sold, and it certainly should not be sold without your permission. Our broadband providers know deeply personal information about us and our families."

Facebook and Google already sell information about user browsing habits--it is the reason for the "targeted ads" that show up in your Facebook feed, your Google searches, and your Gmail "promotions." Legislators who rejected the FCC rule say that this unfairly targets  which companies can use your data and how. By rejecting the rule, they say they level the playing field in allowing internet providers to get a share of the $83 billion online advertising market.

But that "fairness" for internet providers can certainly be unfair to consumers whose personal information may be compromised as a result. It seems unlikely that many individual consumers would support deregulation that would benefit big businesses at their own expense. 

Internet privacy is a hot-button issue. As privacy erodes in this arena, so do our rights. 



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