While the chatter in Washington D.C. last week focused on the failed GOP health care plan to "repeal and replace" the Affordable Care Act, a much quieter — but equally egregious — repeal-and-replace bill moved through the U.S. Senate along party lines. By a 50-48 vote, Senate Republicans overturned internet privacy laws adopted by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) in the last days of President Barack Obama's administration. On March 28, the House of Representatives voted 215-205 to follow the Senate's lead, and President Donald Trump has indicated he will sign the measure.
What does this mean for you? Simply put, your internet service provider now may legally track your every online move, collect the data, and sell it — including financial and health information, location and other data.
Some wonder how this differs from what sites like Google and Facebook already do. Google might notice you're searching for home renovation and later serve up ads for local contractors. Facebook algorithms could see that you enjoy funny animal videos and tailor ads for pet supplies. That's been standard procedure for years.
The new law allows your internet provider — AT&T, Charter, Cox, Comcast and others — to track, compile and sell your browsing history without your permission or knowledge. Under the Obama rules, providers had to use "opt-in" rules (meaning you had to explicitly consent) to collect and share personal data. As the tech website Gizmodo put it, "Congress Just Gave Internet Providers the Green Light to Sell Your Browsing History Without Consent."
Not surprisingly, this invasion of privacy is driven by money. Internet providers want a piece of the $70 billion-plus spent annually on digital marketing. There's a key difference for consumers, however: If you don't like the privacy practices of Facebook or Google, you can use other websites; but many communities have only one or two internet providers. That's why this legislation was fiercely opposed by the American Civil Liberties Union as well as the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a nonprofit organization dedicated to defending "digital rights."
"The FCC privacy rules are just another example of burdensome rules that hurt more than they help," said Texas Sen. John Cornyn, who voted to roll back the protections. Burdensome to whom? Lawyers for internet providers and some GOP congressmen also claimed that changing the law would somehow level the playing field between websites and internet providers, as if the two were at all comparable. They aren't.
One would think online privacy would be supported on both sides of the aisle, particularly by Republicans who claim to champion individual rights. Sadly, U.S. Sens. Bill Cassidy and John Neely Kennedy, both Republicans, voted for the bill, as did most members of Louisiana's House delegation. Rep. Cedric Richmond, a Democrat, voted against it — as did Rep. Garret Graves, who bravely joined 14 of his fellow House Republicans in voting against the measure. Both men deserve voters' thanks. The others should be ashamed for selling out their constituents' privacy interests.