Congress authorizes invasion of privacy

Internet service providers allowed to sell customer internet data without permission.

Congress authorizes invasion of privacy

Michelle Lum

With more than 286 million Americans connected to the Internet today, it is a daunting thought that data from their online activity can be collected by Internet service providers (ISPs), such as Comcast and AT&T, and shared without permission. In March, however, Congress voted to repeal yet-to-be-implemented watershed regulations that would have required ISPs to receive customers’ permission before using or selling their data, taking a step back for Internet privacy protections.

On March 23, the Senate voted 50-48 in favor of Senate Joint Resolution 34 to overturn the aforementioned Internet privacy regulations passed by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) in October 2016, during the last few days of the Obama administration. Following the Senate vote, the House of Representatives voted 215-205 to pass the resolution on March 28, and it was signed into law by President Trump on April 3.

Since ISPs no longer have to obtain customer permission before selling their data, including but not limited to web browsing history, location history and app usage from the amount of activity that customers conduct online, many believe that this resolution marks a regression for the privacy rights of Americans.

“It was wrong for them to overturn [the privacy regulations] because people need privacy. If [ISPs] sell our information without us knowing, that is a violation of our rights,” said sophomore Sannie Chiu. “There are things that people need to keep to themselves. Everyone puts out everything online.”

The landmark regulations overturned by this repeal would have additionally provided Internet users with much stronger privacy protections and safeguards against hackers and thieves.

“If we get down to the main part of the issue, it is just that corporations should not have the right to play with personal lives. There is a point where it gets out of hand,” said junior Sultaan Ahmad. “They have overstepped many principles of basic humanity by doing this. I would say that, unequivocally, corporations should not have the right to access our personal information. There is just no reason for that in the first place.”

The argument of those in favor of the repeal has been that the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) should regulate privacy, not the FCC. Additionally, prominent figures supporting the repeal, such as FCC chairman Ajit Pai, have said that the previously passed FCC regulations for ISPs would have been unfair because FTC regulations for edge providers like Google and Facebook, which provide services over the Internet, would not have been as strict as the regulations for ISPs.

This argument, however, is flawed since edge provider users can easily switch to other services if they do not approve of a certain service’s privacy policy, but customers usually do not have much choice in ISPs, due to limited selection in most areas. It is also important to note that unlike ISPs, which can see almost all customer activity on the Internet, edge providers cannot see all the websites that users visit, only what users do on their particular platforms.

Under the Congressional Review Act, which states that new legislation cannot be passed if it is the same as legislation that has been overturned in the past, the repeal of the privacy protections also means that the FCC will not be able to pass similar regulations in the future. This leaves many worried about the future in online privacy.

“[The repeal] is a step backward. Any hope of a future with Internet privacy might be gone,” said freshman Joyce Tung. “[ISPs] are supposed to be serving their customers, not other companies, so if they are selling their data without permission, they are just betraying their customers.”

Congress and President Trump have erred in their decision to overturn ISP regulations that would have preserved fundamental rights of American citizens. Their actions mark a setback for the privacy of Internet users, which include the majority of Americans, and they establish an uncertain future in online privacy in a time when states are scrambling to propose and pass legislation to counter the rollback of what would have been critical Internet privacy protections.