The Senate, as expected, has voted to cancel changes to rules concerning use of personal data collected online. This is an important issue for consumers and for the companies that are trying to use that data for sales and marketing.
The law, if signed by President Trump, will kill legislation that, as of now, is set to go into effect later this year. Those rules were adopted by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) last year. Among other things, they mandate that consumers give their permission (“opt in”) for their location, browsing history and perhaps other data to be shared, according to New York Magazine.
The legislation has now cleared the House and the Senate. The White House has signaled that the president will sign the law, according to TechCrunch. The most sweeping way to look at the news is that the government is working to wipe away consumer protections. In the final analysis, that indeed may be the case. The reality is a bit more nuanced and slightly less frightening, however.
Guarding people’s privacy is traditionally the purview of the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). In 2015, Internet Service Providers (ISPs) were redefined as a public utility under Title II of the Communications Act. Oversight of their behavior, including handling of data, was taken over by the FCC. The Consumer Reports’ piece notes that online non-ISP edge providers, such as Google and Amazon, are regulated by the FTC “and face far less stringent requirements.”
The rollback is an effort to equalize rules governing ISPs and edge providers along the lines of the less controlling FTC approach. Indeed, FCC Chairman Ajit Pai would be fine with the FCC getting out of the privacy game altogether. After the House vote to roll back the FCC rules, he was quoted by Multichannel News that the best path is to return jurisdiction to the FTC.
The New York Magazine piece provides good context. The most important realization is that the rollback does not mean that massive invasions of privacy will occur immediately. One of the rationales given by telecommunications companies for the move is that privacy is already protected:
[T]he hypothetical doomsday scenario — that ISPs will sell your whole browsing history, tied to your name and identity, to whoever wants it, the minute this vote is completed in Congress — will not come to fruition.
The more likely scenario, the story said, is that anonymized data will be put up for sale. This is a bit more than equalizing the rules, however, because ISPs inherently have more data. An edge provider such as Google only controls consumer data from sites with which it is associated. An ISP has access to full browsing history.
Clearly, the cancellation of the changes promulgated by the Obama administration by its successor is big news. Hopefully, the conversation about how to safeguard citizens’ data will continue.
Carl Weinschenk covers telecom for IT Business Edge. He writes about wireless technology, disaster recovery/business continuity, cellular services, the Internet of Things, machine-to-machine communications and other emerging technologies and platforms. He also covers net neutrality and related regulatory issues. Weinschenk has written about the phone companies, cable operators and related companies for decades and is senior editor of Broadband Technology Report. He can be reached at [email protected] and via twitter at @DailyMusicBrk.