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Trump’s FCC May Let ISPs Sell Your Private Data Without Your Consent

ISPs like Comcast and AT&T want Republicans to roll back FCC “opt-in” data privacy protections.

If you like your online privacy rights, can you keep them? Under Trump, the chances are grim.

Federal regulations protecting consumers from broadband industry privacy abuses will soon be eliminated if the nation's largest Internet Service Providers (ISPs) and their Republican allies on Capitol Hill have their way.

The US broadband privacy safeguards, which were approved last year by the Federal Communications Commission, require ISPs like Comcast, AT&T and Verizon to obtain "opt-in" consent before they "monetize" sensitive consumer data, including online browsing activity, mobile app data, and emails and online chats.

As President Trump and GOP lawmakers move swiftly to remove regulations across large swaths of the economy, the nation's biggest ISPs are working overtime to ensure that the FCC's privacy policy is part of the regulatory rollback. The broadband industry is pursuing a dual-track strategy by pressuring the FCC to halt the privacy policy, while simultaneously lobbying Congress to rescind the rules outright.

Under the recently-approved FCC policy, consumers must affirmatively give their ISP opt-in permission to use private information for marketing purposes. The big ISPs, not surprisingly, want the right to monetize such data by default, with the burden falling on the user to opt-out.

Consumer advocates are pushing back. "Without these rules, ISPs could use and disclose customer information at will," a coalition of public interest groups recently wrote to Capitol Hill leaders. "The result could be extensive harm caused by breaches or misuse of data."

The pro-consumer coalition includes Access Now, the ACLU, the Center for Democracy and Technology, the Center for Media Justice, Free Press Action Fund, the National Hispanic Media Coalition, New America's Open Technology Institute, and Public Knowledge.

The FCC's privacy policy, which was approved late last year under the leadership of former agency chairman Tom Wheeler, covers "sensitive information" like financial and health data, children's information, social security numbers, precise geolocation data, web browsing history, mobile app usage data, and the content of online communications.

"I will strongly oppose any efforts to roll back the broadband privacy rules either by Congress or at the FCC."

Sen. Edward J. Markey, the Massachusetts Democrat, warned in a statement that the "big broadband barons want to turn back the clock and undo these fundamental consumer protections so they can freely collect and profit from customer's sensitive personal information."

"I will strongly oppose any efforts to roll back the broadband privacy rules either by Congress or at the FCC," Markey added.

Not content to make billions of dollars annually off wireless, pay-TV, and internet service subscriptions, the broadband industry giants also want the ability to make even more money off consumers by tracking their online activities and displaying hyper-targeted advertising based on private user preferences and internet browsing habits. (ISPs have already begin experimenting with various forms of this concept, such as AT&T's short-lived "pay-for-privacy" offering. If the FCC's privacy policy is killed, those plans could quickly proliferate.)

In a recent letter to Congress, a coalition representing the nation's largest broadband companies argued that the FCC privacy policy could "interfere with the ability of consumers to receive customized services and capabilities they enjoy and be informed of new products and discount offers."

The broadband industry coalition, which is asking lawmakers to use its authority under the Congressional Review Act (CRA) to rescind the rules, added that the FCC policy could "significantly harm consumers as well as our nation's digital economy."

Gaurav Laroia, policy counsel at Free Press Action Fund, at DC-based public interest group, strongly disputed those assertions.

"In a dishonest and hypocritical move, these same companies and their lobbyists are claiming that the privacy protections will somehow harm internet users," Laroia said in a statement. "Clearly that's a lie. The companies that carry all of our speech online have no business profiting from the information they gather without our consent."

"The cable, telecom, wireless and advertising lobbies' request for CRA intervention is just another shameless industry attempt to overturn rules that empower internet users and hamstring the agency's ability to protect consumer data going forward," Laroia added. "Congress should stand with internet users and reject this request out of hand."

The ISPs also complain that the FCC's rules don't apply to websites like Google and Facebook, which also collect huge amounts of consumer data. As a result, the telecom industry asserts that the FCC's policy puts it at a competitive disadvantage relative to the Silicon Valley giants.

But public interest groups say this argument is disingenuous, because the FCC doesn't have primary jurisdiction over these firms—the Federal Trade Commission does. And in any event, the big telecom companies will still be able to "monetize" the massive amount of sensitive consumer information they collect—they just need to ask users for consent.

"The FCC's rules give broadband customers confidence that their privacy and choices will be honored, but it does not in any way ban ISPs' ability to market to users who opt-in to receive any such targeted offers," the public interest groups wrote. "The rules merely require the ISPs to obtain that informed consent."