Congressional collusion with telecom behemoths continued to erode Americans’ vanishing electronic privacy on Monday as President Trump signed the repeal of broadband privacy protections into law. Despite misleading claims from Republicans that they’re carrying out a popular mandate to roll back “burdensome” Obama-era regulations, it’s nearly impossible to see how this action unburdens anyone except giant Internet service providers like Comcast, AT&T, and Verizon. Now states need to explore ways to fill the regulatory void that the GOP’s action has created.
The Federal Communications Commission rules — which were approved last year and had not even gone into effect yet — were intended to restrain what service providers could do with their customers’ browsing habits, location data, Social Security numbers, and other data. Selling that information to advertisers is big business, and getting bigger.
The growing sophistication of data mining has made such protections for consumers more urgently needed. The real-life consequences of selling people’s location data to advertisers became painfully apparent recently in a campaign by Boston-based Copley Advertising, which targeted women aged 18 to 24 who had been near certain abortion clinics. Based on their location history, Copley sent digital ads from antiabortion groups to these women’s phones. Thanks to a settlement reached with Attorney General Maura Healey’s office, Copley is preemptively banned from sending such ads in Massachusetts, but the practice continues in other states, and the repeal of the FCC rules gives service providers free rein to continue tapping the private information generated by our Internet use for profit.
To be clear, the repeal of the privacy rules is only the latest blow against online consumer privacy. But it’s particularly absurd for Donald Trump to bloviate about helping “the forgotten man” as he signs into law a repeal aimed at cashing in on that same forgotten man’s daily habits online. Whether used for accessing health care, applying for jobs, contacting loved ones, or learning about the world, the Internet has evolved to become a public utility that Americans rely on.
In a recent op-ed in The Washington Post defending the repeal, FCC chair Ajit Pai and acting Federal Trade Commission chair Maureen Ohlhausen criticized the Obama-era policy as unfair, because it applied only to service providers and not to all Internet companies. But service providers should be treated differently because they are different: Companies like Comcast and AT&T are the gatekeepers to the Internet, and many enjoy near-monopolistic power inside their service areas.
If the federal government cannot bring itself to shield consumers , the Massachusetts Legislature should step up. Other states are already leading the way: Minnesota requires customer consent before Internet service providers share individuals’ browsing histories, while Illinois is considering a “Right to Know Act” that would mandate that companies like Facebook, Google, and Amazon disclose data collected on and shared about their users. Both shift part of the Internet privacy burden from individual consumers to the companies that stand to profit off their daily habits. Massachusetts would be well served by a similar shift.