Should companies such as DirectTV and Comcast be able to sell information about the websites you visit without your permission? This is precisely what a bill introduced in Congress this week seeks to do — and it’s time that Rep. Greg Walden gets on the right side of the issue.
Late last year, the Federal Communications Commission adopted a rule to make sure that internet service providers such as DirectTV and Comcast cannot collect and sell your sensitive information, unless you specifically allow them to do so. The rule is critical to making sure that the people of Oregon — not major telecommunications companies — control how their personal information is treated. Regulating internet service providers is particularly important because their vantage point gives them access to a uniquely large amount of private data — including browsing history, when someone signs in and out of an account, or even location information.
Predictably, the rule has received strong pushback from these major companies — many of whom donate heavily to members of Congress. Comcast, AT&T and Verizon are in the top 10 of the largest contributors to Walden’s campaign committee and leadership PAC, according to opensecrets.com .
Of course these companies oppose the rule that would make it more difficult to sell and use their customers’ sensitive information. They can make more money selling their customers’ data. That’s why they have lobbied Congress to use a rare procedural maneuver, contained in the Congressional Review Act, that would reverse this rule and prohibit the FCC from ever creating substantially similar rules in the future.
Using the Congressional Review Act in this context is wrong. Even if the companies had legitimate concerns, severely limiting regulation in this way is unwise. For most people around the country, using the internet is a necessity and not a luxury. We need the internet for work, school, to check our bank balance, or order medication — and we should not have to choose between privacy and fulfilling our basic needs.
For example, what if DirectTV starts charging consumers exorbitant fees to keep their browsing history private? Or, what if Comcast decides that the selling and use of your personal information is a condition of using their services? Reversing this rule through the Congressional Review Act could prevent the Federal Communications Commission from stepping in to address these abuses.
Critics of the rule have said that they believe that the free market will correct these types of abuses. But, for many of our communities, this may not be the case. For example, many of our areas are serviced by a small number of internet providers, in part due to the high cost of providing internet connectivity in rural areas. Here there is little ability to simply use another service or negotiate for better privacy protections.
Anyone who has ever tried to negotiate their bill can tell you that trying to barter with these companies is like David fighting Goliath. In cases where the free market fails, it would be unwise to prevent our government from stepping in to protect the little guy.
And while it is true that other companies such as Google and Facebook, who also have some concerning data practices, are not covered by these rules, that does not eliminate the need to address concerns with internet service providers. These providers have unique access to information, and the practical reality is that many individuals cannot simply forsake doing business with these companies.
Walden should not give in to donor and industry pressure, and instead support measures that can help address privacy abuses.
— David Rogers is the executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Oregon.