Gutting FCC Guidelines Guts Our Rights

More than 87 percent of Americans have sustainable access to internet, and many of those who do spend more than ten hours a day actively online. Under the Obama administration, these people were guaranteed personal privacy and security while browsing, as Federal Communication Commission (FCC) laws required Internet Service Providers (ISPs) to inform their customers in the situation of a system breach, as well as to acquire explicit consent before selling information to advertising corporations. However, all that may be about to change with the Senate’s 50-48 vote in late March to gut FCC guidelines on protecting browsing data. Mostly split across party lines, the voting results led to massive public outcry, an effect that ballooned after the bill passed in Congress 215-205 and was signed by President Trump on Monday, April 3. 

Those who voted yes argue that FCC regulations stifle innovation and limit profit, while disagreeing lawmakers assert that strict regulations are necessary to protect consumer information and maintain corporate transparency. Information such as nationality, sexual orientation, political viewpoints, and personal interests can now be collected and potentially sold to massive companies to hyper-focus product marketing, without receiving explicit consumer consent. The privacy and transparency concerns will continue to escalate as large corporations (e.g. AT&T, Verizon, and others.) exploit widely-used broadband technology for profit. While a few large ISPs such as Comcast have promised not to sell personal information, the lack of legal repercussions and the ISP’s prominent role in removing existing regulations have generated skepticism. Previously established FCC guidelines also legally bound ISPs to inform customers in the situation of a suspected data breach, particularly one in which sensitive financial information such as security codes, credit card numbers, and account passwords may have been leaked. Repealing these laws, many argue, will provide ISPs with no incentive to publicize information leaks and thus decrease consumer confidence, meaning that customers who find themselves with large credit card bills or an empty bank account will now be doing so without prior warning.

Since his inauguration on January 20, Mr. Trump has signed more than ten bills under the Congressional Review Act (CRA), allowing him, along with Congress, to overturn recently passed federal agency regulations and prohibit the re-establishment of such laws without substantive modifications. Because of this, many states such as New York, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Illinois, Kansas, Maryland, Montana, Wisconsin, Washington, and Connecticut have taken internet privacy into their own hands. Connecticut Senate Majority Leader Bob Duff proposed an amendment requiring ISPs to obtain explicit consumer consent before collecting or selling information, and barring ISPs from refusing to offer services to non-consenting customers. Similar amendments and regulations have been introduced on the state-level across the U.S., under the premise that federal entities will choose not to respond. However, while some politicians are treating the federal law as a floor rather than a ceiling, many lawyers are expecting the situation to become more litigious, especially given the role that the government assumes within the telecommunications sector.

Ultimately, the removal of internet privacy regulations will likely force people towards third-party software such as virtual private networks, or VPNs. Independent software developers within the private sector are jumping on the opportunity, releasing new technology such as the Tor Browser with claims of concealing user identities and rerouting internet traffic to protect online activity from surveillance. The disadvantages of non-federally supported alternatives include slower internet speed and potential scams. In exchange, however, people receive the potential to protect specific geolocations, browsing habits, and other personal data. While supporters of the bill claim that the innocent should have nothing to hide, the bottom line here is that by stripping the FCC guidelines, the government is taking away from citizens the right to choose.

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