In the past week, both the Senate and the House voted to overturn Federal Communication Commission (FCC) privacy rules that require internet service providers (ISPs) to obtain consent from their customers before selling data collected from their activities online. The measure, which President Trump is expected to sign, also would prevent the FCC from creating future rules of a similar nature.

As the Center for Democracy and Technology stated in response to the vote on Tuesday (3/28/17),

“ISPs have access to incredibly sensitive information about us, including everything from web browsing and video viewing habits, religious information, sexual preferences, health conditions, and location. Today’s action means they can collect and share some of the most intimate details of our lives without restriction.”

How This Ruling Compares Free Services Like Facebook

You may wonder how this proposal is any different from what other internet companies that provide free services, such as Facebook, Google or Bing, do in using your data to target you with advertisements.

Using services such as Facebook or Google is a choice, and choosing not to use them because of their collection and sale of your data would not prevent you from going online. However, while many internet users have a choice of ISP, some may not have the option of signing up with one that offers the level of privacy they prefer.

  • I can understand how an ISP giving away free internet access could justify monetizing the data it collects from users – after all, they are getting the service for free and the ISP deserves to be compensated.
  • But why should an ISP that is being paid for its services by users also be allowed to monetize their data?

The Chicago Sun-Times Editorial Board called the bill “an indefensible invasion of privacy” and described ISPs that want to double-dip by taking your service fees while also selling your data to advertisers “greedy.”

Your Permission to Share Your Data Is No Longer Required

I should also note that the current FCC rule does not prevent ISPs from selling the data they collect about you to third parties. It simply requires that they ask for your permission, something that the bill approved by Congress would no longer require. And even if our elected leaders didn’t vote to overturn the regulations, the average consumer shares data about his or her activities with virtually every website they visit so that advertisers can target them or measure the effectiveness of digital marketing campaigns.

Tracking Your User History Across Devices

What ISPs will be able to provide to advertisers, who have struggled to link their audience’s interests and activities, is the oversight of “cross-device capabilities” that can correlate a user’s history across his or her laptop, television, mobile device and tablet.

In addition to advertisers, is it really that hard to imagine ISPs selling data packages to political parties or groups for insight into how to influence users? And what if such information was made available to a foreign government? The websites you visit can reveal sensitive information that can also be very valuable to hackers, and the more your sensitive information is packaged and sold the more vulnerable it makes you to a data breach. Allowing ISPs to sell your data without your permission means you may not even know who has access to that sensitive information or how they intend to use it.

Your digital footprint will follow you the rest of your life.