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Trump Signs Anti-Privacy Bill into Law

On Monday evening, President Trump signed into law a measure that repeals the Federal Communications Commission’s broadband privacy rules.

The FCC policy, yet to go into effect, would have prevented ISPs from sharing individual browser histories with marketers, political campaign managers and other third parties without consent. The rules called for getting consumer consent before using such data as health and financial information as well as children's information and precise geolocation in ads and internal marketing.

The bill essentially blocks this FCC policy from going into effect, so nothing changes for consumers in the short term. However, without regulation, it opens the door for consumer abuse, some argue. The Online Trust Alliance, for instance, points out that the info that ISPs will be allowed to continue to collect goes deeper than surfing histories—most ISPs in the US are also pay-TV providers, so viewership data could allow the profiling to become even more granular over time, as platforms for data-crunching become more sophisticated.

“It is important to recognize that broadband providers have a unique line of sight into our personal lives.  When this data appended with our TV habits and physical address, the resulting ‘dossier of our lives’ is redefining the definition of Big Data,” said Craig Spiezle, executive director and president of the OTA. “In an era of the US government focusing on alleged wiretaps and cyber-spying, we are now effectively handing this same data over to broadband providers to sell and share as they like.”

Both the House and Senate narrowly passed the measure (S. J. Res. 34) using a rarely-invoked legislative mechanism known as the Congressional Review Act. With the president’s signature, the FCC’s landmark rules to protect consumer privacy are wholly repealed and the FCC is barred from passing any “substantially similar” new rules. The Federal Trade Commission is also barred from exercising authority over broadband providers.

“President Trump’s signature puts the final nail in the coffin of the FCC’s online privacy protections,” said Joshua Stager, policy counsel at New America’s Open Technology Institute. “Without these rules, broadband providers like AT&T and Comcast are free to sell browsing history and other sensitive data without consumer consent. This bill was rammed through Congress in a matter of days, despite a fierce public outcry. It’s clearly not what the American people want.”

A bipartisan spectrum of lawmakers from Kevin Yoder (R-Kan.) to Keith Ellison (D-Minn.) vocally opposed the bill.

“President Trump ignored the outcry just to tie the bow on this gift to the telecom industry, all at the expense of our privacy,” added Stager.

Comcast, AT&T and Verizon all said in the wake of the bill’s passage that they wouldn't sell individual browsing information and had no plans to do so.

Comcast said that it will update its privacy policy to make that more clear; AT&T already says in its policy that it "will not sell your personal information to anyone, for any purpose. Period."

Verizon said that it sells “aggregate insights” to advertisers—but that no individual histories will be sold.

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