While Congress kills internet privacy, states take a stand for users
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The internet is one of the most integral resources we have in today’s society — it’s the platform on which we connect with others, conduct business, perform research, and much more. Now, after a recent vote by Congress, your internet privacy — everything you browse, say, and do — is at stake.

But there is hope to reclaim your freedom to use the internet securely, and it comes in the form of newly proposed state legislation that would ensure online privacy rights for consumers.

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In March, Congress voted to kill regulations issued by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) that required internet providers to get customers’ consent before tracking or selling browsing histories. The repeal of these regulations will allow internet providers to boost revenues by selling or sharing data on customers’ browsing histories. Scary, I know.

In response, California legislators, alongside more than a dozen other states, engaged in an effort to restore some of the internet privacy protections that Congress rolled back earlier this year.

The California bill, which is slated to reach the floor this September, would prohibit an internet service provider (ISP) “from using, disclosing, selling, or permitting access to customer personal information” except when the consumer has given explicit “opt-in” consent “which may be revoked by the customer at any time.” Under the proposed law, ISPs would also be prohibited from refusing service to customers who don’t provide consent, mirroring previous provisions put in place by the Obama-era FCC in 2016.

Customers are more than a source of data to be sold. And this California bill helps illuminate how ISPs should treat customers and their data.

ISPs are the only companies with full access to everything consumers do online, including every site they visit, every path and click as they move between sites, not to mention the full array of apps and services consumers touch. Even with encryption, URLs and endpoint information can be used to determine a disturbing amount about customer behavior. If that sounds like a gross overreach, it is even more so when providers aren’t required by law to handle that information responsibly with regard to privacy.

As it is, current law allows ISPs to essentially spy on their customers without their consent. Backers of this law compare ISPs to platforms like Google or Facebook, otherwise known as “edge providers,” which provide a free service. Backers argue that it isn't fair for ISPs to face stricter privacy laws than edge providers. But the fact is that using Facebook and Google, two free user services, and relying on your ISP for internet connection, a paid connection service, are simply not comparable.

Imagine, for example, phone carriers advocating for the right to analyze telephone calls and sell data from what they hear. No phone calls — not even one with your spouse or child — would be safe. That would be extremely uncomfortable for consumers and likely discourage them from using a phone service altogether.

The disturbing implications of abolishing internet privacy rules go far beyond how the internet is used. By selling customer data, larger ISPs could capture more of the market, albeit unfairly, leaving smaller ISPs in the dust and harming what little competition exists. A decrease in internet access competition will be bad for consumers, as competition is what drives companies to provide the best possible service to consumers at the lowest possible price.

The bottom line is that private information should be kept private, both for the good of the consumer and for the overall health of the internet ecosystem.

With Congress stripping away consumer privacy protections, it’s up to states push back against the repeal of federal policies that protect basic consumer rights. California and other states have already taken the first step toward making that a reality. Now the question remains: Will other states follow?  

Dane Jasper is the CEO and cofounder of Sonic, the largest independent ISP in northern California.


The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the views of The Hill.