FCC, don't weaken privacy rules

Before the end of October, the Federal Communications Commission may vote on whether broadband providers should have to ask our permission before using and selling the information they collect from us whenever we go online. Corporations like Comcast and Verizon say they don’t need rules, even as they grow large enough to track us no matter what screen we’re on or where we go.

But Black folks and communities of color worry about privacy, about the safety of our children and other loved ones, every single day. Authorities track our cell phones in Baltimore without a warrant or “reasonable suspicion,” and at the FBI they want to use flawed facial recognition technology in our communities without telling us how they’ll use that data. Black parents in particular, send their children off to school increasingly anxious that any encounter with police can swiftly escalate and cost them their lives.


We use our smartphones and computers to broadcast our most frightening moments and seek support. We organize and build each other up online. We spread the word and make Black lives matter when they are taken from us as though they don’t. We trust that when we go online, at home or on mobile devices, we can count on our privacy and on the safety of our personal information.

Now imagine that this precious information and record of your daily life could be fair game not only for the police, but for anyone willing to pay the price for it, and used to further prey on you and your family. This isn’t a hypothetical- right now there are no rules preventing corporations that offer broadband access from collecting and selling our information to the highest bidder.

In fact, just last year Comcast shelled out $33 Million to settle with the state of California for privacy violations. Comcast posted names, phone numbers and addresses of an estimated 75,000 customers who had paid for unlisted voice over internet protocol (VOIP) phone service. Given their history, it’s not a stretch to say we can continue to see that sort of reckless behavior and more. When one thinks about the sort and depth of information that these companies have access to, it boggles the mind how vulnerable we all could be without some clear, enforceable rules of the road.

Even if we think some of this information may feel innocuous, our data can easily become a proxy for protected class and sensitive information. Right now corporations are able to easily combine information about you that they’ve purchased, and create a profile of your vulnerabilities. This has led to many examples of Black and low-income folks being targeted for online payday lending advertising and other forms of predatory marketing, online price gouging, and more. Alternatives that have been put forward by Internet Service Providers- namely “pay for privacy” options- further victimize low-income communities, by making basic privacy rights a luxury and forcing many in our country to have to choose between groceries or protection from having their data used against them.

Our communities need strong privacy rules to ensure that they cannot be extorted into giving up our personal information for internet access. This is why Color Of Change met with the FCC and urged Chairman Wheeler to include these concerns in his proposal for strong rules and resist calls from industry to weaken our privacy protections. In our meetings and letters, we decried broadband providers so called pay-for-privacy schemes. We cautioned against distinctions made between sensitive and non-sensitive data and the ways in which this information can be used as a proxy for protected class information. And we explained the ways in which data can be easily re-identified for Black folks.

Comcast and Verizon say the solution is for us to give up our privacy in exchange for access to a digital economy. We should not have to make that choice. We should have control over how these companies use our personal information, and not be forced to give it up for an uncertain discount. The FCC now has a strong proposal before them to protect the privacy of Internet users. The Commissioners must work to strengthen this proposal and adopt the protections it extends. The space our communities have claimed online is much too valuable in this moment and in this movement. We must keep it safe, open, and secure.

Rashad Robinson is executive director of Color Of Change.

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