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Is Congress encroaching on Americans’ Internet privacy?

April 10, 2017

At a time when American politics is perhaps more divided than ever, one issue has emerged that the vast majority of people, regardless of their political affiliation, can agree on: Internet privacy.

On March 23, Republicans in the U.S. Senate voted along party lines — 50 to 48 — to eliminate proposed broadband privacy rules that would have required ISPs to receive explicit consent from consumers before selling or sharing their web browsing data, and other private information, with advertisers and other companies.

The Senate also used its power under the Congressional Review Act to ensure that the FCC rulemaking “shall have no force or effect” and to prevent the FCC from issuing similar regulations in the future.

The public reaction has not been positive. According to a recent YouGov survey, 80 percent of Democrats favored a veto by President Trump, but so did 69 percent of independents and 75 percent of Republicans.

The eliminated FCC broadband privacy rules, which had not yet taken effect, were set to require providers to get opt-in consent from customers before selling or sharing metadata and personal information such as geo-location, browsing activity, IP addresses and more. Opt-out requirements would have been required for less sensitive information such as email addresses.

The timing of such a change comes at a critical point in history where innovators and technologists are pushing the boundaries of what is possible using digital identity, profiles based on someone or something’s online presence and activity. Digital identity attributes, such as a Facebook profiles, are increasingly being used at border crossings, for fraud prevention, and customer onboarding at financial institutions. Combined with traditional identity attributes, such as a driver’s license, the number of digital identity use cases is increasing daily, along with it, the value of metadata and personal information.

The metadata capturing your personal information can come from any connected device. Desktop computers, laptop, mobile devices, cloud video recorders, home assistants, etc. are connected devices and collect metadata.

“Your home broadband provider can know when you wake up each day, either by knowing the time each morning that you log on to the Internet to check the weather (or) news of the morning, or through a connected device in your home,” Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) said during the Senate floor debate.

“This is a gold mine of data — the holy grail, so to speak,” Nelson said. “It’s no wonder that broadband providers want to be able to sell this information to the highest bidder, without consumers’ knowledge or consent. And they want to collect and use this information without providing transparency or being held accountable.”

Americans must now put blind faith in ISPs, such as Comcast and Verizon, to deny their shareholders and forego surefire profits in exchange for maintaining their customer’s personal privacy.

Few consumers have any choice of Internet provider. Thus, their only choice may be between “giving up their browsing history for an Internet provider to sell to the highest bidder, or having no Internet at all,” said Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.). According to the FCC’s latest Internet Access Services report, which contains data through June 30, 2015, 78 percent of Americans have only one or no provider at the FCC’s standard 25Mbps download/3Mbps upload broadband standards.

Proponents of the bill argue that checks and balances between state and federal authorities will curb the fears dominating many Americans regarding this matter. One such example is surrounding federal and state wiretapping laws, such as the Wiretap Act, which currently limits only the interception of the contents of communications, as opposed to metadata, which includes geo-location and personally identifiable information.

Proponents also recommend the use of a Virtual Private Network (VPN) to enhance one’s privacy. At the average cost of $4 to $10 per month, a VPN is an excellent option for those Americans fortunate enough to have the discretionary spending. But should we require citizens to enforce the Fourth Amendment right of privacy for themselves?

Travis Jarae is the founder and CEO of One World Identity, an online platform that publishes events, publications, research and analysis, member services, and consumer news. Follow him on Twitter @TravisJarae.

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