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Your internet data may be up for sale

Molly Wood Mar 27, 2017
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The House of Representatives will vote on repealing the Federal Communications Commission's broadband privacy rules on Tuesday after Senate approval last week.
Alex Wong/Getty Images

Last week, the United States Senate quietly voted to repeal the Federal Communications Commission’s broadband privacy rules. These rules would have given consumers the power to choose how to share personal data that gets collected by internet service providers. For example, data about what websites you visit. The bill goes to the House of Representatives for a vote on Tuesday. If it passes the House, it goes off to President Donald Trump, who is expected to sign it.

Many consumers are just finding out that this history was up for sale in the first place. Marketplace host Molly Wood talked to Dallas Harris, a policy fellow for Public Knowledge, about this. Below is an edited transcript of their conversation.

Molly Wood: So, tell me, if you would, what we can expect from this vote in the House and what they’re voting on in terms of broadband privacy.

Dallas Harris: Sure. Well, unfortunately I am expecting the [Congressional Review Act] of the broadband privacy rules to pass the House tomorrow. This is a sign that industry, particularly large telecom companies and internet service providers, have a much louder voice in Washington than consumers do. These rules were designed to protect consumers, give them more control over their information. And the Senate and Congress has decided to make it easier for internet service providers to make a buck.

Wood: Tell me how they would make a buck. I think, you know, for people who aren’t familiar with this issue, what is at stake here? What kind of information?

Harris: Sure. You know, internet service providers collect all types of information about you. The websites that you visit, how long you’re online, when you’re online, how long you’re on a website. And essentially, what’s at stake for consumers, is they are about to become the product for internet service providers, they are no longer just customers.

Wood: And so, the rules that were going to go into place had not yet already, right? Is information already being sold?

Harris: You’re correct. These rules were given a little bit of time to be put into place for internet service providers to get together whatever mechanisms they need to put in place to comply with the rules. And without them, yes, internet service providers are free to sell all kinds of information about you without getting your consent first.

Wood: So, if this bill is to pass it essentially preserves a status quo or do you expect that ISPs will then build new products, new moneymaking products, on top of this data?

Harris: Well, they sure will be free to do so. You know I can’t speak to every practice or every business that they were involved in before the rules, but it’s clear now that internet service providers will be able to access and use your information in all kinds of ways that they would not have been able to if the rules would have stayed in place.

Wood: What do they want to use the data for? Do you have any idea?

Harris: They want to be the new advertising kings on the block. Essentially, they feel like edge providers, like Google and Facebook, they have the advertising market cornered. And internet service providers,frankly, are a bit jealous of their capabilities in that space. They also want to be players on the advertising block. They want to be the new the new ‘Mad Men.’

Wood: I know that some of these ISPs had argued that your browsing history is not that sensitive. What kind of information might they be getting from you?

Harris: All kinds of information. Let me just throw on a couple of things. Your political affiliation, based upon the top-level domain information of websites you visit, your sexual orientation, where you like to shop, your financial status, race, gender. They can figure out these different things based upon the information that they collect and use.

Wood: That’s Dallas Harris, policy fellow for Public Knowledge. Dallas, thanks so much.

Harris: Thank you 

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