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Future of Internet Privacy Uncertain in Wake of S.J Res. 34

A newly enacted law that rolls back FCC internet privacy rules has set off a flurry of speculation regarding its implications for web surfers.  

S.J.Res. 34 “nullifies the Federal Communications Commission’s rule on privacy of customers of broadband and other telecommunications services,” according to information from the White House. The nullified rule was put in place during former President Barack Obama’s administration.

Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai supported the decision, claiming the Obama-era policy catered to special interests. Pai said the FCC will work with the Federal Trade Commission to allow the FTC−the “most experienced and expert privacy cop”−to police Internet service providers’ privacy practices.

“President Trump and Congress have appropriately invalidated one part of the Obama-era plan for regulating the Internet,” he said. “Those flawed privacy rules, which never went into effect, were designed to benefit one group of favored companies, not online consumers.” 

However, some organizations and experts fear the new rules will endanger internet users’ privacy. Fight for the Future, a non-profit organization dedicated to expanding the Internet’s “power for good,” said the bill enables Internet Service Providers like Comcast and Verizon to collect customers' Internet activity and sell it to advertisers.

Fight for the Future is planning a billboard campaign aimed at exposing those who supported the bill, according to information from the organization. Evan Greer, campaign director of Fight for the Future, expressed concerns that CEOs and lobbyists for large telecommunication companies stand to make money “spying on all of us and selling the private details of our lives to marketing companies.”

“It’s deeply ironic that President Trump is expressing outrage about alleged violations of his own privacy while signing legislation that will dramatically expand government surveillance of all Americans,” she said in a statement. “President Trump has misjudged his base on this issue. No one wants their Internet Service Provider to sell their information without their permission.”

ISPs, though, contest the new rules will prove detrimental to the security of their customers. Gerard Lewis, senior vice president, deputy general counsel & chief privacy officer at Comcast said Comcast always has and always will protect the personal information of its customers.

“We do not sell our broadband customers’ individual web browsing history," he said. "We did not do it before the FCC’s rules were adopted, and we have no plans to do so.”

Comcast committed to privacy principles that have governed the “internet ecosystem” for more than two decades and are legally enforceable by state Attorneys General, according to information from the company. Comcast pledged to not share sensitive information like banking, health and children’s information without “affirmative, opt-in consent.”

The company also pledged not to share non-sensitive information used for targeted ads by giving customers the ability to opt-out of receiving such ads.

“In view of all the misinformation and inaccurate statements that have been made in the last week, we want to make sure that our customers understand how strong our privacy protections really are,” Lewis said in a statement. “So we will revise our privacy policy to make more clear and prominent that, contrary to the many inaccurate statements and reports, we do not sell our customers’ individual web browsing information to third parties and that we do not share sensitive information unless our customers have affirmatively opted in to allow that to occur.”

Karen Zacharia, Verizon chief privacy officer, echoed that sentiment. "Let’s set the record straight. Verizon does not sell the personal web browsing history of our customers. We don’t do it and that’s the bottom line,” she said. “The Verizon Selects advertising program makes marketing to customers more personalized and useful—using de-identified information to determine which customers fit into groups that advertisers are trying to reach. The other program provides aggregate insights that might be useful for advertisers and other businesses.”

Jim Dempsey, Executive Director, Berkeley Center for Law & Technology of the UC Berkeley School of Law, warned ISPs to be careful with how they use customer data in the wake of the new rules.

"Even with the repeal of the FCC's privacy rule, ISPs have to be very careful about collecting and using their customer's browsing data for advertising or other profiling purposes. The Electronic Communications Privacy Act, for one, may limit what the ISPs can do,” he told Progressive Law Practice. “At the very least, there is legal risk. By pushing a repeal of the FCC rule, the companies actually may have created more uncertainty. If they do rush in to monetization, there will be litigation."

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