Hey, quick question: Do you mind if I take a look at the web pages you visit, the links or ads you see and follow, what apps you use, your social security number, location history and the things you search for? If you’re anything like most people, the answer would be a resounding “hell no.” After all, our browsing data is a window into our thoughts, our anxieties, our plans, and personality (click here to see what I mean). This data allows corporations to track information about you, like your gender, ethnicity, and income, which might seem harmless. However, those companies can look at your internet use and determine your interests, immigration status, creditworthiness, medical history, sexual orientation, and employability. The use of this data can even amplify and perpetuate historical discrimination against communities of color.
Your personal data is extremely valuable, which is why the Senate, many of whose members receive wheelbarrows full of campaign cash from the telecom industry, recently voted to take away our control over this information and give it to monopolistic internet service providers. A similar vote will soon take place in the House of Representatives.
Under the Obama administration, the FCC put in modest rules that would force ISPs to clarify what information they gather, who they share it with and why. The rules require ISPs like Comcast and AT&T to obtain permission from you to share sensitive data (like your location, social security number or search history) and prohibited them from refusing service to customers that don’t consent to share this data. The rules make sure that companies don’t artificially raise prices and then offer a lower rate to force customers to consent. For example, AT&T’s Internet Preferences program used to charge customers an extra $30 a month if you didn’t let them gather and sell your personal information. Under the current rules, those actions and other creepy practices would get extra scrutiny from the FCC.
The FCC’s new chairman, Ajit Pai, called these consumer protections “a mistake.” If Pai and Congress have their way, companies like AT&T, Comcast and Verizon will be able to collect and sell your personal data to the highest bidder, whether you like it or not. That’s worrisome because ISPs have access to nearly all of our unencrypted internet history. Not to mention that you’re already (over)paying for internet service – so why should we let these hugely profitable companies double dip and sell your data too? Even worse, most of us can’t vote with our dollars and switch to an ISP that protects our privacy. That’s because the internet market in the U.S. is a virtual monopoly and most Americans have access to only one high speed broadband provider.
So why are these privacy protections so important? Imagine a family member or a friend looking for plus size clothing or hangover cures. An insurance company with that information could decide to charge them more for coverage. Imagine searching for how to apply for DACA and getting flagged by an ICE database. What if your web history shows you don’t comparison shop for prices? Companies would love to have that information when choosing what price or loan rate to offer you. We don’t have to imagine –the tools and data to enable this type of algorithmic profiling already exist.
Please contact your representative and make sure these protections don’t go away. In addition, we need to start caring more about our privacy — not only because it’s valuable but because this data in the wrong hands can be used against us.
Vinhcent is Greenlining’s Telecommunications Legal Fellow. Follow Vinhcent on Twitter.