The US House of Representatives has passed a bill that effectively tears up internet privacy rules. Under the Obama administration, service providers had to get permission from customers before using and selling their personal data to advertisers and other third parties. They were also legally bound to help prevent data breaches and notify users in case of major hacks. President Trump is now set to scrap these rules, allowing companies to bypass consent.
So what will change?
A data free-for-all for internet service providers
Internet giants like AT&T, Verizon or Comcast will no longer have to ask their users for permission to collect, share or sell their data. Google, Facebook and others are already able to do just that, as they are not covered by the same rules. Internet service providers have complained they are at a disadvantage. "The phone and cable companies have always had Google envy," Jeffrey Chester, executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy, a privacy rights advocacy group told BBC news.
Privacy rights campaigners warn that internet providers can harvest a lot more data than Google, like which TV shows or films people are watching. In addition users have little choice when buying internet access. In many areas of the US there are just one or two providers. So while internet users can change browsers and search engines or even avoid social media, they are boxed in when it comes to buying access to the internet and will have to live with whatever data policies their provider imposes.
What information will be up for grabs?
Potentially, internet service providers could access people’s financial and health information, social security numbers, geo-location, communications, use of apps and web browsing history. Critics of the relaxed laws say information relating to children could put them at risk.
It’s unlikely that very personal or precise information will be sold, as this will alienate customers. Ryan Radia, regulatory counsel at the pro-business think tank Competitive Enterprise Institute thinks that it will be “domain names you visited, what broad interest category, maybe detailed URLs ... certainly demographics”.
Industry advocates believe the FCC’s rules defined privacy far too broadly, the Washington Post reported. The industry, it said, favours the interpretation of another agency — the Federal Trade Commission — that does not consider browsing history or app-usage data to be sensitive and protected.
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What are the dangers?
Scrapping the current privacy law will make it more difficult to understand how personal information is being shared and used. Privacy and consumer advocate groups worry about discriminatory ads that are super-targeted, based on income, race, gender or location.
Evan Greer, campaign director of Fight for the Future, said in a statement: “Gutting these privacy rules won’t just allow internet service providers to spy on us and sell our personal information, it will also enable more unconstitutional mass government surveillance, and fundamentally undermine our cybersecurity.”
What can I do to protect my information?
Some experts recommend using a virtual private network (VPN) service, which can encrypt data and make it impossible for service providers to collect. Consumers can also ask what kind of data is being collected for what purpose and ask if they can opt out.