Security

Congress just dismantled FCC rules protecting web browsing history: What it means

Republicans in Congress just voted to strip away guidelines protecting web browsing data for consumers, in a landmark victory for ISPs including AT&T, Verizon, and Comcast.

Image: Getty Images/iStockphoto


On Tuesday, Republicans in the US House of Representatives followed suit with the Senate, voting to strip guidelines issued by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to protect consumer internet history.

What does that mean? Your personal internet history is now up for sale.

The ruling effectively blocks Obama-era regulations established in October 2016—and set to take effect in December 2017—that were designed to protect consumers' personal information online from being sold to businesses and marketers. The regulations forced internet service providers (ISPs) like AT&T, Verizon, and T-Mobile to ask for permission from customers before they could share their personal internet history with third-party advertisers.

As you can imagine, the ruling is a big victory for ISPs. TechRepublic's Alison DeNisco previously reported on why telecom companies supported repealing the FCC regulations. In fact, the bill was borne from a petition the ISPs filed recently, making a case that data, unlike Social Security numbers, financial information, health information, and geolocation, should not be deemed "sensitive information"—and should not be subjected to the same privacy requirements as the other information.

The bill is being sent to President Trump, who is expected to sign it.

Experts on data and privacy largely criticized the ruling. Although certain web information should be gathered shared to "ensure the availability and reliability of their networks and services," users should have an "opt-out" option, John Pironti, president of IP Architects, told TechRepublic.

Michelle De Mooy, director for the Privacy and Data Project at the Center for Democracy & Technology, agreed. "The repeal of the FCC's common sense privacy rules was a vote against the best interests of consumers," said De Mooy. "Privacy is at the core of democracy and freedom—the public's desire to have control over when and how their personal information is collected and shared isn't going to change."

So what happens now? New privacy requirements for ISPs will be drafted by the FCC, which could potentially limit the sharing of certain personal web information, such as health or financial data. However, Ajit Pai, the FCC chair, a Republican and a former Verizon lawyer, has been outspoken in his opposition to the rules, and is unlikely to support strict regulations around sharing customer web data.

The ruling could also highlight a trend toward deregulation which could impact future decisions, such as whether to enforce net neutrality principles.

SEE: Employee privacy policy (Tech Pro Research)

Pironti told TechRepublic that one solution could be for ISPs to offer an "incentive model" to customers who agree to share internet data in return for the loss of privacy, which would let users "make a risk and reward based decision for themselves instead of having no control or insight into the collection and use of this data."

Consumers can also take matters into their own hands to protect their internet history, TechRepublic's Brandon Vigliarolo reported, which can include using ToR, VPNs, and other tools that can offer increased security.

Businesses and telecoms should make efforts to protect customer privacy, De Mooy said, because it is "good business," regardless of the ruling.

"People are paying close attention to how the big ISPs are going handle this removal of fundamental privacy and security standards," De Mooy said. "Unless these providers offer robust protections, control, and transparency, I think it's likely that we will see an increase in the public's use of ad-blockers, VPNs, and visits to websites using 'https.'"

Public outrage, said De Mooy, will likely result in "increased scrutiny over ISP tracking and targeting practices, which are opaque by design, and potentially an FTC enforcement action or more class action lawsuits."

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About Hope Reese

Hope Reese is a Staff Writer for TechRepublic. She covers the intersection of technology and society, examining the people and ideas that transform how we live today.

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