The House of Representatives’ decision to repeal the FCC privacy laws that originally sought out to protect American internet users’ internet privacy will result in an unfair trade-off between privacy and corporate profits.
What are the FCC privacy laws and why are they being set in place? The FCC privacy rules are a set of rules that force ISPs to get strict permission from their internet customers to obtain confidential information, such as geographical location, financial information, health information, and social security numbers. This information can be easily obtained by ISPs when their customers sign into banking websites, for example. Moreover, ISP’s also had to provide their customers with the option to opt-out of the sharing of less-private information, such as email addresses.
These laws were passed by the Obama Administration just a few days before Donald Trump got elected back in October, and was bound to set in place by the end of 2017. However, House Representatives voted on Tuesday to repeal these laws in order to increase competition between internet companies, as well as to introduce more of them to the online advertising industry. While the goal of congress is to maximize corporate profits, this inevitably comes at a cost—which is internet privacy.
What does this decision mean for Internet Corporations and American internet users?
When looking at the perspective of large internet companies, they are elated because they are now not forced to abide by unreasonably strict guidelines regarding the types of consumer information they can legally collect. Major internet service providers such as Verizon, Comcast, and AT&T argue that they are subject to stricter restriction than companies such as Google or Facebook. This means that the latter companies are better able to reap profits from their users, which decreases competition for smaller companies.
By repealing the law, ISPs can now use collected consumer data to enter the mass online advertising industry. They can now build individual profiles of their customers through their browsing history for advertisers, which allows them to target relevant ads for consumers when they browse the internet. For example, if I go search for a pair of shoes on various retail websites, I would see a shoe advertisement if I go to another unrelated website (like a news website) later on. This marketing strategy is exactly what Google and Facebook are doing right now, and is their main source of income, in case you wondered how these companies make money if their service is free.
ISP’s are generally considered oligopolies, which means that a few large corporations control the overall market; because there are not many competitors, one company’s action can affect other companies and what profit they will be able to generate. However, this also means that they are able to charge higher prices to consumers because of a combination of less competition, and the fact that consumers just have to deal with it. I mean, most American citizens need the internet, so it’s likely that they’ll accept higher prices just because there’s nowhere else to go. In some areas in the U.S., there is only one internet provider available to consumers, which means they have total monopoly power and have the ability to literally charge whatever price they want—more than if it were an oligopolistic firm. By repealing the law, the extra competition that results could result in lower prices for consumers, but at a cost of privacy of course.
Critics of the repeal state that ISPs do not have the right to fund their own corporate profits at the expense of customers’ privacy because they now have the ability to exploit sensitive information to other third-parties. Moreover, they now have the right to sell consumers’ information to advertising companies without their consent. For example, internet providers will be free to sell sensitive information to data brokers that target a specific demographic in order to raise future revenue. Internet users are also more prone to mass surveillance, identity thieves, and hackers. In this perspective, consumers are essentially paying internet service providers to sell their information—seems counterintuitive, doesn’t it?
How can Internet users protect themselves?
Fortunately, the repeal has not been set in place yet and will take months to do so. However, it does take place, there are very little ways in which internet users can protect themselves. Some people may think that they can just delete their browsing history to prevent ISPs from getting this information. Unfortunately, that’s not how it works. ISPs get information from databases and servers that are stored, so they are able to get browsing history information this way.
A second alternative is to get a VPN, which stands for Virtual Private Network and enables users to send and receive data through the internet privately. This means that ISPs are unable to see your browsing history; however, the downsides are that good VPNs are costly and take a long time to set up. But for users that care a lot about their internet privacy, a VPN is a viable option.
The repeal decision means that American internet customers are now subject to less privacy, and are expected to see a significant increase in targeted advertisements on websites that they visit. While internet service may now be slightly cheaper, many consumers will continue to be paranoid about the information that is unknowingly being collected from them.