By: Terry Koosed
Founder & CEO of Bel Air Internet
Imagine having a conversation on the phone with a friend about a beach vacation you were about to take, and then, right after hanging up the phone, getting a litany of calls from solicitors offering you deals on bathing suits, beach chairs – and home alarm companies asking if you need their services while you’re out of town. You’d be, understandably, creeped out. The telephone company doesn’t have the right to spy on your calls – and then sell that intel to someone else. But that’s exactly what the Senate has just voted to allow Telecoms and Internet Service Providers (ISPs) to continue doing.
This week, the United States Congress voted to repeal a FCC regulation and allow ISPs sell customers’ information (without informing them of it or needing their consent). This is something that these large ISPs/Telecoms like AT&T, Comcast and Spectrum, have been doing for a while, but the original FCC regulation was supposed to go into place earlier this month to stop this practice.
This rollback of privacy rules was a huge blow to consumers with little upside for anyone except the Telecom corporations and the advertising industry (who use that information to target you for ads). Almost as bad were the justifications these Senators used as to why they think big corporations have a right to profit off your data.
As the owner of a boutique ISP, a decision like this could potentially help me. But you won’t find me celebrating. My business model is consumer-centric, if for no other reason than I think it’s the best way to actually STAY in business, something these big ISPs haven’t grasped yet. After over a decade of being in this industry, I’m sickened by the practices of my cohorts – for years they’ve lied about the speeds they provide you with, making you pay top dollar but not delivering on their end (they’re finally being taken to court for it by the New York Attorney General). Now, in addition to lying, they’re stealing.
Here’s the top five reasons, this ruling is even worse than you thought:
1) It’s a huge invasion of privacy. ISPs are privy to huge amounts of information of their customers, able to see every domain you visit, and in many cases, each individual webpage within that domain. From that ISP’s can glean a cornucopia of highly personal information, such as where you bank, what health issues you may have, what your political views are or even what your sexual orientation is. And then they sell that information to advertisers.
This FCC ruling would have required ISPs to obtain customers’ permission before being able to do so. Seems fair. (They could have even offered consumers a spiff – a percentage off their bill in exchange. After all, it’s your data they’re selling – shouldn’t you be privy to some of their profit?) The bottom line is, it’s a gross violation of your privacy. We wouldn’t tolerate the phone company listening into our calls and selling our info without our permission, so why are we okay with ISP’s doing the same thing?
2) The lawmakers are demeaning the public with silly excuses. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said that requiring ISPs to obtain customer permission to sell their data would stifle innovation. How? Innovation in what? Advertising techniques? Others, like Texas Senator John Cornryn, have claimed a regulation like this is just too burdensome for the ISPs. Again, how? As a business owner you’re never going to hear me pining for more government regulation, but there’s a difference between regulation and outright theft. We have laws against robbery, burglary and embezzlement for a reason. So, why the U.S. government and the FCC are implicitly allowing big TelComs to do it to all American consumers is baffling to me. And how hard can it be to add one more question for the customer to answer when they sign up for a service? How do they expect consumers to buy this?
3) Senators are hoping you don’t see through their faulty logic. No Senator or Telecom wants to say that they don’t care about consumer privacy. So instead, they’ve found a different reason to oppose this rule. Supposedly, a rule like this isn’t “fair” to ISPs because it gives them a different set of regulations than websites like Facebook or Google. (The FTC ruled that “edge” sites like that can sell data, but must give consumers an opt-out provision. It’s a slightly lighter touch than requiring customers to be informed and GIVE permission). Okay, but….ISPs ARE different than a site like Facebook. As any high-schooler could probably explain off the top of their head, an ISP, like Spectrum or AT&T, is your gatekeeper to accessing the Internet. In many neighborhoods, you may have only one choice for a provider. If you don’t use them, you don’t get Internet access – which is, at this point, an essential service people need, not just for entertainment, news and communication, but also in many cases for work or school. Meanwhile, Facebook and Google are tools. If you choose not to use them, there are dozens of other options out there. You can successfully navigate the web without them.
In addition, there’s also a huge difference in the amount and type of information Facebook or Google can see versus what an ISP has access to, which is much broader in scope. Broadband providers have access to all unencrypted sites visited by consumers, as well as to their usage patterns. Of course, these Senators must know that. So why are they trying to equivocate the two?
4) The Telecoms are bribing their way to your privacy. TelComs are among the biggest lobbying powers in D.C. these days. Hmmm…I wonder why. Senators Kelly Ayotte and Roy Blunt, two lawmakers who sit on the Senate Sub-Committee on Communications, Technology and the Internet and who voted in favor of the ISPs last week, both received well over $50,000 in donations apiece last year from TelCom lobbyists. I’m sure the ISPs consider it money well spent. (Of course, these Senators can’t say that – is that why we’re hearing all this silly talk about this rule somehow “stifling innovation”?)
5) It’s a stepping stone. This decision is a huge signal that Congress is gearing up to eliminating net neutrality, which would be an even bigger blow to consumers. As defined by The Open Internet, “Network neutrality is the idea that your cellular, cable, or phone internet connection should treat all websites and services the same. Big companies like AT&T, Verizon, and Comcast want to treat them differently so they can charge you more depending on what you use.” For example, without Net Neutrality, your ISP could choose to block you from accessing Google Maps online – and make you pay for their own version of it. A provider like Spectrum could allow their own content to come through quicker, while purposely buffering content from another company, like Netflix. Who benefits from a lack of net neutrality – the TelComs of course, who would stand to rake in millions more in dollars from you, the consumer.
What can be done to stop these Telecoms from taking advantage of you? First, call them and OPT OUT from allowing your data to be shared. Then spread the word…the more consumers get informed and fight back, the more these corporations and lawmakers can’t just hide behind silly excuses that put profits before privacy.