Cadiz, KY

Opinion

Private information could soon be for sale

Wednesday, March 29, 2017 - Updated: 2:10 AM
Herald Ledger

While everyone has been split between fawning over the defeat of Trumpcare and hanging their heads over the defeat of the Wildcats during the NCAA tournament, a group of lawmakers took steps to sell your private information.

House Joint Resolution 86 -- cosponsored by Kentucky's Brett Guthrie -- isn't getting a lot of attention right now with the obvious distractions. That's unfortunate. If successful, H.J. Res. 86 would, according to the federal government's web site congress.gov, provide "for congressional disapproval under chapter 8 of title 5, United States Code, of the rule submitted by the Federal Communications Commission relating to 'Protecting the Privacy of Customers of Broadband and Other Telecommunications Services'."

For anyone without a legal degree, Guthrie's 15 other cosponsors and fellow Republicans are voting to do away with a consumer's right to privacy. Online, anyway.

The protection goes back to when that Congress passed the Telecommunications Act of 1996, which prohibited internet providers from selling off personal data without consent. It also had regulations by then President Bill Clinton to encourage more internet providers. For rural communities like Lyon, it was the first legislative step toward bringing more online access.

Not that it was all sunshine. Competition promised by the bill wasn't as common as consolidations by larger providers. It dropped the ball in pushing much of the market into a handful of large companies.

Not surprisingly, now with a handful of big telecom companies controlling large markets, they really don't care much for protecting consumer rights. Or in having competitive pricing.

Now, instead of overhauling the law and protecting the consumers while increasing competition (which normally drives pricing down), lawmakers are content with taking out the safeguards and letting companies make even more profit off private information.

But what exactly is private information?

Browsing history, for one. Some sites tell you they use cookies, digital trails computers can follow to information every time a user logs in. This can be anything from preferences to user names to passwords, even account information like addresses and phone numbers.

Basically, any of that data will be available for your internet provider to peruse or profit off of by selling to other companies.

While not explicit in the proposed legislation, users on communities like Reddit have been concerned in recent weeks about the possibility for the law to allow providers to alter online experiences by introducing advertising or content restrictions of their own.

Wait, doesn't that happen already? Every time you go to a news site to click on a story about who won the latest reality television competition, an ad pops up. Pandora users are familiar with the occasional stoppage of "free" music to let an ad play (which times out fairly well with having to go to the restroom).

Those things happen already, but the difference is, those ads pay for the content on the site itself. Pandora, for example, pays for the rights to play songs by having advertising. The "free" news people have grown accustomed to isn't free on newspaper and television web sites, it's paid for by advertising (which as a sidenote, to anyone upset with the Herald Ledger's paywall, now you know why; there isn't enough advertising to give the news away).

With privacy restrictions off, the concern is that Pandora and other companies will have their services interrupted by providers who can sell advertising and flip web sites on and off whenever they choose.

For many, that means the marathon swiping sessions to scroll through social media sites like Facebook will be stopped long enough to learn about tooth whitening, the latest pickup truck or life insurance.

But that's only if the House resolution passes.

The resolution was introduced March 8 to the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, which should have been a red flag to anyone paying attention. According to the group Electronic Frontier Foundation -- which opposes net neutrality and selling private user data -- the Senate voted Thursday "by a razor thin margin of 50 to 48 voted to take away the privacy rights of Internet users as a favor to the cable and telephone industry."

Kentucky lawmaker Mitch McConnell was one of those 50 voting in favor of Senate Joint Resolution 34. Fellow senator Rand Paul was absent according to Private Internet Access --a consumer group -- and did not vote. Presumably, Paul was out looking for the latest copy of Trumpcare, which was hidden away from fellow Republicans.

PIA took out an ad in The New York Times recently calling out McConnell and other lawmakers who voted in favor of allowing companies to sell off private info. Hopefully, constituents back home will call him out on it, too.

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