Looking Back at the 2017 Repeal of U.S. Broadband Privacy Rules

In April 2017, consumer privacy took a body blow when U.S. President Donald Trump signed a repeal of the broadband privacy rules set in motion by the Obama administration. The yet to be enforced FCC rules required Internet Service Providers (ISPs) to obtain consent from customers to allow the use of their personal data for advertising and marketing. With ISPs providing the gateway to the internet, consumers would be giving up private information on their location, web browsing habits and other data that can facilitate online behavior tracking and targeting.

If you live either in a developing or developed country, chances are that you use the internet for both private and business activities – in fact it is unimaginable in this day and age that an individual could thrive in our industrialized society without access to online services. Those who use the internet must make use of the services provided by an ISP – and this is increasingly exposing them to data mining practices by the very ISPs that provide these essential services.

In the U.S. at least, broadband internet users had previously taken comfort in the fact that they were provided with at least a measure of protection from ISPs hoping to use their data for marketing purposes – and even in preventing the on selling of this data to external marketing companies.

In 2015, the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) reclassified broadband providers as ‘common carriers’, and set about developing a new set of online privacy rules that were stricter than those of the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). Specifically, the rules would have added web browsing history to the list of things that companies needed customers’ opt-in permission to sell. Already on that list were sensitive information like social security numbers, medical information or location data.

Repeal of broadband privacy rules

At the beginning of the second quarter of 2017 this changed. The American Congress took the momentous decision to repeal Obama-era broadband privacy rules developed by the FCC that protected the privacy of individual ISP customers and to forbid the FCC from issuing similar rules in the future. This decision was then signed into law by President Donald Trump.

Applauding the move, FCC Chairman Ajit Pai said in a statement, “President Trump and Congress have appropriately invalidated one part of the Obama-era plan for regulating the internet. Those flawed privacy rules, which never went into effect, were designed to benefit one group of favored companies, not online consumers.”

This happened in the face of vocal objections by voters, however neither the representatives of the Republican Party, nor the FCC or FTC were moved by pleas to leave the protections in place. Instead the public was assured that nothing would change – that the ISPs could be trusted to in essence police themselves. That users’ data was as safe as it has ever been and broadband privacy would continue to be respected.

Single standard across the internet ecosystem?

The argument many politicians put forth was in favor of what they labeled ‘consistency’. Those in favor of the new legislation were of the opinion that if Google and companies like Facebook and other owners of social media sites can mine personal information for use in targeted advertising then why should ISPs not be able to do the same? According to Republican representative Greg Walden “What America needs is one standard across the internet ecosystem.”

It’s worth noting that the new legislation was promulgated before the Obama era broadband privacy rules came into effect – so ISP customers were technically not losing any protection, they were simply not going to enjoy enhanced internet privacy.

A flawed argument against broadband privacy

Even the most casual observer of the capitalist system would come to the conclusion that this approach is a patent absurdity. It seems incredible (in the truest sense of the word) to expect a company that is entirely driven by reporting profits to its shareholders to ignore the revenue generating potential of leveraging the vast amounts of information that would be available by mining the data provided by the habits of its customers.

The fact of the matter is Google and Facebook offer services which are at least nominally ‘free.’ The deal users make is that in exchange for using their services they will mine data to provide (amongst other things) targeted advertising. Google at least makes advertising expansions expressly opt-in.


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