June 7, 2017
On Monday, April 1st, President Trump signed a repeal of an Obama-era bill known as Section 222. Section 222 of the Communications Act was initially intended to create an affirmative right to privacy in our communications and was due to be in effect through 2017. In March of this year Congress enacted a rarely used procedural move known as the Congressional Review Act (CRA) to initiate a repeal. How does this affect you? Well, let’s start with the basics:
What is Internet Privacy?
Internet Privacy is your right or mandate to personal privacy of your information via the internet. This can involve browsing history, personal data, demographics, purchasing history and more. Today, Internet privacy has a different connotation than standard privacy concerns and typically pertains to user information. The 1997 Information Infrastructure Task Force (IITF) defined information privacy as "an individual's claim to control the terms under which personal information--information identifiable to the individual--is acquired, disclosed, and used." At present, Internet Service Providers (ISPs) are not required to obtain an individual’s consent before accessing and selling a user’s information.
What was the bill going to do? What are the consequences of the repeal?
The new regulations under Section 222 would have required Internet Service Providers to receive consent from users before selling their information, protecting the individual’s privacy from telecommunications carriers with unique access to our communications and our personal information. These new regulations would have adapted Section 222 to apply to broadband companies in a way that, since the founding of the bill in 1996, they had not. The CRA repeal of these new regulations removes some restrictions on ISP’s access to information, and was clearly a priority for ISP companies, given that they spent nearly $8 million dollars lobbying Congress to pass the repeal. “Historically, regulations have treated data as the property of the consumer,” GeekWire wrote. Under the new bill, “it will be viewed more like the property of internet providers.” In theory, anyone from insurance companies, airlines, banks, and retailers to political parties or governments could buy data profiles of consumers. The CRA repeal also essentially hamstrung the previous regulations by including caveats to make it more difficult for the FCC to pursue similar regulations in the future.
But there are benefits to the repeal of Section 222. The proliferation of public information about users could make it easier for companies to more effectively reach their target audiences, cutting through bothersome, irrelevant ads and saving businesses millions in lost advertising dollars. In theory, if advertisers can more effectively find their customers and spend less money doing so, prices could drop in a variety of industries, especially those with heavy eCommerce presences. Also, the ability for ISPs to use consumer data could allow them to more evenly balance advertising and usage, allowing you more time surfing without being barraged with ads.
However, in could be quite a while before we know the true effect of the repeal of Section 222. In the two months since the repeal was signed, roughly a dozen state senators have taken up measures in enhance their state’s internet privacy laws and protect constituent’s privacy. Many Members of Congress have vocally protested the repeal and the issue is unlikely to die down anytime soon. Stay tuned!