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How will a new law blocking internet privacy rules affect you?

April 4, 2017 at 6:40 PM EDT
New legislation signed by President Trump blocks the implementation of internet privacy rules that would have stopped service providers from collecting and selling information about your web browsing to advertisers without your permission. William Brangham gets two views from Gigi Sohn of the Open Society Foundations and Scott Cleland, chairman of NetCompetition.org.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: We turn now to the rules regarding your online privacy.

President Trump has signed into law legislation that blocks the implementation of some Internet privacy rules that were put in place by the Obama administration.

William Brangham has that story.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: These rules, if they’d gone into effect, would have prohibited Internet service providers like Verizon or AT&T or Comcast from collecting and selling information about your Internet browsing to advertisers without your permission.

For more on this, I’m joined now by Scott Cleland who’s a researcher and advocate for greater Internet competition, and by Gigi Sohn, who used to be with the FCC, where she helped craft the now repealed rules.

Welcome to you both.

Scott, help me understand this. I know you work a lot with the industry here. Why did these rules need to come down, in your view?

SCOTT CLELAND, Chairman, NetCompetition.org: What this thing has done, by repealing this, it’s gone back to the status quo, and hopefully it will return to a normal Federal Trade Commission privacy regime.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: But, as I mentioned in the intro, this would have stopped ISPs from collecting and selling to advertisers. And that seems to be what the industry didn’t like about that. Is that right?

SCOTT CLELAND: That’s right, because they were pointed out as somehow unique in a sense.

And ISPs, I know Gigi will say that they’re the only ones where all the information comes through. And the thing is, is people don’t understand that 50 percent to almost 70 percent of traffic is encrypted they can’t see.

But more than that, I mean, Google and Facebook and others, when you talk about all the services, the authentication, when you talk about all the things you have there, whether Gmail or whatever, it’s harder to leave Google and to leave Facebook, the sacrifice of doing that, and not using one, than it is an ISP.

So, there is this false dichotomy where ISPs are somehow special. And the main thing is, they don’t have a desire to harm their consumers or to be selling their privacy. I mean, they have been covered by privacy in the past. They don’t want to sell this data.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Gigi, Scott says these Internet service providers don’t want to sell my data. So, why the need for a rule blocking them from doing so?

GIGI SOHN, Open Society Foundations: If all these companies are doing things to protect your privacy, are they doing all the same things that the FCC rules protected, then why did they seek repeal?

In fact, Verizon, when we adopted these rules in October of 2016, they praised what we did, because they said, look, this is standard practice. These are commonsense rules that protect individuals’ privacy and give them the power to control the fate of their personal information.

Now, I can talk about why I ISPs are different, that they see everything you do, as opposed to Google and Facebook.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Because they’re the sole gateway to the Internet.

GIGI SOHN: They’re the sole gateway to the Internet.

You pay them handsomely, whereas Google and Facebook are free. And there is just a different expectation from consumers. And, also, if you’re lucky enough to have a choice in ISPs, it’s still very difficult. There are switching costs.

And I don’t have to use Google if I don’t want to. My spouse uses DuckDuckGo. OK? You don’t have to use Facebook, but you must use an ISP to get to the Internet.

But even so, even if we want to level the playing field, why did Congress level the playing field down? Why didn’t it make Google and Facebook abide by the high standards that the FCC set? There is no playing field if you’re an ISP. You’re completely and totally unprotected.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: I mean, Scott, what about that argument that, if Google and Facebook are free to do what the ISPs say they would like to do, that seems — could also be an argument for making stricter security on those guys?

SCOTT CLELAND: And let me be very clear.

I think ISPs would be more than happy if there was congressional legislation that applied the same rules to everybody, technology-neutral, and put the consumer truly in control. We agree the consumer should be put in control.

I think they’d have some great support of that. However, I don’t think you would have Google, Facebook and Amazon and those, they would say no way.

GIGI SOHN: William, the answer is much simpler than that.

The Federal Communications Commission regulates networks. It doesn’t regulate Amazon, Google and Facebook. It doesn’t have the legal power. If we had gone ahead and done that — and it was interesting to see our Republican colleagues urging us to do that, when they know full well we don’t have the power.

If we had done that, it would have been thrown out in court. So we couldn’t do that. But here’s what’s interesting. Google opposed these rules. Why? Not because it would have applied to them, but because they knew that this served as a template. These rules serve as a template that Congress could use to raise the bar.

But, instead, the bar has been eliminated.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: So, right now, though, if I’m a consumer and these rules are now moot, and I want to protect my privacy, like, what can I ask of my ISP? What are they allowed to do as far as collecting information about me, selling information about me right now?

GIGI SOHN: After all the blowback, when the Senate and the House passed this law repealing the FCC’s rules, there was huge amounts of blowback. I don’t think anybody expected it.

So, Comcast, AT&T and I believe Verizon all posted blog posts saying that, you know, we don’t use this information. We don’t share this information. We have no plans to do so. We don’t currently do so.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: You don’t buy it?

GIGI SOHN: Well, no, I buy it that today, they do not, but they want the leave the door open to selling and sharing the most sensitive personal information, your health care information, your financial information, your location, your Social Security number. They want to leave that door open.

SCOTT CLELAND: It’s very important, if I can correct, they’re saying health care information, financial information. That’s part of the patchwork of privacy regulations. Those — all right, that’s sensitive data.

Companies like an ISP or even Google shouldn’t be sharing that stuff. That’s a big no-no. So, when we talk about trying to scare people about this, financial information and health care information is covered under other laws.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: All right, Scott Cleland, Gigi Sohn, thank you both very much.

GIGI SOHN: Thank you.

SCOTT CLELAND: Thank you.

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