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California Heads Effort to Restore Internet Privacy Protections

— July 19, 2017

California is at the forefront of an effort to restore some of the internet privacy protections revoked by Congress earlier in the year.

Back in March, web providers began begging Washington to roll back Obama-era internet privacy rules.

Several weeks later, the petitioning paid off, leading to a reversal of Federal Communications Commission regulations on what internet service providers can do with ‘contextual consumer information.’

Per the FCC, ISPs couldn’t sell customer data to advertising and marketing firms without the explicit permission of subscribers.

Arguing that the ‘rule harms consumers because it creates confusion in a regulatory environment in which customer data is regulated by two different agency standards, based on whether information is used by an internet service provider or an edge provider,’ ISPs convinced the Senate to narrowly pass a joint resolution for the benefit of telecommunications companies nationwide.

An antiquated look at the growing popularity of encryption online. Some tech commentators have pointed out that, even if ISPs can sell consumer data, many online transactions and correspondences are essentially shielded from sight. Image courtesy of Mal Langsdon, Reuters

Now, California is seeking to fight back against what many activists viewed as an impingement on consumer privacy protections.

“Congress and the administration went against the will of the vast majority of Americans when they revoked the FCC rule rules,” said California Assemblyman Ed Chau (D-Monterey Park), claiming his measure, AB 375, would be in the best interests of constituents. “California is going to restore what Washington stripped away.”

Chau isn’t alone in taking a stand against a corporation-oriented Congress – some twenty other states have proposed similar measures.

Advocates of restoring internet privacy rights in California acknowledged they’d face fierce opposition from internet service providers, who petulantly insist that the sharing of consumer data is the mechanism which created modern cyberspace.

A notable proponent of limited data-sharing is Google, which in March made a point of several discrepancies in the Obama-era regulations.

“Calls by some parties […] to extend an opt-in consent requirement to all web browsing are unjustified,” wrote Google representatives in a letter to the Federal Trade Commission. “The FTC’s framework recognizes that while U.S. consumers consider healthcare or financial transactions, for example, to be sensitive information that should receive special protection, they do not have the same expectations when they shop or get a weather forecast.”

“Although Google and other companies take strong measures to avoid using sensitive data for purposes like targeting ads, consumers benefit from responsible online advertising, individualized content, and product improvements […] the FTC’s framework should allow for such differentiation,” they continued.

During the initial March struggle to stop the FCC and FTC frameworks from being toppled by corporate interests, activists explained the possible dangers of allowing ISPs unhindered access to their customers’ browsing habits.

“Broadband ISPs, by virtue of their position as gatekeepers to everything on the Internet, have a largely unencumbered view into their customers’ online communications,” wrote a coalition of consumer advocacy groups in a letter re-published by Ars Technica. “That includes websites they visit, the videos they watch, and the messages they send. The FCC’s privacy rules ‘empower users and give them a say in how their private information is used.’”

In the LA Times, writer Melanie Mason raised the possibility that businesses could claim efforts like Chau’s in California could be an illegal contradiction of federal law.

Whether the Golden State is successful in standing up to the federal government could have heavy consequences for similar endeavors nationwide.


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