Every month, do you pay a company some of your hard-earned money for an internet connection? You’re reading this, so you probably do.
Paying an internet provider for service is a little like being 15 again and relying on other people to drive you places. “Take me to www.wikipedia.org,” you say—and away you go! Perhaps you read about something interesting on that site and want to head over to Facebook to post about it. Who will bring you there? Your trusty internet provider. So too for every site you visit, social media post you make, article you read, and video you watch. If you’re looking for a job, your internet provider will whisk you to Indeed.com or Craigslist.org with the click of a mouse. Want to check out what’s playing at the movie theater and buy some tickets? Just ask, and your internet provider will take you to the right place. Like a parent looking after a teenager, your internet provider may not know all of the details of what you do once you get there but has a very good sense of where you’re headed.
Your mobile provider knows about what you’re up to on your phone, too. From OkCupid to Spotify, Allrecipes Dinner Spinner to Pizza Hut, the apps you use are sending and receiving data on your behalf, and as the courier of all that data, your mobile provider gets to see where that information is going.
With all this information about your online activities, from the mundane to the embarrassing, you can imagine that your provider knows a lot about you. As one paper on the topic explained early last year, your provider can easily use what it knows about your online habits to learn about your employment status and your health conditions. Depending on the sites and apps you patronize, a provider may even infer such intimate details about your private life as your family status, your financial health, and your sexual preferences.
Knowing this, you might expect or hope that there are protections in place to ensure your provider doesn’t sell or give that information away without your permission. If so, you’re in luck, because last year a federal agency passed rules for that very purpose.
But your luck could run out soon, because on Tuesday 21 senators introduced a bill that would invalidate those rules, and Thursday morning 16 representatives introduced one in the House. Why, you might ask, would they do that, when Americans overwhelmingly are concerned about their online privacy, don’t trust companies to respect their privacy, and want the government to do more, not less, to protect privacy? Why, if invalidation of the rules would, in the words of two concerned federal regulators, “essentially leave the cable and phone companies without any privacy regulator?”
It could have something to do with the fact that the biggest cheerleader of the proposal to eliminate privacy protections for internet customers is the deceptively named “21st Century Privacy Coalition,” a lobbying coalition of Comcast, AT&T, Verizon, Time Warner Cable, DirecTV, and other industry players. In fact, this transparent Trojan horse of a “privacy” organization has been lobbying for years to shake off those pesky laws and regulations that force them to protect their own customers.
The question, then, is what our elected legislators will do. Will they make a stand on behalf of the little guy, and tell internet providers not to use private information without permission? Or will they slash consumer protections at the behest of industry lobbyists?