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ISPs plead innocence amid passing of harmful privacy law

President Trump has finally stamped his seal of approval on a privacy ruling which grants an overwhelming win for ISPs and advertisers in the US, while dealing a significant blow to consumer privacy protection. That is unless you believe the claims made by the big three that they have no intention of taking advantage of this free ride.

The new law overturns the regulations set out by the FCC in the Obama era, meaning that AT&T, Verizon and Comcast can now sell sensitive consumer data such as location, web history and financial information to advertisers without user permission. However, the three ISP giants have all since stated that they have never collected and sold personal data from their broadband users, and have pledged to continue not to do so, as the ink is still drying on the President’s signature.

The throttling of the FCC’s authorities is already in full swing with Trump pulling the strings from up top, and new FCC Chairman Ajit Pai is duly carrying out the agenda of giving ISPs gatekeeper power over internet-based services – aiming to stifle threats from Google, Facebook, Netflix and Amazon – who after all do not have the same constraints when it comes to using personal data.

It comes as no significant surprise that the bill was passed by the majority of the 265 Congress members, considering the politician who wrote the bill, Republican Marsha Blackburn, received more than $700,000 from internet companies and advertising firms over the course of her career in lobbying fees including those from AT&T, Comcast and Verizon.

The legal change puts the US laws out of kilter with almost every other country in Europe, and many in Asia over ISP rights and it will be interesting to see if this has a knock-on effect outside of the US.

Comcast customers may just be the safest following the ruling, as it runs its own in-house targeted ad network for which businesses pay to have their ads targeted at Comcast’s subscribers – but Comcast claims that only it has access to the data for which the targeting is based on, not any third parties.

Comcast has responded to consumer qualms by reassuring its subscribers that they are able to opt out of its targeted advertising scheme at any time, but not initially asking for user permission could be seen by some consumers as a deceptive move in itself. Much the same could be said for Google, which also does not (and is not required) to ask permission from users of its services – although an ISP has access to almost as much sensitive consumer data.

However, despite its defensive stance, Comcast has avoided to comment on the question over whether its in-house ad network will take advantage of having extra control over more and more sensitive information. It can also change this policy in future without telling anyone now this law change has gone through.

In fact, neither Comcast, AT&T or Verizon have outlined any plans for how they plan to adapt their businesses in accordance with the new law – instead each has posted their own ultra-defensive statements.

 

The issue of forcing ISPs to ask for user content before profiting from data such as browsing history has already been thrown out of the window along with this week’s consumer setback, after the US Senate recently voted to trash these proposed privacy rules.

How AT&T was even allowed to charge its fiber subscribers an additional $29 a month if they had the temerity of opting out of having data collected for personalized ads, which is not seen as an outrage. AT&T thankfully put an end to this last year, but it just goes to show how highly these ISP giants regard consumer protection within their business practices.

Comcast Chief Privacy Officer Gerard Lewis stated in a blog post, “we do not sell our broadband customers’ individual web browsing history. We did not do it before the FCC’s rules were adopted, and we have no plans to do so. If a customer does not want us to use other, non-sensitive data to send them targeted ads, we offer them the ability to opt out of receiving such targeted ads.”

AT&T’s senior executive VP of external and legislative affairs, Bob Quinn, said in a statement, “AT&T’s privacy protections are the same today as they were five months ago when the FCC rules were adopted. We had the same protections in place the day before the Congressional resolution was passed, and we will have the same protections the day after President Trump signs the CRA into law. The Congressional action had zero effect on the privacy protections afforded to consumers.” Which begs the question why these companies spend so much on lobbying for legal changes, when they have no plans to benefit from them.

Verizon also chipped in with its own pledge, with its Chief Privacy Officer Karen Zacharia writing in a blog post, “let’s set the record straight. Verizon does not sell the personal web browsing history of our customers. We don’t do it and that’s the bottom line. We have two programs that use web browsing data – and neither of these programs involves selling customers’ personal web browsing history. Customers have a choice about participating in both programs.”

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