Americans can seem to be of two minds when it comes to internet privacy.
A 2015 survey by the Pew Research Center found that 93 percent of adults said it was important to them to be in control of who could have access to their personal information; 74 percent of those calling it “very important.”
Yet that doesn’t keep millions from continuing to use Google and Facebook and similar apps and services that routinely track such information as web search terms in order to target advertising at customers.
Maybe it’s that apparent contradiction that Republicans in Congress were relying on when the House and Senate passed legislation recently to rescind an Obama era regulation that would have given customers of broadband internet providers greater say in what information those providers could sell to advertisers and others.
President Trump signed the bill Monday, repealing internet privacy regulations under the Federal Communications Commission that were to go into effect this year and would have required internet providers to get customers’ permission to use specific data, such as browsing history, geolocation data and even financial and medical information.
In fact, Republicans in Congress and the internet providers that sought the legislation, in particular AT&T, Comcast and Verizon, defended the bill as an attempt to level the playing field — who knew America had so many uneven playing surfaces? — because of the advantage that apps and services such as Google and Facebook hold over the internet providers.
There’s a difference, however: People who don’t want to see their search terms come back as targeted advertising can choose not to use Facebook, or use a privacy setting with their browser, although private browsing isn’t completely private. Internet providers, by contrast, are the only option for access to the internet. The Obama administration viewed internet service providers as a public utility and sought to offer consumer protections based on that view.
There would have been nothing onerous in the rules, had they been allowed to take effect, in asking providers to seek their customers’ consent before selling that information.
And that’s a view held by a number of lawmakers in Washington state — Republican and Democrat — who in response to the Congressional vote have proposed a state law to adopt an opt-in requirement, using the rejected federal law as its framework.
Bills in both the state House and Senate were introduced Tuesday to require that permission and would make it part of the state’s Consumer Protection Act, which is enforced by the state Attorney General’s office, The News Tribune reported.
“Your internet access provider shouldn’t be able to sell your private information like your browsing history to the highest bidder,” state Rep. Drew Hansen, D-Bainbridge Island, the prime sponsor of House Bill 2200, told The News Tribune. “If Congress isn’t willing to stop that from happening, then we in Washington state are absolutely going to act to protect our privacy.”
Among others, Hansen is joined by Rep. Norma Smith, R-Clinton, as a co-sponsor.
“People are concerned about what’s happening in a big data economy and ought to be,” she said.
Internet providers, under the proposal, would still have some leverage and could offer customers incentives, such as a lower subscription rate, in exchange for opting in. That’s a fair trade, considering that the providers want to sell something that actually belongs to the customer.
Even if the state legislation is not successful, those who are concerned about internet privacy have another option: virtual private networks, also known as VPNs.
VPNs, typically a subscription service, create encrypted and secure connections for your computer, your smartphone and other devices. PC magazine, which offers a comparison of several VPN services, compares the private networks to tunnels that shield who you are and what you’re doing, as well as any data traveling with you, from onlookers, whether their intentions are commercial or nefarious.
Some of us may seem conflicted, on one hand insisting on internet privacy but on the other choosing to give up some privacy to use services such as Google or Facebook. But that’s the choice we make. We should be allowed the same choice when using the internet.