March 23, 2017 the US Senate passed a resolution which would rule ineffective a set of Obama era privacy regulations about how internet service providers sell information about users to advertisers. It’s important to note that nothing is going to change as those regulations had not yet gone in to effect and this resolution merely upholds the status quo.
One of the specific changes that the regulations would have put in place is a requirement for consumers to “opt in” and agree to the ISP selling the information they gather to advertisers. Data such as browsing history, how long a person spends on a website, in addition to sensitive information such as health, financial and geolocation data. This regulation is significant in that given the “opt in” option most users are less likely to do so preferring the path of least resistance.
A concern for regulators is that selling this information could ultimately fall into violations of net neutrality regulations which forbid selective search results which the ISP might cater to the highest bidder. For example, if a company purchases influence with an ISP such as Verizon when a consumer searches for a general category of product the algorithms might be pushed towards the company purchasing influence.
Protecting consumer data has been a highlight in my concerns because privacy protections serve as a central feature to democracy. But what really bothers me about this change is that putting in place an “opt in” option for consumers about their data would directly involve consumers in their data protection. The editors of the Marketplace podcast were correct to identify that this vote has not made huge news the last week potentially overshadowed by the healthcare debate. But what such an “opt in” option does is restore public trust in the companies using their data that the companies in question offer a full disclosure about their actions with an option to accept or decline. The next step could be to directly reward the producers of data (the consumers) and incentivize them to sell their data via discounts to their service. There are pernicious ways that this could be conducted as well but a transparent disclosure of how companies use data should ultimately work in their best interest as well.
Speaking about the resolution a policy fellow of Public Knowledge named Dallas Harris stated “this is a sign that industry, particularly large telecom companies and internet service providers, have a much louder voice in Washington than consumers do. These rules were designed to protect consumers, give them more control over their information. And the Senate and Congress has decided to make it easier for internet service providers to make a buck.” The resolution is expected to pass the House today.