By: Heidi Lei
Since the advent of the internet, privacy and security have become major concerns for consumers. We enjoy the benefits gained from using internet services provided by carriers; meanwhile, we bear the risk of our private information such as locations, browser histories, and contact histories being released or traded by service providers. During the final months of the Obama administration, new rules regulating online privacy were issued by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). These rules aimed to protect consumers by allowing them to decide what information internet service providers (ISPs) can share. However, on April 3, President Trump signed a bill repealing the privacy regulations put in place by the FCC.
Service providers such as AT&T, Comcast, and Verizon have been arguing that the previous rules were unjust because internet companies such as Facebook and Google use their users’ personal information and browser histories for advertising purposes without explicitly asking for permission. Advocates for repealing the FCC rules believe that banning ISPs from making use of consumers’ browser histories creates artificial barriers which block ISPs from maximizing the utility of all the user information they are able to collect, thus selecting winners and losers in the advertising market. Revoking the privacy rules certainly releases the shackles on ISPs. They will be able to generate millions of dollars more in revenues simply by selling user information, including browser histories, app usage, location information, and calling histories. Advertising companies will also benefit from this shared information, since it enables them to save costs by advertising more precisely towards targeted consumers. Overall, creating value from previously untapped resources like browser histories benefits firms and thus maximizes the gain from this readily available information for the whole society.
However, anything that might cause personal information leakage is certainly not good news for consumers. They are worried that without strict regulations, carriers have ultimate control over what to do with their information, which makes it hard for them to defend their privacy. In addition to this, the removal of privacy rules makes consumers feel that they are constantly under surveillance. Nevertheless, Trump’s signing of the bill does not have as profound an effect as protesters claim it does. High-tech companies like Google have been collecting user data for advertising and maintenance purposes for years, and most consumers seem to be relatively indifferent about this issue. ISPs selling browser histories to advertising companies will have a minimal effect on internet users. Consumers who are sensitive to privacy issues have already found a way to deal with the selling of data by using search engines that guarantee protection of users’ privacy. With Trump removing regulation, those sensitive consumers will be able to find substitute services as long as they pay a price for privacy protection and businesses find it profitable to provide such services. Furthermore, because of the new revenues created for ISPs, there is a possibility that consumers who do not care deeply about their anonymized information being sold to advertising companies will enjoy a lower price of internet services from the competition between ISPs. The concern over personal safety is reasonable but unnecessary. Allowing companies to sell information like browser histories does not legalize the act of utilizing these kinds of personal information for private purposes in a deceitful and harmful way. Thus, it will not increase the likelihood of consumers being hacked or monitored.
Despite the fact that selling browser histories sounds unethical, repealing the online privacy rules may bring society some additional benefits and further encourage technological innovation. Additionally, should problems arise, new laws concerning privacy issues that regulate all companies providing services on the internet can be established to ensure an increasingly fair and competitive market for companies and consumers alike.