As It Happens

If Trump's really for 'the little guy,' he won't roll back online privacy protections, expert says

If U.S. President Donald Trump signs a bill rolling back online privacy protections, he'll be out of step with the average American, says digital rights advocate Dallas Harris.
Donald Trump is expected to sign a bill to repeal Obama-era internet privacy protections. (Ron Sach-Pool/Getty Images)

Story transcript

Digital rights advocate Dallas Harris says she doesn't understand why someone like U.S. President Donald Trump would sign a bill rolling back online privacy protections for U.S. citizens.

The Republican-led U.S. House of Representatives and Senate have both voted repeal rules adopted last year under then-president Barack Obama to require internet service providers to get people's consent before using their data for advertising or marketing. The White House says Trump supports the repeal.

"He ran as the person who was going to represent the little guy, who wasn't going to have any tie to moneyed interest, and there's only one person and one constituency who gains from these rules being repealed, and that's internet service providers," Harris, a policy fellow at the digital rights advocacy group Public Knowledge, told As It Happens host Carol Off.

What can ISPs do with data?

Under the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) rules, which haven't yet come into effect, companies like Verizon, AT&T and Comcast would not be allowed sell people's personal information to advertisers without getting their explicit permission beforehand.

Dallas Harris of Public Knowledge says ISPs should have to ask first if they want to sell your personal information. (@Dallashpk/Twitter)

"It didn't really prohibit internet service providers from any particular practices; it just made it clear what type of consent you have to get from customers before you use their information," Harris said. 

Without the FCC rule, things like location, app usage, browsing history and communication "are all now available for internet service providers to use, mostly on an opt-out basis without getting your permission first."

Why are Republicans doing this?

The repeal is part of an extensive effort that Republicans have undertaken to void an array of regulations issued during the final months of Obama's tenure.

They argue the FCC rule gives web companies like Google — which don't have to ask users' permission before tracking what sites they visit — an unfair market advantage.

It's very clear that Americans feel like they don't have control over their information online.- Dallas Harris, Public Knowledge

Web companies offer free service in exchange for that information, Harris said. 

"But with your internet service provider, you already pay them ahead of time, and so really they just want to make additional dollars in the advertising space," she said. "They want to be the new Mad Men."

Buried in the fine print 

Repealing the law won't leave people totally unprotected. 

Companies remain subject to federal law that imposes on broadband providers a "duty to protect the confidentiality" of customer information and restricts them from using some customer data without "approval."

But that doesn't spell out how companies must get permission, how they must protect your data, or whether and how they have to tell you if it's been hacked.

The repeal means internet service providers like Vorizon, AT&T and Comcast can sell U.S. citizens' private data to marketers and advertisers without asking first. (Brendan McDermid/Reuters)

"They would have to tell you, but theoretically it could be on Page 20 of your long privacy notice, and as long as you don't jump through all of the hoops that they may put in front of you to opt-out, then they can go ahead and use that information," Harris said. 

Signing this bill would put the president out of step with the average American, Harris argued.

"It's very clear that Americans feel like they don't have control over their information online, and I really think that the more people learn about this, the less they're going to feel comfortable about being online, and that's really unfortunate because we want to have as many people involved in the 21st century communications network as possible," she said.

"There's a benefit to everyone to being online. There's a benefit to the economy to people being online, and this is really going to deter a lot of people."

With files from Associated Press and Reuters


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