Advertisers gleeful as Trump signs away consumers' privacy rights

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Broadband carriers given access to consumers' personal browsing records

As expected, President Trump has signed away consumers' right to browse the internet without their every move being recorded, stored, analyzed and sold on the open market. The measure Trump signed Monday night repeals an Obama-era set of regulations that had not yet taken effect.

"President Trump had an opportunity to restore Americans' broadband internet privacy rights by vetoing [the bill], but sadly failed to do so," said Susan Grant, Director of Consumer Protection and Privacy at the Consumer Federation of America in an email to ConsumerAffairs.

The action means that broadband providers like AT&T, Comcast and Verizon will be better able to enter the $83 billion digital advertising marketplace now that they can collect the same kind of consumer data as websites like Google and Facebook, although the companies insist they have no intention of doing so.

Privacy advocates draw a distinction between websites tracking their users and broadband carriers doing so. Websites generally rely on advertising revenue to survive and their services are basically provided free or at reduced cost in exchange for visitors watching ads. The carriers, on the other hand, charge whopping sums for their service and can track everything a consumer does online whereas a website can only record actions taken on that site.

"Important major step"

Advertisers were quick to celebrate their victory over consumers. Dan Jaffe of the Association of National Advertisers called it "an important major step to help assure a level playing field for privacy regulation for all businesses, and to see to it that consumers will not be bombarded with incessant opt-in notices."

Instead, consumers will have no opportunity to opt in, out, or any other way unless the Federal Trade Commission changes its policies, which currently take a "harms-based" approach to privacy protection that one leading consumer advocate called "ourageous."

Sophia Cope, staff attorney for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, called the harms-based approach outrageous and said it is "exactly what companies have been hoping for."

"It removes consumer choice and control over their privacy," Cope said in an email to ConsumerAffairs. 

The "notice-and-choice" approach, generally favored by the Obama Administration, basically gave consumers the choice to "opt out" of sharing certain types of information. The "harms-based" approach, on the other hand, seeks to protect consumers only from privacy breaches that are harmful and generally occurs only after the fact.

This is roughly analogous to calling the police to say that you are afraid your neighbor is going to punch you and being told that you should call back if he actually does so. 

Overwhelmed with choices

Besides their supposed fear that consumers would be overwhelmed with privacy choices, advertisers and the broadband carriers who lobbied for the change dragged out the argument that it would simply be too much trouble to spend so much time and trouble on consumers.

"This rule would have required vast amounts of innocuous information to be treated suddenly as highly sensitive and needing opt-in consent from consumers," Jaffe said.

The types of information -- innocuous or not -- potentially include one's marital status, sexual tastes, financial status, health history, daily travels and so forth. Beyond advertising, such data is valuable to insurance companies, prospective employers and law enforcement agencies.

One critic called it "deeply ironic" that Trump signed the measure while simultaneously complaining about supposedly being wire-tapped by the Obama White House.

“The only people in the United States who want less Internet privacy are CEOs and lobbyists for giant telecom companies, who want to rake in money by spying on all of us and selling the private details of our lives to marketing companies,” said Evan Greer, campaign director for the Internet activism group Fight for the Future, according to the Washington Post.

The CFA's Greer said Trump and Congress have angered voters by siding with business interests over consumers. 

"Poll after poll shows that this (Obama-era privacy protection) is something that the public has long desired. When Congress voted to take these rights away there was a swift and angry reaction across the country and political spectrum. Americans saw, correctly, that those who voted for repeal were siding with the big cable and telephone companies, the main internet service providers, instead of with the people," she said.

Greer also drew a distinction between websites and broadband carriers.

"There is a fundamental difference between Internet service providers and other companies that collect individuals' personal information. ISPs see everywhere we go and everything we do online that is not encrypted.  We wouldn't want the phone companies to listen in on our calls, or compile a list of who we call to sell to advertisers who would use that information to target us. The same is true for our online communications, but now there is nothing to stop our ISPs from doing so and profiting from our data, without having to ask for our consent."

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