FCC Switches Gears Regarding Internet Privacy Rules

FCC Net Neutrality

Just when net neutrality opponents thought that they were in the clear, the 2016 election came along to throw everything into uncertainty again. While most consumers are primarily concerned with retaining their ability to access a free, open internet on their terms, they should be equally concerned–or even more concerned–about how new regulations could affect their online privacy. Just a few days ago, the FCC reversed course regarding the net neutrality and privacy rules that went into place in 2015. For the time being, there will be a stay on the data security regulations that were introduced two years ago. What does this mean for you? Read on to learn more.

Does the FTC Want to Jeopardize Consumers’ Online Privacy?

As a part of the net neutrality regulations that were approved in February 2015, the FCC was required to take over enforcement of privacy rules from the FTC. On February 28, 2017, however, new FCC Chairman Ajit Pai and FTC acting Chairman Maureen Ohlhausen issued a joint statement regarding the temporary stay of the 2015 order. Both chairmen are opposed to the FCC’s unilateral decision to strip the FTC of all authority over broadband providers’ security and privacy practices.

Due to the regulations that were passed, internet service providers and broadband providers faced limits on how much consumer data they can share, sell and trade. The current stay puts a temporary hold on this, which means that ISPs may continue to use consumers’ private information, including their web browsing habits, for marketing and other purposes. Needless to say, this is a very hot-button issue, and both sides have reasons to support or oppose net neutrality. While both agencies purportedly agree that the federal government should not favor one set of companies over another, the ISPs themselves argue that the rules caused more harm than good.

Is Net Neutrality Bad for Business?

According to many ISPs and their supporters, including various lobbyists, the new rules have unfairly impacted the market. ISPs were going to have to retrain thousands of employees and update and optimize internal procedures in order to be compliant. This, of course, meant additional costs for ISPs. Further, ISPs argue that having to comply with net neutrality regulations limits their ability to take care of their customers. According to many ISPs, doing away with these regulations will allow them to improve their offerings and pass more savings along to consumers.

Not surprisingly, many people are skeptical about the agencies’ desire to do away with new internet privacy rules. While ISPs and their supporters trot out various arguments for opposing net neutrality, opponents of net neutrality continue to point out its many downsides. With internet privacy rules temporarily stayed, ISPs can access and use subscribers’ private information, including their web browsing habits. Additionally, stripping away net neutrality could prompt ISPs to charge businesses more for faster or more reliable access. They might also start prioritizing certain types of traffic. This means that users who belong to certain ISPs could have better, easier access to certain parts of the internet than those who belong to different ISPs.

Is Net Neutrality Being Overturned?

On March 7, Republicans took the first step to reverse the FCC’s internet privacy rules. 25 Senators introduced legislation that would reverse these rules. The legislation would also make it impossible for the FCC to implement the rules again in the future. While the FCC’s rules largely coincide with the FTC’s rules, there are two big exceptions: The FCC requires ISPs to protect users’ browsing histories, and the FCC has a much greater ability to enforce those privacy rules. It’s not “just talk,” then.

For the most part, Republicans who support reversing net neutrality primarily want the FCC to pare down its rules so that they more closely match the FTC’s rules. At the very least, they want ISPs to be able to freely share consumers’ browsing histories to help advertisers generate more money. ISPs can sell information about users’ browsing habits to sell more ad space or to sell it for more money. Therefore, it could be argued that ISPs are fine with jeopardizing users’ privacy in order to make more money.

How will Privacy be Affected if Net Neutrality Goes Away?

At the Mobile World Congress, FCC Chairman Pai told the crowd that net neutrality has to go. He stated that investments in broadband infrastructure have dropped since the rules came about a few years ago. Senator Ted Cruz has described the 2015 law as an “illegal power grab” by the FCC. The new stay that has been implemented does not reverse these rules, however. It merely puts them on hold until the agencies can decide how to proceed. It is unclear how the 2015 rules will be reversed. The FCC might simply come up with a new process, or legislation might have to be introduced.

While broadband providers and ISPs are surely happy about Pai’s latest moves, opposition to the stay and to reversing net neutrality is strong. More than 170 groups have sent letters to Pai asking him to maintain net neutrality. Senator Thune of South Dakota, a Republican, has also stated that he is willing to work with Democrats to develop bipartisan legislation that would continue to protect consumers’ privacy while using the internet. Still, if net neutrality is abolished, providers will enjoy far more power than consumers.

There is no way to predict what will happen to net neutrality. In the meantime, it is more important than ever to guard your privacy when using the internet. Using a VPN, or virtual private network, is a good way to protect against hacking attempts and other problems. If laws regarding net neutrality are ultimately overturned or even reversed, the very nature of online privacy will change dramatically. This would make using VPNs more important than ever. If you don’t currently use a VPN, start looking into it. It may seem like a hassle, but using a VPN in today’s climate is one of the smartest things that you can do.

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