GOP Congress and Trump Strip Americans of Internet Privacy Protections

Posted April 5, 2017

MP3 Interview with Chris Calabrese, vice president for Policy at the Center for Democracy and Technology, conducted by Scott Harris


Under the rarely used Congressional Review Act, which allows Congress and the president to repeal recently passed federal regulations, on April 3, President Trump signed legislation revoking Internet privacy rules approved last year by the Federal Communications Commission. Those rules, passed under the Obama-appointed FCC chairman Tom Wheeler, would have implemented broadband privacy protections preventing Internet service providers from selling consumer’s personal data without first obtaining an individual’s authorization. The reversal of the earlier FCC rules means that Internet service providers can sell their customer’s browsing history to advertisers, in addition to geolocation, financial, healthcare and children's information.

While giant telecommunication and cable companies like AT&T, Verizon and Comcast argued that the FCC rules did not apply to Internet companies, ISPs have the capacity to gather far more personal data than companies like Google and Facebook. According to a recent YouGov survey published before president Trump signed the bill stripping Internet privacy, nearly 75 percent of both Republicans and Democrats opposed the repeal of the regulations.

Between The Lines’ Scott Harris spoke with Chris Calabrese, vice president for Policy at the Center for Democracy and Technology, who talks about his group's response to the recent Republican-controlled Congress and Trump administration's action stripping Americans of Internet privacy protections. [Rush transcript]

CHRIS CALABRESE: One of the first things to understand is this is a tremendous amount of information because the ISPs provide you with the Internet service, they literally see everything that goes over the wires to and from your Internet connection. Doesn't mean they see everything at all; a lot of times if you visit a website that says "https" –it has the little lock symbol in the corner – that's an encrypted website. So the ISP would know that you went to that website but not necessarily what you did.

But nonetheless, they have a lot of information if you go to a website about cancer research; if you go to a website about a particular hobby or interest – they're going to know that. They're also going to know a lot of information that they gather from your mobile phone, because these rules also apply to mobile technology. So the locations, the places you visit. If you're in the doctor's office. If you're in a church. If you're in a gun club. Any of those things would be information that the ISPs would be able to collect and store.

And then, under these rules, they can largely do what they want with this information. They are, in a very limited way, bound by the promises they've already made to safeguard that information. So, if they say they're not going to do something with it, you can still have an action, for example, a state attorney general saying, you said one thing and you're going to do another here. But there's very limited controls. It's not like under the regulations that were done away with, where a consumer could say, "No, I don't want you to share this" and "I don't want you to save it." And then, they use this information in a wide variety of ways, both to serve you ads, but also to create profiles about individuals and what they're interested in, and their habits and hobbies. And this can really end up being, affecting consumers in a lot of ways that I think are very surprising to them.

Just to give you one example, and this was something I think was very striking to people. Last year, we saw an anti-choice group, a pro-life group essentially target abortion clinics and so that people that went into those clinics would see pro-life ads, and only people who went into those clinics. And that's currently legal. Now that's the kind of thing that people don't like. They don't like the idea that someone knows that they're in an abortion clinic. And it's the kind of reason why we need these types of baseline rules so people can say, "I don't want to share that information. I don't want that out there about me." And that's the kind of rules we need for ISPs and honestly for a lot of the people who collect information on us, not just Verizon and Comcast, but bigger players like Google and Facebook. We all need baseline rules to protect our personal information.

BETWEEN THE LINES: Chris, how are groups like yours, The Center for Democracy and Technology, how are you planning to challenge this move to repeal the privacy protections for consumers? What options are there available?

CHRIS CALABRESE: Well, I have to be really honest. It's not a great time. You know, the rules themselves have now been rolled back. They've done away with these rules. What's worse is even a future FCC will not be able to bring these rules back, because of the way the Congressional Review Act works. So, what I think we need to do now is take a step back, and we need to think about what we want the world – this 21st century society where we're collective information on all of us all the time, from our phones, and our websurfing habits and the devices we may have in our house, our smart TV – and we need to sort of say, we're starting to reach a tipping point. So are we going to push for rules control that information? Is that going to be something that matters to us? And if it does, we need to tell our elected officials that. When we go to town halls, we need to talk about privacy and the need to control personal information – not just against the government, but also when it comes to commercial information. And we have to really make it a political movement in a political moment. And it's going to take some time, obviously. We're a long way from even the next elections. But it's time now for us to say that we care about our privacy and we care about how this information is being used. And we don't need to do away with it. We at CDT, at the Center for Democracy and Technology, love technology. We love new gadgets, we love to be able to use them in ways that help people. But we need baseline controls so that we can trust that this information is not being misused.

For more information about the Center for Democracy and Technology, visit

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