Trying to keep our internet data private

Assemblyman Ed Chau, D-Monterey Park, announced the California Broadband Internet Privacy Act on Monday at the Capitol.
Assemblyman Ed Chau, D-Monterey Park, announced the California Broadband Internet Privacy Act on Monday at the Capitol. dmorain@sacbee.com

AT&T, Comcast and other internet service providers can continue to track every search you make and website you visit and sell that information to the highest bidder, under legislation recently signed by President Donald Trump.

That legislation, which reversed an Obama regulation, ought to alarm any American who ventures online – no matter their purpose or political persuasion. Now comes Assemblyman Ed Chau, a Democrat from Monterey Park, carrying a bill that for Californians would reverse the legislation and provide some privacy at a time when our privacy seems to be for sale.

Chau’s Assembly Bill 375 promises fundamental protections: Internet services providers would have to provide customers with a “clear and conspicuous” opportunity to agree to their information being used, disclosed or sold. You could revoke that permission at any time. Providers could not deny service if consumers refuse to sign away their right to privacy. And they could not charge customers more for failing to grant them access to their information.

The ACLU, Electronic Frontier Foundation, Common Sense Kids Action and Consumer Federation of California are among the bill’s supporters. So are we.

Joining Chau at a Capitol press conference Monday was Scott Jordan, a UC Irvine computer science professor and former Federal Communications Commission official, who listed some of the information internet service providers could glean: The sites you visit; whether those sites are related to your finances or health; what videos you watch; how often you visit certain sites; what time of day you visit them; how long you linger; what devices you use; what apps you download; where you are located.

Exactly what your information is worth is not clear. But AT&T might have provided a glimpse in 2015 when it offered in a few local markets to charge customers $30 a month for the privilege of anonymity in their internet use. That’d seem like a reasonable starting point.

Internet service providers say they have strict privacy policies and would not breach their customers’ trust. Similar promises and guarantees from other companies and industries have been oh so hard to keep, so forgive our skepticism. Instead, we prefer Chau’s AB 375.

Under President Barack Obama, the FCC approved a regulation that was to take effect in December requiring internet service providers get customer consent before selling personal information. The GOP-controlled Congress intervened before the regulation took effect, and unraveled it. Now providers can go back to profiting off your data – something we consider a breach of trust.

If Chau can get his bill past the formidable telecom lobby, the industry undoubtedly would sue, likely claiming federal law pre-empts any state law.

Rep. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., last month introduced HR 2520, which goes by the oh-so-cute name “Balancing the Rights of Web Surfers Equally and Responsibly Act of 2017” (i.e., the BROWSER Act). Her legislation would bar states from taking action on their own. Given this Congress’s willingness to side with any industry over consumers, that provision is reason enough to oppose her bill.

Why propose something that will lead to an invasion of our privacy? She’s gotten $564,000 from the telecom industry, reports the Center for Responsive Politics.

People have a choice whether to have a Facebook profile or use Google as a browser. But hardly anyone can function in today’s society without access to the internet. That makes service providers akin to utilities; they provide service to anyone for a fee. But that service shouldn’t require anyone to give up their personal data – for free – in exchange for the right to use it.