Real news from the privacy world

Verizon wants the FCC to ban state laws for protecting Internet privacy

Apparently, it is not enough that the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) will probably reverse the current net neutrality rules implemented under the last administration. Now Verizon is also looking for a way to crush the efforts of individual states to protect Internet users from unrestricted data collection.

ISPs vs. states

Last year, the FCC adopted a set of privacy regulations that would have required broadband providers to get users’ authorization before using their online browsing history for ad targeting. Since these federal rules were undone by Congress and President Donald Trump early this year, dozens of states have taken action to counter the move by passing their own online privacy laws at the state level.

Of course, ISPs such as Verizon are opposed to such measures and, in a White Paper put forward to the FCC Secretary, seek to point out that the FCC has the weight to override these laws too.

Lobbyists for Verizon, Comcast, AT&T and Google have already put and end to one such proposal in California, after scaremongering lawmakers with stories about emboldened far-right groups, more frequent popups, and general harm to consumers. However, the state may revisit the subject in a ballot initiative next year.

Verizon’s White Paper

In any case, Verizon is still worried that states might restrict how ISPs can use customer data. Citing the FCC’s decision to scrap its own privacy protection rules for citizens, Verizon suggested the commission also has the power to overrule state laws and “lightly” oversee US broadband providers at a federal level.

In other words, individual states don’t matter, and the FCC should clearly let Verizon have its own way over all of its customers nationwide.

The bitter irony is that, when it suits them, ISPs like Verizon often moan about protecting “states rights” against the overreaching effect of government regulation.

Verizon lists a number of potential adverse effects of the various privacy laws proposed on the state level, including “impaired service to customers” and stifled investment in infrastructure. Verizon invested $5 billion in its wireless network in the first half of 2016 but, apparently, not being able to sell users’ private data in some states would prevent it from investing further. The company does not explain precisely how bringing back privacy rules would impair services to customers, although it is clear how that would hit its profit margins.

Verizon filed the White Paper in the FCC’s net neutrality proceeding because it wants the commission to declare state laws null and void in the same rulemaking that revokes the federal net neutrality rules. The FCC’s net neutrality order, which is still officially in effect, outlaws blocking, throttling, and paid prioritization and includes many other consumer protections.

Is it going to happen?

FCC Commissioner Mike O’Rielly has already stated his wish to explore using the FCC’s power to prevent states from protecting consumers. However, that puts FCC’s Chairman Ajit Pai in a challenging situation.

In 2015, the FCC voted to stop laws passed in North Carolina and Tennessee that prevented state ISPs from expanding outside of their regions. Back then, Pai argued vehemently that the FCC didn’t have the legal authority to do this. At last, the Federal Courts agreed with him, and the FCC vote was thrown out. Backtracking from this position now would raise a lot of problems for Pai.

According to Ernesto Falcon speaking on behalf of the digital rights group EFF, the FCC’s attempt to prevent state privacy laws may not stand up to scrutiny in court, especially if the commission reverses the earlier decision to classify broadband as a utility service. That’s because, traditionally, federal regulators only override state laws that conflict with an overarching federal scheme, Falcon says.

Large telecom corporations have ignored the massive demand for privacy safeguards from their customers for years. The current state-level initiatives are a direct response to this widely expressed need, and they will not just go away. That is, unless the FCC actually bans states from taking customer privacy into their own hands.

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