By Tom Wheeler
Special to the New York Times
On Tuesday afternoon, while most people were focused on the latest news from the House Intelligence Committee, the House quietly voted to undo rules that keep internet service providers — the companies like Comcast, Verizon and Charter that you pay for online access — from selling your personal information.
The Senate already approved the bill, on a party-line vote, last week, which means that in the coming days President Donald Trump will be able to sign legislation that will strike a significant blow against online privacy protection.
The bill not only gives cable companies and wireless providers free rein to do what they like with your browsing history, shopping habits, your location and other information gleaned from your online activity, but it would also prevent the Federal Communications Commission from ever again establishing similar consumer privacy protections.
The bill is an effort by the F.C.C.’s new Republican majority and congressional Republicans to overturn a simple but vitally important concept — namely that the information that goes over a network belongs to you as the consumer, not to the network hired to carry it. It’s an old idea: For decades, in both Republican and Democratic administrations, federal rules have protected the privacy of the information in a telephone call. In 2016, the F.C.C., which I led as chairman under President Barack Obama, extended those same protections to the internet.
To my Democratic colleagues and me, the digital tracks that a consumer leaves when using a network are the property of that consumer. They contain private information about personal preferences, health problems and financial matters. Our Republican colleagues on the commission argued the data should be available for the network to sell. The commission vote was 3-2 in favor of consumers.
Reversing those protections is a dream for cable and telephone companies, which want to capitalize on the value of such personal information. I understand that network executives want to produce the highest return for shareholders by selling consumers’ information. The problem is they are selling something that doesn’t belong to them.
Here’s one perverse result of this action. When you make a voice call on your smartphone, the information is protected: Your phone company can’t sell the fact that you are calling car dealerships to others who want to sell you a car. But if the same device and the same network are used to contact car dealers through the internet, that information — the same information, in fact — can be captured and sold by the network. To add insult to injury, you pay the network a monthly fee for the privilege of having your information sold to the highest bidder.
This bill isn’t the only gift to the industry. The Trump F.C.C. recently voted to stay requirements that internet service providers must take “reasonable measures” to protect confidential information they hold on their customers, such as Social Security numbers and credit card information. This is not a hypothetical risk — in 2015 AT&T was fined $25 million for shoddy practices that allowed employees to steal and sell the private information of 280,000 customers.
Among the many calamities engendered by the circus atmosphere of this White House is the diversion of public attention away from many other activities undertaken by the Republican-controlled government. Nobody seemed to notice when the Trump F.C.C. dropped the requirement about networks protecting information because we were all riveted by the Russian hacking of the election and the attempted repeal of Obamacare.
There’s a lot of hypocrisy at play here: The man who has raged endlessly at the alleged surveillance of the communications of his aides (and potentially himself) will most likely soon gladly sign a bill that allows unrestrained sale of the personal information of any American using the internet.
Apparently, the Trump administration and its allies in Congress value privacy for themselves over the privacy of the Americans who put them in office. What is good business for powerful cable and phone companies is just tough luck for the rest of us.
(Tom Wheeler was the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission from 2013 to 2017.)