This week Congress will vote on a measure—being driven by major companies like AT&T, Comcast, and Verizon—that would eliminate the privacy rules that require internet providers to get your permission before they sell your most sensitive information. These privacy rules are common: what websites we visit shouldn't be sold without our consent to the highest bidder. Unfortunately, Senator Sullivan indicated that he supports erasing these rules. Alaskans should tell him that we disagree.
Given the current composition of the U.S. Senate, Sens. Sullivan and Murkowski are key votes—we should tell them to oppose any efforts to stop these rules from fully going into effect.
Last year, the Federal Communications Commission finalized a rule that makes broadband internet providers ask your permission before they use or sell your private information, such as every website you visit, the times you log into or out of your accounts, and your location. The rules recognize that your private information reveals deeply personal things: your medical conditions, your hobbies, your favorite dating website, and more.
But the telecom industry giants want to protect their profits, which is why they've spent millions and repeatedly lobbied Congress. Just this week, both the House and Senate have used a rare procedure in the Congressional Review Act to introduce a resolution that would not only completely eliminate the FCC's privacy rules, but would also ban "substantially the same" rules from being made in the future. If the resolution passes—and Sens. Sullivan and Murkowski are the key votes—the FCC may be unable to protect our privacy today or when it's faced with new technologies and business practices tomorrow.
This is particularly bad for Alaskans. Some from Outside have claimed that the free-market will weed out privacy abuses, but we all know that in our state, there are few providers and little competition: Connect Alaska reported that nearly 60 percent of Alaskans have access to just one provider and only about 4 percent had access to two providers. In Alaska, providers have little incentive to compete to give us the most privacy-protective policies; instead, our "choice" is to either accept the terms dictated to us or give up internet access.
But being online is not a luxury. We need the internet to do business, to pay bills, to find a doctor, or to meet a new love interest. And because internet providers sit on top of the internet backbone, they see everything we do online. This comprehensive view into our personal lives is exactly what advertisers and big-data brokers are looking to buy to help them create a detailed profile on each and every one of us. Even law enforcement agencies have purchased this customer data from companies like AT&T.
Alaskans have always cared deeply about our privacy and we should make sure that our personal information is safe, not sold by private companies. Sens. Sullivan and Murkowski must vote the right way and oppose any efforts to undo the FCC rules. These rules are fundamentally about the right of Alaskans to choose when and how private companies sell our sensitive information — that is not something Congress should take away.
Joshua A. Decker is the executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Alaska, which strives to make the Bill of Rights real for everyone and to uphold the promise of the Constitution.