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Op-Ed

The commissioners of the FTC and FCC are worried about your online privacy

With so much going on in Washington, the American people may not be up to date with the Congressional Review Act — an obscure tool Congress has been using to rescind policies that were put in place by the previous administration. Most recently, the House and Senate voted to undo rules designed to protect the privacy of American consumers when they sign up for and use broadband Internet service. This would leave Internet users worse off, but there’s still time for President Trump to veto the legislation.

Two Commissioners from different agencies teamed up to write this op-ed because both the Federal Communications Commission and the Federal Trade Commission have a role in protecting consumer privacy. The FCC protects consumers when they sign up for or use their broadband connection; the FTC protects them when they use the products and services running over that network (think websites, social networks and streaming services).

Last fall, the FCC adopted rules requiring broadband providers to get explicit permission from consumers before using their sensitive personal data for purposes other than providing broadband.

Advocates for repealing those protections argue that they create consumer confusion by establishing two sets of rules, one for broadband providers, set by the FCC, and another for online products and services, policed by the FTC.

But that’s nonsense. The FCC’s new rules are in keeping with the FTC’s longstanding guidelines, and they match the expectations consumers have when they go online. The rules also recognize the reality that while consumers can choose between different search engines, social networks and other websites based on privacy, many have no choice when it comes to high-speed broadband at home.

What people may not realize, moreover, is that if the legislation approved by Congress becomes law, there will be no privacy rules governing broadband providers. The FCC no longer will be able to protect consumer privacy and, because of arcane restraints on its jurisdiction, the FTC will be unable to pick up the slack.

Under the FCC’s privacy rules, your broadband provider needs to get your express consent before collecting information about what you search for on the Internet, post on social media and what videos you watch online. As we connect more things in our homes, your broadband provider can infer a lot of things about you just by looking at the data traffic flowing from these devices — things like when you’re home, when you’re awake, when you’re cooking or whether you have children.

If the legislation is signed into law, your broadband provider could collect this information and sell it to advertisers, or any third party, without your knowledge — and without ever offering you a choice.

Since recent polls suggest that 91% of Americans feel they already have given up too much of their personal data, we believe that consumers want these commonsense protections extended, not erased.

Last year’s election was fought over many issues; removing privacy protections from American consumers was not one of them. We have yet to hear from a single consumer who wants less control over their sensitive personal data. Unfortunately, that is exactly what this legislation would do. It is our hope that President Trump, who was elected by arguing that he would stand up for the average American, does what most Americans would expect and vetoes this legislation.

Terrell McSweeny is commissioner of the Federal Trade Commission. Mignon Clyburn is commissioner of the Federal Communications Commission.

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