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Why the Senate’s Vote to Throw Out Privacy Laws for ISPs Isn’t All Bad

Nobody wants their data spread far and wide, but the FCC’s rules were an inconsistent solution to a much larger problem.

The U.S. Senate has voted to roll back Internet service provider privacy rules relating to user data—but the decision might be a little fairer than you think.

The Federal Communications Commission’s rules were put in place last year by the Obama administration. They required Internet service providers to ask for a user’s explicit opt-in consent to use and share their sensitive personal information.

The 50-48 vote to overturn the rules, which weren’t even yet in effect, isn’t really that surprising. It’s part of a larger effort by the Republican-controlled government to dismantle Obama-era rules meant to level the playing field in the broadband industry.

But it is causing a lot of hand wringing. Privacy advocates have accused the Senate of abandoning consumers in favor of the ISPs. Meanwhile, proponents of the reversal, including new FCC Chairman Ajit Pai, argue that it’s unfair to subject ISPs to that kind of regulation. After all, Silicon Valley companies like Google and Facebook are currently able to do as they please with your data.

Both sides are probably correct to some extent. But the reality is that the U.S. doesn’t have a baseline law that governs online privacy. Requiring users’ opt-in consent to share sensitive personal data would have raised the bar for privacy on the Internet—a “landmark” rule, according to the Washington Post. But, crucially, it would have been a landmark that only affected ISPs.

It is entirely legitimate to be concerned about widespread surveillance. The websites we visit, the devices we use, and even the stores we shop in—they’re all tracking us, whether we like it or not.  The FCC’s new privacy rules would have been dramatic, to be sure—but they would only have addressed one piece of the problem, leaving companies like Facebook and Google free to continue doing much the same thing.

At any rate, all this still has to pass the House and get President Trump’s signature before the FCC drops the rules for good. If that happens, we can only hope that a more consistent approach to privacy might prevail in the future.

(Read more: Reuters, “FTC Chairwoman: We Must Not Give Up on Privacy,” “New FCC Chief Likes a Good Mega-Merger—Net Neutrality, Not So Much,” “What Happens If Net Neutrality Goes Away?”)

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