In February of 2015, the Obama Administration’s Federal Communications Commission (FCC) vastly expanded its power over Internet Service Providers (ISPs) by reclassifying them as common carriers, subject to Title II of the Communications Act. Under this reclassification, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), an agency which has presided over the internet for over 20 years, was stripped of its authority to regulate ISPs.
Opponents challenged the measure in court, but in June of 2016, a divided federal court decreed that the FCC had the authority to reclassify ISPs. Essentially, this created a two-track system of internet regulation—one set of rules for ISPs, and another for other online players.
Despite wresting control of ISP regulation, the FCC acknowledged that current Title II privacy rules were not designed for ISP’s. However, 10 days before the onset of the 2016 presidential election, the ISP Privacy Rule was passed, designed to protect customer personal information.
Primarily, the rule stated, “we adopt rules requiring carriers to obtain customers’ opt-in approval for use and sharing of sensitive customer personal information.” On paper, this seems like a great thing, but the reality is quite different.
Under this rule, large businesses like Google or Facebook would be able to continue utilizing consumer data for purposes such as advertising, leaving ISP’s unable to compete. Specifically, the regulation was designed to blatantly favor these companies.
The FCC was slated to implement the ISP Privacy Rule on March 1st, however, after receiving a petition from eleven trade associations, FCC Chairman Ajit Pai issued an indefinite stay on the rule before its enactment. Moreover, Congress utilized the Congressional Review Act to repeal the rule entirely in late March.
Almost immediately following the passage of the repeal, internet regulation advocates launched a massive disinformation campaign backed by those in a position to benefit most— primarily billionaire George Soros and Google.
Known falsehoods were a primary feature of this campaign. Chief among them were themes such as, “Congress effectively guts internet privacy protections,” “all consumer internet information is now up for sale,” and that, as a result of the repeal, “web browsers now have much less privacy.”
Headlines such as, “What to expect now that Internet providers can collect and sell your Web browser history,” and “Your internet history on sale to highest bidder: US Congress votes to shred ISP privacy rules,” quickly took root in the public imagination.
The simple fact of the matter is that since the ISP Privacy Rule never went into effect, so internet privacy regulations are the same as before the rule’s inception. In addition, the Telecommunications Act explicitly prohibits the sharing, or in this case selling, of “individually identifiable” customer information—which includes internet search histories.
These facts didn’t halt the spread of “fake news,” and even some private citizens began preying on public ignorance for profit. As a form of protest against the Republican-led repeal, GoFundMe campaigns were set up to purchase the search histories of congressional members.
Although buying individual search histories remains illegal, the crowdfunding campaigns have raised nearly $300,000 to date, leaving many to wonder where exactly the funds are headed.
One thing remains certain— unnecessary regulation of the internet harms innovation and places strain on free enterprise. Government must take a hands-off approach in order to foster online growth, and to provide for an open internet.