The Maine Senate last week voted against a bill aimed at protecting the privacy of internet users, with the opposition reluctant to take action on an issue they feel is best left up to Congress.

That’s something they’re going to have to get over.

LAX OVERSIGHT

L.D. 1610, as introduced last year by Sen. Shenna Bellows, D-Manchester, would have prevented internet service providers like Spectrum and Comcast from selling or sharing a customer’s personal information without their consent, and from charging higher fees to customers who choose to opt out of sharing their information.

The bill was narrowed this year to apply only to ISPs who do business with state government or receive state subsidies, but still it failed in the Republican-controlled Senate on Thursday. The Democrat-majority House backed it on Friday, but its future remains in question.

Bellows’ bill was made necessary last year when Congress repealed Obama-era Federal Communication Commission rules covering much the same territory. The argument then was that the Federal Trade Commission, not the FCC, was best equipped to regulate ISPs, and that the FCC rules were an unfair burden on ISPs because they did not also apply to companies like Google and Facebook, their competitors in finding the most lucrative ways to use your personal information.

The difference in how tech companies and ISPs were handled was a real problem, both unfair to the ISPs and not broad enough for consumers. The right response would have been to raise the regulations on tech companies to match those on ISPs. Instead, Congress eliminated the rules covering ISPs, and promised a new, broader, better regulatory framework that has yet to materialize.

BUSINESS MODEL

Without the FCC rules, enforcing privacy protections on ISPs has been left to the FTC, which is limited in its ability to do so. And while ISPs say they have no plans to sell their customers’ personal information, they have been using it for years to direct advertising, just as Google and Facebook do.

That’s the business model for all these companies. They want to suck up as much as possible about you — at least more than their competitors can — and use that information to gain the business of retailers looking to target specific consumers.

It’s an $83 billion-a-year business — the backbone of the internet. And people participate willingly, as each click, search and purchase provides them with new suggestions on which restaurant to try or book to check out.

But everyone has information they’d rather not be under someone else’s control, and the whole system is rigged against consumers who try to keep that sort of information private. There is really no way to avoid using the internet, and once online it is very difficult for the average person to control what is shared and what is not.

PROTECT PRIVACY

That is by design, as companies like Facebook and Google have been allowed to create a system that has made them fabulously wealthy while leaving consumers exposed. ISPs feel they have not been allowed to capitalize fully on the system, and they want in.

That is why new consumer-friendly regulations are necessary. We should not have to give up privacy completely to go online. We should be able to choose which information we share and who we share it with, and we shouldn’t have to search through interminable “terms and conditions” to do so. When we do voluntarily share information, it should be protected, and the terms under which it may be shared with a third party must be clear.

Congress last week grilled Mark Zuckerberg, CEO of Facebook, which violated each of those tenants by selling information to British political firm Cambridge Analytica, so perhaps action is coming.

If not, or if that action is insufficient, states will have to step forward. Bellows’ bill would not have addressed all those issues, but at least it was on the case. ISPs and tech companies alike have been allowed to run roughshod over privacy for too long, and states have an obligation to protect their residents if Congress will not.

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