Given the endless stream of polemics emanating from the Trump White House, it has become all too easy to overlook the wholesale dismantling of federal regulations unfolding all across the U.S. economy.

One such rollback that's gaining steam will negatively impact the personal privacy of every man, woman and child who surfs the web on U.S. soil.

There is a dual-track effort unfolding to gut new federal privacy rules designed to restrain Internet Service Providers (ISPs) from abusing Internet users' sensitive data.

As expected on March 1, the Trump Administration's Federal Communications Commission voted to delay implementation of new broadband privacy rules for ISPs - the day before the new rules were to take effect.

These privacy protection rules were vetted and approved last October by the Obama FCC. They require the likes of Comcast, Verizon, AT&T and Time Warner to get customers' explicit consent before using or selling a customer's browsing history, location, and other behavior profile data.

Then on March 7, Sen. Jeff Flake (R-AZ) went one big step further. He formally proposed using an obscure legislative tool, called the Congressional Review Act (CRA,) as a means to permanently block the FCC from ever imposing any meaningful privacy rules on ISPs.

If the junior Senator from Arizona is successful, there will be no need for the Trump FCC to water down the Obama FCC's privacy rules. The CRA would "simply abolish the rule completely," says John M. Simpson, privacy project director for the advocacy group, Consumer Watchdog.

What's more, by using the CRA, Congress would, in effect, bar any future commission from adopting any form of privacy rules for ISPs, whatsoever, Simpson says. "It would just leave it like the Wild Wild West where there's no regulations at all," he says.

ISPs want piece of the action

This is all happening because Comcast, Verizon, AT&T et al. are champing at the bit for a piece of the action: a share of the hundreds of billions of dollars in behavioral profiling revenue reaped annually by Google, Facebook, Twitter and other companies engaged in tracking Internet users' every click.

The Federal Trade Commission polices this activity by the big-name search services, social media sites and web publishers - referred to as "edge providers" - with minimal privacy rules. The FTC simply requires edge providers to post a privacy policy, then avoid egregiously violating that stated policy.

The Obama FCC got tougher with ISPs to address concerns about how they tend to hold monopoly market shares in many geographic areas, while also collecting much more comprehensive behavior data than the edge providers. The Obama FCC stepped forward with a set of European-style "opt-in" privacy rules for ISPs.

Now the Trump FCC is on the verge of gutting those ISP rules. And Congress wants to beat the agency to the punch - and while they're at it put a nail in the coffin.

"This move to eliminate these rules makes it clear that Congress values big industry more than consumers, who overwhelmingly support these protections," opines Katie McInnis, staff attorney for Consumers Union, the policy and mobilization arm of Consumer Reports.

Predatory marketing

Let's be clear, someone needs to protect consumers. Edge providers like Google and Facebook lead the way in collecting staggering amounts of profiling data. They intensively mine this data to support ad campaigns - and make billions doing that.

Advertising seems benign, you say? The FTC has had to issue multi-million dollar deceptive practices fines to keep Google, Facebook and others in check. And privacy groups rightfully worry that ISPs, given carte blanche, won't be able to resist pursuing even more aggressive monetization models.

Advances in big data mining techniques make it possible for ISPs to create devastatingly detailed behavior profiles for each and every Internet user. Behavior profiles generally are already being used to conduct predatory marketing campaigns that most often target the poor, the weak and the disadvantaged.

Think about it. Behavior profiles can help banks and insurance companies discriminate in deciding who to service. They can be used to tilt hiring decisions, and manipulate political campaigns. And they can be used to promote gambling, porn and drug abuse.

Make no mistake, the ISPs are eager to cash in. In 2014 Verizon was found to be silently modifying its users' web traffic by injecting a cookie-like tracker that enabled third-party advertisers and websites to assemble a deep, permanent profile of visitors' web browsing habits without their consent, according to the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

No privacy rules for Comcast, Verizon, AT&T et al. will translate into an open invitation for the ISPs to overreach. "It opens the doors to all kind of abuses that shouldn't happen," Simpson says. "The kind of profiling that will be done, and what ISPs will do with those profiles, is completely inappropriate."

As data miners drill ever deeper and deeper every day, we are barreling toward the dystopian world envisioned in the Spielberg movie Minority Report. As a society, we would be ill-advised not to support the consumer advocacy community's efforts to push back.

Published on: Mar 13, 2017