Senator Jeff Flake: Why Sharing Your Private Internet Data Is a Good Thing

Arizona Senator Jeff Flake's bill, now expected to become law, will allow internet companies to sell your data.
Arizona Senator Jeff Flake's bill, now expected to become law, will allow internet companies to sell your data.
New Times Photo-Illustration. Source: Flake, Gage Skidmore/Creative Commons; Digital Pattern, Blackboard/Shutterstock.com

EDITOR'S NOTE: Arizona Republican Senator Jeff Flake introduced a bill, passed by both the U.S. House and Senate, that allows internet service providers such as Verizon and AT&T to track and share your browsing and app activity without your permission. Phoenix New Times provided the senator this space to explain why that is a good thing for you without a response from us. But you can contact his Phoenix office at 602-840-1891 or e-mail his communications director at jason_samuels@flake.senate.gov

Consumers expect their private information to remain private and secure. Health data, financial details, and personally identifiable information – these are all things that need to be protected. It’s because I care about privacy that I authored legislation to ensure that our regulatory framework keeps this sensitive data secure.

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has done a commendable job throughout the decades fostering a vibrant Internet ecosystem that promotes both innovation and consumer privacy. The FTC has policed Internet Service Providers (ISPs) as well as popular websites like Google, Facebook, and even news sites like the Phoenix New Times.

Under the FTC’s stewardship, our internet economy has become the envy of the world. The FTC helped by establishing clear standards and robust enforcement mechanisms that protect our sensitive information while remaining flexible enough to respond to our preferences as consumers.

When it comes to federal regulations, to borrow a phrase from back on the ranch, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” Unfortunately, the previous administration decided to search for a problem when we already had the solution.

In February 2015, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) undertook a unilateral power-grab by asserting jurisdiction over ISPs. This bureaucratic turf battle stripped ISPs of their traditional regulator, and could have thrown the entire internet ecosystem into flux. But it went virtually unnoticed by the media and activists who care about privacy.

After more than a year of ad-hoc privacy regulation, the FCC decided to adopt its own rules. Instead of basing the rules on proven regulatory framework that applies throughout the rest of the internet, the FCC pushed through new rules on a party-line vote in the waning days of the previous administration.

At a hearing and in numerous oversight letters, I asked then-FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler why his agency was in such a rush to finalize new internet regulations while FTC’s effective privacy framework sat on the shelf. I never did get a straight answer as the FCC moved ahead with its midnight regulations.

The bottom line in this regulatory debate is that people expect their sensitive data to be protected. But beyond that, different people have different preferences, and I think that’s a good thing.

Some people want all of their information private, so they opt out of the ad trackers used on websites like this one. Other people prefer to see ads that are relevant to their interests.

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The FTC approach is sensitive to this reality. It protects your private information and gives you the choice to opt out of whatever other data sharing you’re not comfortable with. On the other hand, the now-defunct FCC approach would have focused not on the sensitivity of information, but rather which entity controls it.

It was a recipe for confusion that could have jeopardized data security across the internet.

The current chairman of the FCC and the acting chairman of the FTC recently explained in an op-ed that, “Congress’s decision last week didn’t remove existing privacy protections; it simply cleared the way for us to work together to reinstate a rational and effective system for protecting consumer privacy.”

Now the FCC and the FTC can work hand-in-hand to enforce a uniform privacy framework for ISPs and the rest of the Internet. In an early sign of how successful this model can be, the major broadband providers have already updated their privacy policies to make it clear how consumers can opt out of targeted advertising.

With my bill signed into law, you as a consumer now have more choice over how your data is used, and your privacy will be regulated under a more effective and consistent framework.

Those are victories that all of us who care about privacy should cheer.

Sorry, but we do have a response: Huh?


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