June 24th, 2017

frank-caractureUsers Worry About Web Privacy:
Billboard Targets Heller
By Frank X. Mullen

Your internet browsing history is up for auction to the highest bidder under a measure passed by Congress last month. So expect more “targeted” advertisements when you surf the web and more uncertainty about on-line security and ID theft, experts warn.

 Because Congress prevented a federal rule from taking effect, Internet companies may monitor and sell customer’s location data, search history, app usage, and browsing habits to advertisers without consumers’ permission. Critics say that means web sites will be able to hijack customer’s search results and redirect traffic to paying third parties as well as inject ads into web pages that would otherwise not have them.

 Data about where people go on the internet, what they see and search for, is useful information for advertisers and marketers who want to specifically target ads at  consumers’ interests. “The big winners here are the telecom companies,” says Herb Montgomery, a Henderson-based computer consultant. “The big losers are anyone with a keyboard and an internet connection.”

Sponsors of the resolution, including Sen. Dean Heller, say it removes burdensome regulations on communications companies and gives consumers “free choice.” Opponents say the measure, which negates a Federal Communications Commission rule, puts people’s privacy and security at risk.

Rep. Mark Amodei also voted for the measure. Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto, Rep. Ruben Kihuen, Rep. Dina Titus and Rep. Jacky Rosen voted against the resolution.

“As someone who has first-hand experience as a computer programmer, I know that keeping privacy protections in place is essential for safeguarding vulnerable and sensitive data from hackers,” says Rosen, who introduced a bill to restore consumer protections and prohibits selling data without consumers’ knowledge or consent. “I will not stand by and let corporations get access to the most intimate parts of people’s lives.”

It’s unlikely the same GOP-controlled Congress which passed the resolution would then vote to reverse its action. Yet, Rosen and other critics of the measure say if there’s a groundswell of complaints from consumers, lawmakers could be persuaded to reverse course. “It’s really not a partisan issue,” notes Montgomery. “It affects everyone. And it’s not a matter of fairness to telecommunications companies (as backers of the resolution stated). Yes, sites like Facebook and Google do track your activity and wouldn’t have fallen under the FCC rule, but telecom companies like Comcast or Charter have all your tracking data. If you have a connection, they have all your information…

“(The companies) may say they won’t abuse that, but it’s better to have a federal regulation prohibiting selling the information than the promises of a corporation that they’ll be responsible stewards of your data.”

An April town hall meeting hosted in Reno by Heller and Amodei drew hundreds of their constituents. Participants held signs protesting various Trump administration and GOP initiatives. Issues included the House’s repeal of Obamacare, elimination of environmental regulations, proposals to defund Planned Parenthood and other hot-button topics. Reno author Mark Bacon was among the few people there who held signs protesting the telecommunications measure. “Why would anyone vote to let the cable/ISPs sell customers’ private data?” Bacon asks.

Fight for the Future, a nonprofit activist group that promotes internet privacy and opposes censorship, is trying to increase awareness and rally opposition to Congress’ action. The group used crowd-funding to raise $25,000 to pay for billboards that accuse five senators – including Heller — of betraying constituents by stripping away on-line protections. A billboard at U.S. 580 and Second Street in Reno features a photo of Heller next to his Reno office phone number. The billboard’s headline says “You Betrayed Us” and cites the recent resolution.

The billboard lists $345,000 as the amount communications firms have contributed to Heller’s campaign war chest over the course of his federal career. In the last election cycle, Heller netted $78,950 from those interests, according to federal campaign data. Amodei, who voted for the resolution in the House, received $22,000 from the telecom industry in the last cycle, according to the National Institute on Money in State Politics.

Heller’s office did not respond to multiple requests for comment about the billboard or his support revoking the FCC privacy rule.

The federal regulation, now moot, would have required internet providers such as AT&T, Verizon and Comcast to secure consumers’ permission to sell data to third parties. In other words, internet uses would have had to “opt in” to the process. Some internet companies say they will allow consumers to “opt out” instead, but that choice isn’t required by law and critics say consumers may have a hard time doing that.

“It’s always easier for consumers to have to opt-in rather than make that the default,” Montgomery says. “If you have to jump through a lot of hoops to opt out, people aren’t going to take the time to do it.”

Sidebar 1 Nevada A Focus Of National ID Theft Epidemic

Sidebar 2 –  Hang On To Your Name: Tips On Avoiding Identity Theft