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It is 2017, but thanks to Donald Trump, we are getting closer to 1984, not literally, of course, I am referring to the book Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell. In this novel, the author speaks of a society where the citizens are under constant surveillance by the authorities, referred to as Big Brother.  They are reminded of this by the slogan “Big Brother is watching you.”  Today the term Big Brother has become synonymous with the abuse of government power when it comes to civil liberties and mass surveillance.

President Trump recently reversed a 2016 executive order by Barack Obama that will change how much data Internet Service Providers (ISPs) can collect from its customers. Previously, ISPs were compelled to ask customers for their expressed permission or to “opt-in” before selling their web browsing data to third parties. However, now the default could be changed to opt-out and be buried in a terms of service contracts that few people, if any, read, greatly increasing the amount of data collected.

While Google, Facebook, and many other websites collect and sell advertisers our personal data, these services can only sell whatever information has been entered into their websites. An ISP can collect any data at all transmitted over the internet since, just like the electric and water utilities; they control and monitor the flow of the service into their customers’ homes. Therefore, unlike Google and Facebook, they can know all of the sites their users visit. That is a juicy product for advertisers, and ISP’s have long wished to monetize it. Now they can do so much more easily.

The headlines on this topic have been misleading. It is not true that Congress and the Trump administration have created a new privilege for ISP’s like Verizon, AT&T, Comcast and RCN. In fact we have never had privacy from Verizon or RCN if they wished to collect any data at all about our online activities, including whom we email and what we buy online. Obama’s rule would have given us that protection by default.

Perhaps more troubling than the immediate sellout, however, are the possibilities opened up by the rule change. Though it is customary at the moment for ISP’s not to collect information that might be used to identify a certain individual, there are no Federal Communications Commission rules enforcing the custom.

If Verizon or AT&T, knowing all of the devices you operate using their service, all of the websites you visit, and all the emails you send, wanted to use that information to triangulate your identity, nothing stops them from doing so except their own rules. If they then wanted to sell information about your identity, theoretically, there is no law that stops them from doing so. With Congress, the FCC and Trump lined up to cater to the wishes of big business it is hard to imagine the government resisting such a development.

On the state level, I have introduced a bill (S3367), which calls for all internet service providers offering services to New York State customers to keep all information confidential unless written consent is provided by the customer.


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