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Sorry crowdfunders, it’s still illegal to buy a Congressman’s internet history

By Lauren AguirreApril 6, 2017

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Near the end of March, Congress voted to overturn Federal Communications Commission rules on broadband privacy that provided protections over the use of personal information. The rules were written five months ago and had yet to actually go into effect, but they would stop internet service providers, or ISPs, from tracking customer’s browsing data and selling it to advertisers without consent.

With the repeal of these rules, ISPs like Comcast, Verizon or AT&T can freely sell your browsing data without any kind of permission from you. In response to this repeal, two GoFundMe campaigns were started to raise money to buy Congress members’ internet browsing history. But unfortunately for the backers, this kind of purchase is still illegal.

 

There’s nothing stopping your internet provider from selling your data to use in targeted advertising — similar to how Facebook and Google already do.

The repeal of privacy protections does allow ISPs to make money off of your browsing history. There’s nothing stopping your internet provider from selling your data to use in targeted advertising — similar to how Facebook and Google already do. But browsing data is not sold in neat packages tied to a person’s name. Rather, advertisers receive information in big batches based on demographics. For example, an advertiser might know that women between the ages of 18 and 35 clicked on their ad, but not that Jane Doe specifically did.

This is because it is still illegal to sell and buy phone and internet history tied to a specific individual. The Telecommunications Act prohibits the sharing of “individually identifiable” customer information except under specific circumstances (i.e. a warrant). However, the law is more lenient when it comes to “aggregate” information. It is this aggregate information from hundreds and hundreds of customers that is used in targeted advertising. So no, even with the repeal of privacy protections, you still can’t buy an individual person’s web history.

 

Without these rules in place, ISPs will likely collect more browsing data and be much more aggressive with targeted ads. 

However, that doesn’t mean the FCC regulation rollback isn’t a privacy concern. Without these rules in place, ISPs will likely collect more browsing data and be much more aggressive with targeted ads. Aggregate data can still be invasive, but most web users already accept this kind of collection as a byproduct of internet use.

Others, however, dislike companies being able to make money off of information they are offering to them for free in the case of Facebook and Google. And for a monthly fee in the case of any Comcast or Verizon. These are valid arguments, but aggregate data is still way far off from being able to shop for a specific person’s internet history.

Meanwhile, the two largest GoFundMe campaigns planning to attempt to purchase Congress members’ internet history have collectively raised almost $300,000. And no one really knows what will happen to that money when the campaigns end.