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Politicians' web browsing history targeted after privacy vote

Grant Gross | April 5, 2017
Privacy advocates raise money in an attempt to buy the browsing history of Republicans who voted to kill privacy rules for ISPs.

GoFundMe campaigns are trying to buy politicians' browsing history.

Two GoFundMe campaigns have raised more than US$290,000 in an effort to buy the web browsing histories of U.S. politicians after Congress voted to allow broadband providers to sell customers' personal information without their permission.

It's unclear if those efforts will succeed, however. Even though Congress scrapped the FCC's ISP privacy rules last week, the Telecommunications Act still prohibits telecom providers from selling personally identifiable information in many cases. 

After last week's vote, and President Donald Trump's signature on the congressional resolution Monday, there's some question about whether those prohibitions on selling personal data now apply to ISPs. Under FCC rules, ISPs technically aren't telecom providers.

Asked if someone can now buy another person's browsing history, and FCC spokesman responded this way: "I can't comment on hypothetical, but the FCC retains the authority to protect consumer privacy on a case-by-case basis."

In other words, the FCC would likely step in and stop attempted purchases of a politician's browsing history.

Beyond that, broadband providers Comcast, Verizon, and AT&T have all promised not to sell individual customers' web browsing history. "We do not sell our broadband customers' individual web browsing history," Comcast Senior Vice President Gerard Lewis wrote in a blog post. "We did not do it before the FCC’s rules were adopted, and we have no plans to do so."

Still, providers of so-called marketing cloud services -- think Salesforce and Oracle -- track web users and develop extensive profiles based on shopping and web-browsing habits, said privacy advocate Jeffery Chester, executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy.

It's likely possible to buy the web marketing profile of individual politicians from a marketing cloud provider, if not an ISP, including the kinds of websites they like to visit, by targeting them using their general location and other publicly available information, he said.

"Let the web monitoring and surveillance of the politicians begin," he said.

The recently passed congressional resolution kills FCC rules requiring broadband providers to receive opt-in customer permission to share sensitive personal information, including web-browsing history, geolocation, and financial details with third parties. 

The recent congressional resolution will allow ISPs more latitude to sell customer information to ad networks for the purposes of delivering targeted ads to your browser, but that's different than selling your personal browsing history.

In an effort to strike back against the Republican-led legislation to roll back the FCC privacy rules, advocate Adam McElhaney has raised more than $205,000 since March 25 to buy the personal history of top politicians supporting the resolution.

 

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