Trump took away your internet privacy. A California legislator wants to give it back

Assemblyman Ed Chau, D-Monterey Park, announced the California Broadband Internet Privacy Act on Monday at the Capitol.
Assemblyman Ed Chau, D-Monterey Park, announced the California Broadband Internet Privacy Act on Monday at the Capitol. dmorain@sacbee.com

AT&T, Comcast and other internet service providers can continue to track every search you make and website you visit and sell that information to the highest bidder, under legislation recently signed by President Donald Trump.

That legislation, which reversed an Obama regulation, ought to alarm any American who ventures online, no matter their political persuasion. Now comes Assemblyman Ed Chau, a Democrat from Monterey Park, carrying a bill that for Californians would reverse the legislation and provide some privacy at a time when seemingly nothing is private.

Chau’s Assembly Bill 375 promises fundamental protections: Internet services providers would have to provide customers with a “clear and conspicuous” opportunity to agree to authorize their information to be used, disclosed or sold. You could revoke that permission at any time. Providers could not deny service if consumers refuse to sign away their right to privacy. And they could not they charge customers more for failing to grant them access to their information.

The ACLU, Electronic Frontier Foundation, Common Sense Kids Action and Consumer Federation of California are among the bill’s supporters, for good reason. Joining Chau at a Capitol press conference Monday was Scott Jordan, a UC Irvine computer science professor and former Federal Communications Commission official, who listed some of the information internet service providers could glean:

The sites you visit; whether those sites are related to your finances or health; what videos you watch; how often you visit certain sites; what time of day you visit them; how long you linger; what devices you use; what apps you download; where you are located.

Exactly what your information is worth is not clear. But AT&T may have provided a glimpse in 2015 when it offered in a few local markets to charge customers $30 a month for the privilege of anonymity in their internet use. That’d seem like a reasonable starting point.

Internet service providers say they have strict privacy policies and would not breach their customers’ trust. We hope that’s true. We also hope smart providers would see they could carve a market niche by being truly protective of privacy, and help Chau make AB 375 a model for the nation.

Under President Barack Obama, the FCC approved a regulation that was to take effect in December requiring that internet service providers get customer consent before selling personal information. The GOP-controlled Congress intervened before the regulation took effect, and unraveled it.

If Chau manages to get his bill past the formidable telecom lobby, the industry undoubtedly would sue, likely claiming federal law pre-empts states from acting.

Rep. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., last month introduced HR 2520, which goes by the oh-so-cute name “Balancing the Rights of Web Surfers Equally and Responsibly Act of 2017,” or BROWSER Act. In an indication that the bill is not so cute, Blackburn has received $564,000 from the telecom industry during her career, the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics recently wrote.

Her legislation includes modest privacy protections, but also would bar states from going further. Given the willingness of Congress to side with industry over consumers’ privacy, that pre-emption provision is reason enough to oppose her bill.

Internet service providers are not like Facebook or Google. People have a choice whether to have a Facebook profile, or which browser to use. But people have little choice but to use the internet. Service providers are akin to utilities; they provide service to anyone for a reasonable fee. Vital though the internet has become, people should not have to give up their personal information – for free – in exchange for the right to use it.