How Big Internet Will Use Our Private Information to Get Even Bigger

A recent bill erased FCC rules that would have put limits on Internet Service Providers’ ability to sell our data.

(Photo: jeremybrooks/Flickr)

In late 2014, it was revealed that Verizon Wireless had been, for over two years, inserting a unique string of 50 letters, numbers, and characters into requests by users to visit webpages. Called a Unique Identifier Head (or UIDH), the serial number allowed advertisers to identify who was visiting which websites, allowing them to target ads based on users’ habits. This is nothing new in the world of Internet browsing. As users, we’ve long been accustomed to “cookies” that allow frequently visited websites to load quicker, to save basic information for forms, and to target ads more effectively.

Yet this was something different. “Cookies” belong to only a single website, and can be deleted by users; the UIDH was attached to all websites, and couldn’t be deleted. As the Electronic Frontier Foundation put it, it “allows third-party advertisers and websites to assemble a deep, permanent profile of visitors’ web browsing habits without their consent.”

It was newly emerging technologies like these that forced the Barack Obama-era Federal Communications Commission to, in October of 2016, approve new rules limiting how Internet Service Providers collect and sell their customers’ personal information. “This was probably the best day we’ve had on Internet privacy — commercial Internet privacy — maybe ever,” Jeffrey Chester, executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy, told the Washington Post after the rules were adopted. “We got a breakthrough.”

But less than five months later, the breakthrough was walled back up. On March 28th, the Republican-dominated House of Representatives signed a bill that erases those rules. It also ties the FCC’s hands from trying to recreate similar rules in the future. The bill was immediately signed by President Donald Trump and is now the law of the land.

This isn’t good news if one happens to be a fan of Internet privacy. The American Civil Liberties Union writes: “no existing regulations would require companies to provide opt-in consent to consumers before sharing their information, creating an enormous privacy gap.”…

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