The issue of digital privacy is a predominant topic of citizen rights in today’s digital age. Information that tacitly is your property is no longer expressly protected. In fact, our personal information is used as an economic transaction tool, which has deleterious effects on us on personal and societal scales.
In instances where the merchants of our personal information are identified for their actions, they take refuge in Kafkaesque user agreements that citizens have simply clicked on for approval in order to gain access to the service; agreements that are rarely read and display lack of clear and concise intent.
The highway of digital privacy has not been protected by those entrusted with the responsibility of ensuring your information stays with you and no one else: your internet service provider. Your internet service provider can gather an extraordinary amount of private information about you; not just your browsing history, but also the videos you view, your messages, your phone calls and the games you play. All of these traverse the internet now.
Your internet service provider also knows your physical location via a technique called “geolocation.” An illustration of the problems this raises is the recent move by a Massachusetts advertising company to track the location of women and then send them targeted anti-abortion ads when the women were near abortion clinics. The same tactics could be used to track who visited a particular store, gun show, house of worship, political rally, or other site or event.
Because there is no law that prohibits your internet service provider from selling this data without your permission, it is highly likely that your private data are already available to criminals and governments. Additionally, U.S. businesses have repeatedly shown themselves to be unable to guard customer data. The issues are complex and require a comprehensive approach.
At GWI, we are part of the internet service provider industry — and open, transparent competition should be our protection against bad behavior such as privacy breaches. Unfortunately, there is little competition among internet service providers because of entrenched interests and because most people effectively have only one choice. Therefore, the potential violation of privacy allowed by our current regulatory regime is so great that something must be done. If for every citizen massive amounts of private data are available, then the rest of our constitutional protections become meaningless.
We sell internet access, and we know that if people can’t trust the internet, then the value of the internet is significantly lessened, as it will be used less for sensitive applications. Even if government regulation blocks us from making money selling customer data (something we never ever do), we still benefit because a trusted internet is more valuable to all our customers.
The big internet service providers tell us that we can trust them to regulate themselves, but a search on “Verizon super cookie FCC fine,” “Comcast network neutrality violation” and “ISP deep packet inspection” shows otherwise. Public companies are optimized to maximize shareholder value and public company employees are rewarded for doing so.
To that end, we are enthusiastic supporters of LD 946, An Act to Protect the Privacy of Online Customer Information, which would protect online privacy by requiring the internet service provider to obtain consent before selling or sharing customer data. With similar intent to the bill in Utah, which has established itself as one of the leaders in the nation in implementing a pro-consumer stance when it comes to data privacy, this bill here in Maine would start a process wherein the value that is put on broadband networks (based on our community principles of transparency, access and security) is commensurate with a respect for one’s own life, one’s own data.
Together, let us all do our part in ensuring such for ourselves and the next generation.
Fletcher Kittredge and Kerem Durdag are the CEO and COO respectively of GWI, an internet service provider based in Biddeford.