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When House Republicans passed a bill last week to scrap regulations preventing internet service providers (ISPs) from sharing (selling) your personal information, a hue and cry went up bemoaning the loss of privacy and inability of customers to control how the record of their internet browsing was used.

The three main players, AT&T Inc. (NYSE:TC), Comcast Corp. (NASDAQ:CMCSAC) and Verizon Communications Inc. (NYSE:VZC) immediately reacted by issuing statements in which they said they did not sell your browsing information and had intention of doing so. The problem is that almost nobody believes them.


A Matter Of Perceived Fairness

Under the rules about to be scrapped, ISPs would have to obtain your consent before using information they collect about your use of the internet. The ‘using’ part, by most accounts, would involve selling that information to the highest bidder.

Websites are held to a less rigid standard than ISPs and therein lies the crux of the problem. According to ISPs like AT&T and the others, including Republicans who supported the legislation that would scrap the rules, say existing rules unfairly give websites the ability to harvest (and thereby monetize) more data than IPSs.

ISPs Respond

The 3 major internet service providers each indicated they had no nefarious plans for the use of the information they gather to improve the quality of the services they provide, but each responded uniquely.

Comcast said it does not “sell ... broadband customers’ individual web browsing history.” The company insisted it did not do so before the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) rules were adopted and has no plans to do so even if the rules are scrapped.

AT&T took a different initial approach saying those critical of last week’s regulatory rollback were having a “fact-free debate.” The company said it safeguarded customer data “just fine” before the FCC rules and that the rules themselves created an unfair marketplace for ISPs.

Verizon, like AT&T, said scrapping the rules was necessary to achieve regulatory consistency. Verizon chief privacy officer Karen Zacharia said, “Verizon does not sell the personal web browsing history of our customers. We don’t do it and that’s the bottom line.” Then Zacharia added, “Consumers benefit and innovations flourish when there is one consistent consumer privacy framework that applies to all internet companies and users in the internet ecosystem.”


Data In The Mix

The meat of what ISPs can see (and now potentially sell) is called Consumer Proprietary Network Information, or CPNI. Basically that’s the information your ISP needs to connect you to the internet.

It consists of your IP address (where your computer or device is located and to whom it is registered), where you travel on the internet and how you and when you travel. This is actually quite a bit of information.

More specifically, your ISP knows what kinds of websites you visit, when you visit them and how long you stay. That could be valuable for marketing purposes and for determining what types of ads to send your way for maximum exposure to products and services in which you might be interested.

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