The student newspaper of Bucks County Community College

The Centurion

The student newspaper of Bucks County Community College

The Centurion

The student newspaper of Bucks County Community College

The Centurion

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Bucks Townships Take On Comcast in Fight for Privacy

Will Americans’ online privacy rights be decided not in Washington DC or Silicon Valley, but in Bucks County?

Three local townships – Middletown, Lower Makefield and Falls – seek to restrict the power of internet service providers (ISPs), such as Verizon, Comcast and AT&T to sell users’ browsing history and other private information to advertisers and other third parties, after the Trump Administration and congressional Republicans reneged on Obama-era rules prohibiting ISPs from doing so in April.

Bucks may be ahead of the pack by a large margin. An ordinance passed on October 17 made Falls Township the second local government – after Seattle – in the country to prevent ISPs from sharing personal information with third parties.

If Lower Makefield and Middletown’s ordinances were passed tomorrow, they would be the third and fourth local governments in the country to pass such legislation. Bristol councilman Pat Antonello in Bristol plans to begin a process there as well.

In taking the initiative early, Bucks’ local governments have embedded themselves into a thicket of potential complaints and even lawsuits by powerful interest groups such as the Association of National Advertisers, who along with four other industry groups has teamed up with Comcast and Verizon to oppose the measures.

“Residents’ personal information…must be secured and free from being shared as the council can find possible,” argued Amy Strouse, the Middletown councilwoman who proposed that township’s legislation.

The moves by Falls, Middletown and Lower Makefield also highlight the increased activism of local governments in response to the deregulatory mood in Washington under Trump.

“I think it is important to remember that none of this would be necessary had the law not been changed on the national level,” Strouse added.

“We warned the ISP industry that if they removed the national regulation, the states would step in,” said Ernesto Falcon, a representative for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, an international digital rights group.

In opposing the measure, Comcast, Verizon and other groups claim that if every township were to pass laws requiring some form of internet privacy, they would create a byzantine patchwork of differing regulations across communities that would be difficult for businesses to adapt to.

Additionally, they point out the fact that they do not currently share customers’ personal information.

“At Comcast, we respect and protect our customers’ personal information and have already publicly committed to extensive and legally enforceable privacy promises, including not to share customers’ sensitive information without affirmative, opt-in consent,” said the company’s Vice President of Communications Jennifer Bilotta, in a statement provided to the Centurion.

Strouse believes that if different local governments work together, they can create a relatively consistent set of rules.

“There is room to cooperate more broadly on a regional basis. If we could harmonize regional ordinances more, I think it would be for the good.”

Middletown has therefore carefully studied the ordinances passed in Falls and planned in Lower Makefield. “There is real momentum in lower Bucks County now,” Strouse noted. “Ideally, we can come up with some sort of regional solution.”

Strouse has stressed that she is not an enemy of the cable companies, but she wants to ensure her constituents’ privacy, explaining, “Rather than move forward on our own, we should bring the representatives of Comcast and Verizon to the table so we can work cooperatively and not in an adversarial position.”

Nonetheless, the companies will likely oppose local initiatives that limit their ability to do what they want with their customers’ data.

“Guaranteed, every single cable company and telecom company will throw money at a challenge even if they are illegal. They will argue that they have an interstate product,” Falcon said.

The constitution gives the federal government the power to regulate interstate commerce. However, according to Falcon, townships’ traditional “franchise authority” – which local governments often use to establish local channels for sports and town meetings – would allow them to establish rules protecting the privacy of residents.

At the same time, though, localizing requirements were weakened by the introduction of Fios similar services, Falcon said.

“It really diminished how local companies can control their networks,” he finished.

Despite these potential pitfalls, Bucks townships are pushing forward with their attempts to protect their citizens’ data from third parties. According to USA Today, ever since deregulation was signed off by Trump, ISPs “have the right to track us while we are online and gather private information – including information about where we are, our finances, our health status, and much more – and sell it to marketers without our permission.”

One way to prevent this, Strouse argues, is to create an “opt-out” option for customers to consider when using an ISP service.

“We are currently working to establish a process whereby we can work with our ISPs to create a privacy ordinance that has reasonable, streamlined opt-out procedures,” Strouse said.

Asked about how a potential opt-out method would work, Strouse responded, “we would like to come together to establish a process that is not overly burdensome on either the companies or our township staff, and yet locks into place privacy protections that are currently completely voluntary.”

Falcon explained that township would prefer “something where when you sign into the service, you are given a choice [to opt out]. Once you choose, that’s it.”

Any dispute that reaches court could potentially set a precedent, not just in Bucks County, but for the whole of America. Currently, the Trump Administration is attempting to weaken so-called net neutrality regulations, which prevent ISPs from discriminating among websites or charging money to access portions of the internet.

“We’re in uncharted territory. The federal agency is eliminating all pretense of law,” Falcon said.

The Intercept, an online newspaper, revealed in May that cable companies were writing Republican talking points for eliminating net neutrality, a move that has been violently opposed by websites such as Google, Wikipedia and Twitter, as well as by Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the World Wide Web.

The companies involved say that they do not intend to compromise the privacy of their customers. “Comcast values our customers’ trust and will continue to protect the privacy and security of their personal information,” Bilotta’s statement read.

Meanwhile, Falls Township amended their ordinance at the last minute in response to a warning by Comcast and Verizon that a requirement for the companies to immediately comply with the regulations would break the township’s franchise agreement. The ordinance will thus take effect in the end of next year.

“The next three to four months coming up will be tough,” sighed Falcon.