Wireless providers argue your web history isn’t ‘sensitive’ and they should be able to sell it

Internet providers are continuing to argue that they should be free to share and sell your web browsing history without permission because it isn’t “sensitive information.”

The latest group to make that argument is the CTIA, an industry association that represents AT&T, Verizon, T-Mobile, and Sprint, among others.

In a filing with the FCC last week, the CTIA wrote that “web browsing and app usage history are not ‘sensitive information,’” a claim the group justifies largely by saying the FCC failed to adequately prove that it is sensitive information, as the commission determined last year.

The filing is part of an ongoing fight around the FCC’s broadband privacy rules, which are currently in Republicans’ crosshairs in the House, Senate, and the commission itself.

The disagreement is around whether internet providers should be treated differently than web companies, like Facebook and Google. Internet providers argue that it’s unfair that the FCC’s rules make them get permission to share your browsing history, since other company’s don’t have to do that.

But consumer advocates rightly point out that, well, no other company can see your web browsing history outside of their own domain. Facebook can see everything you click on inside Facebook.com, for instance, but your internet provider can see nearly every site you visit.

Your web history can be extremely revealing — like a list of the places you visit, it can tell your internet provider, and any advertisers they sell that information to, what you’re interested in and who you are. That can be particularly concerning for people who want or need to access information that’s personally revealing in ways they’d rather not share with the entire world.

Since internet providers can’t really argue otherwise, they instead take issue with the idea that they’re able to see that much information in the first place. In its filing, the CTIA says it is “simply not true” that “ISPs have unique and comprehensive access to consumers’ online information.”

The CTIA writes that “ISPs have at best fractured and increasingly diminished visibility into users’ traffic” and that “the general trend is toward diminished ISP visibility into consumer activity online.”

That’s only true to a limited extent. Encryption is one of the big reasons they’re able to argue this, since encrypted sites prevent internet providers from seeing the exact page you’re visiting. But if you were to visit this encrypted link to a Recode article, your internet provider will still know that you visited Recode, even if they won’t be able to see the specific page it went to. That’s still revealing.

Unfortunately, it seems extremely likely that internet providers are going to win out on this argument, at least in the short term. At the tail end of the Obama administration, the FCC passed rules that would have prevented internet providers from sharing your web browsing history. But legislation in both chambers of Congress could quickly reverse it. And if Congress doesn’t get around to it, it sounds like FCC chairman Ajit Pai will just do it himself.

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