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Rep. Daniel Zolnikov, R-Billings

Zolnikov

Montana state legislators are considering a proposed law that would protect consumers from privacy invasions by internet service providers, or ISPs — the cable and telecom companies that sell us access to the web.

House Bill 457 would basically keep ISPs from doing the online equivalent of listening in on your private phone calls or opening your mail.

Sounds like common sense, right?

Indeed, Montana legislators shouldn’t even have to bother. In October 2016 the Federal Communications Commission issued broadband privacy rules for the whole country, requiring that ISPs get explicit permission from customers before using or selling their browsing history and other sensitive information to marketers and other third parties.

But in April 2017 the U.S. Congress repealed these rules. So, for the foreseeable future, state and local lawmakers are the ones who can fill this gaping hole in the rules that protect our fundamental right to privacy.

If you haven’t spent much time thinking about online privacy, now is the time. ISPs are unique players in the online world, and the rules governing their behavior are truly a matter of great urgency.

Why? For starters, it’s almost impossible for consumers to avoid snooping by ISPs. You can generally take steps to reduce your privacy risks when you’re online. And you can delete your social media accounts if you’re concerned about the misuse of your personal data by those companies. But consumers who want to use the internet have no choice but to use an ISP.

What’s more, because all your online activities flow through them, ISPs can see nearly everywhere you go online and everything you do — enabling them to assemble a highly detailed and personal profile of your life.

The potential contents of such profiles go far beyond your web browsing and entertainment habits. It could include details pulled from the substance of your interactions with friends, family, doctors, lawyers, and financial professionals; political activities; job inquiries; dating site history; and even — because mobile ISPs have access to location data — a minute-by-minute record of your precise physical whereabouts whenever you carry a smartphone.

Of course, ISPs could then turn around and sell this trove of personal info about you, not just to aggressive marketers, but potentially to anyone willing to pay.

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Would ISPs actually do this? Some ISPs are known to have sold their customers’ location, demographic, and browsing history data to marketers; and some have built their own targeted advertising networks to parallel those of Google and Facebook.

Currently, most ISPs give customers only limited control over the use of their own data, and these options tend to be buried in fine print and difficult to use. And ISPs have little incentive to develop more consumer-friendly privacy policies on their own because they typically face little competition: According to the FCC, 73 percent of Americans have access to two or fewer broadband internet providers; 43 percent have access to one or none at all.

What makes all this especially frustrating for many consumers is that ISPs are busily inventing clever ways to package up and sell our personal information even though we already pay them for access to the internet.

The good news is your state legislators will soon be in a position to do something about this problem. If HB457 becomes law, Montana ISPs will no longer be allowed to sell this treasure trove of personal data unless you explicitly agree to let them. And, importantly, they won’t be allowed to charge you extra if you say no.

This is a key moment for the protection of our basic right to privacy. In the coming days and weeks, Montana has a chance to be a national leader, so urge your representatives to support HB457.

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* I understand and agree that registration on or use of this site constitutes agreement to its user agreement and privacy policy.

Editor's note: HB457, sponsored by Rep. Daniel Zolnikov, R-Billings, was passed out of House Judiciary Committee Friday and must be approved by the full House this week to meet a transmittal deadline. Messages for lawmakers may be left with the legislative information desk by phoning 406-444-4800. Katherine McInnis is a policy counsel for the nonprofit member organization Consumer Reports.

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