Despite a new law allowing online gathering and sale of personal information, local internet service providers and Ashland Fiber Network all pledge they have not and never will do it.
“It’s always been our way," says Jim Teece, owner of Project A and Ashland Home Net. "It’s not because of the law change. We treat our customers' information as private and don’t sell it or give it out.”
David Hand, CEO of Computer Country, based in Medford and serving this and neighboring counties, said his company also doesn’t record or sell information from browsing.
Jeff Roden, co-owner of InfoStructure, says his company does not plan to sell or distribute customer information or browsing history, and “we don’t collect people’s data.”
Ashland Fiber Network is provider for Jeffnet, Ashland Home Net, InfoStructure and Computer Country. Mark Holden, executive director of AFN, says it does not do data mining and won’t carry anyone who does.
“It’s because we want to respect everyone’s privacy,” says Holden. “Local providers are going to be a lot more sensitive because customers are interested in privacy.”
The law, signed April 2 by President Trump, “gives any ISP the right to sell your internet history to the highest bidder,” says The Guardian, a respected British paper. ISPs are now able to sell everything they know about users' internet habits without their approval and without informing them, it adds. This includes not only users' personal information but their browsing history, enabling them to draw a picture of users' kids, politics, sexual leanings, and even when they are home. This data is extremely valuable to retailers, it notes, and can be sold globally for many tens of billions of dollars.
If other providers are able to buy and learn users' browser history, they may be able to access sensitive information, such as browsing about unemployment insurance, abortion help, STD cures and other items that could make users look bad and hamper a job search or other goals.
“If a woman looks at options for dealing with a pregnancy,” says Hand, “would you want your family or employer to know about it? What would this do to you? We don’t know who is buying this.”
However, says Teece, the upside of the rules change is that it makes users aware of their privacy needs — and makes them ask what parts of their privacy they want to shield and how to do it.
“We’ve had a flood of calls since this happened,” says Teece. “One good thing is that people are more aware of their privacy. They’ve used the internet openly and freely, with Facebook, music, TV, but everything you do is trapped by the company you do business with. People will wake up to that fact and say, ‘should I check into it?’"
Teece teaches at Southern Oregon University and says it’s a “hot topic."
"Say they’re looking for a backpack. When they go to Amazon next time, they show you backpacks. How do they know? Because all the information is being shared — and for a fee … It’s being shared between companies.”
Users can look at these as helpful, says Hand, or as “a creepy invasion of privacy.”
The danger is such, says Teece, that “we need legislation to protect us. Say you’re curious about a new cancer treatment, so your insurance company notices, and that doesn’t feel right. It’s a big philosophical issue. What kind of legislation needs to be put in place as we wrap this thing called the internet around our lives? We can’t just say no one can do anything about it.”
He adds, “I’ve read their (Charter and other national providers) privacy statements, and it says they can use your data with their partners and you can also opt out.”
Charter’s online statement says it considers all personally identifiable information in their records to be confidential. It says they collect it for better service, billing and collection, upgrades, security and so on. Then it gets into lengthy legalese that says such information can include relatives’ names, financial profiles, Social Security number, bank account and credit card information.
It says it will disclose this information if you consent or if it’s required by a legal process or if it’s necessary to carry out their business activities or for mailing lists “or other purposes.” It adds, “Specifically, federal law allows Charter to disclose personally identifiable information to third parties.” It says they may change the agreement at any time and if the customer continues to use the service, “that will be considered consent of the policy.”
The new law hands telecom regulation over from the Federal Trade Commission to the Federal Communications Commission, which is requiring opt-in measures for the most sensitive information, including Social Security numbers.
Teece says the giant nationwide telecom corporations usually provide cable along with internet, and while smaller, local ISPs may offer more personal service and better privacy, they can’t compete with the marketing that big providers can aim at them.
“These multi-billion-dollar companies make these laws," Teece says. "There is nothing in it for us. They get all the benefit. My students live in that world, but it’s a new world to older people. These billion-dollar companies are winning. They’re moving into our valley. I warned everyone about the homogenization of our community, building a cookie-cutter culture. It’s scary and hard.”
Reach Ashland freelance writer John Darling at firstname.lastname@example.org.