US Congress votes to put people's web browser histories up for sale

The US House of Representatives today approved a measure that will allow internet service providers to sell their customers' web browsing history to advertisers.

The Senate approved the legislation last week, with all 50 Republican senators voting for it and all 48 Democrats voting against.

It now heads to President Donald Trump for his approval or veto but the White House has already signalled it will rubber-stamp the law change as part of its general push to cut regulations.

"I have a simple question: what the heck are you thinking?" Rep. Michael Capuano (D-Mass.) said in the debate on the House floor. "What is in your mind? Why would you want to give up any of your personal information to a faceless corporation for the sole purpose of them selling it? Give me one good reason why Comcast should know my mother’s medical problems."

Mr Capuano said that ISPs can discover customers' medical conditions by seeing what illnesses and drugs they search for on the Internet.

"Just last week I bought underwear on the Internet. Why should you know what size I take or the colour?" Mr Capuano said. ISPs could take that information and sell it to underwear companies who might show him advertisements, he said.

"These companies are not going broke. The internet is not in jeopardy," Mr Capuano said. "It’s none of their information, it’s none of their business."

Mr Capuano challenged Republicans to "leave Capitol Hill for five minutes" and "find three people on the street" who want ISPs collecting and selling their browsing histories.

The measure has attracted relatively little media attention in the US, eclipsed by the battle over Obamacare.

The same goes for another Trump administration internet project: its bid to remove net neutrality or the principle that all data should be treated equally. The practical consequence would be US consumers paying more for services like Netflix, which some telcos and ISPs consider "freeload" on their network investments (an alternative take is that streaming video services help to spruik demand for data, allowing ISPs to upsell their customers on to more expensive monthly plans).

NBR has asked Privacy Commissioner John Edwards for "could it happen here?" comment on web browser histories. Spark does have a unit called Qrious that collects (anonymised) user data then sells it to clients including Ateed. But this service is based around tracking mobile phone users' movements in the real world, not their surfing online.

On the net neutrality question, the pending overhaul of the Telecommunications Act appears to hold no threat. A key element is that the New Zealand situation differs from the US because Telecom's network unit — the company now known as Chorus — was spun off in 2011. Here, retail ISPs are seeing the likes of Netflix bundles as a value-add to lure subscribers rather than a target for fees for priority data.

Earlier, InternetNZ boss Jordan Carter warned US changes in net neutrality could affect New Zealand regardless. Many web services are based in the US and could slow down if net neutrality is thrown out and a pay-up-or-get-data-throttled regime is introduced.

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