The US House of Representatives has voted overwhelmingly in favour of scrapping Federal Communications Commission (FCC) rules barring internet service providers from selling their subscribers' web-browsing data.
If the vote becomes law, internet service providers (ISPs) in the US will soon be able to make an extra $50bn or so per year from selling the information to the highest bidders - without even having to ask for subscribers permission first.
The Republican-controlled House of Representatives passed the resolution overnight, overturning a rule only introduced under the Obama administration, which meant that user permission was required before such data could be sold to third-parties. Any breach would be reported as a hack.
The problem is that there's almost no clarity on what ISPs can and can't do. There's a clause about being 'good and responsible', but it's wide open to interpretation.
What's more, the information doesn't even have to be anonymised and there's every possibility that one person in a household could be associated with the web browsing habits of others in the same household.
The legal changes will greatly benefit ISPs in the US, particularly the giants that dominate internet access, such as Comcast and Verizon, who will be able to make tens of billions of dollars extra every year simply by selling the web-browsing data to the highest bidder. As soon as President Trump signs the law - and he's indicated his support for it - then people's web-browsing data will become public property.
Critics of the bill have been vocal in their concern over what would happen if the bill passed.
"The consequences of passing this resolution are clear: broadband providers like AT&T, Comcast, and others will be able to sell your personal information to the highest bidder without your permission," said Democratic Party Representative Anna Eshoo. "And no one will be able to protect you, not even the Federal Trade Commission that our friends on the other side of the aisle keep talking about."
One likely winner will be virtual private network (VPN) providers who have already started to see an increase in the number of people interested in their services as they look for ways to shield their privacy.
NordVPN, which has already seen an 86 per cent spike in enquiries, is not surprised.
Chief marketing office CMO Marty Kamden said: "Such spikes in user interest in VPNs are not unusual - whenever a government announces an increase in surveillance, people turn to privacy tools. We saw similar spikes back in November when the UK passed the law dubbed ‘The Snoopers Charter' or after the revelation about CIA surveillance by the Wikileaks.
"We are worried about the global tendency to invade Internet users' privacy, and we are glad we can offer a reliable tool that helps people keep their information private. We want to stress that privacy tools are needed every day, not only during such moments - to protect yourself from ever-growing online security threats and increasing surveillance."
The new regime is also expected to turn its attention to net neutrality a later in the year.
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