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5 Things You Should Know About Congress's ISP Vote

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On Tuesday, the U.S. House of Representatives voted to eliminate rules blocking Internet Service Providers (ISPs) from selling personal information about their customers. This follows a Senate vote on the same subject. Here's what you need to know about the vote, the rules, and what happens next.

1. IN 2016, THE FCC MADE NEW RULES TO PROTECT CONSUMERS' INFORMATION.

In 2016, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) developed a series of rules around what ISPs could do with their customers' information. The rules were intended to force ISPs to keep sensitive information private, unless their customers specifically opted in to let this data be sold. The category of "sensitive information" includes things like your web browsing history, Social Security number, location, health data, app usage, children's information, and contents of email and other communications.

In addition to the sensitive information, the 2016 rules also specified that ISPs could collect and sell non-sensitive information, as long as customers were notified and given a chance to opt out. (This is similar to how credit card companies notify consumers of what data they collect and sell, and specify how to opt out.) Examples of non-sensitive information are a customer's email address and tier of internet service.

Another part of the rules were requirements that ISPs implement strong protections for consumer data and disclose security breaches (hacking incidents) to consumers.

The rules were adopted on October 27, 2016 against the objections of Republicans on the commission. (The FCC vote approving the rules was 3-2, along party lines, with Democrats in the majority.) The rules would have gone into effect at the end of 2017.

2. THIS WEEK, REPUBLICANS VOTED TO REMOVE THOSE RULES.

With the change in administrations, Republican Ajit Pai became Chairman of the FCC and set about reversing the 2016 rules. (That's Pai pictured above, testifying before the Senate Judiciary Committee's Privacy, Technology and the Law Subcommittee.) Resolutions were approved by the Senate and then the House eliminating the privacy rules. These votes were just as partisan as those that established the rules, passing with only Republican votes. (Some Republicans did vote against the bill, but no Democrats voted for it.)

The key argument of the rules' opponents is that non-ISP businesses operating online (including social networks like Facebook) are not restricted by these rules. This means that if Facebook (for example) wants to sell data it has about you, it is not subject to these rules because Facebook is not an ISP. Major web companies are therefore operating at a competitive advantage over ISPs.

The counter-argument is that ISPs are special because they can peek at everything you do online. They own the wire (or cell tower) that your data passes through, and they can watch what goes through it. Companies like Facebook don't have this level of access—and thus, they don't have this level of regulation.

These votes came under the authority of the Congressional Review Act, which enables Congress to remove regulations by a "joint resolution of disapproval."

3. NEXT, PRESIDENT TRUMP EITHER SIGNS OR VETOES THE BILL.

The next step is for President Trump to weigh in. It's widely expected that he will sign the bill, making it law and thus nullifying the FCC rules in question before they go into effect. It's important to note that the new FCC rules never went into effect, so ISPs have been allowed to operate free of them all along. The change, assuming the bill is signed into law, is to block the rules in the future. (One side effect of using the Congressional Review Act to reverse these rules is that the FCC will not be able to set similar rules in the future without Congressional involvement.)

4. WHO WANTS TO BUY THIS DATA ANYWAY?

The most obvious buyer of consumer data is advertisers. If advertisers have access to specific data about individuals, they can target their ads far more effectively. For instance, if someone is trying to buy a new car—perhaps indicated by browsing car listings online—rival car dealers want to know that.

Some activists have vowed to purchase data about members of Congress and publish it in protest. Although the bill is not yet law, it’s not impossible that this could happen.

5. WHAT CAN CONSUMERS DO ABOUT IT?

The key things consumers can do are: contact their ISPs and inquire about opting out of data sharing (to the extent the ISP allows it); learn about encryption measures to prevent ISPs from snooping; and consider using a VPN (Virtual Private Network) to encrypt all web traffic.

Using a VPN is controversial because it routes data through another company's servers, which means that company must be fully trustworthy. VPN technology also slows down web access, due to the extra routing step. Finally, as WIRED points out, sites like Netflix block VPNs to keep people from streaming movies and shows that aren't licensed in their area.

As a general rule, privacy-sensitive consumers should look for the "lock" icon (indicating a secure connection) within their browsers in order to ensure their browsing is encrypted. There are even plugins for some browsers that automate this process.

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8 Laws Way Past Their Prime
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It took a few centuries, but Canada is finally allowing sorcery again. In June 2017, an updated justice bill was submitted for approval that seeks to lift prohibitions on things that are no longer relevant to 21st century citizens, like dueling (fine provided it’s nonviolent), practicing witchcraft (knock yourself out), or mocking religion (possibly tasteless, but free speech is free speech).

With Canadians getting more progressive in their thinking, it might be time to look at a few other laws that once served a purpose but have now been rendered obsolete by common sense. Here are eight codes that are overdue for an overturn.

1. NO WARMING UP YOUR CAR // IOWA

In 1913, Iowa responded to the burgeoning motor vehicle industry by declaring it illegal to leave a running car unattended. The likely thinking was that the law would prevent thieves from making off with a brand-new Model T. Over 100 years later, it’s devolved into being a total nuisance. Iowans battling cold winters often start their cars with remote starters to get them warm enough to enter, making lawbreakers of virtually everyone heading for work on a cold Midwestern morning. While it’s still on the books, police in Des Moines told WHOTV.com in early 2017 that they don’t have the manpower or inclination to enforce it.

2. MINORS CAN’T PLAY PINBALL // SOUTH CAROLINA

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From the 1940s through the 1970s, several major U.S. cities had a bone to pick with pinball. The analog arcade game was perceived as a form of gambling, with lawmakers worried that juveniles could be driven to skip school and steal pocket change in order to feed their addiction. Pro-pinball constituents argued it was a game of skill rather than chance, and many areas relaxed their stance. But not South Carolina. To this day, it remains illegal for anyone under the age of 18 to draw the plunger and engage in a game. A bill seeking to repeal this minor infraction is currently under review.

3. A BAN ON SHACKING UP // MICHIGAN

Do you dream of living in Michigan? Do you also plan on cohabitating with your unwed partner in a lewd and lascivious manner? You’d better think twice, unless you like the sound of a $1000 fine and a year in jail. A long-outdated law is still active in Michigan that makes it a misdemeanor for unmarried couples to live together. While it’s not enforced—perhaps authorities would have to catch you in the act—it’s still an active prohibition, and one that has been repeatedly introduced for repeal over the years.

4. VENEREAL DISEASE DISCRIMINATION // NEW JERSEY

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With the best interests of the public in mind, New Jersey once decreed that they would place limitations on where people with venereal diseases could live and work. This likely stemmed from a more primitive understanding of how diseases like syphilis could be spread. Despite more advanced thinking, the law survived multiple attempts by the state’s Law Revision Commission to be repealed before it was finally dismissed in late 2014. The bill also struck down a ban on detaining homing pigeons, if you’re into that sort of thing.

5. THE HIGHLY LENIENT CHILD-ABANDONMENT LAW // NEBRASKA

Intended to provide for parents wishing to abandon their infant children without criminal reprimand, Nebraska’s “safe haven” law became something of a national outrage in 2008, when it was publicized that a number of people had dropped off children as old as 17 at area hospitals. Just before the law was repealed to set a strict age limit to infants 30 days old or younger, CNN.com reported that a man flew in from Florida to take advantage of the law and deposited his teenage son in the state.

6. THE FOOTLOOSE LAW // NEW YORK CITY

People dance in a club

In the 1920s, New York City passed a law that prohibited patrons from dancing in nightclubs or other businesses that failed to obtain a cabaret license from the city. The idea was to enforce Prohibition through indirect means, but the law managed to survive throughout the decades while alternately being enforced, ignored, or mocked. Despite a consistent outcry from artist advocacy groups, it's still in effect.

7. REGULATING POSSESSION OF ADULT TOYS // TEXAS

While Texas may be generous when it comes to owning, carrying, and shooting firearms, lawmakers took a more conservative approach to regulating sex toys—specifically, owning too many of them. Texas law stipulates that no one shall own or "promote" more than six "obscene devices." The law, enacted in 1973 during the height of anti-obscenity legislation, is believed to be directed at entertainment or stage performers and may allow for exemptions if the toys are for medical or law enforcement purposes.

8. STRICT HALLOWEEN PROTOCOL // REHOBOTH BEACH, DELAWARE

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You think Halloween is about having fun? It can be—provided you adhere to the strict protocol of Rehoboth Beach, which doesn’t tolerate even a single millisecond of mischief. To help keep kids and their candy bags moving along, the town allows just a small window of trick-or-treating: Parents and kids under 14 can only knock on doors from 6 to 8 p.m. Halloween night and no later. Don’t like it? If Halloween falls on a Sunday, then you don’t get to go that day at all—the festivities, such as they are, are rescheduled to the day prior.

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The Reason Police Officers Tap Your Taillight When They Pull You Over
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Asking a driver for their license and registration is common procedure from police officers during traffic stops. There’s another practice that was once standard across the force but is more of a mystery to the people being pulled over: While approaching a driver’s window, officers will sometimes touch a car's taillight. It's a behavior that dates back decades, though there's no reason to be concerned if it happens at your next traffic stop.

Before cameras were installed on the dashboards of most police cars, tapping the taillight was an inconspicuous way for officers to leave behind evidence of the encounter, according to The Law Dictionary. If something were to happen to the officer during the traffic stop, their interaction with the driver could be traced back to the fingerprints left on the vehicle. This would help other police officers track down a missing member of the force even without video proof of a crime.

The action also started as a way for officers to spook drivers before reaching their window. A pulled-over motorist with a car full of illegal drugs or weapons might scramble to hide any incriminating materials before the officer arrives. The surprise of hearing a knock on their taillight might disrupt this process, increasing their likelihood of getting caught.

Today the risks of this strategy are thought to outweigh the benefits. Touching a taillight poses an unnecessary distraction for officers, not to mention it can give away their position, making them more vulnerable to foul play. And with dash cams now standard in most squad cars, documenting each incident with fingerprints isn’t as necessary as it once was. It’s for these reasons that some police agencies now discourage taillight tapping. But if you see it at your next traffic stop, that doesn’t mean the officer is extra suspicious of you—just that it’s a hard habit to break.

[h/t The Law Dictionary]

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