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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.


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.


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."


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.)


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.


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.

This Just In
How Much Does a Missing Comma Cost? For One Dairy in Maine, $5 Million

Copy editors aren’t the only ones who should respect the value of the Oxford comma. Since 2014, a dairy company in Portland, Maine has been embroiled in a lawsuit whose success or failure hinged on the lack of an Oxford comma in state law. The suit is finally over, as The New York Times reports, and die-hard Oxford comma-lovers won (as did the delivery drivers who brought the suit).

The drivers’ class action lawsuit claimed that Oakhurst Dairy owed them years in back pay for overtime that the company argues they did not qualify for under state law. The law reads that employees in the following fields do not qualify for the time-and-a-half overtime pay that other workers are eligible for if they work more than 40 hours a week:

The canning, processing, preserving, freezing, drying, marketing, storing, packing for shipment or distribution of:

(1) Agricultural produce;

(2) Meat and fish product; and

(3) Perishable foods

Notice that it says the “packing for shipment or distribution” and not “packing for shipment, or distribution of.” This raised a legal question: Should dairy distributors get overtime if they didn’t pack and distribute the product?

The case eventually made its way to the United States Court of Appeals for the First Circuit, which ruled that the lack of comma made the law ambiguous enough to qualify the drivers for their overtime pay, overturning the lower court’s verdict that the state legislature clearly intended for distribution to be part of the exemption list on its own.

In early February, the company agreed to pay $5 million to the drivers, ending the lawsuit—and, sadly, preventing us from ever hearing the Supreme Court’s opinions on the Oxford comma.

Future delivery drivers for the dairy won’t be so lucky. Since the comma kerfuffle began, the Maine legislature has rewritten the statute. Instead of embracing the Oxford comma, though—as we at Mental Floss would recommend—lawmakers decided to double down on their semicolons. It now reads:

The canning; processing; preserving; freezing; drying; marketing; storing; packing for shipment; or distributing of:

(1) Agricultural produce;

(2) Meat and fish products; and

(3) Perishable foods.

Come on, guys. What do you have against the serial comma?

[h/t The New York Times]

California's Proposed Straw Ban Won't Actually Threaten Restaurant Employees With Jail Time

Drinking straws are easy to find at eateries, but not so much in recycling bins. To curb pollution, California lawmaker Ian Calderon introduced a bill in January that would reduce plastic straw use in restaurants. Thanks to the measure's wording, it caused an uproar, Munchies reports. As it currently reads, restaurant employees would face $1000 fines or jail sentences of up to six months if they provide a straw to a customer unasked.

Calderon, the majority leader of the California State Assembly, says that the bill wasn’t meant to be so harsh. He chalked its language up to miscommunication, explaining to The Washington Post that the California Office of Legislative Counsel drafted the bill into a state health code section with jail penalties. They didn’t have time to fix it, and Calderon planned to amend the bill’s wording before it reached a committee. (He still intends to remove its criminal penalties.)

Backlash aside (one Republican politician called for people to mail Calderon their straws), Calderon simply wanted to introduce a measure that required sit-down restaurants to adhere to a straws-upon-request policy. Fast-food restaurants, cafés, and delis wouldn’t have to adhere to the guideline.

“We need to create awareness around the issue of one-time use plastic straws and its detrimental effects on our landfills, waterways, and oceans,” Calderon said in a statement. “AB 1884 is not ban on plastic straws. It is a small step towards curbing our reliance on these convenience products, which will hopefully contribute to a change in consumer attitudes and usage.”

Straws play a small—yet undeniable—part in our world’s ever-growing plastic waste problem. They typically wind up in landfills, and can end up in the ocean if proper disposal methods aren’t followed. This harms marine life, as fish and other creatures can mistake bits of broken-down straws for food.

Cities in California, including Manhattan Beach, San Luis Obispo, and Santa Cruz, have implemented their own versions of a straw ban. Berkeley and Los Angeles might soon follow suit, according to the San Francisco Chronicle. As for Calderon’s bill: It still needs to be revised, voted on, and approved. So nothing’s set in stone (or plastic) for now.

[h/t Munchies]


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