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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.

The Strange Reason Why It's Illegal to Take Nighttime Photos of the Eiffel Tower

The Eiffel Tower is one of the most-photographed landmarks on Earth, but if photographers aren't careful, snapping a picture of the Parisian tower at the wrong hour and sharing it in the wrong context could get them in legal trouble. As Condé Nast Traveler reports, the famous monument is partially protected under European copyright law.

In Europe, copyrights for structures like the Eiffel Tower expire 70 years after the creator's death. Gustave Eiffel died in 1923, which means the tower itself has been public domain since 1993. Tourists and professional photographers alike are free to publish and sell pictures of the tower taken during the day, but its copyright status gets a little more complicated after sundown.

The Eiffel Tower today is more than just the iron structure that was erected in the late 19th century: In 1985, it was outfitted with a nighttime lighting system consisting of hundreds of projectors, a beacon, and tens of thousands of light bulbs that twinkle every hour on the hour. The dazzling light show was designed by Pierre Bideau, and because the artist is alive, the copyright is still recognized and will remain so for at least several decades.

That being said, taking a selfie in front of the Eiffel Tower after dark and sharing it on Instagram won't earn you a visit from Interpol. The law mainly applies to photographers taking pictures for commercial gain. To make sure any pictures you take of the illuminated tower fall within the law, you can contact the site's operating company to request publishing permission and pay for rights. Or you can wait until the sun comes up to snap as many perfectly legal images of the Parisian icon as you please.

[h/t Condé Nast Traveler]

Hawaii Just Voted to Ban Sunscreen That Harms Coral

The widespread death of coral reefs across the planet's oceans in recent decades is the result of several factors—most of them human-made. Now, Hawaii's legislators have taken a major step toward keeping one notorious coral-killer out of its waters. As Gizmodo reports, Hawaii has passed the first law of its kind banning sunscreens with certain chemicals.

The compounds oxybenzone and octinoxate can be found in more than 3500 of the world's top sunscreen brands. Both serve a key role in chemical sunscreen formulas by protecting skin from UV rays, but once they've washed off into the water, they can have a devastating impact on marine life.

According to a 2015 study published in the journal Archives of Environmental Contamination and Toxicology, oxybenzone hurts coral in two ways: It prevents coral larvae from developing normally, and it poisons the symbiotic algae that reside in coral. These algae provide coral with an oxygen source and help clear out their waste, as well as giving reefs their vibrant appearance. If the algae abandon the coral, the reef accumulates waste and gradually turns white—a process know as bleaching. A 2016 study found that octinoxate in addition to oxybenzone can stunt the growth of baby coral.

Sunscreen brands like L’Oréal claim the evidence isn't strong enough to justify the ban, but Hawaii lawmakers felt differently: On Tuesday, May 1, 72 of the state's 76 legislators voted in favor of it. Democratic Governor David Ige has yet to sign the bill into law, but Hawaiian businesses are already clearing their shelves of chemical sunscreens in anticipation of it.

The waters of Hawaii are home to more than 410,000 acres of coral reefs. The island chain also attracts millions of sunscreen-slathered tourists each year, making it a natural spot for the world's first-ever ban on harmful chemical sunscreens. Of all the sunscreen that melts off swimmers' bodies when they enter the ocean, 14,000 tons of it ends up in coral reefs. Banning oxybenzone and octinoxate won't solve the coral bleaching epidemic completely—global warming and ocean acidification are the biggest culprits—but it is a start.

Even if you don't live in Hawaii, you can still choose to buy sunscreen that's easier on the environment. Look for sunscreen brands with simple formulas that feature biodegradable, non-nano-size ingredients (super-tiny nanoparticles in sunscreen are thought to harm marine invertebrates). Instead of these compounds, the brand Stream2Sea uses titanium dioxide coated with alumina to protect against the Sun's rays.

[h/t Gizmodo]


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