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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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The Facts Behind That $5 Billion in 'Forgiven' Student Loan Debt
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The New York Times created a considerable stir on July 17 by detailing a widespread student loan repayment crisis. According to the paper, one of the largest holders of private loans, National Collegiate Student Loan Trusts, has been struggling to provide documentation that proves it owns the $5 billion in delinquent accounts that it’s been attempting to collect. Without that paperwork, dozens of lawsuits brought against defaulting borrowers are being dismissed.

A lack of a paper trail is never a good thing for the plaintiff in attempting to collect a debt. But it’s not exactly great news for the borrower, either. 

Here’s why: First, it’s helpful to understand how a typical chain of custody works for private student loans. (Federal loans, which typically have more forgiving terms, are a separate issue entirely.) Banks and other lenders offer loans to applicants, then turn around and sell bundles of those loans to a depositor. That depositor will offer the loans to an umbrella organization like National Collegiate, which is comprised of 15 private trusts holding the paper on more than 800,000 loans.

This lengthy chain of custody is where the problems begin. Because loans pass through several hands, it’s not always clear who has retained the documentation needed by courts to prove that National Collegiate is the owner of the debt they’re attempting to collect from a borrower in default. As a result, judges tasked with these cases often have no choice but to dismiss them.

That’s led to a series of headlines about $5 billion in “forgiven” debt, which may sound comforting to someone burdened with a towering student loan at exorbitant interest rates. However, as several attorneys speaking to the media have pointed out, it’s not that simple. The cases that have been dismissed were in court because the borrower was already in default. In situations where National Collegiate can prove ownership of the debt, those debtors are facing wage garnishment and a negative impact on their credit score. Simply defaulting on a loan and hoping you happen to be one of the people whose paperwork is incomplete is a dangerous form of wishful thinking.

In the event you had no choice but to default and might benefit from National Collegiate's poor record-keeping, you may not walk away unscathed. According to debt relief attorney Daniel Gamez, a student borrower who sees his or her case dismissed is not facing a clean slate. National Collegiate is fighting so many defaulted loans that they may choose to drop cases based on logistical issues like witness scheduling. Still, even if the lawsuit is dropped, National Collegiate may have the option to refile it at a later date—this time armed with the documentation and resources they need. And any debt, even if it’s been declared unenforceable, may still affect your credit score.

Ultimately, whether or not National Collegiate can produce paperwork doesn’t change the fact that a borrower has a student loan that they’ve agreed to repay. As a creditor, National Collegiate is likely to take every legal measure available in order to collect on that debt. While those amounts may be “forgiven” in court, they’re not likely to be forgotten.

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Exhumation Confirms Gravesite of World's Fair Killer H.H. Holmes
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It’s a sordid true crime tale that has few peers. By 1893, the year of the Chicago World’s Fair, a man named H.H. Holmes had converted a sprawling property into an amusement house of murder, filled with secret passages, gas chambers, ovens, and the bodies of young women who made the mistake of booking a room.

Holmes eventually confessed to over two dozen murders and was sentenced to death by hanging in 1896. His body was tossed into a plot at Holy Cross Cemetery near Philadelphia. But ever since then, there has been speculation that Holmes somehow cheated death and may not have been buried there at all. Those rumors can now officially be laid to rest as researchers have confirmed that the remains buried at Holmes's gravesite do in fact belong to the serial killer, according to the AP.

In May, NBC Chicago 5 reported that two of Holmes’s great-grandchildren had persuaded a Pennsylvania court to allow the inspection of their relative’s body in the hope that DNA testing would settle the issue of whether Holmes faked his own death once and for all.

According to newspaper accounts of the era, Holmes requested that his coffin be laid over cement, then topped off with more of the same. That led to a belief that Holmes had somehow eluded his appointment with the noose by offering bribes to law enforcement and had his tomb sealed to prevent any investigation into the matter. Other accounts, including one from the Chicago Tribune on May 8, 1896, appeared certain it was Holmes (real name: Herman Webster Mudgett) who was hung by his neck.

The definitive answer came with assistance from the University of Pennsylvania's Anthropology Department, which agreed to assist Holmes's descendants. The results of that testing were confirmed earlier this week on the series finale of American Ripper, a History Channel series that documented the exhumation and the scientists' search for the truth.

University of Pennsylvania anthropologist Samantha Cox, who was part of the team, said it was a difficult job. Even though his body had decomposed, because of Holmes's very specific burial requests, his clothes were almost perfectly intact, as was his ever-present mustache.

“It stank,” Cox said. “Once it gets to that point we can’t do anything with it. We can’t test it, can’t get any DNA out of it.” Instead, Cox and her colleagues had to use Holmes's teeth to identify him.

[h/t AP]

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