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Lobbying by Santa Rosa’s Sonic fails to halt bill that weakens internet privacy

Major internet service providers scored a victory Tuesday when the U.S. House narrowly voted to repeal privacy rules designed to protect the browsing history of their customers.

The measure, which passed by a 215-205 vote, will repeal a rule issued by the Federal Communications Commission last year that required providers to inform their customers about what type of information they collect, how they use it and with whom they share it. Internet providers now will also be able to enter the $83 billion online advertising market and use a customer’s browsing history to target their ad strategy.

The bill has already passed the Senate by a 50-48 vote and President Donald Trump has indicated he will sign it.

Both local congressmen, Rep. Mike Thompson, D-St. Helena, and Rep. Jared Huffman, D-San Rafael, voted against it.

Local telecom company Sonic.net fought a pitched battle against overturning the rules, which were put in place by the Obama administration last year.

The Santa Rosa-based company has carved out a niche competing against Comcast, AT&T and Charter Communications as an alternative provider in an industry where monopoly in high-speed service is often the case.

“I think most consumers assume that their use of the internet today is private,” said Dane Jasper, the Sonic.net CEO who co-founded the company in 1994, before terms such as WiFi and search engine were common.

“The idea that your service provider can be monitoring all your use is, frankly, pretty creepy,” Jasper said.

In fact, Sonic has used its privacy policy as a key selling point in attracting subscribers, which now total more than 100,000 from the Bay Area to Los Angeles. The Electronic Frontier Foundation, a consumer watchdog group, has given the company its highest score in the realm of protecting data from government requests - from disclosing its policy on data retention to telling users about government data demands such as subpoenas.

Under the Obama administration rules, internet service providers also were obligated to get the permission of users to use and share sensitive information such as financial and health inquiries, borrowing history and Social Security numbers. Customers had the ability to opt out so that nonsensitive information, such as email addresses, could be shared.

Proponents of the bill argued that service providers should be treated the same as other digital companies such as Google and Facebook, which are under less-stringent privacy rules administered by the Federal Trade Commission.

“With a proven record of safeguarding consumer privacy, internet providers will continue to work on innovative new products that follow ‘privacy-by-design’ principles and honor the FTC’s successful consumer protection framework,” said the trade group Internet & Television Association, in a statement.

Jasper noted that websites such as Google and Facebook are visited voluntarily by users, whereas many internet consumers don’t have a choice about how they access broadband service.

“Internet service providers, in general, are a unique checkpoint for all consumer actions,” he said.

He contends the debate highlights the stranglehold that the large providers have on the marketplace, especially in offering high-speed service to homes and business.

“The prices people pay and their frustration are all symptoms of a failed competitive market,” Jasper said.

About 20 percent of Sonic.net’s business is on its own fiber-optic network, which is available in parts of Sebastopol; 60 percent uses DSL copper wires rented from AT&T; and another 20 percent is bought wholesale from AT&T. None of the arrangements allow gathering of private information about its customers.

Jasper contends those who cannot sign up for a service provider that will protect their privacy may opt to use a virtual private network (VPN) to protect their browsing, especially on public Wi-Fi networks or at the local Starbucks.

Bill Swindell

Business, Beer and Wine, The Press Democrat  

In the North Coast, we are surrounded by hundreds of wineries along with some of the best breweries, cidermakers and distillers. These industries produce an abundance of drinks as well as good stories – and those are what I’m interested in writing. I also keep my eye on our growing cannabis industry and other agricultural crops, which have provided the backbone for our food-and-wine culture for generations.

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