Opinion

Privacy Protections Are Vital to Rural Consumers

The 116th Congress has made it clear that establishing a uniform national privacy standard on the internet is a legislative priority. We are four months into the year, and the Senate Judiciary, Senate Commerce and House Energy & Commerce committees have all held hearings on the issue. These hearings could not be more timely.

Recently, The Wall Street Journal published a disturbing investigation into how leading mobile apps share users’ confidential information with Facebook:

“The social-media giant collects intensely personal information from many popular smartphone apps just seconds after users enter it, even if the user has no connection to Facebook …”

The Journal also reports that the apps do this “without any prominent or specific disclosure.”

The personal information sent to Facebook includes blood pressure, pregnancy status and body weight. Facebook also finds out if and where you’ve been looking at a possible home purchase.

Google also made a surprising privacy announcement in February. The company revealed that microphones had been installed in its home security systems – a fact the company had never previously divulged. The company called this an “error” and said that it “was never intended to be a secret.”

The seemingly non-stop privacy violations from Google, Facebook and many other companies are a clear signal for Congress to act. Today’s lack of a uniform federal privacy standard that applies to all companies is causing problems for internet users and as the Journal’s investigation shows, you don’t even have to be a customer for a company to obtain your sensitive information.

Above all, internet users across the country – rural areas and bustling cities alike – deserve easy-to-understand privacy rules that clearly define what happens with their data, including whether a company needs your approval before sharing it.

Trust and respect for consumers are at the foundation of online privacy. All companies talk about looking out for their users. But any company that truly cares about those interacting with their services or products should explain clearly what it does with customer information and how that information is kept secure.

Congressman Frank Pallone, chairman of the House Energy & Commerce Committee, confirmed that when it comes to data privacy, we must shift the burden off consumers and require reasonable responsibility to those profiting off our data. The carelessness in which our sensitive information is shared across the internet without our knowledge is shocking but fortunately, based on recent hearings, this message is being heard across Capitol Hill.

Certainly in rural communities, the lack of a federal internet privacy standard is an important issue. Commerce, competition, and consumer choice is abundant in urban areas. Small town residents do not have the same luxury. Should a local business compromise their data and ultimately their trust, there are fewer retailers who may be able to provide the same service.

These small and medium-sized businesses are the economic backbone of many rural communities and cannot afford to be burdened by excessive regulations or the complication of keeping pace with a patchwork of state laws. For these businesses to remain competitive while also protecting their customers, comprehensive federal privacy legislation is key. Should businesses struggle with the cost of compliance, this could raise prices for the people within our communities depending on their products.

Senate Commerce Chairman Roger Wicker put it best, “Consumer trust in the internet marketplace is essential. It is a driving force behind the ingenuity and success of American technological advancement and prosperity.” It’s clear – a national privacy standard that applies everywhere and to every company with clear explanations and disclosure is the only way forward.

Betsy Huber is the president of the National Grange.

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