Opinion

Why Rural Broadband and Online Privacy Go ‘Hand in Hand’

If you spend time in rural areas and farming communities, you learn quickly that few issues generate greater discontent among residents than the belief that their towns don’t merit the same quality internet service as urban areas.

Among National Grange members, these feelings have only grown in recent years. Most of our society takes high speed internet for granted, but not in rural America. We still drive students to libraries or other locations to connect with the internet to complete homework assignments. Rural and small town businesses lack high speed connectivity and struggle to compete. Many farmers are not able to take advantage of the advances in connected or “precision” farming that can empower farmers to build more profitable and sustainable businesses.

Solving the broadband problem requires federal policies that encourage broadband network deployment. But it’s increasingly clear that part of this solution involves Congress crafting a better national policy to protect online privacy. Privacy is important to Grange members. The two issues go hand-in-hand because a consistent and flexible approach to privacy creates an environment where costs are predictable, and carriers can be confident in the level of investment necessary to meet privacy rules and standards.

Recent high-profile online privacy scandals and the confusion consumers have on how to protect their data show the scope of this problem. Those privacy notices that pop up on your computer screen when you first visit a website are notoriously complicated. Worse, clicking “yes” frequently gives a company license to share your data with other parts of its operations and possibly with other companies. Unfortunately, our lack of a uniform federal privacy standard is increasingly hindering efforts to solve this problem. Innovation cannot flourish in an environment of uncertainty.

As South Dakota Sen. John Thune, who has a keen understanding of rural broadband, recently wrote, “The question is no longer whether we need a national law to protect consumers’ privacy. The question is what shape that law should take.”

At a minimum, new federal privacy standards should apply across the internet. The same rules that govern websites and internet providers should govern search engines and advertising. That is crucial to establishing broad consumer understanding.

Transparency is also vital. Businesses on the web must offer clear and easily understood disclosures to a user about what personal data they collect, how it will be used and who will have access to it.

There should also be clear federal standards that ensure all personal data that a business collects will be stored securely. Moreover, in the event of a data breach, basic fairness dictates that we be informed immediately.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce has put forth an excellent set of principles on website privacy. These focus on necessary protections and enforcement while also stressing the benefits of maintaining some degree of flexibility. This last point is especially important given new and potential developments in precision farming and other relevant technologies.

The need for Congressional action to improve U.S. broadband policies can be summed up with two numbers: Thirty-nine percent of rural Americans lack high-speed broadband and a quarter of our K-12 students do not have adequate internet service in their schools. The societal costs from this are huge, including lower access to healthcare and more difficult routes to college.

These figures also stand in stark contrast to the extensive broadband choices that many urban and suburban communities have had for years. For small towns and farm communities, internet access represents their only option to access broadband-enabled benefits in education, healthcare, business, job training and entrepreneurship that other areas take for granted.

Congress should make expanding rural broadband access a top priority and part of that effort has to include a new uniform online privacy standard to protect the public and encourage creation of desperately needed services.

Betsy Huber is the president of the National Grange.

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