Articles

New York City, Seattle Enlist in Fight to Preserve Internet Privacy for Residents

The cities on opposite sides of the country are not sitting on the sidelines when it comes to Internet privacy — both are taking concrete steps to protect digital privacy rights.

by / May 4, 2017
New York City CTO Miguel Gamino (left) and Seattle CTO Michael Mattmiller (right) work to ensure their residents' digital privacy rights. Government Technology

In late March, congressional representatives voted along party lines to abolish privacy protections for Web users. The regulation, passed during the Obama administration, forbade Internet service providers (ISPs) from collecting, selling or redistributing browsing habits, app usage history and location without the customer’s consent.

The move was decried by Internet privacy advocates, congressional Democrats, and state and local officials as a Telecom industry-driven act. Several states across the country have begun fighting the privacy regulation rollback. Cities, however, refused to be sidelined during the debate.

One of the most vocal opponents of the measure has been New York City, emboldened by its chief technology officer, Miguel Gamiño. While broadband Internet is not directly under local jurisdiction, Gamiño explained that the city is exploring every possible action it has access to.

“We don't have a definitive answer to what we can do,” Gamiño told Government Technology. “But we have asked our legal team to probe on that exact question. … In the meantime, being very specific and unambiguous with regard to our position on this issue, helps motivate other cities to be similarly courageous.”

One of the challenges with fighting this battle is that “the digital threat is largely invisible,” explained Gamiño. "It's not front and center in your face in a physical tangible way, like some of the other very serious concerns manifest,” such as immigration or health-care issues. One of the first battles is to have an educated and engaged public, who know what the rule change is and how it will affect them.

In order to educate residents about their online privacy rights, the city will begin to partner with local libraries in order to support residents who have questions about how to use the Internet safely and securely. In a Medium post, Gamiño explained that “librarians and other staff  —  at least one person at every branch  —  will be trained to respond to patrons’ questions and will incorporate new lessons into their digital literacy trainings.”

The city is also partnering with the Mozilla foundation on a digital literacy campaign to educate vulnerable populations on their digital browsing habits. This is an issue that needs to be front and center in people's minds, Gamiño argued.

"For a long time, this has been a techie conversation," he added. "I think the reality is that this is mainstream.”

While regulating ISPs is not under the purview of the city’s powers, the city is acting where it can. The privacy policy for the city’s LinkNYC kiosks has been updated to clearly state users’ privacy protections. Additionally in the Queensbridge public housing complex, which was outfitted with subsidized wireless Internet, the privacy of residents was explicitly stated.

Gamino will also join an Internet Health and Human Rights working group, which is composed of leaders of city departments and agencies including Carmelyn P. Malalis, the commissioner of the city’s Commission on Human Rights. The body will review the city's broadband work "according to the principles of open innovation, digital inclusion, decentralization, privacy and security, and the protection of human and civil rights,” according to the Medium post.

These new rules, Gamiño said, are “forcing people to make a choice between the privacy of their information, and their lives and participating with modern society. That's not an OK choice."

Defendants of the regulation alteration seem to be far and few between. Gamino, who helped found the Council of Global City CIOs has not heard from another city favoring the argument's opposing side.

In fact, across the country in Seattle, CTO Michael Mattmiller's viewpoint aligns with Gamiño's and New York City's in resisting the reneging of privacy provisions. And Mayor Ed Murray also is on board; on May 3, Murray announced a plan for the city to exert pressure on ISPs to protect users’ data.

“When the Trump administration began making changes to how the Internet is regulated, Mayor Murray felt the need to step in and leverage the authority of the city to help reinstate the protections,” Mattmiller told Government Technology.

The city directed the implementation of a Seattle IT rule that bars the city’s ISPs from selling Web browsing history and personally identifiable information at a detailed or aggregate level without express consent from users. The rules will affect companies that have cable franchise agreements with the city, which includes Comcast, CenturyLink and Wave Broadband. Wireless Internet providers, such as AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile and Verizon are not subject to this rule.

“We as cities need to look at how we step up and protect our public and maintain our quality of life in the face of a changing federal regulatory environment,” said Mattmiller. Hopefully “other cities will look at this approach, understand their regulatory authority and take whatever action is available in their communities.”

The rule will go into effect on May 24, and ISPs will be required to show compliance with the rule by Sept. 30, 2017, and annually thereafter.

One argument proponents of the action took was that the rules indiscriminately penalize ISPs, when social networking sites are able to gather and sell similar data without being subject to FCC oversight. But Mattmiller contends that this argument relies on a false equivalency.

“If there is a website whose privacy policies a consumer does not agree with, they can avoid that website," he said. "A consumer's relationship with their ISP is fundamentally different, because the ISP knows everything that user does and a user cannot avoid them.”

Avoiding social networking sites is an option for people who still wish to operate in modern society. Staying off the Internet is not. “The Internet isn't a thing for geeks; it's a thing for everybody," Gamiño said, "and [being] forced to choose between privacy and opportunity … that's not discretionary."

Any Seattle consumers seeking assistance working with cable or internet providers should visit seattle.gov/cable.

Ryan McCauley Former Staff Writer

Ryan McCauley was a staff writer for Government Technology magazine from October 2016 through July 2017, and previously served as the publication's editorial assistant.