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Maine Set To Begin Enforcing State's New Internet Privacy Law Amid Ongoing Court Challenge

Charles Krupa
Associated Press
A router and internet switch are displayed in East Derry, N.H., Tuesday, June 19, 2018.

Maine is ready to enforce its new internet privacy law.  There's an outstanding legal challenge, but a federal judge ruled the law could take effect July 1. Attorney General Aaron Frey, citing the pandemic, agreed to delay enforcement until Aug. 1. State Sen. Shenna Bellows introduced the measure. She told Maine Public's Morning Edition host Irwin Gratz that it will prohibit internet providers from selling or sharing customers' information without their permission.

Bellows: And here's the deal:  You can say no. So often, those so-called "privacy notices" aren't privacy notices at all. There's no choice for the consumer. My bill reintroduced that choice and allows you to keep your information private, so that whether you're researching a medical condition online, engaging in financial transactions, or emailing a loved one, the content and the information about who you are communicating with will remain private.

Is this the kind of thing consumers will see each time they log into their service provider? Will they do it once? Will there be some kind of mass distribution of requests for use of the service?

So it's unclear when internet service providers that are larger, like Spectrum or AT&T or Verizon, might start to try to implement the law.

As I understand it there are two similar statutes, in Nevada and in California, but there are differences among these. What makes Maine's law different?

We tried to construct Maine's law as simply as possible, and to really put the responsibility on the companies and to give consumers full and total control. You shouldn't have to track down your internet service provider to get them to stop doing something. The rule should be that they aren't going to sell or share your data unless you affirmatively give them permission in some way.

As I mentioned at the outset, there is still a federal court challenge. Can you tell us a little bit more about what the status of that is and what some of the outstanding issues might still be?

The ball is in the court of the internet service providers, who are suing to stop the law in court. My hope is that they would consider the arguments made in the judge's decision, and we'd desist in challenging the law, and we just move into compliance to protect customer privacy and security.

Data like this is obviously valuable to the companies, as you point out. But sometimes this kind of data can also be used to do things like tailor advertisements to people on the internet. And so I guess I'm kind of wondering: if people would like to grant permission to their internet service providers to let their data be sold and used in this way, that is something the law would still let them do, correct?

The consumer that would like to have targeted advertising, or would choose to have their internet service provider, may choose to allow their data to be packaged and sold.

You know, a lot has happened in the last quarter century of technological innovation surrounding the internet and computers, etc. Is this a case of the law of trying to catch up with that innovation? And is there more that Maine has to do?

There's definitely more that Maine needs to do to catch up. At the same time, first principles of protecting privacy and first amendment freedom of speech is not new. So when you send a letter in the mail, you would never conceive that the U.S. Postal Service might open it, take data from it, sell it to the highest bidder, and then use the communications of your letters to target flyers to you in the mail, right? That would never happen. It's ludicrous. And so when internet service providers first started providing internet to consumers, no one conceived that, literally, the conduit between your computer and the outside world, or your smartphone and the outside world, no one conceived that they would be monitoring what you were doing online, and then packaging that and selling it. Technology evolved so that they could do that, but those first principles don't suggest that they should be doing that.

So I take it you would hope, certainly, that other states follow Maine's lead - perhaps, someday, Congress as well?

Absolutely. I hope that this law will be a model for other states, especially once the litigation has concluded so that states can rest assured that they won't be sued in court by the internet service providers. And ideally, Congress needs to act at the federal level, to put in place stronger privacy and security protections for all Americans.

State Sen. Shenna Bellows. She sponsored a new Maine law, now in effect, that prohibits internet providers from selling or sharing a customer's information without their permission. Attorney General Aaron Frey says internet service providers have said they don't sell a customer's information to others. He says his office will watch to make sure they don't.