Kyle Jensen / The Record — Whidbey Telecom Co-CEO George Henny shows the server that holds personal customer data.

Repeal of internet privacy rules prompts Whidbey Telecom response

The Trump administration’s repeal of Obama-era internet privacy rules has caused concern and confusion nationwide and has triggered a response from Whidbey Telecom in an attempt to nullify customer fears.

Whidbey Telecom Co-CEO George Henny said customers have reached out to the company in the past week outlining their concerns and asking to know where the company stands on the sale of personal information.

“Whidbey Telecom has a long history of protecting our customers’ privacy and sensitive data,” Henny said. “We have not and will not sell customer data, browsing history or any private information to third-party companies or advertisers.”

Telecommunications conglomerate Comcast echoes those sentiments in a statement on the company’s website.

Despite the Whidbey Telecom’s stance, some customers are concerned about the larger issue of internet privacy and how the current administration will handle this matter moving forward. For Langley resident Diane Jhueck, this is not as much about Whidbey Telecom as it is about the larger national companies.

“My concerns are only peripherally about Whidbey Tel, it’s about the bigger issue,” Jhueck said. “For me, this issue of privacy is really about safety — ultimately our safety is at risk unless laws are put in place to stop these companies from selling our personal information.”

Obama rules repealed

Many across the country are worried for their privacy since Congress voted on March 28 to repeal rules adopted by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) that would have required internet service providers, or ISPs, to ask for customer permission before it collected certain personal information.

President Donald Trump signed the joint resolution, S.J. Res 34, which implements those changes, on Monday night.

And although the resolution allows for ISPs such as AT&T, Comcast and Whidbey Telecom to collect and sell data about web browsing and app usage to online advertisers, Henny and Chief Operating Officer Chris Burns say doing so would go against the company’s culture.

“The ruling doesn’t alter our position,” Burns said. “It’s an important part of being a good steward of the internet and gaining the trust of customers. Other companies may be looking to make a buck, but we’re here to help businesses thrive on the island, not sell marketing data.”

Henny says the small, localized company culture plays a large part in its privacy stance. He described Whidbey Telecom as being “on the home team,” and added that he wouldn’t want to go to the local grocery store and have a customer accuse him of selling their data. Company executives often personally know their customers rather than see them as numbers, he said. The stance didn’t surprise Jhueck, who said Whidbey residents are in a unique situation where a hyper-local ISP offers services. Nonetheless, she adds “they know we’ll be watching.”

Customers such as Jon Wilbert, Langley resident and business manager for Hewlett Packard, say the Trump administration’s move is concerning as he views ISPs as infrastructure providers that are crucial to everyday use, so it’s difficult to avoid them. The fact ISPs are allowed to collect private shopping information and use that for marketing is “disturbing,” he said. But considering the localized nature of Whidbey Telecom, he expected the answer he received from Henny.

“It confirms my belief in what Whidbey Tel and other local ISPs are about, and makes me feel good as a user when I’m shopping online,” Wilbert said. “On one hand, it makes me feel less fearful Whidbey Tel won’t sell my information, but it doesn’t make me feel any better about using internet search engines like Google.”

What is, isn’t for sale

The repeal has led to confusion about what personal information can be sold to online advertisers. The rules adopted by the FCC during the latter days of the Obama administration required ISPs to ask for permission before selling data about web browsing and app usage. The rules were set to go into effect this December.

“Even if the rules never took effect, I’m concerned about legislation that generally relaxes privacy laws,” Wilbert said.

The FCC classified that information on browsing and apps as “sensitive” personal data. Information such as email addresses are what the FCC classifies as “nonsensitive” data, which is legal to sell without permission. Those rules are what the Trump administration knocked back, meaning information regarding browsing data and what apps people use is what ISPs can sell without asking customers beforehand.

It remains illegal to collect and share what’s classified as other “sensitive” data — such as Social Security numbers, geolocation data and health information — without giving customers the chance to allow or deny an ISP to collect such information. It is also illegal for internet-based companies such as Google and Facebook to sell that information.

A partisan argument

Critics of the FCC’s “sensitive” data classification say the categorization treated ISPs unfairly versus their internet-based competitors. They are treated differently because ISPs and internet companies are regulated by other government agencies: ISPs by the FCC and internet companies by the Federal Trade Commission, or FTC.

The fact that the two are under different oversight agencies leaves an inconsistency in regulations, despite ISPs and companies like Google being competitors for ad dollars. Under the FCC’s specific rules for ISPs, they can’t sell browsing and app information.

But that doesn’t apply to internet companies under FTC guidelines, so they are able to sell that data without permission. That leads to more ad revenue that ISPs can’t access.

The debate has become a partisan issue. Republicans claim the Obama-era rules hamper competition and the free market while Democrats argue that ISPs can collect more personal information than internet companies, since the internet is basically universally used.

Despite the partisan divide, Henny claims Whidbey Telecom’s stance isn’t politically driven.

“Privacy shouldn’t be a political issue,” Henny said. “Our choice is not political, it’s about doing the right thing because we think this is important to do.”

“We’re not here to make political choices because that taints us,” Burns said.

Although both Wilbert and Jhueck are confident Whidbey Telecom will follow through, Jhueck is worried about the future. She doesn’t believe there is much privacy in the digital age, but is more concerned with how these companies generally handle private information on a national scale. She says stopping the share of private information will require intervention. This shouldn’t be a matter of trust, but one of law.

“Personally, I’m not feeling very safe anymore,” Jhueck said. “Until our federal government does something to step in, I feel as if nobody is safe.”

 

Kyle Jensen / The Record — Whidbey Telecom customers’ sensitive information is held in servers like this at the company’s Bayview office.