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Falls Supervisors Amend Ordinance to Protect Online Privacy

Citing privacy protection of its residents as paramount over concerns from local cable TV and Internet providers, the Falls Township Supervisors adopted a measure that would make customer consent a prerequisite for the sharing of private information online.

The board voted 4-1 in favor of amending its Cable Television Franchise ordinance. Supervisor Brian Galloway voted against the measure.

The ordinance, which takes effect five days following its adoption on Tuesday, will prevent cable companies from disseminating “personally identifiable information” without a customer’s express consent. However, since Verizon and Comcast have agreements in place with the township, the change would not take effect with either of those companies until their agreements are up for renewal, in 2019 and 2021, respectively.

The ordinance would apply to any other cable provider interested in providing service in Falls Township, according to township attorney Lauren Gallagher.

“This is permissible under federal law,” Gallagher told the board.

The amendment is in response to a move this spring in which the federal government “stripped away protections,” essentially making it legal for online service providers to share private information without their customers’ consent, according to Supervisor Chairman Bob Harvie.

“There has been a movement among some municipalities to establish some privacy,” Harvie said. Local elected officials in Lower Makefield and Middletown have considered a similar ordinance.

Falls’ ordinance amendment would require cable providers to obtain customers’ written or electronic permission prior to sharing information. The ordinance defines personally identifiable information as a customer’s login credentials, extent of viewing of video or other services, shopping choices, interests, energy uses, medical and banking information, web browsing activities, application usage, as well as any other private information.

A provision of the amendment would require cable companies to email or mail privacy notices and opt-out forms annually to all customers. In addition, notices would be provided to customers at the time the service was set up.

The local ordinance would require that cable companies incorporate the following in its notices: “As a customer, you may elect to protect the privacy of your personally identifiable information by opting-out of information sharing.  If you elect to opt-out of information sharing, any disclosure of personally identifiable information for purposes other than to the extent necessary to render, or conduct a legitimate business activity relate to a cable service or other service, is limited to disclosure pursuant to a subpoena or valid Court Order authorizing such disclosure; or to a governmental entity, but only to the extent required by applicable Federal law.”

A representative from both Verizon and Comcast spoke in opposition of the ordinance amendment, citing, among other things, that their companies protect privacy; that federal laws supersede local ordinances; and suggesting that the ordinance does not address other potential online information sharers, including Facebook, Google, Bing and others.

“We don’t pay for those services,” Supervisor Jeff Rocco said. “We don’t have control over them.”

Chairman Harvie said it’s important that the board proactively implement future privacy protections.

“It does make a very clear statement that the township is committed to making sure that any future franchise agreement has to have this included,” Harvie said. “Everybody’s on notice that this is something that we’re serious about.”

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