Congress Sides with Internet Service Providers over Consumers in Vote to Repeal Privacy Rights
In a major defeat for consumer privacy rights, the House and Senate voted to repeal broadband privacy rules that the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) issued last year but that had not yet gone into effect. “The Congress has used a sledgehammer, the Congressional Review Act, to smash hopes that Americans will finally have real control over the highly personal information that their broadband internet service providers (ISPs) can collect about them,” said CFA Director of Consumer Protection and Privacy Susan Grant.
In adopting the rules, the FCC recognized that broadband users’ personal information belongs to them, not to their ISPs. “If ISPs want to use or share customers’ data for purposes beyond what is necessary to provide them with the service that they’re paying for, such as profiling them based on their online activities and selling that information to advertisers, they should have to get the customers’ approval,” Grant said. “Where the default is set matters,” she added. “In the case of sensitive data – information about customers’ health, finances, children, geolocation, web browsing and app usage history, Social Security numbers, and the content of their communications – the FCC ruled that ISPs would need to obtain customers’ affirmative consent. Equally important, the FCC said that ISPs can’t force customers to give up control of their data through ‘take it or leave it’ terms of service.”
Grant said there is no excuse for robbing Americans of these rights and that doing so through the Congressional Review Act is particularly harmful since it prevents the FCC from proposing “substantially similar” rules again without specific new authority from Congress.
Rule opponents justified their action on the grounds that the rules unfairly target ISPs and don’t apply to other internet businesses that collect and sell individuals’ personal information. But that argument is “disingenuous,” Grant said. “Congress could, and should, enact a law that would provide the same strong privacy protections across the entire online ecosystem. But that’s not what the companies on whose behalf members of Congress voted to scrap these rules want. Americans have clearly and repeatedly said that they want to be in control of their personal information, and we applaud the Senators and Representatives who stood up for them in voting against these resolutions. It is a shame that the majority in Congress decided to put special corporate interests ahead of the privacy interests of Americans.”
11th Annual America Saves Week Brings Savings Message to Millions of Americans
Fewer than two-fifths (38 percent) of American households report good or excellent progress in meeting their savings needs, with over one-quarter (27 percent) indicating no progress at all, according to America Saves research released at the kickoff of America Saves Week 2017 (February 27-March 4).
In response to the savings crisis in America, America Saves and the American Savings Education Council have been coordinating America Saves Week and Military Saves Week since 2007. The Week is an annual opportunity for organizations to promote good savings behavior and a chance for individuals to assess their own saving status. Typically thousands of organizations participate in the Week, reaching millions of people
In its 11th year, America Saves Week saw participation from close to 2,000 organizations including financial institutions, government agencies, employers, bloggers, and employers. Media coverage of their activities resulted in over 650 media impressions nationally.
“America Saves Week is a good time for consumers to begin their savings routines… Making savings a routine is an important step for consumers to secure their financial future,” said Richard Cordray, Director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.
During and near the Week’s activities, over 40,000 Americans took the America Saves Pledge to save money, reduce debt, and build wealth, shattering the record from previous years.
“Our research is clear that savers with a plan are twice as likely to save successfully for things like rainy days and retirement,” said America Saves Director Allie Vered. “America Saves Week is the perfect time to make a plan to save money, reduce debt, and build wealth.”
Public Supports Reform of Paid Tax Preparer Industry
There is broad public support for new consumer protections designed to prevent errors and fraud within the paid tax preparation industry, according to a new poll. This poll, like the previous poll results released in 2016, found that more than four out of five respondents believe that paid tax preparers should be required to pass a competency test, be licensed by the state, and provide a clear, upfront list of fees before completing a taxpayer’s return.
Half of the public uses paid tax preparers occasionally, and nearly a third use them frequently. Forty-nine percent of those surveyed used a tax preparation company in the past five years, which is generally consistent with the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) estimate that approximately 56 percent of individual tax returns were completed by a paid preparer in 2011.
Despite the widespread use of paid tax preparation many Americans do not realize that there are very few standards in paid preparer industry. Sixty-eight percent of poll respondents believe that either state and/or federal government requires licensing for paid preparers when in fact, only four states have mandatory standards for unenrolled paid preparers.
Those polled showed strong support for a variety of regulations which would decrease incidences of error and fraud during the tax preparation process. For example, 86 percent of the public supports requiring paid tax preparers to pass a test demonstrating competency in tax preparation, 88 percent support licensing requirements for paid tax preparers, and 88 percent of respondents support requiring paid preparers to supply an upfront list of fees. Tax preparation is a rare industry where prices are often not given upfront before the work is completed.
The poll results come after years of studies indicating the need for regulation of the paid tax preparation industry. Numerous mystery shopper studies demonstrate high rates of error in the preparation of tax returns. In 2014, the GAO sent undercover investigators to 19 randomly selected tax preparer offices. Only two of the 19, or 11 percent of the returns, had the correct refund amount. The mistakes ranged from giving taxpayers $52 less to $3,718 more than they were entitled to.
“This second national poll commissioned by CFA not only shows that the public continues to support licensure and minimums standards for paid tax preparers, but also that 68 percent of respondents believe that licensure is already required,” said CFA Senior Policy Advocate Michael Best. “The extensive use of paid preparers, the high instance of problems with paid preparers, the public support of, and the misperception of many that such protections already exist, means that the time has long passed for minimum standards in this industry.”
Flood Insurance Reauthorization Should Include Program Reforms
With the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP) up for reauthorization this year, CFA is urging Members of Congress to reauthorize the program. At the same time, however, it has called on Congress to adopt significant reforms designed to make the program more self-sufficient over time and reduce the risk of flood damage. This could be accomplished through better enforcement of the program’s land use provisions and through use of actuarial rates for all construction in high-risk zones of the nation.
“The first responsibility of Congress should be to do no harm in the reauthorization actions,” said CFA Director of Insurance J. Robert Hunter. A former Administrator of the NFIP, Hunter added, “While CFA agrees with some of the strategies being considered, such as a greater private insurance industry role in providing flood insurance, we find many serious problems with some of the proposals being considered in Congress to accomplish reform, such as opening the door to unregulated surplus lines insurers to sell insurance leaving flood insurance policyholders vulnerable to misleading policy language and no protection at all if the insurer goes bankrupt. Some ideas are inappropriate in concept and others are good ideas but the approach to achieving the change is inappropriate.”
Prospects for NFIP reform were called into question with the recent release of President Trump’s “Budget Blueprint to Make America Great Again.” The budget plan would gut the NFIP’s mapping effort by proposing to eliminate “the discretionary appropriation for the NFIP’s Flood Hazard Mapping Program, a savings of $190 million, to instead explore other more effective and fair means of funding flood mapping efforts.”
“The maps are a critical aspect of the flood insurance program, the basis for both actuarial rates for each structure in a flood plain and for the implementation of land use policies to assure that unwise construction does not occur in high-risk flood plains,” Hunter said in a press statement. “CFA calls on Congress to reject this inappropriate provision of the proposed ‘Budget Blueprint’ since it will only make American homes and businesses underwater again,” he added.