England: Protect Consumer Privacy Like This Small Business

Jeff England is the vice president and chief financial officer of Freedom, Wyoming-based Silver Star Communications.

Last week I flew to Washington to testify before the Senate Commerce Committee at a hearing examining how new federal data privacy rules will affect small businesses in Wyoming.

Lawmakers are grappling with a pressing national (and international) problem. Data breaches, cyberattacks and the nature of living, working and playing online has left consumers feeling like their privacy and data belongs to someone else.

In today’s connected digital economy, how do we assure that sharing images, exchanging messages and sending sensitive data are activities internet businesses will protect?

Privacy is an issue we take seriously at Silver Star Communications, a telephone and internet service provider in Wyoming and Idaho. We are a small business that traces our roots to 1948 when we connected rural farmers over telephone wires atop a barbed wire fence.

Back then, service outages happened when a farmer moved the cows and forgot to reconnect the jumper at the gate. And a “privacy concern?” That happened when making a call on a party line. Remember those?

Times, of course, have changed.

Today, we serve nine rural counties across 17,000 square miles, and we are the first provider in the state to deliver gigabit internet service to residential customers over a fiber optic network.

Even as communications technology continues its rapid transformation, our small company made a fundamental decision about how to treat the privacy of our customers. We do not sell customer data, and we do not collect and use data for advertising or “click revenue.”

Still, not all companies practice the approach of our small business, and even if they did, the online information available on customers is not limited to what is generated by their local provider, but is collected every second of every day on websites, social media platforms and other services around the world.

That’s why I told lawmakers that to truly strengthen online privacy, we need a national plan that meets some common sense criteria.

First, privacy protections should be technology neutral and apply to all companies that collect, use or share customer data. That means your small internet service provider and a global giant like Facebook or Google should follow the same set of rules.

Next, legislation should require companies to have a privacy policy that gives users clear and comprehensible information about the data a company collects, how it is used and if it is sold or shared.

Finally, any new rules should preempt existing state data privacy laws. Silver Star provides service in multiple states, but managing a patchwork of state regulations will create uneven protections and a special burden on small and medium-sized businesses like us.

As I told senators: every dollar we spend complying with government red tape is a dollar we can’t spend extending broadband to another home or business. In other words, Washington’s solution should not fall disproportionately on our smallest internet innovators.

The people have spoken and the message is clear: they want and deserve more control over their online lives.

Our message to lawmakers: design a balanced, national privacy framework that improves online trust, sets clear rules and allows small businesses in Wyoming and beyond to compete and thrive in the 21st century digital economy.