Gov. Mills and the Legislature took a risk in 2019 when they passed the toughest internet privacy law in the nation, drawing the ire of powerful telecommunication companies, which saw it as a threat to their way of business.

Last week, the risk paid off, not only for Maine residents, who under the law maintain control over the private information they generate online, but also for people across the country, who can now feel safe passing similar laws in their own states.

Trade groups representing the telecom giants dropped their lawsuit against the state Sept. 2, as the “army of industry lawyers organized against us,” as Attorney General Aaron Frey noted, decided they couldn’t win the case.

The law, passed in 2019, went into effect in 2020. It stops internet service providers such as Comcast and Verizon from using, disclosing, selling or providing access to customers’ personal information without permission.

It creates an opt-in standard, meaning a user has to check a box to allow their information to be used. Typically, internet service providers and other companies that gather data from internet users force users to expressly opt out — if they can find where to do so.

It’s a victory for consumers. Through the law, they regain control of their own information: which websites they visit; what they search for; what they bought, and where they eat, bank and receive health care, among other bits of data very valuable to companies looking to sell you stuff.

But it obviously hurts telecom companies, which lose a potential source of income.

And it puts them at a disadvantage against non-service-provider internet companies, such as Google and Facebook, which are not covered by the law and thus can still mine your data.

It was the latter point that telecom companies and their friends in Congress used to keep your information under their control in 2017, when Republicans repealed an Obama-era rule that mirrored Maine’s law.

Of course, no one is forced to use Facebook. But everyone online has to use an internet service provider, and they often don’t have many options.

And Congress could have passed a law that included all companies who collect data online, not just internet service providers. Instead, it gutted the entire law, and left all of us vulnerable to the predatory practices of companies with a lot of power and very little accountability.

Maybe it was the hundreds of millions of dollars those companies spend in lobbying and political donations.

At any rate, all that money and power didn’t matter when it came to fighting Maine’s law. Despite heavy lobbying and warnings of litigation during the legislative session, legislators passed the bill with strong bipartisan support, and Gov. Mills signed it.

And despite the “army of industry lawyers” who challenged the law in court, people’s rights won out. In 2020, a federal judge, one appointed by Donald Trump, no less, called the case by the telecom companies a “shoot-the-moon argument.” They had little legal ground left to stand on, and last week they faced that reality and dropped the case.

The movement for privacy on the internet doesn’t end there. It shouldn’t stop until people can decide for themselves what to do with their own personal information across the internet, whether they want to keep it private or exchange it for the use of social media or a search engine.

But we should remember that it started here in Maine, where there were enough elected officials with the courage to take a risk in order to give their constituents the tools they need to protect themselves.

Reprinted from the Portland Press Herald.