“What the hell do you have to lose?”
That was the question that now President Trump asked the American people while campaigning. The answer? Internet privacy rights. That’s on top of the other regulations that, according to the current administration, stifle innovation and are harmful to business.
In a vote along party lines, House Republicans successfully voted to repeal privacy protections that were set to go in effect December 2017. All that is left is for President Trump to sign and approve the measure, and there is no reason to believe he will do otherwise. The conservative lawmakers controlling both the House and Senate were not alone in the crusade against digital rights—far from it. Several advertising trade associations both urged and applauded the action, as can be read in this statement. The Internet and Television Association, which represents many broadband providers, has praised the votes against the new rules. The Competitive Enterprise Institute has also staunchly opposed both narrow privacy regulations and net neutrality. For readers unfamiliar with the latter group, their espousal to limited government politics and “virtuous capitalism” is particularly laughable. As expected, they too applauded the deregulatory move.
Also worth mentioning is the chump change needed to sway lawmakers. Put another away: how much does privacy cost? Granted, buying Senators and Congress members isn’t exclusive to one party line or another, but one party responded remarkably well to it for this vote. This list details the contributions made to Senators supporting anti-privacy since 2012. Additionally, this list details how much money Congress members have received. While it seems easy to make an overly simplistic connection between money and votes—and neither party is above taking charitable donations from varying industries—it is worth noting that this vote was extremely partisan, and no champion of the bill offered to substantiate the reason this legislation is good for consumers, other than uttering elusive “anti-consumer” and “free market” platitudes. Similar regurgitant is being recited while plans to unwind the EPA, renewable energy, and climate change policies are being put in motion.
While this kind of regression in the digital age is alarming, there are other policies in place that protect consumers, albeit not to the same extent. The Telecommunications Act of 1996, the Cable Communications Policy Act of 1984, the Wiretap Act and the Electronic Communications Privacy Act all have privacy provisions relating to customer information. Specifically, Title II, Section 222 of the Telecommunications Act imposes privacy requirements; however, they are from 1996 and mostly apply to telecom services. The FCC vowed to write new internet-specific rules regarding how ISPs are to handle privacy. In a rare win for privacy advocates, the rules (which passed last year) explicitly detailed how ISPs were to store and handle data, and offer customers clear notices and opt-in requirements. Those rules are all but nullified now. If AT&T’s arguably unconstitutional surveillance business model is any indicator, archaic laws are not sufficient for modern internet access.
Perhaps more alarming is the precedent which this kind of lawmaking sets—one in which ISPs largely govern themselves, and become poised to further unravel net neutrality, because this momentous reversion can be viewed as the opening salvo on a neutral internet. ISPs aspire to rival the advertising giants that are Facebook and Google; the debate is whether they deserve such freedom. While the data collection habits of online services and apps like that of Facebook and Google are no less controversial, users can abstain from such services. With most users only having access to one or two quality ISPs in their region, it becomes harder to be as selective. With more people using the internet to find jobs, do schoolwork, shop, pay bills, transfer money, and conduct business, it’s time that the web received the same legacy protections that phone and cable have come to receive. As we’ve stated before, this should be an unpartisan issue.
The overturn of these new privacy rights has sparked an outcry among digital rights activists and consumers alike. FFTF has vowed to unleash billboards exposing members of congress who voted for the overturn, and one self-proclaimed “privacy activist and neutrality advocate” has gone as far as setting up a GoFundMe page to purchase the internet history of leading Republicans and FCC members. The efficacy of this is dubious, but the intent is clear: This is an unprovoked regression of the powerful tool that is the internet.
Yet, there will still be those indifferent to this kind of lawmaking, particularaly the “nothing to hide” crowd. To be clear: everyone has something to hide, some just know this less than others. Anyone who closes doors behind them, wears clothes, uses windows blinds, passwords, PINs, etc., has something to hide. Privacy is largely taken for granted every day, and the ramifications from damaging laws render privacy permeable—regardless of who chooses to remain oblivious to it.
All too often, people become balkanized by divisive issues; it’s imperative that we concentrate efforts into a cohesive force to ensure that privacy rights—among other important issues—are not folded into the myopic world view of individuals that support this kind of retrogression.
- Eric Hamilton