On Tuesday, the GOP-controlled House of Representatives finally managed to pass a piece of legislation. No, it had nothing to do with core pieces of the party’s platform such as health care or immigration. Instead, it went for something much simpler: destroying our online privacy. In doing so, the GOP and our president have not only betrayed the values of their own Republican Party, but of all Americans.
The new law, passed by the US Senate last week, enables Internet providers to sell your online history and data without your consent. That privacy and consumer advocates should balk at rolling back protective measures should come as no surprise. No, the real shock comes from the idea that anyone could oppose online privacy in the first place. What were GOP leaders, the original originalists, the ones who hold true to strict interpretation of the Constitution, thinking? This legislation contradicts the Fourth Amendment and even worse, redefines “We the People” as commodities of information for sale.
When your health information and browsing history become cash transactions, you have to wonder what’s really going on here. Is it about money? Big business? Lobbyists? GOP leaders have framed broadband regulations as restrictive to business as opposed to protective of individuals. In doing so, they throw a nation of states to the wind, leaving the onus of privacy to individual legislation within each state.
Put your liberal and conservative beliefs to the side for the moment—this policy helps no one. It’s not about the role of government. It doesn’t address finding the right balance between individual privacy and national security. It endangers your safety and cedes control of your personal information.
The resolution strips the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), our primary authority for communications law, of its power to protect you. Such responsibility, passed by President Obama, was designed to enhance online privacy protection. Instead of having to opt out of Internet providers collecting your private information, you had to opt in. In doing so, Obama took the power away from companies and placed it where it belongs: in the hands of the people.
Opposition to Obama’s laws came from the current administration, Congress, and, most oddly, from within the FCC itself. Republican FCC chairman Ajit Pai opted to impale his own commission, redefining communications law in the 21st century as something from the middle of the last one.
You’ll hear Republicans tell you this fixed an unfair advantage that tech companies had over Internet providers to sell private information. True, because these companies don’t fall under FCC jurisdiction, they don’t have to follow the same limitations. If you frame the story that way, then Republicans have a point. Why should Facebook have easier access to your information than Comcast? The playing field should be even, which Pai once felt it was when the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) had jurisdiction over online privacy issues. But if there was ever a caveat—a proverbial fly in the ointment—read on.
The GOP says it wants to return things to what they were in the good old days of Republican presidents. What this ignores, however (which they surely know), is an August 2016 ruling by a federal judge that stated that the FTC didn’t have the authority to regulate Internet providers over the FCC. So now, because of Congress’s proposed actions, we end up with the FCC out of the privacy picture and the FTC limited in how it can respond, if it even gets to somehow, in the future. That’s a lose-lose for consumers.
The congressional resolution also ignores the real problem. How do we regulate big business with regard to our privacy? It’s our information, but apparently, it’s not about you and me. Over in Europe, officials regulate companies such as Facebook and Internet providers alike. Germany, with perhaps the strongest data privacy laws in the world, has protections in place at the state and federal level that force all companies to follow strict procedures about the handling of customer information. Those countries manage to survive in the 21st century, so to suggest big business hangs in the balance of having to sell our information is utter nonsense.
Nearly every online company today wants your personal information. This is not only way out of bounds, it also contradicts the purpose that the founder of the Web, Sir Tim Berners-Lee intended. That’s why he’s now calling for an online Magna Carta—a privacy bill of rights. Companies such as Facebook, Google, Yahoo, WhatsApp, Instagram, Snapchat, etc., along with governments and their agencies, want you and your data to be theirs. They want to (and do) sift through, organize, and sell it, making you vulnerable.
For those who want to hold out and see what happens next, there’s another problem. Similar to the attempt to repeal the Affordable Care Act without a plan, Congress’s actions leave our privacy inconveniently out in the open. Furthermore, the resolution prevents the FCC from setting similar rules again. In other words, no do-overs or repentance. There would be no actions for the greater good going forward because Congress will have built an impenetrable fortress. This may be the most offensive stipulation of all—they want to make this change permanent, regardless of how the winds of change and the measurable impact blow in the future. The Republicans voted to permanently side with the entire roster of data-grabbing companies to spy on us and grab and share our data while stripping us of our privacy rights, forever.
At what point did the GOP trade its conservative platform for an anti–Democratic Party agenda? There is no belief behind simply repealing what the other party builds. Congress should have let sleeping dogs lie at least until it had a good plan to replace it that protected the citizenry rather than corporate interests.
The real shame here is that we lose the option to decide whether to permit or opt into sharing our data with a company. It’s a big issue that tech companies and Internet providers want to keep a big secret. They want us to trust them when their actions aren’t worthy of trust. The reason there’s not a larger outcry from people is because they don’t know how deep data collection goes. A recent Pew Research report showed that whereas people are aware of their actions being followed online, the majority didn’t know it was being sold. Even worse, they didn’t understand exactly what it is that’s being sold.
Search site Spokeo, for example, can pinpoint your home on a map so that everyone can see where you live. Stalking made easy. A recent test on search sites discovered that at least 19 different “major” search sites contain personal information about us.
Here’s a sample of the information available about you:
- Where you go and whom you visit
- What shops you may frequent
- What time you come home and leave
- Medications (prescribed or otherwise) as well as diseases or medical conditions
- Sexual orientation
- Your habits, good and bad—exercise, smoking, alcohol, gambling, churchgoing, etc.
- Your religion, your opinions, your political party affiliation
- Whom you speak with and what you speak about, when, where, etc.
You may think that information is scattered around like pieces of a puzzle. But data brokers bring it all home in one big completed piece, which tells a more detailed story of you, more than most of us would be comfortable having others know. A few years ago, researchers demonstrated that just three pieces of data could be pieced together to identify you.
We shouldn’t be having a public debate about the importance of online privacy as much as the degree. We also should have more options than just repealing an old law or accepting a limited one. This is a major issue that gets minor press. Our privacy protection is a pillar that must be preserved. It isn’t a commodity, nor should it be a foil for party politics. We the people deserve better than that. How about liberty, justice, and privacy for all? We must give the GOP smelling salts so it remembers its fundamental values and who it is the party represents.