Believe it or not, the GOP-controlled U.S. Senate managed to pass a piece of legislation last week. No, the resolution had nothing to do with the healthcare or immigration issues dominating our headlines. Instead, it went for something much simpler; destroying our online privacy. Remember when the Republican Party stood for protecting the privacy rights of Americans – no more.
That privacy and consumer advocates balked at this legislation 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 thinking? What happened to their being the advocates of privacy? Was it about money? Big business? Lobbyists? When you pass legislation that significantly infringes on our rights as citizens, do the reasons presented even matter?
Put your liberal and conservative beliefs to the side for the moment. This policy helps none of us. It’s not about the role of government. It doesn’t address finding the right balance between individual privacy and national security. It doesn’t make you any safer nor does it put you in control of your personal information.
The resolution strips the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), our primary authority for communications law, of its power to protect your privacy. Republican FCC Chairman Ajit Pai supported impaling his own commission not because he’s a self-hater, but because he despised laws enacted just last year (and likely any laws) under President Obama. These laws, meant to enhance online privacy protection, stated that 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.
Pai and Republicans however, didn’t see it that way insofar as their public posturing. They positioned this as a fix to the unfair advantage tech companies have getting access to private information. True, because they don’t fall under FCC jurisdiction, as a result, 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 he felt it once was when the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) had jurisdiction over online privacy issues. But if there ever was a caveat – a proverbial fly in the ointment – read on.
While what the GOP says is they want 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 the Senate’s proposed actions, we could end up with the FCC out of the privacy picture and the FTC limited in how it can respond, it if even gets to somehow, in the future. That’s a lose-lose for consumers.
The Senate resolution also ignores the real problem. How do we regulate big business with regards to our privacy? It’s our information, but apparently It’s not about you and me. None of the parties involved in passing this legislation are waving the consumer flag. If they were, they’d be talking about our privacy as an extension of us as opposed to seeing our data as a sellable commodity for all of their donors.
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; he now calls for an online Magna Carta – privacy bill of rights. Companies like 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 it, organize it, and then you are simply vulnerable.
The most objective part – those companies and others all want to sell it to advertisers and data brokers. But not every company gets equal access to your information. At the end of the day, the current debate comes down to choosing between the lesser of two evils. Being as such, it would seem that if we’re looking at some form of protection versus none, the opposing view to the GOP’s would be the significantly better option for us – and that is why the Obama administration championed it and made it the law.
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, the Senate’s actions leave our privacy inconveniently out in the open while everyone fights over an acceptable solution. Furthermore, the resolution, if passed by the House, 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 the Senate 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 permantently side with the entire roster of data-grabbing companies to spy on us, 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. The Senate 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/opt into sharing our data with a company that our information. 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 who 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
• Who 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 researches demonstrated that just 3 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 stop this legislation in the House, and give the GOP smelling salts so they remember their fundamental values.