As I Lay Browsing: Internet Privacy in a Republican Age

The reality of our situation is that our internet privacy has been under siege for a while —this is merely another blow, incidentally shrouded in a layer of Trump outrage. Photo courtesy of PBS.

Written by Aldo Gonzalez

Over the weekend, many struggled to define reality as April Fool’s Day prompted chaos. Amidst it all, one bill propelled by Republican members of Congress held a clear and disconcerting reality. This particular bill is one signature away from becoming law, allowing internet service providers (ISPs) to collect and sell consumer data in the form of browsing history, financial and medical information without obtaining the consumer permission.

The bill eliminates a set of rules passed by the Federal Communications Commission last October which required consent before ISPs could sell respective data. This repeal—along with the compilation of repeals flaunted by the Republican-led Congress—comes under the banner of the Congressional Review Act. This section of a 1996 law empowers Congress to review new federal regulations issued by government agencies and overrule them by virtue of an expedited legislative process. Interestingly, the section also prohibits the passing of the same rule in the same form at a later time, as well as a new rule seeking to enforce with the same provision.

Debate-limiting laws aside, internet service providers—who have been lobbying against the FCC rules long before members of the commission even called for a vote— claim that this law creates an even playing field with tech companies like Facebook and Google which would not have to abide by the FCC rules. Press Secretary Sean Spicer echoed this logic, claiming that “[the bill] will allow service provides to be treated fairly and consumer protection and privacy concerns to be viewed on an equal playing field.”

But privacy advocacy and consumer groups are not buying this pitch. Opponents of the bill point to the ‘stickiness’ associated with choosing an internet service provider—that is, one can steer away from a Google or a Facebook (companies undertaking in massive data collection for third-party advertisers who place a Zappos advertisement for those shoes you liked) but it is much harder to switch from one ISP to another. Privacy advocates add a further layer of nuance to the debate, pointing out the mechanisms, such as a “Do Not Track” feature, that companies like Twitter and Facebook claim to respect. Opponents doubt ISPs will show the same courtesy.

These checks prove ineffective in protecting privacy when considering the existence of third-party ad exchanges that provide a platform for advertisers to acquire large swaths of consumer browsing history, effectively evading the checks. This, however, brings up a point that ISP representatives have addressed by claiming privacy policies will be reviewed to inform consumers of specific policies emerging from the new law. That is to say, they ‘know’ consumers won’t read all of this, so they will take their inevitable indifference as silent assent to new policies.

The reality of our situation is that our internet privacy has been under siege for a while —this is merely another blow, incidentally shrouded in a layer of Trump outrage. It is a matter of taking a defensive position by exploiting as many checks as possible while utilizing a Virtual Private Network. This is old advice that seems like child’s play when we consider the larger political picture. Specifically, this synchronization of lobbying and Republican power could culminate in the deterioration of net neutrality principle. For those unfamiliar with the principle, net neutrality asserts that internet service providers should enable access to all content and applications regardless of the source without favoring or blocking particular websites.

But President Trump is yet to sign the bill into law. Until then, let’s enjoy browsing through Facebook on our Google browser before we are engulfed by the outrage of the commercialization of our data.

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