With so much going on, it’s become exhausting to stay caught up. GOP healthcare! Never mind! Actually, never mind on that never mind! Immigration! Walls! Fake news! Russia!
That’s not to say these aren’t important topics, but they are distracting from equally important issues: internet privacy and net neutrality. Because right now, the internet, the most fundamental tool to democracy, is under attack.
The only times it seems we hear about the internet in the media is when there has been a classified leak that (arguably) does more to hurt than help us. But that shouldn’t take away from the fundamental improvements the internet has brought to most of the world: The United Nations Human Rights Council found it to be such an important tool that, in 2016, they issued a resolution guaranteeing peoples’ right to use it. And this passage within that regulation, vis-a-vis internet privacy, is particularly important: “privacy online is important for the realization of the right to freedom of expression and to hold opinions without interference, and the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and association.” But now, that freedom is under threat.
Back in October, the Democrat-led FCC passed a new rule that prevented internet service providers (ISPs) from selling your browsing information and search history to third party advertisers without your permission. Because Obama’s two terms proved to be largely disappointing in terms of internet policy, it was huge to finally have limits on the commercialization of personal data.
Here’s what that means: the network that you are paying to carry your information on, also owns the rights to that information, allowing them to use it as they see fit. This rule made it so that they had to ask your permission before selling the information to advertisers.
I know what you’re thinking: This means it was legal to do so before October?
Yes, and it’s actually been legal since then, too: the rule was scheduled to take effect on March 2, but it was stayed by former Verizon attorney and new-chairman Ajit Pai (let’s note here that Pai was originally appointed to the FCC by Obama in 2011 and renominated by Trump in 2017). He also canceled investigations into carriers for zero-rating, i.e., carriers would exempt specific websites or apps (usually their own video streaming services) from mobile data caps, almost always at the expense of competing services. Basically, everything pro-consumer the FCC passed within the last few years was undone in the first few months of Pai’s term.
To be repealed, a bill had to make it through both the House (passed 215-205) and the Senate (passed 50-48). On Monday, April 3, the saga was completed when Trump signed the repeal.
So, yes: Not only was this legal, but encouraged by the current administration, and now by the FCC. There goes your privacy.
What does this mean for your day-to-day life? To be honest, probably not a lot. Republicans supporting the bill claimed that the rule put an unfair burden on ISPs, as the same rules aren’t required of search engines or social media sites. The big difference here is that we aren’t paying a monthly fee to Google or Facebook, and we also understand that our expectation of privacy is reasonably less on those sorts of sites (hey, nothing in the world is free). The problem begins when ISPs are not only making money off of us paying to access the internet, but also making money off of aggregating and selling the information we’re paying them to access—basically double dipping, and when net neutrality comes into play, triple- or quadruple-dipping. And, It’s already started: Although it was recently scrapped, AT&T was charging some users 40% more per month to guarantee their data wasn’t being sold to advertisers (AT&T claimed this was a “benefit to the customer,” which is bullshit).
In short, the precedent that the recently passed repeal creates is troubling, especially when we have a president that doesn’t how the internet works–back in December, Trump said, “I think that computers have complicated lives very greatly. … We have speed, we have a lot of other things, but I’m not sure we have the kind the security we need.” (The irony of this statement next to his signing of the repeal was probably lost on him.) We have a Congress and FCC that favors the bottom line of large corporations over the individual rights of the user. But it’s not just the U.S. either: Last month, a British interior minister said that encrypted messages (messages that aren’t readable by surveillance or interception) on platforms like Facebook and WhatsApp are unacceptable in today’s age.
Why is the FCC currently so anti-consumer? Some of their more recent rules that have been struck down seem like common sense—take, for example, a rule that would have required ISPs to take reasonable steps to protect social security numbers, addresses, credit card numbers, etc. The Republican-led FCC stayed the rule, a decision celebrated by Verizon, AT&T, and Comcast, even though AT&T was fined $25 million just two years ago for employees stealing social security numbers and selling them to third parties.
So, why? Why do our politicians support these kinds of obviously anti-consumer practices? The answer is, as always, money.
Let’s look at Marsha Blackburn, the Tennessee Republican that sponsored the bill. Her top 5 career contributors include three telecoms or telecom associations: AT&T Inc, Verizon Communications, and The Internet & Television Association. She also introduced a bill that prevented cities from creating or expanding their own local broadband networks, in part in response to Chattanooga-based EPB (a city-owned internet utility) wanting to expand outside its service area. She said the rule would “create confusion within the Internet ecosystem and end up harming consumers.”
In this situation, it’s not the FCC that’s confusing the internet ecosystem and harming consumers—it’s Blackburn, Trump, the 215 house members, and the 50 senate members that voted to repeal.
So, this begs the question: what can you do? Some states, like Minnesota, have picked up the fight at the state government level by passing state laws requiring ISPs to ask your permission before selling your browsing history. Individually, you have power, too: as always, you can contact your representatives and let them know how much internet privacy means to you. You can also set up a virtual private network (VPN), which masks your location and information by rerouting it through different servers in a sort of encrypted tunnel. Most good VPNs are pretty easy to set up, but are going to require a monthly or yearly fee. If you’re concerned about your privacy, though, a little money goes a long way for peace of mind.