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Kissing Internet Privacy Goodbye

Congress recently passed a bill that weakens internet privacy protections.
Manu Fernandez/AP, File

I never carry a book unless it is hidden in a dust jacket. I never respond to requests from cashiers asking for my address, and I’ve asked my City Council rep to remove my name from some public lists. Not only do I never turn on the location finders for all the programs that request it, I never share the details of my day-to-day life on social media. I take the extra steps to keep most of my private information private because I want to decide with whom I share it.

I don’t have that choice anymore thanks to the ironically named legislation “Protecting the Privacy of Customers of Broadband and Other Telecommunications Services,” which overturned the Federal Communication Commission (FCC)'s rules on internet privacy. Congress passed the bill by a vote of 215 to 205 with most Republicans in support, and President Trump signed it almost immediately. Now the internet service providers may gather and use whatever they want of our private information. That includes collecting financial material like bank transactions and tracking social data about where we shop or surf on the internet. They can now troll as much as they want, and build a dossier based on what they find.

It didn’t have to happen. The Obama administration approved privacy rules to make sure it didn’t. This law rolled back those rules before they took effect. I’ve spent a lot of time defending myself against the data scavengers who routinely look for a trail of electronic crumbs to lead them to my web habits and interests, but they don’t have to look anymore — Congress and the President have just handed them the whole cake.

And the icing on the cake? Internet service providers can intrude without my knowledge and without asking my permission. The new law makes it legal for them not only to violate my privacy, but to also sell that information to the highest bidder — firms that want to micro target me to make a buck. How is this happening in a country where everybody values control over who knows their business? I know there is nothing unconstitutional about it, but it feels un-American.

Supporters of the law point to social media platforms like Google and Facebook that have long gleaned data from their subscribers. This is true — however, supporters don’t acknowledge that consumers can choose to opt out of the tracking, and you don’t have to subscribe to Google or Facebook. On the contrary, you can’t get access to the internet without going through an internet service provider.

This law is a radical departure, especially damaging because consumers cannot opt out, and even virtual private networks (VPNs) do not offer full protection against surveillance. This law ensures the internet service providers alone are the keepers of the keys and that there are no locked doors. There is no way to shut the door on those prying algorithms, no way to block the slip-through-the-cracks bots, and nothing to stop the ninja cyber thieves who leave no footprint. There is nowhere to hide, and no possibility of future relief. Part of the legislation guarantees that the FCC is forever forbidden from drafting new protections. This law is here to stay.

Normally I believe it’s bad karma to wish misfortune on anyone. But, at the risk of stirring up the universe, I’m making an exception. I really want the clueless lawmakers and the notoriously private president to wake up one morning to realize their private information is all over the place and they can do nothing to stop the spread. It won’t change the reality, but I’ll feel a lot better.


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