Last week, the U.S. Senate voted to roll back rules that required Internet Service Providers to get consent before selling a consumer’s internet browsing data. The bill, introduced by Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Arizona, and co-sponsored by nearly two dozen GOP senators, was passed directly on party lines, 50-48.
The vote comes as part of a larger Republican effort to pull back on a host of Obama-era regulations through use of the Congressional Review Act, which allows Congress to target regulations dating as far back as May of last year.
Republicans say that the old rules hurt competition by arbitrarily forcing ISPs to act in ways that their internet counterparts — like Google — did not. They also said that the rules were “too complicated,” with current Federal Communications Commission chair Ajit Pai saying that people “should not have to be lawyers or engineers to figure out if their information is protected.”
These arguments are distractions and strawmen, doing little to conceal that this move is both a grave mistake and an overreach by senators who’ve put monied interests over real, legitimate privacy concerns.
First and foremost, the new bill erodes consumer protections in favor ISPs who stand to make significant monetary gains from selling browsing data. By gathering information on what domains you visit — even encrypted ones — ISPs can figure out political affiliations, age, and even sexual orientation.
That level of knowledge about how consumers function on a subconscious level is invaluable to advertisers, who could now target ads based on these personality traits in ways they couldn’t before, and act as an extension of targeted advertising already carried out on platforms like Google or Facebook.
The fact that Google and Facebook track your every move in the search for more revenue was always dubious at best, and to think that ISPs will do the same is unnecessary and intrusive. If you shop in a store, it’s difficult — if not impossible — for retailers to track things like age or politics if those things aren’t made clear by what you buy. The information gathered online goes far beyond these brick-and-mortar limitations and by all means should be considered sensitive information if only because it can’t be reasonably gathered in any other way.
There’s also the matter of charging money for privacy. In 2013, AT&T began charging customers about $30 a month to “opt-out” of a data-tracking program. While they backed out of the move right before the then-Democratically-controlled FCC began finalizing net neutrality rules, it sets a hypothetical playbook for how ISPs could handle their newfound freedom.
And while there are ways to circumvent this data tracking, such as the use of VPNs or Tor, consumers shouldn’t have to take extra steps in order to prevent their data, which in many ways acts as an extension of themselves, from being sold by a third party.
Ultimately, the best way to stop this is to take action. The House of Representatives has yet to vote on the matter, but the Republican-controlled chamber is leaning in the same direction as the senate.
Call you congressperson and don’t use a script. Let them know you’re a real person with real concerns who won’t stand for representatives who value corporations more than their own constituents.